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Monday, October 3, 2005
Updated: October 5, 4:20 PM ET
Buccigross: How the East plays out

By John Buccigross
Special to ESPN.com

Here is the continuation of the annual Bucci NHL-musical-new zoo review column, my favorite column of the season. This week, a look at the Eastern Conference.

15. Washington Capitals

"Good seed don't grow
On the barren ground
Say everything fades away
There you are still around
What'll you do, where will you go"
-- "Barren Ground" by Bruce Hornsby

The Rangers, Hurricanes and Capitals should round out the bottom three of the East. The order will be determined by health, unexpected seasons and which GM will trade veterans in order to get prospects and to increase his chances of getting the first pick next summer. None of these teams is brutal. They all have some redeeming qualities. The Capitals have a guaranteed future star in Alexander Ovechkin. He's lit like a Christmas tree from head to toe. When you are around him, you can feel the buzz coming off him.

The Capitals will have trouble scoring goals, and their defense is very young. Capitals fans should expect to see a competitive team in about three years. After developing their current talent and getting in two or three more lotteries, they will be ready to spend money on players in their mid-to-late 20s. Hockey has many similarities to football, one being that teams will get better more quickly than before. A big question to be answered is, will they trade Olaf Kolzig? They should. There are organizations out there -- like Detroit, Ottawa and Edmonton -- that have good teams with questionable goaltending. The Caps could get a prospect and a pick for Kolzig.

14. Carolina Hurricanes

"With a holy host of others standing around me
Still I'm on the dark side of the moon
And it seems like it goes on like this forever"
-- "Carolina In My Mind" by James Taylor

This offseason, Peter Karmanos said, "Just because somebody gets paid a lot of money, that doesn't make them really great." This is the same man who will pay Rod Brind'Amour $3.8 million this season. There are so many contradictions in this organization, it is no surprise the Hurricanes are bad again. As the league attempts to become more dynamic, the Hurricanes don't have any player who jumps out at you. They are drafting some solid players, so at least they are building some infrastructure. They will not be good and they will not draw well, and you have to wonder how long Karmanos is going to lose money. He's going to lose money this year. I'm not sure why I picked the Hurricanes to finish ahead of the Capitals. Feel free to switch them.

13. New York Rangers

"I blew it
And if I knew what to do, then I'd do it
But the point that I have, I'll get to it."
-- "Forever For Her (Is Over For Me)" by The White Stripes

The Rangers are not any closer to becoming a playoff team than the Capitals are. New York has prospects, but none are future can't-miss All-Stars. The first step is to trade Jaromir Jagr as soon as possible. He looks good and is moving well, so deal him while his value is high. Washington is paying some of his salary now, and if the Rangers pick some up, I'd trade Jagr to the Penguins. It would make the Penguins instant contenders and the Rangers could probably get three prospects (Ryan Malone, Ryan Whitney?) and a No. 1 or No. 2 pick. Maybe Jagr will morph into a role model and spirited leader. But as the season goes on and the Rangers lose games in bunches, how will he act? The Rangers need young, dynamic talent and they will have to lose a little to get it.

12. New York Islanders

"I woke up with the power out, not really somethin' to shout about.
Ice has covered up my parents' hands,
Don't have any dreams, don't have any plans."

-- "Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)" by The Arcade Fire

This is where the playoff chase begins in the Eastern Conference. My ears are bleeding, trying to figure where to rank the East teams. Each gives me a reason to believe they could make the playoffs. For the Isles, I love Rick DiPietro in net and I think he could be a future MVP, the kind of player who puts up huge goalie numbers in an offensive league. Team USA has its flagship goalie for the next 10 years.

Concern overshadows the rest of the team. The players seem like a bunch of parts with no cohesiveness. The defense in front of DiPietro is severely weak. A couple of injuries and they are in huge trouble, as the Islanders are capped out and have very little room to maneuver. Trent Hunter is a big key. I wouldn't be shocked if he led the Islanders in goals. He has two components to his game that have always been key to scoring: Hunter has reach and good hands. He's a fantasy-league sleeper. If Miroslav Satan, Alexei Yashin and Hunter score in the 35-45 range, and Mark Parrish supports with 25-plus, DiPietro could carry the Islanders into the playoffs.

