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by Kevin Sylvester / Buffalo Sabres
I must admit I had reservations writing a blog predicting the season.  It’s not because it’s hard to do.  Making predictions is easy.  You give an educated opinion and when it doesn’t come true, you just shrug your shoulders and move on. 

Nobody holds anybody to predictions.  If prognosticators were held accountable we’d have new weather forecasters each week on television (colleague Maria Genaro excluded), and those bozos on Wall Street would be out in the soup line instead of still receiving fat bonuses for the latest “rally”. 

So after that great lead in, here are my Eastern Conference predictions for 2009-2010 NHL season.

Northeast Division
1. Boston: Tim Thomas and Zdeno Chara lead a defensive charge atop the division.  Derek Morris will make the D even better.
2. Buffalo: That’s right, the Sabres 2nd in the division.  Ryan Miller is on a mission and he’s backstopping a group of skaters out to prove they’re not a bunch of underachievers.  Jason Pominville and Jochen Hecht rebound from sub-par seasons, while Tim Connolly averages a point per game.
3. Ottawa: This team underwent a make over slightly less dramatic than Montreal’s, but close.  Pascal Leclaire will try to solidify the crease for a team that has put a turnstile at the position in recent years.  Dany Heatley’s goals are gone, but Jonathan Cheechoo, Milan Michalek, and free agent Alex Kovalev should at least equal his totals with the Sens.  Chemistry will be the question.
4. Montreal: Speaking of chemistry…They moved the bus away and uncovered their eyes to the see the extreme makeover.   Gone is Bob Gainey from the bench, Alex Kovalev, Mike Komisarek, Frances Bouillon, Patrice Brisbois, Robert Lang, Chris Higgins, and Saku Koivu to name a few.  In are Scott Gomez, Brian Gionta, Michael Cammalleri, Jaro Spacek, Hal Gill, Travis Moen, and Jacques Martin.  That is a huge overall for a team with goaltending that I think is a bit questionable with Carey Price.
5. Toronto: The Leafs will be tough, but that may be it.  Goaltending is still a huge question mark.  Vesa Toskala looked horrible against the Sabres last Sunday and the Monster, Jonas Gustavson, from Sweden was slowed by a minor heart issue.  Brian Burke better hope Phil Kessel can score goals without Marc Savard feeding him the puck.

Atlantic Division

1. Pittsburgh: How do you not pick the Stanley Cup Champions to repeat in the division with Crosby, Malkin, Staal, and Fleury still there?
2. Philadelphia: The Flyers will make it this high in the division despite shaky goaltender Ray Emery.  Let’s hope he carpools with Chris Pronger or finds public transportation.  Mike Richards and Jeff Carter will do as expected, but the key will be Danny Briere and his health.
3. New Jersey: It is tough not to pick them second in the Atlantic, but I think the loss of John Madden is huge and don’t discount Brian Gionta’s absence despite a down season last year.  I also think Zach Parise, Paul Martin, and Jamie Langenbrunner could get worn down with the Olympics and I’m not sure the Devils have the depth to overcome it.  However, they do have a great coach with the return of Jacques Lemaire.
4. New York Rangers: The acquisition of Marian Gaborik was a headline grabber, but I think Christopher Higgins will make more news for the team.  Gaborik’s groin can’t be trusted.  Ales Kotalik may be an underrated acquisition given his prowess in shootouts.
5. New York Islanders: Any explanation needed?

Southeast Division

1. Washington: Does anybody not have the Caps leading this weak division?  Alexander Ovechkin is on a mission this year to unseat Crosby’s Pens for Eastern Supremacy.  Mike Green will need a better post season to do it, and Bruce Boudreau will have to pick a true number one goalie by April.  Losing Sergei Federov was tough, but picking up Brendan Morrison and Mike Knuble softens that blow.
2. Carolina: Cam Ward just a signed a monster extension and will need to play like it again this season.  The Canes have to hope he doesn’t burn out from all the Olympic pressure as he tries to make team Canada.  Eric Staal was just awesome last year, but needs some more consistent help lighting the lamp.
3. Florida: The only reason I have the Panthers ahead of Tampa Bay and Atlanta is goaltending.  Tomas Vokoun is underrated and plays behind a group of hungry players.  Although we’ll see how well Pete Deboer’s team does without Jay Bouwmeester on the blue line.
4. Tampa Bay: This team could finish as high as second in the division, but I doubt it.  Last year was a tough year for the franchise with the Barry Melrose situation and I’m not sure it’s better with ownership in a tangle over control.  On the ice, the offensive talent is there with Vinny LeCalvier, Martin St. Louis, and Steve Stamkos.  Help was brought in on the blue line with 2nd overall pick Victor Hedman and Mattias Ohlund in free agency, but I don’t think it’s enough to help Mike Smith in goal.
5. Atlanta: The Thrashers looked good down the stretch, in particular, Zach Bogosian and Bryan Little.  With Ilya Kovalchuk entering the final year of his contract and shaky goaltending, not much is expected.  However, it was nice to see Maxim Afinogenov land a one year deal there.

Playoff seeds:
1.     Washington
2.    Boston
3.    Pittsburgh
4.    Philadelphia
5.    Buffalo
6.    Carolina
7.    New Jersey
8.    Ottawa

By the time the end of the regular season rolls around, we’ll see how right I was.  Of course nobody will remember by then, and it will also be time to write my playoff predictions. 
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