2011 Stanley Cup Contenders – Eastern Conference
Much of this past offseason has been focused primarily on the movement of prospects throughout the East and their inherent effect on their new team. Some names that come to mind are Taylor Hall, Erik Gudbranson, and Tyler Seguin. And lets not forget the infamous Ilya Kovalchuk salary scandal that plagued the news this summer. But will any of these players have a lasting effect on their team, giving them a shot at the Stanley Cup this year?
I last looked at the potential playoff candidates from the Western Conference. Here are 3 teams from the East that I see as serious cup contenders.
Eastern Conference Cup Contenders
Ever since they acquired Alexander Ovechkin, Washington has progressively become a more solidified hockey club. With Ovechkin perenially producing 100 point seasons, and Niklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin having strong outputs themselves, Washington is a continued threat for the cup this year. With an astounding 318 goals last season (46 more than the team behind them), look for that trend to continue in the regular season. For the playoffs, their offense suffered incredibly, as Ovechkin was literally shut down, and no one else stepped up to the plate. This year, they are going to have to carry their regular season success into the offseason. Lets also not forget the Michael Nylander factor, who missed all of last season twiddling his thumbs in the AHL and on the Finnish elite team, Jokerit, due to attitude issues with the Caps. Although it seems unlikely, if Nylander finds himself back on the roster, he will add even more depth to the most offensive team in the league. Defensively, the Caps have had a little more trouble. Aside from Mike Green who is an offensive defensemen in his own right, the team doesn’t have much going for them on the back end of the ice. Despite leading all NHL teams in offense last year, their goals against weren’t anything to brag about, as they surrendered 233 last season. This wasn’t helped by the fact that Semyon Varlamov and Jose Theodore weren’t doing their part in net. For the Caps to make past the first round of the playoffs this year, they are going to have to sort out the defensive and goaltending situations. This could mean sacrificing some of their offense, but short of adapting a “score more than the other team before they score on us” policy, that seems to be their only option to live up to their expectations in the playoffs.
Achilles Heel: Last year Washington was eliminated from the playoffs due to their lack of offensive productivity and shaky goaltending. In order to do well this year, someone is going to have to take some of the pressure off of Ovechkin, to help put more pucks in the net. Additionally, Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth have to buck up, or buck out.
Last year the Flyers barely squeezed by into the playoffs, 1 point ahead of the New York Rangers. They surprised everyone by beating the 2nd seeded Devils, and continued their winning spree up until the Stanley Cup Finals where they fell short at the hands of the ‘Hawks. This year they’re looking to take a shot at the cup again, but with some major changes to their roster. The most noteworthy departure from their team was the speedy Simon Gagne. Last year Gagne played a big role in putting up points and controlling the flow of play during the playoffs, and his absence from the team will surely be noticed. Aside from his departure, the Flyers look to be a much stronger team this season, if that’s even possible. The added strength and experience of former Tampa Bay defensemen, Andrej Meszaros, will add to the talent at the back alongside powerhouses Chris Pronger and Kimmo Timonen. One of the areas the Flyers struggled with in last year’s playoffs was their ability to keep pucks from going into their own net. Meszaros’ presence should be a significant positive factor to their defensive force this year. In addition to defense, another problem Philly faced last year was their goaltending situation. Brian Boucher had a terrible post-season outing, and had it not been for Michael Leighton‘s surprising performance, the Flyer’s would not have come close to the Finals. Nonetheless, Leighton did have some moments that made many question if he was ready to be the starting goaltender. Offensively, Philadelphia is very strong, as Daniel Briere and Mike Richards showed they were capable of leading their team further than anyone thought possible. The team also has potential in their young stars, Claude Giroux and James Van Riemsdyk, who also had strong playoff performances last year which the hope to repeat. One additional factor to the team’s success will be the performance of Nikolai Zherdev. Zherdev spent a season away from the NHL last year, playing for the Atlant Moscow Oblast of Russia, but his youth and success in the past should reflect positively on the Flyers this season.
Achilles Heel: Philadelphia’s main worry this year will be their goaltending situtation. They need to get another solid performance out of Leighton if they want to drink from the cup. They are also going to rely heavily on the development of the younger skilled players, as well as the leadership capabilities of Chris Pronger and Mike Richards.
Boston is one of the few teams in the NHL that has gotten much better over the last few years, without making any major changes to their roster. They’ve achieved this through a strong prospect development program as well as a very capable head coach, Claude Julien. The biggest focus on the Bruins this year will be the pair of binoculars pointed directly over Tyler Seguin. There can only be speculation as to how much playing time he’ll see this season, but based on the Bruin’s young roster, don’t be surprised to see alot of Seguin this season. Rookies are like lottery tickets in the sense that you can win alot or win nothing. Seguin has the potential to play well this season, but as to whether he’ll be able to do it is another matter. Boston could use his offensive talents though, as they only put out 206 goals last season, and that was reflected in the playoffs. Up front, the Bruins will have to rely heavily on the perfomance of David Krejci and Patrice Bergeron, and the veteran leadership of Mark Recchi. These 3 players will likely have the largest effect on the team’s offense this year, in both the regular season and the playoffs. Some additional crucial players are Marc Savard and Milan Lucic, who missed much of last season due to injury, and likely weren’t completely healed for the playoffs. Defensively the Bruins are set. Th towering Zdeno Chara has proved to be an influential leader in the past and perhaps the most well rounded defensemen in the NHL, as he is proficient in both offensive and defensive qualities. The team is also strengthened by another trio of talented D-men, Andrew Ference, Dennis Wideman, and Dennis Seidenberg. Wideman contributed a reasonable amount offensively in both the regular season and playoffs last year, but for the most part, the rest of the Bruins defense doesn’t contribute offensively. As with past seasons, not much has changed in net, as both Tuukka Rask and Tim Thomas are both very capable goaltenders. Look for Rask to get the starting position, but that could change as the season goes by.
Achilles Heel: If the Bruins hope to make it past the second round of the playoffs this year, they will primarily have to stay healthy, and look to improve upon their offensive output. While their defensive is very poweful and defensive minded, their offensive capabilities were lacklustre and was the primary reason they couldn’t beat Philadelphia last year. Boston also needs to be reminded that Zdeno Chara is only one person, and that they are going to require others to step up and lead the team to victory.
Read my last article on potential Western Conference Stanley Cup Contenders and stay tuned for my next article where I review the newly released NHL 11 – I’ll take a look at the game and also reveal a surprise for all readers!