With the NHL’s much anticipated free agency period dwindling down, it’s time to determine which teams are most likely to emerge out of the Eastern Conference next Spring. We’ll examine the two main contenders from the Eastern conference and their respective chances of hoisting the cup next June.
- Philadelphia Flyers
Not many hockey fans gave the Flyers a chance in their first round matchup with their cross state rivals last season. It’s not that Philly didn’t have the talent to advance, but everyone considered Pittsburgh to be an unstoppable, offensive juggernaut. Pittsburgh put up a ton of goals in the series, as expected, but the Flyers shocked the hockey world in answering the Penguins offensively. This crazy series featured 56 goals, with the Flyers netting at least three goals in five of six contests. Their six-game series win sent shockwaves throughout the Eastern Conference, as the Flyers emerged as the favorite to knock off the one seed, New York Rangers.
Unfortunately, for Flyers fans, Philly evidently peaked too early. The Flyers were knocked out by New Jersey after just five games. Philly played uninspired, undisciplined hockey, and a relatively young hockey team suffered its first growing pains.
After completely redesigning his roster in the 2011 offseason, Flyers General Manager Paul Holmgren is working to execute his Stanley Cup blueprint in the upcoming season. Holmgren traded one of his rising offensive stars, James Van Riemsdyk, to Toronto for defenseman Luke Schenn. In reuniting the Shenn brothers, Holmgren has added defensive depth to an already impressive defensive team. The Flyers also added aging winger, Ruslan Fedotenko and defenseman Bruno Gervais, moves that will provide a veteran presence and depth.
Perhaps the biggest move the Flyers have made this season was signing restricted free agent, Shea Weber to a fourteen-year, 100 million dollar offer sheet. If small-market Nashville decides not to match the offer, Philadelphia will have essentially created the best defensive pairing in the league. Weber will undoubtedly be a major upgrade from the aging, unrestricted free agent Pavel Kubina. If Chris Pronger is healthy heading into the season, the Flyers could potentially have the deepest team in hockey.
Holmgren has built an impressive defensive presence behind his young, offensive powerhouse. The Flyers will bring back four twenty-goal scorers from the 2011-2012 season as well as Maxime Talbot and Danny Briere. This team will only get better next season as they develop chemistry under the leadership of one of the league’s most impressive young stars, playmaker Claude Giroux.
Look for Philly to battle both Pittsburgh and New York for the Atlantic Division title and make another significant playoff push in the 2012-2013 season.
Stanley Cup Odds: 8 to 1
- Pittsburgh Penguins
The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center probably should have sponsored the Pittsburgh Penguins’ 2011-2012 season. The Pens’ roster was completely decimated by injuries throughout the majority of the season. Jordan Staal, Kris Letang, Tyler Kennedy, and Craig Adams all missed significant time as a result of serious injuries over the course of the regular season. Couple this with the fact that the league’s best player missed sixty games and you’d probably be content with a good draft pick if you’re a Pittsburgh fan.
This was not the case, however, for a team that often times resembled the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, Pittsburgh’s AHL affiliate. Under the leadership of eventual Hart winner, Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh developed one of the leagues most explosive offenses. Geno put up fifty goals and fifty-nine assists over the course of the regular season and winger James Neal emerged as one of the premier scorers in the NHL, recording forty goals and forty-one assists. Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis also stepped up in a big way, as they both provided the injury-plagued offense with twenty-five plus goals.
The Penguins were heavy favorites to win the Eastern Conference when Sidney Crosby and Jordan Staal returned from injury. A regrouped and reassembled Pittsburgh team was poised to make a major push for the Cup. Then they ran into a scorching hot Flyers team. Both teams put up crazy scores, which made for wildly entertaining hockey, but Pittsburgh was baited into playing Philadelphia’s game. The Penguins were able to keep up in terms of goal scoring, but Pittsburgh was visibly out of its comfort zone, most notably goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. Marc-Andre, who posted an impressive .913 save percentage in the regular season, was completely rocked by the Flyers’ offense. Fleury allowed way too many soft goals throughout the series and the Penguins were upset in six games.
Ray Shero, Pittsburgh’s General Manager, certainly didn’t have to reinvent the wheel during the offseason. His team would have presumably been the favorites to win the Cup last year had it not suffered so many significant injuries. Many hockey fans believed Shero would make some minor tweaks, retool, and put forth a similar hockey club for the 2012-2013 season. Hockey fans were wrong. In perhaps the biggest trade of the offseason, Shero dealt favorite Jordan Staal to Carolina for center Brandon Sutter, defenseman Brian Dumoulin, and the eighth overall pick in the 2012 draft. After locking up Sidney Crosby with a 12-year, 104 million dollar deal, Shero offered Staal a 10-year deal in hopes of securing the third member of the three-headed monster for the remainder of his career. Stall rejected the deal, and the next day he was on his way to join his brother, Eric, in Carolina.
Although losing Jordan Staal was difficult from a fan’s perspective, the Pittsburgh front office has great faith in Sutter’s abilities. Many feel he will be able to provide similar production at a discount. In addition to the blockbuster trade, the Penguins brought in Tomas Vokoun to back up Marc-Andre Fleury and Tanner Glass to add some depth at forward.
Sutter will slide right into Staal’s role and a healthy Penguins team will return to its old form, contending for Stanley Cups. James Neal will presumably take on a bigger role offensively and the club’s two Hart Trophy winners will continue their dominance as they enter their respective primes.
Pittsburgh will also be in the hunt for the Atlantic Division tile and will contend for another Eastern Conference championship.
Stanley Cup Odds: 7 to 1
Don’t forget to check out both the Penguins’ and Flyers’ X-Factors on Bleedin’Blue.