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Eastern Conference Preview: Penguins Over-hyped?

marc-andre-fleury-2222-388x298EASTERN CONFERENCE PREVIEW

With a 48 game schedule, less than a week of training camp and no preseason games, the 2013 season is unpredictable as it gets. We project 11 teams to have legitimate shots at making the playoffs but only 8 can make it.

1. New York Rangers

Key Additions: Rick Nash, Taylor Pyatt, Arron Asham, Jeff Halpren
Outlook: It’s Stanley Cup or bust for the New York Rangers. The addition of Rick Nash gives them that key game breaker and two premier scoring lines with the Rangers now being able to put Marian Gaborik on the second line with Derek Stepan and Ryan Callahan. This is the most balanced team in hockey top to bottom and all eyes are going to be on them with expectations sky high.
Under the Radar: New York has the potential to boast one of the more versatile third lines in hockey with Chris Kreider who provides skill, dynamic ability, a defensive minded big center in Brian Boyle and Taylor Pyatt on the right side. The emergence of Kreider and addition of Pyatt upgrades the Rangers third line over last year.
Biggest Need – No. 5/6 Defenseman: The Rangers have one of the best groups of top-4 defensemen in the National Hockey League but this team needs to address their defensive depth come playoff time. The third pairing can be exposed and was against Devils last year in playoffs
Prospect to Watch: JT Miller – Miller shined in the World Junior Championships and could emerge as a late callup this season and make an impact similar to Chris Kreider last season.
BURNING QUESTIONS
1. Rich Nash on Broadway. Does he re-emerge as one of the premier players in the game
2. Does Chris Kreider pick up where he left off
3. Improved Power Play – Rangers ranked 23rd in the NHL last season on the man-advantage
DEPTH CHART
Forwards
Rick Nash – Brad Richards – Carl Hagelin
Marian Gaborik – Derek Stepan – Ryan Callahan
Chris Kreider – Brian Boyle – Taylor Pyatt
Mike Rupp – Jeff Halpren – Arron Asham
DEFENSEMEN
Ryan McDonaugh – Dan Girardi
Marc Staal – Michael Del Zotto
Stu Bickel – Anton Stralman
Michael Sauer – Steve Eminger
Goaltenders
1. Henrik Lundqvist
2. Martin Biron

2. Boston Bruins

Key Additions: Dougie Hamilton, Chris Bourque
Outlook: Just a year removed from winning the Stanley Cup in 2010-2011, the Bruins remain built for the playoffs and go into the season as a strong favorite in the Eastern Conference. The Bruins beat up on the Northeast last season and that should continue again this year. Offensively this team has a great mix of skill, grit and toughness in their top-6, good depth overall, and a healthy Nathan Horton will go a long way towards a long playoff run for the Bruins.
On the blueline, potential top-4 defenseman Dougie Hamilton, one of the NHL’s top prospects, joins an already strong blueline. In goal all eyes will be on Tuukka Rask taking over the No. 1 role for Tim Thomas who is sitting out the season. Rask has proven in the past he can handle a starters load and losing Thomas is a plus inside the locker room for the Bruins as the star goaltender became a distraction.
Under the Radar: Replacing Benoit Pouliot on the third line with Chris Kelly and Rich Peverley. Pouliot who was traded to Tampa Bay for Michel Ouellet and a 5th round pick, had 16 goals and 32 points, including 5 game winning goals for the Bruins last season. The Bruins are counting on Chris Bourque to fill that role who has looked great in camp but has yet to establish himself as an NHL regular.
Biggest Need: Backup goaltender – The Bruins are inexperienced behind Tuukka Rask and might have to address the backup position by the trade deadline.
Prospect to Watch: Dougie Hamilton – Regarded this summer by scouts as the best defenseman outside of the NHL, the Bruins first round pick will be playing a big role on the blueline and could give the Bruins a lethal power play with Chara and Hamilton at the point.
BURNING QUESTIONS
1. Does Rask emerge into an elite goaltender
2. Can Nathan Horton stay healthy
3. Will Hamilton live up to expectations providing a significant boost to the power play
DEPTH CHART
Forwards
Brad Marchand – Patrice Bergeron – Tyler Seguin
Milan Lucic – David Krejci – Nathan Horton
Chris Bourque – Chris Kelly – Rich Peverley
Daniel Paille – Gregory Campbell – Shawn Thornton
Jay Pandolfo – Jordan Caron (injured) – Lane MacDermid
Defensemen
Zdeno Chara – Johnny Boychuk
Dennis Seidenberg – Dougie Hamilton
Andrew Ference – Adam McQuaid
David Warsofsky
Goaltenders
Tuukka Rask
Anton Khudobin

