cnotes Posts:27570 Followers:33
On 09/19/2011 10:29 PM in NHL

NHL 2011-12 Season Preview: Atlantic Division

ATLANTIC DIVISION
PITTSBURGH PENGUINS

2010-11 record: 49-25-8, 106 points, 4th place in Eastern Conference
Odds to Win 2012 Eastern Conference: 7-to-2
Odds to Win 2012 Stanley Cup: 8-to-1
To say that last year’s version of the Pittsburgh Penguins was a group of overachievers would be a huge understatement, what with the three-headed monster of centers Sidney Crosby (concussion), Evgeni Malkin (ACL), and Jordan Staal (foot infection, hand) missing a combined 120 regular season games. To put the significance of those injuries in perspective, Sid, Geno and Staal accounted for an astounding 39% of the team’s goals in 2009-2010.

And even without these studs, the Pens (106 points) not only tied Philadelphia for the most points in the Atlantic Division, but finished just one point behind the conference-leading Washington Capitals—earning Head Coach Dan Bylsma a well-deserved Jack Adams Trophy for league’s best coach. Among the three, only Staal played in a game after February 5. The shorthanded Pens put up a valiant effort, but ultimately fell in 7 games to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Malkin and Staal are healthy again and will rejoin a solid supporting cast up front that includes physical two-way forwards like Chris Kunitz, Tyler Kennedy and the NHL’s biggest villain—Matt Cooke. Trade deadline acquisition LW James Neal (22 goals) has the potential to become an elite power forward this season playing alongside Malkin.

The Pens still feature one of the league’s premier defenses, with the superb top-four of Kris Letang (50 points), Brooks Orpik (194 hits), Zbynek Michalek (149 blocked shots) and Paul Martin (24 points). And between the pipes, the acrobatic Marc-Andre Fleury (2.32 GAA)—and his soul patch—will keep them in almost every game.

The biggest question facing the Pens—and many would argue the entire NHL—remains the health of Sidney Crosby. It’s been over nine months since Crosby suffered a concussion in the Winter Classic, and the fact that he is still experiencing concussion-like symptoms is extremely troubling. After a press conference in early September, it seems doubtful Sid will be ready to start the season. And because of the unpredictability of head injuries, there truly is no timetable for his return.

StatFox Take: With the future of the team’s best player uncertain, it certainly makes placing a futures bet on the Pens a challenging proposition. And it says a lot about the depth of the Penguins when Vegas still places them as three-way, 8-to-1 favorites with the Capitals and Bruins. They know who you want to bet on, and because the Pens feature Crosby—healthy or not—they are the ultimate public team.
Having said that, compared to Washington and Boston, the Penguins have the most betting value among the 8-to-1 teams for the very same reasons that make them a risky wager. It is possible that Crosby misses the whole season, but if he returns, the Pens odds shoot up more into the neighborhood of 5-to-1. And THAT, is incredible value.

PHILADELPHIA FLYERS

2010-11 record: 47-23-12, 106 points, 2nd place in Eastern Conference
Odds to Win 2012 Eastern Conference: 7-to-1
Odds to Win 2012 Stanley Cup: 12-to-1

Philadelphia fans have boasted a long-standing reputation for lacking patience when it comes to their professional sports teams. Luckily for the Philadelphia Flyers, they have a general manager in Paul Holmgren who fits the city’s persona to a T.

Just one year removed from a Stanley Cup Finals appearance, the Flyers were swept in the second round of the playoffs by Boston, the eventual Stanley Cup champions. And Holmgren pulled off a couple of the most shocking trades of the summer, sending team captain C Mike Richards (66 points) to the Los Angeles Kings and Jeff Carter (36 goals)—the Flyers’ top goal scorer over the last three seasons—to the Columbus Blue Jackets.

In return, the Flyers received a bevy of young talent on the front end. A pair of 22-year old RWs— Jakub Voracek (46 points) and Wayne Simmonds (30 points) should both see time on the top two lines this year and C Brayden Schenn (5th overall pick in 2009)—LA’s top prospect—will compete for a full-time roster spot against 18-year old C Sean Couturier—the 8th overall pick acquired from Columbus.

So the future certainly looks bright in Philly, but the present is a bit of a mystery. Last year’s top point-getters RW Claude Giroux (76 points) and C Danny Briere (68 points) will become the focal points of an offense that ranked third in the league in goals last year (3.12 per game). With all the moves, Holmgren is also putting a lot of faith in young LW James Van Riemsdyk (40 points) who was absolutely sensational in the playoffs last year (7 goals in 11 games).

Not much changed with the defense, which remains one of the league’s stingiest units, featuring a Kimmo Timonen (175 blocked shots), Matt Carle (40 points), Braydon Coburn (133 blocked shots) and a healthy Chris Pronger.

The biggest indicator for success this year—and one that has plagued the Flyers for years—will be in goal. Holmgren made arguably the biggest free agency splash of the offseason by signing G Ilya Bryzgalov (.921 Save Pct.) to a nine-year, $51 million contact. On paper, this gives the Flyers the long-term solution between the pipes they have so desperately needed. But, considering the length of the contract—Bryz will be under contract until he is 40—if he’s anything less than spectacular, the Flyers take a huge hit against the salary cap. Not to mention the wrath Bryzgalov will feel from the Philly faithful.

StatFox Take: It is tough to know how the Flyers will respond to the losses of Carter and Richards. Head Coach Peter Laviolette loves to balance his lines with a nice blend of scoring touch and ruggedness, which has always made the Flyers difficult to defend. Laviolette will have a much tougher task this season as his squad slowly gels.
If you could make a futures play on the 2012-13 Cup champion, the Flyers would be an incredible bet. But there is simply too much youth and too many question marks on this roster to be confident they will hoist the Cup this coming June. 12-to-1 may seem tempting given their previous success, but it’s a pass for us.

NEW YORK RANGERS

2010-11 record: 44-33-5, 93 points, 8th place in Eastern Conference
Odds to Win 2012 Eastern Conference: 20-to-1
Odds to Win 2012 Stanley Cup: 35-to-1

On July 1, NHL Free Agency officially opened, and if you had decided to rename it Brad Richards Sweepstakes Day, few teams around the league would have disagreed with you.

The hottest free agent of the summer landed in The Big Apple, cashing in big-time with a nine-year, $60 million contract. The dynamic center Richards (28 goals, 77 points) will instantly spark a Rangers offense that has been the definition of mediocre in the six seasons of the Post-Lockout Era. Richards will also be reunited with Head Coach John Tortorella, with whom he won a Stanley Cup in 2004 with the Tampa Bay Lightning.

With the Richards acquisition, RW Marian Gaborik (22 goals) finally has an elite pivot to feed him the puck if he can stay healthy (which is always a big “if” for the Slovakian sniper). The rest of the offense features a nice blend of grit and scoring, with homegrown centers Brandon Dubinsky (54 points) and Derek Stepan (45 points). And in mid-September, the team named RW Ryan Callahan (48 points)—he of U.S. Olympic glory—as its new captain. All of these players should see increased offensive production this season with Richards and Gaborik attracting opponents’ top defenders.

Despite the exciting offseason, the face of the franchise remains G Henrik Lundqvist (.923 Save Pct.). King Henrik posted a league-high 11 shutouts last season, and many would argue he single-handedly propelled the Rangers to the playoffs. In front of him will be the strong defensive pairing of Marc Staal and Dan “don’t call me Joe” Girardi, who each finished among the top-15 in the league in Time On Ice average (Staal 25:44, Girardi 24:35).

StatFox Take: The fact that the Rangers were able to make the playoffs last year in spite of their subpar offensive production (16th in goals) is impressive in its own right. Tortorella has always done an exceptional job of getting the most out of his players. He demands accountability from his players, and as a result, the Rangers rarely get out-worked.
With an improved offense and a healthy Callahan, the Broadway Blueshirts will be a tough out in the postseason. Lundqvist is capable of stealing a series on his own. But outside of Staal and Girardi, the blueliners are very young and totally unproven. You need stellar defensemen to win 16 games in the playoffs, and the Rangers just aren’t there yet. Despite favorable odds, it’s a pass for us.

NEW JERSEY DEVILS

2010-11 record: 38-39-5, 81 points, 11th place in Eastern Conference
Odds to Win 2012 Eastern Conference: 15-to-1
Odds to Win 2012 Stanley Cup: 25-to-1

After signing world-class sniper Ilya Kovalchuk (31 goals) to one of the most controversial contracts (15-years, $100 million) in NHL history, expectations were sky-high for the Devils heading into the 2010-2011 campaign. New Jersey was predicted to contend for the Stanley Cup.

Things took a turn for the worst rather quickly in Newark, however, with an abysmal 10-29-2 start to the season. In that span, superstar winger Zach Parise suffered a season-ending knee injury, first-year head coach John MacLean was fired, and the Devils were dead last in the NHL.

Things got so bad in New Jersey that general manager Lou Lamoriello practically had to beg legendary coach Jacques Lemaire, who had retired as Devils’ bench boss less than eight months earlier, to return to the helm. And once he did, things turned around quickly for the Devils, who finished the season with one of the league’s best records at 28-10-3.

Now new head coach Peter DeBoer takes over after three seasons in Florida. And with Kovalchuk fully acclimated to his new digs, along with Parise back healthy, the Devils hope to continue their hot streak from the end of last year. LW-turned center Patrik Elias (62 points) and C Travis Zajac (44 points) also return to an offense that ranked last in the league in goals scored (2.09 per game). Expect Parise to put up huge numbers as he enters the final year of his contract, helping to bolster the anemic offense.

The defense, which ranked ninth in goals against last season (2.52), is anchored by the hard-hitting Anton Volchenkov and the always-steady Henrik Tallinder. Also look for New Jersey’s first round draft pick, D Adam Larsson (4th overall), to compete for a spot on a backline desperate for more depth.

This could also be the final season for legendary netminder Martin Brodeur (.903 Save Pct.). At age 39, Brodeur—who holds nearly every notable NHL record for goaltenders—is in the final year of his contract and started just 56 games last year (a far cry from his usual 70+ starts). He has missed extended time due to injury over two of the past three seasons, and with an average defense in front of him, this could be the end of the future first-ballot Hall of Famer’s career.

