Originally written on Midwest Sports Fans  |  Last updated 10/6/11

It’s that time of year once again. The first round of the MLB playoffs is wrapping up, the NFL is beginning it’s bye-weeks, the NBA is… really depressing.

As the resident Canadian of MSF, I was born with a Rainman-like talent for projecting hockey results. So in a rare moment where I’m not completely focused on the MLB postseason, I’m here to tell you how I see this upcoming NHL season unfolding.

In the interest of keeping these previews in reasonably digestible chunks I’m separating this preview into two parts, much like the NHL does with their league. Let’s start things off with the Eastern Conference (because that’s what Mid West Sports Fans is obviously all about).

Eastern Conference Team-by-Team Analysis

1. Washington Capitals

2010-11: 48-23-11, 107 points, first in Southeast

There are two stories to follow with the Capitals:

  1. Will the best player in the world (Alex Ovechkin) and his line-mates (Backstrom and Semin) be able to return to form?
  2. And will the addition of Tomas Vokoun (Florida) be the difference to make one of the best teams in hockey into THE best team in hockey?

I see no reason why Ovechkin and Co won’t return to form atop the NHL’s offensive leaders, and Vokoun is a phenomenal goaltender and the first one Washington has had that could allow them to make a deep run in the playoffs. I think the Caps will be the East’s best team in the regular season, but, for the first time, I think they could be the best team in the postseason as well.

2. Buffalo Sabres

2010-11: 43-29-10, 96 points, third in Northeast

Buffalo over Boston? Am I serious? Completely.

The Sabres had, in my view, the best offseason of any NHL franchise. Apparently, they came fairly close to wooing Brad Richards, which would have jumped them to my Stanley Cup favorite had they done so. Despite losing out to Broadway, the Sabres added Christian Ehrhoff (Vancouver), Robyn Regehr (Calgary) and Ville Leino (Philadelphia) while losing very little in Rob Niedermayer and Toronto’s new Faberge egg Tim Connolly.

With a souped up defense, a moderately talented offense, and one of hockey’s elite netminders in Ryan Miller, Buffalo will be a force in 2012. In fact, I have the feeling Miller will go on a springtime run of amazing goaltending leading Buffalo straight to the Stanley Cup Finals.

Insert "Miller Time" joke here.

3. Pittsburgh Penguins

2010-11: 49-25-8, 106 points, second in Atlantic

The Penguins shocked the hockey world last season by finishing as the number 4 seed in the East without their top two players and, arguably, two of the top five players in the world. Not to mention Jordan Staal’s injury. They will have Evgeni Malkin and Staal back, which bodes very well for an already strong team.

Sidney Crosby will be a question mark until he finally returns, if he ever returns. Really, Crosby has achieved all you can in hockey: Gold Medal, Stanley Cup, MVP, so I wouldn’t blame him if he wanted to be hockey’s Sandy Koufax and hang ‘em up while he is still capable of rapid cognition. Hockey could lose it’s franchise face, but Crosby’s stakes are much much higher.

With or without Crosby, I don’t see this team making a big run. I don’t trust Marc Andre-Fleury against the elite goalies of the NHL. They will be one of the best in the regular season, but their ceiling is 89 games between the season and the playoffs.

4. Boston Bruins

2010-11: 46-25-11, 103 points, first in Northeast

Boston could very well repeat as Stanley Cup champions. While many of their players played over their heads last season, they get to sing a similar song as Vancouver in that they lost very few assets in the offseason. Only three key losses will afflict the Bruins: Tomas Kaberle (Carolina), Mark Recchi (retired) and Michael Ryder (Dallas) have all moved on, but they really did not form the true core of Boston’s run.

I don’t expect Boston to be as good as last year in the regular season, but they don’t have to be. With their core group and Thomas and Rask in the net, they are built for another run.

5. Montreal Canadiens

2010-11: 44-30-8, 96 points, second in Northeast

The losses of Roman Hamrlik (Washington) and James Wisniewski (Columbus) hurt, but the additions of Peter Budaj (Colorado) and Erik Cole (Carolina) more than make up for it. Montreal has quietly built a very exciting young franchise. PK Subban is the next superstar defenseman of the NHL and Carey Price has temporarily silenced the critics in Montreal. To put things in perspective, being a goaltender in Montreal is the Canadian equivalent of being the Quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys. There is so much pressure and such high expectations that few can thrive. Price seems to have the make-up to deal with it.

