1. Pittsburgh Penguins
Last year finished 4th in the East, but won the Stanley Cup. Last year they started slow, but once the change in coaches from Michel Therrien to Dan Bylsma they took off and moved up from 9th to 4th place in the East in a short period of time, going 18-3-4 in the last 25 regular season games, and going 16-8 in the playoffs. They are now returning most of the forwards up front, but did lose key shutdown defenseman Hal Gill and Rob Scuderi, but they are hoping to replace them by signing a veteran defensive-defenseman from St.Louis, Jay McKee and giving a young 24 year old defenseman a chance, Alex Goligoski. With the majority of the core returning the Pens should be the team to beat in the East.
2. Boston Bruins
Last years best team in the East should be a top team again. They did not lose many starters last year and return the majority of the core group. The only main loses are P.J. Axelsson up front, who should not be hard to replace, and Steve Montador on the backend, but they added Derek Morris, which may be a minor upgrade. They also lost backup goalie, Manny Fernandez, which isn't a major lose since they have Vezina winner Tim Thomas starting and got top goaltending prospect Tukka Rask who looks like the real deal. Boston should be a very tough team to play again, that will pound you every chance they get, but the question is who will get the goals? Right now they have 21 year old, Phil Kessel still unsigned. Last year he netted 36 goals in 70 games for the Bruins and if they can't get him resigned, it will be tough for them to replace those 36 goals. But with all that said, Boston should be a threat to win the East.
3. Washington Capitals
Last year they finished 2nd, and won their 2nd Southeast division in as many year. This team is lead by their offense, with an expolisive offense, with Ovechkin, Semin, Backstrom, Green, and the list goes on and on. They also added Knuble which should add to the offense. We all know they will be able to score as they had the 2nd most last year in the East, but the question is can they keep the puck out of their net? They let in the 2nd most goals out of any playoff team last year. They did nothing to add any defense, so they key will be Simeon Varlamov. Varlamov came on in the playoffs and had a .918 SV% with a 2.53 GAA in 13 playoff games and pushed the Stanley Cup Champs to a game 7. Although he looked good in the playoffs, he seemed to let in one bad goal a game, and to be a good NHL starting goalie, he needs to fix that. If Varlamov doesn't come through, they will need Jose Theodore to have a solid bounce back season and prove he is worth his big contract. Overall the Caps should be a good team with a great offense and take the Southeast, but if they want to make a deep playoff they need to improve their defensive game. They will have to improve their defensive game within their organization, and hope their players will buy into a more defensive game, as they did nothing via free agency or trade to improve their D.
4. Philadelphia Flyers
Always a good team, the Flyers could challenge the Pens for first in the Atlantic division and first in the East. They have a great offense, but did lose some fire power with the loses of Lupul and Knuble, but any offense that has Gange, Carter and Richards will be fine. In fact they have 4 returning 30 goal scorers and should get some more offense from a healthy Briere and a young Claude Giroux. They also have a ton of grit up front that will case other teams headaches with the likes of Cote, Powe, Asham, Carcillo and newly acquired Laperriere. The two big moves the Flyers made was the acquisition of Chris Pronger and Ray Emery. Chris Pronger was born to be a Flyer, he is big, tough and plays a mean game. Pronger should really help containing the dangerous offensive players in the East. Pronger comes into a D that already has Coburn, and Timonen, and the young defenseman Carle, Parent and Randy Jones. Pronger should make this defense among the best in the East. The new starting goalie in Phili is Ray Emery. Emery is a solid goalie who spent the last season in the KHL and had a great year over there. But his problems are his attitude. The Flyers are hoping that he has learned his lessons after a season in the Russia and will solve their goaltending woes they have had for so many seasons. If Emery is the solution, the Flyers are serious Cup contenders.