StatFox Take: It will be a tough task for the Devils to build on last year’s spectacular second half as they adjust to yet another new bench boss. Defense and goaltending has long defined this proud franchise, and if they continue their patented trap system, they will definitely compete for a playoff spot. But overall, too many other teams in the East improved over the summer to expect New Jersey to make any kind of run at the Cup. It’s a definite pass for us.

NEW YORK ISLANDERS

2010-11 record: 30-39-13, 73 points, 14th place in Eastern ConferenceOdds to Win 2012 Eastern Conference: 25-to-1
Odds to Win 2012 Stanley Cup: 50-to-1

If you feel as if the New York Islanders have been stuck in a continuous rebuilding mode, well… you’re not alone. The Isles have finished in last place in the Atlantic each of the past four seasons.

Like division rival New Jersey, the Islanders fired their head coach (Scott Gordon) just 14 games in after posting a paltry 4-8-2 record out of the gate. Assistant Jack Capuano took over and helped steer New York to a somewhat respectable 26-31-11 finish.

Unfortunately for fans on Long Island, this summer brought about some harsh news for Islanders faithful when voters in Nassau country rejected a proposal for a new arena to replace The Dump otherwise known as Nassau Coliseum. Without a new arena, the possibility of relocation is a very real one.

The players on the ice will hope to make the best of their time in New York, and the Islanders certainly have some great young talent who showed promise last season. None more promising than Michael Grabner (34 goals), who led all rookies in goals last season, and finished second in the voting for the Calder Memorial Trophy awarded to the league’s top first-year player. The offense also features 2009 first overall draft pick John Tavares (team-high 67 points). In mid-September, Tavares signed a six-year, $33 million extension to remain with the Islanders. With the new contract, there’s no doubt who general manager Garth Snow considers to be the face of this franchise.

The defense allowed the fourth-most goals in the league (3.15 per game), but returns its best player in Mark Streit who missed the entire 2010-11 campaign with a torn labrum. Streit returns to a backline that features two very talented young guns: Andrew MacDonald (27 points) and Travis Hamonic (26 points).

As for goaltender Rick DiPietro, the soap opera is sure to continue into 2011-12. DiPietro, who signed a ridiculous 15-year, $67.5 million contract back in 2006, has easily been the biggest disappointment in the league due to his never-ending saga of injuries. Last year’s injury reached a whole new level on the spectrum of silliness—he suffered facial fractures from a goalie fight with Penguins backup Brent Johnson.

StatFox Take: It would take more than a miracle for the Islanders to win the Stanley Cup this season. They definitely have young talent, but they are years away from contending (stop us if you’ve heard that line before). For Islanders fans, a playoff appearance would be a terrific season. Expecting anything else out of this group is, quite simply, unrealistic.

Always remember the 3 G's Girls,Golf, Gambling not in any particular order......:2thumbs:
bill2266 Posts:1077 Followers:20
09/20/2011 03:32 AM

ty for the info

cnotes Posts:27570 Followers:33
09/21/2011 07:15 PM

NHL 2011-12 Season Preview: Northeast Division

NORTHEAST DIVISION
BOSTON BRUINS

2010-11 record: 46-25-11, 103 points, 3rd place in Eastern Conference
Odds to Win 2012 Eastern Conference: 4-to-1
Odds to Win 2012 Stanley Cup: 8-to-1
As if the city of Boston hasn’t had enough championships to celebrate over the last decade, the Bruins captured their first Stanley Cup championship since 1972 by defeating the heavily-favored Vancouver Canucks in seven games. And for those of you counting at home, all four professional sports teams in Beantown have now won at least one title since 2004.

A LOT of things need to go right for a team to win 16 games in the postseason. Teams need its superstars to shine, its role players to out-perform their contracts, and its goaltender to stand on his head. Well, between centers Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci, D Zdeno Chara, RW Brad Marchand and—of course—G Tim Thomas, the Bruins got all of that and more.

So now the tricky question is: can they repeat? First, let’s look at who they lost. Trade Deadline acquisition Tomas Kaberle was highly touted as the offensive blueliner the B’s apparently needed, but he scored zero goals and averaged a meager 16:02 minutes in 25 postseason games. The rest of the defense remains the same this year, along with free-agency pickup Joe Corvo (40 points)—who should fill any offensive void left behind by Kaberle on a back line that ranked second in the NHL in goals against (2.30).

The bigger losses will be felt up front with the departure of RW Michael Ryder (Dallas) and the retirement of future Hall of Famer RW Mark Recchi. Ryder’s 17 postseason points (8 G, 9 A) tied for fourth-best for the Bruins, and he was the prototypical heart-and-soul type of guy that every championship team needs. As for the 43-year old Recchi—who netted seven of his 14 postseason points in the Finals—will be missed for his leadership presence as much as his on-ice play.

The most important piece of Boston’s Stanley Cup victory, without question, was the netminder Thomas. The Conn Smythe (Playoff MVP) and Vezina (best goalie) Trophy winner was simply unconscious in the playoffs: posting a save percentage of .940 and an incredible goals against average of 1.98. If he performs anywhere close to that level this season, the Bruins will surely contend for another Cup.

StatFox Take: In the six seasons of the post-lockout era, no team has won back-to-back Stanley Cups. Granted, the sample size is admittedly small, but it should not be discounted either. Because of the league’s hard salary cap, championship teams cannot afford to hold onto once low-priced free agents (like Ryder) who play their way into more lucrative deals.

The Bruins won with a patented Stanley Cup formula: great depth up the middle, elite defense, and timely goaltending. With Bergeron, Krejci, and burgeoning star Tyler Seguin, Boston’s pivots remain among the best in the East. Same goes for the defense.With Thomas leading the way, there is no reason to believe the Bruins can’t repeat. But consider this stat: after Thomas won the Vezina in 2008-2009, his GAA increased by a staggering 0.46, his save percentage fell 0.18 percent, and he lost the starting job to Tuukka Rask. We’re not implying all of this will happen again (he’s definitely not losing the starting job), but it’s only natural for a goalie as hot as Thomas was, to cool off a bit.

As far as value, 8-to-1 seems right on point. It’s simply a matter of opinion: if you think Thomas can spit hot fire two years in a row, then jump all over this line. If not, it’s probably best to steer clear.

BUFFALO SABRES

2010-11 record: 43-29-10, 96 points, 7th place in Eastern Conference
Odds to Win 2012 Eastern Conference: 7-to-1
Odds to Win 2012 Stanley Cup: 12-to-1

To say that Terry Pegula is the best thing to happen to the city of Buffalo since the advent of chicken wings might not be that big of a stretch. Pegula, who purchased the team back in February of last year, finally gives Buffalo the deep-pocketed owner the hockey-crazed town has always hoped for.

The Sabres have been a consistently above-average team over the past decade. Sort of like NHL’s version of the Minnesota Twins—they make the playoffs frequently, but rarely do anything once they get there.

Before Pegula, the Sabres were plagued by cheap owners who failed to invest in high-priced free agents to take the team to the next level. Thanks to head coach Lindy Ruff—who enters his 14th season with Buffalo—the Sabres have always managed to remain competitive.

Pegula wasted no time bringing in difference makers this summer, none bigger than the trade with Calgary for physical defenseman Robyn Regehr (180 hits). Buffalo also added former Vancouver blueliner Christian Ehrhoff (50 points) for greater depth on the power play. Regehr and Ehrhoff join Tyler Myers (37 points), Jordan Leopold (35 points) and Andrej Sekera (29 points) to form the deepest backline Buffalo’s had in years.

Last year’s offense missed top center Derek Roy (35 points), who was limited to just 35 games, but the unit still ranked ninth in the league in goals (2.93). With Roy healthy, expect another big season from his linemates LW Thomas Vanek (team-high 73 points) and breakout rookie Tyler Ennis (49 points).

The rest of the offense has great balance, with solid two-way forwards who put up nice numbers including RW Drew Stafford (career-high 31 goals), RW Jason Pominville (52 points), LW Nathan Gerbe (31 points, +11) and trade-deadline acquisition C Brad Boyes (14 points in 21 games with Buffalo). And the free-agent acquisition of former Philly forward Ville Leino (53 points) may be one of the sneakiest pickups of the summer.

The face of this franchise remains the man between the pipes: American Hero Ryan Miller. Coming off a Vezina Trophy and Olympic Silver Medal in 2009-2010, Miller had a bit off an off-year statistically last season (2.59 GAA, .916 SV Pct.), but with a revamped defense in front of him, expect Miller to get back to form this season.

StatFox Take: If there is one sleeper team to put a healthy wager on for the Stanley Cup this season, the Sabres have to be it.

Remember our three-step formula for winning the Cup? Well, Buffalo has it. The Sabres’ forwards might not have the sexy name recognition of a Pittsburgh or a Washington or a Vancouver, but neither did Boston last year…and that worked out pretty well for them. Buffalo’s forwards are sneaky-good because their scoring isn’t concentrated with a few stars, but rather, spread out among many. And they all play responsible defense to boot.

And the defense, which was the weak point of this team last year, will go from average to elite with Regehr and Ehrhoff joining the ranks. Add in Miller, who is dependable on his worst day and lights-out on his best one, and you have the recipe for a legitimate Stanley Cup contender.

Not a lot of people will be talking about Buffalo heading into the season because they don’t do anything flashy. But the new ownership has invigorated not just the fan base, but the players too. And if there’s one coach in the league who has proved time and time again he can get the very best out of his players, it’s Lindy Ruff.

At 12-to-1, you will not find better value for a team that has serious Stanley Cup aspirations. Take the Sabres and don’t look back.

MONTREAL CANADIENS

2010-11 record: 44-30-8, 96 points, 6th place in Eastern Conference
Odds to Win 2012 Eastern Conference: 12-to-1
Odds to Win 2012 Stanley Cup: 25-to-1

When Canadiens’ General Manager Pierre Gauthier shocked the NHL and chose G Carey Price over Jaroslav Halak—the playoff hero of 2009-2010—last summer, you can imagine the outrage from the rarely-satisfied Montreal fan base. Trade away the guy who basically carried the Habs into the Eastern Conference Finals in favor of the immature and inconsistent youngster who still hadn’t lived up to his draft potential (at age 23 no less!)?

Well, fortunately for Price, when you silence your doubters in the city of Montreal, you shut them up in two languages. Price put up tremendous numbers in his first year as the true No. 1 netminder, posting a .923 SV Pct. and eight shutouts in 72 starts. And for a team that ranked tied for 21st in the NHL in goals, Price’s season becomes all the more impressive considering he led the Habs to the postseason.