This team is not a Stanley Cup contender for 2012. But they will have their chance in the next few seasons. Expect them to move forward this year.

6. New York Rangers

2010-11: 44-33-5, 93 points, third in Atlantic

The Rangers, who have never shied away from spending, went out this past offseason and got the best available player in Brad Richards. And despite the fact that Richards was all the hockey world wanted to talk about for a portion of the summer, he is still criminally underrated. He makes everyone he plays with much better. He’s the Ron Francis of this century, and an absolute necessity in jump starting Marion Gaborik.

Brad Richards can now walk his investments to Wallstreet.

Gaborik toiled away in Minnesota as another of hockey’s most overlooked players. No longer. He’s healthy, and finally has the offensive support a sniper like Gaborik needs to truly reach the next level. Expect this duo to really turn some heads and be able to put up some goals for Hendrik Lundqvist (one of the top 5 goaltenders in the world).

The Rangers will be good enough to make the playoffs, but more importantly, with Richards, Gaborik, Lundqvist and, new captain, Ryan Callahan, are built to be a real darkhorse once they get there.

7. New Jersey Devils

2010-11: 38-39-5, 81 points, fourth in Atlantic

The Devils finished nearly .500 last season despite missing their two most important players, Zach Parise and Martin Brodeur. With those two, this team is playoff bound once again. Parise is one of the best two-way players in hockey and a real spark plug for the Devils. Without him, the Devils lost their identity. Now that he’s back, so will the classic Devils.

Martin Brodeur is the greatest goalie of all-time and no one has really noticed. Voting against his success is like betting against Mariano Rivera. If goaltenders are artists, everyone else is still using finger paints while Brodeur finishes his Sistine Chapel career.

Like their rivals, the Rangers, the Devils are a team that could thrive in the NHL’s playoff atmosphere. They are due for a comeback. Big time.

8. Toronto Maple Leafs

2010-11: 37-34-11, 85 points, fourth in Northeast

Oh the Leafs. While many teams in the NHL go completely forgotten, the Leafs’ fourth-line center sneezing is front page news in Toronto (don’t be surprised to see “Steckel’s Sniffles” as a legitimate headline). No fanbase in hockey has had to deal with as much frustration as fans in TO. The good news is, this team is improving. Are they good? No. But they sure may be good enough with 16 of 30 teams making the playoffs.

Brian Burke has built a strong defensive unit to hopefully provide James Reimer with some breathing room. Needless to say, the entire Leafs season hinges on Reimer’s continued success. He is the focal point of this franchise right now, and either he becomes Jim Carey 2.0 or he proves himself as the real deal. Only time will tell.

I see TO backdooring their way into the postseason on the final weekend of the season. They won’t do anything there, but just making the playoffs will be a huge step forward.

9. Tampa Bay Lightning

2010-11: 46-25-11, 103 points, second in Southeast

Tampa Bay had one of the craziest seasons in hockey last year. They lead the Southeast Division for much of the season before the Capitals overtook them, then surprised the Capitals in the playoffs before coming within one goal of going to the Stanley Cup Finals.

Now, can they do it again? While the Capitals are waiting for the playoffs to prove that they’ve improved, the Lightning face the challenge of proving that last season wasn’t a fluke. The problem is though, I feel it was a fluke.

While Steve Stamoks is the face of the franchise at only 21, the other keys players are all getting up in years. A bet almost no one reading this article knew Martin St. Louis was 36. Dwayne Roloson is one of the most underrated goalies in the NHL of the past decade-plus. But, he’s been around forever and he’s no Martin Brodeur.

The Bolts and Buds are interchangeable for the number eight seed in the East. But I think it’s more fun to go against the Lightning full boar here.

10. Philadelphia Flyers

2010-11: 47-23-12, 106 points, first in Atlantic

The Flyers hit the self-destruct button after once again failing to capture the Stanley Cup. They traded their top two forwards, Jeff Carter (Columbus) and Mike Richards (LA), signed Ilya Bryzgalov (Phoenix) and reached back into the attic of Pennsylvania to dust off Jaromir Jagr for this upcoming season.

