- John Buccigross, SportsCenter anchor
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On Tuesday, I looked back at my Western Conference preseason predictions in an annual exercise of accountability. Today, we look back at how the Eastern Conference forecast is shaping up.
15. Atlanta Thrashers
Preseason line: "Don't fret Thrashers fans; I picked the Islanders 15th in the East last season and they made the playoffs."
Present line: Looking at the Thrashers' goals-against, there is no way they should make the playoffs. They are fortunate they play in a division where everybody gives up goals except for the Panthers. The Thrashers have to be better in the second half in all three zones than they were in the first half. Otherwise, this pick will hold up. I will be rooting for Ilya Kovalchuk to reach 60 goals. Meanwhile, Mark Recchi has been a real spark plug and his two points last week against Carolina moved him past Guy Lafleur (1,353) in career points to No. 22 all time, with 1,355.
14. Washington Capitals
Preseason line: "I do believe the Capitals have a shot at the playoffs and this 14th spot might be too low. If they can get their goals up to 250 and goals-against down to 250, they should be able to earn around 90 points. That will put them in the playoff hunt."
Present line: Right now, the Caps project to about 230 goals for and 260 against, and that would probably keep them out of the hunt. Eighty points should be the Capitals' goal; they had 70 last season and at least they could go into next season knowing they improved. Hopefully, Alexander Ovechkin's contract talks won't become a distraction. He told reporters in Montreal last week, "It's my favorite place to play. This is my favorite city. The crowds, the noise, the music. It's a great place to play. I love to be here." Maybe I'm wrong, I'm sure the Caps have offered a fair market value contract around $7.5 million to $8 million a year. I don't know what is holding this deal up. Perhaps some big Russian oil man has Ovechkin's ear, but I don't see Ovechkin playing in Russia, even with tax-free money.
Preseason line: "Since Tampa Bay won the Cup in 2004, it has given up 260 goals in 2005-06 and 261 goals in 2006-07. That will not win Stanley Cups. That defense is 3-8 in two playoff series since winning it all. The problem starts in net."
Present line: Wow, three straight Southeastern Division teams. That was not by design and I didn't even notice it until now. The reason I ranked these teams this way was because of their defensive issues. And yes, there is a chance only the division winner will make the playoffs in the Southeast. The coach is not throwing in the towel. John Tortorella told the St. Pete Times, "You look at our record and people are probably saying, 'They're done.' But the way this league is right now and the way our division is, we're not close to being done."
Preseason line: "If you add that goaltending depth with the veteran defense, you have a good foundation in Montreal. If the young forwards can stay healthy, grow together and consistently play good two-way hockey, the Canadiens can contend. The East is wide open."
Present line: Things look good in Montreal at the halfway mark. The Habs can score enough and they can defend enough to be among the top eight in the East. The power play was good in the first half and Montreal is getting points on the road. Looking at some of the numbers, the team with the best chance to supplant Montreal is Buffalo.
11. Boston Bruins
Preseason line: "A 1-8-1 finish put the Bruins 16 points out of the final playoff spot and Dave Lewis was fired. Adding coach Claude Julien, goalie Manny Fernandez and two-way center Peter Schaefer makes Boston a better team because they are defensive players."
Present line: The Bruins gave up 289 goals last season. This season, they are on pace for 216. Their offense is slightly off last season's pace because of the Bruins' style of play, but probably more so because of the injury to Patrice Bergeron. Despite that and other injuries, the Bruins are hanging in there, playing suffocating defense and generating a 20 percent power play. The Bruins have a real shot at the playoffs. Of the teams chasing them, no one is better defensively through the first half. I still think the B's will fall a little short, but it could go either way. They should be in the hunt until the end. A trade? That could be tough, as Kevin Paul Dupont wrote in the Boston Globe: "The Bruins right now have Zdeno Chara ($7.5 million a year), Marc Savard ($5 million), and Marco Sturm ($3.5 million) all on no-move deals. P.J. Axelsson's contract allows him to be traded, but only to a limited number of clubs (Sturm's deal, depending on whether the Bruins make the playoffs, eventually could read the same)."
