Saturday, December 27, 2014

Sizing up the NHL's Eastern Conference

During the NHL’s marathon, 119-day work stoppage, NHL Players Association executive director Donald Fehr loved to say that he was “not in the prediction business.”

Sizing up the NHL's Eastern Conference

New York Rangers´ Derek Stepan (21) skates for the rebound off Boston Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask (40), of Finland, during the first period of an NHL hockey game in Boston, Saturday, Jan. 19, 2013. (Michael Dwyer/AP)
New York Rangers' Derek Stepan (21) skates for the rebound off Boston Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask (40), of Finland, during the first period of an NHL hockey game in Boston, Saturday, Jan. 19, 2013. (Michael Dwyer/AP)

During the NHL’s marathon, 119-day work stoppage, NHL Players Association executive director Donald Fehr loved to say that he was “not in the prediction business.” 

Unfortunately, us media-types do not have the same luxury. 

In a shortened season such as this 48-game sprint for Stanley’s mug, some predictions will indeed prove foolish. That’s never stopped me before. 

Here’s how Daily News hockey writer Frank Seravalli sees the Eastern Conference shaking out come April: 

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(reminder that the NHL seeds division winners) 

1. y - N.Y. RANGERS: There isn’t much to not like about this Rangers fan if you’re an objective observer. It’s been so long since the summer that you might have forgotten that New York added superstar Rick Nash. Henrik Lundqvist appears to be in prime shape and could very well be a Hart Trophy candidate. New York is deep at every position and they have a grit factor that could pay series dividends in May and June. 

2. y - BOSTON: Tim Thomas has decided to sit out this season and forego $3 million to spend time with his family. The Bruins are in fine hands with Tuukka Rask, who has posted a 2.10 goals against-average in 103 career games. Boston features many of the same pieces on offense and defense from the 2011 Stanley Cup run, and they’ve added 19-year-old Dougie Hamilton to the blue line, in addition to Ray Bourque’s son, Chris. 

3. y - CAROLINA: No team in the East made more important changes last offseason than Carolina. $60 million man Jordan Staal has rightfully received a ton of attention, joining forces with older brother Eric, but other moves by the Hurricanes could pay dividends: a little-risk deal with Alex Semin, unheralded Stanley Cup winner Kevin Westgarth. Cam Ward is a workhorse and Jeff Skinner and Justin Faulk are another year older. 

4. PITTSBURGH: Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are healthy at the same time, which has been a rarity for the Penguins’ stars, who have both had their fair share of injury issues. If weaker links, like defenseman Paul Martin, can rebound, the Penguins should be considered one of the favorites for the Cup. They also seem to have a chip on their shoulders after last year’s first round drowning by the Flyers. 

5. FLYERS: To quote Ricky Bobby, “if you ain’t first, you’re last.” That’s especially true with the Atlantic division, as the winner will have a big step up in the playoffs. The second and third place teams - the Flyers and Penguins last year - will have a first round death match on their hands. In my eyes, the Flyers have a couple holes on defense - as currently constituted - which means they become awful reliant on Ilya Bryzgalov. You never quite know what you’re going to get from Bryzgalov.

6. FLORIDA: There’s definitely something about this Panthers team that I like, and it’s not just the trips to the warm South Florida sun. Coach Kevin Dineen has changed the attitude of this franchise, with the help of the moves that GM Dale Tallon made before last season. The Panthers are searching for their second straight division title and they’ve got a diverse mix of players who just seem to “get it.” 

7. WASHINGTON: New head coach Adam Oates seems to have kindled a relationship with star Alex Ovechkin, which could mean trouble for the rest of the East. For my money, Ovechkin has been too distant over the last two seasons to really make the Capitals a threat. They’re also relying on an unproven goaltending tandem, which could make life interesting for Oates. 

8. BUFFALO: Two words: Ryan Miller. The former Vezina Trophy winner is already scheduled to start 38 of 48 games for the Sabres this year. Miller, who hasn’t played so well against the Flyers over the last few years, alone could be the difference. In the meantime, Buffalo needs young players (Tyler Myers, Cody Hodgson and even rookie Mikhail Grigorenko if he sticks) to shoulder more of the load to be successful. 

