Commentary

Breaking down the Eastern Conference

Updated: September 29, 2009, 3:32 PM ET
By John Buccigross | ESPN.com

The Bucci column is back for another season. This week, he breaks down the Eastern Conference. Look out for his West outlook next week.

15. New York Islanders



I will dig a hole
Save my pennies for a rainy day …
Holes uncovered
Walls will crumble
All spells trouble on a rainy day
-- "Rainy Day" by Guster

One can't help but think of London-like overcast skies and a February double-bill concert of David Gray and The Cure under an outdoor tent in Hempstead when thinking of the Islanders' immediate future on and off the ice. And when we say off the ice, we mean their dour financial situation and the crumbling walls of Nassau Coliseum, which while having fantastic, old-school hockey sight lines has reached the functional and aesthetic equivalent of a 1986 Pontiac Sunbird. (Possibly the worst car of all time. My mom had one. It had a propensity, if cars can have a propensity, to do the one thing you never want a car to do in any circumstance: stop running without warning. I called it the Pontiac Deathbird.)

First things first: The Islanders need a new arena. If they don't, they will be gone, and gone soon. The real estate project is called the Lighthouse Project. To explain what Islanders owner Charles Wang wants, we turn to the following from The Light Post, the official blog of the Lighthouse Development Group:

The Lighthouse at Long Island is the transformation of the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum and surrounding 150 acres into a vibrant suburban center and destination for Long Island. The centerpiece is a transformed arena for the New York Islanders, surrounded by exciting residential neighborhoods with a variety of housing options, lifestyle retail and entertainment venues, Class A office space including an incubator for the sports technology industry, athletic complex, conference and exhibition facilities, a minor league ballpark, and the first 5-star hotel on Long Island.

Price tag? About $3.75 billion. So, that's what Wang wants. His deadline for approval on a zoning application is Saturday. The Islanders could be the most compelling unrestricted free agent this season, although the lease runs through 2015. (The understanding and comprehension of arena leases is about as confusing as trying to add a new printer to your work computer.)

Enough of that. What about on the ice? Well, the Islanders, who are $19 million under the cap, finished 30th of 30 NHL teams last season, and all indications are they will finish last again this season and have the best chance at the No. 1 overall pick in June's NHL draft. They will win that draft lottery and select Taylor Hall, who hails from Kingston, Ontario, and plays for the Windsor Spitfires. This is all good news. The Islanders are accumulating high-level talent that one day will result in an exciting young team. Once they play in a new arena on Long Island, or wherever, they should be able to start attracting veteran free agents to augment their young players.

Until then, John Tavares gives the Islanders a compelling player to track throughout the season and me a reason to watch the Islanders on TV. I have not yet seen Tavares during the preseason, but based on what I have seen of him, I would project something like 75 games played and a scoring line of 26-27-53. (I'll update this after I watch three to five regular-season games.) The 19-year-old should lead the Islanders in goals and battle excellent defenseman Mark Streit ($4.1 million cap number for four more years) for the team's points lead. Tavares and his teammates play in the very difficult Atlantic Division, neck and neck with the Western Conference's Central Division as deepest and toughest in the NHL.

So, Islanders fans have Tavares going for them, which is nice; but this season probably will have another rainy-day vibe to it.

14. Atlanta Thrashers



We dug these holes we crawled into now they're my home
Now here I cannot feel the wind, can't feel the rain oh no
And I believe in gentle harmony
Well how I loathe all this obscenity
Is this the way my life has got to be?
Have I a single opportunity?
-- "The Reeling" by Passion Pit

The Atlanta Thrashers have outlasted the Atlanta Flames nine years to eight. That alone should result in a parade. How this team survives in the Atlanta market with a payroll near $50 million while annually missing the playoffs and having zero playoff wins in team history is a near miracle. Atlanta's biggest offseason move was signing an indifferent Russian and bringing him to the Deep South. You couldn't make that up 30 years ago. "Today from noon-2 p.m., new Thrasher Nik Antropov signs autographed French toast at the College Park Waffle House!"

The Thrashers have a pretty good top-four blue-line corps, Tobias Enstrom was almost a point-per-game dude in the last third of this past season and the Thrashers were one of just 11 teams to score 250 goals. But goaltender Kari Lehtonen has underperformed, and the Thrashers must have one-way signs on the walls of the bench because there is not much concern at the defensive side of the ice.

Lehtonen was the second overall pick in a pretty good 2002 draft. The Thrashers could have had Jay Bouwmeester or Rick Nash. Lehtonen is the key to this whole thing. He has to be outstanding this season. The Thrashers were outshot by 368 shots last season. Lehtonen will be a restricted free agent after this season and has millions of dollars on the line. But remember, it's hard to play goalie for the Thrashers.

Atlanta also needs an organizational direction, and it has to start with defense. The Thrashers have been dreadful because they have been a dreadful defensive team for their entire existence (even in 2006-07, when they won the Southeast Division and were swept by the Rangers in the first round of the playoffs).

And then there is Ilya Kovalchuk. He is 26 and is set to become a free agent after this season. On the surface, he would be crazy to sign an extension with Atlanta. Just about every good team in the NHL would clear space to add him to its team in the summer.

If Kovalchuk took $6 million a year in the summer, he probably could play with pass-first center Sidney Crosby in Pittsburgh and reach the playoffs every season. He could go to Toronto, play with Mikhail Grabovski and be Brian Burke's Teemu Selanne. He could energize Colorado and play with Paul Stastny. How does a Milan Lucic-David Krejci-Kovalchuk line sound? Hollywood, anyone? Ilya has options, and he should look at them.

