The puck is set to drop on another NHL season on Thursday, when the Flyers face the Bruins in Boston.
Where do the Flyers stack up in the Eastern Conference?
Here are our predictions for the final standings when the last buzzer sounds on April 8, 2012.
A little hint: we’re projecting it’s the first time since the Eastern and Western Conference alignment went into place in 1993 that a Canadian team will not make it to the playoffs in the East.
1. WASHINGTON -- Capitals general manager George McPhee made the steal of the summer when he signed Tomas Vokoun for a paltry $1.5 million to shore up Washington’s shaky goaltending. A healthy Alex Semin seems poised for a big year and Alex Ovechkin wants to bounce back from a relatively quiet season. An already solid team got grittier with additions Troy Brouwer, Joel Ward and Roman Hamrlik. I like Washington to finish first in the East for the third consecutive season ... but is this the year they get over the hump in the playoffs? Little else seems to matter.
2. PITTSBURGH -- Nearly every pundit hinges Pittsburgh’s season on Sidney Crosby’s shoulders. Do they forget that the Penguins finished tied with the Flyers atop the Atlantic division while playing without Crosby and Evgeni Malkin since January? Crosby will start the season on the IR (still out with a concussion, if you’ve been under a rock) but can return at any time. I don’t think it will be long. Malkin is in the best shape of his life. And Marc-Andre Fleury is still in net. They lost Max Talbot, Eric Godard, Mike Rupp and Alex Kovalev, but Steve Sullivan is a nice addition. I like Malkin to win the Hart Trophy this year.
3. BOSTON -- Skating in a Northeast division that looks drastically different, we were trying to think of reasons why Boston wouldn’t repeat as division leaders. Cup hangover? Nah. The Bruins answered their stunning playoff collapse in 2010 by sweeping the Flyers and winning it all. Yes, Mark Recchi rode off into the sunset, Michael Ryder signed in Dallas, but the Bruins are largely in-tact. They essentially swapped Tomas Kaberle for Joe Corvo and they are just as solid, top-to-bottom, with Mr. Vezina Tim Thomas in net.
4. FLYERS -- When it all went down on June 23, fans immediately began to ask whether this Flyers team is better than last year. “Different,” is the line GM Paul Holmgren likes to use. The more I watch, the more I like this team. They seem to have sprinkled the talent throughout the roster offensively and Ilya Bryzgalov will be able to mask any hiccups in the early going. Bryzgalov is the real deal, even if he is overpaid, especially compared to Vokoun. They will keep it close with the Penguins.
5. BUFFALO -- It’s tough to exactly figure where everything fits together in Buffalo after Terry Pegula opened up his checkbook this summer just a few months after purchasing the team from Tom Golisano. They spent a ton of money to bring in Ville Leino and Christian Ehrhoff and also acquired defenseman Robyn Regehr. They took the Flyers to 7 games last spring and after back-to-back first round defeats, they will be in a strong position this season after just squeaking into the playoffs last year.
6. TAMPA BAY -- Even after rocketing from the cellar to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals, it’s hard to say the Lightning are a better team this year. They lost Simon Gagne, Randy Jones, Sean Bergenheim and Mike Smith. Goaltender Dwayne Roloson, soon to turn 42, is still suspect. Steven Stamkos is another year older and wiser, but ... the best you can say about Tampa Bay’s offseason is that they signed Matt Gilroy. Tough sell.
7. NY RANGERS -- The big question: is Brad Richards the answer, or just another overpaid Glen Sather signee who doesn’t fit? I think Richards will fit in well, especially under former coach John Tortorella. Chris Drury (retired), Alex Frolov, Vinny Prospal and Bryan McCabe are not back, but the Rangers - who open the season in Europe - have a solid, young defense corps. It will be interesting to see how Marc Staal reacts after struggling with post-concussion symptoms.
8. FLORIDA -- This is the year that the Panthers break the longest playoff drought for one NHL team in one city, as the one-time Stanley Cup finalists haven’t made the postseason since 2000. With more than $30 million to spend just to get to the salary cap floor, Dale Tallon brought in Kris Versteeg, Ed Jovanovski, Brian Campbell, Jose Theodore, Scottie Upshall, Tomas Kopecky and Tomas Fleischmann, just to name a few. Talk about a change in culture. Yes, they have a rookie coach in former Flyers captain Kevin Dineen, but it’s a new era in South Florida.
