NHL 2010: 5 Teams in the East That Will Challenge Philadelphia

Since the 2005 NHL lockout, there have only been two teams that appeared in the Stanley Cup Final two consecutive years: the Detroit Red Wings and Pittsburgh Penguins in 2008 and 2009. With the Philadelphia Flyers having fallen just two games short of the 2010 Stanley Cup, their next goal is immediately apparent. The Broad Street Bullies must return to the final and once again challenge for a Stanley Cup championship.

Of course, this is much easier said than done. Considering the Flyers qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs on the last shooter of the shootout in the final game of the 2009-10 regular season, it is not enough just to assume they will return. The team has both lost and gained pieces on the ice. However, they remain mostly the same team that came oh, so close to their first NHL championship since 1975.

In addition to changes that occur during the offseason, there are 14 other teams in the Eastern Conference that are foaming at the mouth at the possibility of being the next Eastern Conference Champion and challenging for the Stanley Cup themselves. How about the Toronto Maple Leafs, who are one of just two teams who have not played a postseason game since the lockout? What about the Montreal Canadiens, who recently ended the first decade in team history in which they did not win the Stanley Cup?

Teams will be gunning for the Flyers all season and the organization should be prepared. Here are the top five teams that have the best chance of knocking Philadelphia off the highest pedestal in the East.

Pittsburgh Penguins

Just one season off a Stanley Cup championship and two seasons off another Eastern Conference Championship, the Penguins return to the 2010-11 NHL season with arguably the best team in the league. The only major loss for the team is defenseman Sergei Gonchar, who has been efficiently replaced by former New Jersey Devils blueliner Paul Martin. Defenseman Zbynek Michalek has also been added to the roster to create a top-six in which the worst defenseman on the roster is either Jay McKee or Alex Goligoski, depending on your opinion of each player. To be honest, that is a pretty damn good roster.

On offense, the team lost Bill Guerin and Ruslan Fedotenko, but their depth remains strong, specifically at center with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal manning the top three lines. If the team can find wingers to play with Crosby and/or Malkin, expect total dominance this season. But even if they can’t, there’s no reason to think that the team can’t return to the final.

Washington Capitals

The reigning NHL regular season champions return with a very similar team to the squad that was upset by the Montreal Canadiens in the 2010 playoffs. Though goaltender Jose Theodore was lost in free agency, the team is still fairly strong in net with Semyon Varlamov and American League star Michal Neuvirth. The team still has its typical weaknesses at defense, with Jeff Schultz and Mike Green being the only bona fide NHL regulars. They also have some problems with offensive depth, as the only lines that regularly score are lines that include the names Ovechkin, Semin or Backstrom (namely, the first line). However, if their regular season is any indication, it is that no one should ever discount the Caps, because their overwhelming amount of firepower and the dominance of one of the best first lines in hockey can explode at any minute, taking any team in the league down.

Buffalo Sabres

If goaltender Ryan Miller proved anything in the 2009-10 season, it is that he is most likely the best goaltender on the planet. A Vezina Trophy, Olympic silver medal and 2010 Olympic MVP award later, Miller is simply the backbone of the Buffalo Sabres. Though he led them to a Northeast Division title last season, the team fell short in their bid for a Stanley Cup, falling to the Boston Bruins in seven grueling games. The team has just 19 players under contract, but with over $9 million in cap room, there is plenty of leverage to make a move if GM Darcy Regier sees the opportunity. The team has good offensive talent up top with players like Thomas Vanek, Jason Pominville, Derek Roy and Drew Stafford, but their depth up front is weak and often was the cause of the team’s downfall last season.

2010 Calder Trophy winner Tyler Myers returns to the team as arguably their best defenseman, along with Jordan Leopold, Craig Rivet and Andrej Sekera in the top-four. The team has fairly good defensive depth and regularly gives up very few goals. If their defense holds up, the mantra “Defense wins championships” could prove true in Buffalo this year.

Boston Bruins

Let’s see the situation in Boston right now: the NBA’s Celtics fell in the playoffs in their bid for another NBA Championship. The New England Patriots seem to have fallen off the face of the NFL. The Boston Red Sox are just barely hanging on in their race for the AL East title and a playoff berth. The Boston Bruins gave up a 3-0 series lead in last year’s semifinal and a 3-0 lead in Game 7 to fall to the Philadelphia Flyers. Now, they are just under $1 million over the salary cap with 20 players signed for this year.

Okay true, second overall pick Tyler Seguin may dress for the start of the season and be a regular through the entire campaign. And the team still has Patrice Bergeron, Marc Savard, Blake Wheeler, Milan Lucic and the rest of their offensive depth that won them the regular season title in the East just a few years ago.

In goal, they have a former Vezina Trophy winner and a young, 23-year-old goaltender who led the league in goals against average and save percentage last season.

On defense, you have just two words: Zdeno Chara – that would scare the bejeezus out of anyone and incidentally still does.

Behind the bench? Former Jack Adams winner Claude Julien.

Any questions?

New Jersey Devils

Let’s just assume that regardless of the arbitrator’s decision, Ilya Kovalchuk will somehow be a Devil when the puck drops this season. Even if he is on the roster, the team is over the salary cap by at least $2 million (and much more if the arbitrator upholds the rejection of Kovalchuk’s contract). The team lost star defenseman Paul Martin and could only find shot blocking phenom Anton Volchenkov as a replacement. The team lacks a bona fide number one defenseman.

Their depth on forward is questionable and they fail to score many goals, which was evident in their quarterfinal series against the Philadelphia Flyers last season in which they were simply manhandled by a better-prepared and more talented team.

In goal, Martin Brodeur is the reigning William Jennings winner, yet again, for being on the team that allowed the fewest goals against in the league. But he is 38 years old and there ain’t no career year coming for him anytime soon.

Analysts, scouts and writers have their doubts, as they always do. But somehow, the team always manages to sneak their way into the playoffs.

I mean, if Lou Lamoriello was your GM, wouldn’t you be damn sure you make the playoffs, too?

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