Or he might look at the only franchise he has known and like what he sees. Improving defense, attacking offense, Evander Kane and a goalie who finally lives up to the hype. Hey, the Thrashers scored 257 goals last season. It's hard to score 257 goals and miss the playoffs. Yes, it's a sign of bad defense and questionable goaltending, but it is also a sign of a lack of purpose, drive and attention to detail. These players have to take control, and Kovalchuk is their leader. If the losses mount early and the trade rumors start on "Hockey Night in Canada" by December, this thing could go off the rails quickly.

Four million a year for Antropov won't help that part of the equation one bit. You'd have better luck autographing a syrup-drenched waffle.

13. Toronto Maple Leafs



I had a coat of many colors, sold it off online …
Now I'm just a layman pagan in a young man's grind
Well I did what I thought I was supposed to do
All I sang so close to true
Now I wanna be the one that means the most to you
-- "Sunlight" by Harlem Shakes

Ivy League schools sell a scarce and expensive commodity packaged in brick and ivy. It's called prestige. And I'm not talking about the 10th album by Danish death metal band Illdisposed. (That commodity is packaged in hard plastic and clear adhesive tape that could keep a Buick stuck to a giant banana. Or vice versa.)

Leafs GM Brian Burke graduated from Harvard Law School, has an abundance of hair follicles and a picture of himself with the Stanley Cup and is now the man in charge of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Canada's version of the Dallas Cowboys. It's an organization that gets a load of coverage completely disproportionate to organizational success, not counting profitability and franchise value.

Let's look at the championship scoreboard since 1997: Florida Marlins 2, Dallas Cowboys/Toronto Maple Leafs 0.

The Maple Leafs last raised the Stanley Cup in 1967, fittingly the final season of the six-team league when it took eight victories to win it all. The Stanley Cup is now the hardest team trophy to win. In 1967, it was the easiest.

(Unlike the Cowboys, the Leafs are actually quite lovable. They have had great and admirable players during their drought: Darryl Sittler, Doug Gilmour, Wendel Clark, Mats Sundin, Borje Salming and Curtis Joseph, among others. They have classic uniforms. Toronto is a cosmopolitan city. I don't think there is a hate factor involving the Leafs.)

The Leafs had one shutout last season. Their 293 goals allowed were by far the most in the NHL. Signing Mike Komisarek and Francois Beauchemin should help in that department. Luke Schenn is also reliable; even at age 19, he already appears to be a total pro.

The questions for this team are in net and on offense. Can they score goals playing a more disciplined defensive system? How much drop-off will some of the Leafs' forwards have? Burke knew his offensive forwards were weak, and that's why he took a small risk in acquiring Phil Kessel.

Kessel is a special and unique talent who will turn 22 on Friday. He is a legitimate 40-50 goal scorer during the course of an 82-game schedule. He will provide many highlight goals for Leafs fans and Team USA in the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. His speed and release are world-class, and I'm telling you right now, it doesn't really matter who is playing center. He has nine goals and 15 points in 15 career playoff games. He is not a confrontational or gritty defensive player, but he will do enough. He is ultraquiet and clearly uncomfortable in social settings, and this could be a factor in Toronto, but he should be able to stay insulated. He will say less than Jaromir Jagr.

I very much doubt the Bruins will get a player who will approach Kessel's talent from the three draft picks acquired in the deal. And when one makes a trade, the most important factor is getting the best player. Everything else is PR B.S. I don't think the Leafs gave up too much to acquire Kessel.

That said, Kessel will miss the first part of the season, and although I think everyone but the Islanders has a chance to make the playoffs, even if all things go right, I would be surprised if the Leafs do. There just isn't enough here, and even if there kind of was, I find it hard to believe it would congeal just right to put them among the top eight teams in the East.

But hope is here. The Leafs have a very good coach in Ron Wilson; they have toughness, sturdy blueliners and lots of speed up front that might be able to be disruptive and productive. But the focus is still on the GM who needs to find a way to get the Leafs better fast because we now know it probably won't happen in the draft. Calling Kovalchuk, Joe Thornton and others.

A Cup in Toronto? Burke would never have more hockey prestige.

12. Tampa Bay Lightning



Your past times
Consisted of the strange
And twisted and deranged
And I love that little game you had called
Crying Lightning
-- "Crying Lightning" by Arctic Monkeys

WTF?! And I'm not talking Walker-Tanguay-Fedoruk. Did last season really happen? Was Barry Melrose really behind the bench? Did Rich Tocchet replace him? It was one of the biggest cluster messes in NHL history; but, in the end, it had a nice consolation prize -- Victor Hedman, who I think will be a high-impact player in two seasons. So much happened last season, and we wrote a decent amount on the subject here such that it is not really worth going back over it too much, but I can't resist:

A couple of nuggets from last season's Bolts preview:

Tampa Bay gave Ryan Malone $4.5 million, and he will struggle to score more than 50 points. Last season, he was tied for 99th in scoring. This year, he will not be in the top 100. (He had 45 points and tied for 135th in scoring.)

Last season, Prospal scored 29 goals in 62 games for the Lightning, but that was in a contract year and on a bad team while playing 20 minutes a night. That was a fluke. He is more of a 15-25 goals a year player. Tampa Bay is paying $3.5 million for that. Radim Vrbata also probably had a fluke 2007-08 season when he pumped in 27 goals for a bad team. He will probably never do that again. … I would not have sacrificed Boyle to sign Prospal and Vrbata.