3. Washington Capitals

Key Additions: Mike Ribeiro, Joey Crabb
Outlook: With the distractions gone such as Alexander Semin, could the Capitals emerge as a sleeper in the East? The potential is there and this team needs a healthy Mike Green, in addition to Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Ovechkin rebounding from subpar seasons. Ovechkin who averaged 53.8 goals in his first five seasons, has seen a sudden drop the last two seasons, averaging just 35 goals over his last two years. The addition of Mike Ribeiro gives them a playmaking centerman on the second line behind Backstrom and the Capitals still have a solid group upfront with potential to be very good.
A key player is going to Marcus Johansson who will open the season with Ovechkin and Backstrom. The 22 year old is a great talent who had 46 points in 80 games last season. The key though for the Capitals is going to be goaltender Braden Holtby. If he is truly the answer in goal like he showed in the playoffs and if the Capitals open up the offense under new coach Adam Oates and the defensive discipline from last season carries over from Dale Hunter, then the Capitals could become a sleeper Cup Contender in the East. A lot of “if’s” but the potential is there.
Under the Radar: 23 year old defenseman John Carlson. After being a +32 in his first two NHL seasons, Carlson, was a minus-15 last season. However, he’s one of hockey’s best young defenseman that few talk about and is a key cog on the blueline who gives the Capitals big minutes and is a strong shot blocker with 153 blocked shots in 2011-2012.
Biggest Need: Like a lot of hockey teams, the Capitals lack a big rugged defenseman they can place in their top-4.
Prospect to Watch: Tom Wilson – Wilson got a look in training camp but was sent back to juniors on Thursday. He should earn a regular role next season and he’s among an excellent group of forwards prospects the Capitals have in Evgeny Kuznetsov and Filip Forsberg
BURNING QUESTIONS
1. Was Braden Holtby a flash in the pan or is he the real deal
2. Is Alex Ovechkin primed to return as one of the NHL’s top-5 players
3. Can Mike Green become an offensive force again
DEPTH CHART
Forwards
Marcus Johansson – Nicklas Backstrom – Alex Ovechkin
Brooks Laich – Mike Ribeiro – Troy Brouwer
Jason Chimera – Jay Beagle – Joel Ward
Matt Hendricks – Mathieu Perreault – Joey Crabb
Wojtek Wolski
Defensemen
Tom Poti – Mike Green
Karl Alzner – John Carlson
Roman Hamrlik – Jeff Schultz
John Erskine
Goaltenders
Braden Holtby
Michal Neuvirth

