The 2011-12 NHL Season is upon us as the Boston Bruins raise their 2011 Stanley Cup Championship banner at the Garden tonight. Here in Raleigh, the Carolina Hurricanes will open their season Friday at 7pm ET when they faceoff against division rivals Tampa Bay Lightning.
The #1 Question for every Canes fan right now is, without a doubt, "Will we make the playoffs?"
Further to that question, did Jim Rutherford accomplish enough in the off-season? Is this group of 23 hockey players, plus a few call-ups in Charlotte, in a position to end on the right side of "The Line" that separates the playoff-bound from another long summer?
We can (and will) debate the strengths and weaknesses of the home team all we like, but there are fourteen other clubs who will have a say in what the Hurricanes will be doing come April.
So today, Canes Country writers have put together our picks and given you a preview of how we see the teams that make up the NHL's Eastern Conference falling into place over the next 6 months.
First the numerical rankings from Lee Phillips, Bob Wage, Cory Lavalette, yours truly, Brian LeBlanc and Jamie Kellner all lined up for comparison. The first and final columns reflect the average of the six by which we come up with our composite Canes Country Easter Conference rankings.
Canes Country's Eastern Conference Predictions for 2011-12
The consistency is pretty strong with a few outliers highlighted in red. [I defined outlier as a pick separated by 4 or more spots from any one else's prediction.] As you can see, only Bob and Brian can claim to be
completely off-base free-thinking.
The nuts and bolts of these rankings follow:
Highly likely to make the cut - #1 through 6
The teams ranked 1 through 6 were in everybody's top 8. The Pittsburgh Penguins managed to beat out the Washington Capitals. The Boston Bruins, Buffalo Sabres, Philadelphia Flyers, and Tampa Bay Lightning complete this most competitive grouping. Five of the 'Canes first six games are against teams in this set. Maybe they can catch them before they find their groove.
What the writers here at the blog had to say:
#1 Pittsburgh Penguins
- Brian (1): This is assuming Sidney Crosby returns at some point. I would think that he'll be back by Christmas as long as his recovery continues on the trajectory it's currently on. I'm still not sold on Marc-Andre Fleury as an all-world Lundqvist/Luongo type, but he's solid at worst. As long as they stay healthy, they have 110 points written all over them.
- Carolyn (1): Looking at how they fared with Jordan Staal, Evgeni Malkin and Crosby accounting for 120 lost games between the three of them last season, expect this group to get it going. When Crosby returns, he’ll pick up where he left off, and we’ll see the Penguins better than ever.
- Bob (2): The Pens showed how strong they are last season when they continued to win even without the best player in hockey.
- Jamie (2): A healthy Sid would put them ahead of Boston.
- Cory (3): The big if is Crosby's health, but it's easy to forget the Malkin has, at times, been Sid's equal.
#2 Washington Capitals
- Cory (1): The Caps are regular season darlings, the question is: can they win in the postseason.
- Bob (3):The Caps will have a good regular season again...
- Brian (3): I don't want to pick them here. I don't think they'll be a real Cup contender. But someone has to go here, and as much as I'd like to take Tampa Bay to win the Southeast (see below) I think they fall just short. The addition of Tomas Vokoun will let the Caps' defense do their thing without having to worry about bailing out the goaltender, and there's no way Alex Ovechkin is held to 35 goals again...is there? But they had their best shot at the Cup last year, and it ended in a second-round sweep to the Lightning. They'll be hard-pressed to get back to that point this year.
- Carolyn (4): Washington's GMGM will learn you can’t buy instant chemistry. Still they will do their regular season thing, but it won’t be as dominant as years past so Bruce Boudreau will continue to tinker. Last year’s transition to a more conservative defensive style is still a work in progress
- Jamie (5): Over-rated clap-clap clap-clap-clap
#3 Boston Bruins
- Jamie (1): Repeating is tough, but I can't find enough reasons to knock them down.
- Carolyn (3): Boston may have a bit of a hangover, but with such depth and a system that relies on intimidation as much as skill, they’ll be fine, even if they have a bumpy start.
- Bob (4): Boston will slip a bit, but not much.
- Cory (4): The Bruins bring back most of the team that won it all last season. A slight slip in the regular season standings here, but they'll still be a force to reckon with come the playoffs.
- Brian (6): The retirement of Mark Recchi will hurt them rather significantly. Between Recchi and Michael Ryder, they lose almost 15% of their goals from last season. Claude Julien has all but admitted fearing the Stanley Cup hangover. They'll be good, but there's very little chance they repeat.
#4 Buffalo Sabres
- Bob (1): Why Buffalo at number one? First, they have the best goalie tandem in the league. Next, the defense should be "A Plus" with the additions of Robyn Regehr and Christian Ehrhoff, as well as the continued maturation of Tyler Myers. Also, the offense should improve now that Derek Roy is healthy. Finally, love him or hate him, they have one of the best in the league calling the shots behind the bench.