No player posted more than 60 points last season for Montreal, and C Tomas Plekanec (57 points) was the only one to even crack 50. With LW Mike Cammalleri (47 points) fully healthy this season, the Canadiens will get their best goal scorer back. But overall, the Habs didn’t do a lot in free agency to improve the offense. Their biggest signing—RW Erik Cole (52 points)—will definitely help, but Montreal will need significant improvement from high-priced C Scott Gomez (38 points) and young stars Lars Eller (17 points) and David Desharnais (22 points).

Along with Price, the other breakout star for the Habs was rookie defenseman P.K. Subban (38 points). The flamboyant blueliner led all rookies in goals (14) while playing alongside shot-blocking machine Hal Gill (151 blocked shots). The oft-injured Andrei Markov (ACL) played just seven games last season, but will be an excellent offensive complement to Subban on the blue line if he returns healthy. The Canadiens’ will definitely miss veteran D Roman Hamrlik (fourth in NHL in blocked shots) who departed for Washington, but they still have Jaroslav Spacek (team-best +9 rating) and a healthy Josh Gorges (158 blocked shots in ’09-’10).

StatFox Take: The odds for the Habs give a pretty accurate reflection of the team’s potential this season. They will still be solid, and should sneak into the playoffs as one of the bottom three seeds, but they just don’t have the type of offensive depth to compete over the long haul in the postseason.

Too many other teams in the East, a few of which were already better than Montreal, did a better job of improving their squads this summer. Their goaltending—should Price continue to play at this level—is exceptional, and certainly good enough to steal a first-round series. But beyond that, it’s hard to see them going much further.

TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS

2010-11 record: 37-34-11, 85 points, 10th place in Eastern Conference
Odds to Win 2012 Eastern Conference: 20-to-1
Odds to Win 2012 Stanley Cup: 40-to-1

Toronto General Manager Brian Burke made no secrets about his intentions to go after highly-coveted free agent C Brad Richards this summer. Even though many experts felt the Leafs were the favorites, Richards ultimately decided to take his talents to The Big Apple.

But all’s not lost in Ontario’s capital. After finishing dead last in the Eastern Conference in 2009-2010, the Maple Leafs improved tremendously last season, finishing the campaign on an impressive 18-9-6 run from Feb.1, and falling just eight points shy of the final playoff spot.

Despite not signing Richards, Burke still pulled off some crafty moves to improve his squad. He landed C Matthew Lombardi (53 points in ’09-’10)—who played just two games last season—in a trade with Nashville, signed free-agent C Tim Connolly (42 points) from Buffalo, and traded a second-round draft pick for puck-moving D John-Michael Liles (46 points).

The offseason moves add tremendous depth to a young and improving offense, led by RW Phil Kessel (32 G, 32 A). The biggest surprise last season was the emergence of LW Clarke MacArthur, whose 62 points nearly doubled his previous season-high total of 35 points in ’09-10. The rest of the forwards are young and dangerous, featuring 25-year-old LW Nikolai Kulemin (57 points), 24-year-old C Tyler Bozak (32 points), and 27-year-old C Mikhail Grabovski (58 points).

The defense might be this squad’s greatest asset, and the unit has no shortage of mean and nasty. Team captain Dion Phaneuf (186 hits) and Mike Komisarek (146 hits) intimidate opposing forwards at 6-foot-3 and 6-foot-4, respectively. No Toronto d-man threw his weight around more than 21-year-old Luke Schenn, who led the NHL with 251 hits. Schenn—the fifth overall pick in the 2008 draft—just signed a well-deserved, 5-year, $18 million extension.

And if you’re sensing a youthful trend to this preview, you won’t be surprised that Toronto’s future in net falls on the shoulders of 23-year-old G James Reimer. The rookie was a huge reason for the Leafs’ late-season success, posting a tremendous 20-10-5 record and three shutouts to go along with a tidy .921 Save Percentage.

StatFox Take: If there is one team in the East with the potential to make the jump into the playoffs this year, it has to be Toronto. When you look at its offensive production—especially since it is coming from the team’s young stars—it is hard not to be impressed with the progress here. And if the defense continues to hit anything and everything, the Leafs won’t be a team any opponents will look forward to facing.

The big question mark will be how Reimer handles his first full season as an NHL starter. Young goalies often wear out towards the end of a season, so head coach Ron Wilson must be cautious with Reimer’s total starts.

This team is way too young to think about picking to win the Cup this year—as clearly evidenced by their longshot odds—but if your book offers playoff propositions (i.e. “Will Toronto make the playoffs, YES or NO?”), they are certainly worth a YES bet as you are likely to get good value.

OTTAWA SENATORS

2010-11 record: 32-42-10, 74 points, 13th place in Eastern Conference
Odds to Win 2012 Eastern Conference: 100-to-1
Odds to Win 2012 Stanley Cup: 100-to-1

When your best player and captain gets injured, your free-agent pickups don’t perform, and your coach is fired before the end of the season, odds are your team is having a pretty miserable year.

It was certainly a season to forget in the Canadian capital, but the bad news for Senators’ fans is that things will probably get worse before they get better.

Team captain RW Daniel Alfredsson (back) played in just 54 games, the fewest of his career, and also posted career-lows in assists (17) and points (31). Without his leadership and steadiness, the Sens’ offense was a mess. C Jason Spezza—whose numbers have steadily declined since signing a 7-year, $49 million contract back in 2008—managed 57 points in 62 games. And this total was still good enough to lead the team.

The rest of last year’s offense was led by LW Nick Foligno (34 points)—though he is more of an agitator by nature—and LW Milan Michalek (33 points). And 25-year-old LW Peter Regin, who posted 29 points in 2009-2010, mustered only 17 in 55 games last year. The Sens need him to perform if they hope to improve their offense this season.

Ottawa traded a third-round pick to Columbus for LW Nikita Filatov, a former first-round pick who has posted just 13 points in 44 career NHL games. If the Sens can get Filatov to realize his offensive potential, he could be a top-six forward on this team.

The defense is this team’s greatest attribute, led by 21-year-old Erik Karlsson, whose 45 points were second-best on the team. D Chris Phillips (116 hits, 152 blocked shots) brings the physical attitude to the Senators’ back line, but their two highest-paid defenders—Filip Kuba and Sergei Gonchar—both missed extended time due to injury. With those two back healthy, Ottawa has a formidable top-four on the blue line.

In goal, the Sens acquired Craig Anderson from Colorado at the trade deadline and he played extremely well—posting an 11-5-1 record with a .939 SV Pct. in 18 games with his new team. The fresh start in Ottawa might be just what Anderson needs, and with a healthy defense in front of him, he can certainly win some games for the Sens this season.

StatFox Take: The Senators are in full rebuild mode at this point. Their offense is in total shambles, led by an aging captain and overpaid superstar who has lost his scoring touch. The defense and goaltending must carry this team if they want to have any chance of finishing outside of last place in this division.

Always remember the 3 G's Girls,Golf, Gambling not in any particular order......:2thumbs:
cnotes Posts:27570 Followers:33
09/23/2011 07:35 PM

NHL Season Preview: Southeast Division

Other Division Previews:
Atlantic Division
Northeast Division

SOUTHEAST DIVISION
WASHINGTON CAPITALS

2010-11 record: 48-23-11, 107 points, 1st place in Eastern Conference
Odds to Win 2012 Eastern Conference: 7-to-2
Odds to Win 2012 Stanley Cup: 8-to-1
For the second consecutive year, after grabbing the top seed in the Eastern Conference, the Washington Capitals imploded in the postseason. Feeling the heat, General Manager George McPhee had himself quite a busy offseason—acquiring gritty forwards Troy Brouwer (36 points) and Joel Ward (29 points), veteran defenseman Roman Hamrlik (192 blocked shots, 4th in NHL), and former Washington captain and D.C. native Jeff Halpern (26 points).

The Caps certainly suffered an identity crisis last season, trying to make a mid-season switch from offensive juggernaut to a more responsible, defensive squad. But with the personnel on this team, that’s like trying to turn The Greatest Show on Turf into the Steel Curtain… it just doesn’t make much sense. With superstar LW Alex Ovechkin suffering career-lows in goals (32) and points (85), don’t expect head coach Bruce Boudreau to stick with the trap this year.

Ovechkin’s line mate, C Nicklas Backstrom (65 points), also saw his point production drop drastically last year. Fresh off a 101-point campaign (4th in NHL) in 2009-2010, Backstrom struggled with the new system and also played with an injured wrist for much of the season.

The knock on the Caps has always been defense and goaltending, but with the offseason acquisition of G Tomas Vokoun (.922 SV Pct.) from Florida, Washington finally has itself an elite netminder. Vokoun could easily become a top-five goalie this year playing on a top-tier team like Washington, finally free from the basement-dwelling Panthers who did little to help his stats.

The young and dynamic defensive tandem of Karl Alzner (132 blocked shots) and John Carlson (37 points, 160 blocked shots) will anchor the defense, but the Caps will also need offensive d-man Mike Green (24 points in 49 games) to bounce back from an injury-riddled spring.

StatFox Take: If you look at the past four Stanley Cup champions (2008 Detroit, 2009 Pittsburgh, 2010 Chicago, 2011 Boston), all of these teams shared three defining attributes (which we discussed at length in our Atlantic Division preview):
1. Their offenses were built down the middle. Meaning, the centers set the pace of the offense instead of the wingers.
2. Their defenses had an exceptional balance of physicality and puck-moving ability.
3. Elite goaltending.

The Capitals offseason moves, although impressive to an extent, are entirely overhyped by the media in general. When you look at the current roster, they still only fulfill one of the above three requirements for hoisting Lord Stanley, and that is goaltending.

The defense is young and much improved from recent years, but they lack that physicality that defines almost every Stanley Cup championship team. Outside of third-pairing defenseman John Erskine (160 hits), the Caps don’t have any blueliners who show a solid commitment to clearing out the crease. Besides Erskine, Green (100 hits) was the only defender on the team with triple-figure hits.

And for all of the success this offense has had in recent years, it is still winger-centric. Outside of top center Backstrom, the Capitals still don’t have a consistent second option at the pivot position. The wingers might be enough to help them win a fifth-consecutive division title, but they will continue to run into problems in the postseason relying on enigmatic weapons like Alex Semin (54 points), who has a well-known reputation for performing Houdini-esque disappearing acts in the playoffs. To say nothing of the fact that Boudreau has been consistently outcoached in all four of his postseason appearances.

