Over the next few days, the staff here at The Cannon are going to offer up their mid-season playoff predictions. We are going to predict the final seedings of all 30 teams, and give you our pick for Stanley Cup winner. After the jump I'll start with my predictions for the Eastern Conference:
1) Philadelphia Flyers - The battle for top spot in the East will come down to Philly or Pittsburgh. At this point Philly sits in first, and I believe they have the firepower and depth necessary to make another deep run. They have a ton of experience from last year's run to the Cup final, and the sting of defeat is still fresh in their minds. Goaltending is a bit of a question mark (in Philly? Nahhh) but if they can pick up a guy like Tomas Vokoun at the deadline, that would just about cement their status as the one seed.
2) Tampa Bay Lightning - The Lightning are one of the most exciting young teams in the league, and now that they finally have stability with ownership and management, they are ready to become a powerhouse team in the near future. Given the relative struggles of the Washington Capitals this season, Tampa sits atop the Southeast division, and are playing at a high level. Goaltending was killing them early in the season, but a shrewd move by GM Steve Yzerman brought goaltender Dwayne Roloson over from the Isles. Roli has four shutouts already as a member of the Lightning. With the firepower they possess, and a rock in the cage, look for the Bolts to hang on to their 2 seed.
3) Boston Bruins - The Bruins benefit this year from playing in a weak division. They have basically been without number one center Marc Savard all season, and yet the team still has a lethal group of forwards, a mobile and productive defense corps, and potential Vezina winner Tim Thomas between the pipes. The Habs will give the Bruins the biggest push for the division lead, but Boston is just the better team and should hold on to the three seed.
4) Pittsburgh Penguins - The Pens are in the midst of a bit of a skid, but that's due entirely to Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin being out due to injury. When those guys return, the Pens will finally have a healthy lineup and will make a hard charge for the division crown, but will finish just short. Look for the Pens to make noise in the playoffs no matter where they are seeded however.
5) Montreal Canadiens - The Habs are built to win now, rather than later. They don't have the services of 2010 playoff hero Jaroslav Halak, but the timing couldn't be any better for Carey Price, as he is in the midst of his breakout season. The defense is a mixture of mobility and toughness, if P.K. Subban can dial down the emotions a bit he can supply a ton of offense in a rover role. The forwards are skilled, and the addition of Jeff Halpern has helped to stabillze the bottom six. Shitbird Maxime Lapierre was shipped out, and AHL sniper Max Pacioretty looks like he is finally ready for a full time job with the Habs. This team will be tough to play against down the stretch.
6) New York Rangers - The Rangers are a difficult team to handicap. They don't wow you in any respect, but they have the pieces in place to make a run. Vinny Prospal, who has been out all season, is about to make his season debut. If he can slide on to the top line with Marian Gaborik and say, Artem Anisimov, that trio can make some noise and be very productive. They have some of the best role players in the NHL in Brandon Dubinsky and Ryan Callahan, and of course world-class goalie Henrik Lundqvist in the cage. This is a team that needs to upgrade their blueline at the trade deadline- they need some scoring punch from the back end. (But then again, who doesn't?)
7) Washington Capitals - While they have not lived up to most people's expectations, the Caps are still a good team with one of the two best players in the world leading the charge. The biggest issue with the Caps in my estimation is that they have become a one-line team- their pluggers aren't producing and they don't have much of a second line. Running with three rookie goaltenders is a gamble, I'm curious to see if they make a run at acquiring a goalie at the deadline.
8) Atlanta Thrashers - The Thrashers have just enough talent to make the playoffs. That's if they don't trade it all away between now and the end of the month. The forwards are a unique group, offering a little bit of everything. Their strength is on defense, where they possess a Norris trophy candidate in Dustin Byfuglien, all star Tobias Enstrom (named to the team, couldn't play due to injury), 2010 cup winner Brent Sopel, and mobile rearguard Ron Hainsey. Young stopper Ondrej Pavelec has veteran Chris Mason mentoring him.
9) Buffalo Sabres - The Sabres are on a bit of a run right now, but unless they make some moves in and around the deadline, they just don't have the firepower necessary to hang with the big boys in the East. It would be a different story if Derek Roy didn't go down for the season with an injury, and Thomas Vanek wasn't the only guy putting the puck in the net on a regular basis. I like the makeup of their defense, and Ryan Miller is as solid as they come, but the Sabres fall just short.
10) Carolina Hurricanes - This one I don't feel as confident about. The Canes are one of those teams that can come out of nowhere and string together a bunch of wins. They have a solid group of forwards led by Eric Staal and likely Calder trophy winner Jeff Skinner, a decent defense and above average goaltending with Cam Ward. The Canes could very well be the eighth seed, rather than the Thrashers. The battle between those two teams will be an interesting one.
11) Florida Panthers - At this point I have them quite high, but if they have a firesale at the deadline and ship out guys like Stephen Weiss, Bryan McCabe, Tomas Vokoun etc. they will no doubt tumble in the standings. If they stand pat and make minor moves, they will float around the 11 spot.
12) New Jersey Devils - The Devils dug themselves quite a hole, but are on fire right now. If they continue this pace, which they are capable of (especially when Zach Parise comes back...) they will climb up the standings. They won't make it past 12 however, they were too far gone.
13) Toronto Maple Leafs - The Leafs just don't have enough of anything to contend. If the blueline (a relative strength) gets gutted at the deadline as expected, the team will just be spinning its tires until the end of the season. If it wasn't for the 14th team in my ranking, they'd be lower. (Wait, obviously!)
14) Ottawa Senators - I have always had a soft spot for the Sens. I don't know why, but I liked the way they did things. This season however, has been hellish. I expect them to be in full firesale mode come the end of the month, shipping out as many veterans as they can. This team is primed for a rebuild, they don't have many good young forwards, but young blueliners Erik Karlsson and David Rundblad and goaltender Robin Lehner are a good start.
15) New York Islanders - The Isles are a mess, there's not much to say here other than they will likely ship out more veterans at the deadline, and continue to build through the draft. They desperately need the Lighthouse Project to go through.