Prospal had 19 goals and was bought out, costing the Bolts $3.5 million a year for the next three years, while Vrbata is playing for the Phoenix-Hamilton Coyote Berries.

All these didn't seem like very hard things to figure out if you watch the games. When you see people make decisions like these, you really have to question whether they watch the games.

But the past is gone. The question is this season.

It appears to me the Lightning will improve on their 66-point total. Alex Tanguay is not much different statistically from Prospal, but for the first time, he is playing on a team not named Colorado, Calgary or Montreal. Those are some serious hockey markets. Now, he has zero expectations on a team with zero expectations. That, and playing with Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis on a one-year contract, might result in a season above his means.

Steven Stamkos should continue to grow and evolve into a top-10 NHL player. If he gets power-play time, which he should, and reaches 200 shots on goal, he will sniff 30 goals. Malone is obviously a candidate for a bounce-back season.

On defense, Tampa Bay looks solid. I think Hedman will have an immediate impact. The second overall draft pick is a huge, strong skater, and as I said here many times last season, I would have taken him first in last year's draft. Tampa Bay has a future Norris Trophy winner. With Stamkos up front and Hedman along the line, the Lightning are in great position going forward.

And that is precisely why I believe the best move this franchise can make is to purge every player not named Hedman, Stamkos or Mattias Ohlund. I'm talking about Lecavalier ($7.7 million cap number) and St. Louis ($5.25 million). I know Lecavalier has done great things in the community that are way more important than hockey, but his salary will drag this team down as the cap drops during the next couple of years. His best days are behind him. Just losing his salary is a win. If this team was primed to win a Cup, I would think differently.

St. Louis will turn 34 in June. His numbers will start to slide soon (although he has good value right now), but I understand he is popular and entertaining and you still are trying to sell a product.

Subtracting those salaries and getting a good return is probably the right move and, in this economic climate, possibly a necessity.

11. Montreal Canadiens



Yeah, outer space, it's a lovely place
A long lost love in a flower vase
Laying on the floor shattered, battered and bruised
-- "Sad, Sad City" by Ghostland Observatory

I'm a bit of a contrarian. I find one can learn more about a topic or issue if one looks at all sides and sees things from different points of view. From there, things generally come down to a basic value system and common sense.

It's hard to be different these days. It is such a cookie-cutter world. It's hard to go against the tide without isolating oneself and risking obscurity. Like Hyman Minsky. He was an expert in finance and crisis who passed away in 1996. He was an economist who saw our future and decades ago predicted precisely the kind of economic meltdown we've recently been through. It can be summed up in a fantastic quote one also can apply to blackjack and skydiving: "Success breeds a disregard of the possibility of failure."

So, as each Montreal Canadiens transaction came across the wires this past summer, I was so perplexed that the contrarian thought that kept coming into my head as I slapped sunscreen on my face and contemplated something that seemed so obviously batty was, "You know, it sounds so crazy that it just might work."

• $5 million a year for five years for a 5-foot-7, 30-year-old Brian Gionta, who except for one career season is a 20-goal scorer?

• Trading for a $7.3 million cap hit in Scott Gomez? A 65-point player.

• Signing Jaroslav Spacek and Hal Gill for a combined $6 million? Why not give Komisarek $5 million and a washing machine a million dollars and put the washing machine on the ice in front of Carey Price every three minutes?

Now, I like Gionta and Gomez. They are competitors who won a Cup together in 2003. But I don't like their prices and how they fit in Montreal. It all seems like such a mishmash of stuff, a chain-restaurant salad bar where the cottage cheese falls into the applesauce and mayonnaise is in the Italian dressing. Like I said, it looks so bizarre, so unconventional, so crazy … I wonder whether it just might work.

Nah.

10. Ottawa Senators



These bandages cover more than scrapes, cuts and bruises from regrets and mistakes
I've been hoping you're moping around the street again
I've been tripping from sipping the dripping dirty water tap …
I've been poking a voodoo doll that you do not know I made
For you, of you, let's see what needles do
-- "Bandages" by Hot Hot Heat

The San Jose Sharks will not visit Ottawa this regular season. What a shame. The only game between the two teams will be in San Jose on Dec. 1. Former Shark Jonathan Cheechoo will be greeted warmly.

My theory on Dany Heatley is this:

He went through a tragedy in Atlanta, and part of his grieving process was moving away from the scene of the accident. He was traded to Ottawa and immediately scored 50 goals. On the ice, the situation couldn't have been better; off the ice, he probably didn't want to live in Ottawa long-term and could pick a place to sign when free agency was on the horizon.

Then, Ottawa offered Heatley a six-year extension worth $45 million as it was winning and he was scoring, a deal that was front-loaded with salaries of $8 million a year. The last two years of the deal, he'd bring home $6 million and $5 million. Signing this deal would be a life-changer. Heatley knows as well as anyone how precious health is; how could you turn down that much money?

"Anything could happen between now and free agency. I could take a stick in the eye and lose my vision. I could shred my knee so badly, I might never be able to run again and thus never be a high-level player. Maybe I can learn to be happy with all this money and make the best of it. I should sign the contract and deal with the future later."

Later was this past summer.

That is my general theory.

And so Heatley is now a Shark, and that is bad news, because one of the issues last season for Ottawa was goal scoring. 237 goals. This season, goal scoring probably will be a concern again unless we see unexpected, corresponding performances way better than the means of the core group.

