ESPN Summer NHL preview: East projections for 2009-10 season
By Terry Frei
Special to ESPN.com
July 13, 2009
Compared to the wild goings-on in the Western Conference, with its dizzying succession of front-office upheavals and coaching changes, it has been fairly quiet in the East. That’s pending the final disposition of Dany Heatley‘s pouting request to be traded, among other things. As with the West last week, this look at the events in the East is listed in a highly conditional predicted finish in the conference next season, albeit with the slotting of the defending division champions in the top three spots.
The only significant loss was Rob Scuderi, who signed with the Kings. Otherwise, with the young core (Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal and Marc-Andre Fleury) locked up for years to come, the only way they can slide is if it becomes clear that the Penguins are just too top-heavy in the cap age. But Bill Guerin is no fool, and he was willing to take a big-time cut just to have a chance to stick around and have another shot at raising the Cup. The amazing thing is how demoralized and struggling the Penguins were at midseason. That isn’t happening again.
The somewhat under-the-radar and late signing of Brendan Morrison adds a steady and calming veteran voice up front, not to mention a reliable two-way center. The league would greatly benefit if it gets another Alex Ovechkin versus Malkin/Crosby matchup in the conference finals, and if this rivalry stays heated in the regular season. And, oh, yes, it wouldn’t be an insult to the game’s traditions and cultures to play up the young stars, and the fact that they’re not going to be meeting for sandwiches and beers at Primanti Brothers the night before the games in Pittsburgh. Regardless, though, we know that Ovechkin, going for the Hart Trophy hat trick, will do his part, and that the signing of Mike Knuble to play right wing on his line could make him even more dangerous. The Caps’ unsettled goaltending situation — at least Jose Theodore again has the incentive of being in a contract year — is the major question mark.
GM Peter Chiarelli’s extension certainly was deserved, despite the second-round loss to the Hurricanes that took much of the glitter off that terrific regular season and No. 1 seed. Pretty much standing pat, which means bringing back Mark Recchi on a one-year deal, made more sense than overreaction — a temptation the No. 1 seed from the other conference, San Jose, seemed more in danger of succumbing to, but didn’t, either. Zdeno Chara‘s Norris Trophy was the right call, and even a bit of an upset, in that voters weren’t overwhelmed by Mike Green’s offensive numbers at Washington. The point is, the big Slovak is at the top of his game, too, and he isn’t going to lose it. Yes, I’ve projected the Bruins to drop a bit in the regular season, but if Tim Thomas remains the poster boy for reclamation projects, the Bruins are bona fide Cup threats.
Chris Pronger had yet to take an ill-advised penalty for the Flyers when they signed him to a seven-year extension. His lack of discipline and unpredictability certainly is part of his game and thus his effectiveness, whether against the Penguins or Capitals or anyone else, and it’s not as if the Ducks’ approach was anything close to passive the past few years. John Stevens’ challenge is to keep Pronger — who knows the main reason he has been brought in is to harass the conference’s young superstars (well, except for Jeff Carter and Mike Richards), and probably already is taking Russian lessons to pick up a few terms for Army boots and worse — from getting too caught up in the Broad Street atmosphere and doing at least as much harm as good. But if Ray Emery indeed is a changed man, there will be a lot of general managers deservedly getting heat for not taking a shot at him — and we’re talking about a wrister from the slot.
After managing to re-sign Jussi Jokinen and Erik Cole, who were so instrumental in the playoff run, and Chad LaRose, the Hurricanes and Eric Staal are in good position to build on the momentum they had after Paul Maurice stepped back behind the bench and their miracle finish against the Devils re-energized the Golden Triangle. Or, at least it did before the flop against the Penguins.
After Brent Sutter decided he wanted to go home, the Devils without a coach until Lou Lamoriello’s Monday announcement that he was bringing back Jacques Lemaire. Brian Gionta signed with Montreal and John Madden, 36, bid farewell and ended up signing with the Blackhawks. While those losses and the demoralizing collapse against the Hurricanes might seem to provide some rationalization for writing off the Devils, I’m not going to fall into that trap again. Zach Parise‘s ascendance and Martin Brodeur‘s return to health — not that Scott Clemmensen was a stiff last season — plus Lamoriello’s track record for picking up pieces are reasons enough to keep the faith, and keep the Devils ahead of the Rangers.
|It’s anyone’s guess how the oft-injured Marian Gaborik will fair in New York.|
Now having said that (with apologies for stealing Gary Bettman’s pet phrase), one of the most intriguing stories in the league will be tracking Marian Gaborik‘s work with the Rangers in the midst of Glen Sather’s major reconstruction. There is no questioning Gaborik’s talent and the fact that the Wild never took complete advantage of it under Jacques Lemaire, but given the Rangers’ spotty free-agent track record and Gaborik’s medical file, this could turn out to be anything from a brilliant move to a complete disaster with five years of cap effects. If he’s finally over those linked hip and groin issues for good, look out. If not, they’ll be pining for Scott Gomez. (Just kidding. Kind of.)