11. Toronto Maple Leafs

"October and the trees are stripped bare
Of all they wear.
What do I care?
October and kingdoms rise
And kingdoms fall
But you go on
And on."
-- "October" by U2

Boy, this team would have been something in 2001. Mats Sundin, Eric Lindros and Jason Allison are quite the big trio up the middle. But you have to expect Allison and Lindros will miss a lot of action. Elsewhere, there are huge question marks. The Maple Leafs will have to rely on some young players to pick up some slack, and sometimes young players fail to do that. There is a lot of parity in the East, and when predicting playoff teams you try to go with the ones with the fewest question marks. Some teams might be able to answer those questions and make the playoffs. Right now, over 82 games, I think the Leafs will run into too many questions to be among the top eight. We'll see.

10. Buffalo Sabres

"We're not dead, just heavily sedated.
Can you tell by the way we dress,
Got the stars stuck in our eyes.
A manikin in depth to the veteran."
-- "No Uniform Is Gonna Keep You Warm" by Nightmare of You

I so wanted to pick this team in the Top 8. Wanted to. Wanted to. Wanted to. I love their forwards. I see them moving together fast and fluid. They can roll four speedy lines, and they almost always have a dynamic player on the ice. But the defense and unproven NHL goaltending keeps me from picking them in the balanced East.

They added Thomas Vanek, who is a future All-Star. When you have a goaltending prospect like Ryan Miller and a team that should be able to score 250 goals, you have to wonder what the Sabres were thinking on defense. Maybe they tried. Maybe they have their radar on someone as I write this. Maybe their plan is to add to their blue-line corps as the season goes along. The Sabres are well under the cap and will have flexibility at the deadline. They should be in the playoff hunt at that time. Remember, they finished ninth in the East in 2003-04.

9. Pittsburgh Penguins

"On your way to the best years of your life
Everyone's banging on their gongs"

-- "Homecoming King" by Guster

I must be an idiot. Or as Napoleon Dynamite would say, "Idiot!" Don't comment on that. I'm hearing the Penguins are a Stanley Cup contender, but I just don't see that. The Penguins gave up 303 goals in 2003-04. Let's assume goal scoring stays the same or goes up slightly. The Penguins would have to cut their goals-against by 80-100 goals to probably make the playoffs. Now, the Pens have things in their favor to put them in the top 8. They are about $10 million under the cap. However, Mario Lemieux says the Penguins will still lose money this season because of their arena deal. Will they significantly add payroll at the deadline? Will they be able to add payroll and talent if so many teams are in the playoff hunt, which I believe will be the case?

Another thing that could work in their favor: the new schedule. Each club will play eight games against each of its four division rivals, 32 games total. If the Islanders, Devils and Rangers really struggle, the Penguins could make gains. Another way the Penguins could make the playoffs is if they get Jagr and just outscore teams. Score 250 and give up 230.

They have some dynamite offensive players and a lot of enthusiasm. Still, with their goaltending and overall defensive liabilities, I think the best they are right now is a bubble team. Lemieux turns 40 on opening night. Mark Recchi turns 38 on Feb. 1. John LeClair is a 36-year-man whose back is as physically fit as Larry the Cable Guy's. Ziggy Palffy turns 34 next May. Sergei Gonchar is an elite offensive player, but not very defensive. The goaltender, Jocelyn Thibault, is 4-11 in the postseason and has never won a playoff series. Whether or not they make the playoffs will depend on who GM Craig Patrick acquires through trades.

8. Florida Panthers

"Lights will guide you home
And ignite your bones
And I will try to fix you."
-- "Fix You" by Coldplay

Iron Mike Keenan is managing a good team with just a $24 million to $25 million payroll. He is in a good position. The risky business with this pick is: Will the young players improve and will the older players stay healthy? However, Keenan has huge flexibility and lots of chips to deal. You know he won't sit by and watch this team slide. He doesn't have the patience. I'm shocked he didn't throw an offer sheet at Nick Boynton. The Panthers are balanced and well-coached. They will be able to make deals at the deadline because they have assets to deal and their No. 1 picks in the future don't mean as much. The Panthers are a good bet to make the postseason.