The Senators must turn into a defensive-minded team, which doesn't play to the strengths of Jason Spezza, who has a $7 million dollar cap hit for the next six years. I love Spezza, but I wonder how he fits in this Ottawa mix. I doubt he and his advisers would ever demand a trade, but I wonder whether it will be hinted over time, casually, over drinks. Again, this is a theory, but I do believe it's worth looking at as the season goes along. A team like St. Louis is young and looking to add that one game-changing piece up front. Just something to think about.

Meanwhile, the Sens will begin the season with a decent top-six group, although Daniel Alfredsson and Alexei Kovalev are clearly on the slide, and Cheechoo's goal totals have gone from 56 to 37 to 23 to 12. The veterans could have one more burst in them, but that can't be expected. This team doesn't have dependable goal scoring.

Defense and goaltending are also concerns, and they're why the Senators can't be counted on for the playoffs. Now, after coach Cory Clouston took over in February, the Senators scored more than they gave up. If they can do that for a full season, the Sens have a shot. But Minnesota, Buffalo and Florida all scored more than they gave up last season but didn't make the playoffs.

The Sens are gambling on Pascal Leclaire ($3.8 million!), he of one good season playing for the best friend of all goalies, Ken Hitchcock. If he flops, this thing will fall off the rails fast. If Leclaire is great and the Sens play great team defense with opportunistic scoring and an above-average power play, they can be the mix for the eighth playoff spot.

9. New Jersey Devils



I don't have the time to go back in time
I already lived it
Just stay close
Wait for the sun
Learn to live this life, learn to get along
Just stay close, wait for the stars
Until they realign just like the first time
-- "Close" by Pete Yorn

The Devils had two exceptional regular seasons under coach Brent Sutter, earning 99 and 106 points, respectively, but failed to win a playoff series. Since the Devils won their last Stanley Cup in 2003, they (the coach, the GM, Martin Brodeur or whoever else you choose to "blame") have won just two playoff series.

Sutter wanted to return to western Canada and now coaches the Flames. Welcome back, Jacques Lemaire. Lemaire had a very successful five-year run with the Devils. (Three times they eclipsed 100 points, and they won the Stanley Cup in the lockout-shortened season of 1994-95.) Lemaire "retired" after the 1997-98 season but resurfaced in Minnesota after a two-season break from coaching.

It will be difficult for Lemaire to improve on last season's Devils performance. They scored goals (244) and didn't give up many (209). They have one of the best and, for my cake, one of the five most exciting players in Zach Parise.

So, why in the world am I picking the Devils to just miss the playoffs? Well, I believe every team but the Islanders has at least a chance to make the top eight in the East, and the Devils have a very good chance. But as I look at the Devils' roster, two things concern me: (1) age and (2) dependable scoring after Parise.

Age: A lot of players have a 3 in front of their ages, and the most important Devil, Martin Brodeur, will turn 38 in May. This increases the chance of injury and unexpected drops in production, kind of like Brian Rolston has had. His point totals have gone like this the past four seasons: 79-64-59-32. He could bounce back into the 40s if he gets more ice time, but one can't bank on it. His cap number is $5 million for the next three years.

Dependable scoring: Parise, if healthy, is a lock. If he were to get injured, this team would be toast. Dainius Zubrus is a good-player-on-a-bad-team type of player. If he plays a lot, the team stinks; when he plays 15 minutes a game, he is hardly noticeable. Will Travis Zajac repeat last season's 20-42-62 performance? Patrik Elias will turn 34 in April. Was last season his last point-per-game campaign?

The Devils have some cap room and can address any issues, but I'm a little concerned they just might be on the outside looking in.

8. Florida Panthers



This my excavation and today is Kumran
Everything that happens is from now on
This is pouring rain
-- "Re: Stacks" by Bon Iver

If the concert scenario we presented in the Islanders preview needed an opening act, it almost certainly would be Bon Iver. Although mesmerizing and without gravity, this is not pep-rally music. ("Re: Stacks" is the No. 1-played song in my car right now. Then, Five Finger Death Punch.)

Then again, the creative force behind Bon Iver -- Justin Vernon (good hockey name) -- reportedly spent three months in his dad's remote cabin in northwestern Wisconsin recording Bon Iver's CD, "For Emma, Forever Ago." This is not the setting that will produce "Who Let the Dogs Out?" That's for places like South Florida and its perpetual winter sunshine. Bon Iver wouldn't fit there as much as it seems Jay Bouwmeester didn't. He opted for a gigantic pickup truck and Calgary winters, the Bon Iver Northwest Territory.

Bouwmeester's arc has been predictable. He was a nonfactor at ages 19 and 20, his first two years in the NHL; thus, the Panthers needlessly burned two years of his service time. The lockout hit when he was 21. After that, his game took a leap to what he has been the past three years: about 15 goals and about 40 points and a breakup with South Florida. Last season, JayBo was tied for 23rd in points among defensemen. That got him $6.8 million a year for five years (and hopefully a few more laughs and smiles).

Now, what about the Panthers? Florida has some solid skill within its top nine forwards. The question is trying to figure out whether one person can step up as this team's leader and rock. I really like Stephen Weiss' offensive game, and he made a nice leap to 61 points last season. Can he get to 75 or 80? Not sure. Will David Booth become a 30-goal-a-year, dependable player, or will he never score 30 goals again? Nathan Horton seems like the perfect hockey player and a legitimate first-line star who will bust out a 40-40-80 season soon. He is 24 and has played 357 NHL games. What is Michael Frolik's ceiling?