- Cory (2): Lots of solid additions (although Ville Leino isn't a fit, in my opinion) and a Boston team that will have to fight through a post-Cup malaise means the Sabres will take the Northeast.
- Carolyn (5): Buffalo will certainly be improved, but it will take awhile to sort itself out. Expect a push in the spring to get them up to 5th as others stumble.
- Jamie (6): Spending their way in.
- Brian (7): Like the Flyers, chemistry early on will be a big question mark. I'm still not sold on Leino and Ehrhoff as the answer to their prayers, and say what you want about Tim Connolly but he leaves a big (as in size) hole down the middle by going to Toronto. They aren't bad enough to miss the playoffs, but they aren't anywhere near the upper echelon of the conference.
#5 Philadelphia Flyers
- Alas, Bob did not provide us with his thoughts for teams he ranked 5 through 13, telling us: "The next 8 teams could go in any direction, pull them out of a hat." So, boss, that Toronto at sixth was, uh, totally random?
- Jamie (4): Who the hell knows?
- Brian (5): It will take them a while to mesh with all the new faces, but once they get going they should be just fine. The Flyers will be a bit unusual by their standards because they're so obviously built from the goal out, with the likes of Ilya Bryzgalov, Chris Pronger, Kimmo Timonen and Braydon Coburn, but Wayne Simmonds is an underrated scorer, not to mention Claude Giroux is virtually a lock for 30 goals. It won't be normal Flyers hockey, but it will work.
- Cory (7): A lot changes on Broad Street, but they still have Chris Pronger to lead the way — he's never missed the postseason.
- Carolyn (8): Another overhaul of room chemistry like others are attempting. I’m expecting them to be trending downward in the spring, but hang on for the 8th seed.
#6 Tampa Bay Lightning
- Carolyn (2): Tampa Bay showed us they have it figured it out. Right combination of talent, experience, size and speed with a coach and GM who will push all the right buttons and pull all the levers as needed.
- Jamie (3): I boldly think they take the Southeast division, although goaltending???
- Brian (4): The only reason I don't have them winning the Southeast is that I can't see them overachieving two years in a row. They're a year away from their window, but that's not to say they can't make a deep run. As long as Mathieu Garon can handle 30-35 games and keep Dwayne Roloson fresh for the playoffs, they'll be fine. I think that the team that represents the East in the Cup final will be one of Pittsburgh, Montreal or Tampa.
- Cory (6): Can aging netminder Dwayne Roloson squeeze another good year out of his body? The Lightning are counting on it.
The Bubble Teams - #7 through 11
The Montreal Canadiens, the New York Rangers, Carolina Hurricanes, New Jersey Devils, and Toronto Maple Leafs make the cut for at least one writer here. [Ed note: Relay your gratitude to Monsieur LeBlanc for pushing the Canes down to 9th with that outlier ranking of the Habs to finish 2nd. And if you can get something outta Bob about his Leafs at 6th, I, for one, would be grateful.]
What the writers had to say:
#7 Montreal Canadiens
- Brian the White (2): Who wins the Northeast Division basically boils down to whether you think Tim Thomas will return to Earth this season. I think he will, and I also think Carey Price will be every bit his equal (stop looking at me like that, Cory). They lost no one of consequence (Benoit Pouliot, sorry, but you qualify as no one of consequence) and they added a sorely-needed banger in Erik Cole. If they want to win a Cup, their window opens now.
- Cory (9): There are too many question marks, including the status of Andrei Markov and a thin-looking group of bottom six forwards.
- Jamie (9): My pick of least conviction.
- Carolyn (9): Carey Price will be this year's Cam Ward. He'll keep the Habs in a lot of games, but with so little help in front of him, he'll be one worn out puppy by February.
#8 New York Rangers
- Cory (5): The addition of Brad Richards gives them one of the game's premier point producers. Marc Staal's injury - and the defense as a whole - is a cause for concern.
- Jamie (7): Brad Richards will make a difference.
- Brian (9): Oddly enough, they remind me of one of Brad Richards' former teams, the early-2000s Lightning before Lecavalier and St. Louis really took off. Richards is a great talent, don't get me wrong, but exactly who will surround him? If they can answer that question (and the answer may well be Marian Gaborik or Brandon Dubinsky), then they'll probably make the playoffs. But if Richards tallies 80 points and no one else is above 55 or 60, which seems like a distinct possibility, not even Henrik Lundqvist will be able to drag them into the postseason. It also doesn't help that Marc Staal is on the shelf; they can't afford a slow start.
- Carolyn (10): The schedule they're starting with, and Marc Staal out for who knows how long, means it will be hard to hold on to .500 by the ASG break. Spring will be better, but it won't be enough as others have more depth to draw from down the stretch.