7. Montreal Canadiens

"And even when you've paid enough, been pulled apart or been held up
With every single memory of the good or bad faces of luck
Don't lose any sleep tonight
I'm sure everything will end up alright"
,br> -- "Be Yourself" by Audioslave

There are some people on this earth who see things better than others. They are focused, smart and clear. I believe Canadiens GM Bob Gainey is one of those people. He'll never host Russell Simmons' Def Comedy Jam 12, but I think he'll figure out all this new NHL stuff quicker than anyone else. His goalies are solid and will be able to handle the shootouts, which could determine a playoff spot. The team skates well and has a good mix of the young and the experienced. They also have room to add payroll, and I believe that will be a big component in who makes the playoffs among the bubble teams.

6. Atlanta Thrashers

"When you come back from your mistake,
You can make a person's day,
'Cos it's your time."
-- "Committed" by Pete Yorn

The Thrashers are ready to pounce. It has been a slow, painful process, wrought with bad hockey and tragedy. GM Don Waddell has had a number of high picks and they are ready to be a factor. The Thrashers have not done a good job at overall drafting. Where are the second- or third-round gems? Teams who get those unexpected gems are the ones who challenge for Cups.

Signing Ilya "The King" Kovalchuk is imperative. After that, the Thrashers will be capped out. He could score 60-70 goals this season and will likely lead the league in shootout shooting percentage. That could give the Thrashers an extra 5-10 points alone and would make the difference in the playoffs. A lot is riding on Kari Lehtonen and how he handles the goaltending chores. He is a massive talent. Size and skill. But what is his heart like? We will have to sit back and watch. The Thrashers don't have scoring depth, but they have (or will have) The King and a nice group of defenseman in front of a very good goaltender who will rise to the challenge.

5. New Jersey Devils

"Where are we going? I don't care
Our friends all left
Let's go anywhere."
-- "Hi-Speed Soul" by Nada Surf

The Devils were gutted like no other, with the loss of future Hall of Famers Scott Stevens and Scott Niedermayer. I know Stevens missed time two years ago, but he was still around and created a presence. That said, the defense is still pretty good and my sources tell me they have a goalie who is OK.

Can they score enough goals? They can't count on Patrick Elias, as his illness might be too much to overcome. Brian Gionta and Zach Parise need to step up and provide some NCAA scoring prowess. They are shifty and quick and should create scoring chances. There is little margin for error for the Devils. I'm surprised I convinced myself to take them over Buffalo and Pittsburgh for a playoff spot, but they still have enough quality to match up well with teams in their division.

4. Boston Bruins

"Our youth is fleeting
Old age is just around the bend"

-- "The Sound of Settling" by Death Cab For Cutie

The Bruins are talking a big game. They are very confident in their makeup and abilities. They have a big center in Joe Thornton, who will win the scoring title if he just learns to take over a game and shoot more. He goes through stretches of passiveness and stays along the perimeter and looks to pass, pass and pass. The Bruins believe in Andrew Raycroft, and if he is the real deal, it's an advantage because he doesn't take up a big chunk of salary.

The Bruins are like the Tampa Bay Lightning in that they have two very good lines that are tough to defend. Patrice Bergeron is a star and Sergei Samsonov has the speed and hands to do what Martin St. Louis did in 2003-04. St. Louis was always willing to pay a price to produce. If that price has been lessened through rule-book changes, players like Samsonov will explode on the scene in a big way.

Glen Murray and Alexei Zhamnov are overpaid, and as a result the Bruins' blue line is not that impressive. They have yet to sign Nick Boynton. Without him, it's the same ol' Bruins, putting pennies over product. I'm sure the Boynton deal will get done and the Bruins will have a little room to add a piece at the trade deadline to be a threat come playoff time.

