2008-09 NHL Preview: Eastern Conference

Bleacher ReportCorrespondent IOctober 16, 2008

Here's the East, read and feedback.

Atlantic Division (predicted order of finish and record/points)

Pittsburgh Penguins (50-25-7; 107) – The defending Eastern conference champs come into 2008 with a roster full of young talent led by Crosby, Malkin, and Fleury in goal. Pittsburgh’s young players are not only maturing physically, but the rigor of last year’s playoff run should improve their mental and emotional strength come postseason. If they get off to a good start, something they haven’t been able to do in the past few years, the Pens will be in prime position to capture the Atlantic title with relative ease and make a legitimate run at the top seed in the East.

New York Rangers (46-28-8; 100) – The Rangers have turned the page on the Jagr era and rid themselves of most of their aging veterans, shifting the team’s burden to their skilled, young forwards and defensemen. Even though depth on the blue line may be an issue, the Rangers are a contender mostly because of the continuing stellar play of netminder Henrik Lundqvist. Some have New York missing the playoffs for the first time since the NHL’s return, but I don’t see that happening with the solid balance of veteran and young players and a great goalie.

New Jersey Devils (42-29-11; 95) – It’s not smart to pick the Devils to miss the playoffs, even if they’ve done little to protect the defense in front of veteran goaltender Martin Brodeur. They fortified themselves a bit in terms of forwards with the veteran additions of Rolston and Holik, complementing a group of players who have been able to play well enough to reach the postseason every year. Their lack of scoring is a concern, as their goal total has decreased each of the past three seasons, but as long as Brodeur is himself, New Jersey is a playoff product.

Philadelphia Flyers (43-31-8; 94) – A team that went from the cellar to the conference finals in the past two years should be able to continue last season’s success with great firepower up front, most notably Briere, Richards, and a healthy Gagne. Both defense and goaltending can be concerning for Philadelphia, but last year’s great play puts this team on the verge of being a division favorite in the deep Atlantic and an Eastern conference elite. If their young players and veteran goalies have solid seasons and keep the Flyers in the playoff picture, this team can be dangerous.

New York Islanders (29-43-10; 68) – It’s time for the Islanders to figure out their identity, and whether it should be based in veteran or young talent. New coach Scott Gordon was brought in to work with a group of talented youngsters, but none of them are quite ready for the grind of an entire NHL season. It looks as if the Isles have a number of contracts coming off of their cap after this season, freeing up some salary for a big-time free agent signing. However, there isn’t much appeal to come to Long Island after the recent Islander past and present.

Northeast Division (predicted order of finish and record/points)

Montreal Canadiens (48-25-9; 105) – A premature playoff exit last year leaves unfinished business for Montreal in 2008, as expectations are astronomical in the Habs’ centennial campaign. The predominant concern for Montreal is the lack of experience in net, with erratic youngster Carey Price, who showed how inconsistent he could be last season. They achieved the top seed in the East last season with a team composed of mostly young players, and after adding a few solid veterans, Guy Carbonneau’s squad is poised to win this somewhat shallow division once again.

Ottawa Senators (41-31-10; 92) - It's tempting to write the Senators off after they stumbled into the playoffs and were summarily dismissed last spring, but there's still enough talent here to reach the postseason again, with the league’s best offensive line of Heatley, Spezza, and Alfredsson. Their defense core could still use a true playmaker, and their goaltending situation is rather ambiguous, but they definitely have a shot to challenge Montreal for the Northeast Division and make some noise come playoff time. Look for a bounce back season in Ottawa.

Boston Bruins (40-34-9; 89) – The Bruins are not a lock to make the postseason as they did last season, but for the first time in a while, there is optimism and passion surrounding the recent resurgence of this original six franchise. Their margin for error is small, and the team has a number of flaws, most notably in the scoring department, and in goal with Thomas, but the Bruins are certainly good enough to challenge a number of other “fringe” playoff teams for that coveted eighth spot in the East. However, even if they make it, they are bound to exit early.