The defense has five solid blueliners, but if there is one area where a trade could shore things up at the trade deadline, it is on the blue line. Any injuries here, and this team would be in big trouble. But can the Panthers add any more salary to a $49 million payroll? With advertising dollars down and ticket-sale challenges up, this organization must be bleeding money. I'm not sure if it can add another penny.

One way to help stop the bleeding is to get off to a good start and have all this young talent congeal into a force that once again will sniff at a low-90s point total. Maybe that will put a few more people in the seats; maybe it won't. If it doesn't, and the money continues to fly out the window and rain down on one of Florida's 863 toll roads, there could be a guy flying to South Florida very soon with a Canadian flag in one hand and a BlackBerry in the other if things don't work out in Arizona.

I'm ridin' with the Panthers.

7. New York Rangers



But tell me what you're thinking
I so often misconstrue
Treading water, treading white wine
Seeing borders, seeing straight lines
I get these feelings that I don't have much time
-- "Treading Water" by Nada Surf

In the past 11 NHL seasons, the New York Rangers have won two playoff series. High expectations should not really even be part of the equation here. GM Glen Sather took over the organization in 2000, and his drafting and free-agent signings have been highly questionable at times. That said, the Rangers have made the playoffs four straight seasons and have a compelling collection of "stuff" that should make them somewhat interesting and competitive.

Yet this team still has multiple flaws that are covered up by goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, who is its most charismatic player.

Scoring goals was a major problem; the Rangers had just 210 last season. (Only the Islanders had fewer in the East.) The Rangers attempted to rectify that by signing Marian Gaborik after they somehow persuaded Montreal to take Scott Gomez's contract. Gaborik will turn 28 in February, so he is no longer a young man in NHL terms. Players don't usually get healthier as they grow older. When Gaborik is healthy, no player is more exciting from the red line in. He has Pavel Bure-like entertainment value.

Former Minnesota Wild coach Jacques Lemaire undoubtedly suppressed Gaborik's numbers. If he plays 80 games for the Rangers this season, Gaborik will score 45-55 goals. After Gaborik, the Rangers do not have any pure scorers, although Ryan Callahan could get in that 25-30 goal area.

One reason the Rangers' goals total was low was their 14 percent power play. They can play Ales Kotalik on the point and use his booming shot. Maybe Marc Staal (five career goals, zero on the power play) can get better at quarterbacking on the man advantage, but I still don't see an elite power play because of a lack of finishers and creativity around the net.

The Rangers' power play was 16.5 percent two seasons ago, the last season they had Jaromir Jagr. Jagr was exactly the kind of power-play presence the Rangers now lack. In 2005-06, Jagr had 24 goals and 28 assists … on the power play! The unit was at 19 percent that season. I would put the Rangers' over/under at 17 percent for this season.

The Rangers have an odd mix of defensemen; they are half young, half overpaid. Wade Redden and Michal Rozsival make $11.5 million combined. In Pittsburgh, $11.5 million gets you Sergei Gonchar, Brooks Orpik, Kris Letang and Jay McKee. Staal has to make a major jump, and Dan Girardi has to be more consistent. Matt Gilroy, from NCAA champion Boston University, looked real good to me during the preseason. He has an offensive flair. We will see how his skating and board play fare throughout the course of the season.

Coach John Tortorella is a big key to this team. He has to find a way to make all the "stuff" fit together. No real plan has gone into building this organization. It's kind of a throw-stuff-against-the-wall thing with the Rangers, and it's difficult for that philosophy to work in the salary-cap era.

Do the Rangers fit together as a team? Having Sean Avery around doesn't make that easy. Although he is a great skater and underrated playmaker around the net, he is also occasionally a self-centered, divisive/distracting figure who can drain teammates and coaches and make things harder than they should be. Winning, and winning early, will help bring the team together and keep it immune from clownish behavior. I know some have the Rangers out of the Eastern Conference playoff mix (injuries could render that true), but I think there is too much coaching, goaltending and leadership here to keep them out.

6. Buffalo Sabres



I got a problem and I don't know what to do about it
Even if I did, I don't know if I would quit but I doubt it
-- "Because of You" by Ne-Yo

I admit, this is a bit of a risky pick. I have been critical of the Sabres the past couple of seasons because of what appeared to be an immature, frat-boy boorishness at the core of the team that is the antithesis of professionalism. A lot of young men make way too much more money than their age or NHL production warrant. There comes a time when a young man has to become serious in his line of work. Basically, the Sabres' young core needs to grow up and act and play like winners every night. Maybe this is the year, and maybe Mike Grier and the third line can help lead this team from the inside out.

That said, the Sabres are right there. They barely missed the playoffs last season. They can score goals and have a good power play, stable coaching, decent organizational depth and Ryan Miller, who is a big-time goalie just entering his prime.

The team's weakness is certainly its blue line. There is no dynamic presence, but defensive groups are sometimes like middle relief in baseball -- you just don't always know what to expect. (Some seasons, Hal Gill is terrible; in others, he swims with the Stanley Cup in Mario Lemieux's pool.)

There are holes in Buffalo's lineup, but good goaltending and growth among the forwards could help mask the defensive issues until some reinforcements can be found on the farm or the trade block. I also like the fact that the Sabres are about the same team they were last season. The front office has committed to a good number of players via lucrative long-term contracts. Now, it's the players' turn to commit to a consistent effort for the fans who pay them that salary every night. The fact that they have been together should result in a tighter-knit group of guys who play for one another. This should help the Sabres get off to a good start.

How long they keep it going is entirely up to them.