5. Carolina Hurricanes
No big moves from the Canes this year, but the Canes hope to be a solid playoff team again. The Canes have a top goaltender in Cam Ward and they hope that he can lead them to the promise land like he did 4 years ago. Eric Staal is the big guy up front, and can dominate and take over any game he wants. The key to Staal is getting him good wingers, and they are hoping a full season with Erik Cole, who he has great chemistry with, can provide Staal with that winger. With all that said, the key to the Canes success rest in their captains hand. Rod Brind'amour is always among the leagues best in faceoffs and one of the games best defensive forwards, but last year had one of the worst years in his career. He was a career low minus 23, and only had 51 points in 80 games. If the Canes want any success this year, they need Brind'amour to have a big bounce back year and put up the offensive numbers that he can (25 goals, 65+ points) and be the best defensive forward in the game again. Even if Brind'amour doesn't bounce back, the Canes are still probably a playoff team, but if they want to make a deep playoff run they need Brind'amour to bounce back.
6. New Jersey Devils
Last year they finished 2nd, but they are not as strong as a team, and are in a stronger division than last year. First off, the division is stronger with the Pens under Dan Bylsma and the Flyers adding Chris Pronger, the Islanders are also a stronger team. The Devils lost their head coach, Brent Sutter, who left to go to Calgary. Although Sutter is a great coach and they replaced him with Lemaire, who may not be as good, the coaching is the least of their problems. The Devils lost scoring forwards in Gionta, as well as checking forward, and leader John Madden. They aslo lost Brodeur's insurance in Scott Clemmensen. They also have one of their top young forward, Travis Zajac still unsigned. They Devils will need Lemaire to install his trap game if they want to win, as they lost too much offense to play the style they played last year. The Devils will also need to get Zajac resigned and have Zach Parise play as good as they did last year if they want any success. The Devils will probably not enjoy the regular season success they did last year.
7. Montreal Canadiens
Montreal is a totally new team than last years team. They lost 8 key starters, including Koviu, Kovalev, Tanguay, Schneider, Higgins, and Komisarek. But they added 6 new starters. The big additions is of their new top line of Gionta, Cammalleri and Gomez. This line is a talented scoring line, and the Canadiens hope that Gionta and Gomez can reconnect the chemistry they had in New Jersey. The problem with this line is their size, all of them are under 5 foot 11 and people in the hockey world are wondering if they are just going to have the same problems that they had last year, when they got pushed around and then out of the playoffs in 4 games by a bigger, stronger Bruins team. The Canadiens tried fixing that by adding big guys up fronts like Travis Moen and on the backend with Gill and Spacek. The Canadiens are also hoping they can get big years from young guys like Weber, Suban, Chipchura, D'Agostini, and Pacioretty, as wells as bounce back seasons from young guys like the Kostitsyn's and Plekanec. But the player that holds the key to the Habs success, is the player that has the most pressure on him while living in a fish ball, Carey Price. Price had a terrible 2nd half of the season after coming off an injury mid-season. For the Habs to have success they need Price to bounce back to the form he was in, the first half of last season when he was an All-Star. There is no denying Price's skill, as he has a ton of that, but for him to have success he needs the mental part of the game down, like they say, goaltending is 10% skill, 5% luck and 85% mental, and if Price can get confident, the Canadiens may be a dangerous team if all the pieces fall into place.
8. Buffalo Sabres
The only Eastern Conference team that I have making the playoffs that didn't last year are the Sabres. The Sabres only missed the playoffs by 2 points, even thought their MVP Ryan Miller missed a lot of time late last season. The only main players the Sabres lost were Spacek (to Montreal) and Afinogenov (unsigned) who isn't really a lost. Although the Sabres didn't lose much, they didn't add much outside of Grier. The main key for the Sabres is staying healthy. Like I said before they only missed the playoff by 2 points, without Miller, who had a .918 SV% last season. Up front the Sabres missed Vanek for 9 games, but he still scored 40 goals. The Sabres are also going to relay on their young prospects, Mike Weber and Tyler Myers to make the team on the backend to improve their defense and replace Spacek. If everyone is healthy, the Sabres should make the 8th spot in the East.