3. Tampa Bay Lightning

"Do you think I should take a class
to lose my Southern accent?
Did I make me up or make the face till it stuck?
I do the best imitation of myself"
-- "Best Imitation of Myself" by Ben Folds

Two real good scoring lines, some grit and veteran presence to support everything. The infrastructure has already proven to be championship-worthy. Vincent Lecavalier should take it to another level this season. Brad Richards is so solid, and Martin St. Louis has a $6 million chip on his shoulder.

Can the goalies make big saves in key times to support everything and keep it from becoming an issue? Sean Burke was thinking retirement last year. He is banged up. But as long as someone will give up $1.6 million per year, athletes will keep taking it until teams stop offering it. The Lightning have a lot of games against the Capitals and Hurricanes and should build up lots of equity in the standings. They are not as good as they were 16 months ago because of the goaltending situation (Nikolai Khabibulin was one of those players who took money and left for Chicago). That slight downgrade will make a repeat very difficult.

2. Philadelphia Flyers

"Heard that you are new in town
someone said you party down
well, later I'll be comin' round
we'll rack 'em up and suck 'em down
it's gonna be a long night"
-- "It's Gonna Be A Long Night" by Ween

Ween guitarist Mickey Melchiondo is a Flyers season-ticket holder, and I'll be sitting with him Oct. 14 to watch the Flyers play Sidney Crosby and the Penguins. We'll see firsthand how good the Flyers really are. Right now, they appear to be very good. They are loaded up the middle and have a combination of size, speed, youth and experience up front. Mike Richards and Jeff Carter are high-end rookies who appear to be fitting in just fine and look as though they will hit the ground running. The defense is a mix of size and mobility, with two good goaltenders in Robert Esche and Antero Nittymaki, who may have the best hockey name since Hakan Loob. I mean, just stare at that name for five minutes or so, and you'll start to get a buzz. The Flyers should dominate their division and finish first or second in the Eastern Conference.

1. Ottawa Senators

"The bravest thing I've ever done
Was to run away and hide
But not this time, not this time"
-- "Break Your Heart" by Barenaked Ladies

This team has 300-goal potential with a big-time big four blue line to match. The Sens should be grown up enough to take a run at the Cup. They also have room to wiggle come trade time. Dany Heatley could win the scoring title and could have huge numbers playing with the talent on this team, especially on the power play. The Northeast Division is the deepest division in the East, so maybe it makes more sense to take the Flyers or the Lightning to finish No. 1. But this Sens team has always displayed such a cool regular-season demeanor. I think they'll rack up a lot of points.

The questions down the road will be the same: goaltending and that playoff intangible that seems to be missing. I think they have the intangibles to make the Cup finals. Do they have the goaltending? That is a big if. Dominik Hasek is no longer the Dominator. But with this team, as in Detroit, he doesn't have to be.

The Mailbag

The following is a letter from Army coach Brian Riley in honor of former hockey captain and Army Ranger Derek Hines, who was killed in a firefight with insurgents in Baylough, Afghanistan, on Sept. 1.

Dear College Hockey community,

I hope that this letter finds all of you well as the current hockey season approaches. One month ago, one of our former players, 1st Lt. Derek Hines, was killed while fighting in Afghanistan. I feel it is very important that the people in the college hockey community understand and know what type of person Derek was.

At 5-6 and 165 pounds, "Hinesy" was certainly not the biggest player when he stepped on the ice. But when the game started, he played as big as anybody out there. As a result of his hardworking attitude, he was a fan favorite here at Tate Rink. I know all college hockey fans would have loved to have Derek play for their team.

As a coach, Hines was exactly the type of person that you want all of your players to be when they are in your program. More importantly, he was exactly the type of person you hope all of your players become when they leave your program.

As the upcoming season unfolds, I know that all of us are filled with much excitement about the year ahead. I am hopeful that when you have the chance to watch Army, Air Force or Navy play this season, you will take a moment and reflect on how special these young men truly are. The fact of the matter is, these young men might someday be asked to pay the ultimate sacrifice, like Derek Hines, for his country.