Brian Burke isn’t very good at camouflage, and he’s taking the same approach he did at Anaheim: He’s trying to assemble a complement of toughness and skill, as often as possible in one package. (Sometimes you wonder if he rolls up his sleeves and puts on the foil before making phone calls.) But he’s making progress in trying to make something of this mess, even winning the recruiting war for Jonas Gustavsson, who if things turn out well will only be needed to be a Monster backup to Vesa Toskala in his first season in North America. The additions of Mike Komisarek and former Duck Francois Beauchemin will help considerably on the blue line, and the feeling here is that the Leafs will be back in the playoffs.
At the All-Star break, everything seemed serendipitous. Owner George Gillett Jr. was still being hailed for not just finding a huge bargain when he bought the team and building, but his wisdom in hiring Bob Gainey and staying out of the way. Alex Kovalev was happy and shining; Saku Koivu was the entrenched captain; Carey Price and the other young potential stars weren’t in the tabloids for things other than on-ice exploits; and Guy Carbonneau seemed to be doing a terrific job. Well, less than six months later, Gillett has agreed to sell the properties back to Molson family members; Jacques Martin is the new coach after Carbonneau’s late-season ouster and Gainey’s interim stint behind the bench; and the roster overhaul has been significant. If Kovalev tears it up at Ottawa, his departure will be embarrassing — especially under the circumstances that, as the free-agency deadline approached and passed, had Strother Martin looking down and saying, “Reg, Reg, that reminds me. I was coachin’ in Omaha in 1948 and Eddie Shore sends me this guy … ” Oops, wrong movie. I mean Strother Martin was saying of the Kovalev camp and the Canadiens, “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” At least the departed Koivu will be in the other conference (with the Ducks). Taking on Gomez’s contract in the trade with the Rangers is far more potentially troublesome than taking on Gomez, but there will be plenty of speed with him and Brian Gionta and Mike Cammalleri. And the pesky Travis Moen, he of the hilarious cameo with the Cup(s) in “Corner Gas,” has checked in as a UFA. With Komisarek leaving, the hope is that Hal Gill and Jaroslav Spacek help fill the void.
10. Buffalo Sabres
It would be quite a trick to finish 10th three years in a row, actually, but the Sabres seem to be all about either watching talent depart or standing pat. In a rather uneventful offseason, the biggest loss was The Aud, finally knocked down. Resilient GM Darcy Regier and coach Lindy Ruff kept their jobs, which is either inertia or recognition that they’ve done a good job under trying circumstances — depending on your perspective. The Sabres did bring in Steve Montador to attempt to make up for the loss of Spacek. There’s still enough quality sticking around, including Thomas Vanek and Ryan Miller in the net, to give the Sabres a chance to get back into the postseason.
11. Ottawa Senators
Uh, Dany, what’s the deal here? Demand to be traded because you can’t stand your coach, but then veto a bona fide deal with the Oilers because you were “blindsided”? You’d think a guy with such talent, but also a deserved reputation for immaturity that has even had tragic ramifications, would be more conscious of trying to demonstrate something other than problem-child conduct. At least Kovalev already is here to try to make the Sens forget Heatley, if he leaves, as the Sens try to rebound from their perplexing free fall after the loss in the 2007 Finals.
12. Florida Panthers
Martin left as GM to go back behind the bench at Montreal. The Panthers did a terrific job to just miss the playoffs last season, especially with Tomas Vokoun missing so much time, and Peter DeBoer and assistant Mike Kitchen deserved more credit than they got. But if they get this group in the postseason, DeBoer should get the Jack Adams Award by acclamation. At least the Panthers got something — Jordan Leopold and a draft choice — from Calgary for Jay Bouwmeester‘s rights, but it’s hard to conclude anything other than that the Panthers have taken steps backward.
At least the linesmen have stepped between the owners, Oren Koules and Len Barrie, theoretically leaving Brian Lawton with less to sort out as he goes about his business. Vinny Lecavalier is still here and hasn’t been the subject of a new trade rumor for several hours. Steve Stamkos looked to be in way over his head for the first half of the season before somewhat validating management’s decision not to send him back to major junior for one more season, and now he’ll be able to call Victor Hedman “Kid.”
14. New York Islanders.
John Tavares showed how coachable he is when he joined in the lobbying effort for a new arena about 17 seconds after the Islanders drafted him. It’s not as if the front office was distraught to be at the top of the Tavares standings down the stretch last season, but the interesting thing was that the group on the ice didn’t toss it in — and that was a credit to Scott Gordon. Dwayne Roloson‘s signing to a two-year, $5-million deal was a bit curious for a franchise that has Rick DiPietro under a lifetime contract, but at least the Isles will have a reliable stand-in if (or when) DiPietro is hurt again.
Poor Ilya Kovalchuk, who continues to be electric in relative obscurity. If the enigmatic Nik Antropov ever lives up to his potential, much less to that four-year, $16 million contract the Thrashers gave him, that at least will help.
Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. His books include “Third Down and a War to Go” and the upcoming “The Witch’s Season.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org