Bottom line, the Capitals have never showed us enough in the postseason to believe they are a legitimate playoff threat. And at 8-to-1, you can find much better value than the Caps for your Stanley Cup futures bet.

TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING

2010-11 record: 46-25-11, 103 points, 5th place in Eastern Conference
Odds to Win 2012 Eastern Conference: 10-to-1
Odds to Win 2012 Stanley Cup: 18-to-1

When you play in the same division as Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals, it can be very difficult to get much attention. But after sweeping the Caps in the Eastern Conference Semifinals last year, the Tampa Bay Lightning no longer have that problem.

With a new general manager—Steve Yzerman (you may have heard of him)—and a young, energetic new coach—Guy Boucher—the Lightning improved by 23 points in the standings and came just one game shy of their first Stanley Cup Finals appearance since they won it in 2004.

Tampa’s formula for success is pretty simple: infuse a group of some of the league’s best veterans with one of the NHL’s premier young talents—C Steven Stamkos (45 goals—second in NHL). Playing alongside Stamkos, RW Martin St. Louis posted 68 assists and 99 points—second in the league in both categories. In fact, Stammer and Marty were so brilliant that their 190 combined points accounted for 28.7 percent of the Lightning’s regular-season total.

The rest of the front line—one of the deepest in the league—features big-name veterans like C Vincent Lecavalier (54 points) and bruising LW Ryan Malone (38 points in 54 games) and some young, gritty wingers with some phenomenal scoring touch like RW Teddy Purcell (51 points) and LW Steve Downie (32 points, 171 PIM in 57 games).

On defense, the Lightning have a deep, but not spectacular group. The unit’s success in the postseason was more a byproduct of the 1-3-1 trap system employed by Boucher than the actual personnel, which ranked tied for 21st in goals allowed last year. The top-four should improve this year, though, with a full season with trade-deadline acquisition Eric Brewer, 20-year old Victor Hedman (26 points), and mainstays Pavel Kubina (23 points) and Mattias Ohlund (136 blocked shots).

In goal, it looks like another season for the ageless-wonder Dwayne Roloson. The 41-year-old netminder, acquired in January from the Islanders, brought stability to a position that Tampa had struggled with for years—posting an impressive .924 SV Pct. in the postseason.

StatFox Take: In order to find success in the playoffs, teams need their third and fourth-line players to step up and chip in some timely goals to take the pressure off the stars. The Lightning epitomized this concept last postseason—getting key contributions from guys like Purcell (17 points), Downie (14 points) C Dominic Moore (11 points), and free-agency departure LW Sean Bergenheim (11 points).

When players like Purcell and Downie outscore your biggest offensive weapon (Stamkos posted just 13 points), it wears out opposing defenses and makes any team extremely difficult to stop. The Lightning roster is full of heart-and-soul type players, and this definitely bodes well for the next postseason.

The biggest factor working against the Lightning this year will be that no team is going to get caught off guard by them. They turned a lot of heads last year going from out-of-the playoffs one year to the conference finals the next.

Having said that, though, it seems a bit silly that their odds are so high at 18-to-1. Remember, they lost Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals to Boston—the eventual Cup winner—in an extremely tight 1-0 battle. The margin for error in the NHL playoffs is so small, that one third-period goal in Game 7 made all the difference.

With the combination of leadership and talent, Vegas has totally undervalued Tampa’s potential for another playoff run. Guys like St. Louis and Lecavalier are proven winners who know how to get the job done in the postseason. And now that their younger teammates have a long postseason run under their belts, they could be a very dangerous team this year.

Bottom line: there is a TON of value at 18-to-1, and we suggest jumping on it as soon as possible.

CAROLINA HURRICANES

2010-11 record: 40-31-11, 91 points, 9th place in Eastern Conference
Odds to Win 2012 Eastern Conference: 20-to-1
Odds to Win 2012 Stanley Cup: 40-to-1

Eighty-one games through the regular season, the Carolina Hurricanes needed one more win. Trailing the New York Rangers by two points, the Canes—who held the tiebreak—needed to win their final game of the regular season to claim the eighth and final spot in the playoffs. And despite playing on home ice, against a team that already clinched its playoff berth (Tampa Bay), Carolina laid a massive egg and choked away its chance at the postseason.

But all was not lost last year in Raleigh—which suffered from a severe case of Bieber err, Skinner Fever. The baby-faced rookie C Jeff Skinner (63 points) did more than just resemble a certain youthful pop star. He also captured the Calder Trophy (rookie of the year) and reinvigorated a once rabid fan base.

Along with the 19-year-old Skinner, the Canes also have All-Star center and team captain, Eric Staal (76 points). Staal was a young phenom in his own right, already with seven fantastic seasons under his belt at age 26. With Skinner and Staal, the Hurricanes have a legit one-two punch up the middle. Carolina will miss LW Erik Cole (52 points) though, who signed with Montreal after playing all but 63 games of his NHL career with the Hurricanes.

On defense, the Canes shipped puck-mover Joe Corvo (40 points) to Boston, but also signed one of the Bruins’ own free-agent blueliners: Tomas Kaberle (47 points). The rest of the top-four is well balanced with the ferocious Tim Gleason (215 hits, 5th in NHL), Joni Pitkanen (35 points), and Jamie McBain (30 points)—who, like Skinner, was also very impressive in his rookie year.

Between the pipes, G Cam Ward (.923 SV Pct.) remains one of the most underrated goaltenders in the league. Many forget he won the Conn Smythe (Playoff MVP) back in 2006 when the Canes captured the Stanley Cup, and after playing in a league-high 74 games last season, he will no doubt shoulder the load for this young squad again.

StatFox Take: The Canes strengths lie with their offensive depth and goaltending. Along with the scoring from Staal and Skinner, Carolina also has physical wingers like Tuomo Ruutu (57 points) and Jussi Jokinen (52 points), who can muck it up with opponents as easily as they can score. Those are the kind of guys you need to make the postseason.

And obviously Ward will keep them in, and win, a lot of games throughout the year. But overall, we don’t see much of a step forward for this squad this season. Many fringe playoff teams, most notably Buffalo, New York Rangers and Toronto, all improved their teams significantly more than Carolina did this summer.

The Canes definitely have a shot to grab the seventh or eighth seed in the East if almost everything goes right, but don’t expect them to do much damage in the playoffs should they get in.

WINNIPEG JETS

2010-11 record: 40-31-11, 91 points, 12th place in Eastern Conference
Odds to Win 2012 Eastern Conference: 25-to-1
Odds to Win 2012 Stanley Cup: 50-to-1

It was truly a summer to rejoice in the province of Manitoba, as professional hockey returns to the city of Winnipeg for the first time since 1996.

After departing for the warmer temperatures of Arizona to become the franchise now known as the Phoenix Coyotes, puckheads in Winnipeg received a great present in May when the ownership of the Atlanta Thrashers sold their team to True North Sports and Entertainment Group. And the best part? Winnipeg’s franchise gets its old name back: The Jets.

Entering last season, the Thrashers looked primed to compete with Tampa for second place in the Southeast and potentially reach their first postseason since 2007. In fact, on December 20, 2010, Atlanta sat atop the division with 43 points. But just a month later, the Thrashers had already fallen into third place, and were plagued by inconsistency throughout the remainder of the season.

This season will be a totally fresh start for the franchise, which, along with relocating, also brings in a new general manager (Kevin Cheveldayoff) and new head coach (Claude Noel).

As far as personnel goes, not much changed this summer for the Jets aside from a trade that brought RW Eric Fehr (20 points) over from division-rival Washington. Fehr has been plagued by injuries the past couple season, but definitely has the potential to net 20+ goals for a team that had only two players break that plateau last season.

The rest of the offense features team captain LW Andrew Ladd (team-high 59 points) and hulking 6-foot-6 C Nik Antropov (41 points). The success of the forward group, however, largely falls on the shoulders of a player not even old enough to drink alcohol in the US. Twenty-year-old C Evander Kane (43 points), a former fourth overall draft pick, has the potential to do serious damage in his third full NHL season.

The greatest strength of the Jets remains their defense, which consists of a solid mix of big-bodies and offensive-minded players. No one epitomizes this unique combination more than converted forward Dustin Byfuglien (53 points, 140 hits), at 6-foot-4, 257 pounds. The unit also features puck-mover Tobias Enstrom (51 points), Johnny Oduya (149 blocked shots) and young stud Zach Bogosian (111 hits).

In goal, Ondrej Pavelec will look to build off last season, in which he posted career-highs in wins (21), GAA (2.73) and SV Pct. (.914).

StatFox Take: The Jets are an interesting case for two reasons. First, their rebuild isn’t entirely homegrown. The roster features a nice blend of young talent with some solid veteran obtained through the Ilya Kovalchuk and Blackhawks Stanley Cup fire sale trades from two seasons ago. Last year’s roster was almost unrecognizable from the season before, so with a whole year of chemistry under their belts now, this year should be an improvement.

The bigger challenge for this team’s postseason prospects is their geographic location. Because the move to Winnipeg occurred in late May, the NHL had no time to realign the divisions. This means the Jets will have to travel back East for the majority of their road games, which will undoubtedly take a toll on the players.

It may sound trivial, but the geography factor will weigh heavily on this team, especially later into the season. Expect the Jets to improve their point output, but still miss the postseason.

FLORIDA PANTHERS

2010-11 record: 30-40-12, 72 points, 15th place in Eastern Conference
Odds to Win 2012 Eastern Conference: 35-to-1
Odds to Win 2012 Stanley Cup: 75-to-1

After missing the playoffs for a 10th consecutive season last year, you would have to forgive Panthers fans if they were a little short on that thing called hope. But with General Manager Dale Tallon giving this team a Joan Rivers-like facelift this summer, there should be reason to believe again in South Florida.

Tallon, the architect of the Chicago Blackhawks 2009-2010 Stanley Cup championship, began by trading away many of Florida’s aging veterans at the deadline last year for a stockpile of draft picks. And with all of the free salary cap space, he brought in over a dozen new faces this summer and also hired new head coach Kevin Dineen.