4. Philadelphia Flyers

Key Additions: Luke Schenn, Ruslan Fedotenko, Bruno Gervais
Outlook: The Flyers had a very good season in 2011-2012 and GM Paul Holmgren has built this team offensively around a young core led by one of hockey’s best players in the game in Claude Giroux. Giroux is surrounded by a young core of players like him who are only getting better in Sean Couturier, Brayden Schenn and Wayne Simmonds. This is a team where all four lines can put the puck in the net and they come at you offensively.
On the blueline, Philadelphia lost out on Shea Weber and lack that elite No. 1 defenseman but still have a solid group and a good mix. Concerns include whether age catches up to Kimmo Timonen and whether Andrej Meszaros can stay healthy. The biggest question is Luke Schenn. Does he finally reach his potential after getting out of Toronto? The Flyers might have a good of a chance to come out of the East as any other team but unlike top contenders like the New York Rangers, the biggest question mark is in goal with Ilya Bryzgalov. The Flyers just don’t have a clue what they’re going to get from him.
Under the Radar: Defenseman Nicklas Grossman brings size and toughness to the table and is the perfect kind of defenseman you want come playoff time. Grossman had 164 hits and 152 blocked shots last season.
Biggest Need: Goaltending – No one knows what the Flyers are going to get out of Bryzgalov. The problem wasn’t just his play last season but that he became a distraction. If he struggles early, don’t be surprised to see Paul Holmgren make a serious play for Roberto Luongo.
Prospect to Watch: Scott Laughton the Flyers 2012 first round pick will open the season with Philadelphia and center Wayne Simmonds and Matt Read. Last year Sean Couturier, then 18, earned a full-time roster spot with the Flyers and Laughton could do the same.
BURNING QUESTIONS
1. Does Byryzgalov give them enough to remain a top contender in the East
2. Who wins the right wing spot on Claude Giroux’s line
3. Does Luke Schenn breakout as a legitimate top-4 defenseman
DEPTH CHART
Forwards
Scott Hartnell – Claude Giroux – Brayden Schenn
Jakub Voracek – Danny Briere (Injured) – Wayne Simmonds
Matt Talbot – Sean Couturier – Ruslan Fedotenko
Eric Wellwood – Scott Laughton – Matt Read
Zac Rinaldo
Defensemen
Kimmo Timonen – Luke Schenn
Andrej Meszaros – Braydon Coburn
Nicklas Grossman – Bruno Gervais
Kurtis Foster
Goaltenders
Ilya Bryzgalov
Michael Leighton

5. Buffalo Sabres

Key Additions: Steve Ott, John Scott
Outlook: The Sabres are our breakout/surprise team in 2013, claiming the No. 5 spot in the Eastern Conference. This group disappointed last season, just missing the playoffs with a 39-32-11 finish, good for 9th in the conference and the key to this season will be whether Ryan Miller can get back to his level of play in 2009-2010 when he boasted a 2.22 Goals Against Average and .929 save percentage. His numbers the past two seasons have dipped to a 2.59 GAA in 10-11 and 2.55 GAA in 11-12. If Miller doesn’t regain his dominance of seasons past, the Sabres have a very good backup in 24 year old Jhonas Enroth they can look to.
The Sabres were a middle of the pack team last season ranking 17th in goals for and 18th in goals against. They should be improved in both areas and have a lot of young talent upfront in Marcus Foligno, Cody Hodgson, Nathan Gerbe, Luke Adam, and now one hockey’s best prospects in Mikhail Grigorenko who fell into the Sabres lap with the No. 12 overall selection in the 2012 draft.
With young talent surrounding the likes of Tomas Vanek, Tyler Ennis, Drew Stafford and Jason Pominville, the Sabres added veteran Steve Ott to make them a tougher team to play against. On the blueline, Buffalo underachieved last season but have a top-4 of Christian Ehrhoff, Tyler Myers, Andrej Sekera and Robyn Regehr that should be better this season.
Under the Radar: Jordan Leopold is a defenseman you can plug into your No. 2 or No. 3 pairing and he gives you production. Leopold had 10 goals and 24 points and a plus-4 rating in 2011-2012. Ranked 3rd on the team with 22:22 of ice time per game and led the Sabres with 128 blocked shots.
Biggest Need: Size down the middle.
Prospect to Watch: 2012 first round pick Mikhail Grigorenko will open the season with the team and is a top talent with star potential.
BURNING QUESTIONS
1. Will Ville Leino give the Sabres anything on the third line
2. Will all of the young talent mesh
3. Does Ryan Miller get back to his 2009-2010 form
DEPTH CHART
FORWARDS
Thomas Vanek – Tyler Ennis – Jason Pominville
Marcus Foligno – Cody Hodgson – Drew Stafford
Ville Leino – Mikhail Griorenko – Steve Ott
Cody McCormick (injured) – Luke Adam – Patrick Kaleta
John Scott – Nathan Gerbe (injured)
Defensemen
Christian Ehroff – Tyler Myers
Jordan Leopold – Robyn Regehr
Andrej Sekera – Andrew Sulzer
Mike Weber
GOALTENDERS
Ryan Miller
Jhonas Enroth

