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October 4, 2007
A Hockey Cynic's Guide to the Eastern Conference
Columnist Greg Wyshynski takes a cynical and riotous look at the East, explaining why each team won't win the Stanley Cup and what their worst case scenario will be.
 

(WASHINGTON, DC) -- "People tend to have a short memory in our game and in our business... Few businesses have ever been through what we went through only two years ago and I guess are taking for granted how strongly we came back."

That was Gary Bettman, before the start of the NHL regular season... well, at least the part of the season that didn't take place in complete anonymity and within spitting distance of the Queen.

I'd like to offer an amendment to that statement: It's not that we, the fans, have taken for granted how strongly the league came back from the lockout — it's that we really didn't buy that it came back strongly to begin with.

Attendance numbers were juiced through ticket giveaways and historic discounts at the box office. Online merchandise set records, thanks to the perfect storm of the Buffalo Sabres' uniform change and recent success, and some guys named Crosby and Ovechkin that the kids seem to like. Revenues grew, yet teams were still crying poverty. Meanwhile, the salary cap and floor ballooned to uncomfortable levels that, ironically, mirrored those measured prior to the League's "cost certainty" lockout.

Nowadays, the only certainty is that that two best players from Buffalo are playing for those paragons of small market virtue, the New York Rangers and the Philadelphia Flyers, and that the biggest news in the off-season surrounded one of those teams the lockout allegedly made financially viable (Nashville) looking to abandon its fans.

So we begin this season as we begin every season under the malleable fist of Commissarie Bettman: With a healthy dose of cynicism.

 

This preview isn't for the stat-heads or the fantasy freaks or anyone looking for in-depth analysis of the new season; you know where to find that. This preview is for the guys and gals who scream at their television, will douse an enemy fan in their arena with a cup of beer (domestic, not the good stuff), prefers snark over substance and proudly identify themselves as a puckhead.

This is a Hockey Cynic's Guide to the Eastern Conference – explaining why each team will not win the Stanley Cup, whether its new RBK Edge uniforms are a Uniform Improvement or Fashion Disaster, and the worst case scenario for every team:

ATLANTIC DIVISION

NEW JERSEY DEVILS (49-24-4, 107 points. Lost to Ottawa 4-1 in conference semi-finals.)

Why They Won't Win the Stanley Cup
: Because you can't keep slicing away at the core and not expect the apple to eventually fall apart. In Stevens/Niedermayer/Gomez, the Devils have lost more quality Scotts than William Wallace. Coach Brent Sutter has made noise this preseason about dumping the conservative trap-happy hockey in favor of an aggressive fore-checking style. Combine that new philosophy with perhaps the weakest defensive group that's ever played in front of him, and Martin Brodeur's going to have to earn Roberto Luongo's Vezina this season.

Uniform Improvement or Fashion Disaster?
Neither, although the Devils complained that brawler Cam Janssen was injured when his new RBK Edge sweater ripped during a preseason fight. This is what happens when your general manager "finds" your uniforms off the back of a truck.

Worst Case Scenario
: That the most dangerous thing about the Devils this season is walking five blocks in any direction from their new arena.

NEW YORK ISLANDERS (40-30-12, 92 points. Lost to Buffalo 4-1 in first round.)

Why They Won't Win the Stanley Cup
: Much like a crackhead, the Islanders mortgaged their future for some instant gratification, trading two blue-chip prospects and a first-round draft choice for 18 regular season and 5 playoff games of Ryan Smyth hockey. This off-season, Smyth, Jason Blake and the rest of the league's blue-chip free agents decided they'd rather not scratch and claw their way the eight seed in the Eastern Conference; hence, the Bill Guerin Era begins on the Island. Forget the Stanley Cup – let's just hope Chris Simon doesn't take another crack at Ryan Hollweg to see if the candy falls out this time.

Uniform Improvement or Fashion Disaster?
Fashion Disaster. The Islanders new duds look like they were Frankensteined together from other, better jerseys. Those orange sleeves look like they belong on a Haz-Mat suit.

Worst Case Scenario
: Rick DiPietro sees more shots than a good-looking Italian girl at a Long Island nightclub, and the only postseason awards show appearance by an Islander is Mike Comrie cheering on his gal at the Nickelodeon Teen Choice festivities.