A lot of people believe in these “new” Philadelphia Flyers. I, however, refuse to drink the Kool-Aid even if it means a June meal of crow. This team looks much worse to me without their top two players. Yes, they still have Briere, Hartnell, and Jagr will turn the clock back like the true superstars tend to do, but it will not be enough. That being said, I can’t wait to watch Jagr outmaneuver players less than half his age with vim and vigour.

The mullet is gone, does the talent remain?

Philadelphia is in for a rough year once the Phillies fail to win the World Series again, the Eagle go down as the best 7-9 team OF ALL TIME and the Flyers fail to even make the playoffs. At least the 76ers won’t have a chance to let the city down.

11. Winnipeg Jets

2010-11: 34-36-12, 80 points, fourth in Southeast

Only in the completely logical world of the National Hockey League can a team in Manitoba, Canada play in the Southeast Division. Think about it too long and your ear will start to bleed.

The Jets will be better than the Thrashers. It’s a young team on the rise and they will go from having virtually no local support to already being sold out for the next three seasons. That being said, this team looks almost exactly the same as last year, minus so fancier jerseys. Look for the Jets to be a threat in a couple years. Maybe even 2012-13. If you think they will be any sooner, you’re living in a delusion.

12. Carolina Hurricanes

2010-11: 40-31-11, 91 points, third in Southeast

I really like the Hurricanes. They are a fun team to watch. Cam Ward is an exceptional goaltender. Jeff Skinner is coming off winning the Calder Trophy (rookie of the year) and the team has all sorts of motivation after missing out on the playoffs on the last day of the season last year.

That being said, I think they take a step back in 2012. Ward probably won’t be 2011 good again and the team will really miss Erik Cole (Montreal).

13. New York Islanders

2010-11: 30-39-13, 73 points, fifth in Atlantic

It feels wrong to rank to Islanders this high. They are that bad. However, Ottawa and Florida are much worse.

The goaltending situation is an absolute gong show. Rick DiPietro could stand as the prime cautionary tale of signing players to obscenely long contracts (he signed for 15 years back in 2006. Since then, he’s played two full seasons and been injured for three). Al Montoya sounds like a pro wrestler from the early 90s, and plays like one too. So Long Island decided to throw good money after bad and bring in Evgeni Nabokov (KHL) in the hopes he can turn the clock back. He can’t.

No chance of the playoffs. Not for a long, long time.

14. Florida Panthers

2010-11: 30-40-12, 72 points, fifth in Southeast

Jose Theodore (Minnesota), Kris Versteeg (Philadelphia) and Ed Jovanovski (Phoenix) will all help this team… not finish last. They won’t see the playoffs for a long time. And nobody reading this cares about the Panthers. Nobody cares about the Panthers.

15. Ottawa Senators

2010-11: 32-40-10, 74 points, fifth in Northeast

This team is UGLY. No other way to put it. When a city is getting excited about Alex Auld (Montreal) there are real problems.

This team is my pick to finish dead last in the league. Which is good for them. Their AHL team won the Calder Cup last year, so the farm is brimming with future talent. High draft picks will only augment that as Ottawa waits to get rid of the albatross contracts they are still carrying.

Just avoid any Ottawa media this year as they continue to pretend Mike Fisher is relevant and Carrie Underwood is a jezebel who should be burned at the stake.

Postseason Predictions

Round 1

  • Washington (1) def. Toronto (8)
  • Buffalo (2) def. New Jersey (7)
  • New York (6) def. Pittsburgh (3)
  • Boston (4) def. Montreal (5)

Even in my dream world they play in Round 1. The Macho Man is also there obviously.

Round 2

  • New York (6) def. Washington (1)
  • Buffalo (2) def. Boston (4)

Round 3

  • Buffalo (2) def. New York (6)

Stay tuned for the Western Conference Preview this afternoon…

**********

* – Ryan Miller photo credit: NHL.com
* – Brad Richards photo credit: NY Daily News
* – Jaromir Jagr photo credit: Roto Rob
* – Habs vs. Bruins photo credit: Funny Or Die

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