Yeah, nothing too bold or outrageous.
The Conference standings will be...
That's right - Leafs and Sens, first round.
The Habs' roster from last year is basically intact. Swap Brisebois for Dandenault, and Perreault for Bonk. All of the young talent played and developed last year - something that, IMO, will make a difference this year. If the obstruction crackdown sticks, Montreal is in good shape on offense and defense with their skilled forwards and relatively mobile defense. Now for Kovalev. I warn you, Habs fans, from time to time he will disappear for stretches and frustrate us, his coach, and his teammates. As long as he brings his 'A' game at crucial times, like he did in the '04 series vs. the Bruins, all will be forgiven.
I have always watched the Canadiens with a critical - nay pessimistic - eye, and, on paper, this team looks to be top-five in the conference. Not many teams can boast as much NHL-ready rising talent. There is a good possibility Boston will falter, and a slim chance Ottawa will. Unfortunately, the Northeast is arguably the toughest division. On the whole, I think home ice in the playoffs is a reasonable, if somewhat optimistic, goal for this club.
Now let's compare them to the competition.
Toronto took big steps backward in terms of depth. Even in the cap era, they found ways to make Ranger-esque moves.
Gone: Nieuwendyk, Roberts, Mogilny, Leetch, Nolan, and Francis.
Added: Allison, Lindros, O'Neill, Khavanov, Czerkawski
Many key players - Sundin, Belfour, McCabe, Tucker - did not play last year. The lockout off did not give the aging vets "a much needed year off." They're just an extra year older than when we last saw them.
I envision the team getting frustrated. Then Lindros and/or Allison will take it upon themselves to do too much, let down their guard because Scott Stevens has retired, and take a big hit. Then all heck will break loose, because Quinn's team features Tucker, Domi, Belak, Brown, McCabe, and possibly Perrotte and Marchment.
Ottawa is still the class of the division. They lost depth down the middle, but hopes are high that Spezza will make up for it. Most of their key players were active during the lockout. The biggest question mark is Hasek.
Boston had a lot of roster turnover, so they're hard to predict. Swap Gonchar for Leetch, Nylander for Zhamnov, Knuble for Isbister, Lapointe with Scatchard and McEachern. Their still-developing #1 defender, Nick Boynton, took the year off and is still unsigned. On sheer talent, the B's should be better than the Habs, but there are a lot more uncertainties with this club. This could be the year Joe Thornton asserts himself as the best player in the world.
Buffalo lost their #1 forward and their #1 defenseman. I am expecting a big year from Maxim Afinogenov, but the Sabres will not be a threat.
The other divisions...
Atlantic - Philly appears to be the favourite, if their current injury rate is an anomaly. With the loss of their two stud defensemen and Patrick Elias, the Devils have to be worse. Although I think Boston and Montreal are better teams than New Jersey, the weaker Atlantic division will deliver home ice in the playoffs. Both New York teams took backward steps. For all the buzz and marquee names, the Pens still seriously lack depth.
Southeast - Tampa managed to keep their skating core intact - for this year. Even if they stumble, their punching-bag of a division will save them. Washington and Carolina will be non-factors. Florida and Atlanta are among the harder teams to guage. Luongo may just pull this season out of his... hat and deliver a playoff spot to the veteran(?) Panthers. Then again Goalie Killer Keenan may just drive Roberto to quit hockey and take up macrame. The Thrashers, however, may have turned the corner. Player-for-player, they have built a good young team. With Bob Hartley running the show, I think they will have a very good year.