It's time for yet another annual installment of Screen Shots' preseason predictions (Eastern Conference this week, Western Conference next week).
As noted in last week's column, the margin separating the NHL's 16 playoff teams from its also-rans is as slim as it's ever been. Bear that in mind before you burst a blood vessel in a bug-eyed, furious response to the guess-job that follows.
It's always tough to kiss Zdeno Chara goodbye, and not just because you have to obtain the proper security clearance from air traffic control authorities weeks in advance. Marty Havlat's move to Chicago stings a little, too. However, with former Hurricanes starter Martin Gerber in net and underrated defensive additions Joe Corvo and Tom Preissing, this Sens squad is better equipped for a lengthy playoff run than any edition before it.
Everybody says the pressure is on goalie Cam Ward to prove his Conn Smythe-winning form can be maintained over an 82-game schedule. Everybody also says Carolina took some significant personnel hits in the off-season when they lost Gerber, Aaron Ward, Matt Cullen, Doug Weight and Mark Recchi. Everybody is right on both counts. But the Canes steamrolled over the league in the regular season and weathered some nasty storms in the playoffs. No reason to suspect that'll change radically this year.
3. New Jersey
We picked the Devils to finish ninth last season, reasoning that even master GM Lou Lamoriello couldn't adequately patch up a blue line that had lost cornerstones Scott Niedermayer and Scott Stevens. We all saw what happened. So if you think we're about to predict a similar drop in New Jersey's fortunes given that defensemen Paul Martin and David Hale still haven't signed contracts, you're fooling yourself worse than the bride at the Minnelli/Gest wedding.
4. New York Rangers
Do a lot of things have to happen for the Rangers to stay in the playoff race this year? You bet. It starts with the attitude of No. 68 and ends with sophomore goalie Henrik Lundqvist staying as sharp as he was last year. Still, few GMs made out as well as Glen Sather this summer and the offensive contributions of new Blueshirts Brendan Shanahan and Matt Cullen will help coach Tom Renney cope with a so-so defense corps.
Their taste in uniform re-designs aside, the Sabres organization has done little to laugh at of late. Their fruitful farm system and stable management team has produced a young, swift, and determined core of players who should be able to continue winning, even after losing key defensive contributors Jay McKee and Mike Grier to unrestricted free agency. But that yellow something-or-other on the jersey is a fashion abomination to rival bellbottom pants and Don Cherry.
The Thrashers didn't make any marquee additions to a roster that couldn't qualify for the playoffs despite a late-season surge and GM Don Waddell's guarantee. But they did add enough grit (Jon Sim, Steve Rucchin, Vitaly Vishnevski) to suit the style of coach Bob Hartley. Waddell doesn't have to establish urgency by promising a postseason berth again; if Atlanta fails in its postseason quest this time, neither he nor Hartley will likely be around for another attempt in 2007-08.
The Maple Leafs are neither the championship contenders their most deluded followers believe them to be, nor the dregs of the East their legion of haters wish they were. With the presence of Pavel Kubina, the top half of their defense corps is one of the better in the conference, and Michael Peca brings toughness and savvy to their overly generous penalty kill. So long as goalie Andrew Raycroft is solid, Toronto will vie for a lower-tier playoff seed.
The Flyers are the mirror-opposite of the Calgary Flames: they've got scoring coming out every available wazoo, but their unsettled situation in net and pylon-esque blue line loom as potential disaster areas. The retirements of Keith Primeau and Eric Desjardins remove two leaders from the dressing room, and that could be enough to keep Philadelphia out of the postseason for the first time since 1994.
There is no doubt Boston made some impact acquisitions in the summer, including Chara, Marc Savard and Shean Donovan. There is considerable doubt Bruins ownership can keep its mitts away from GM Peter Chiarelli's blueprint for success. As well, elite-level goaltending is far from assured, regardless of how fantastic Hannu Toivonen and Tim Thomas looked in short stretches last season.
Many NHL names inspire memories of playoff step-uppery. Radek Bonk, Sergei Samsonov, Mike Ribeiro and Mike Johnson are not among them. Despite their lack of proven scoring power, and despite the questions that always surround rookie coaches -- Bon Chance, Guy Carbonneau -- the Habs will fight down to the wire for a postseason slot. They'll come up short, which is fitting for a team that still could use some size.
11. Tampa Bay
Those who believe Columbus' Gerard Gallant will be the first coach fired this season ought not to forget John "Mt." Tortorella of the cap-strapped Lightning. The fiery Bolts coach looks at his defense and sees it weakened by the loss of Pavel Kubina. He looks at his offense and sees it weakened by the loss of Fredrik Modin. He looks in his net and sees Marc Denis, a guy who played well in Columbus, but still hasn't established himself in the upper echelon of NHL goalies. Then he quietly seethes in his office chair. Anybody else smell molten lava?
It's not that the Panthers don't have promise. It's just that their goaltending tandem of Alex Auld and Ed Belfour (a.k.a. Auld and Older) doesn't inspire visions of the William Jennings Trophy for fewest goals allowed. And Todd Bertuzzi isn't, at least on his own, a marked improvement for an offense that finished 21st in the league last year. Shaky goaltending plus shaky goal-scoring equals shaky odds to make the playoffs.
Speaking of first-coach-fired candidates, you've got to figure Michel Therrien has his Steeltown realtor on 24-hour red alert, don't you? He's got an injured rookie (Evgeni Malkin), a new GM (Ray Shero) who didn't hire him, and four more years of Sergei Gonchar on defense. At least the Penguins aren't moving. We think.
14. New York Islanders
Question: How many Islanders owners does it take to screw in a light bulb? Answer: Trick question. It should be, "How many Islanders owners does it take to screw up a light bulb?" And the answer to that is no joke.
From GM George McPhee to coach Glen Hanlon to minor-league coach Bruce Boudreau on down, the Capitals are as well-managed an NHL organization as you'll find. Which is why it pains us so to predict they'll be at the back end of the Eastern bracket again this year. But when Brian Pothier is your No. 1 defenseman, it doesn't matter how astounding Alexander Ovechkin is, you've got a ways to go.
Material from The Hockey News.
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