Eastern Conference more mud than studs

Looking at the Eastern Conference teams is a gaze down a muddy and dark road. It is difficult to sort out the good from the bad and I have a feeling divisional play will determine the winners and losers. So many teams in the East are involved in trade rumors that it should be mentioned, a big trade could change everything.

The divisional play will be key to sorting out the rankings. The Southeast is looking like the NHL’s weakest with 1 playoff lock, a contender, and 3 teams on the fast track to a mid-April tee off. The Flyers, Devils and Rangers look solid, but the rest of this Atlantic division is not going to make it. The Northeast is the logjam most predicted, but the players have all changed order. Who will emerge as the team(s) to beat heading into these 2006 playoffs? With only 30 games left in the schedule, it is crunch time.

The 2nd biggest surprise of this year (the Rangers are the 1st) has the Carolina Hurricanes thinking Stanley Cup. Carolina has the luxury of knowing 12 of its remaining 30 games are against the lowly Penguins, Capitals and Panthers. With a 6 point cushion and the Weight trade in the books, the ‘Canes have announced the seriousness of their intentions this year. Very few GM’s are building for a dynasty and Jim Rutherford seems to have acknowledged this when he gave up 3 players, who only provide depth, and a 1st round draft pick for what’s left of Doug Weights season. Maybe a steep price, if they don’t win it all. This was, overall, a good trade for the Hurricanes and I see them winning the conference outright this season. If only they could get people to come to the games.

If they don’t win the Conference outright, the challenger for 1st place has to be the Ottawa Senators. This team, though enduring a small rough patch, has all the components of a Stanley Cup Champion. The biggest question is whether Bryan Murray was the right choice to put these guys over the top. I am not sold on Murrays abilities as a coach but like the change in the teams attitude. There seems to be a trade in the works but it may not see light until the deadline. Look for a veteran, 2nd line forward to arrive. That being said, the Senators should win the Northeast and gobble up enough points to secure 2nd place. They have a lighter load in the 2nd half, with 13 games against non playoff teams.

The Flyers and Rangers go head to head 5 more times this season! Who would of thought these games would be so crucial to determine the winner of the division. The Flyers seem to have the tougher schedule (marginally) and have been troubled by injuries to key players. This team just seems like the menu at a pot luck dinner, so many choices, but the dishes don’t necessarily go with one another. I question their chemistry and wonder how a Ken Hitch***** team can rank in the lower half of the league in GAA. They will make the playoffs…but will find themselves in the 4th seed.

The Rangers just continue to surprise. I will go a little out on the limb and predict injuries play a big role in the Flyers not winning this division. The Rangers goaltending has been superb and Tom Renney has to be a Jack Adams award nominee for what he has done with this team. Whether Jagr can maintain his pace through the grittiest part of the season is a good question. This squad, which reads like the Czech national team, is a good one. They work hard, game in and game out, and find ways to win. I have them clinching the division in the 3rd last game of the year vs the Flyers. 3rd in the Conference.

The Devils are turning the corner. They look like a shadow of their former selves. With Brodeur back on top of his game, and Elias providing an offensive injection, this team looks playoff bound. It is too uphill of a battle for them to win the division but they should be solidly in the playoffs come mid-February. Are they going to find a coach or are they still grooming someone within the organization for a spot? Lou looks content being behind the bench and players love the direct message that comes from a coach/GM. Watch out for this team come playoff time! The Devils will finish ahead of the Sabres come the end of the season. 5th in the conference. Mogilny who?

Buffalo have turned a lot of heads this season. The Sabres sport the East’s 5th best record and deserve every point. Good on Lindy Ruff for taking rumors of his demise and turning it into a stellar season. Even as Briere and Connoly went down, the team has found a way to win. This has been through sheer determination and hustle, combined with clutch plays at the right times. This is a winning recipe for the playoffs, but the grind might wear thin on this young, inexperienced team. Hey, they’re 14 pts up on the 9th place team and would have to freefall to miss the playoffs. Watch for them to land in the 6th spot.

Tampa Bay wants to avoid the embarassment of winning the cup and then missing the playoffs the next season. (See the ’96 Devils for an example) They lack a quality netminder and have been inconsistent at best. Lecavalier has picked up his play of late and the team has responded. St Louis plays like a man with all the weight of his contract slowing him down. Maybe this team lost a little fire in the year off and have yet to rekindle the magic. Rumours of Brad Richards being traded always seem to resurface and the team would have to shore up its defence or goaltending with a top calibre player. If a deal goes down. Manny Ferndandez’ name seems like the only legitimate one being mentioned in trade circles. The Lightning will make the playoffs and earn enough points to hold down the 7th spot.

The final spot in the Conference is the toughest one and it seems as though I am not willing to move anyone currently out the playoffs, into the picture. The Maple Leafs will chug along at a little over .500 and make the playoffs. Belfour will find his groove, injured players will return, and the Leafs will go on a spurt that will clinch them a spot. Although this team could benefit from a lower draft pick, it is always now or never for Toronto. The loss of either Sundin, Belfour or McCabe, to a significant injury, would be deadly.

The Thrashers don’t have the necessary components to grind out enough points to make it. They aren’t a good team. Any team with Hossa, Kovalchuk and Savard will score goals and earn the team wins. This team gives up an abysmal 3.47 goals per game and have shown a tendency for stupid plays. (Stick infractions, coaching mistakes, anything Eric Boulton does) Bad goaltending, bad coaching, weak 3rd and 4th lines, weak defence…This does not a playoff team make.

Les Canadiens are my personal biggest disappointment for 2005-06. This was a team I had predicted would finish 5th or 6th in the Conference and 2nd in the Northeast. The poor play of Jose Theodore cost Claude Julien his job and the team’s chances of making the playoffs. It’s not that the puck isn’t bouncing his way. He is fundamentally off of his game. Playing deep in the net and flopping around AFTER the puck has gone by you are signs of someone who is struggling. He looks bewildered and so am I. This team can still look forward to next year, as they boast a young and talented roster, but they are light years from meeting their expectations. Missing the playoffs might be a good wakeup call.

If any team could surprise and work their way into playoff contention, it is the Boston Bruins. I won’t go so far as to predict it, but will not be surprised if they do it.

The rest of the teams in the East have no chance. They would look to position themselves for the draft.

Trades….Trades and injuries could change a lot. Anyone fighting for a playoff spot will have to make a deal soon, if it is going to impact their chances of making it. Anyone wanting to beef up for a long run into June could jump ahead into the top spot. I love this time of year and I’m pumped about what’s coming up!

1. Carolina

2. Ottawa

3. NY Rangers

4. Philadephia

5. NJ

6. Buffalo

7. Tampa Bay

8. Toronto