---- playoff cut ---- 

9. TORONTO: With their start last season, I truly believed Toronto to be a playoff team. That was before Ron Wilson got canned, Luke Schenn was traded, Tim Connolly was waived and Brian Burke was fired. There have been a lot of changes for the Maple Leafs and I think they will be a scrappy bunch. They’re not the most talented team, but with the right blend of chemistry, they could be very close to ending an 8-year playoff drought. 

10. NEW JERSEY: The Devils went to the Stanley Cup final last spring, and I didn’t even have them making the playoffs. That explains a lot. To me, this team is another year older, most noticeably in net with Martin Brodeur. They’ve lost Zach Parise to Minnesota via free agency. Their blue line does not seem all that stable. And I’ve never thought of Ilya Kovalchuk as the player who is going to carry this team on his back. 

11. TAMPA BAY: The Lightning could end up cracking the biggest egg on my face. I just still do not believe Lightning coach Guy Boucher employs a system that benefits his personnel. Boucher wants to sit back to create turnovers. Steven Stamkos (60 goals) and company could be much better off with an aggressive style. Dwayne Roloson is gone, replaced by 6-foot-5 monster Anders Lindback, who learned a lot as Pekke Rinne’s longtime backup in Nashville. If Lindback steals the show, Tampa Bay could be a firm playoff team. 

12. OTTAWA: You could have made a great argument for Paul MacLean as the NHL’s coach of the year last year. St. Louis’ Ken Hitchcock won it. But MacLean made believers out of a sparsely-talented team. Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson (78 points) had an unbelievable year, but teams will try to limit his chances this time around. This could be Daniel Alfredsson’s swan song year in the Ottawa Valley, I just don’t see the Senators being able to recreate magic in a bottle, especially after fading in the second half of last year. 

13. WINNIPEG: The Jets have one of the best home-ice advantages in the NHL (23-13-5 last year), playing in a raucous MTS Centre. Unfortunately, they have a brutal travel schedule (at least for this shortened season) -- and they’re an awful road team. There are a lot of questions about Dustin Byfuglien’s fitness. This team has barely changed since jetting from Atlanta and they’e stacked with players who have had work ethic questions: Nik Antropov, Olli Jokinen and Alexei Ponikarovsky. Good luck with that. 

14. N.Y. ISLANDERS: It will take until the Islanders move to Brooklyn in 2014-15 for this franchise to turn around. Until that happens, they won’t be able to attract a marquee free agent to play in the suburbs, with little fanfare, in decrepit Nassau Mausoleum. (Insert Rick DiPietro buyout joke here.) 

15. MONTREAL: Les Canadiens are coming off their worst season since 2002-03 -- and it’s not getting any better. Poor, Carey Price. The Habs gassed Scott Gomez, paying him $5 million this season to NOT play for their team. Mike Cammalleri is gone. Erik Cole hasn’t played well since leaving Carolina. Restricted free agent P.K. Subban remains unsigned. All eyes will be on rookie Alex Galchenyuk, but he won’t be enough to carry this team. 

For the record, here were last year’s predictions: 

SERAVALLI’S PICKS       ACTUAL STANDINGS

1. Washington                 1. N.Y. Rangers

2. Pittsburgh                   2. Boston

3. Boston                       3. Florida

4. Flyers                        4. Pittsburgh

5. Buffalo                      5. Flyers

6. Tampa Bay                 6. New Jersey

7. N.Y. Rangers               7. Washington

8. Florida                       8. Ottawa

----playoff cut----           ----playoff cut----

9. Carolina                     9. Buffalo

10. Montreal                  10. Tampa Bay

11. Winnipeg           11. Winnipeg

12. Toronto                    12. Carolina

13. New Jersey                13. Toronto

14. N.Y. Islanders             14. N.Y. Islanders

15. Ottawa                      15. Montreal 

OK, so I didn’t do so hot last year. Six out of eight playoff teams were correct, but I missed big time on Washington, Montreal and Tampa Bay. Where do you have the Flyers stacking up in the East?

You’re on your own for the West! 

For the latest updates, follow Frank Seravalli on Twitter: @DNFlyers 

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Frequent Flyers is your home for news and analysis of all things orange and black.

Frank Seravalli Daily News Staff Writer
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