On behalf of all of us here at West Point, I would personally like to thank all of those in the college hockey community who have stood by us during this difficult time. Although Derek Hines is no longer with us, his legacy will live on here forever. I hope that all of your teams enjoy much success this season.

Sincerely,
Brian Riley
Head Coach, Army Hockey

Thanks to college referee Pete Torgerson.

John,

There has been much talk about the "new NHL."

I'd like for the "new NHL" not to include the annoyingly persistent and implicitly accepted slander of the French.

It's a peculiar phenomenon. The historic contribution that the French-Quebec have made to the game is so great and so obvious that it doesn't even bear repeating. More recently, "soft" Quebecois provided the NHL with its last league MVP and provided international hockey with its last World Cup MVP. Mario is Quebecois for goodness sake! What more does this hockey demographic have to do to merit a touch of basic courtesy?

It's not OK for pundits like Don Cherry to rip the French. It's not OK for players like Sean Avery to turn a perfectly clean hit into a blanket condemnation of French players. Where does this strange tolerance for intolerance come from?

David Luchuk

It's a Canadian thing, Dave. As old as a John Deere tractor in Manitoba. Just a simple, lowest-common denominator, childish name-calling act. Hockey is an emotional game. In my mind, the most emotional game of them all. When people are emotional, they sometimes say and do things in their most simple and easiest form. You won't fight me, Donald Brashear? I'll hit you in the side of the head with my stick. You ignore me and won't turn around and fight me Steve Moore? I'll punch you in the back of the head. You do something to upset me or annoy me? I'll call you a name. Sean Avery has made a career of slamming Czechs, Slovaks, French, Tony Danza, it doesn't matter. One thing is for certain: If you are looking to assemble an NHL team of Jeopardy or Trivial Pursuit players, you wouldn't call Sean Avery.

John,

If Avery had made his comment about African-American players instead of French-Canadians, the entire League would have been up in arms, the Kings would have faced a tide of negative publicity, there would have been a media storm and Avery would have been fined and suspended. The fact that he got away with a halfhearted apology proves that certain types of racism are still acceptable in today's NHL.

Vincent Robert
Visor-less in L.A.

John,

You talk about many young and up coming stars, but what about Jason Spezza? He dominated the AHL last season with 110 some-odd points during the lockout. Now to even make him a better player, the Sens have added Dany Heatley. Spezza has played with Heatley before and preformed well. Also, adding rookie winger Brandon Bochenski to the line will open up so many possibilities. My prediction, Spezza will lead the East in assists, while scoring 20-plus goals. Heatley will score 30-plus, and if he stays, Bochenski will also hit the 30-goal mark.

Nate
Johnson City, N.Y.

As I've written in this column before, I am a huge believer in Jason Spezza. His hockey sense, vision and talents. If Heatley and Spezza play together this entire season, not only will they be among the highest-producing combinations in the NHL, but they also may be the most visually correct. They will have some of the highest IQ goals of the year. If there was one more Super Hockey League made up of six teams, Spezza and Heatley would both be elite players there as well.

Hi John,

I noticed in the mailbag you answered a question on why the road teams now wear white. You answered that it was to sell more jerseys. That's actually half the reason. According to NHLuniforms.com (an excellent gallery of all team uniforms in league history), the switch was also made because of the rise in use of third jerseys by teams at home, forcing visiting teams to carry two sets of uniforms on the road. And with the increased airport security we are now blessed with, this made road trips quite the pain. So the jersey color switch was made to apparently help out tired team equipment managers. Hope that makes it a little more clear for some confused fans.

Nael
San Jose

John,

People can say whatever they want, but I'd be willing to bet my college tuition that the Avalanche win their division this year.

Chris Driver
Cincinnati

That e-mail reminds me. When teams play one of those shifts in baseball against hitters like David Ortiz or Jason Giambi, and they put the second baseman in shallow right field, and the shortstop plays pretty much where the second baseman normally does, my question is: Why don't they put the shortstop in shallow right field and the second baseman where he normally plays? The shortstop's arm is conditioned for the long throw and the second baseman's isn't.