The new acquisitions will impact the offense, defense and goaltending, for what will surely be an interesting season in Sunrise. Up front, the Panthers added wingers Tomas Kopecky (42 points) from Chicago, Kris Versteeg (46 points) from, well, lots of teams, Scottie Upshall (34 points) from Phoenix and Tomas Fleischmann (31 points in 45 games) from Washington/Colorado. All four should see significant ice time and compete for spots on the top-two lines along with long-time Panthers LW David Booth (40 points) and C Stephen Weiss (team-high 49 points) and breakout C Mike Santorelli (41 points).

Tallon also added the physical, gritty type of forwards that every competitive team needs. LW Sean Bergenheim (29 points, 109 hits) from Tampa, C Marcel Goc (24 PTS) from Nashville and RW Matt Bradley (161 hits) from Washington will all add some much-needed stability to the Panthers bottom six.

On defense, Tallon brought in notorious bruiser Ed Jovanovski (14 points, 87 hits in 50 games) and puck-mover Brian Campbell (27 points) to help mentor 2010 first round pick Erik Gudbranson. These two veterans should provide invaluable to leadership to Gudbranson, who will make his NHL debut this season.

It will also be a new face in net, as long-time starter Tomas Vokoun departed for Washington. Tallon brought in veteran netminder Jose Theodore (.916 SV Pct.) from Minnesota to split duties with Scott Clemmensen (.911 SV Pct.). Theodore and Clemmensen should split most starts, operating as a “1A and 1B” type of tandem.

StatFox Take: There may not be a more intriguing team heading into this season than the Panthers. You’ve got to hand it to Dale Tallon—he’s nothing if not aggressive. The fact that he’s already constructed one Stanley Cup winner in the post-lockout era should make Panthers fans very happy.

It would be stunning if this squad made the playoffs this season, as the new players will need time to gel and find chemistry. Not to mention the adjustments that Dineen will have to make as rookie NHL coach. Slowly but surely, though, you can see the foundation being laid for a franchise with a bright future.


Always remember the 3 G's Girls,Golf, Gambling not in any particular order......:2thumbs:
cnotes Posts:27570 Followers:33
09/30/2011 07:56 PM

NHL Season Preview: Central Division

Other Division Previews:
Atlantic Division
Northeast Division
Southeast Division

CENTRAL DIVISION
DETROIT RED WINGS

2010-11 record: 47-25-10, 104 points, 3rd place in Western Conference
Odds to Win 2012 Western Conference: 9-to-2
Odds to Win 2012 Stanley Cup: 10-to-1
In terms of consistency and dominance, there is, no franchise quite like the Detroit Red Wings. Last season, Detroit won its ninth division title in 10 years and went to the postseason for the 20th consecutive season. Hey, they don’t call it Hockeytown for nothing.

But much like the Pittsburgh Steelers of the NFL, the Red Wings don’t measure success merely by postseason appearances. It’s all about the Cup. And for the second year in a row, Detroit was knocked out in the Western Conference Semifinals by the San Jose Sharks.

There’s little doubt the Red Wings will extend their postseason streak to 21 this year, but they will have to do it without a key member of their defense. Puck-moving d-man Brian Rafalski (48 points), the quarterback of Detroit’s power play, unexpectedly retired this summer. Rafalski averaged 51 points per season in four solid years in Motown while playing alongside the legendary Nicklas Lidstrom (62 points, 2nd among NHL defensemen).

Replacing Rafalski will be free-agent pickup Ian White (26 points), who saw time with three different teams last season. The rest of the defense, led by Lidstrom, remains the same with mainstays Brad Stuart (131 hits), Niklas Kronwall (129 blocked shots) and Jonathan Ericsson (107 hits).

Up front, Detroit features a guy many consider to be the best forward in the game: C Pavel Datsyuk (59 points in 56 games), who missed a chunk of last season due to injury. Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby generate most of the big headlines, but Datsyuk’s stealth puck-handling and all-around game makes him the most elite two-way forward in the world.

The rest of the offense—much like the defense—features a whole bunch of Swedes, including LW Henrik Zetterberg (80 points), RW Johan Franzen (54 points) and RW Tomas Holmstrom (37 points)—who continuously gives opposing goalies fits while parked in front of the net on the power play. Bruising RW Todd Bertuzzi (45 points), at age 36, also continues to see top-six minutes.

And with the retirement of Red Wings legend Chris Osgood, there’s no doubt Jimmy Howard is the man between the pipes. In his first two seasons as the starter for Detroit, he has put up decent personal stats (2.53 GAA, .913 SV Pct.), but still amassed 75 wins—and that’s what matters most.

StatFox Take: The job that Detroit General Manager Ken Holland continues to do building from within is simply astounding, and the main factor behind the Red Wings’ long-term success. His knack for finding value with late-round draft picks speaks for itself—Datsyuk 6th round, Zetterberg 7th round, Franzen 3rd round, Holmstrom 10th round. And those aren’t their role players either; they are core members of the team and elite competitors in the NHL.

The Red Wings, once again, should be considered one of the best bets to come out of the Western Conference. They have proven playoff warriors, elite talent up the middle and on the back end, and also have one of the best coaches in the game in Mike Babcock. The winning pedigree and comfortability in the postseason should never be discounted, especially in the grueling Stanley Cup Finals.

The only issue we have with placing a futures bet on the Red Wings—and it’s a very small one— is the team’s durability. Many of their best players are in their 30’s, and injuries can always become an issue with older players. Datsyuk, Franzen and Holmstrom have each missed extended time at some point over the past three years, so it’s important to take note of that.

Having said that, the Red Wings are still a great bet at 10-to-1 for the Cup and an even better bet at 9-to-2 for the West. It’s been two seasons since Detroit made the Finals, and with a team this deep, it’s hard to imagine them not getting back there some point soon. There’s a lot of luck involved in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, to be sure, but great teams make their own luck and because the Red Wings can beat you in so many different ways, you’ve got to like their value at 10-to-1.

CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS

2010-11 record: 44-29-9, 97 points, 8th place in Western Conference
Odds to Win 2012 Western Conference: 11-to-2
Odds to Win 2012 Stanley Cup: 12-to-1

After limping into the postseason, the defending Stanley Cup Champions were on the verge of that dreaded first-round sweep at the hands of the Vancouver Canucks. But after being left for dead, down 3-0, the Blackhawks fought all the way back to force a Game 7 before falling in sudden-death overtime in heartbreaking fashion.

Stanley Cup “hangovers” are not uncommon for defending champs, but considering the amount of role players the Blackhawks lost last offseason because of salary cap issues, their early playoff exit wasn’t necessarily a byproduct of the typical hangover.

This summer, General Manager Stan Bowman worked hard to add more heart and grit to a lineup that desperately needed it. Up front, RW Jamaal Mayers (105 hits) will add plenty of toughness along with LW Dan Carcillo (127 PIM), who becomes the resident goon after coming over from Philadelphia. Veteran LW Andrew Brunette (46 points) arrives from Minnesota, and should provide a nice scoring touch to the third line.

The rest of the forwards are led by one of the most impressive core groups in the league: C Jonathan Toews (76 points), RW Patrick Kane (73 points), C Patrick Sharp (71 points) and RW Marian Hossa (57 points). These four provide incredible balance by spreading out the scoring among the lines, making Chicago a difficult team to defend.

The defense features the elite, shutdown tandem of Duncan Keith (45 points, 149 blocked shots) and Brent Seabrook (48 points, 227 hits). Bowman was able to trade D Brian Campbell—and his pricey contract—to the Florida Panthers, which freed up space for the acquisition of veteran D Steve Montador (138 blocked shots), who will add plenty of toughness to the back end and play alongside the steady Niklas Hjalmarsson (166 blocked shots).

After signing a three-year, $8 million extension this summer, G Corey Crawford (2.30 GAA, .917 SV Pct.) should become the full-time No. 1 netminder this season with the retirement of Marty Turco.

StatFox Take: The Blackhawks learned first-hand last season how difficult it is to win without heart-and-soul type of players throughout the lineup. Bottom-line forwards are the lifeblood of every true Stanley Cup championship team, and without players who fit the mold of an Andrew Ladd, Dustin Byfuglien, or Ben Eager, it’s almost impossible to repeat.

This season, with their forward depth rebuilt, don’t expect the Hawks to simply sneak into the playoffs. The core group of forwards, along with Seabrook and Keith—who become more dominant every season—will help them contend for another Cup. Additionally, the division race between Detroit and Chicago should be the most compelling one in the NHL this season, in a rivalry that is slowly rekindling its glory from decades past.

The biggest obstacle standing in their way, though, will be Corey Crawford. The goaltender is unproven in the postseason, and although he played well during Chicago’s first round playoff comeback last year, we simply haven’t seen enough from him to know if he can shoulder the load for those coveted 16 wins.

Granted, Antti Niemi was also unproven when he won the Cup for the Hawks in 2010, so our logic doesn’t always apply. And Chicago’s defense is certainly capable of carrying them through a few rounds in the postseason.

The most important question when considering whether to wager on the Blackhawks is: how much more value are you getting at 12-to-1 as compared to Detroit at 10-to-1? The teams aren’t as far apart as those odds might indicate, but that is simply a byproduct of the Red Wings being the ultimate public team.

Like we said for the Bruins in our Northeast Division preview, this simply comes down to opinion. The odds seem to be spot-on to us, so it’s up to you the bettor to determine how far you think the Blackhawks can or cannot win the Cup. We wouldn’t be surprised either way.

NASHVILLE PREDATORS

2010-11 record: 44-27-11, 99 points, 5th place in Western Conference
Odds to Win 2012 Western Conference: 15-to-1
Odds to Win 2012 Stanley Cup: 30-to-1

As those brilliant Versus commercials love to remind us, in the NHL Playoffs: History Will Be Made. And in the Music City last year, for the first time since the franchise’s inception in 1998, the Predators won a playoff series, taking down the Anaheim Ducks in six games.

Maybe the sight of Carrie Underwood in the stands helped motivate the Predators—how could it not, right? But the play of Underwood’s beau, C Mike Fisher (7 playoff points), acquired at the trade deadline from Ottawa, helped propel a normally dormant offense to postseason success.

Unfortunately for the Preds offense—which ranked tied for 21st in goals scored last year—it lost some key players to free agency this summer including playoff hero RW Joel Ward (7 playoffs goals) and LW Steve Sullivan (fifth leading-scorer in franchise history). Nashville also bought out the contract of veteran RW J.P. Dumont (19 points), whose offensive production had steadily declined after posting a career-high 72 points in 2007-2008.