Buffalo Sabres (36-35-11; 83) - Last year's lineup wasn't quite good enough to get into the postseason and the Sabres figure to be in similar position again, but this Buffalo squad possesses a unit that has played many games together, making a good start necessary for contention. The losses of Briere and Drury before last season put this team out of contention in terms of a Stanley Cup, but the play of Ryan Miller in net makes Buffalo more than respectable in the Eastern Conference. They probably won’t make the playoffs, but will definitely be in the running.

Toronto Maple Leafs (33-40-9; 75) – While the world awaits the word concerning the return of veteran superstar Mats Sundin, this season looks to be one for rebuilding in Toronto. Little is expected this season, as the Leafs look to concern themselves with the development of young players, reforming the franchise’s culture, and preparing for an upcoming summer where they will have a high draft pick and be able to dump salary in hopes of acquiring a notable free agent. New coach Ron Wilson is in for a long year north of the border.

Southeast Division (predicted order of finish and record/points)

Washington Capitals (47-28-7; 101) – A surging franchise set to make the jump into hockey’s elite and do damage in the playoffs, the Capitals hope that the surrounding cast can take some of the burden off of Ovechkin this season, and that new goalie Jose Theodore can continue the momentum of his play last season. The great mystery in the nation’s capital is whether there is enough around Ovechkin to get this team past the first round, a hurdle they couldn’t overcome last season. Washington hasn’t won a postseason series since 1998, but look to change that this spring.

Tampa Bay Lightning (38-35-9; 85) – After a summer of tremendous transaction and change, the Lightning should be substantially better than they were last season, though it may take some time for the longtime Tampa Bay players, such as Lecavalier and St. Louis, to adapt to playing with so many new faces, including first overall pick Steven Stamkos, and also to play under new coach Barry Melrose. The acquisition of veteran goalkeeper Olaf Kolzig will make for an intriguing goalie battle this season. Tampa Bay is one of those borderline playoff teams in the East.

Carolina Hurricanes (38-38-6; 82) – A team surely on the decline, the Hurricanes have made the playoffs only twice in the past six seasons, winning one Stanley Cup during that period. Furthermore, their trend of falling just short of playoffs in the past seasons should continue in 2008-09. They are yet another team in that “mish-mash “ of clubs fighting for that eighth spot, but their lack of scoring and defensive talent in front of Cam Ward should expose them down the stretch. If this team doesn’t improve, Laviolette could be on shaky ground in Carolina.

Florida Panthers (34-39-9; 77) – The Panthers also made lots of change in the offseason, trading longtime team captain Olli Jokinen, along with the hiring of new head coach Peter DeBoer. The result should be a tougher group on the blue line after the pickup of Bryan McCabe, but the need for offensive production from young players will also exist. It doesn’t look like this mediocre group can hang with the rest of the East, let along their own division, making for another season where the Panthers miss the playoffs; they haven’t done so since 2000.

Atlanta Thrashers (31-43-8; 70) – Atlanta showed signs of breaking out of their misery with a playoff appearance two seasons ago, but a number of bad personnel decisions have dragged them down tremendously. The trade of Heatley for Hossa has left them with nothing, and the more disastrous trade of Coburn for Zhitnik looks to be a laugher. They still have Ilya Kovalchuk, one of the game’s brightest stars, but Lehtonen has been nothing but an oft-injured bust in net, and even after trying to acquire some marginal talent, the Thrashers are going nowhere.

All Eastern Conference First Team

C - Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh
W - Alexander Ovechkin, Washington
W - Dany Heatley, Ottawa
D - Zdeno Chara, Boston
D - Mike Green, Washington
G - Martin Brodeur, New Jersey

All Eastern Conference Second Team

C - Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh
W - Ilya Kovalchuk, Atlanta
W - Daniel Alfredsson, Ottawa
D - Andrei Markov, Montreal
D - Bryan McCabe, Florida
G - Henrik Lundqvist, NY Rangers

All Eastern Conference Third Team

C - Jason Spezza, Ottawa
W - Thomas Vanek, Buffalo
W - Martin St. Louis, Tampa Bay
D - Tomas Kaberle, Toronto
D - Mathieu Schnieder, Atlanta
G - Marc-Andre Fleury, Pittsburgh