As the NHL season will finally get underway, let's take a look at the Eastern Conference and how we think they will fare. As we start to break down teams, it becomes harder to see how many teams will finish. After the top 4 teams in the Conference, the bottom 11 are very closely matched and might all finish within 10 or 12 points of each other. Teams that stay healthy this season will have a huge advantage.
1. Washington Capitals: The Capitals are virtually the same team that blew a 3-1 lead to Montreal in the first round of the playoffs last April. They are also the same team that notched 121 points and 54 wins in the regular season. Semyon Varlamov will start the season on IR but that will do little to hurt the Capitals chances of finishing first in the Conference. The Southeast is still without another elite team and the Caps will beat up on their Division rivals and win the East easily. The big question is can they play tough enough and can Varlamov be the guy that leads them in the playoffs?
2. New Jersey Devils: During a weird off season and the drawn out process for the resigning of Ilya Kovalchuk, the Devils have improved their lineup. In the end, we feel like the Kovalchuk deal with eventually hurt the Devils, but when future hall of famer Martin Brodeur is still in between the pipes playing well, it's tough for the organization not to go for it which they have done. The Devils should fight all season with the Pens for the division but we feel the Devils are the better team and should get it done in the tough Atlantic Division.
3. Boston Bruins: The Bruins are coming off a playoff embarrassment as we all watched the Flyers come back from a 3-0 deficit in last year's playoffs. The Bruins will be hard pressed to duplicate their 2nd best goals against defensive performance from a year ago but a healthy Lucic and the addition of Nathan Horton should provide an offensive boost in the absence of Marc Savard. The Bruins aren't that much better than last year but we feel the division is worse. The Bruins will win the Northeast with the fewest points out of any division in the NHL.
4. Pittsburgh Penguins: One thing the salary cap era has done is limit the ability to build around superstar players. The Penguins have 2 of the top 5 players in the game on their team and yet still struggle to find line mates to flourish with them. Be that as it may, any team that has Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin is going to have success and this year will be no different. The Pens will be beat out by New Jersey in the division race but we like Pittsburgh to go farther come playoff time.
5. Buffalo Sabres: Every year people look at the Sabres and underestimate them. Buffalo still has one of the best coaches in the league and one of the most solid goalies in Lindy Ruff and Ryan Miller. The Sabres offense was by committee last season as 12 players had 10 goals or more and 4 had over 20. Expect the Sabres to have a similar type season but will be hard pressed to get to 100 points again.
6. Philadelphia Flyers: The Flyers made a great run to the Stanley Cup Finals a year ago but in reality are worse off now then they were then. Micheal Leighton is hurt to start the season and the Flyers once again will start a season without a true #1 goalie. The Flyers lost Gagne and Asham and will be hard pressed to be higher in the standings and do much in the playoffs.
7. Atlanta Thrashers: Looking at the remaining teams in the East, not one of them jumps off the page and tells us they are a playoff team. One team that quietly competed until the final week of the season and made some solid pickups this off season are the Atlanta Thrashers. The Thrashers now have a solid group of players like Bergfors, Byfuglien, Eager, Evander Kane, Zach Bogosian just to name a few and finished last year on the rise with 83 points. The Thrashers will take another step forward this season and make the playoffs for the 2nd time in their history. Adding players who have been there before like Byfuglien and Eager will help the character of this team. Now, if only fans can show up and support them.
8. Ottawa Senators: Ottawa is coming off an up and down season which saw them get ousted in the first round of the playoffs. The loss of Volchenkov will hurt their toughness and all around defense but leadership of Daniel Alfredsson and a predicted turnaround season for Jason Spezza will find the Senators in the playoffs again.
9. Montreal Canadiens: Carey Price is already getting booed in preseason games and the Canadiens fans will get on this team early if they don't win. Remember, they barely qualified for the playoffs last season and made a magical run with a goaltender that is now on a different team. They are speedy and fast but in the end don't play defense well enough and don't score enough goals to lock up a playoff spot.
10. New York Islanders: The Islanders are a team that will surprise people this season. They made a 18 point improvement from two seasons ago to last season and their young players should all take a step forward in their development. 1st round pick Nino Neiderreiter has made the team and a brand new defense including Mark Eaton, James Wisniewski, Milan Jurcina, Mike Mottau and a healthy Radek Martinek is better then any they have had previously under Scott Gordon. What keeps the Isles out of a playoff spot is the loss of Mark Streit and Kyle Okposo. The Isles aren't deep enough to overcome those injuries and a notoriously brutal road team has 12 of their first 17 away from Nassau Coliseum.
11. Carolina Hurricanes: The Hurricanes got off to a terrible start last season mainly due to injuries. They rebounded and found themselves with a respectable record but they did that with nothing on the line. The Hurricanes are average at best in every category and will short of a playoff spot.
12. Tampa Bay Lightning: Everyone is jumping on the Lightning bandwagon and we don't know why. The Lightning currently have one of the bottom 5 defense's in hockey and Dan Ellis has to prove he can carry a team on his back. We do like the addition of Simon Gagne but the Lightning don't have much scoring depth after their big 4. Tampa gives up too many goals to be competitive.
13. New York Rangers: If the Rangers stay healthy, they will finish higher but that will be a lot to expect from Marion Gaborik who has never played two full seasons in a row. Henrik Lundqvist is a terrific goalie but will struggle a bit more this season as the weight of carrying a team for years will finally get to him. The Rangers just don't have anyone that can score besides Gaborik and an injury to either him or Lundqvist would be devastating. If they do stay healthy, we still feel the Rangers will miss the playoffs and this will be Tortorella's last behind their bench.
14. Toronto Maple Leafs: The Leafs are a young team that blew it by trading their first round pick to Boston for Phil Kessel. The Leafs missed out on Tyler Sequin and stunted their growth by a season. The Leafs defense still gives up a ton of goals and their lack of scoring depth doesn't give much hope for a significant improvement this season.
15. Florida Panthers: The Panthers will most likely finish in last this season have taken almost all it's talent and traded it away again. Keith Ballard for Micheal Grabner was one trade and then Florida lost Grabner on waivers this week to the Islanders. It makes you wonder what exactly the Florida front office is thinking. Dale Tallon is now in charge who yes brought the Blackhawks to the brink of a Stanley Cup but also messed up basic paper work where his Restricted Free Agents became unrestricted. That cost him his job. Panther fans have had it tough and have watched player after player get traded away. Hopefully for them, Tallon does it the right way and the Panthers will have something to cheer about in a few years.