NHL Offseason: Power Ranking the Eastern Conference the Day Before Free Agency
The 2013 NHL season has ended, but there is never a boring day in the world of hockey. The 2013 NHL entry draft, which held all sorts of surprises, took place last Sunday, while free agency will begin at noon ET on Friday.
The new realignment will be something to keep an eye on as well, as the East will not be divided up as it used to be. Also, there will be 16 teams instead of the previous 16, as the Columbus Blue Jackets and Detroit Red Wings move into a more time-zone-friendly conference by replacing the Winnipeg Jets.
All sorts of things can and will change in free agency, but this is a look at how things line up in the Eastern Conference before the frenzy begins.
16. Florida Panthers
Florida made the playoffs as the Southeast Division winner in 2012 and took the eventual Eastern Conference champion New Jersey Devils to double overtime in Game 7 before being eliminated in the first round of the playoffs.
Last year, however, the Panthers finished with the worst record in hockey and still did not win the draft lottery. While Jonathan Huberdeau won the Calder Trophy for Rookie of the Year and first-round pick Aleksander Barkov Jr. may soon join him in a potent scoring duo in the NHL, the Panthers will be hard-pressed to come close to the playoffs, especially in a much tougher division than before.
The Panthers were overachievers in 2012 and underachievers in 2013. They managed to make the playoffs in 2012 after a huge spending spree in free agency. Can they do it again?
15. Buffalo Sabres
The Sabres had a good day at the draft, but don't expect them to go anywhere too soon. This team has begun to rebuild and has not kept it a secret since Jason Pominville and Jordan Leopold were traded before the deadline last year.
Fans in Buffalo are not happy, as the team has arguably been the most disappointing in hockey for two years in a row. The expectations for this upcoming season will not be as high as they were before the previous two.
14. Carolina Hurricanes
The Hurricanes unveiled new uniforms for the upcoming season, but don't expect them to help the team in the standings.
At this time last year, Carolina was making all sorts of moves, and many people had penciled them in as the winners of the Southeast Division. Instead, the Hurricanes did not live up to expectations and floundered to one of the worst records in hockey.
Things may be a little different this year, as goaltender Cam Ward's injury was a big cause of Carolina's misfortune last season. However, a tougher division will make it much less likely that the Hurricanes will reach the playoffs in 2014.
13. Tampa Bay Lightning
With the third pick in the draft, Tampa selected dynamic scorer Jonathan Drouin. He will be fun to watch alongside Martin St. Louis and Steven Stamkos, but by selecting Drouin, the Lightning still have not addressed their defense.
The Lightning can score, but their problem the past two seasons has been keeping the puck out of their net. If they want to go anywhere in a tough division, Tampa Bay needs to add defensemen who can make an immediate impact on the blue line.
Also, longtime captain and fan favorite Vinny Lecavalier was bought out and has signed with the Philadelphia Flyers, leaving a major void at center.
The Lightning should be active in free agency if they want to go anywhere soon, but their impressive offense should be fun to watch no matter what.
12. New Jersey Devils
The Devils are a team that should never be counted out, but an unimpressive 2013 campaign left many fans scratching their heads.
Injuries were partially to blame for New Jersey's demise, as superstar winger Ilya Kovalchuk missed several keys games in the shortened season, and the team suffered because of it.
Even if Kovalchuk is healthy, the team may have more trouble this season. David Clarkson appears to be headed elsewhere through free agency, and the Devils have yet to fill the hole left by the departure of Zach Parise.
11. Columbus Blue Jackets
The Blue Jackets were one of the biggest surprises in hockey in 2013, and they appear to have a bright future. Having Marian Gaborik for a full season will be a big boost to the club, and young players like Ryan Johansen (20) and Ryan Murray (19) will have another year to develop.
Columbus may have some trouble duplicating the same success it had in 2013—when the Jackets tied for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference—because of a competitive Eastern Conference in 2014.
It wouldn't be a major surprise if the Blue Jackets were to crack a playoff spot in 2014, but Vezina winner Sergei Bobrovsky would likely have to repeat his incredible performance of this past season, which would be nearly impossible.
10. Philadelphia Flyers
The Flyers have already been busy this offseason, buying out Danny Briere and Ilya Bryzgalov while signing Vincent Lecavalier, who was bought out by Tampa Bay. They also traded for and signed veteran blueliner Mark Streit, formerly of the New York Islanders.
Philadelphia's major issue right now is goaltending (shocker). The team's offense is not much of a problem, and the defense will improve with the addition of Streit and maybe another signing or two, but a team with Steve Mason, Michael Leighton and Brian Boucher as its netminders cannot be expected to have much of a shot at a Stanley Cup.
The Flyers were underachievers in 2013, but they have the potential to be a dark horse contender in 2014 as long as they sign a goaltender. Look for them to go after Tim Thomas or Evgeni Nabokov.
9. Montreal Canadiens
Yes, I am dropping the Habs, who finished second in the East, to ninth in this power ranking.
It's not because the Canadiens are a bad team. Rather, it's a testament to the teams ahead of them. However, Montreal overachieved last season, shooting all the way up to a second seed after being the worst team in the conference in 2012.
Rookies Brendan Gallagher and Alex Galchenyuk were major parts of Montreal's improvement, but they will need to duplicate what they did last season for this team to maintain that same success.