6. Pittsburgh Penguins

Key Additions: Brandon Sutter, Tomas Vokoun, Tanner Glass
Outlook: With a healthy Sidney Crosby, the Penguins are a hot pick to dominate the Eastern Conference and reach the Stanley Cup finals for the third time in six years. After Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, James Neal gives the Penguins another premier goal scorer that has to be accounted for at all times and despite the loss of Jordan Staal, Penguins remain the toughest team to match up against down the middle in the East.
The addition of Brandon Sutter gives them a perfect compliment on the third line to Crosby and Malkin. While he’s no Jordan Staal, Sutter upgrades the Penguins in the faceoff circle being a right handed shot and Penguins have the makings of one of the best third lines in hockey as Matt Cooke, Sutter and Tyler Kennedy are showing great chemistry together. They can chip in offensively, bring grit to the table and speed.
While the Penguins are going to be a force offensively, are pundits over-hyping the Penguins? To a point they are. This is a flawed team defensively that enters this season with a lot of question marks and concerns. They don’t play their own end very well and on paper the Penguins got worse on the blueline in the off-season, trading Zbynek Michalek who wasn’t a great fit in Dan Bylsma’s system but logged big minutes and is one of hockey’s best shot blockers, averaging 2.32 shot blocks per game last season. The Penguins have a lot of 5,6, and 7’s on their blueline but the major question marks are in the top-4:
Does a Simon Despres step up into a top pairing role with Kris Letang? And if Despres can’t step up, is there another ideal option on the roster? Can Paul Martin and Brooks Orpik develop into a shutdown pair? There are a lot of unknowns on the backend with this hockey club and the Penguins success this season is going to be dictated by whether there is improvement defensively.
There are too many good offensive teams in the East that can match Pittsburgh’s firepower, which is being overlooked when evaluating this team. This team is good enough defensively to get a top-6 seed in the East but are they good enough to go deep in the playoffs?
Then there’s the goaltending situation where Marc Andre Fleury has been plagued by subpar play in the post-season for three straight years. Tomas Vokoun is good insurance were Fleury to falter again in the post-season.
Under the Radar: Expectations are on the rise for Brandon Sutter who’s career had flown somewhat under the radar in Carolina. He’s everything the Penguins want in a third line center and he’s made a great impression on the team.
Biggest Need: A Top-4 Defenseman who can make life tough on teams come playoff time. Honorable mention – second line winger
Prospect to Watch: Beau Bennett has some in the organization believing he’s NHL ready now and after flashing some top-6 ability in camp, Bennett has put himself in position for a possible full time role on Evgeni Malkin or Sidney Crosby’s line by the spring.
BURNING QUESTIONS
1. Is Simon Despres ready for a top-2 pairing role
2. Who emerges as a fit on Evgeni Malkin’s left wing
3.Do the Penguins tighten up defensively (system wise)
DEPTH CHART
Forwards
Chris Kunitz – Sidney Crosby – Pascal Dupuis
Eric Tangradi – Evgeni Malkin – James Neal
Matt Cooke – Brandon Sutter – Tyler Kennedy
Tanner Glass – Joe Vitale – Craig Adams
Dustin Jeffrey
Defensemen
Matt Niskanen – Kris Letang
Brooks Orpik – Paul Martin
Simon Despres – Deryk Engelland
Ben Lovejoy – Robert Bortuzzo
Goaltenders
Marc Andre Fleury
Tomas Vokoun

