Another pre-season wrapped up and the regular season is now upon us. Every time I write one of these I approach it a little bit different. As I began to draft this out, I realized I don’t have a structure in mind at all this time and with that being said, I’m going to break this down into some randomness in sections…
Heading into Overtime
These five teams have higher than high expectations, but, can they live up?
Washington Capitals – How could there not be the highest of high expectations on the Caps? This is probably the best built Caps team since they made the Stanley Cup run in 1998 and there are no shortage of prognosticators predicting “this is the year.” Well, it very well could be if they can find real leadership down the stretch, consistency from their scoring stars down the stretch and goalies that aren’t headcases. It won’t be the Stanley Cup year if they can’t pull those three together but it will be a big year of change of there’s anything but a championship to celebrate.
Pittsburgh Penguins – After the first step backwards in the Crosby and company last year in not even making the Stanley Cup round it is time to rebound. Rare are teams that win back-to-back and three straight Cup appearances is asking for a lot in the modern era. Are they capable of the Cup round again this year? With the perceived upgrades on the blue line there should be less to worry about in the defensive zone but the questions remains if they can spring the offense without Gonchar’s guidance and if Crosby might finally have consistency on the wing to feed to. The Pens are the franchise face of the NHL so the need to succeed is imperative.
New Jersey Devils – If the Pens are the respected face the Devils are the red-headed step child of the league and after all the posturing and finger-pointing in the off-season about Illya Kolvechuck there’s a lot on the line for the Devs. They need to ice a team that’s complete AND under Cap and with the added weight of the new Kovy contract structure coming in so late, it is almost impossible to imagine the Devils not struggling out of the gate. This was supposed to be among the last horrah for this storied franchise before some major shakedowns could occur (an aging Brodeur coming closer to splitting time between the pipes, Parise coming up for a big contract, a youth movement blue line, etc.). If this is do or die, let’s hope this isn’t the Devs meeting their namesake.
New York Islanders – Odd to see the Isles name among some of the leagues perceived elites but the Isles need a winning season in the worst way at this point. It is staving off relocation and having leverage for a new house. It is re-invigorating a fan base as the Rangers and Devils head into potentially difficult seasons and igniting a new fan base before the NBA moves into their backyard. It is getting the youth movement some stability to work with the foundation of Taveras in order to replicate the success of the likes of the Penguins, Hawks and Capitals.
Tampa Bay Lightening – After a number of lack-luster to utterly disappointing seasons the legendary Steve Yzerman was brought on board as GM who then hired Guy Boucher away from the Montreal Canadiens as head coach and began the teams revitalization with a whole crop of new players. Hailed a hero before the season even started Yzerman set the bar high and the question now is can the rebuilding put them into contention enough to separate from a fairly tight SouthEast division and middle-of-the-road status in the conference or will changing too much too quickly push the franchise further into the doldrums and hold off any chance at a rebuild for several more years. Who knows, maybe Stevie-y will lace up one last time if they can’t find their scoring touch (one can only hope)
Pass up the boards
These five teams should keep moving, the real question is will it result in the score they’re looking for?
Philadelphia Flyers – The Flyers have put on a show the last few seasons and with the same core intact are predictably now a contender, but lack the pressure of a succeed now, which might be just what they need while they sort out the goalie situation. Contrary to popular belief they will not be starting a cardboard cut out of Ron Hextal, complete with his five-hole duct taped, between the pipes.
Montreal Canadians – So, there’s pressure on Carey Price now that he was named #1 over fan favorite Halek who was traded away. When isn’t there pressure on a Montreal goalie. Saying there is pressure is like stating a fact, like diamonds are made from super pressurized coal or that the rig components to seal the leaking BP will were under tremendous under water pressure. So long as the team continues to defy rational expectation and keep winning with taht lineup there’s no reason to think they’re in any different position than last year… or any year, in Montreal, for that matter.
Buffalo Sabres – Solid team with substancial net-minding and the ability to build upon the success they saw last year. There’s pressure on them the same way the Sharks, Blues and Caps have from a historical perspective but not as much in terms of doing more than dominating their division with responsible play and the acrobatics of their goalie. No one expects the Stanley Cup out of them, but no one expects them not to make a deep play off run either. It will be more exciting now that we know what the team is capable of to see how they improve upon it.
Boston Bruins – After a bit of a down season last year, the time to rebound is now. Consistency will be the key to their continued success and since last year was neither the over-achievement of the year before, nor a complete breakdown of the franchise, there’s a lot of different ways this season could go. The goalie tandem is still a huge question as in if Raask is ready to rumble or with Tim take the torch back? There is also the re-solidification of the defense that needs to take place and how the forwards will contribute to it. Neither is a huge issue in the grander scheme of the division and there’s a lot that should go right in continuing the B’s buzzing in the standings.
Carolina Hurricanes – They didn’t substantially improve but they didn’t do anything wrong either. The only reason they’ve missed the playoffs lately is because the other divisions were so much stronger than what Carolina could overcome in injuries and development deficiencies. It is entirely possible with a healthy team they will be a challenging fringe player in the overall standings and provide a bit more of a challenge in an otherwise soft SouthEast division as the team finds an identity again. If they don’t quite succeed and merely subsist no one will be any-the-less disappointed than they’d be shocked if all of a sudden the Canes were contenders. And that expectation of just building on where they’ve been in small steps is why Carolina rounds out this group of teams.
Whitewashed and worried
These five teams have everything set up for failure and anything less than that would be confounding yet, not quite exceeding expectations.
New York Rangers – Last season the Rangers probably met expectations and then some with Lungqvist’s stand-on-his-head play between the pipes and Gaborick’s ability to produce for an entire season as essentially the only offensive force. The reality is the Rangers are not built to build upon these elements and with only a few breakdowns during the season they could force themselves to move in quite the opposite direction in the standings. A injury or two here, a losing streak or two there and everything gets rattled right up to the coach.
Ottawa Senators – No one is built to spill more than Ottawa. The what if factor runs through every forward starting with Kovelev and right on through Alferedson and Spezza down to the netminding pair of Elliot and Lehner. The possibilities are endless, but almost every option for success means every player recovering from some kind of lack-luster last few seasons and the team gelling into a real contender, something that’s much more likely to happen in the other direction where the depth is shallow, the skates are slow and the implosion dominates the season’s first half.
Toronto Maple Leafs – This might be the one team that makes me eat crow. There are no expectations because it is such a mismanaged team that they might fly under everyone’s radar,especially early in the season and find success. Then again, they could just collapse to their knees after the first twenty games and bounce around the bottom of the standings as they have in many recent years.
Atlanta Thrashers & Florida Panters – You know you’re set up to do, well, nothing, when two teams are essentially lumped together to hold up the bottom half of the SouthEast and compete to be the most medicre teams perhaps in the league. Both have bright spots in an otherwise dark, dark basement place in the standings. Rebuilding seems to be a perpetual mantra lately and hopefully they’ll figure out they need to resolidify the foundation in order to put back up a successful franchise above it.