Also, the Canadiens rode a great start into the playoffs, where they looked like they did not belong on the same ice as the seventh-seeded Ottawa Senators.
Which Habs were the real Habs—the ones that had a surprisingly great regular season, or the ones that were obliterated in the first round of the playoffs? Most likely, this year's team will fall somewhere in between.
8. Washington Capitals
The Caps got off to an awful start last year, but they ended the season as the hottest team going into the playoffs and emerged as a Stanley Cup favorite. Instead of living up to expectations, the Capitals once again were ousted in the first round. Henrik Lundqvist and the Rangers held the Washington high-scoring offense scoreless in both Game 6 and Game 7.
This sudden collapse left Washington with more questions than answers. Alexander Ovechkin looked like his head was somewhere else in the entire series, and the Caps will likely need to fill a big hole in the offense with Mike Ribeiro probably heading elsewhere in free agency.
Washington will also have to adjust to a competitive division instead of the lackluster Southeast that it had dominated for years.
7. Ottawa Senators
The Senators were a tale of two teams in the 2013 playoffs, knocking out the second-seeded Canadiens in five games but also being eliminated by the Pittsburgh Penguins in five games in the next round.
Despite dealing with major injury issues, including long trips to the injured reserve for Craig Anderson, Jason Spezza and Erik Karlsson, Ottawa proved the critics wrong once again by continuing to be a competitive team.
Another thing going for Ottawa is youth. Mika Zibanejad (20), Cory Conacher (23) and Jakob Silfverberg (22) took on huge roles last season and showed potential.
Longtime captain Daniel Alfredsson may go somewhere else in free agency, but the team will still have no shortage in leadership with Coach of the Year Paul MacLean behind the bench.
6. New York Rangers
The Rangers will be an interesting team to watch next season with new head coach Alain Vigneault.
Former coach John Tortorella taught the team to grind out wins with a defense-first shot-blocking style in front of superstar goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. Vigneault, formerly of the Vancouver Canucks, coached his team to play more of a finesse game.
Under Vigneault, forwards like Brad Richards and Rick Nash may produce more, but the team's penalty killing could regress a little, while Lundqvist may surrender more goals.
Nevertheless, the Rangers are a dark horse in the Eastern Conference and can be expected to have a fairly stellar season.
5. New York Islanders
The Islanders made huge strides in 2013 and can be expected to go nowhere but up in 2014. The goaltender situation is a bit of a question mark, but this team has all sorts of offensive potential and can take down even the best of teams.
New York shocked many people in the first round of last year's playoffs, giving the Pittsburgh Penguins a scare and proving that it was a legitimate contender.
So far this offseason, the Islanders have traded for Cal Clutterbuck, one of the league's top hitters formerly with the Minnesota Wild. Clutterbuck and Matt Martin are consistently among the league's leaders in hits, and they will provide protection for the many offensive weapons on the team.
4. Toronto Maple Leafs
The last time we saw the Toronto Maple Leafs on the ice, they were in the middle of one of the most disheartening collapses in recent sports history, blowing a 4-1 lead more than halfway through the third period of Game 7.
This offseason, the Leafs have already made splashes to prevent something like that from happening again. Dave Bolland, who scored the Stanley Cup-winning goal for the Chicago Blackhawks less than two weeks ago, was acquired in a trade and immediately adds more experience to a rather young Leafs team.
Former Los Angeles King Jonathan Bernier was also signed, and he will create a solid goaltending duo alongside James Reimer.
Toronto will look to build on its major improvements from 2013, and the Maple Leafs are far from done in terms of free agency.
3. Detroit Red Wings
Detroit was eliminated from the playoffs in heartbreaking fashion, giving up a 3-1 series lead to the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks and losing in overtime in Game 7.
However, the Red Wings showed some positive signs in their first-round upset of the Anaheim Ducks and their second-round showing against the best team in hockey.
Many counted on the Wings to decline in 2013, but they once again proved the critics wrong and are looking like they could be one of the better teams in the league once again. Detroit is full of young talent as well as veteran leadership and has a great bench boss in Mike Babcock.
Look for the Red Wings to soar in a conference that will require them to travel much less than in previous years.
2. Pittsburgh Penguins
The Penguins once again fell short as Stanley Cup favorites but are still one of the top picks to win it all in 2014. Jarome Iginla and Brenden Morrow may leave due to a shortage of cap space, but Pittsburgh will still have a large part of its talented offensive core intact.
Goaltending still remains an issue that the Penguins need to fix. Marc-Andre Fleury will likely return as the team's starter, but his mediocre playoff performances in the past few years have fans believing that it will be tough to win another Stanley Cup without someone better between the pipes.
Despite only scoring two goals in four games against the Boston Bruins, the Penguins still have arguably the most potent offense in the league, and they will certainly not fade away anytime soon.
1. Boston Bruins
The defending Eastern Conference champions deserve the top spot in this ranking. Even though they fell to the Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup Final, the Bruins are without a doubt the team to beat in the Eastern Conference.
Boston is a well-rounded team that could make yet another push for the Stanley Cup next season.
Nathan Horton will likely be gone, and Andrew Ference could also leave in free agency. Also, according to Adam Gretz of CBS Sports, Tyler Seguin and Rich Peverley have been traded to Dallas for Loui Eriksson, but this team still has everything it takes to make another run at the Cup.
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