NEW YORK RANGERS (42-30-10, 94 points. Lost to Buffalo 4-2 in conference semi-finals.)

Why They Won't Win the Stanley Cup
: Because although I have the Rangers winning the Eastern Conference, I think it's San Jose's year. Offensively, this team is as deadly as there is in the NHL; defensively, I think this unit is good enough to win the East but will have trouble with the fore-checking freight trains they'll see from the Western Conference. But, as always, the real reason the Rangers won't win the Stanley Cup: Because it isn't 2048 yet.

Uniform Improvement or Fashion Disaster?
Neither. The Rangers' jerseys are still classic and easily identifiable, so you can clearly see who you're trying to throw a beer at in the upper deck.

Worst Case Scenario
: The Rangers squander their galaxy of stars when Henrik Lundqvist does his best impression of the New York Mets.

PHILADELPHIA FLYERS (22-48-12, 56 points. Out of playoffs.)

Why They Won't Win the Stanley Cup
: A few of the goaltenders that have played in more postseason games than Flyers starting keeper Marty Biron:

Scott Clemmensen
John Blue
Peter Skudra
Jamie Storr
Antero Niittymaki

Different season, same song for the Flyers: Great up front, solid defense and a goalie who's got as much experience with the Stanley Cup as Mike Gartner.

Uniform Improvement or Fashion Disaster?
Uniform Improvement. Nice modulation on a now-classic jersey; those black sweaters even make Danny Briere look tough.

Worst Case Scenario
: Please see Flyers, Philadelphia, circa 2006-07.

PITTSBURGH PENGUINS (47-24-11, 105 points. Lost to Ottawa 4-1 in first round.)

Why They Won't Win the Stanley Cup
: Because it's like, what, at least eighth or ninth on Sidney's "Trophies I'm Going To Win" list? He still has to snag the Richard, the Selke and figure out how to retroactively win the Calder; then there's the Pulitzer Prize and the Best Actress at the Golden Globes. But a good start on the way to the chalice would be the Atlantic Division title, which the Penguins will win this season.

Uniform Improvement or Fashion Disaster?
Disaster. I still hate the colorful fabric on the sides of the sweaters. It makes the players look like they're sweating out a Marti Gras decoration.

Worst Case Scenario
: The outstanding young players on the Penguins simultaneously all hit a sophomore slump, and head coach Michel Therrien's formidable shortcomings are exposed. (But, going forward, his inevitable removal might be a best-case scenario).

NORTHEAST DIVISION

BOSTON BRUINS (35-41-6, 76 points. Out of playoffs.)

Why They Won't Win the Stanley Cup
: I think what makes Kevin Garnett such a special player is his controlled ferocity. We're talking about an all-star who hasn't averaged less than 11.4 rebounds per game since 1999-2000, but with an average personal fouls per game of just ... wait, they play hockey in Boston during the winter, too?!

Uniform Improvement or Fashion Disaster?
Uniform improvement, although it's comical that what passes for a revolutionary change in the Bruins' logo are some black lines around the spokes and a slightly different font on their B. I've had pants that were altered more significantly.

Worst Case Scenario
: Manny Fernandez flops, Tim Thomas doesn't answer the bell, and suddenly the Bruins find themselves backstopped by Tuukka Rask, who sounds like he should be slaughtering Jawas on Tatooine.

BUFFALO SABRES (53-22-7, 113 points. Lost to Ottawa 4-1 in conference finals.)

Why They Won't Win the Stanley Cup
: Because you don't lose 164 points, and your top two centers, and then challenge for a championship. I think it was always assumed that Chris Drury was going to leave Buffalo, even though the fans wanted to keep him. But Danny Briere strung Sabres fans along until he signed a 100-year contract (or something like that) with the Flyers. I'm sorry, but you just shouldn't dick around emotionally with a city that still sees Brett Hull's skate in the crease during their night terrors. Or that lost four consecutive Super Bowls. Or watched Frank Wycheck lateraling the ball to Kevin Dyson. Or drafting Willis McGahee. Or...

Uniform Improvement or Fashion Disaster?
Does it matter? The Sabres sold a gazillion jerseys last season with a logo that looked like a demonically possessed cashew nut.

Worst Case Scenario
: Kevin Lowe slips a roofie into Thomas Vanek's water bottle, and he wakes up on Jarret Stoll's wing.

