By Ricky L.
As we roll into the dog days of both the summer and the off season, hockey fans are starved for any news pertaining to the sport. This leads to some of the more "creative" minds (COUGH, Eklund, COUGH) stirring up ridiculous and asenine rumors that no intelligent fan would give credence to. Fortunately, I've busted out the old crystal ball, and is going to take a look into the future to reveal how the 2011-12 NHL season standings will turn out. Just remember- these predictions are totally guaranteed to happen, and there is no way they will be wrong. It's E5.
1: Washington Capitals- The Caps lost supplementary pieces to free agency in Jason Arnott and Marco Sturm, but locked up core forward Brooks Laich to a long term deal, which provides them with a power forward they would have sorely missed if he signed elsewhere. Washington also vastly improved their goaltending position by signing Tomas Vokoun (a very underrated goalie who puts up good numbers on terrible teams every year) to a very manageable contract. This puts him in a position to mentor Michal Neuvirth and Braden Holtby, making the Caps' future in net very bright.
2: Boston Bruins- The Bruins, much like your beloved Rangers, rarely win on skill alone. The secret to the B's success starts from the net out, namely with Tim Thomas. Thomas will likely be a great contributor to any of the Bruins' feats this upcoming season, but it will be quite difficult to reproduce or surpass his NHL record .938 Save % or 2.00 GAA that he achieved this year. Luckily, Boston has Tuukka Rask , who was their starter in '09-10, and he can eat up at least 35 games this year. Look for Tyler Seguin to be a regular in the lineup, newcomer Benoit Pouliot to be a solid contributor, and prospect Jordan Caron to make the team out of camp.
3: Pittsburgh Penguins- The Pens, like it or not, will take the Atlantic Division title next year. With the shakeup in Philly, they are the kings of PA, and have the skill no other Atlantic Division team has right now. The Pens did not drastically change this off season, so it would appear that the main goal is having Sidney Crosby healthy by training camp. As much as he whines and is Gary Bettman's BFF, he is without a doubt the best player in the NHL, and has a work ethic to match. He and (relatively) new arrival James Neal have not played together yet, so the hope might be that he and Crosby mesh as line mates.
4: Tampa Bay Lightning: The Lightning are out to prove that 2010-11 was no fluke, and logic would indicate that it was not. Steve Yzerman has done a fantastic job so far, as he finally found a goalie in Dwayne Roloson and improved the defense by trading for and signing Eric Brewer. The big story here is Steven Stamkos. The 21 year old has emerged as one of the game's top talents, scoring 98 goals in the last two years and winning a Rocket Richard Trophy along the way. If he and wingman Marty St. Louis can keep putting up points, the Bolts could be a dark horse to come out of the East in the playoffs.
5. Philadelphia Flyers: The Flyers have been the talk of the league since their overhauling just before this year's draft. By trading away Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, Paul Holmgren changed the face of his team by getting rid of his captain and resident 46 goal scorer. In return, they received Brayden Schenn (who was rated the #1 prospect in the NHL by the Hockey News), Jake Voracek, Wayne Simmonds, Sean Couturier, and a second round pick in this year's draft. That is a massive change, and while Filthadephia may fall in the standings this year, they will be stacked for years to come. The majority of the pressure this season, however, will fall squarely on the shoulders of Russian goalkeeper Ilya Bryzgalov, the franchise's latest in a long line of "franchise" goalies. Bryz choked in the playoffs with Phoenix this year, where about 2,000 people show up at a game, and the fans are casual at best. He better not choke again in Philly, or he will be asking a lot of fans "Why you heff to be mad?"
6: New York Rangers: The Adam Proteau inside me is telling me that the Rangers once again went for the quick fix via free agency by signing Brad Richards. But this is not the case. Richards is a very good center (not ELITE, mind you. He is no Pavel Datsyuk) who will make the players around him better. He does not turn the Rangers into champions, but he provides a much needed service as a first line center to play with Marian Gaborik, who looks to redeem himself after last season's debacle. At least for the first period of Opening Day, at which point John Tortorella will change the lines. Brandon Dubinsky, Ryan Callahan, and Artem Anisimov should all make a 10 point jump on the stats sheet, and Derek Stepan should get a shot at playing on the top line, provided he does not fall victim to the dreaded Sophomore Slump. The Rangers have got to get to the second round at least, but a trip to the Conference Finals is not out of the question for this team.
7: New Jersey Devils- Let me just say now that spots 7-10 are a little hazy in my crystal ball, so these spots could very well be interchangeable. These four spots will be separated by five or less points, and will be sorted out in a mad dash for points at the very end of the season. As far as the Devils go, they are an interesting case. Last season, this team showed both how horrifically atrocious and utterly dominant they could be. This team is certainly not as bad as they were in the first half of the year. That malaise can be attributed to the injury of Zach Parise, the failure of head coach John MacLean, the sub par play of $100 million man Ilya Kovalchuk, or any combination of the three. That said, there is no way that the Devs could be as dominant as they were towards the end of the season. They will be a mix of the two, and it will translate into a playoff spot. This is a team in transition, leaving the old championship days of Martin Brodeur and Patrik Elias, and trying to win new ones with the likes of Parise and Kovalchuk. Brodeur is getting older, and while he is still a good goalie, he is a shadow of his former self and will need to give 25-30 games to Johan Hedberg if New Jersey has any hope of making the playoffs.
8: Buffalo Sabres- Like the Canadiens, the Sabres have a great goalie, but not a whole lot else. Ryan Miller is the most talented goalie in the game, but after a down year last season, he needs to bounce back and play as well as we all know he can. Buffalo made a few big changes through free agency, thanks to the deep pockets of new owner Terry Pegula. No matter how incredibly long Christian Ehrhoff was signed for or how grossly overpaid Ville Leino is, the fact remains that they both improve the skill level of the team. The departure of frequent headache Tim Connolly might be addition by subtraction, as his history with injuries and inconsistency has gone across the border to Toronto, to the relief/joy of most Sabre fans. Derek Roy and Thomas Vanek hope to step in and contribute, giving the Sabres some extra skill up front and reclaiming their spots as the squad's true stars.