Due to technical difficulties, the previews of 10 through six have been lost in the Internet laundry. Therefore, there will be no preseason line for teams 10 through six. I could probably sneak Toronto out of my top eight and you would have no problem believing me, but that would be an unhockey thing to do.
Possible preseason line: I'm sure I talked about the Islanders and their lack of offense.
Present line: The Islanders are a lot like the Blues in the West. Well-coached, good defense, but not a lot of offense. Both will hang around that eighth spot and have a shot to get in with a strong finish. Meanwhile, Greg Logan reported in Newsday that top prospect Kyle Okposo, recently returned from the Czech Republic with Team USA after a fourth-place finish at the World Junior tournament, will suit up for Bridgeport.
Present line: With Richards exploding onto the scene a little unexpectedly, the Flyers have sped up their development. Their numbers are good across the board. Solid offense, solid defense, good special teams, over .500 on the road and so on. Although it was five seasons ago, Martin Biron appeared in 72 games for the Sabres in 2001-02, so stamina should not be an issue. We will have to see how Joffrey Lupul's injury affects him and the team; he is expected to miss at least two weeks because of a spinal cord contusion and a mild concussion. I would think the Flyers are a good bet for the Stanley Cup playoffs. Probably missed this one.
THE PLAYOFF PICKS
8. Toronto Maple Leafs
Possible preseason line: "I just drank a carafe of motor oil and here comes my Leafs analysis!"
Present line: Injuries, too many goals against, and injuries. This was a bad call. I thought the intensity of Mats Sundin and netminding of Vesa Toskala was going to be enough to squeak in. I would go to Sundin and ask him what he wants to do. Do you want to go to Detroit and play for the Wings? Or the Sharks? We understand, Mats, if you want to give a Cup a go. It's your call. His intensity was made for the playoffs. He would give a team a major lift.
Possible preseason line: I recall talking about a thin defense and a bounce-back season for Eric Staal.
Present line: I guess you could say Staal is having a bounce-back season. He is on pace for more goals, but fewer assists. Scoring is not Carolina's problem. Allowing goals is. Carolina and Atlanta should have some wild shootouts down the stretch and it should be close down to the finish. I'm just going with the Southeast Division because they have done it before.
6. Buffalo Sabres
Possible preseason line: I remember writing how the magic is gone in Buffalo but that the Sabres are still a playoff team.
Present line: Buffalo has the team and math that says they will be battling for a playoff spot right up until the end of the season. But can they replace the leadership of Chris Drury and pure talent of Daniel Briere down the stretch to get it done? That is a major question. I do think they have enough around the horn to get it done. A little help would be nice, a veteran leader and major goaltending from Ryan Miller is a must.
Back now to our regularly scheduled review.
5. New Jersey
Preseason line: "With a new arena and the same old work ethic, expect the Devils to qualify for the Stanley Cup tournament. How they get there may tell us how long they stay."
Present line: What I meant by that last sentence was the Devils need to keep Martin Brodeur from playing in 78 games and draining him for the postseason. Well, it looks like Brodeur won't play 78 games, but appears to be headed for at least 70 for the 10th straight season. The Devils are doing what we thought they would: Not scoring much and not giving up much. Their defense is actually starting to step up offensively and I expect that to help in the second half.
Preseason line: "The Rangers have goaltending, speed, smarts, playmakers, finishers, experience, toughness and youth. They also have some young chips to trade come deadline time."
Present line: The Rangers were an average team in the first half of the season. They have allowed more goals than they have scored, but thankfully for the Rangers, they don't allow very much. At least they can start there. This is a veteran team that made major changes this offseason. A slow start had to be expected and the second half should be better. I still think the Rangers need an overhaul on defense. Marc Staal's continued improvement will help, but I believe the Rangers need to make a move to shore up the blue line. The Rangers had a bad October, good November and a bad December. They can't expect to win a two-month Stanley Cup tournament playing like that. I know it's difficult to make deals in this era, but I think the Rangers need to and will do something.
