Alright, for this installment of my NHL preview series, I’ll be looking at the Eastern Conference. Well it’s really a mini-series, since the next and final article will be playoff and awards predictions. Time to look at how the conference that produced last season’s Cup winner Boston will shake out.
(1) Washington: Certainly not a team that stood pat in the offseason. Getting Troy Brouwer for a 1st round pick and signing Joel ward for 3 mil were met with skepticism. Perhaps the signing overall is getting goalie Tomas Vokoun for 1.5 mil. Any team that has Alex Ovechkin will be near the top, but players such as Alex Semin and Nicklas Backstrom must step up when they’re really needed in order for the Caps to get over that postseason hump.
(2) Pittsburgh: More then any other team, the Penguins’ fortunes will rest on one player. When Crosby returns could have a big impact on the team this season. It’s not like he’s their only weapon, as they boast Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal among others. Newcomer Steve Sullivan will bring a steadyness on the ice that will help the Pens. The defense and goaltending will be strong as always, but when Crosby comes back, this team will a contender in the East.
(3) Boston: Being the defending Cup Champs always gives a boost going into the next season. The talented Bruins did little to change their roster with Joe Corvo coming in to replace Tomas Kaberle being the only notable move. Then again they didn’t need to much as they still have rock solid Zdeno Chara, forwards Milan Lucic and Patrice Bergeron to go along with Tim Thomas, the goaltending version of Lidstrom.
(4) Buffalo: After an offseason of major change, the Sabres are set to make some big noise in the East. Christian Ehrhoff and Robyn Regehr join Tyler Myers and Jordan Leopold to form an incredibly deep blue line that could be among the bets in the league. Ryan Miller will handle the goaltending like he always does. The offense added Ville Leino who has to live up to a big contract, though the unit as a whole should be fine.
(5) Philadelphia: Trading away two young stars will cause uncertainty for the fans, but the Flyers still have the pieces to contend. Chris Pronger and Kimmo Timonen lead the defenseman, Jaromir Jagr returns to the NHL to try to fill the production of the departed Carter and Richards. The losses in the offseason were offset somewhat by the acquisition of goalie Ilya Bryzgalov, who has the talent to be a wall in net.
(6) Tampa Bay: The scary thing about the Lightning is that they are only at the beginning of a long streak of contention. Steven Stamkos will score, while Martin St Louis and Vincent Lecavalier will pace the offense. Victor Hedman is future star on defense and Dwayne Roloson is still productive even into his 40s. The big question confronting this team is if they can keep pace with the Capitals in the Southeast.
(7) NY Rangers: The Rangers made a big splash in free agency, getting the top prize in Brad Richards. Having him alongside Marion Gaborik makes Ranger fans giddy. Offense was their biggest area of need and while Richards is an improvement, the rest must step up if the team wants to go deep in the playoffs. An elite goalie like Henrik Lundqvist and a young blue line led my Marc Staal and Dan Girardi, will be the core of the team.
(8) Montreal: Despite always having some perceived deficiency, the Habs have made the playoffs the last few seasons. Carey Price is one of the best goalies in the league and will be counted on heavily. Tomas Plekanec, Mike Cammalleri and Brian Gionta are the focus of the offense and might have to compensate for a depleted blue line. The team lost Roman Hamrlik and James Wisniewski, but return Josh Gorges and Andrei Markov from injury. The play of the D-men could go a long way in determining the success of the Habs.
(9) Carolina: After just missing the playoffs last season the ‘Canes did little to change their roster, although they did have the talent already on the team. Eric Staal is the face of the team, but he’s joined by Calder Trophy winner Jeff Skinner and a number of other young players. Cam Ward will always be there to carry the load in goal. The problem is the defense, which is very thin, and newcomer Tomas Kaberle will have to outperform expectations to help this unit.
(10) Toronto: The light at the end of the tunnel is beginning to appear for the Leafs. The team has made smart moves, but is still on the playoff bubbles. Dion Phaneuf is a stud and has a number of promising youngsters with him on the blueline, along with new arrival John-Michael Liles. James Reimer played well in stretches between the pipes, but must put together a consistent to dispel doubters. Besides Phil Kessel, there is no one up front that really is a threat to other teams.
(11) New Jersey: A team that has Martin Brodeur and Ilya Kovalchuk must be a playoff team, right? Not in this case, as there is a lack of depth up front to truly push the Devils into the postseason. The defense is not what it used to be back in the team’s heyday. Brodeur is on the downhill of his career, but still has the ability to steal a game all by himself. New head coach Peter DeBoer has his work cut out for him.
(12) Florida: The Panthers were perhaps the league’s busiest team in the offseason, bringing a slew of new players. Even without the issue of how well these new guys will mesh, there is no real place to go but up for Florida. Ed Jovanovski and Brian Campbell will beef up the blue line, but Jose Theodore is poor replacement for Tomas Vokoun. There is room for improvement, but not enough to get anywhere close to the playoffs.
(13) Winnipeg: The future looks bright for the new Jets with several promising players. These include winger Evander Kane and blueliner Zach Bogosian to go along with team leaders Dustin Byfuglien and Andrew Ladd. Ondrej Pavelec has alot ro prove to establish himself as the #1 netminder. However bad the Jets are this season, it won’t matter because fans are estatic that hockey is back in Winnipeg.
(14) NY Islanders: The Islanders will rely more on promise then actual past production this season. John Tavares is a future star and young forwards Nino Niederreiter, Matt Moulson and Kyle Okposo must step up and become top-six fixtures. The defense is questionable and who knows what is really happening in goal with Rick DiPietro, Evgeni Nabakov and Al Montoya all in play.
(15) Ottawa: It seems like only yesterday that the Senators were always in the playoffs. However, times are different and the team is in rebuilding mode. They still have Daniel Alfredsson and Jason Spezza from those teams, but neither are what they were years ago. Sergei Gonchar is the same on defense and Craig Anderson in goal does not inspire much confidence.