It's ice time.
Atlantic Division (projected order of finish and records; points)
Pittsburgh Penguins (50-25-7; 107)
There’s always expected to be somewhat of a letdown after a championship, but the Penguins come into this season with essentially the same team that took home the Stanley Cup this past season.
The excellent core of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and young Marc-Andre Fleury in net remains, as does much of the supporting cast that led Pittsburgh to the promised land last season.
It is highly doubtful that the Pens will go through the same miserable dry spell that they did last season, as they will be legitimate contenders for a repeat.
Philadelphia Flyers (46-28-8; 100)
One of the most consistent teams year after year, the Flyers have built themselves up to be the team that topples Pittsburgh in the Atlantic. Their solid defense now becomes elite with the addition of Chris Pronger, and the duo of Jeff Carter and Mike Richards will ensure that goal scoring will be no issue.
There is some concern in net, but Philly is too tough, experienced, and skilled not to be an Eastern Conference powerhouse. It’s been 11 years since the Flyers’ last Stanley Cup appearance, and it appears that now could be their time.
New Jersey Devils (44-29-9; 97)
Jacques Lemaire has returned behind the bench for New Jersey with the goal of playing traditional “Devils hockey” and reclaiming the glory that he had with the franchise in the '90s.
Their goaltending is the team’s biggest stronghold if Martin Brodeur stays healthy, but their offensive attack may need a shot of confidence after finishing ninth in the conference in goals last season. Zach Parise is one of the game’s brightest young stars, and as long as he continues to get better, it is never smart to sleep on such a consistently good team.
New York Rangers (42-31-9; 93)
Another summer of housecleaning leaves New York fans wondering what type of product will be on the ice come this fall. They rid themselves a few top goal scorers this offseason but brought in Marian Gaborik, who is a prolific goal scorer when healthy.
The Rangers will look from continued development from young defensemen and better seasons from their veteran blue-liners, not to mention another Vezina-like campaign from Henrik Lundqvist. With those, the Rangers should be able to grab a low playoff spot.
New York Islanders (28-44-10; 66)
The Isles are pinning a lot of their hopes on top overall pick John Tavares, but not even Garth Snow’s version of the Messiah will be enough to improve the Islanders very much. They only had 198 goals for last season (worst in the East), and their goaltending situation, regardless of health, will be muddled all season long.
They will have to get a lot better, not only to contend in what is probably the deepest division in hockey, but also to remain on Long Island, where their passionate fans will continue to support them.
Northeast Division (projected order of finish and records; points)
Boston Bruins (48-27-7; 103)
I believe that the Bruins’ hasty rise to the top of the conference was much more than a coincidence last season, as a number of veterans had career years and several young players came into their own.
They were second in the league in goals for and led the league in goals against; the latter many thanks to goalie Tim Thomas and probably the conference’s top defensive tandem in Zdeno Chara and Dennis Wideman.
Boston did happen to lose a lot of role players this offseason, but that shouldn’t be enough to hold the Bruins down this season.
Montreal Canadiens (43-31-8; 94)
Living up to sky-high expectations last season proved to be something that the Habs couldn’t handle, but last season’s nosedive that nearly cost them a playoff spot led to changes in both player personnel and coaching for this year.
Bob Gainey, now the coach, has cleaned house and revamped the roster in a big-time way. Their group of forwards will now be led by Michael Cammalleri, Brian Gionta, and Scott Gomez, and they added some toughness on defense as well. Goaltending may be a concern, but Montreal has enough to contend.
Buffalo Sabres (40-33-9; 89)
This Buffalo team is a shell of the one that reached the conference finals just three seasons ago, but there is hope that a core led by Thomas Vanek on offense and Ryan Miller in net can lead Lindy Ruff’s team back to the postseason.
On the bright side, they finished just two points out of playoff spot in a very tough conference last year and did so with a substantial number of injuries.
The same problem lingers as they’ll have to be better than teams that they flat-out aren’t better than. Look for them to be competitive, but on the outside looking in.
Ottawa Senators (37-35-10; 84)
The Sens have had the same problem for a number of years now: good offense, but poor defense and goaltending.