5. Carolina Hurricanes



He's up in the mornin' yawnin' with those work boots on
Workin' like hell 'til the dinner bell brings him back home
Blue collar in his blood, backwoods in his bones
No doubt about it that boy's country strong
-- "Country Strong" by Blake Shelton

The 2003 draft has turned out to be a monster draft and could go down as one of the best of all time. The only whiffs were the Rangers at No. 15 (Hugh Jessiman) and the Blues at No. 30 (Shawn Belle).

Marc-Andre Fleury went first overall, and Eric Staal was drafted second overall. Because of the unbelievable number of good, young players who have entered the NHL since the lockout and the large shadows cast by the big three of Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin, Staal is possibly the most overlooked superstar in the league.

Consider:

1. Staal won't turn 25 until the end of October, yet he has played in 407 NHL games. His talent and experience are at their peak.

2. He has missed one game in his five-year career and played in every regular-season game since the lockout.

3. He probably will score 350 goals before he is 30.

4. He is a power-play monster. During the past four seasons, his power-play goal totals are: 22-17-24-25.

5. A playoff presence: 43 games, 43 points (19 goals, 24 assists).

6. His name is on the Stanley Cup.

Because of all that, he is on my projected 2010 Canadian Olympic team roster. This was from my November 2008 e-mail bag before any announcements had been made:

Joe Sakic will not be on the 2010 Canadian Olympic team. Iginla will be on the team and will be the captain. Also, how in the heck do you pick this team?! Canada has 12 qualified centers! How about some of these possible lines:

Forwards:
Rick Nash-Joe Thornton-Jarome Iginla
Simon Gagne-Sidney Crosby-Jeff Carter
Dany Heatley-Ryan Getzlaf-Corey Perry
Jordan Staal-Mike Richards-Eric Staal

Defense:
Dion Phaneuf-Dan Boyle
Shea Weber-Mike Green
Scott Niedermayer-Chris Pronger

Goalies:
Roberto Luongo
Martin Brodeur
Marc-Andre Fleury

Coach: Mike Babcock

Yes, I had Fleury when everyone thought he was a bum. The way things look now, I would put Crosby, Carter and Nash on the first line; Thornton, Heatley, Iginla on the second; Getzlaf, Perry and Eric Staal on the third; and Toews, Jordan Staal and Mike Richards on the fourth. Richards and Jordan Staal would be my first penalty-killing unit.

That was quite the sidetrack, but as longtime readers know, that's a specialty of mine, something I would bring up in a conversation at a bar. The point is, Eric Staal is really good and has carried the Hurricanes in many ways. He is Carolina's one true star, and many on the Canes have benefited from his world-class speed and game. Recognize Staal and the Hurricanes. Any team with Staal and Cam Ward is a good place to start.

4. Philadelphia Flyers



You want it, you got it
Everything you needed and more
You said it, I heard it
Careful what you wish for
Deleted, defeated everything you've ever been
No mercy, it's the way of the fist
-- "The Way of The Fist" by Five Finger Death Punch

The Flyers won a Stanley Cup in their seventh season of existence in 1973-74; they won another Cup the following season. In all, Philadelphia has made seven Cup finals appearances in 30 years. It's quite a run. It's no mystery why the Flyers have such a passionate and loyal fan base. Besides the cool-sounding name, a name that fits like few others in sports, and how the DNA of hockey fits perfectly with the DNA of Philly, the Flyers simply have been good for a long time.

If you were born in the mid-'60s in Philadelphia, you have been privy to one of the most consistent and entertaining hockey teams in the NHL. Cups, Broad Street Bullies, Bob Clarke's toothless grin, Ron Hextall, Eric Lindros, the Legion of Doom, Keith Jones!, 378 goalies since 1997 and the current crop of players (drafted, traded for and/or free agents). The Flyers are once again an elite team, and there is a 7-year-old kid in south Jersey who will put on skates for the first time in the winter, fall in love with the game and this season's Flyers team and become a Flyers fan for life.

But it's been 11 years since the Flyers' last Cup finals appearance, and we are coming up on 35 years since they won their last Stanley Cup. Since that last Cup finals appearance, the Sixers have reached the NBA Finals, the Eagles have gone to a Super Bowl and the Phillies have won a World Series.

What about this season? Well, the Flyers are once again among the favorites in the East. They have enough young players in key spots to give them a good chance at breaking the 100-point mark. But to make a mark in the playoffs, Jeff Carter and others need to develop a killer instinct and desperation to accompany their talent. That is Crosby's biggest strength: leading his team with a desperation and seriousness. When your most talented player is your hardest and most serious player, like Pavel Datsyuk in Detroit, championships follow.

The Flyers did take some risks during the offseason in an attempt to start taking that next step, which begins by beating the Penguins in the playoffs. (The Pens have ousted the Flyers in two straight postseasons.)

Philly lost 52 goals in Mike Knuble and Joffrey Lupul and is banking on those goals being replaced by a healthy Danny Briere ($6.5 million cap number for six more years!) and Claude Giroux.

Briere will never live up to his outlandish contract. He will turn 32 soon, and durability will be an issue. As he loses half a step from age and injury buildup, he will be in contract-buyout territory. But Briere still has a window to be productive and is a power-play force. He is arguably in the best shape of his life and is very smart, so maybe he can pull it off. He wants to earn his money and help his team.

