Here we are, a few weeks away from training camp and I am more excited then ever. Why you ask? This 2011-2012 season is full of expectations and plenty of player bounce backs. At least I can only hope it pans out the way I expect it too.
I already came out with my own 30 Questions, 30 Answers article, but now allow me to break down the teams in the order I expect the top 8 to finish in the Eastern Conference.
1 – Washington Capitals – 118 pts
Yes that’s right 118 points or more to finish the season. The main problem last year for the Caps was the downfall of Nicklas Backstrom. He is without a doubt one of the best centers in the game today. And when your best center has a down season, guys like Alex Ovechkin and Alex Semin need to step up. Did they? Yes and No. Ovechkin played his heart out last season even being injured towards the end of the season. As for Semin, well he missed his hometown of Russia again and in the playoffs. Even Matt Bradley came out saying the Capitals biggest issue in the playoffs was Semin not caring enough. Maybe that will spark him to play better this season. Who knows, maybe he dosen’t care, woudln’t surprise me. As for their goaltending, probably one of the best duo’s in the NHL today. They recently picked up Tomas Vokoun to back up Michael Neuvirth, who is an excellent goaltender himself. Between those two, the defense will have an easy season.
The Pucking Rags!? Last year Marian Gaborik struggled to score goals and barely half of his goals (10) were scored against non-playoff teams. Some say because he didn’t have a number one center setting him up, others say because he lacks heart. I vote lacks heart, but I will give him one more season. And well this is his chance to prove the critics wrong now that he has that number one center, Brad Richards. I expect Richards to be the missing key to this Rangers team, and the missing key to a 40+ scoring machine Marian Gaborik. They have all the keys to a successful season, especially with a number one goalie like Henrik Lundqvist in net. Im taking them as my long shot bet this season in the East, and if they fail, the critics are right, Gaborik lacks heart and Richards is over-rated.
3 – Boston Bruins – 104 pts
The defending Stanley Cup champs only lost a few guys in the offseason, one being Tomas Kaberle. And to be honest, Kaberle is not that big of game changer. I mean, he looked lost in the finals last year. This team still has Tim Thomas in net, but will he have another remarkable season? He had a lot to prove last season coming off his injury, and proving his worth is exactly what he did. But, does he have anything left to prove? Asking these questions really don’t matter when you still have Tukka Rask backing up Thomas. Rask played fairly good two seasons ago filling in for the injured Thomas, and personally think he is the next best goaltender in the NHL today. They are still the big bad Bruins and they have the best chances to repeat as champs this season. As Long as they are not plagued by Cup hangover and can overcome every team in the NHL gunning for them.
4 – Montreal Canadiens – 100 pts
The Habs had a fairly good season last year, except for Scott Gomez. If the Habs want to make a deep playoff run this upcoming 2011-2012 season they need Gomez to have a bounce back season. Ever since his arrival in Montreal, he has lacked pretty much everything. Playing like a lost duck, and showing no signs of caring. He is on our list of top 5 bounce back players, and we expect him to bounce back this season. The other question that arise is will Carey Price have another great season? Without him, they were NOT making the playoffs last season and almost knocking out the Bruins in the quarter finals. He has a lot to prove last season to himself and the organization after they departure of Jaroslav Halak. But what does he have to prove this season? Maybe a Stanley Cup presence?
5 – Pittsburgh Penguins – 99 pts
Without Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin the Penguins still finished 4th in the Eastern Conference last year. Mainly because of coach Dan Bylsma pushing his guys to the max. They had a nice season but in the playoffs we all saw they were nothing without Crosby and Malkin. Good news is Malkin is ready to return, bad news is Crosby is not stating his health condition. And to be honest, I think he is pucking done. Mine as well put him in the same category as Marc Savard. I don’t like saying that, mainly because the NHL will most likely lose a lot of ratings, at a time they don’t want to with the NBA lockout. Gary Bettman may push Crosby to play because he only cares about the money and ratings, but will he be effective? Maybe this is just a big hype to get more ratings? Regardless the Penguins still finish in the top 5 this season with or without Crosby. Come playoff time, that’s a different story.
6 – Tampa Bay Lightning – 98 pts
Steve Yzerman is the face of the NHL and a pure genius, and I will stand by that until the day I die. But, there are two questions that I find myself asking. Will Dwayne Roloson have another great season over the age of 40? The guy seems to never age in his game, but he only played barely half a season with the Bolts after playing for the Islanders, where nothing mattered. He played great, and was probably the only reason they made it to the Eastern Conference Finals. But if he goes down can Mathieu Garon step in and fill the void? Ok that was a two part question to a one part answer. My second question is, will Martin St. Louis have another remarkable season? He without a doubt helped Steven Stamkos register at least 80% of his points last season. This guy has one the biggest hearts in the NHL, but does he have enough left in the tank? I expect him to have a laid back season, which means Vincent Lecavalier needs to return to his 2004 Stanley Cup winning form.
7 – Buffalo Sabres – 96 pts
They were one game away from knocking off the Philadelphia Flyers in the quarter finals, and who knows, probably could of gone onto the Eastern Conference Finals. But they were missing a few pieces to their game. Newly acquired Villie Leino should help the team, as long as he shoots the puck more often. They also have Derek Roy returning after missing the second half of last season with a torn quad tendon. Who was the teams leading scorer before going down. They also acquired Christian Ehroff, who will give some relief to Ryan Miller in net. This team has the making of a bright future, maybe in a season or two they will be in the top 5, but until then, they need to build some chemistry.
8 – Philadelphia Flyers or New Jersey Devils – 93 pts
The Flyers lost about 85 goals in the off season between Mike Richards, Jeff Carter and Villie Leino. And to top it off they lost one of their top penalty killers, Darroll Powe. The question is will guys like Simmonds, Giroux, Jagr and JVR fill in the missing void? I expect it to be a struggle this season, and also expect the Flyers to rely on their defense and goaltending more often then not. But in order to rely on their defense they need a healthy Chris Pronger, who is missing training camp for the second time in a row.
The Devils had a great second season serge but came up too short because they sucked the entire first half. I like to say bringing back Jacques Lemaire had a lot to do with it, but they still sucked the first few weeks with him. Now that he is retired, can Peter DeBoer find the right chemistry with his stars? Players like Martin Brodeur and Ilya Kovalchuk were no where to be found the first 41 games of the season. Although Kovalchuk ended the season with 30+ goals again, they need more production out of him and for a full 82 games. Zach Parise is coming back after missing all of last season, but they will be with out Travis Zajac for the first month or two due to an off season injury.
I expect this final 8th spot in the Eastern Conference to be a tight race coming down to the final 82nd game of the season. I could even throw in the Carolina Hurricanes for this final 8th spot if they find the right chemistry.
If your interested in following all of my NHL Hockey picks this season be sure to check out the Pucking NHL Picks section of my site. Last season I finished 117-60 +$12,860 in all of my NHL Hockey picks.