While Toronto and the N.Y. Islanders have yet to decide which of them will get into the postseason, the other seven teams have been decided. Let’s take a look at the teams in the East and what to expect in hockey’s second season…
Since they have not made the postseason in their franchise history prior to now, it is difficult to gauge which players will do what. The most obvious observation here is that Keith Tkachuk and Alexei Zhitnik – the newest members of the squad – have point totals that are deceiving for the season. Since their arrival in Atlanta, both players have stepped up. Tkachuk’s points per game has increased from 0.7 in St. Louis to 0.82 in Atlanta, while Zhitnik’s has increased from 0.4 in Philadelphia and Long Island to 0.82 in Atlanta. Eric Belanger has also picked up his offensive game since joining the team. Other than these three players, Ilya Kovalchuk, Marian Hossa and Slava Kozlov are the only ones truly worth taking. Bobby Holik makes a really nice dark horse though.
Tim Connolly made (and scored in) his regular season debut on Saturday and will make a premium dark horse selection in your playoff pool. Many of your opponents at the draft will be carrying only the final stats to the table – and they’ll have to look pretty far down the list to Connolly’s point totals. Granted, he is a risk to be re-injured, but his upside is at least a point per game. Derek Roy and Chris Drury both stepped it up in a big way last postseason, while Maxim Afinogenov, Ales Kotalik and Brian Campbell all slipped when the playoffs began.
For the last 15 years or so, you could never be laughed at for stocking up on Devils. As long as Martin Brodeur is between the pipes, this team can contend. The usual suspects are worth drafting – Patrick Elias, Brian Gionta and Scott Gomez. One word of warning on Gionta – he has fought groin problems all season long and recently sustained a foot injury. Sophomore Zach Parise is shouldering more responsibility with every game and he just might be the second-best skater to draft on this team behind Elias. Travis Zajac has been hot down the stretch, but will be a boom or bust pick given the fact that he is a rookie and freshmen tend to have their ice time rolled back a little in the postseason. Brian Rafalski and Jamie Langenbrunner really stepped up last year in April, so you may want to nudge them up your draft lists a little.
New York Islanders
The Islanders did not make the postseason last campaign and nearly every one of their acquisitions that did participate, performed poorly. Tom Poti (N.Y. Rangers), Mike Sillinger (Nashville), Brendan Witt (Nashville), Richard Zednik (Montreal) and Marc-Andre Bergeron (Edmonton) combined for two points in 38 playoff games last year. Both Bergeron and Sillinger have huge offensive roles with their new team. Expect them to improve tremendously. Which Alexei Yashin will we see? In three different playoff runs, the captain combined for just three points in 13 games. In his other four postseason visits he had 24 points in 30 games. Sillinger is third on the team in scoring, while Bergeron has 20 points in 22 games with his new team. The two top playoff picks on this team are Ryan Smyth and Jason Blake. Not only are they 1-2 in team offense, but they also play playoff hockey – lots of hustle, lots of heart and clutch goals.
New York Rangers
The entire team pretty much floundered with Jaromir Jagr and Henrik Lundqvist out of the lineup last year in the first round, so you can’t make decisions on moving players up or down your list based on that. Brendan Shanahan is a playoff warrior, of that there is little question. An interesting dark horse will be one of Marcel Hossa or Ryan Callahan. The latter is a rookie who will step into the lineup and takeover if the former stumbles or does not return from his knee injury. Hossa was red-hot for about three weeks prior to spraining his knee and showed excellent chemistry with Jagr. Callahan has shown decent numbers in limited action. Sean Avery has 20 points in 28 contests since joining the Rangers and is deserving of a bump upwards on your draft list.
Wade Redden, Peter Schaefer and Jason Spezza all had strong playoff seasons last year. Andrej Meszaros and Chris Neil had weak postseasons offensively, garnering just two points in 10 games between them. Redden has battled several ailments this season, particularly his groin and ribs, but his numbers have really improved in the second half and that certainly merits consideration when formulating your draft list. Mike Fisher has had a strong year and makes an excellent dark horse to post nearly a point per game.
How do you tackle a team full of inexperience playoff players when putting together your list? Other than Mark Recchi and Gary Roberts, the Pens are short on postseason experience. Since Pittsburgh relies heavily on their power play, it would be wise to start there - especially since this will become even more pronounced in the playoffs. Ryan Whitney has been battling a groin injury. Nonetheless, he should be moved up your draft list. Ditto for Sergei Gonchar. If you like the Pens to go a couple of rounds, you probably couldn’t move Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin any higher than they already are (that is – first and second). Michel Ouellet, Jordan Staal and Erik Christensen are the members of the second power-play unit. Colby Armstrong has seen time on Sidney Crosby’s line of late and makes an excellent dark horse.
While Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier and Brad Richards are no-brainers for your playoff pool if you like this team to go far, it should also be noted that the Lightning have been using their defensemen a little more in terms of offensive contributions. Dan Boyle has a career high in points this season, Filip Kuba has had several hot streaks, and Paul Ranger has also proved adept at posting points. Ranger also posted six points in five postseason contests last year, stepping up more than any other member of his team.
The Leafs will only get in if the Islanders lose on Sunday. The team did not join the postseason dance last year and there are a lot of new faces since their last dance back in 2004. Mats Sundin, Tomas Kaberle and Bryan McCabe are no-brainers – but hold up a minute on your Darcy Tucker selection. The feisty winger has just 21 points in 62 career games. Before you attribute that to it being mostly earlier in his career and state that “he’s a different player now”, keep in mind that in his last 18 playoff games he has just six points. Tucker’s contributions in the postseason are intangible, which hardly helps your hockey pool. Alexei Ponikarovsky and Nik Antropov are entrenched as Sundin’s wingers, so they should be entrenched on your draft list if you like the Leafs to get by the Sabres.