Dear Mr. Buccigross,
Recently I counted up the number of players listed on the official NHL team rosters. I came up with 695 NHL players. Of which only 109 or 15.7 percent are actually American-born. Seven teams have only one American, while seven others have just two. I believe that in order for the NHL to be extremely successful in America, that percent should be somewhere around 33 percent. After all, 24 of the 30 NHL teams are right here in the U.S.

New talents are born everyday, but parents steer them in the direction of picking a baseball, football or basketball first. The NHL has to find a way to get a hockey stick in more of these kids' hands.

Now with the game just coming back, there are far greater things to worry about. Though the long-term success of the game rests on the shoulders of America. More American talent will bring more fans. This I am sure of.

Joe Azzarone
Marketing Major
The University of Tampa

There are many reasons why the NFL is so successful, but I believe one reason that is often overlooked is that 99.9 percent of the league is American. The NHL is huge in Canada, not only because the game is woven into the social fabric but also because half the league is Canadian. Also, CBC, TSN and the rest of Canada celebrates these Canadian players whenever possible. That is not only warm to the viewer, but it's smart. NFL players are marketed not by the NFL, but by ESPN and every other outlet that covers football from the time these players are in high school, then to the NCAA and finally the NFL. I've said it before when people bash the league for not marketing players: Sports leagues don't market players, television networks and news organizations do.

Dear Mr. Buccigross,
Basically every insult, critique and chat-room joke you have made in recent columns regarding the Rangers is extremely true, and often quite humorous. However, here's the deal: As a fellow Ranger fan, I honestly beg you to stop from writing about the Rangers for at least another four years.

Essentially, from a Ranger fan's perspective, it's like you're making fun of a short fat kid for being short and fat due to genetics. See, even though this child was born into this unfortunate situation and there is nothing he can do about this unfortunate situation, he still has to deal with and deal with others making fun of him. So in conclusion, being a Rangers fan is like being a short, fat kid, with Glen Sather as your poor genetic parent, and there is nothing we Rangers fans can do to stop Sather's ruining of the Rangers. So once again I beg you to stop adding insult to injury. Thank you and good day.

Sincerely,
Daniel Cohen
P.S. -- I'm short but not fat.

I think I've been fair to the Rangers. They always tried to win. They just have consistently hired the wrong coaches and signed the wrong players. We'll see if they end up drafting the right players. The Rangers didn't have a first pick in 2000 after they hired Sather. Dan Blackburn was their first pick in 2001, 10th overall, and he's now retired. In 2002, the Rangers did not have a first-round pick. In 2003, the Rangers took Hugh Jessiman 12th overall, bypassing Zach Parise, Ryan Getzlaf, Mark Stuart, Ryan Kelser, Mike Richards, etc. Jessiman was considered a marginal college prospect. In 2004, the Rangers selected Al Montoya No. 1. Too soon to tell.

The Rangers took Marc Staal at No. 1 this past June. Energetic, enthusiastic front offices in love with hockey are the ones who will do best from this day forward. When you look at Sather, do the words energetic and enthusiastic come to mind? I want the Rangers and Blackhawks to make the playoffs. And the Kings, and all the big markets. It's good for ratings and exposure, and right now, let's face it, the NHL needs that. To me, things look bleak in New York, but that can change quickly. I don't think it will under the current front office structure.

I pass along a programming Note from to hockey fans from ESPNEWS Senior Coordinating producer:

It is still in the planning stages, but as of right now, ESPNEWS will be turning Thursdays into a bit of a special night for the hockey fans. We will cover hockey on a nightly basis, but we will take Thursdays and give a bit of expanded coverage for the hockey fan.

We're calling it "Hockey Night" on ESPNEWS. We'll preview games and news and notes during the HotList and 4Quarters shows; in game highlights, analysis and postgame coverage from 8 p.m. on. Barry Melrose will be in studio each Thursday and we'll look to talk with E.J. Hradek, Bob McKenzie, Ray Ferraro and other special guests, players and features. Tune in!

John Buccigross' e-mail address -- for questions, comments or cross-checks -- is john.buccigross@espn.com.