Eastern Conference Outlook
As we enter the doldrums of summer, we’ll take a look ahead at where our favorite teams might be headed after a tumultuous off season that saw several big names move, ownership change hands, and several proverbial torches get passed.
- Pittsburg Penguins – A front office shakeup that included both Head Coach Dan Bylsma and GM Ray Shero’s walking papers, and some additions (Patric Hornqvist, Christian Erhoff, and Steve Downie) and subtractions (James Neal, Brooks Orpik, Matt Niskanen) give this Penguins team a different feel. If healthy, the number one team in the east.
- Boston Bruins – They fall back a bit thanks to the departure of Jarome Iginla. They haven’t addressed his loss, and with RFA’s Torey Krug and Reilly Smith still unsigned, this team has more questions than answers.
- Tampa Bay Lighting – A team that’s relying on its young players continued development to help push them to the next level. Ben Bishop looks like a stud in net, and if Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat trend upward, then this explosive offense could make life difficult for the relatively soft East.
- Montreal Canadiens – A team led by young superstars P.K. Subban and Carey Price, Montreal shocked a lot of teams by beating the Bruins in the playoffs. Although Elite status is just beyond their reach, the future is bright as their core is locked up for several years.
- New York Rangers – The little team that could found its way into the finals on Henrik Lundquist’s shoulders, and the stout, team first attitude in front of him. The pre-deadline deal that sent Ryan Callahan to the Lightning for Martin St. Louis should continue to pay off into the 2014 season.
- Philadelphia Flyers – Could be a spot up on my list if they had reliable goaltending, but Ray Emery and Steve Mason are not a Jennings threat in net. Claude Giroux returned to form after a sluggish start, and young stars like Wayne Simmonds continue to show signs of breaking out. If they continue to get solid goaltending, their offense will carry them to a playoff spot.
- Washington Capitals – Despite overpaying Brooks Orpik to the tune of 5 million plus per year, the addition of Matt Niskanen surely helps shore up Washington’s biggest weakness: its blue line. If the expensive gamble works on the back end, the top tier offense provided by Alex Ovechkin, and the better than average goaltending of Brayden Holtby should be enough to get them into the playoffs.
- Columbus Blue Jackets – Coming off what should be considered a successful year for a rather unsuccessful franchise, the Blue Jackets continue their ascension into the top half of the Eastern Conference. Scott Hartnell is an underrated signing for a team trying to play a more physical brand of hockey, and if Brobovsky can show signs of what won him the Vezina in 2012, the Blue Jackets will make the playoffs again.
- Detroit Red Wings – Sadly, this will be the year the Wings playoff streak comes to an end. Despite the emergence of Gustav Nyquist, they did little to address their aging forward group, and when your biggest signing is overpaying to resign Kyle Quincey, you have problems on D. Another year removed from the primes of Datsyuk and Zetterberg, not even the return of Alfy will make a difference.
- Toronto Maple Leafs – This team is constantly on the rise, but never seems to get there. This year should be no different. A middle of the road team with only one true superstar in Phil Kessel, the team is hoping that the young players they’ve stuck by in recent years finally blossom into the top 6 players they’d hoped for all along.
- Ottawa Senators – After acquiring prolific scorer Bobby Ryan, the hopes were high that the Sens would finally make a push at Stanley’s Cup, but the brass broke down, and finally moved Jason Spezza. The deal included several young players, as well as blue chip prospect Alex Chiasson, but the return won’t be felt until next year at the earliest. With as many young players, the growing pains will outweigh the positives for this rebuilding squad.
- New Jersey – The Devils are a team moving in the wrong direction. After Kovi left town, it’s been left to aging veterans like Jaromire Jagr and Michael Ryder to steer the ship, but despite making a push late, fell short of the playoffs. Without much being added to the roster in the offseason, the odds they finish in the bottom half increase with each passing day.
- New York Islanders – With as much talent this team has at the top of its roster, I feel bad listing them this low in my rankings, but players like Grabovski and Kulemin aren’t going to push them over the hump. If Halak doesn’t return to the form he showed in net for Montreal years ago, this team won’t find pay dirt.
- Carolina Hurricanes – Who is this team’s starting goaltender? Cam Ward has become something of an enigma. The myth of a starting goaltender that can’t stay on the ice. The Staal brothers are nice players for sure, but the days of them moonlighting as elite NHL players is over, and Carolina’s hopes for a playoff berth with them.
- Florida Panthers – Ever the under achievers, Florida made waves when they acquired Roberto Loungo. Too little too late I’d say. A roster of NHL castoffs and over paid “get to the floor” players, this team will look good for stretches, but ultimately find nothing but a lottery pick at the end of the year.
- Buffalo Sabres – Let the rebuild begin! A wealth of young players, this team might have cause for optimism, but only if the fans realize they won’t compete for anything but the number 1 pick this year.
Dark Horse: Washington Capitals – I feel as though the moves they made are high risk/high reward, and that high reward could be a top seed in the east if all the chips fall their way. Ovechkin is still a top 5 NHL player and my choice for the Rocket Richard trophy, and if the defense shores up, they could put a beating on the weak teams in their division.
Panic Button Team: As a Bruins fan, it pains me to say this, but we’ll know early on in the season if it’s time to hit the panic button. With players like David Krejci and Johnny Boychuck up for contracts at the end of this year, and a huge cap crisis now, it’d be hard to see this roster maintaining a semblance of its self unless they’re at the top of the standings.
Beast of the East: I’m picking the Penguins to win the East soley on the fact that Crosby and Malkin are the most dangerous 1-2 punch in the league, and as hot and cold as Marc Andre-Fluery is, he can still steal them games in net. The East is looking weak this year, and I’d expect them to be front runners most of the year.