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NHL Network's Button breaks down the East

Monday, 09.28.2009 / 5:00 PM / 2009-2010 Season Preview

NHL.com

 
Everyone is even today in the NHL. With the 2009-10 regular season opening Thursday, optimism reigns in hockey outposts in North America and even in Europe, where the Chicago Blackhawks, Detroit Red Wings, Florida Panthers and St. Louis Blues are opening the season in the 2009 Compuware NHL Premiere series.

But will everyone remain happy once the puck drops? NHL Network analyst Craig Button offers some clues as he breaks down the hockey scene for NHL.com.

Here are some of the questions around the Eastern Conference that will need answering as the season begins.

* Will the Pittsburgh Penguins extend their postseason magic into the regular season?

* How about the Flyers? Can defenseman Chris Pronger and goalie Ray Emery push them over the top?

* Will GM Bob Gainey's major makeover in Montreal present real improvement, or just a new look.

* How will the Ottawa Senators adjust to life without Dany Heatley?

* Do the Washington Capitals have the goaltending to match the offensive brilliance of Alex Ovechkin?

* Are the Toronto Maple Leafs a playoff team after GM Brian Burke's many summertime moves?

Those are some of the questions Button tackled in breaking down each NHL club for NHL.com. Here is Button's Breakdown on the Eastern Conference.

Atlantic Division

New Jersey Devils -- The Devils are the epitome of success. They are always competitive regardless of the circumstances they are confronted with and there are never excuses. Last season was no different and this season will see them competing to be the best in the League once again.

No goaltender wins more than Martin Brodeur and he will establish another goaltending record and be on top of his game.

The emergence of Zach Parise and Travis Zajac is a testimony to the superb scouting and development. The defense is unheralded, but capable.

Jacques Lemaire returns and he will always have the Devils prepared to win. The Stanley Cup is clearly in their sights once again.

New York Islanders -- The future looks promising; unfortunately that future isn't right now for the Isles.

John Tavares, Kyle Okposo and Josh Bailey are the framework for a very dynamic offense. And Doug Weight's experience will benefit the budding stars.

On defense, Mark Streit is an excellent player who is not often mentioned in discussions of the top defensemen in the League. In goal, Dwayne Roloson and Martin Biron are very capable and their additions allow Rick DiPietro to work his way back to full health.

The path is very clear for the Islanders and while patience will eventually be rewarded, there is no fast forward button which can accelerate the process.

New York Rangers -- As one of the lowest-scoring teams in the NHL last season, it should come as no surprise the Rangers were looking for a game breaker. Entering the Broadway spotlight is Marian Gaborik, an explosive offensive player capable of providing the goal which separates a team from winning and losing.

Henrik Lundqvist is superb in goal and consistently keeps the opposition at bay.

John Tortorella emphasizes a constant attack, offensively and defensively, and isn't interested in playing a "safe" game. The Rangers are competitive and an opportunity is in place for their younger prospects to contribute, but the offense will have to improve if they want to advance in the playoffs.

Philadelphia Flyers -- In a city where declarations matter, I declare the Flyers one of the favorites for the Stanley Cup.

Paul Holmgren recognized that to compete with the top teams in the Eastern Conference, certain elements were necessary. Welcome to the Pronger zone. Chris Pronger is an elite player capable of dominating a game from every perspective. Adding him makes their defense one of the best in the NHL, which means their goaltending doesn't have to win games singlehandedly.

Mike Richards is the soul of the team and excels in all situations. Jeff Carter can score, Simon Gagne is a premier winger, Scott Hartnell provides a physical presence and a healthy Daniel Briere is a game breaker.

This could be the year the Flyers go all the way.

Pittsburgh Penguins -- No doubts exist about whether the Penguins' time is now. Those were erased with their Stanley Cup championship last June.

More importantly, the nature of their victory was perhaps more telling. Consecutive 2-1 victories to claim the Cup exemplified a team capable of defensive prowess. Marc-Andre Fleury was brilliant and ensures that the Penguins can be victorious in any type of game. Sergei Gonchar anchors a defense which embodies the skating and skill required to excel in a transition offense.

The offensive firepower of two of the game's brightest stars, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, is a formidable challenge for the best of teams. They certainly are a Stanley Cup contender, but how the replacements for Rob Scuderi and Hal Gill perform will determine if they can repeat.

Northeast Division

Boston Bruins -- Applying the lessons of past experiences to ensure greater success is the Bruins' objective. Tim Thomas provides stellar goaltending. Zdeno Chara is a pillar on the blue line. The forwards are a well-balanced group that provides all the essential elements to be successful. Marc Savard is a premier playmaker, David Krejci a superb two-way player and a fully healthy Patrice Bergeron is poised to return to the form that made him an emerging star.

Combined with the size and power of Milan Lucic and Blake Wheeler, the scoring of Michael Ryder, Marco Strum and Chuck Kobasew and the winners' edge provided by Recchi, the Bruins should have clear visions of Lord Stanley.

Buffalo Sabres -- The duo of GM Darcy Regier and coach Lindy Ruff is as stable and competent as any in the NHL. They continue to ice a competitive team despite player departures.

Ryan Miller is a top-tier goaltender who provides a sense of security. The defense is mobile and adept with the puck. The forwards are capable of scoring, playing physical and skating, and they can make a game very uncomfortable for their opponents from a variety of perspectives.

