Rangers, Islanders Should Be Playoff-Bound, But It Will End Up The Year Of The Habs


By Sean Hartnett
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Hockey is back! Now, let’s take a look at each team and their prospects for the 2014-15 season.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

METROPOLITAN DIVISION

Predicted order of finish (* denotes playoff team): 1. Penguins*, 2. Rangers*, 3. Islanders*, 4. Capitals* (wild card), 5. Blue Jackets, 6. Devils, 7. Flyers, 8. Hurricanes.

1. Pittsburgh Penguins – There’s a new sheriff in Pittsburgh — and his arrival is going to pay off. Rookie head coach Mike Johnston will get the most out of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and the talented Penguins by implementing an uptempo system similar to the one Alain Vigneault runs in New York. Shedding immature winger James Neal was addition by subtraction, and the Pens received two pieces in return from Nashville that should help solidify their depth in Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling. Even if Marc-Andre Fleury falters between the pipes, the Pens have a capable backup in Thomas Greiss. Johnston will guide Pittsburgh to a Presidents’ Trophy season.

2. New York Rangers – The Rangers lost key veterans in Brian Boyle, Brad Richards and Anton Stralman, and Edmonton threw silly money at 15-goal scorer Benoit Pouliot. These losses will be offset by a good mix of prime-aged talents, including captain Ryan McDonagh, center Derick Brassard and Mats Zuccarello – and a collection of high-talent youths in Chris Kreider, Anthony Duclair, Kevin Hayes, Jesper Fest and J.T. Miller. Crafty veteran blue liner Dan Boyle will add creativity and cohesiveness to the Blueshirts’ power play. Expect a monster year from a re-energized Rick Nash, who came into camp in excellent shape and with a point to prove after suffering through a miserable playoff funk. And, oh yeah, Henrik Lundqvist remains the best netminder on the planet.

3. New York IslandersThis year, the Isles are for real. Let’s give credit where credit’s due. Once-reviled GM Garth Snow has done an excellent job of addressing each of his team’s weaknesses. On paper, the Islanders are the league’s most improved team heading into the new season. Their long-standing weakness on the blue line has been solved by the double arrival of fast-skating Nick Leddy and big-bodied Johnny Boychuk. New goaltender Jaroslav Halak wlll provide much-needed stability between the pipes. Expensive additions Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolay Kulemin might be seen as over-payments by some, but they’ll pay off by helping the Isles into the playoffs. All-world center and highly-determined captain John Tavares could set a new career-best in points.

4. Washington Capitals – The Capitals paid ridiculous amounts of money to sign former Penguins blue liners Matt Niskanen and Brooks Oprik, but their playoff hopes will hinge on whether Alex Ovechkin and demanding defensive coach Barry Trotz can coexist. Trotz wants Ovechkin to become more of a complete, 200-foot player. Despite his goal-scoring magic, Ovechkin has long been lazy without the puck and has resisted attempts by past coaches to mold him into a defensive-conscious player. It’s overdue for Ovechkin to become a real leader by bringing the right attitude to all aspects of the game and setting a positive example for teammates.

5. Columbus Blue Jackets – Prior to a number of debilitating injuries, Columbus was a good bet to make the playoffs. Dealing R.J. Umberger to the Flyers for Scott Hartnell was a smart, one-sided move. Now the Blue Jackets are reeling. Ryan Johansen Brandon Dubinsky, Nathan Horton, Boone Jenner and Ryan Murray will all start the season on the injured reserve. Sergei Bobrovsky is a Vezina-caliber goalie and will have to play that way to keep the Jackets’ heads above water until their injured stars return.

6. New Jersey Devils – The Devils should be about the youth movement rather than relying on too many aging parts. Reid Boucher, 21, looked ready to make the jump, but the Devils opted to send the speedy and instinctual winger to the minors. He should be getting the chance that is instead being given to injury-prone 33-year-old Martin Havlat. Hockey icon Jaromir Jagr surprised many last season with a 67-point outburst last season. The Devils need the 42-year-old Jagr to perform a sensational encore in his second season in Newark. Sniping winger Mike Cammalleri will provide the offense that was expected out of disappointing Michael Ryder – but there’s a lot of mileage on the aging legs of Jagr, Patrik Elias, Dainius Zubrus, Marek Zidlicky and Bryce Salvador. Cory Schneider is an excellent netminder, but the Devils will be weakened by dependable defenseman Mark Fayne joining Edmonton.