Returning up front are Fisher—who should pivot the top line—last year’s leading scorer LW Sergei Kostitsyn (23 goals), and wingers Martin Erat (50 points) and Patrick Hornqvist (48 points). Beyond that, the Preds return just one player who posted more than 40 points last season—C David Legwand (41 points). Nashville will need free-agent pickup RW Niclas Bergfors (36 points) to step up if it hopes to improve its offensive output.

The strength of this team, without question, is its defense, which allowed the second-fewest goals in the NHL last season (194). Led by the bruising Shea Weber (48 points, 211 hits) and his partner, Ryan Suter (39 points), Nashville has what many consider to be the premier defensive tandem in the NHL. But it is likely the final year the two blueliners play together, as both become free agents this summer (Weber- restricted, Suter- unrestricted).

Another soon-to-be unrestricted free agent is G Pekka Rinne, whose .930 SV Pct. and 2.12 GAA ranked second and third best in the NHL, respectively. Rinne, Suter and Weber are as close to a “Big Three” as you will find from a defensive standpoint in the NHL, helping to make the Preds one of the stingiest teams in the league.

StatFox Take: Predators’ General Manager David Poile should be considered, without a doubt, the most underrated GM in the NHL over the last 30 years. Before joining Nashville in the franchise’s inaugural season, Poile was the architect of a Washington Capitals team that made the postseason 14 out of 15 seasons.

His formula (strong team defense in the absence of elite goal scorers) has proven to be successful to a point, but Poile has never had the cash to get his teams over the hump due to cheap ownership.

And after this season, Poile is in danger of potentially losing his three best players. With Weber set to become an RFA and Suter and Rinne UFAs (highly coveted ones, at that), Poile will have to work some serious magic to convince them to stay in the Music City—a tough sell without any elite offensive talent. If he doesn’t, the Predators will lose the cornerstones of their franchise and head into a big downward spiral.

Consequently, this could be the last year the Predators are competitive for a while. And considering all of the teams that improved in the West, it’s entirely possible Nashville regresses and misses the playoffs entirely. But if there’s one thing we know about Head Coach Barry Trotz—his teams always find a way to gut it out and stay in contention.

With that said, the Preds simply don’t have the kind of goal scorers you need to get past the second round of the playoffs. 30-to-1 may seem tempting considering their impressive postseason last year, but stay away from this line.

ST. LOUIS BLUES

2010-11 record: 38-33-11, 87 points, 11th place in Western Conference
Odds to Win 2012 Western Conference: 20-to-1
Odds to Win 2012 Stanley Cup: 40-to-1

Much like their division rival Detroit, the Blues once had an impressive postseason streak of their own. Starting in the 1979-1980 season, St. Louis made the playoffs an astonishing 25 consecutive years. Granted, the team never once made it to the Stanley Cup Finals during that stretch, but you get the point.

Since the lockout, though, this proud franchise has appeared in just one postseason (2009)—a sweep at the hands of the Vancouver Canucks. And playing in a division with two elite teams like Detroit and Chicago, it will get no easier in 2011-2012.

St. Louis easily pulled off the most shocking trade in the NHL last season, trading away D Erik Johnson (133 blocked shots)—the former first overall pick in the 2006 draft—to the Colorado Avalanche for 22-year-old puck-moving d-man Kevin Shattenkirk (43 points) and 23-year-old power forward Chris Stewart (53 points). This deal will undoubtedly help the Blues long-term—adding two core players to an already impressive group of young players.

Up front, the Blues ranked 10th in the league in goals scored—an impressive number for a non-playoff team. They have incredible depth up the middle, with four impressive centers in Patrick Berglund (52 points), Alex Steen (51 points), Andy McDonald (50 points) and T.J. Oshie (34 points).

St. Louis’ best forwards are also big and physical, most notably 6-foot-3 RW David Backes (team-high 62 points). With Berglund at 6-foot-4, Steen at 6-foot-3 and Stewart at 6-foot-2, the Blues won’t be easily pushed around by many defenses.

The defense—usually a strong point for this team—ranked 18th in goals allowed last year, largely because of injuries to two of their best shutdown guys: Roman Polak (110 hits in 55 games) and Barret Jackman (114 blocked shots in 60 games). With these two back healthy, along with Shattenkirk and breakout youngster Alex Pietrangelo (43 points), the Blues form a very exciting backline.

In net, Jaroslav Halak begins his second season with the Blues. After becoming the playoff hero for Montreal in 2010, Halak came back down to earth a bit last year, posting a .910 SV Pct. and 2.48 GAA. To be fair, it was his first full year as an NHL starter, so expect his numbers to rise this season.

StatFox Take: Despite a bevy of young talent in the pipeline for nearly half a decade, the Blues have been unable to get over the hump playing in such a tough division. And, like Nashville, the Blues have lacked the ownership willing to spend money on high-priced players. But with the team currently up for sale, a new ownership group could give General Manager Doug Armstrong the spending power he needs to build a contender.

Even without deep-pocketed owners, the Blues have a very formidable roster. They certainly fit the bill for our well-documented Three Keys to Postseason Success. Their centers are young, but each possesses a great mix of scoring touch and physicality. The defense also features a great blend of veteran grit with young, dynamic puck movers. And we already know what Jaroslav Halak is capable of accomplishing in the playoffs.

With this division—not to mention the conference—as deep as it is, it’s going to be a challenge for St. Louis to get into the playoffs. But the Central should get three teams in, and the Blues’ forward depth absolutely smokes Nashville’s. And with the defense fully healthy this year, we expect the Blues to grab one of the final playoffs spots in the West.

And if they sneak into the playoffs, this team has Deep Sleeper written all over it. Because St. Louis’ forwards play such a physical brand of hockey—the kind conducive to postseason success—and can also put up big offensive numbers, the Blues will be an extremely tough out for any team they face.

Sure, the Blues are young and unproven in many ways, but so were the Penguins, Blackhawks and Bruins. If they add a veteran or two at the trade deadline, anything could happen. The fact is, nothing is out of the question in today’s NHL, and if there’s one longshot futures bet to take, it’s definitely the Blues at 40-to-1. Because hey, why not root for a team that will be fun to watch!

COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS

2010-11 record: 34-35-14, 81 points, 13th place in Western Conference
Odds to Win 2012 Western Conference: 25-to-1
Odds to Win 2012 Stanley Cup: 50-to-1

For most sports fans in Columbus, Ohio, this summer was one they’d rather forget. The city—and whole state, for that matter—was rocked by the scandal surrounding the Ohio State football program. But for the hockey fans in the Ohio’s capital, there was also some big news, only this news was decidedly more positive.

Just one day before this summer’s NHL Draft, Columbus General Manager Scott Howson pulled off a shocking blockbuster deal—sending promising RW Jakub Voracek, the eighth overall pick (C Sean Couturier), and a third-round pick to the Philadelphia Flyers in exchange for top-flight C Jeff Carter (36 goals, 7th in NHL).

With the trade, Columbus finally has the elite center it has lacked for so long. Carter, who has averaged 36 goals per season over the past four years, will make an immediate impact on a horrific power play that scored at a 14 percent clip last year—second-to-last in the league.

Up front, Carter will join forces with RW Rick Nash (32 goals)—a world-class sniper in his own right. Although Carter is more of a shoot-first center than a passing one, he and Nash both have 40-goal potential this season skating on the same line.

The Jackets also added veteran LW Vinny Prospal (23 points in 29 games) from the Rangers. If healthy, Prospal can easily put up 20 goals this season. The rest of the offense features nice depth up the middle with second-line pivot R.J. Umberger (57 points) and 24-year-old Derrick Brassard (47 points), whose point total has risen by 11 each of the past two seasons.

Howson also added a big name to the backline with the free-agent signing of D James Wisniewski (51 points). Oh, and Wisniewski’s 29 power-play points might improve Columbus’ dreadful special team unit just a bit. He will join shutdown D Fedor Tyutin (27 points, 120 hits) to form a solid top pairing.

Steve Mason, who took the NHL by storm in his rookie season of 2008-2009 (Calder Trophy winner), has posted two lackluster season since, averaging a 3.04 GAA and .901 SV Pct. in that time. If the Blue Jackets hope to be anywhere other than the Central Division cellar, they will need Mason to play much better than that.

StatFox Take: Like most bottom-feeder teams in the NHL, the Blue Jackets have a big group of young, promising players in the pipeline. Guys like D Kris Russell (23 points, 128 blocked shots) and promising rookie C Ryan Johansen certainly bring hope to Columbus. And with Carter in the lineup, the offense will have much more pop to it than last season.

But overall, playing in the rugged Western Conference, it seems hard to imagine the Blue Jackets cracking the postseason this year. They would need Mason to post another 10-shutout season like he did during his rookie year to even have a shot, and considering the strength of the Central, that seems highly unlikely.

Always remember the 3 G's Girls,Golf, Gambling not in any particular order......:2thumbs:
cnotes Posts:27570 Followers:33
10/03/2011 06:17 PM

NHL Season Preview: Northwest Division

Other Division Previews:
Atlantic Division
Northeast Division
Southeast Division
Central Division

NORTHWEST DIVISION
VANCOUVER CANUCKS

2010-11 record: 54-19-9, 117 points, 1st place in Western Conference
Odds to Win 2012 Western Conference: 11-to-4
Odds to Win 2012 Stanley Cup: 6-to-1
One thing we learned when the clock struck midnight on the Canucks season after dropping Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals on home ice: there’s no such thing as a quiet riot in the city of Vancouver.

The Canucks—who won the Presidents’ Trophy for the league’s best regular-season record—looked primed to win the franchise’s first Cup last June before the underdog Bruins out-muscled them in the Finals. Despite leading the NHL in goals scored (262), goals against (185), and picking up numerous individual awards, Canucks’ fans were left with sour tastes in their mouths—leading to mass riots in the streets of Vancouver.

And as many of their rivals in the Western Conference added key pieces, the Canucks and General Manager of the Year Mike Gillis had more subtractions than additions. They lost top defensive point-producer Christian Ehrhoff (50 points) and tough-as-nails LW Raffi Torres (29 points, 134 hits) to free agency. Ehrhoff quarterbacked the league’s best power play, and his departure will certainly have a negative impact on a special teams unit that scored at an astounding 24.3% clip.