#9 Carolina Hurricanes
- Carolyn (7): Carolina will have a roller coaster season, but compared to last years challenges of travel and inexperience, they'll keep their foot on the pedal enough to win just a few more games to sneak in.
- Jamie (8): Bouch gets them in, but just barely.
- Cory (10): More than anything, the Canes will be hurt by the depth of the Eastern Conference. They need another breakthrough offensive performer if they're to reach the postseason.
- Brian (10): The nibbling around the edges in the 2011 offseason will rearrange the deck chairs, nothing more. Despite the fact that their goaltending is better than it's ever been, the problem for the Canes is that while they got better, so did a lot of other teams. If no one else slides backward out of the playoffs, and there don't seem to be any real strong candidates to do so, how will the Canes leapfrog anyone to make the postseason?
#10 New Jersey Devils
- Carolyn (6): The Devils will have (Captain) Zach Parise back; Coach Pete DeBoer will give everyone a chance to re-set after last year's melodramas. Also look for the younger guys to get their chance to be part of a new era in Newark.
- Cory (8): It's easy to forget the Devils after last season's struggles, but a healthy Parise goes a long way.
- Brian (8): Call it a regression to the mean. They weren't anywhere near as bad as they started last season, and they aren't anywhere near as good as they finished last season. At some point Ilya Kovalchuk will wake up, and a healthy Parise will make an enormous difference. They'll most likely be first-round fodder for someone in the playoffs, but at least they'll make it there.
- Jamie (10): My second pick of least conviction.
#11 Toronto Maple Leafs
- Bob ranked them 6th, but didn't tell us why. Like we wouldn't notice?
- Carolyn (11): I'm worried about James Reimer. And I think Ron Wilson will be sent packing by American Thanksgiving. Still, after all these years, a work in progress.
- Cory (11): This is not what Leafs fans had in mind when Brian Burke took the helm.
- Brian (12): Sorry, but I'm still not sold on Reimer. And when you're playing goal for Toronto and you're in a fishbowl unlike any other goalie in the NHL as a result, that isn't a recipe for success. If he proves me wrong, their ceiling is probably 7th or 8th in the conference, but that's if everything goes perfectly. I'm willing to bet that everything won't go perfectly.
The Final Four (but not in a good way) - #12 through15
These are the teams who we all agreed will be following the prospect rankings most closely next spring as they figure out who they'll get in the draft. Remarkably, the 6 of us here at Canes Country were highly consistent in our perceptions. Though the Florida Panthers, New York Islanders, Winnipeg Jets and Ottawa Senators show promise, they still have far too many hurdles to get it done in 2011-12.
What the writers had to say:
#12 Florida Panthers
- Carolyn (12): I actually have more faith in Dale Tallon's Frankenstein than most. We'll get the glimpse at the future of a very good team in Sunrise.
- Cory (12): It'll take time for the Panthers to mesh, but many of the new faces are upgrades. But goaltending - until Jacob Markstrom is ready - is a big issue.
- Brian (13): Not really sure what to make of them. Chemistry will be an issue, but the guys who need to step up are ones who have been around for a while, David Booth, Stephen Weiss, et al. They could overachieve given the propensity of their coach to do the same thing during his playing days, but the smart money says that a slow start will put them in an early hole that they won't be able to dig out of.
- Jamie (14): Won't gel.
#13 New York Islanders
- Brian (11): They'll be better than a lot of people think. They're still many years away from making any deep-playoff-run noise, but it won't be fun to play them at all. They're far from the pushover they were under Scott Gordon.
- Cory (13): The Isles will be a fun team to watch, but the defense and always-up-in-the-air goaltending keep them near the conference's bottom again.
- Carolyn (13): A strong core of young players, but the goaltending is still suspect. Add the uncertainty of their location, and it will be a bit like Phoenix or Atlanta when those kinds of front office money-worries are confirmed by rows of empty seats every night.
#14 Winnipeg Jets
- Jamie (12): Adrenaline will win them a few games.
- Brian (14): They could finish 16th in a 15-team conference and the fans would still be delirious. Simply put, they just don't have the talent to compete yet.
- Carolyn (14): There's too much new on the surface combined with too much old on the roster. It'll be a while before everyone there understands what is required to compete at the level required for all 82 games.
- Cory (14): Pretty much the same team that finished 12th last year, but a new coach and system, plus the increased pressure due to the move, will bring down the new Jets.
- Bob (14): Winnipeg will have a loud home environment, but the crowd won't be on the ice with them.
#15 Ottawa Senators
- Bob (15): I just don't see enough talent in Ottawa to push them out of last.
- Carolyn (15): Ottawa will be fun to watch as the front office goes about building a team the right way - not with Burkean band-aids. The scoreboard and standings won't be happy news, but it's part of the process. A top 3 pick will be theirs in June.
- Brian (15): They won't be fun to play, but they're nowhere near ready to be competitive consistently.
- Cory (15): This could get really ugly.