The Eastern Conference has me excited already, because there is tons of potential for several surprise teams to make the playoffs—and as if that were not enough, the conference “powerhouses” will be knocking each other around all season for the number-one seed.
Here is how I see the conference playing out by the season’s end. Feel free to comment and object.
1. Pittsburgh Penguins
Yes, the Penguins did lose Marian Hossa and Ryan Malone—but they also have two of the three greatest scorers in the game. I’m clearly talking about the dynamic duo of Miroslav Satan and Max Talbot.
But in all seriousness, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin will have their work cut out for them this season in a tough Atlantic division. Marc-Andre Fleury will not have the likes of Ty Conklin to fall back on either in the upcoming season. Regardless, the Penguins have a more impressive roster than most of their Eastern conference opponents.
2. Montreal Canadiens
Is Carey Price the goalie of the future in Montreal? Absolutely. However, that’s the future and this is now (was that a little too much of Yogi Berra?).
The combination of Price and Jaroslav Halak in net is devastating for opponents. Alexei Kovalev revitalized his career last season, scoring the second-most points in a single season in his career (84)—but I don’t think he can duplicate that this season.
Also, losing Cristobal Huet and Mark Streit will put a little more pressure onto the shoulders of the of a defense that has to be good if their offense cannot produce like it did last season.
3. Washington Capitals
Olaf Kolzig only had a .892 save percentage last season. Jose Theodore had a .910 save percentage. Kolzig did not play in the playoffs. Theodore did well in Avs' the first-round win against Minnesota, and did his best against the unstoppable force that is the Detroit Red Wings.
I believe that Theodore is an upgrade from Kolzig, and this will only help the Capitals in the beginning of the season, where they faltered slightly last year. Oh, I almost forgot, the Caps have a guy named Alex Ovechkin—I think he finished with 112 points, 65 goals, and collected an MVP trophy. Not too shabby.
4. Philadelphia Flyers
How do you go from being ranked 30th in the NHL to almost winning the conference championship? Add Daniel Briere.
The odds of this team returning to the conference championship are good to very good. Briere, Mike Richards, Braydon Coburn, Marty Biron, and a “healthy” Simon Gagne—I really don’t see any reason why this team couldn’t make the Stanley Cup Finals. The Eastern Conference will be a mess, the Atlantic Division will be a mess, and the Flyers will more than likely be at the center of it.
5. New York Rangers
Definitely a weaker offense—losing Jaromir Jagr is big, both on and off the ice—but the Rangers certainly have their strongest defense in recent memory. Michal Rozsival and Wade Redden are possible All-Stars, and with Daniel Girardi and Marc Staal skating up the ranks, the Rangers have the potential to skate one of the best defenses in the entire league.
Let’s not forget that Henrik Lundqvist has been a Vezina finalist two years in a row. Could this year be the year? Probably not, but he’s still one of the better goalies in the league.
6. New Jersey Devils
Let’s start with the obvious reason why the Devils will make the playoffs—Martin Brodeur. He will probably play at least 73 games again this season, and will probably collect another Vezina trophy.
The Devils' offense is the most consistent in all of hockey. All four lines are equal and can do the same amount of damage as the others. Bobby Holik’s return will bring a solid veteran presence and Brian Rolston will bring necessary scoring power.
7. Tampa Bay Lightning
New additions: Steve Stamkos, Ryan Malone, Gary Roberts, Mark Recchi, Matt Carle, Radim Vrbata, Olaf Kolzig, and Barry Melrose. What do all of these players equal? This year’s Philadelphia Flyers.
I am the last person to believe in Barry Melrose, but I think he will have this team in tip-top shape for the upcoming season. There is a lot of newfound attention being paid to Tampa, and rightfully so. The Lightning may be headed back to the playoffs after taking a season off.
8. Buffalo Sabres
The Sabres fell off last season, and barely missed the playoffs after finishing with the best record in the NHL the previous season. However, this offseason has been much more productive than the last one.
Re-signing Ryan Miller has lowered tensions around the clubhouse, and re-signing Jason Pominville—which should happen soon—will only lower them more.
The Sabres did lose Dimitri Kalinin, who produced eight points this past season, to the Rangers, and replaced him with veteran Craig Rivet, who produced 35 points this past season.
The Sabres might sneak into the postseason and surprise a number of critics this season with their young and talented lineup.
9. Boston Bruins
It’s easy to underestimate this roster, as I did on my first look through. Adding winger Michael Ryder was a smart move for a team that needs a 50-60-point-scorer.
Another strength that this team has is its goalies. Tim Thomas had the best season of his career and looks to be headed in a positive direction, even after a tough first-round loss to the top-seeded Canadiens.
The third reason this team might be able to sneak into the eighth and final spot—Zdeno Chara. Chara learned to harness all of his on-ice abilities and truly became a top-five defenseman last season, as proven by his Norris Trophy nomination. If the Bruins do make the playoffs, Chara will be a large reason why.
10. Ottawa Senators
The Sens started last year 29-10-4. They finished last year at 43-31-8—meaning they went 14-25-4 over the course of their last 43 games—and were swept by the Penguins in the first round.
The trio of Dany Heatley, Daniel Alfredsson, and Jason Spezza is without a doubt the best line in hockey, but the rest of the team isn’t as spectacular.
Their defense is young with tons of potential. Brian Lee and Lawrence Nycholat showed a lot of promise last season with the Binghamton Senators, earning their first trip to the AHL All-Star game in the process.
Martin Gerber will be the starter in net at the season’s beginning, and having Alex Auld over Ray Emery should make the Sens feel a little more comfortable. At least Auld will show up to practice.
11. Carolina Hurricanes
Cam Ward was less than stunning last year. He’s still a kid with plenty of time to develop, but after two disappointing seasons in a row after winning the Cup, Carolina is starting to get tired of the whole “development” excuse.
Eric Staal had a good season last year, scoring 82 points (38 G), but he will have to do a little more damage this season, and someone else will need to help. A large part of why Staal did not receive much help is because the injury bug hit Carolina hard a little before midseason.
Another problem Carolina might have is its penalty-kill, which was ranked 26th in the NHL last season. Adding defender Joni Pitkanen might help slightly, but one man can only do so much.
12. Atlanta Thrashers
When you get down to number 12, it’s just a matter of who won’t finish last. The Thrashers don’t have a terrible roster, but they certainly don’t have a roster that will make the playoffs.
Adding right-winger Jason Williams should take a little pressure off of Ilya Kovalchuk, allowing him to put a few more pucks into the back of the net this season. But don’t hope for too much this season, Thrasher fans.
13. Florida Panthers
Olli Jokinen has moved on to smaller and lesser things, and the Panthers have done the same. I leave my sentiments with Thomas Vokoun, who will have to play a ton of games this year, and will more than likely have nothing to show for it.
14. Toronto Maple Leafs
Let’s begin with Tomas Kaberle. He’s been an amazing defenseman for years now and is just stuck on a team that looks to be headed nowhere.
The goalie tandem is not impressive by any means in Toronto either. Curtis Joseph is 41, and Vesa Toskala did not have the season the Leafs were looking for last year. The historic franchise will have to wait another year for the playoffs.
15. New York Islanders
Well, Ted Nolan left, so 50 percent of the problem is gone. Next to go, Garth Snow—if Charles Wang ever gets the “strength” to fire him.
Since his record-contract signing, Rick Dipietro has put up average numbers, but numbers that aren’t good enough for a franchise goalie. The only things the Islanders have going for them are young stars Kyle Okposo and Jeff Tambellini, and they’ll probably be traded by the season’s end.