Preseason line: "The Southeast is wide open. Again, I could see any of the five teams winning the division. They all have flaws. Carolina might have the best chance, but I have a good vibe with the Panthers and I am going with them as a division winner. That's why they're No. 3."
Present line: I still believe anybody can win this division and the Panthers have the best chance because, at least so far, they are the best defensive team in the Southeast. But they also are the worst offensive team in the division. They need a big second half from Nathan Horton and some unexpected help somewhere else. But I admit it is smelling like Atlanta or Carolina in the Southeast right now.
Preseason line: "The Senators are a good team and it's fun to be on a good team with a great playmaker like Jason Spezza. Playing with Spezza for the next seven years will probably get [Dany] Heatley to 500 career goals and a great shot at the Hockey Hall of Fame."
Present line: This is a team in its prime. Scoring and defense abound. It's hard to imagine giving anybody in the East a real shot at this team in a seven-game series. They have speed, grit and experience. And who is the defensive-minded team that can at least hang around in the Senators' scoring neighborhood?
Preseason line: "The big challenge in clinching the Presidents' Trophy is inexperience in net and lack of depth on the blue line. How well rookie defenseman Kris Letang plays will go a long way toward determining their depth."
Present line: The Penguins have played very well since Thanksgiving. They have begun to tighten things defensively and are getting great goaltending from Ty Conklin. I expect them to finish strong, like they did last season, because they are young and continue to improve. They should win their division and should capture the No. 2 seed. This is important because it means the Pens will avoid Ottawa in the first two rounds, giving someone else a couple of shots at upsetting the Sens. I was pretty bullish on the Pens this season, intimating they have a shot at the Stanley Cup finals, and I still think they have a shot at that, although I agree they might not quite be complete enough yet. What I am hoping for? A first-round playoff matchup with the Flyers.
So, in terms of a report card in the East, it's hard to speculate what my grade might be. Let's call Ottawa, New Jersey, Pittsburgh and the Rangers "locks." I should at least get to .500. I still have a good shot at Carolina. Buffalo? Maybe. Florida? Longer shot. Toronto. Fugggetaboutit. A 7-for-8 mark is possible, but not likely. Six? Close. Last season, I was 6-for-8 in each conference with my preseason picks. If you would let me have that right now, I would take it. Amen.
I know you're a big Hakan Loob fan, as I am, but how does he fare (his game, not his name) against Sweden's other great export of the 1980s, Mats Naslund? Naslund was in North America longer, but who was better?
Hakan Loob is suing MySpace for taking the name of what he calls everything around you.
What does your crystal ball say about the upside for Mike Richards? Can he make it to a Rod Brind'Amour level, or even push the meter all the way to Steve Yzerman, by the time his 12-year contract is up?
I didn't put Mike Richards in as a future Hall of Famer when I wrote a column on what current players I saw as possible inductees. I just didn't see a large enough sample. Some athletes might be content after signing long-term deals, but hockey players rarely are, and if anything, Mike Richards will play better. He has so much confidence with the puck right now. We don't know if this season is just one of those years when everything goes right. As I've said before, some people have career years in their first, second or third year. That being said, there is nothing not to like about Mike Richards. He has Hall of Fame potential, for sure. I just hope with all of the courage he plays with also enables him to have a long career. He is more likely to burn out than fade away. Hopefully, he gets to raise a Cup before that happens.
You said, "I see Curtis Joseph signing with the Senators." Why?
Charlotte, via Niagara Falls
He doesn't need the money and I think he will choose a very good team. Of course, the Senators would have to trade Ray Emery to clear a roster spot. Emery had some attitude issues that, if worked out, would just about rule Cujo out of Ottawa.
John Buccigross is an anchorman for "SportsCenter" and ESPNEWS. For questions, comments or crosschecks, e-mail him at email@example.com. To check out his new book, "Jonesy: Put Your Head Down & Skate," click here.