Remember the days when making the playoffs meant beating Hartford or Quebec? Those were the days. We could build for the playoffs, concentrate on establishing chemistry and playing Boston. Playoff streaks were long, round the whole league. We had one, Boston, even St. Louis who continued their's well into the expension age.
Well things have changed a lot. More teams, restrictions on budget, Europeans. The playoffs are becoming a little bit difficult to make. We do all remember missing the last time...
In some ways, though, making the playoffs has not become that much harder. Some teams still stagnate for years (a la Quebec) and those in the hunt need merely hold their concentration through January and February to get it done. Beat all the bottom feeders and you stand a great chance come April. Lose a few to Washington, Florida and the crew and you put yourselves in a precarious situation.
So, now that the free agent frenzy is over (if not all the signings). How do the Habs chances of making the playoffs look. Consider the teams in the East that got better and worse, and by how much.
New York Rangers – Replaced Nylander with Gomez in what could go either way depending on the Jagr chemistry, but did also add a good (and horrendously overpaid) Chris Drury. They were a playoff team, they should stay one.
Philadelphia Flyers – Swapped Forsberg for Briere (I see no great improvement). Added Timonen, but lost Pitkanen (slight improvement if any). Added Hartnell, Lupul and Upshall which should translate into some wins. Added Biron to replace Esche (slight improvement). They also added Jason Smith for another slight boost. When you add it all together it's improvement, but this is still the team that lost the East last year, whose youngsters are so overrated just for being born in Canada it boggles the mind. They should fight for a playoff spot. If they make it, I don't think they will be the fourth or fifth team from this division in, so someone will go home disappointed (NJ?)
Pittsburgh Penguins – Added without really lossing any key parts. Sydor is a great move. Sykora probably isn't, but hey. Crosby will carry them further this year than last.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Good signing in Blake. Well, at least very fiscally responsible. He should fit in well there too. Taking chances on Bell and Toskala should pay off in one way or another at the cost of no prospects from 2007. They are improved, but I thought they overachieved last year, with quite an incredible finish. With the improvement, they should be able to cruise into 7, 8, 9, 10 fight this yea, instead of giving it all for 9th.
Washington Capitals – Adding Kozlov and Nylander could look like the best forward upgrade by the end of the year, especially as nothing major was subtracted. but look where they started! Poti should only add to the confusion at the back. Improved up front, but a non-existent defense means they miss the playoffs again, I think.
New York Islanders – Icing a completely different team, made up entirely of cast offs. I like Ted Nolan as a coach, but even he will have trouble here. Comrie on line 1? Heaven help them. Hanging on to a playoff spot looks all but impossible this year.
Buffalo Sabres – Losing both top centres and Zubrus, and adding Thibault hurt this team. Can't believe Teppo Numminen is still in the NHL, it certainly says a lot about the competitiveness of this team's defense prospects. Should be worse, but they did win the East last year. They kept their two best forwards Vanek and Afinogenov. They will probably eke out a spot.
Ottawa Senators – As of this article, they have only lost players, not gained. That being said, I don't think last year was the end of the line for this team. That first line is the best in the league on most nights. Their defense is the envy of at least 25 teams and their goalie is pretty good. They're worse yes, but should still challenge for the East crown.
New Jersey Devils – Losing Rafalski and Gomez to replace them with Zubrus and Rachunek... ouch. If they get Souray, they could get even worse. Despite all this they still have Brodeur who wins games on his own and Elias who can be the best LW in the league when he wants to (he's already made overpaid free agents out of Gomez and Sykora, who's next? not Zubrus surely...). I think they'll finally be fighting for a spot this year after ten years of cruising. I wouldn't be surprised if they make it, but I wouldn't be shocked if they missed either.
Atlanta Thrashers – Getting whipped in the first round of the playoffs showed this team up for the pretenders that they are. No additions when they probably needed a few on top of that blow to confidence means they got worse. I don't think they have a chance at all, unless Lehtonen has a groin transplant and stops hanging out with Philly's prospects Carter and Richards at the "Could we be any more overrated?" parties through the winter months.
Obviously the other teams moved up or down as well, but I don't think their moves pushed them too far in one direction or the other. I do think Carolina will return to form and show last year was an aberration. And let's not forget Vokoun is no Luongo...
So, how does it all play out then:
New York Rangers
New York Islanders
I can't believe my own eyes, but someone has to miss afterall, and someone even has to come last, even if they sign lots of free agents (eh, Philly?)
So Habs fans, we're in for a fight again. I put us in (of course), but those teams that we have to beat don't look like such slouches anymore. Maybe we'll get lucky and Eric Staal will play really poorly again...