Last year I predicted how the Eastern playoffs would look, and actually was really close. My one big miss would be that I predicted the Flyers wouldn't make the playoffs. I also looked at what it would take for the Islanders to grab either the 7th or 8th seed. Since it's the end of August again, now's as good a time as any to predict what the playoffs may look like.
The biggest change in the Eastern Conference is most likely going to be the Southeast. Although the Capitals will most likely win the division again, there is no way that they can repeat their 19-3-2 intra-division record. With the Thrashers and Lightning making improvements and the Hurricanes hopefully having a healthy Cam Ward, the Southeast isn't going to be the pushover it has been.
In my opinion, in the East there are four teams that should be in the playoffs unless something major goes wrong. There are three teams that look as though they might make the playoffs. There are six teams that are going to be fighting for the 8th seed and maybe the 7th. That leaves one team that is getting nowhere near the playoffs. It does look better for the Islanders, as last year I thought a few teams needed major injuries for the Isles to come close.
The Automatic Four
Washington Capitals: As I mentioned, they are going to be facing a tougher division but should win it again. Will probably finish as the #1 or #2 seed.
New Jersey Devils: Although the rest of the Atlantic has gotten better, the new defensemen make the Devils, an already defense-first team, even better. The eventual return of Ilya Kovalchuk, who was the one player that appeared to try against the Flyers, will make them even more dangerous. Don't overlook the addition of Johan Hedberg, giving them a quality NHL backup. Probably finish #1, #2 or #4.
Buffalo Sabres: Ryan Miller, Ryan Miller, Ryan Miller. As long as he's healthy the Sabres should win the Northeast again. Two seasons ago the Sabres missed the playoffs by 2 points because Miller went down for a bit and Lalime went 5-13-4. The scary thing about Miller is that he keeps getting better. They should be the #2 or #3 seed.
Pittsburgh Penguins: This was the longest break for the Pens since Sidney Crosby's sophmore year. Back-to-back trips to the finals and sending some of their best players to the Olympics took a beating on the Pens. Unless multiple players go down hurt, the Pens should be in the playoffs and pushing the Devils for the Atlantic title. They will probably finish #2, #3 or #4.
The Probable Three
Ottawa Senators: At some point you would think Daniel Alfredsson would break down. But the 38 year old, although on a bit of a decline, is still leading the Senators. Combine that with a solid pair of goalies in Brian Elliot and Pascal Leclaire and you have the ingredients of a playoff team. They can still miss if Elliot has an off year (and Leclaire's health continues to be shaky) or if the Jason Spezza situation causes a distraction. I'd put them in for the #5 seed this year.
Carolina Hurricanes: I don't think I've ever seen a team come back from the brink quite like the Canes did last season. At one point they were dueling with the Edmonton Oilers at the bottom of the league. At the end of the season they were only 8 points out of the playoffs and 18 points ahead of the Oilers. As long as Cam Ward is healthy they should be in the playoffs, either #6, #7 or #8 seed.
Boston Bruins: If I had to pick one team of these three not to make it, I'd say the Bruins. Although Tuukka Rask had an incredible season, it might be asking him a lot to repeat a 1.97 GAA and .930 SV%. At the same time you have Tim Thomas claiming that he still has a shot to reclaim the starters position in Boston. If Rask struggles it could be a long mess in Boston. Even if they don't make the playoffs they still have Tyler Seguin. Most likely the #7 or #8 seed.
The Mess of the Rest
Philadelphia Flyers: As of right now Chris Pronger is saying there's a good chance he won't begin skating until October. When you're a team that made the playoffs by a single point, that makes every game important. Then there's Micheal Leighton. Unfortunately for him history doesn't look good for Flyers goalies who come out of nowhere and lead the team through a fabulous playoffs. He could actually ask his backup Brian Boucher about it. If the Flyers had added Evgeni Nabokov or Marty Turco they would be a lock. Right now though I can see them in the #7 or #8 seed, or missing the playoff cut altogether.
Atlanta Thrashers: The Thrashers made the most out of the Chicago post-Cup fire sale. The question is, how good are the unwanted pieces from a Stanley Cup winner? Dustin Byfuglien, one of the key new pieces, had a tendency to take games off against tougher competition. Of his 16 playoff points, he managed 10 of them in Round 2 and Round 3 while being shut down against the Predators. They should be a team on the rise though and might be able to grab the #8 seed.
Montreal Canadiens: For the last two seasons the Habs have just barely slipped into the playoffs. Usually the 8th seed is a team on the rise, or a team on the fall. So congrats on being perfectly mediocre Montreal. Carey Price is going to be a good goaltender in the NHL. But I have my doubts about how he might handle being the starter in a city that probably thinks they can win the Stanley Cup. I just can't see them making the playoffs this year.
Tampa Bay Lightning: Ever since Stevie Y has come to Tampa, it seems like people have been fawning over his every move. He's been making the right moves, and Tampa is on the right track but this most likely won't be the year. Mostly because the defense still needs some work. Dan Ellis though could be this year's Craig Anderson, and if that happens they might scrap their way into the #8 seed.
Toronto Maple Leafs: If you want a perfect storm of making the playoffs, have Jean-Sebastien Giguere on your team entering a contract year. If Giggy wants to get anywhere near his former$ 6 million a year salary he's going to have to put up an insane year. Otherwise Toronto looks like a mad scientist experiment that might be giving up another top 10 pick to Boston. I see them as a bit of a stretch to get the #8 seed, most likely not going to be in the playoffs.
New York Rangers: I just can't see Henrik Lundqvist and Marian Gaborik both staying healthy over the course of the season. Either one of them going out for any amount of time dampens the Rangers playoff hopes. Gaborik is infamously made of glass, but Lundqvist entering this season has four straight seventy games seasons. If the Rangers can stay healthy they should be in the hunt for the #8 seed, but more then likely an injury will derail them.
Just Not Happening
Florida Panthers: They already announced last year that they were rebuilding, it isn't hard to see them in the Eastern Conference basement.
Where the Islanders are in this lot:
The Islanders are part of the bottom half of the conference trying to claw their way into the playoffs. The Islanders are probably better then the Leafs, Rangers and Lightning. That puts them in a four-way race for the #8 seed with the Flyers, Thrashers and Canadiens. For the Islanders to overtake Philadelphia, the Flyers' goalie situation is going to have to turn out bad and Pronger is going to have to miss a good amount of time. The Thrashers and the Canadiens, although they aren't the strongest teams on paper, are two wild cards when it comes to the playoff race.
The Islanders can fight and claw their way into the playoffs, but it is going to take a lot going right. Dwayne Roloson has to stay healthy and competitive. Every youngster is going to have to continue progressing, and the defense (which on paper looks improved) is going to have to prove it is better. Last year I thought it was going to take a large amount of other teams' injuries and surprise performances for the Islanders to make the playoffs. This year it seems like making the playoffs is much more within the Islanders' grasp.
Thoughts and comments, and your own guesses?