MONTREAL CANADIENS (42-34-6, 90 points. Out of playoffs.)

Why They Won't Win the Stanley Cup
: I have a preseason ritual every year where I re-read the greatest hockey book — and perhaps sports book — of all-time: Ken Dryden's "The Game." What always strikes me about his tales of Montreal hockey is the way the city treated the Canadiens back in the 1970s, and to a certain extent today: They are followed less like a hockey team and more like a religion.

Some religions require a sacrifice; which brings us to Cristobal Huet.

Huet proved to be fragile last season, and he couldn't come through in a critical spot against Toronto with the playoffs on the line. This is a young team — too young for the postseason, let alone the Cup — that was 22nd in the league last year in goals against; and this is a franchise that's nearly read to turn the future over to Carey Price, taken fifth overall in the 2005 Draft. Huet needs to have this team in contention and be borderline excellent — or he's French Toast.

Uniform Improvement or Fashion Disaster?
Improvement. Only the Habs could take state-of-the-art fabrics and design a jersey that actually looks older than what they wore last season.

Worst Case Scenario
: GM Bob Gainey sprains his back while violently waking up in a cold sweat, following a nightmare in which he gave Sheldon Souray money to Roman Hamrlik.

OTTAWA SENATORS (48-25-9, 105 points. Lost to Anaheim 4-1 in Stanley Cup finals.)

Why They Won't Win the Stanley Cup
: Because they didn't bother showing up to try and win it last season. The only good news to come out of last season's Finals was that Dany Heatley and Jason Spezza both earned guest-starring roles on "Heroes" after exhibiting heretofore unknown powers of invisibility.

Uniform Improvement or Fashion Disaster?
Disaster. The road sweaters have way too much white space, the new logo creeps me out: The eyes seem to follow me wherever I go, and it bears a striking resemblance to an angry Kevin Costner.

Worst Case Scenario
: John Paddock pulls a Jim Playfair, and Ray Emery has more appearances in traffic court than in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS (40-31-11, 91 points. Out of playoffs.)

Why They Won't Win the Stanley Cup
: On paper, "The Boys in the Blue Pajamas" (as my good friend Jimmy Patterson calls them) should be about as close to winning a Stanley Cup as the Marlies are. Yet, here is one of the best coaches in the NHL, Paul Maurice. Yet, here is Jason Blake, added to a mix of forwards that includes Darcy Tucker and Mats Sundin and Matt Stajan and Alex Steen. Yet, here is a goaltending duo of Andrew Raycroft and Vesa Toskala, which really isn't all that bad. And here they are in a division that, outside of Ottawa, lacks anything close to a team that can be penciled into a postseason bracket. I'm not saying they're going to win the Stanley Cup, but this team could be a hell of a lot better than any Leaf-hating fan wants to believe.

Uniform Improvement or Fashion Disaster?
Disaster. I miss the horizontal stripe on the bottom of the sweater. The road jerseys look like someone slapped a car magnet on a bed linen.

Worst Case Scenario
: Mats Sundin makes some big headlines... at the trade deadline.

SOUTHEAST DIVISION

ATLANTA THRASHERS (43-28-11, 97 points. Lost to N.Y. Rangers 4-0 in first round.)

Why They Won't Win the Stanley Cup
: PA Sportsticker caught up with Thrashers goalie Kari Lehtonen before the season for the kind of goofy-ass questions I've been known to ask (resulting in piercing stares from NHL PR guys). Like, for example:

Q: Who would portray you in a movie about your life?
A: I don't know his real name. The "Entourage" guy.

But which one? That's the same question the Thrashers fans are asking about their team. Will it be like Vinnie Chase, aesthetically pleasing and confident, unwilling to let any setback spoil his party? Will it be like Eric Murphy, underrated and overlooked but coming through when it counts? Will it be like Johnny Drama, who looks like a star and acts like a star but is yesterday's news? Or will it be like Turtle, on the outside looking in?

Time will tell; but when the playoffs start, disappointed Thrashers fans will be hugging it out, b**ch!

Uniform Improvement or Fashion Disaster?
Disaster. I still love the blue sweaters, but the stupid piping around the shoulders is perhaps the lamest part of the new jerseys.