I really like Giroux. He has genie-wish hands, poetic hockey sense and a sturdiness to his game that can make him a big-time player. He is the real deal. You really have to hand it to the Flyers' scouts. Giroux was a 22nd overall pick. Mike Richards was a 24th overall pick and Carter 11th. Even Simon Gagne (a great two-way player) was a 22nd overall pick in 1998. Giroux, James vanRiemsdyk and, don't forget, former Princeton forward Darroll Powe, who played big minutes last season and is the team's fastest skater, give the Flyers young depth. Powe, Blair Betts and Ian Laperriere will help take the penalty-killing load off Richards and Carter.

And then, there's Chris Pronger. On paper, this changes a lot in the East. His acquisition helps the Flyers in many areas, but it really is designed for one man -- Crosby. Crosby does most of his damage around the net; a force like Pronger can make life a lot harder there. Pronger is one of those players who has earned the respect of officials because of his status in the game and gets away with a lot. That helps a team. Pronger and Crosby should have some mean battles with crosschecks to the teeth and slashes to the back of the knees this season.

But will the Flyers get the goaltending? That's what it comes down to. Ray Emery is the latest installment with Brian Boucher there as insurance. So far, Emery has had a good attitude and is in great shape. This is an important season for his future net worth. Having lots of goal scoring and Pronger will help any goalie.

The Flyers are tougher and deeper and have higher expectations. They should. They are good; if they raise the Cup in June, it will not be a shock.

3. Boston Bruins



The ladder rung won't speak my name
Now even as we jump this ship
Ah, just give me some peace of mind
Cause I … feel the same.
-- "Percussion Gun" by The White Rabbits

The Boston Bruins finished with 116 points last season, the third-most in franchise history. It was a magical season that re-energized a once-frothing, wood-paneling-in-a-triple-decker fan base. But the season ended in shocking horror as the Carolina Hurricanes won Game 7 of the second round of the playoffs in Boston on an overtime goal by Scott Walker, the man who punched Aaron Ward in the face. The loss felt like a telephone pole to the gut. The Bruins had really thought they had all the ingredients to win their first Stanley Cup since 1972. Then it was over. Just like that.

Instead of feeding off last season and building momentum, the Bruins hit a speed bump after strange negotiations with their best pure goal scorer, Phil Kessel. Kessel is a soon-to-be 22-year-old whose career arc looks to be peaking toward a 40- to 50-goal annual turnaround. How this didn't turn into an eight-year contract extension with about a $5.5 million cap number I will never understand.

There must be a deep-seated issue between Kessel and the organization at multiple levels. Maybe Kessel never got over getting benched during the playoffs and couldn't stomach coach Claude Julien and forced his way out. Could the Bruins really underestimate his market value and value to the team? How else can you explain letting that kind of talent leave for draft picks, none of which likely will come close to Kessel's unique talent? You just don't let players with this kind of skating and release go. And during his young career, he has shown he can take his game into the postseason.

Kessel was so entertaining to watch -- a take-your-breath-away talent in the open ice, especially when he would finish off a mad dash with a to-die-for wrist shot. These players sell tickets and jerseys. Oh, and win games. Red Wings fans have Datsyuk; Penguins fans have Malkin and Crosby; Caps fans have Ovechkin; the Hawks have Patrick Kane; Columbus fans will ooh and ahh at Nikita Filatov. Flash isn't a hockey core value, but it energizes fans and players. It's entertainment. What a concept when you charge so much for tickets! Anyone who thinks the Bruins are better without Kessel is nuts. N-V-T-S nuts.

For some Bruins fans, the Kessel trade leaves a bad taste in their mouths. They are not used to Stanley Cups. Anyone 37 years old or younger has not been alive for one. But they are used to not having star players. Ray Bourque and Cam Neely couldn't do it by themselves. Judge Joe Thornton how you will, but he is a star whose career is not over. I would not call Kessel a superstar because he is so quiet and lacks a certain aura, but $5.5 million is not superstar money, and I'm sure Jari Kurri didn't dress up in a Speedo at Edmonton Oilers Halloween parties and sing Whitesnake's greatest hits. Playoff goals are the most important aura builder.

Well, that Speedo boat has sailed out of Boston. So what is Boston left with? Despite losing their most exciting offensive player, the Bruins are still really good. They are deep at forward with smart centers and some wingers who have size and can finish. One of the underrated things about tall players is they can cover more ice on defense in all three zones and deflect and reach pucks others can't (defensive wingspan, if you will).

The Bruins have a deep and sturdy defense with a good balance of skill and brawn. All these players are in front of a goaltender who is the soul of the team. Tim Thomas still plays as if he is living paycheck to paycheck despite having $20 million coming in the next four years. Everything starts with his intensity and competitiveness. You don't have a hockey team unless you have a goalie.

And the Bruins are a very good, disciplined, defensive team that is outstanding in its own end. Through that prism, the Bruins won't miss Kessel. But they will miss his exhilarating goals and 40- to 50-goal scoring rate. They won't score 274 goals this season and win the division by 23 points, but they still will be very good, will have first-round draft picks to trade at the deadline and should be in position to win a playoff series or two. But can they match the talent of the Penguins, Capitals and Flyers? Not when Kessel is wearing a Maple Leafs jersey.

2. Washington Capitals



I'm feeling rough
I'm feeling raw
I'm in the prime of my life
Let's make some music
Make some money
Find some models for wives
-- "Time to Pretend" by MGMT

The Washington Capitals had the most points in franchise history last season. They have the best player in franchise history and have never been a more exciting team. Now the question is: Are they a championship team?

"Time to Pretend" is a bang-on song about the excess and judgment of young people with money. The song's story doesn't end well. What story will the Caps write? Are they a championship team?