7. Carolina Hurricanes

Key Additions: Jordan Staal, Alex Semin, Joe Corvo
Outlook: With the addition of Jordan Staal and Cam Ward still in the prime of his career, there is a ton of buzz surrounding the Canes as a breakout team in the Eastern Conference and expect them to return to the playoffs.
The addition of Staal gives Carolina a group of top-9 forwards that can rival others in the East when healthy and they are going to be a tough team to match up with down the middle with the Staal brothers. The wildcard is Alexander Semin and the unknown of what they will get out of him and losing Tuomo Ruutu to injury for at least two to three months will be a blow, but this is still a group that will be dangerous.
The Canes ranked 25th in goals against and had the 23rd ranked penalty kill last season. Staal will improve the PK and defensively there is a lot of potential with rising star Justin Faulk and prospect Bobby Sanguinetti joining the top-6 in full-time roles.
Under the Radar: 24 year old Jiri Tlusty had 17 goals and 36 points last season and plays an effective third line role where he can get you some points, play the PK and power play.
Biggest Need: The biggest need is some insurance on the blueline if Justin Faulk doesn’t step up defensively and Bobby Sanguinetti has some growing pains.
Prospect to Watch: Zach Boychuk, the Hurricanes No. 1 pick in 2008 draft will get a long look with Eric Staal on the top line. Boychuk has great speed and is gifted but will also play physical despite being just 5-foot-10 and not having a big frame. Potential breakout player.
BURNING QUESTIONS
1. How much will the loss of Tuomo Ruutu impact them
2. How does Jordan Staal handle a top-center role
2. Will young guys Faulk, Sanguinetti be good enough in their own end
DEPTH CHART
Forwards
Zach Boychuk – Eric Staal – Alexander Semin
Zac Dalpe – Jordan Staal – Jeff Skinner
Jiri Tlusty – Jussi Jokinen – Chad Larose
Kevin Westgarth – Tim Brent – Pat Dwyer
Drayson Bowman
Defensemen
Tim Gleason – Joe Corvo
Joni Pitkanen – Justin Faulk
Jay Harrison – Bobby Sanguinetti
Jamie McBain
Goaltenders
Cam Ward
Justin Peters

8. Tampa Bay Lightning

Key Additions: Matt Carle, Benoit Pouliot, Sami Salo, Anders Lindback
Outlook: The Tampa Bay Lightning can score with the best of them and a return to the playoffs will depend on an improved blueline and the play of newly acquired goaltender Anders Lindback. Lindback who is one of the NHL top young goaltenders, was stuck behind Pekka Rinne in Nashville. He’s been brought into Tampa Bay to be their No. 1 goaltender and we’re going to find out if he’s ready for a No. 1 role. The positive for the Lightning is that they have a dependable backup in Mathieu Garon.
GM Steve Yzerman upgraded the blueline with the addition of Matt Carle and Sami Salo. Carle is an excellent addition and one of the NHL’s most underrated defenseman. The Lightning look to be much improved defensively and have some more fire power upfront with the addition of Benoit Pouliot on the third line, and AHL goal scorer Cory Conacher.
Under the Radar: 23 year old Cory Conacher has been one of the best players in the American Hockey League over the last two years and a premier goal scorer, leading the AHL in 2011-2012 with 39 goals and was second in the league in points with 80 points. Conacher had 16 goals for the Syracuse Crunch this season and will open the year in Tampa Bay on the second line with Vincent Lecavalier and Teddy Purcell.
Biggest Need: Depth Defenseman – The Lightning are much improved in the top-4 with Eric Brewer, Victor Hedman, Matt Carle, Sami Salo but have question marks with their depth. Honorable mention to a shutdown third line centerman.
Prospect to Watch: 2010 first round pick Brett Connolly spent the entire year in Tampa Bay last season but was not invited to camp. He had 15 points in 68 games last season with the Lightning and didn’t score a goal in his final 50 games. The Lightning are looking for this to motivate him and he could become a late season callup at somepoint. Connolly is a good offensive talent.
BURNING QUESTIONS
1. Does Anders Lindback answer the bell as a No. 1 goaltender
2. Will the additions of Carle, Salo reap benefits on the backend
3. Can Vinny Lecavalier give them more than he did last season
DEPTH CHART
FORWARDS
Ryan Malone – Steven Stamkos – Marty St. Louis
Cory Conacher – Vincent Lecavalier – Teddy Purcell
Benoit Pouliot – Tom Pyatt – Pierre-Cedric Labrie
Nate Thompson – Adam Hall – BJ Crombeen
Dana Tyrell
DEFENSEMEN
Eric Brewer – Victor Hedman
Matt Carle – Sami Salo
Brian Lee – Marc-Andre Bergeron
Brendan Mikkelson – Keith Aulie
GOALTENDERS
Anders Lindback
Mathieu Garon