7. Philadelphia Flyers – It’s never sunny in Philadelphia. Key defenseman Kimmo Timonen might miss the entire season after blood clots were discovered by doctors. It was a very unfortunate blow to a very questionable Flyers’ defense core. Without Timonen, the Flyers’ depth chart looks like a bunch of pylons. Scoring forwards Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek and Wayne Simmonds are terrific, but Philly’s scoring depth drops off after their top two lines.

8. Carolina Hurricanes – The last thing Carolina needed was losing Jordan Staal for the early months of the new season due to a broken leg and Jeff Skinner missing the start of the season because of a concussion. It’s going to be a long year for the ‘Canes.

ATLANTIC DIVISION

Predicted order of finish: 1. Lightning*, 2. Canadiens*, 3. Bruins*, 4. Red Wings* (wild card), 5. Panthers, 6. Maple Leafs, 7. Senators, 8. Sabres.

1. Tampa Bay Lightning – Steve Yzerman could win the GM of the Year for pairing Tampa’s outstanding youngsters with the veteran pieces required for a legitimate Stanley Cup run. Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson finished second and third in last season’s Calder voting, and incredible 19-year-old Jonathan Drouin is a favorite to win the Calder this season. The additions of all-around defenseman and possession beast Anton Stralman, penalty-killing dynamo Brian Boyle and power play ace Jason Garrison will also help Tampa Bay, which won 46 games last season even though superstar Steven Stamkos missed more than half of the regular season. The Lightning ooze depth and will be a force to be reckoned with.

2. Montreal Canadiens – The Habs are primed to take the next step. It’s very possible that Montreal would have beaten the Rangers in the Eastern Conference finals had starting goaltender Carey Price been healthy. Price, P.K Subban, Max Pacioretty, Brendan Gallagher and Alex Galchenyuk form a solid core that is getting better every season. Grabbing another offensive weapon in P.A. Parenteau from the Avs for an unhappy Danny Briere was a sneaky-good trade and veteran blue liner Andrei Markov doesn’t get the attention he deserves for being an excellent offensive-minded defenseman.

3. Boston Bruins – The Bruins will take a step back this season. The salary cap squeeze forced the B’s to wave goodbye to 30-goal scorer, veteran leader and powerhouse winger Jarome Iginla. The aforementioned Boychuk was also sacrificed for cap reasons. Loui Eriksson will slide up to Boston’s top line, and could produce a bounce-back season. Still, the Bruins appear to be lacking depth across four lines and three D pairs. Tampa Bay and Montreal have gotten better. The Bruins haven’t.

4. Detroit Red Wings – Plenty of hockey pundits are calling for the demise of Detroit, but the Red Wings aren’t the “dead Wings.” While they did not add anything to their roster, they aren’t any worse either. Gustav Nyquist had 28 goals and 20 assists in 57 games last season. The elusive Swede could be on the verge of superstar status. The youth movement of Nyquist, Tomas Tatar, Riley Sheahan and Tomas Jurco will make up for Detroit’s aging big-names. The Red Wings are expecting big things from rookie Anthony Mantha, but he will miss at least the opening month of the season due to a fractured tibia.

5. Florida Panthers – Some have described Florida as a team on the upswing. The Panthers spent a lot of money during the offseason, but this team has a lot of growing to do. Jonathan Huberdeau, Aaron Ekblad and Aleksander Barkov lead a deep group of youngsters who will make the Panthers a dangerous team in the coming years.

6. Toronto Maple Leafs – The Leafs made sweeping front office changes, including the hire of Brendan Shanahan as president and overseer of hockey operations. Overall, the Leafs are abandoning ruggedness for analytics. Meanwhile, head coach Randy Carlyle is the odds makers’ favorite to be the first coach fired this season. Captain Dion Phaneuf is probably the most overrated defenseman in the entire NHL. Trading shutdown defenseman Carl Gunnarsson to the Blues for physical blue liner Roman Polak was a mistake. The Leafs did not make any offseason additions that make you think this is a playoff team.

7. Ottawa Senators – Naming Erik Karlsson captain and paying Bobby Ryan mega-money to stay in Canada’s capital has lifted the dark clouds over this franchise. Still, losing top-scoring forward Jason Spezza is a real punch to the gut, and one of Craig Anderson and Robin Lehner will have to step up as a go-to goalie.

8. Buffalo Sabres – What can be said that hasn’t already been said about the brutal Sabres? Tank season.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

CENTRAL DIVISION

Predicted order of finish (* denotes playoff team): 1. Blues*, 2. Stars*, 3. Blackhawks*, 4. Avalanche* (wild card), 5. Wild* (wild card), 6. Predators 7. Jets

1. St. Louis Blues – The Blues adding Paul Stastny changes the Central Division landscape. They were already big, bad and possession-dominant before Stastny’s arrival. Now, the Blues will be the puck-hogging beasts of the Central. St. Louis has the deepest group of blue liners in the league and appears formidable across four forward lines. Jori Lehtera is a name that might surprise a few people. The two-way Swede is new to the NHL, but is considered a skilled playmaking center. The biggest question concerning the Blues if either Brian Elliott or Jake Allen will emerge as a true no. 1 goalie. Elliott has posted sensational numbers over the past three seasons in mostly part-time duty.

2. Dallas Stars – The Stars took advantage of Spezza’s stance and pried him away from the Sens without giving up anywhere close to what’s usually required for a top-class center. Creative winger Ales Hemsky is another major pickup. The Stars are going to be speed-burners. Tyler Seguin, Antoine Roussel and Ryan Garbutt are elusive and uber-quick skaters. Valeri Nichuskin was described by Jagr last season as the game’s next great player. Kari Lehtonen is a severely-underrated netminder and could emerge as a surprise Vezina Trophy candidate if the Stars’ D does its job.

3. Chicago Blackhawks – The signing of playmaking center Brad Richards for $2 million was probably the best value signing of the offseason, but Chicago’s depth at center has been questioned. Right now, Andrew Shaw is slated to center Patrick Kane’s line. The Blackhawks are expecting big things from 21-year-old Brandon Saad, after the winger notched 47 points in a sensational sophomore season. Having to deal away Leddy for cap reasons is a major blow to their blue line depth. Like the Bruins in the Atlantic, the Hawks haven’t gotten any better and their divisional rivals made big offseason splashes. The Blackhawks are still a great team, but they’ll slip.

4. Colorado Avalanche – The Avs were last season’s surprise team. They’ll take a big step down from last season’s 112-point campaign, but might be bizarrely better prepared for a deep playoff run due to the additions of big-game players Iginla and Briere. What’s very concerning about the Avs is their defensive weakness and poor possession numbers. Additionally, losing Stastny to the division-rival Blues makes an already weak possession team that much worse. Goalie Semyon Varlamov is going to be a busy man.

5. Minnesota Wild – Minnesota seems to have all the pieces required to become a legitimate Stanley Cup contender aside from a stable goaltending situation. The Wild boast solid top-four blue liners in Ryan Suter, Jonas Brodin, Jared Spurgeon and Marco Scandella, tremendous forward depth and big-name respected leaders. However, as long as the goalie situation is in flux, the Wild won’t be able to take that important next step.

6. Nashville Predators – Newly-installed head coach Peter Laviolette will bring uptempo hockey to the Music City, but it will be a tough adjustment for a team that was used to playing defense-first hockey under previous head coach Trotz. Shea Weber is a perennial Norris Trophy candidate, high-ceiling defenseman Seth Jones will continue to take strides forward and winger Craig Smith might be the best under-the-radar player in the league. Acquiring questionable locker room characters such as Neal and Mike Ribeiro were curious moves by the Preds. Nashville is somewhat of a bubble team, but probably will fall short of the playoffs.

7. Winnipeg Jets – The Jets were pretty awful last year and did nothing to improve this offseason. Diehard fans deserve a winner. It’s overdue for ownership to properly back GM Kevin Cheveldayoff.

PACIFIC DIVISION

Predicted order of finish: 1. Ducks*, 2. Kings*, 3. Sharks*, 4. Canucks, 5. Coyotes, 6. Oilers, 7. Flames.

1. Anaheim Ducks – Having landed Ryan Kesler, the Ducks could repeat as Pacific Division champions. Kesler is nasty to play against and he’ll fit right in with Anaheim. The two-way winger knows how to get under the skin of opponents and will form a terrific one-two punch behind top center/Hart Trophy contender Ryan Getzlaf. Defensemen Cam Fowler, Sami Vatanen and Hampus Lindholm are excellent puck-movers. Offseason signing Dany Heatley is an interesting X-factor. Teemu Selanne has hung up his legendary skates, but that might be for the better as his autobiography revealed tensions with head coach Bruce Boudreau. This change of scenery might give Heatley’s career a shot in the arm. A very youthful goaltending tandem of John Gibson and Frederik Andersen might be concerning to some, but they’re both highly talented, capable netminders with bright futures.

2. Los Angeles Kings – The defending Stanley Cup champs stood pat during the offseason, yet remain one of the deepest teams from top to bottom in a loaded Western Conference. Behind Drew Doughty, blue liners Slava Voynov and Jake Muzzin are getting better all the time. The same can be said about forwards Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson.

3. San Jose Sharks – There was a plenty of turnover for the Sharks during the offseason. Gone are Dan Boyle, Brad Stuart and Havlat. GM Doug Wilson’s response to San Jose’s epic playoff collapse was to add scrappers and fighters, including John Scott and Tye McGinn. Stripping Joe Thornton of the captaincy wasn’t a great idea either. Their captain situation is still up in the air ahead of their season opener against the Kings. For all their star names and big talent, the Sharks are a mess of a franchise.

4. Vancouver Canucks – Gone is John Tortorella and in is the highly-coveted Willie Desjardins to take over behind the bench. The question that will be solved this season is whether Tortorella’s hire was a brutal mistake or whether Tortorella walked into an unwinnable situation. Desjardins rejected the Penguins for the chance to coach the Canucks. He’s going to have to get the most out of a roster that lost a crucial two-way center in Kesler in a one-sided trade with the Ducks. The Sedin twins and offseason additions: Radim Vrbata and true number one goalie Ryan Miller give Vancouver a puncher’s chance of being a playoff team in an extremely competitive conference.

5. Arizona Coyotes – Head coach Dave Tippett is an outstanding hockey mind, but he doesn’t have the collection of talent needed to sneak Arizona into the playoffs. Losing Vrbata was a significant blow for a team that lacks skilled forwards. Offseason addition Sam Gagner won’t do enough to boost the ‘Yotes scoring woes. Goaltender Mike Smith must produce a bounce-back season.

6. Edmonton Oilers – New year, same story for the Oilers. They threw a ton of money at Benoit Pouliot, Mark Fayne and Nikita Nikitin. These aren’t the players required to transform Edmonton from a disappointing rebuilding team into genuine playoff contenders.

7. Calgary Flames – The rebuilding Flames are in for a tough year. Unfortunately, the exceptional play of top defenseman Mark Giordano doesn’t get a lot of press attention as he’s on a perennial losing team. It will be difficult for the Flames to replace the production of Cammalleri. At least the Flames have some exciting young players to watch in Sean Monahan, Johnny Gaudreau and Joe Colborne.

EASTERN CONFERENCE FINAL: Canadiens over Penguins in six games.

WESTERN CONFERENCE FINAL: Kings over Blues in seven games.

STANLEY CUP FINAL: Canadiens over Kings in seven games; Carey Price wins the Conn Smythe Trophy.

END OF SEASON AWARDS:

Hart Trophy: Sidney Crosby; Art Ross Trophy: Sidney Crosby; Vezina Trophy: Henrik Lundqvist; Norris Trophy: Shea Weber; Selke Trophy: Pavel Datsyuk; Calder Trophy: Jonathan Drouin; Rocket Richard Trophy: Steven Stamkos; Jack Adams Award: Mike Babcock; GM of the Year: Steve Yzerman.

Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey

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