Devils, Capitals, Penguins & the rest?
Through the first two months of the season, the Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins and New Jersey Devils have established themselves as the class of the Eastern Conference.
The high-octane Capitals have a conference leading 44 points and are the highest scoring team in the NHL with 111 goals.
Despite a number of injuries, the defending Stanley Cup champions have picked up right where they left off and have jumped out to a 20-10-1 record through 31 games.
The Capitals and Penguins are right where many expected them to be but the New Jersey Devils?
In just 28 games, the Devils are 20-7-1 tied for first in the Atlantic Division. In the first year of his second stint in New Jersey, head coach Jacques Lemaire has the Devils playing dominant hockey.
Like the Penguins, the Devils have been hit with a number of injuries but have been able to overcome any adversity this season, including early struggles from goaltender Martin Brodeur.
Brodeur has rebounded and is back to being one of the games top goaltenders.
In Lemarie’s second stint in New Jersey he no longer has a group of dominating defense. On paper this is a average group, but the Devils are statistically the top defensive team in the NHL (61 GA).
The Devils are even getting it done without their top defenseman Paul Martin, who has been sidelined since October 24th with a broken forearm.
Still not at full strength, the Devils haven’t peaked yet and this could be the year that the Devils make a big splash at the trade deadline. They are expected to be active in trying to land a top line forward and will explore adding a veteran defenseman. The Devils have a strong farm system to be active this winter.
As the 40 game mark is nearing, the Capitals top priority heading into the second half of the season will be upgrading their penalty kill.
The Capitals stood pat last year at the trade deadline and adding a veteran defenseman or two will be on the wishlist of General Manager George McPhee.
For the Penguins, upgrading their winger situation is still on the mind of GM Ray Shero but Shero is expected to look internally first with discussions already beginning about promoting prospect Luca Caputi after the new year.
On the cusp of elite status
While the Capitals, Penguins and Devils are the class of the Eastern Conference at this point, nobody is sleeping on the Boston Bruins.
The conference points leader in 2008-2009, Boston got off to a slow start but are starting to find their game.
The Bruins (35 pts) are 7-2-1 in their last 10 games. The issue for the Bruins is that they still haven’t replaced Phil Kessel. That’s a major issue moving forward and will likely be addressed as the trade deadline gets closer. The Bruins have a number of draft picks to move for immediate help.
The Bruins are among the lowest scoring teams in the NHL.
The jury is still out
*The Philadelphia Flyers (27 pts) have been a major disappointment, currently sitting 13th in the Eastern Conference. The Flyers made a coaching change on Friday but all the Flyers did was go out and lose 8-2 to the Washington Capitals Saturday night in Peter Laviolette’s debut.
The Flyers are a talented group and it’s way too early to write them off. Laviolette has his work cut out for him as there’s been some locker room issues in recent weeks.
The Flyers have the ability to get back into the mix as a contender in the Eastern Conference if they can put it together.
*The Buffalo Sabres (34 pts) will be in the mix all season as along as Ryan Miller stays healthy. The issue for the Sabres though is the lack of scoring. That’s going to haunt them later in the season. They appear to be better than a borderline playoff team but don’t have the look of a true contender.
*A team that has the look of being a tough out in the second half of the season is the Ottawa Senators (32 pts). The Senators have the ability to push Boston for a division crown. The key for them will be Jason Spezza and Alexei Kovalev picking up their games.
Border line teams with a lot to prove
*The New York Rangers (29 pts) got off a hot start but have fallen back to the pack in the past month. The Rangers are 4-6 in their last 10 games and their a flawed team on defense and offense. The Rangers lack a No. 1 type of defenseman and have no secondary scoring.
The Rangers are among the most active teams in trade talks looking for a top-6 forward to play with star winger Marian Gaborik. Pavel Demitra is a target.
Another concern for the Rangers is Henrik Lundqvist being overworked.
*The Montreal Canadiens (30 pts) made a number of off-season moves but are only an average team. The return of top defenseman Andrei Markov will provide a much needed boost but they don’t have a No. 1 goaltender. They have two No. 2’s.
*The Atlanta Thrashers (33pts) are one of the most exciting teams in the Eastern Conference. Why they may be a true playoff contender is because of their special teams.
December is a key month in the season for a consistent non-playoff team like Atlanta. This is usually where a franchise that consistently loses begins to go downward.
How this team performs in the second half may depend on the contract distraction of Ilya Kovalchuk.
*It’s way too early to get a good read on Tampa Bay (30 pts), New York Islanders (29 pts) and the Florida Panthers (28 pts). It’s highly unlikely that New York will be able to stay in the mix and the Panthers just haven’t found a way to win close games.
Tampa Bay needs Vincent Lecavalier to play like a franchise center but many scouts around the league indicate Lecavalier hasn’t been the same player in nearly two years. Many scouts have doubts that he will ever regain his old form.
The Lightning would love to move Lecavalier and his salary.
*A team to keep an eye on over the next 4-to-6 weeks is the Toronto Maple Leafs (25 pts). The Leafs are 6-2-2 in their last 10 games and are playing solid hockey of late.
For them to become 7th or 8th seed in the East, the Maple Leafs have to find a way to fix their penalty kill.
*Finally, the Carolina Hurricanes are having a nightmare season and are 1-13 on the road. Currently 15th in the Eastern Conference with 19 pts, the Canes still have some hope.
They started to go on a run last year in December and the bottom 6-8 teams in the Eastern Conference are very mediocre.
With a healthy Cam Ward, Carolina may be able to get back into the mix. They’re only 11 points out of the 8th seed. Still a lot of hockey to be played.