Outside Looking In

9. Florida Panthers – Panthers going from No. 3 seed to No. 9? Florida has the look of a team that will take a slight step back. The major question mark is goal scoring where they scored just 197 goals and losing Jason Garrison on blueline will hurt. They don’t have a difference maker between the pipes but that could change if the Panthers decide to go after Roberto Luongo. However, this team did take the Devils to seven games last season. Veteran Alexei Kovalev will be looked at to provide some needed offensive punch and rookie Jonathan Huberdeau could become a calder trophy candidate.
10. New Jersey Devils – After losing Zach Parise and Marty Brodeur a year older, the 2011-2012 Eastern Conference champions are an extremely hard team to predict. They should still compete for a bottom playoff spot and play a good all around game, but will they be able to put the puck in the net enough? I see them just missing the playoffs by a few points.
11. Ottawa Senators – The Senators were the surprise team in the NHL last season, claiming the No. 8 seed and took the New York Rangers to seven games. They were excellent on the road and an extremely tough team to play against. They lost some of that toughness in the off-season, losing Zenon Konopka and Matt Carkner. They will be in the playoff hunt but might be a struggle to maintain the level they played at last season.
12. Montreal Canadiens – On paper this is not a playoff team but don’t be surprised if Michel Therrien gets the most out of this group and they become a very tough out this season.
13. Winnipeg Jets – A team with some good talent but are thin on the blueline which will be their downfall, keeping them from being a serious challenger for a playoff spot.
14. Toronto Maple Leafs – If the Leafs were to acquire Luongo, they could be a challenger for a playoff spot but this group has the look of a fire sale come late March from new GM Dave Nonis.
15. New York Islanders – The young talent is there upfront and the Islanders have a franchise player in John Tavares to build around but this team has major issues on the blueline and have to compete in the best division in the Eastern Conference.

PLAYOFFS PREDICTIONS

EASTERN CONFERENCE
ROUND 1
1. New York Rangers vs 8. Tampa Bay Lightning
Rangers win series, 4-1
2. Boston Bruins vs 7. Carolina Hurricanes
Hurricanes win series, 4-3
3. Washington Capitals vs 6. Pittsburgh Penguins
Penguins win series, 4-2
4. Philadelphia Flyers vs 5. Buffalo Sabres
Flyers win series, 4-3
ROUND 2
1. New York Rangers vs 7. Carolina Hurricanes
Rangers win series, 4-3
4. Philadelphia Flyers vs 6. Pittsburgh Penguins
Flyers win series, 4-2
EASTERN CONFERENCE FINALS
1. New York Rangers vs 4. Philadelphia Flyers
Rangers win series, 4-2
WESTERN CONFERENCE
1. St. Louis Blues vs 8. Edmonton Oilers
Blues win series, 4-1
2. Vancouver Canucks vs 7. Phoenix Coyotes
Canucks win series, 4-2
3. Los Angeles Kings vs 6. Detroit Red Wings
Kings win series, 4-1
4. Chicago Blackhawks vs 5. Minnesota Wild
Blackhawks win series, 4-1
ROUND 2
1. St. Louis Blues vs 4. Chicago Blackhawks
Blackhawks win series, 4-2
2. Vancouver Canucks vs 3. Los Angeles Kings
Canucks win series, 4-3
WESTERN CONFERENCE FINALS
2. Vancouver Canucks vs 4. Chicago Blackhawks
Canucks win series, 4-2
STANLEY CUP
1. New York Rangers vs 2. Vancouver Canucks
Rangers win series, 4-3

About The Author

William DePaoli

TIOPS Insider

William DePaoli is the President/Founder of Inside Pittsburgh Sports LLC and can be reached at wdepaoli@insidepittsburghsports.com

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