NHL Eastern Conference Season Preview

Zach Remelius, Courier Staff

 

ATLANTIC DIVISION

No. 1 Tampa Bay Lightning: Even after getting swept by Columbus in the first round last year, Tampa is still an extraordinary team. Getting 128 points in the regular season is no easy task. Essentially everyone is back and they added Patrick Maroon and Kevin Shattenkirk on as pretty sweet deals. This team should be the favorite going into the season and it will be up to them to finally bring the cup back to Tampa.

No. 2 Toronto Maple Leafs: What an offseason for Kyle Dubas. The Mitch Marner saga took up almost the whole summer but he finally got him signed. Gone is Nazem Kadri in a trade that saw the Leafs shore up the defense, bringing in Tyson Barrie. William Nylander will play the whole season with Auston Matthews and that should see him have a bounceback season. The question is still the defense. Outside of Barrie, Morgan Reilly and Jake Muzzin, there are a lot of question marks of youth or just not very good players like Cody Ceci. This is Mike Babcock’s last chance in Toronto so it should be interesting.

No. 3 Florida Panthers: Bringing in Joel Queneville is massive for this franchise that needed some stability behind the bench. Florida can score at will and on paper, their defense is solid led by Mike Matheson and Aaron Ekblad. The problem last year was goaltending. James Reimer and Roberto Luongo were below average and it tanked the team. Enter Sergei Bobrovsky to shore up the goaltending situation. I’m not quite sure why you would draft a goalie in the first round and then sign a guy to a seven-year contract, but it will help for this year. Alexandar Barkov is a legit superstar and this is a team that should make the playoffs and makes some noise in them.

No. 4 Boston Bruins: Don Sweeney as general manager decided that the best plans for the Bruins were to run it back after losing in the Stanley Cup Final. No significant departures and no significant acquisitions were made by the Bruins. The big question for the top six is at right wing for David Krejci on the second line but otherwise, they will score. The defense is full of talents like Torey Krug, Brandon Carlo and Charlie McAvoy. With Patrice Bergeron and Zdeno Chara getting older, the time to win is now.

No. 5 Montreal Canadiens: Montreal was one of the league’s biggest surprises this past season and almost nabbed a playoff spot. Carey Price returned to form and Max Domi had a breakout season, scoring 72 points. For another successful season, players like Jesperi Kotkaniemi will need to take another step and Shea Weber will have to stay on the ice.

No. 6 Buffalo Sabres: This team isn’t bad, they just aren’t very good. They have a chance to make the playoffs if either Carter Hutton or Linus Ullmark can learn to make a save. There was a lot of hype surrounding Casey Mittelstadt to be the second-line center after Ryan O’Reilly was traded and he didn’t quite live up to it, but he will need to if Buffalo wants to end the longest playoff drought in the NHL. Ralph Krueger has a good defense to work with but how far can that take them remains to be seen.

No. 7 Detroit Red Wings: This once mighty franchise has fallen on hard times recently, but there have been some positive movements back to relevancy. Mostly bringing back Steve Yzerman to be the GM after he built the powerhouse down in Tampa. It is going to take a couple of years for his plan to come together but if Detroit fans are patient, there will be a light at the end of the tunnel.

No. 8 Ottawa Senators: Woof, ever since Connor Sheary buried that overtime goal in game seven of the Eastern Conference Final in 2017, this franchise has been a disaster. A complete fire sale has gotten rid of most the older talent on the roster, except for Bobby Ryan. Talent is there like Thomas Chabot, Brady Tkachuk and Erik Branstromm are good places to start. Ottawa fans, this is going to take some time and owner Eugene Melynk has said as much, saying the team can start being competitive in 2021.

METRO DIVISION

No. 1 Washington Capitals: First off, this division is a mess and predicting it is quite difficult. The Capitals, though, still have Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and John Carlson along with a boatload of other talented players. Yet, the Ovi era is coming to an end and the greatest goal scorer of all-time wants another Cup. Braden Holtby will need to have a bounceback season and the depth players like the newly acquired Richard Panik have to keep the train going.

No. 2 Carolina Hurricanes: These “jerks” are again going to make some noise in the Eastern Conference. Adding Jake Gardiner to a stout defensive core is only going to help, and Brett Pesce and that group only grew with the experience of last season. Their offense might still struggle a bit and we wait to see what Justin Williams is going to do. If Petr Mrazek and James Reimer can play well in net, this team will compete for the division.

No. 3 New Jersey Devils: Easily the winner of best offseason. Bringing in Jack Hughes, PK Subban and Wayne Simmonds, and with a healthy Taylor Hall, this team is reay to compete. Nico Hischier proved he can be a number one center last season, so number one overall pick Hughes won’t have to deal with that pressure immediately. Like a lot of teams, it seems the Devils will need a goalie, whether it’s Corey Schneider or Mackenzie Blackwood, to be the number one guy for this team to live up to the potential.

No. 4 New York Rangers: If anyone else were to claim offseason champions, the Rangers would be it, bringing in superstar winger Artemi Panarin, defensemen Jacob Trouba and number two draft pick Kappo Kakko. All that plus up and coming talent has Rangers fans excited. Jeff Gorton and the rest of the Rangers’ front office has shown teams how to properly rebuild quickly and Henrik Lundqvist has one more run in him.

No. 5 Pittsburgh Penguins: Sidney Crosby and Evengi Malkin are going to try their hardest to make one more run at a cup. Gone is Phil Kessel, who is being replaced, but Alex Galchenyuk who has been underwhelming in his young NHL career, look to become the new spark plug. The defense still has Jack Johnson and Erik Gudbrandson roaming around which is a positive thing for opposing teams. Matt Murray took a step back last year but he should be fine as the starting goalie. The Penguins could really use one more trade to add offense to the bottom six.

No. 6 Philadelphia Flyers: The savior of Philly has made his presence known and his name is Carter Hart. The 21-year-old goalie is looking to hold down the fort after the Flyers have rotated goalie after goalie over the last several years. The top six on offense is super talented after adding Kevin Hayes in the offseason. Shayne Ghostisbehere is still a Flyer to lead a young but talented defense. The Flyers could easily be a playoff team and new coach Alain Vigneault will do what he can to lead them there.

No. 7 New York Islanders: Barry Trotz should be commended for the effort him and his team put in last year. The best defensive team in the league made things easier for Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss in the net. The offense was inconsistent but that was to be expected with such an emphasis on defense. Lehner is gone but Semyon Varlamov will look to replicate his success. The Islanders could use one of their young wingers like Oliver Wahlstrom to step up and add scoring punch.

No. 8 Columbus Blue Jackets: A massive exodus of talent after winning the first playoff series in franchise history has left Columbus in a tough spot. Sergei Bobrovsky, Artemi Panarin, Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel all left for supposed greener pastures. Joonas Korpisalo will take over in net and has been inconsistent as the backup. There is talent still in Columbus like defensemen Seth Jones and Zach Werenski, center Pierre Luc-Dubois and winger Cam Atkinson. The Blue Jackets went all in last year and are now stuck in a tough division with a lot of questions all over the roster.