The top two forward lines remain unchanged, led by the Sedin brothers, who scored a combined 208 points last season. LW Daniel (41 goals, 63 assists) won the Art Ross Trophy as the league’s top point-getter—upstaging his twin pivot Henrik (94 points, 4th in NHL), who won the award the year before. Their linemate, RW Alex Burrows (48 points) —a.k.a. The Biter— also returns for the Nucks.

No Vancouver forward garnered more attention last year than second-line C Ryan Kesler (73 points, 124 hits), who exploded for a career-high 41 goals (tied for team lead) and took home the Selke Award for league’s best two-way forward. The Canucks will start the season without Kesler though, as he is still recovering from offseason hip surgery.

The defense is led by the shutdown pairing Dan Hamhuis (23 points) and Kevin Bieksa (22 points, 104 hits), who re-upped with Vancouver for another five years to avoid free agency. Sami Salo—who played just 27 games last year—and Alex Edler (33 points) round out a solid, but not elite, top four.

And returning in goal is one of the league’s best netminders in Roberto Luongo who had a 2.11 GAA (2nd in NHL) and a .928 SV Pct. (3rd in NHL). Luongo was the subject of a ton of scrutiny in the Finals after he was pulled early in each of Vancouver’s first three losses, but he still remains an elite NHL goaltender and the Canucks will win more games because of him.

StatFox Take: At 6-to-1, the Canucks are the clear favorite to win the Cup according to Vegas sportsbooks. And this is, quite simply, a direct result of public perception. Vegas knows that most square bettors go off of what they’ve seen most recently, and last season—with the exception of the Finals—the Canucks were the league’s best team wire-to-wire.

This is a trap we do not want you to fall into. The Canucks play in the NHL’s worst division (only division in the league to send just one team to the playoffs), and should run away with the Northwest title again this year. And they could very well win another Presidents’ Trophy because of it.

But as we mentioned earlier, the Canucks lost two key players in Ehrhoff and Torres. And come playoff time, you need your defense to be stout and your bottom six forwards to bully the opposition. Considering how physically overmatched the Canucks seemed in the Finals against the pesky Bruins, losing a fiery competitor like Torres certainly doesn’t help their cause.

Remember, it’s all about value here. And the fact of the matter is, teams like Detroit and Chicago are just as deep—if not deeper—and will be more battle-tested come playoff time as a result of their grueling division. And since the odds on Vancouver are so terrible, you’re better off taking an equally-talented team at a discounted price.

CALGARY FLAMES

2010-11 record: 41-29-12, 94 points, 10th place in Western Conference
Odds to Win 2012 Western Conference: 20-to-1
Odds to Win 2012 Stanley Cup: 40-to-1

When General Manager Jay Feaster took over for the hapless Calgary Flames midway through the 2010-11 season, he did so knowing he would have to make a big decision about the future of the franchise as it sat at the proverbial fork in the road. With an aging roster, either blow up the team and start a full-fledged rebuild, or keep the core and slowly fix the edges around it.

Feaster chose the latter, and so far, the results have been positive. After notching just 12 wins in their first 30 games, the Flames clawed back with a vengeance, narrowly missing out on the eighth spot in the playoffs by a mere three points.

Superstar RW Jarome Iginla (43 goals, 3rd in NHL) led the resurgence with a sensational bounce-back year, breaking the 40-goal mark for the first time since scoring 50 in 2007-08. Iginla helped lead a cast of underrated forwards who ranked fifth in the NHL in goals scored (250).

LW Alex Tanguay (69 points), after two underwhelming years in Montreal and Tampa, returned back to Calgary for a second stint and hit the 20-goal mark for the first time since 2006-07. And speaking of stints, C Olli Jokinen rejoined the Flames for the third different time in three seasons (yes, you read that right) and posted an impressive 54 points.

The defense suffered a big blow over the summer, as Feaster dealt bullish d-man Robyn Regehr to Buffalo. It’s hard to imagine the Flames backline without Regehr, who had spent his entire 11-year career in Calgary, but they still return the dynamic Mark Giordano (43 points, 140 hits, 193 blocked shots) and Jay Bouwmeester (24 points, 13 blocked shots). The towering Anton Babchuk (35 points, 129 blocked shots) will continue to man the point on the power play, and the young Chris Butler—acquired in the Regehr trade—will see ice time in the third pairing.

In net, Mikka Kiprusoff (2.63 GAA, .906 SV Pct.) looks to bounce back from a rough season in which his GAA and SV Pct. both dropped off significantly from the previous season. Considered an elite goalie just a few years ago, Kipper needs to post better numbers for the Flames to have a shot at cracking the postseason this year.

StatFox Take: The biggest reason for the Flames’ struggles over the past few seasons was their star players grossly underachieved. Look no further than the three-stints-in-three-years thing from Olli Jokinen, and you understand the lack of patience from the previous front office.

So far, Feaster’s patience has paid off, but in order for this team to break through and make the playoffs, it will still need more out of some of its highest-paid players, namely, Bouwmeester and Kiprusoff.

Bouwmeester has been a huge disappointment since signing that monster 5-year, $33.4 million deal two years ago. He’s still got three more years on that contract, and with Regehr gone, it’s time for him to step up and be the leader of the Calgary blueline.

Kiprusoff also has three years left on his $35 million dollar deal. And the fact is, because of the hard salary cap in the NHL, teams can ill afford to have two of their highest paid players underperform the way these two have. If they finally live up to expectations, the offense is good enough to help Calgary sneak into the postseason. But we don’t think that will happen, as the West is simply too deep this year.

MINNESOTA WILD

2010-11 record: 39-35-8, 86 points, 12th place in Western Conference
Odds to Win 2012 Western Conference: 30-to-1
Odds to Win 2012 Stanley Cup: 60-to-1

For the third consecutive season, the Minnesota Wild failed to break the 90-point mark, signaling the end of Todd Richards’ two-year tenure as head coach. And with a paltry offense (206 goals—26th in NHL), General Manager Chuck Fletcher made two significant trades to improve the forward unit.

The first sent Minnesota’s best defender—the dynamic Brent Burns (46 points, 133 hits)—to San Jose in exchange for RW Devin Setoguchi (41 points, 138 hits). And less than two weeks later, the Wild shipped LW Martin Havlat (62 points, T-1st on team) to the Sharks for RW Dany Heatley (64 points).

Both moves indicate a fundamental shift in the organization’s philosophy. Once predicated on stout defense, the Wild now have an elite goal scorer (Heatley) to play alongside top center Mikko Koivu (62 points). Heatley will look to bounce back after scoring just 26 goals last year, after netting at least 39 in each of the previous five seasons. Setoguchi, a solid two-way forward with a knack for timely goals, should put up bigger numbers playing on the top line.

Second-line center Pierre Marc-Bouchard (38 points in 59 games) will need to step up to take some pressure off the top line, as will his linemate—who just so happens to have the best name in hockey—RW Cal Clutterbuck. Known primarily for his physicality (led NHL with 336 hits), Clutterbuck had a breakout season offensively, posting career highs in goals (19) and assists (15).

The defense will suffer severely without Burns. Not only was he Minnesota’s best defender, he also quarterbacked the power play and was the team’s best puck mover on the back line. And at age 25, about to enter his prime, this is a trade the Wild might live to regret.

The rest of the defense features Marek Zidlicky (24 points)—who will become their best offensive d-man—and Nick Schultz (132 blocked shots). There is no depth on this unit beyond these two, and it’s not a stretch to suggest the Wild might have the worst defense in the NHL this season.

Between the pipes, Niklas Backstrom (2.66 GAA, .916 SV Pct.)—usually a consistent goaltender—might be in for a rough season considering the defense in front of him.

StatFox Take: The offseason trades were very surprising and will certainly add a spark to the offense, but at what expense? Shutdown defensemen are tough to come by in this league, and to trade away a talent like Burns is a highly questionable move. Setoguchi is a solid player, but not dynamic.

As for Heatley, it’s entirely possible his best years are behind him. He can still put up big goal totals, but defenses will be keying in on him big time. He’s always needed a high-profile pivot to help generate opportunities for him, which means Koivu will be under a ton of pressure to live up his monster 7-year, $47.25 million contract signed last summer.

Overall, we just see no way the Wild make the postseason with a terrible defense and an offense that probably looks better on paper.

EDMONTON OILERS

2010-11 record: 25-45-12, 62 points, 15th place in Western Conference
Odds to Win 2012 Western Conference: 45-to-1
Odds to Win 2012 Stanley Cup: 75-to-1

It shouldn’t have been a huge surprise to see the Edmonton Oilers struggle last year, what with a roster chock full of rookies. Posting just 62 points, the Oilers were the worst team in the NHL—finishing six points behind division rival Colorado. But with so much young talent in the pipeline, there are reasons to be optimistic in Edmonton.

Led by rookies Jordan Eberle (team-high 43 points) and Taylor Hall (42 points)—the first overall draft pick in 2010—the Edmonton offense mustered only 193 goals (28th in NHL). C Sam Gagner and LW Magnus Paajarvi (34 points) round out a nice, young offensive core for the Oilers. So young, in fact, none of the four were even old enough to drink in the United States (legally, of course) last season. And added to the mix of youngsters will be first overall draft pick C Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.

The offense also has some nice veterans, including team captain C Shawn Horcoff (27 points) and RW Ales Hemsky (42 points). The offseason acquisition of power forward Ryan Smyth (47 points) from Los Angeles will give the Oilers a nice net presence down low on the power play.

The defense is led by puck-mover Ryan Whitney (27 points in 35 games). Even though Whitney has only played in 54 games the past two seasons, when healthy, he racks up a ton of assists moving the puck up ice to the young forwards. The rest of the backline has very little depth—as evidenced by the 269 goals allowed last year (28th in NHL)—but the free-agent pickups of Cam Barker and Andy Sutton will add a veteran presence to the unit.

In goal, 25-year-old Devan Dubnyk (.916 SV Pct.) should replace the veteran Nikolai Khabibulin as the everyday starter. Dubnyk—Edmonton’s first round pick from 2004—is the future, so it only makes sense to play him to add to the whole “future is now” thing the Oilers seem to be going for.

StatFox Take: As we’ve said before, this conference is simply too ruthless for a young team like Edmonton to sniff the postseason. There are too many question marks on the defense and there will be growing pains for the young offensive stars, to be sure.

Provided they all avoid the dreaded sophomore slump, the Oilers will definitely be one of the more exciting teams to watch this year. And we think they will challenge Colorado for fourth place—a backhanded compliment, but hey it’s progress. Just don’t think about wasting any of your money on a futures bet.

