DeNicola's Eastern Conference Power Rankings, Pre-Season >
 
 

With the 2011-12 NHL season sneaking up on us like a lion on its prey, it’s only natural to take a look at the teams in each Conference and figure who will end where. Last year the Western Conference’s 5 through 8 seeds was a battle throughout the latter half of the regular season fought between almost a dozen squads. Most of the time the points that separated the 5th seed from the 12th seed were only a measly 3 or 4 points! To every sense of the cliché, every team’s win counted.

 

I see a very similar war fought this season, but this time on the Eastside. 

 

However the final quarter of the schedule pans out for the Eastern Conference teams, one thing’s for sure; we got our Playoff contenders, and nine other rosters making an unwanted, early tee time. Here are my end-result predictions for the Eastern Conference.

 

 #1 Despite the Choking Hazard they’ve become in recent Playoffs, the Washington Capitals did an absolutely outstanding job stocking up for another successful, and much stronger regular season performance. The addition of veteran netminder, Tomas Vokoun, has only guaranteed them top league talent in yet another role on the ice. Alexander The Great will inevitably rack up star stats, and this is his greatest chance to step out of Crosby’s shadow and into the glimmering shine of Lord Stanley.

#2

 
You have no idea how hard it was placing the Penguins to finish 2nd Overall in the East, which meant predicting they’ll win our Atlantic Division. Everyone knows the story from last year; Both Crosby and Malkin warmed a seat in the press box by mid-season due to injuries, and everyone rejoiced as they figured the Pens would become a fast sinking ship. But like the murderer in a horror film, the Penguins just….wouldn’t….die.

Though “Geno” will be returning for the start of the 2011-12 season, it seems Sid The Kid will remain a spectator for now.  Nevertheless, you still have the likes of Marc-Andre Fluery defending the twine, Kris Letang sharp shooting from the offensive zone’s points, Jordan Staal stampeding from the center, and James Neal who has the potential of turning this into his redemption year. Along with the cluster of other very effective skaters, Pittsburgh will wind up giving my middle finger plenty of workouts the next seven months. 


 #3 “Thank you, Ryan Miller,” says the city of Buffalo as they capture that Northeast Division leading seed.  Last year Miller’s performance in net was considered a “down year.” 66 Games Played (34 – 22 – 8), 0.916 Save Percentage, and 2.59 Goals Against Average. Not exactly what I’d define as a “down year”, but we all know Ryan can do much better. And better he shall accomplish.


If you’ve paid any attention over the off-season, then you’ll know Buffalo’s fire power and leadership is returning from injury, and the organization beefed up their blue line by signing Christian Ehrhoff and Robyn Regehr. The new ownership is showing no signs of becoming frugal with their money, and that absolutely frightens the living hell out of me. I know I just predicted the “Electric Slug” to finish 3rd, but I wouldn’t be surprised in the least if they managed to roll into the post season a couple points shy of Washington’s spot. 


 #4 Steve Yzerman is no joke of a GM. The man turned the Bolts around like a defective piece of electronics from its manufacturer. Other than Simon Gagne, what pieces to his 2010 – 11 Playoff puzzle has he lost? Stamkos is locked up like Rapunzel, St. Louis (pronounced Luu-Eee, you dumb broads) and Lecavalier will naturally be a force, and the beastly Ryan Malone will keep up his solid outings. Question is – Is Roloson able to keep taking his Metamucil showers and remain Tampa’s #1 puck stopper?


 #5 Seriously. Tim Thomas’ Hall of Fame performance in net last year was no doubt the biggest reason why the Bruins lifted the Cup. I’m not trying to be a hater, I’m just trying to state a fact. If I had to give it a percentage, Thomas’ play was 75% of Boston’s success.  Not one percentage point less. Wanna argue for more? I’m listening.


Enjoy it, Boston, it aint happening again. Though I wouldn’t dream of trying to discredit Thomas’ 2010-11 achievements, he just will not get that lucky in 2011 – 12. What will remain consistent is Beantown’s defensive onslaught mixed with a solid core of tremendous two-way forwards. Milan Lucic will be his normal, everyday ogre self, physically pounding the opposing scoring lines through the ice like they were his girlfriend outside a Starbucks (too soon?). 