Worst Case Scenario
: It's the end of the season, the Thrashers need two points to make the playoffs, and Captain Bobby Holik gives a passionate motivational locker room speech... of which no one understands a single word. Besides, they're all distracted by his uni-brow, anyway.

CAROLINA HURRICANES (40-34-8, 88 points. Out of playoffs.)

Why They Won't Win the Stanley Cup
: Because they wouldn't have won the one they won in 2006 if it weren't for the Buffalo defense being decimated in Game 7 of the conference finals and Dwayne Roloson's injury in Game 1 of the Finals. Can we all just stop pretending and agree on that now?

Uniform Improvement or Fashion Disaster?
Disaster. That awful piping around the shoulder pads makes it look like the shoulders, neck and head of each player are detachable. Which is pretty much what Brooks Orpik tried to accomplish with Erik Cole a few years back.

Worst Case Scenario
: Carolina actually makes the postseason, but half the team is unavailable for the first round because Eric Staal planned the pre-playoff party.

FLORIDA PANTHERS (35-31-16, 86 points. Out of playoffs.)

Why They Won't Win the Stanley Cup
: What's interesting about the Panthers is that half the league believes they're a young team coming into its own and poised to make the postseason for the first time since 2000, and the other half of the league believes they're "this close" to selling off Olli Jokinen (39-52-91), Nathan Horton (31-31-62) and Stephen Weiss (20-28-48) like a yard sale in a Clearwater trailer park.

And then there's the entirety of the Canadian media, which believes the Panthers are second only to the Predators as teams about to back up the U-Hauls.

Speaking of Canadian media, my AOL FanHouse buddy James Mirtle thinks Jay Bouwmeester is going to win the Norris. And I think the only way Jay Bouwmeester wins the Norris is if either Nicklas Lidstrom or Chris Pronger changes their name to Jay Bouwmeester.

Uniform Improvement or Fashion Disaster?
Improvement. Not even piping can dull the awesomeness of the Panthers’ dark home uniforms.

Worst Case Scenario
: Tomas Vokoun can't stay healthy, and the Panthers' hopes fall in the capable hands of Craig Anderson — a goalie with 61 career NHL appearances, none of which anybody's actually seen.

TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING (44-33-5, 93 points. Lost to New Jersey 4-2 in first round.)

Why They Won't Win the Stanley Cup
: Will the Bolts please just trade Vincent Lecavalier to Montreal already? He's rumored to be headed there every season, he's going to play there eventually, and Tampa Bay's wet-tissue-paper-impersonating-NHL-goaltending guarantees it isn't getting a sniff of the Stanley Cup. An Original Six team gets a Hart candidate, Tampa Bay will at least get Huet coming back and there's one less rumor David Pagnotta has to waste his time debunking. Win/win!

Uniform Improvement or Fashion Disaster?
Disaster. The revamped logo looks like it came off a new flavor of Gatorade, and the team still refuses to lose that awful lightning bolt on the side of the pants that makes its look like a defunct roller hockey franchise.

Worst Case Scenario: The Bolts make the playoffs by leading the league in goals-scored and trailing the league in goals-against. And Chris Gratton gets traded. Again.

WASHINGTON CAPITALS (28-40-14, 70 points. Out of playoffs.)

Why They Won't Win the Stanley Cup: Because despite the shrewdest postseason of General Manager George McPhee's career, the Capitals have about as much quality depth as Paris Hilton discussing Tolstoy. Whether they make the postseason will depend solely on special teams: If Tom Poti, Michael Nylander and Viktor Kozlov can juice up the powerplay and earn points in the (gag) shootout, this is a playoff team and potentially a division champion.

Uniform Improvement or Fashion Disaster? Improvement, improvement, improvement. While not perfect — I had someone in the industry tell me that the new logo looks like it was done with Microsoft Paint — the colors are spot-on and the white sweaters are just picturesque.

Worst Case Scenario: Niklas Backstrom ends up with more points then Nicklas Backstrom.
 


Greg Wyshynski, also the Sports Editor of The Connect Newspaper, is a columnist for TheFourthPeriod.com, and the Senior Editor and Washington Correspondent for The Fourth Period Magazine. 
His book, "
Glow Pucks and 10-Cent Beer: The 101 Worst Ideas in Sports History" is now on sale.
 

 

 

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