And another hockey season is upon us, which means…..*drumroll*..prediction time! Just to explain the below picture, I make my division picks on my basement fridge every year. Last season, in addition to four of six division winners, I had two of the final four teams correct (Chicago, Philadelphia, with the Flyers making the finals). However, I’d rather not say who I had winning last year. Without further ado, here are the picks, with playoff picks.
Starting with the Atlantic Division, the Flyers would be the team to beat coming off a Stanley Cup run, but questions in goal could derail division title hopes. Pittsburgh will edge the Flyers, but lack of winger scoring could hurt them in the long run. Both teams will keep a distance between them and New Jersey. Jersey will hope for one more run from Marty Brodeur, but it won’t be this year. The signing of Ilya Kovalchuk drained payroll, and the Devils will have to play with a short roster, or will have to waive some veterans. The Islanders will be improved, but without Mark Streit and Kyle Okposo for a large chunk of time, playoffs won’t be on the radar this year, but they’ll give the rival Rangers a tough time, who’ll miss the playoffs a second straight year, and fans will still demand Glen Sather be fired. At least Wade Redden won’t be the scapegoat this season for the Blueshirts.
Heading to the Northeast Division, the focus is on Vezina trophy Ryan Miller and the Sabres. Will he be able to repeat last year’s performance? Probably not, but he’ll still be very good and in the mix for the Vezina once again. After blowing a 3-0 lead in the Conference Semifinals, the Bruins are looking for revenge. Already without Marc Savard, the low scoring Bruins are going to scratch and claw for every point, but Tuukka Rask will put them into the playoffs. Last season, Montreal made it to the Conference Finals before losing in five games. In the time since, they have traded playoff hero Jaroslav Halak and are now leaning on Carey “Jesus” Price. It’s entirely possible the Habs miss the playoffs. The Senators have a mix of veterans and youngsters and it could be an up and down season for Ottawa. They’ll battle Montreal for 3rd in the division, and will be in a close race for a playoff spot. Toronto will finish in line for a top 5 draft pick….oh wait, Boston will get a top 5 pick.
Washington has the Southeast Division on lockdown. With the offensive firepower the Capitals have, it’ll be tough to dethrone them. Carolina dug themselves a hole last year after a Cam Ward injury, but should be back in the playoffs, led by new captain Eric Staal. For third place, I went back and forth (and changed my mind after taking the picture) but finally decided on Atlanta. Atlanta acquired half of the Stanley Cup winning Blackhawks roster, along with returning players they got for Ilya Kovalchuk. The Thrash could make the playoffs for the 2nd time in their history. Tampa added former 40 goal scorer Simon Gagne and Twitter’s favorite goalie, Dan Ellis. Will it be enough? Probably not, but they’ll compete. Florida….well, they are rebuilding….and the process will be long.
The Central Division is the most balanced in my opinion. Chicago is the favorite after winning the Cup last year (but then trading half of the team). Detroit is experienced, and won’t let the Blackhawks win the division so easy. Nashville is always in the playoff mix, but has yet to win a playoff series? With the up and coming Pekka Rinne in goal, it could be the year. St. Louis is another up and coming team, and the addition of Montreal playoff hero Jaroslav Halak will put them in the hunt, but ultimately leave them short. Steve Mason is going to be the deciding factor for Columbus. If he plays the way he did in his Calder trophy winning season, Columbus will be in the mix. With a repeat like last season, it could be a long year for the Jackets.
Let’s face it, Vancouver is the top dog in the Northwest Division. They have one of the all around best teams in the conference, and strong goaltending play. But they’ve never been able to put it together in the playoffs. Colorado is a young team who overachieved last year before almost collapsing and missing the playoffs. They won’t be as good as their early season run, but they’ll be better than the tired team that showed up during the stretch. Conversely, Calgary underachieved last year and flamed out. The team is aging and the clock is running out. Minnesota is always a pain to play against, but won’t pick up enough points to make the playoffs. Edmonton, well, the best thing about the Oilers are the trio of youngsters they have on the roster.
On the coast, the Pacific Division has been dominated by the Sharks for the last three years, but the Kings are going to be the crown of the division this year. With a very good all-around team, the Kings are primed to make a run and win their first division since 1990-91. San Jose will still be a factor, but after losing goalie Evgeni Nabokov (and signing Antti Niemi & Antero Niittymaki) their question mark will be in goal. After a surprising run last year, Phoenix will take a step back, but will take one of the final playoff spots. Anaheim has some forward threats, and a good goalie, but the defense is pitiful. Dallas’ goal of the year is to re-sign potential free agent center Brad Richards.
Who to Watch for (East): Carolina. They were in the conference finals two years ago, with the same core. Cam Ward is healthy, and the team played well after New Year’s, although they were already out of the race by that time.
Who to Watch for (West): Nashville. The Preds are finally going to win a playoff series. With the emerging Pekka Rinne in net, Nashville is going to be a tough team to beat.
Eastern Finals: Buffalo over Philadelphia in 7
Western Finals: Vancouver over Los Angeles in 6
Stanley Cup Finals: Vancouver over Buffalo in 6