 #6 Yea, that’s right. Sixth seed. Look, there are too many question marks right now about my Broad Street Strangers to grade them any higher than sixth. The biggest question mark looms over this team’s chemistry like a dark cloud. Hopefully there’s a silver lining. The potential is certainly evident.


I’d be repeating myself for the thousandth time if I were to say the Flyers achieved a more balanced roster throughout the summer of 2011, but that’s exactly what they did. Hometown fans still can’t get over the loss of our top scorers, but what they’ll soon realize is what we’ve lost in points will be made up by the goals against and pristine defensive effort. Is Bryzgalov our savior? I dunno. But he’s sure as shit better than the goalie carousel back in May. 



 #7 Marion Gaborik and Brad Richards. Get used to hearing those names together because for the next handful of winter months, this pairing will put up more highlight reels than Michael Vick. Henrik Lundqvist will still be the goalie every team wants after finishing a few or more tilts with 40+ saves and mind-boggling stats. But what’s going to be their downfall? There’s too much firepower in the East and not enough Blue Shirted defensive threat to eliminate it. 

 #8



Here’s where it gets ridiculously and disgustingly competitive. I realize this is a predictions article and I should just choose one from the others, but this is exactly what I was talking about when I mentioned how the East may be looking at a similar battle the Western Conference hosted last year for its lower seeds.

Carolina’s going to look to redeem themselves after missing out on a Playoff berth by two lousy points a season ago. Two little points could spell a heavy chip on one’s shoulder to carry all summer long.

 

But what about Montreal? They seemed as if they were going to skate through the QuarterFinals with ease until Boston made its first of three Game 7 series comebacks. To achieve the East’s 8th spot, the Habs are going to need to utilize their speed perfectly, play bigger than they are, and ask Carey Price to have great performances between the pipes.  A trifecta not easily attainable. Not in this Conference. Not this year.


And Toronto? Hey, I enjoy poking fun at their post-season drought as much as the next hockey fan, but I’m just waiting for them to break through that ceiling like every team inevitably does. Chris Burke’s added to the blue line which helps take the load off of Deion Phaneuf, and goaltender James Reimer has the possibility of chalking up respectable numbers in net. I’m not counting on the Maple Leafs to contend for the Big Dance, I’m just saying I wouldn’t be surprised if the city of Toronto let out a combined cheer come May 2012. 



 #11 You have Kovalchuk. Fantastic. You also have the aging Martin Brodeur in net whose birthday cake has no more room for candles. He was one of the best goaltenders this league’s ever seen back when CD’s were big, “Mmm Bop” topped the music charts, and the Devils were virtually the only team using the trap defense. Last year’s abysmal start to their season wasn’t a freakish one-time thing. Their lack of depth up front will solidify their 11th spot. 

 #12 Well it aint the basement, Mr. Snow, which is what every Isles fan has come to getting used to the last 20 or so years. The young talent is there, and I see this team being a legitimate contender someday, but it won’t happen this league year. Expect the Gorten’s Fishermen to turn heads midway through the schedule as they compete with Carolina, Montreal and Toronto for the 8 seed, but ultimately lose focus due to the lack of experience from their younger group of guns.  

 #13 The Jets are back in town! Get the streamers and fireworks ready! Get set to hear the boom from the attendance at the home opener! Get ready to…….watch that flame of excitement die out very soon.


I’m happy for the city of Winnipeg that they got their Jets back. And I’m absolutely ecstatic that Atlanta’s lost another hockey club. But Ladd, Byfuglien and company are going to have to wait through the rebuilding years until this squad tastes a Playoff berth. 



 #14 Upshall, Versteeg, Weiss, Booth and………….yea. I’ve seen more depth in a puddle of oil under a New York City cab. To include Kris Versteeg in that “depth” list is like trying to pick out the least ugliest wall flower to ask to dance. Not to mention now that Vokoun’s gone, you’re looking at Scott Clemmensen and Jose Theodore being your answers in net. Enjoy the tan lines, gentlemen. 

 #15 They knew it. We knew it. Everyone knew it. After Ottawa’s firesale prior to the trade deadline last year, it was made very clear that this Senators franchise is looking to flip its image and start fresh. To say they’re in a rebuilding stage is an understatement. Their purpose on the ice this season is strictly to keep this league’s team count at 30.  

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