The Eastern Conference of the NHL is much improved this season with at least seven teams that have the potential to go deep into the playoffs and challenge for the Stanley Cup. If any one team is able to break from the pack it will be the Washington Capitals who will have less competition within their own division.
It's a long season and many things can change, especially with injuries and unforeseen changes within a team's makeup. Here we go with this year's roll of the dice in the East...
1. Washington - The Caps are coming off somewhat of an off year even though they finished with 107 points and were second only to the Canucks for the President's trophy. Tomas Vokoun should add stability in net but will have to prove himself in the playoffs which he has not seen for several years. The additions of Joel Ward, Troy Brouwer, Jeff Halpern, and Roman Hamrlik should provide additional depth and give the Capitals enough grit to make a deeper run in the playoffs.
2. Pittsburgh - With or without Sidney Crosby, the Pens are a well coached, balanced team. Dan Bylsma should have more offensive weapons that can easily be spread into a third scoring line should he choose to go in that direction. Having James Neal from the start of the year, as well as Jordan Staal before New Years, and Steve Sullivan for the power play should really strengthen the squad.
3. Boston - While they may suffer from a Stanley Cup hangover, the Bruins are still the team to beat in the Northeast Division. With Tim Thomas and Tuukka Rask in net, the Bruins have a top five goalie combination. Their defense is solid and they have plenty of offensive weapons and the youngsters are only going to be better.
4. Philadelphia - The Flyers are banking on Ilya Bryzgalov not falling into the black hole that goalies from Philly have gone in to for so many years. Chris Pronger is a winner and he is surrounded by others who know how to win and go deep into the playoffs. They have a good mix of offense and defense but they may take a while to get up to speed with so many changes during the offseason.
5. New York Rangers - This could be the year that the Rangers move from being a borderline playoff team to a contender in the East. Brad Richards should solidify the offensive attack. The team needs the always fragile Marian Gaborik to have a career year to justify the cost of Richards in the middle of the top line. Henrik Lundqvist will continue to be one of the best in the league in goal.
6. Tampa Bay - The Bolts have as good of a top six as anyone in the league with plenty of firepower. Guy Boucher needs to steady the troops and coax Steven Stamkos into avoiding another late season slide. There is no reason to believe that Dwayne Roloson will have a fall off but it could happen as he is advancing in age. Mathieu Garon is good enough to provide him with plenty of rest before the playoffs.
7. Buffalo - Many pundits expect Buffalo to ride their spending spree to be a top contender in the East. I'm not a believer in buying your way to the top. Lindy Ruff may have his toughest test yet, bringing together a variety of talented players and trying to mesh them into the team concept that is his style. After an off year, Ryan Miller should be ready to return to Vezina contention once again.
8. Montreal - The Habs are the best of a group of four that I have ranked 8-11 that all are a step below the top seven. With the departure of James Wisniewski and Roman Hamrlik on defense, the Canadiens are going to rely more heavily on Carey Price than last year, especially with Peter Budaj as the backup. They will be banking on Erik Cole for contributions in spite of his not playing well in his trips to teams away from Carolina. Much of the Habs success will revolve on how well the team is able to get much needed help from the young players on the team.
9. New Jersey - Once again, the Devils will be relying heavily on an aging Marty Brodeur to solidify a somewhat suspect defense. They will miss Travis Zajac who may not return until late in the year with a torn Achilles tendon. They will need a strong comeback from Zach Parise and a more consistent effort from the team as a whole if they are to break into the top eight. New coach Peter DeBoer will have to bring the team together and try to keep upper management and ownership away from the day to day decisions on the ice.
10. Toronto - The Leafs improved during the second half of the season last year primarily due to James Reimer catching lightning in a bottle in goal. Unfortunately, he has not looked good in the preseason and faces a potential sophomore jinx much like Steve Mason has seen since his rookie year in Columbus. The team should be better on both sides of the puck but if they can't keep the puck out of the net, they will not be close to the playoffs once again.
11. Carolina - The Canes have been hanging around the eighth slot in the East for several years but this year they seem further away than ever from the great runs of past. There is a shortage of experience and depth and they will rely on Cam Ward to keep them in plenty of low scoring games. It will be a huge challenge for Jeff Skinner to repeat the season that he had as an 18 year old rookie as it will be harder for him to fly under the radar after winning the Calder Trophy.
12. Winnipeg - Teams that I have picked 12-14 are very close and could finish in any order. I put the Jets at the top of the three due to a notable home ice advantage that they should have due to having a crowd of zealots at every home game combined with extra travel for Eastern teams having to head to a far northwest destination on a regular basis. The Jet's have talent at both ends of the ice and a decent tandem in goal. It will be a fun season in the Peg but I don't see them in the playoffs.
13. New York Islanders - The Isles should be improved this year simply because their talented youngsters are a year more experienced. It seems impossible that they could lose the man-games to injury that devastated the team last season. The team really needs a new arena (soon) in order for fans to come out and support the squad that should only get better over the next few years.
14. Florida - The Panthers have a great crop of youngsters in their farm system that are not quite ready for prime time. Instead, GM Dale Tallon blew up the team and brought in a whole slew of talented players that will provide a challenge for Coach Kevin Dineen to try to make into a team. With the talent on hand, it is not out of the question for this team to contend for a playoff slot but if they do, Dineen will be the hands down winner of the Jack Adams Award and Tallon will be GM of the Year.
15. Ottawa - What can you say about the Sens? A big positive is that he All-Star game will be there in the dead of the Canadian winter. The Sens are in a rebuild stage and there is little hope for them to escape the cellar in the East. Fans in Ottawa need to hold on for the youngsters to develop and the eleven draft picks from the summer to blossom. There will be few highlights and plenty of lowlights on the horizon for them this season.
We will have our Western Conference picks on Wednesday.
Buddy Oakes for PredsOnTheGlass