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9. CAROLINA -- Cory Stillman retired and Erik Cole jettisoned for Montreal, but we like the changes the Hurricanes made in the offseason, especially bringing in Anthony Stewart and Tomas Kaberle. Brian Boucher will give Cam Ward some much needed rest for the playoff push without sacrificing points in the standings. Kaberle brings some stability to a defensive unit that needed it. Can’t wait to see whether rookie sensation Jeff Skinner can recreate the magic he did last season.
10. MONTREAL -- For my money, the Canadiens seem awful thin - and not just on offense, where they scored an East-low 216 goals among playoff teams. Defensively, James Wisniewski, Roman Hamrlik, Brent Sopel and Paul Mara are gone. Just how much can Carey Price shoulder for Montreal? Erik Cole surprisingly signed in Montreal, but how will he handle the pressure of playing in one of hockey’s most intense markets?
11. WINNIPEG -- Yes, it’s still strange to see Winnipeg playing in the Southeast division, but Jets fans are hoping that their reincarnated team can get back to the playoffs - something the Thrashers did just once in Atlanta. They had an awful quiet offseason to try and reverse their fortune. Claude Noel will have a lot to manage. Eric Fehr was their best acquisition. You can’t make the playoffs based on crowd support alone, though they should have a decent home-ice advantage.
12. TORONTO -- The stats say the Maple Leafs were the 4th best team in the East last year after the All-Star break. Yeah, so? Toronto still didn’t make the playoffs for a 6th consecutive season. The Leafs have a young, scrappy roster that has some interesting pieces in Joffrey Lupul, John-Michael Liles, Tim Connolly and Cody Franson. It’s just tough to say they’re a playoff team with James Reimer in net.
13. NEW JERSEY -- With Martin Brodeur, 39, in net, the Devils will always have a chance to win. But it could be a long season in the cavernous Prudential Center. The Devils missed the playoffs last season for the first time since 1996. New coach Pete DeBoer is a creative guy, but aside from Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk, he just doesn’t have the pieces to make a run. Rookie defenseman Adam Larsson is a decent bet for the Calder. This is the last year of Brodeur’s contract, so it could be a year-long swan song one of the NHL’s greatest goaltenders of all-time.
14. N.Y. ISLANDERS -- Some like the Islanders as a dark horse to wreak havoc in the East. I just don’t know how that’s possible. The culture on the Island is brutal, especially after voters denied the franchise a new arena this summer. Marty Reasoner and Brian Rolston are their only new [and unexciting] acquisitions. Rick DiPietro has 10 years left on his contract and Evgeni Nabokov is now willing to play out his deal. If healthy, captain Mark Streit could help lead a turnaround and Nino Niederreiter and John Tavares will at least be fun to watch.
15. OTTAWA -- Last season was just brutal in Ottawa - and they’re up for another long, cold winter in Canada’s capital city. Jason Spezza and captain Daniel Alfredsson lead a squad that is an unrecognizable shell of the one of that went to the Cup Final in 2007. Mika Zibanejad could be a lot of fun to watch if he makes the team out of camp. Erik Karlsson had a strong season for the Senators but was also a minus-30. The toughest part, especially for rookie coach Paul MacLean, will be trying to promote a positive attitude in the locker room for the rebuilding club.
PROP PLAYS: Here are some interesting proposition bets to check out, courtesy of Bodog.
Claude Giroux over/under 75.5
Jaromir Jagr over/under 63.5
Danny Briere over/under 62.5
James van Riemsdyk over/under 50.5
Who will win Calder Trophy? Flyers’ Brayden Schenn is odds-on favorite at 3/1
Who will win Vezina Trophy? Ilya Bryzgalov is 12/1
Flyers’ regular season points: over/under 98.5
Odds to win the Atlantic division:
Regular Season Point Totals:
Anaheim Ducks 95½
Boston Bruins 102½
Buffalo Sabres 98½
Calgary Flames 90½
Carolina Hurricanes 83½
Chicago Blackhawks 102½
Colorado Avalanche 75½
Columbus Blue Jackets 85½
Dallas Stars 87½
Detroit Red Wings 104½
Edmonton Oilers 77½
Florida Panthers 83½
Los Angeles Kings 102½
Minnesota Wild 82½
Montreal Canadiens 92½
Nashville Predators 91½
New Jersey Devils 90½
New York Islanders 81½
New York Rangers 94½
Ottawa Senators 74½
Philadelphia Flyers 98½
Phoenix Coyotes 87½
Pittsburgh Penguins 100½
San Jose Sharks 103½
St. Louis Blues 92½
Tampa Bay Lightning 98½
Toronto Maple Leafs 89½
Vancouver Canucks 106½
Washington Capitals 107½
Winnipeg Jets 85½
For the latest updates, follow Frank Seravalli on Twitter: @DNFlyers