There was a bit of a shuffle in Ottawa this offseason, but none to address their primary needs. A disgruntled Dany Heatley is finally gone, and though they did their best to replace him, things aren’t exactly looking up for young coach Cory Clouston in his sophomore campaign.
They will rely on a bounceback season from goalie Pascal Leclaire, but many Senators need to exceed expectations for Ottawa to be good.
Toronto Maple Leafs (33-39-10; 76)
I guess you could say that Toronto overachieved in a year where they were expected to do nothing, but no one really pays attention to that when you still finish in your division’s cellar. Their defense is actually a little better, and they do add Phil Kessel to a team that actually scored 250 goals last year.
However, their goaltending won’t be any good, and though I do think a team with some good players could be a surprise contender, they will fall victim to the same syndrome that the Sabres and Sens will: one of too many good teams.
Southeast Division (projected order of finish and records; points)
Washington Capitals (49-26-7; 105)
Simply put, this team has it all. Needless to say, they’ll win the division going away, with another tremendous season from Alex Ovechkin and good, solid seasons from their other stars in Alexander Semin and Mike Green.
Uncertainty may lie in defensive depth and indecision with whom to play in net; however, Washington will be a handful for any foe in their pursuit of a championship. They could use a few finishing touches by maybe acquiring another role-playing forward or defenseman, but the Caps will put out one of hockey’s best products.
Carolina Hurricanes (44-28-10; 98)
The Hurricanes succumbed to a better team in Pittsburgh in last year’s conference finals but proved how good they were as they made a deep run through the playoffs as a low seed.
Beyond the great Eric Staal and the rock-solid Cam Ward between the pipes, Carolina is honestly a no-name bunch, but there’s a lot to like about their depth in lower offensive lines and on defense. They responded well to coach Paul Maurice, who has the job permanently, but Carolina should be a lock to reach postseason play in 2009-10.
Florida Panthers (35-37-10; 80)
The Southeast drops off big time after the top two teams, as this Panther team won’t be nearly as good as the one that tried to sneak into the playoffs last year.
Florida looks to be a team in transition, as their list of arrivals and departures is as long as one at a major airport. They are too young to be a playoff contender down the stretch, have lost their best defenseman, and have a lame-duck coach on the hot seat. Their goaltending is decent, but by no means will the Panthers be in the race for postseason contention.
Atlanta Thrashers (35-39-8; 78)
Atlanta will hit the ice with the same crew that ended up finishing 13th in the East in 2008-09, and though an argument could be made that their young talent could put them over the top, there’s not much experience to be had on the Thrashers roster, and not much promise in goal.
The bright spot is that this neophyte-dominant unit jelled toward season’s end by winning 12 of their final 18, but with only one postseason appearance in franchise history, I hope that the 12 Atlanta Thrasher fans aren’t too excited.
Tampa Bay Lightning (31-43-8; 70)
In what is usually a star-driven league, the Lightning have done very little since the lockout with two bona fide stars in Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis. They got a little better on the blue line, both through free agency and the draft, but the lack of scoring punch and consistency in goal is undeniable.
There are a lot of ifs surrounding Rick Tocchet’s team, and though they could be a team that plays well with low expectations, their bottom two lines at forward are ghastly, and the tough conference will keep them from being a contender.
All Eastern Conference First Team
F: Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh
F: Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh
F: Alexander Ovechkin, Washington
D: Mike Green, Washington
D: Zdeno Chara, Boston
G: Tim Thomas, Boston
All Eastern Conference Second Team
F: Jeff Carter, Philadelphia
F: Zach Parise, New Jersey
F: Eric Staal, Carolina
D: Chris Pronger, Philadelphia
D: Dennis Wideman, Boston
G: Martin Brodeur, New Jersey
All Eastern Conference Third Team
F: Mike Richards, Philadelphia
F: Marc Savard, Boston
F: Alexander Semin, Washington
D: Andrei Markov, Montreal
D: Sergei Gonchar, Pittsburgh
G: Henrik Lundqvist, NY Rangers