As of this moment, and by that we mean since they lost Game 7 to the Penguins in the second round of the playoffs last season, they are not. They have unproven goaltending and are not championship-caliber in their own end. Their defensemen are not terrible, but you sometimes get the sense their skill guys aren't gritty enough and their gritty guys aren't skilled enough. It's as if something is slightly off.

A good move was signing Mike Knuble. He is 37 and is not Superman, but the Caps need grittier, talented players who go into the high-traffic areas as they look to take the next step. Their whole goal should be to accumulate and coach smart, reliable, dependable players. To that end, I would look to trade Alexander Semin, whether it's now or down the line, to perhaps add a piece but certainly free up his cap number. He is outrageously skilled, but the Caps have plenty of skill, and I question whether he will grow into a reliable two-way player. The team has to look at Mike Green and Ovechkin and build the team from that standpoint.

Semyon Varlamov is the biggest piece to a Stanley Cup puzzle at this moment. For one, he is cheap at $820,000 if he is the real deal. He will have to make big saves in big spots to cover for a team that right now thinks offense first. Can he do that for the next eight and a half months to Stanley Cup glory? That is a major question mark.

Ovechkin is the biggest force and personality in the game. For my money, he is among the heavyweights in that category in all sports. Make no mistake, I love everything about Ovechkin, and none of what I'm about to say is an indictment on him. But the Caps need others to step up and be personalities and be forces. You go down the roster, and there just are not many confrontational players.

Sometimes I wonder whether Ovechkin's personality, not intentionally or contrived like an NFL wide receiver's, overshadows everything here, and others are either ill-equipped or too reticent to step up. I may be wayyyy overanalyzing, but hockey is a team game that requires almost one personality. Recent Cup winners have had leaders such as Crosby, Nicklas Lidstrom, Scott Niedermayer, Eric Staal, Lecavalier, Sakic, Scott Stevens, Steve Yzerman and so on. And historically, Wayne Gretzky and Bobby Orr are the examples of great players almost withdrawing to bring out the value and purpose in others and fortify one team going in one direction with concentrated purpose.

Does this mean Ovechkin should change? No. He is a joy. And you can see the genuine joy he feels when his teammates do well. He is always the first one there to celebrate. In this case, the Caps' front office should start to identify the kinds of players who can do the dirty things to help them win, and the current players should step up, be personalities on and off the ice to fill in the gaps and give it a balance.

They are the NHL's ultimate rock show. Wild and crazy. It's a great show that may be in need of a few front-office finishing touches for a championship that would result in the craziest Stanley Cup party of all time. How will this song end?

1. Pittsburgh Penguins



Now they save me my place
Over there in the corner
And I never get tickets
Yeah, I only get warnings
But when I was broke I needed it more
And now that I'm rich
I get free coffee
-- "Free Coffee" by Ben Folds

I often get e-mails from high school and college students asking me to answer a few questions for a paper they are writing about a career in journalism. A consistent question centers on what advice I would give to people who seek a career in what I generally do. I recently gave this answer:

The people who separate themselves in any line of work do so by being creative and by paying attention to detail. And neither of those things happen without energy and love. That's the secret to life.

Not bad, huh? I believe in those words. There are too many examples of the finest things in life -- GPS, the iPod connection in my car, Zambonis, Google, ATM machines and being able to charge my Twix bars -- to think that energetic and creative people who pay attention to detail are the only kinds of people who could conceptualize and produce such cool things. I also believe a big chunk of any success just comes down to right place/right time/cosmic luck.

The Penguins were lucky that former GM Craig Patrick drafted Marc-Andre Fleury instead of a center in 2004, which meant they would be terrible again the following season. They then were lucky that a talent like Evgeni Malkin was there in the 2004 draft and even luckier he stayed in Russia during the 2005-06 season, which guaranteed the Penguins would be horrible again, even though they had 18-year-old Sidney Crosby. Being horrible that season enabled the Pens to draft Jordan Staal, giving them the best center trio in hockey. Most of this was luck.

From there, it takes energy, experience and, yes, attention to detail to finish the job. No one is infallible, but it takes someone who has a good batting average in identifying player worth and how it fits in within the rest of the team. Now, I understand this is all much easier when your centers are Crosby, Malkin and Staal and your goaltender is Fleury. That is some major talent. But other parts help win a Stanley Cup. Rob Scuderi saving a goal. Maxime Talbot scoring in a Game 7.

This takes a systematic approach in dealing with the roster and a keen understanding of whom to let go, whom to choose to extend and whom to choose to pounce on. And if Marian Hossa doesn't want to play with two of the greatest players in the world for the next seven years, move on and change course. There are many answers to the same problem, and because of the big three, you can actually not hit a home run every time while setting prices on people you're comfortable with.

GM Ray Shero and the Penguins believed Scuderi's $3.4 million-a-year offer from the Kings was way too high, so they replaced him with Jay McKee at $800,000. This is identifying what is important to your team and how much value you put on it. These are hard decisions, but that's what parenting and managing is all about: making the hard decisions with conviction.

Yes, there probably is still some room for growth among the Penguins' young core. They are still young enough to see progress and make the chance of repeating strong. They have all the ingredients to do this again, as long as they have what a young journalist needs as he or she is starting out in the field -- a little skill and a whole lot of luck.

John Buccigross' e-mail address -- for questions, comments or crosschecks -- is john.buccigross@espn.com.

John Buccigross | email

SportsCenter anchor
John Buccigross joined ESPN as an anchor in October 1996. He currently can be seen as an anchor on "SportsCenter." Buccigross frequently contributes to ESPN.com during the season.