COLORADO AVALANCHE

2010-11 record: 30-44-8, 68 points, 14th place in Western Conference
Odds to Win 2012 Western Conference: 45-to-1
Odds to Win 2012 Stanley Cup: 100-to-1

When you take a look at some of the young forwards on the Avalanche roster, you might be left scratching your head as to why Colorado finished so low in the Western Conference. But if you saw the team’s defense, you wouldn’t be confused anymore.

The Avs ranked dead last in the NHL in goals allowed—yielding 288. To help bring this number down, General Manager Greg Sherman brought in goaltender Semyon Varlamov (2.24 GAA, .923 SV Pct.) from the Washington Capitals in exchange for Colorado’s first and second round picks in next year’s draft.

The biggest question with Varly is his health—as he’s missed stretches of time each of the past two seasons during split duty in Washington. When healthy, though, Varlamov is a game changer and his athleticism is second-to-none.

Up front, the Avs have a terrific one-two punch up the middle with centers Paul Stastny (57 points) and 20-year-old dynamo Matt Duchene (team-high 67 points). Their depth on the wing outside of LW Milan Hejduk (56 points) and RW David Jones (45 points) is a bit meager, though. The Avalanche hope second overall draft pick LW Gabriel Landeskog can make an immediate impact.

The Avs—already strapped for offensive contributions on the back line—traded last year’s top point-getter John-Michael Liles (40 assists) to Toronto. They will, however, get a full year with Erik Johnson (29 points, 133 blocked shots)—who was acquired from St. Louis before the trade deadline last season. The addition of Jan Hejda (20 points) from Columbus and a healthy Kyle Quincey (21 games last year) will hopefully improve the unit.

StatFox Take: The Avalanche’s best asset is their offense, and if they have any chance of competing for a playoff spot, they will need monster seasons from Duchene and Stastny. Also, somehow, they will need some less-known forwards to step up. Colorado will need more quality offensive production from grinders like C Ryan O’Reilly (26 points), T.J. Galiardi (15 points in 35 games) and free-agent acquisition RW Chuck Kobasew (16 points) in order to have any chance at making the postseason.

But even with an improved offense, the defensive depth is below average compared to other teams in the West. Varlamov has the ability to single-handedly steal some games, but he has yet to play a full season without some kind of injury, making the free-agent signing of veteran G Jean-Sebastien Giguere (.900 SV Pct.) a safe back-up option.

With the rebuild still in motion, the Avs won’t come close to the playoffs this year, and could very well finish behind the Edmonton Oilers depending on how their young players develop.

Always remember the 3 G's Girls,Golf, Gambling not in any particular order......:2thumbs:
cnotes Posts:27570 Followers:33
10/03/2011 06:36 PM

NHL preview: Eastern conference forecast and picks

The post-Stanley Cup honeymoon didn't last long for the Boston Bruins, who learned over the offseason that they might have to do without forward Marc Savard for good. While the Bruins (+450 to win the East this season) prevailed in dramatic fashion without him, they could be hard-pressed to repeat the feat after getting career-best contributions from a number of players.

There will be no shortage of challengers to the Bruins' Eastern Conference crown, either.

The Washington Capitals (+366) are confident they will be able to put their previous playoff struggles behind them. The Pittsburgh Penguins (+600) will eventually get Sidney Crosby back in the lineup, a development that is sure to make them one of the conference's most dangerous units. And challenges from a handful of up-and-coming clubs can't be discounted, either.

Here's what the Bruins will be up against as they seek defense of their first Stanley Cup championship in nearly 50 years:

BEST OVER BET: The New York Islanders (33.5 season O/U win total) are a criminally bad team on the defensive end, having allowed the most goals of any team in the East over a three-year span. Even if goaltender Evgeni Nabokov bounces back from a year away from the NHL, he should expect to see plenty of rubber rocketed his way. On the plus side, the Isles are showing marked improvement on the offensive end. John Tavares looks ready to break through the 80-point barrier this season, while rookie sniper Michael Grabner should approach 40 goals. The over went 42-35-5 in the Islanders' games last season.

BEST UNDER BET: The Philadelphia Flyers (+585) gained as much on the back end as they lost up front during an eventful offseason. Gone are lynchpin forwards Jeff Carter and Mike Richards, who combined for 59 goals and 132 points last season. Veteran Jaromir Jagr leads a parade of new faces, but he's almost certainly a step back. Fortunately, the Flyers believe they have the answer in goal in Ilya Bryzgalov, who has posted 15 shutouts the past two seasons and should cut Philly's goals against by a sizeable margin.

MOST IMPROVED: It has become fashionable to write off the Toronto Maple Leafs (40.5 season win total) before the first overpriced beer is guzzled in the Air Canada Centre platinum seats. Yet it bears pointing out that Toronto was a sizzling 18-9-6 from Feb. 1 onward - a development no doubt precipitated by the emergence of goaltender James Reimer as a star in the making. With key additions up front (Tim Connolly) and on the blue line (John-Michael Liles), only another season of good luck in the health department can keep the Leafs from threatening to end a six-year playoff drought.

TEAM TRENDING DOWN: The Flyers surprised just about everyone with the trades that sent Carter to Columbus and Richards to Los Angeles. Developing chemistry will be critical to this team's success - and with the enigmatic Jagr leading the way, Philly fans shouldn't hold their breath. After all, they aren't exactly getting the 1990s incarnation of Jagr. Bryzgalov excelled in Phoenix, but he didn't face much scrutiny in the desert. If he struggles at any point in the City of Brotherly Love, he's going to find himself facing tough questions - and tougher critics.

SLEEPER TEAM: Aided by new owner Terry Pegula shelling out bushels of cash over the offseason, the Buffalo Sabres (+935) appear to be on the path to long-term success in the East. Armed with a roster that features legitimate firepower on the forward units, a sensational defense led by behemoth Tyler Myers and new arrival Christian Ehrhoff and goaltending anchored by perennial All-Star Ryan Miller, the Sabres' time might as well be now. With health on its side, Buffalo could very well top the Eastern Conference standings.

PICK TO WIN EAST: Washington. The selection is a little boring because the Caps are the favorites to win the East, but there's no way Alex Ovechkin struggles again like he did last season, and with a stronger commitment to defense than in seasons past, the Capitals are on the fast track to finally ending their recent playoff struggles.

Always remember the 3 G's Girls,Golf, Gambling not in any particular order......:2thumbs:
  • 10/04/2011 06:00 PM

    NHL preview: Western Conference forecast and picks

    The Vancouver Canucks were the class of the Western Conference last season, but returning to that lofty perch will prove difficult in 2011-12.

    The core of the club that reached the Stanley Cup final remains largely intact. But key losses on defense and an injury that will keep forward Ryan Kesler out to start the season have question marks surrounding the Canucks (+387 to win Western Conference), in what should be an incredibly competitive conference.

    Challenges from the Detroit Red Wings (+588) and the San Jose Sharks (+502) are a yearly occurrence, while the Nashville Predators (+1,703) are riding high after reaching the second round of the postseason for the first time in franchise history. With the retooled Los Angeles Kings (+739) and staying-put Phoenix Coyotes (+1,875) also expected to make noise, picking a winner out West is no easy task.

    Here's what the Canucks face as they aim for back-to-back Western Conference titles:

    CONFERENCE FAVORITE: The Canucks can certainly be had, but by whom? Each of the top challengers have flaws that could prevent them from mounting a serious challenge and none of them have the kind of potent tandem Vancouver possesses in Henrik and Daniel Sedin. If Roberto Luongo continues his stellar play and the Sedins can cope with the absence of Kesler for the first few weeks of the season, Vancouver should be able to get off to a solid start and remain on top the rest of the way.

    TAKE THE OVER: The Red Wings remained a formidable offensive unit last season, ranking second in the NHL in goals, but began to show cracks on the defensive end. Nicklas Lidstrom is entering his twilight and a shaky defense corps behind him is sure to make goaltender Jimmy Howard busy for the second year in a row. Expect plenty of high-scoring games when the Winged Wheel is in action.

    TAKE THE UNDER: Things looked bleak for the Anaheim Ducks' (+1,189) defense in the early going last season. As the campaign wore on, the Ducks' beleaguered blueline improved dramatically, helping guide the club into the postseason. Expect fewer goals against, especially with a healthy Jonas Hiller in goal. Little has changed up front, but don't expect another 50-goal season from Corey Perry or an 80-point effort from 41-year-old Teemu Selanne.

    MOST IMPROVED: The Kings believe it's their time and, with former Philadelphia Flyers star Mike Richards in the fold, they may finally be right. Following years of teasing fans with a talented but inconsistent lineup, Tinseltown has more depth in its forward lines than it has had in several years. The defense received a major boost with the signing of Drew Doughty to a long-term contract and Jonathan Quick proved he has the chops to be an elite NHL netminder. If the team can avoid the extended periods of lethargy that plagued it last season, it should find itself battling for a spot in the conference final.

    TRENDING DOWN: The Calgary Flames (+1,703) used a sensational second-half run to nearly squeak into the postseason. It'll take a miracle for them to duplicate the feat. Following a failed bid to land prized free-agent center Brad Richards, the Flames have precious little down the middle. The first-line job will likely go to unproven Mikael Backlund, followed by a collection of rabble that includes Matt Stajan and Olli Jokinen. The defense lost a key piece in Robyn Regehr, and goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff will find himself pushed by young backup Henrik Karlsson from the get-go. It may be time to opt for a rebuild in Calgary.

    SLEEPER TEAM: The only thing preventing the Minnesota Wild (+4,279) from joining the West elite last season was a startling lack of offense. The Wild recorded the second-fewest goals in the conference - a major reason why the team missed the playoffs for the third year in a row. Minnesota believes it has found a partial solution with the acquisition of Sharks forwards Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi. Heatley, as enigmatic a forward as you'll find, is reportedly motivated and in great shape. Playing alongside skilled veteran Mikko Koivu, the Wild now have a top line capable of leading them back to the postseason.

    PICK TO WIN WEST: San Jose endured off-years from Heatley, Setoguchi and Joe Thornton in 2010-11 and still wound up with 108 points. If anyone can give Vancouver trouble, it'll be the Sharks.

    Always remember the 3 G's Girls,Golf, Gambling not in any particular order......:2thumbs: