It took too long and the parties made an art form out of making mountains out of molehills, but FINALLY, we have NHL hockey again! The excitement may not be rampant everywhere, but it sure is in Pittsburgh – the Pens opened a SCRIMMAGE up to the public and 18,000+ fans showed up to watch – truly a sign that the ‘Burgh is now truly a hockey town. Before we get to the fun part, previewing the Eastern Conference (East won’t play West this year during the regular season, so I’m not going to preview the West), a few last words on the lockout.
I’ve been reading a lot of columns online that basically say neither side won during this lockout. To me, that’s patently false – a quick look at the major points of contention will show a very clear win for ownership. The owners went into this wanting the players to take a lot less league revenue – the players were getting 57%, now they get 50%. The owners wanted to shorten player contracts and reduce ‘front-loaded’ deals – done. The league wanted a longer CBA, both to have labor peace (laudable) and entrench their gains. They got 10 years with a seven or eight-year opt-out. Aside from some relatively minor inroads on pensions, I honestly cannot see one area where the players actually gained during this process.
Kudos to the players for sticking together and waiting the owners out – they got the best deal they could likely get without sacrificing the entire season, which neither side could afford.
Enough of the silly lockout, let’s get to the good stuff – taking a look at each team’s playoff potential. Now, if recent history shows us anything it’s that once in the Stanley Cup playoffs, ANYTHING is possible and seeding really doesn’t matter that much, but I still see a few teams I consider top contenders for the Cup. However, I am certain that due to the condensed schedule, a few good teams will miss the playoffs – and that means a mediocre team will likely earn a surprise berth. (Through 48 games in 2008-09, the year they won the Cup, the Penguins were 10th in the conference and would have missed the playoffs.) Let’s start from the bottom and work our way up:
THE LOTTERY TEAMS
Montreal: The proud Canadiens finished dead-last in the East last season, and I just don’t see enough offense to make the jump to playoff contender. I like their goalie, some of their defense, and REALLY like the re-hire of coach Michel Therrien, but he doesn’t have enough raw material just yet.
NY Islanders: They’ve drafted high for years, but they don’t seem to have gotten an elite talent out of all those high picks. This seems like a team stuck in a mediocre rut, and playing in the rough-and-tumble Atlantic Division really hurts them in a short season.
Winnipeg: LOTS of ‘O’, not nearly enough ‘D’. The bizarre contract extension of G Ondrej Pavelec last summer, despite a recent DUI and some of the worst goaltending stats in the league, sums this team up. I like their forwards, and they have some young talent on the blueline, but they will never win until they upgrade in goal and make a serious commitment to defense. The Jets are dangerous on any given night, but they will once again lose way too many 5-4 games. Losing hard-nosed grinder Tanner Glass (no relation) to the Pens hurt them as well.
Toronto: Only the hapless Leafs would go through a four-month lockout, THEN decide to fire their GM a week before the season actually started. The Cubs of the NHL, they draw millions of fans and make a huge profit despite being thoroughly irrelevant for the past 15 years (and Cup-less for 45 years!) Toronto needs (and Toronto fans deserve) a second franchise to force the profit-hoarding Leafs into actually trying to win. There are some talented players here, but the trade that sent two #1 picks to Boston for Phil Kessel (one of those picks, Tyler Seguin, looks to be a truly elite player) will haunt Toronto for years.
New Jersey: Yes, I think the defending Eastern Conference champs will miss the playoffs – with the loss of their captain and top scorer, Zach Parise, I simply do not see enough goals to compete. Their top two goalies are 39 and 40 years old, and I think the compressed schedule will take its toll on the Devils’ goalies. 2012 was a great run for the Devils and a fitting capper on Marty Brodeur’s Hall of Fame career, but I think it was his last hurrah.
Tampa Bay: Tampa still has the ‘Big Three’ of Stamkos, Lecavalier, and St. Louis, and they scored plenty of goals last year…but they also gave up a league-worst 282 goals a season ago, and none of their offseason moves were huge improvements. The biggest was signing Nashville’s backup goalie, Anders Lindback, with the hope that he could be their answer in goal. His stats in Nashville suggest he’s adequate at best, and adequacy will not be enough in Tampa. Much like Winnipeg, they will score more than their share of goals but allow too many to make the playoffs.
Ottawa: The Senators barely made the playoffs a season ago, and I look for them to be in a similar position this season as well. The relative weakness of their division really works in their favor with this season’s unbalanced schedule, and they should once again score enough goals – the questions are on defense and in net. Ottawa allowed 240 goals, the most of any playoff team in 2012, and reducing that number has to be their priority in 2013. They have the defending Norris Trophy winner (for best defenseman) in Erik Karlsson and depth at forward, but goalie Craig Anderson is slightly above-average at best and the team lacks a shut-down defensive pair. Ottawa will be in the hunt for a playoff berth, and I think it will come down to the Sens or the Panthers for the last slot.
Florida: It’s tempting to chalk up Florida’s great 2011-12 season to luck and expect them to slide back into oblivion – and let’s be honest, they WERE very lucky, they won the division despite being outscored by 24 goals – but upon closer inspection I think this team has some staying power. Unlike just about every other Southeast team, Florida is built on a foundation of defense and goaltending. They will still have trouble scoring enough goals, true, but 19-year-old Jon Huberdeau should help in that regard; and the team took a low-risk flier on Alex Kovalev to help on the power play. I think they will struggle to repeat their 2012 success, and it will be a fight for them to get into the playoffs, but I think the Southeast division is COMPLETELY up for grabs in 2013 and Florida should be in the mix all season.
Washington: How the mighty have fallen – Washington’s goals-scored totals from 2008-2012: 242, 272, 318, 224, 222. The once-powerful Caps were the lowest-scoring playoff team in the East last year, only two years after dominating the NHL with 300+ goals. The Caps appear to be at a crossroads – they tried to run-and-gun their way to a title from 2008-2010, then they went the defense-first route the last two seasons – new coach Adam Oates seems to be encouraging a more attacking style, but do the Caps still have enough weapons to pull it off? Alex Ovechkin’s career seems to be on a downward plane (his point total has declined five straight seasons) and the only other consistent scorer, Alex Semin, was allowed to leave via free agency. The team has a nice corps of defensemen and a capable set of young goalies in Holtby and Neuvirth, so they should be in most games. If Ovechkin can find even 90% of his peak form, this is a dangerous playoff contender – but if he has found a new (lower) level and no other forwards step up with 25+ goals, the Caps could very well miss the playoffs. I’ll say that the Caps make the playoffs, in large part because they have two capable goalies (a REAL asset with this compressed schedule), but it’s EXTREMELY close in my mind.
Buffalo: The Sabres were expected to take a step forward last season, but injuries and subpar performances instead left them outside the playoffs and put coach Lindy ruff on the hot seat. I expect the Sabres to rebound in 2013 – they have a good mix of scoring talent, grit, and defense, and they also have a solid goalie in Ryan Miller. The Sabres do not have any superstars, but Ennis, Vanek, and Pominville are all experienced point producers and their top-four defensemen are all experienced and steady. In fact, steady is a good way to describe these Sabres – they won’t blow you away with their size or skill, but they are unlikely to suffer through many long slumps either. I don’t think they are likely to be a Cup contender, but I DO think they will be a solid playoff contender.
Carolina: The most improved team in the East, thanks to the additions of Semin and Jordan Staal. Carolina missed the playoffs a year ago because their offense was terrible, and they definitely should score goals this season – the question (as with almost every SE Division team) is defense. Goalie Cam Ward has won a Cup, but that was seven years ago now. His career goals-against is 2.75 and his career save% is .910, both well below-average figures. I think this is truly a critical year for Ward – ownership paid up and brought in a lot of help, so this team is expected to make the playoffs now. If they miss because of leaky goaltending, he’s probably going to have a new team in 2014. I think the offense will get Carolina a playoff berth, and possibly even a division title in the weak Southeast Division, but I think Ward and the lack of solid defensemen will keep them from a deep playoff run.
Philadelphia: I know, a lot of Philly fans are going to wonder why I don’t have them listed in the ‘favorites’ section. Two words: Ilya Bryzgalov. His teammates bailed him out against Pittsburgh with an overwhelming display of offense, but the fact is the Flyers allowed 3+ goals in 10 of 11 playoff games last year – and that simply won’t get it done. In addition, the Flyers lost solid defenseman Matt Carle to free agency and failed to land Shea Weber to replace him, leaving them a bit thin on defense. This team can score with anyone most nights – they have a deep and diverse offense, and Claude Giroux has shown that he is a truly elite scorer now – but the Flyers in general and Bryzgalov in particular are guilty until proven innocent when it comes to playoff goaltending. Frankly, with the shortened schedule and the lack of a capable backup (Sergei Bobrovsky was traded) I could see the Flyers even missing the playoffs if Bryzgalov goes into one of his funks. I think that’s EXTREMELY unlikely – this team is too talented not to make it – but if I was to pick a top team to falter with the 48-game schedule, it would be the Flyers.
NY Rangers: They were the #1 seed last year, and they’ve added Rick Nash without sacrificing any major components. That, plus Vezina-winning goalie Henrik Lundqvist, makes them a contender. I do see some potential weaknesses with this team – Nash is used to being ‘the man’ on a poor team, how will he handle sharing the load, and how will he handle the extreme scrutiny and expectations? Coach John Tortorella demands a lot defensively, including blocking every shot possible – will Nash buy into that? Will the compressed schedule take its toll on a team that relies on an extremely grueling, physical style of play? However, while it may take the Rangers a few weeks to truly mesh – and that delay might cost them a meaningless top seed – I expect them to be in top form by April and a true Cup contender.
Boston: The 2011 champs are still a formidable group, with speed, skill, size, and depth. They boasted SIX 20-goal scorers a year ago, leading scorer Tyler Seguin is only 21 years old, Zdeno Chara is still arguably the best two-way defenseman in the game, and the Bruins have earned 100+ points three of the last four seasons. In short, they have become a perennial contender. The only question mark I see is in goal – with the retirement of Tim Thomas, Tukka Rask becomes ‘the man’ in net. His stats are impeccable – his career goals-against is 2.19 and his save% is .927 – but there’s no safety net for him now, his backup is the completely unproven Anton Khubodin. I believe Rask will be quite successful, and I also believe the Bruins are at least co-favorites to make the Cup Finals because of their impressive depth.
Pittsburgh: After their embarrassing playoff collapse last year, the Penguins made bold moves…gone are Jordan Staal, Zbynek Michalek, Brent Johnson, and Arron Asham. Their replacements are Brandon Sutter, Tomas Vokoun, and Tanner Glass. Sutter won’t replace Staal’s offense, but he’s a smart, young, defense-first center who should provide just what the Pens need anchoring their third line. Glass was Winnipeg’s best shot-blocker a year ago and also will help on the penalty kill. The biggest acquisition, however, is Vokoun. For the first time, Fleury has a legit #1 NHL goaltender to push him and give him a few more nights off – it was clear that Fleury was overworked a year ago, mainly because Johnson was terrible most of the season. Look for Vokoun to get 18-20 starts, which should keep Fleury fresh for the postseason…and should Fleury falter, look for the quick hook. Fleury was great in 2011 but he obviously was terrible in the 2012 playoffs. He HAS to have a strong season/postseason in 2013.
Offensively, Pittsburgh is as dangerous as ever – Crosby, Malkin, Neal, and Letang form the best nucleus in the game today. The Pens led the league in scoring a year ago and barring injury should be in the mix to do so again in 2013. They will likely breeze into the playoffs – but as we know, the regular season means nothing in Pittsburgh, after three straight playoff upsets the pressure is on to make a deep Cup run. How this team fares in May (and hopefully June) will help determine the team’s course over the next few years. The playoffs have become almost a complete crapshoot, but Pittsburgh has a better chance than anyone to win the East in 2013.
Dave Glass can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.