The only thing which can hold this team back is injuries. It has been a "sore" point in the past and must be avoided this season for them to return to the playoffs.

Montreal Canadiens -- Last season began with high expectations but spiraled downward after Montreal hosted the All-Star Game.

Disappointing results led to change, and it was significant change. Jacques Martin brings a wealth of successful experience and the ability to coach a team to be a sum greater than its parts. Scott Gomez, Mike Cammalleri and Brian Gionta are all accomplished and the Canadiens have a long history of diminutive players -- Henri Richard, Yvan Cournoyer and Mats Naslund to name a few -- being prominent performers.

There is a nice balance of skills among the forwards and defense, but the key for Canadiens success will be Carey Price finding a consistently high level of play.

Ottawa Senators -- When defenseman Zdeno Chara departed Ottawa, the Senators went to the Stanley Cup Final. Senators fans are wishing for a similar outcome after the departure of Dany Heatley.

Bryan Murray addressed a significant problem area for his team with the acquisition of Pascal Leclaire at last season's trade deadline. A healthy Leclaire should ensure this is no longer an area of concern.

The additions of Alexei Kovalev and Milan Michalek give Ottawa more offensive balance. If Jonathon Cheechoo can find his scoring magic and Mike Fisher returns to the form which saw him emerge as a strong two-way player, the playoffs are definitely in the picture for Ottawa.

Toronto Maple Leafs -- Brian Burke has vowed to build a team which consistently competes for the Stanley Cup. The picture isn't complete, but is becoming clearer.

Beginning with a focus on a physical and rugged defense, the additions of Mike Komisarek and Francois Beauchemin will make life miserable for opposing forwards and more enjoyable for Tomas Kaberle.

While still in the maturing stages, the likes of Tyler Bozak, Viktor Stalberg and Nazem Kadri represents Burke's blueprint of skilled, competitive, top-six forwards. The importance of Phil Kessel's acquisition can't be understated because natural goal scorers are often elusive in obtaining. Ron Wilson is a coach who successfully develops individuals and teams alike.

Maple Leafs fans should have every reason to be optimistic.

Southeast Division

Atlanta Thrashers -- Questions abound, but there is reason for optimism. Rich Peverley found chemistry with Ilya Kovalchuk and Bryan Little emerged as a strong scorer who could take scoring pressure off Kovalchuk.

Zach Bogosian has the skills to be an elite defenseman and Evander Kane is a bright prospect. Pavel Kubina and Nik Antropov should allow the younger players an opportunity to grow without being overwhelmed.

Scoring isn't an issue for the Thrashers, but goaltending has been unsettled and inconsistent, and without dependability in goal the playoffs will remain but a hope.

Carolina Hurricanes -- GM Jim Rutherford believes in the tried and true. Last season fans saw a rekindling of the magic from the Stanley Cup of 2006, so welcome back Aaron Ward in addition to previous re-acquisitions Erik Cole and Matt Cullen. The Hurricanes have nine players from that championship team and with the addition of Stephane Yelle with two Cups, they are a team with a blend of winning experience and some good younger players hungry to win.

Cam Ward gives the Hurricanes excellent goaltending, the defense is solid and the forwards led by Eric Staal are a challenge for opposing teams. They have the elements to compete for their second championship.

Florida Panthers -- Recent seasons have seen the Panthers close to making the playoffs and this season should provide similar drama.

Stephen Weiss is a very productive two-way player who is improving. David Booth is player all teams covet for his skills and physical play. Nathan Horton can be a game breaker and with Michael Frolik, Rostislav Olesz and Cory Stillman up front, scoring should not be a problem.

New captain Bryan McCabe had resurgence in his play and Keith Ballard plays to win. If the Panthers can avoid long-term injuries to significant players, the goaltending tandem of Tomas Vokoun and Scott Clemmensen should help playoff hockey return to South Florida. 

Tampa Bay Lightning -- Five years removed from their Stanley Cup triumph, the Lightning has their sights set on erasing the memories of the past two seasons.

There is considerable upside with the additions of top prospects Steve Stamkos, who has the talent to be a premier forward, and Victor Hedman, with the potential to be the elite defenseman championship teams have. Vincent Lecavalier and Marty St. Louis remain top players and can be catalysts for a turnaround in Tampa Bay.

There is more than enough depth on defense and Mike Smith showed himself to be very capable of providing strong goaltending. Rick Tocchet will have them competitive and competing for a playoff spot, not for the top selection in the 2010 Entry Draft.

Washington Capitals -- The Caps have an attack mentality. They come at opponents in so many different ways that it is extremely difficult to stop them. Similarities to the dynasty days of the Edmonton Oilers are evident throughout their lineup.

Alexander Ovechkin is a force of power and skill and his engine revs at high RPMs. Nicklas Backstrom has the precise vision and puck skills to create offense when he has the puck. Alexander Semin is always dangerous and takes some of the scoring onus off Ovechkin.

Mike Green jumps into the rush as well as any defenseman in the League and creates challenges for the best of defenses. Semyon Varlamov showed the calm, cool demeanor necessary to win in the playoffs.

Visions of the Stanley Cup are clearly in their sights.


Quote of the Day

I kept refreshing the page on the NHL website after the second round and I was shocked he lasted that long. I'm sure the Coyotes were pretty happy to get him. He's such a good player and he plays big in big games.

— Arizona Coyotes forward Henrik Samuelsson on prospect Edgars Kulda being draftedd