9. New York Rangers
Although the Rangers made the playoffs in the seventh seed, I don't see them making the playoffs. The Rangers lost many key players. First off they lost Nik Antropov, although he was only there for 18 games, he was key in making the playoff push, scoring 7 goals in those final 18 games. They also lost Nikolai Zherdev, who scored 23 goals and had 58 points last season for the Rangers. On defense they lost Paul Mara who played 76 games and averaged 19 minutes a game. They also lost Derek Morris on the backend, who averaged 20 minutes a game in the final 18 games in the final playoff push. They did nothing two replace those 2 defenseman in the off-season. They also lost Naslund who had 24 goals, and their top line centre Gomez. Although Gomez wasn't great on broadway, he was their top centre and they did nothing to get another top line centre, and Drury isn't a top line centre either. They did get Marian Gaborik, an elite scorer when healthy, but he is very injured proned. If Gaborik can pay a full season, and be the elite scorer that he is, the Rangers may have a shot on the playoffs. But the Rangers only made the playoffs by 2 points last season and they didn't do enough to replace the losses they have had, the Rangers will have to depend a lot on Henrik Lundqvist, if they have any shot on the post season.
10. Tampa Bay Lightning
I feel that Tampa will have a big bounce back season. The Lightning have had no key loses, but have improved big time. First off, the young Steven Stamkos should have a big season. After a really slow 1st half last season, Stamkos was put on a line with St. Louis and Malone by new Head Coach Rick Tocchet, and they instantly formed chemistry and helped Stamkos to net 23 goals. In the World Championship, Stamkos was on a line with St. Louis and lead the tournament in goals with 7 in 9 games. The Lightning also added a player who may end up as the steal of the off-season, in Alex Tanguay. Tanguay has great chemistry with Vinny Lecavalier from Junior compeitions. Tanguay can still be a point a game player, and should get Vinny going again. But this teams chance at the playoffs rest with Lecavalier, and him bouncing back after two down years. The Lightning's defense is also improved, they first added Ohlund, who was one of the top free agents this off-season and should improve the defense and add leadership. Not to mention the Lightning drafting Victor Hedman, who is said to be the most NHL ready rookie, and many people thought should have gone first overall. Hedman and Ohlund help form a solid defense core that also includes, Paul Ranger, Meszaros, AndrejAndrej Meszaros, and Lashoff, MattMatt Lashoff. The men between the pipes are also improved, they add Antero Niittymaki, who is a solid backup and they have Mike Smith healthy again. Smith who got injured last year, posted a .916 SV% and 2.62 GAA in 41 games, behind a worst D. The Lightning may flirt with the postseason this year.
11. Toronto Maple Leafs
I have my beloved Maple Leafs moving up only one spot into the 11th spot. The Leafs have a boat load of defenseman, infact they have 9 solid NHL defenseman. The defense this year is improved and a lot bigger and physical. They added Exelby, Komisarek, and Beauchemin this off-season, all big, physical defenseman, but the only one with an offensive up side is Beauchemin. The Leafs also have a physical young defenseman in Schenn, who is the face of the franchise. Then the Leafs got 3 pucking moving defenseman in White, Van Ryn and all-star Kaberle. The Leafs are most likely to go with those 7 defenseman on the backend (unless they move White to forward), and that leaves Frogen and Finger out of the picture. The Leafs no matter what will have an improved defense, and this was needed because they let in the most goals last season. The Leafs also have Toskala coming back as the starter, after a year that he struggled with injuries, and should be better than the .891 SV% he posted last season. The Leafs improved their backup goalie by adding the "Monster", Jonas Gustavsson, who is thought to be the best goalie outside the NHL. The problem with the Leafs will be scoring, last year the Leafs scored the 5th most goals, but played a very open game, but this year they will play more defensive and tight, so goals will be harder to come by. The Leafs didn't add any scorers, and are likely looking to move a defenseman for a scorer. The Leafs lost Antropov last deadline, so they lost his 21 goals in 63 games. The Leafs will likely again relay on scoring by a group, with Jason Blake, Grabovski, Poni and Matt Stajan leading the way, and also get some scoring from college rookies; Christian Hanson and Tyler Bozak. With that said, the Leafs don't have enough scoring and are still 1 or 2 years away from the playoffs.
12. Ottawa Senators
The Sens finished the year very strong last year, but I think the Heatley drama will get in the way. They got 4 good scorers in Heatley, Spezza, Alfredsson, and Kovalev. The problem here is they got no one after that. Who knows how good Heatley will be, since he wants out. Kovalev is dominate, half the time when he tries. Alfredsson is getting old, and you never know what you will get with Spezza, who is terrible defensively. The Sens also didn't improve their defense, which is average at best. The one part of the game the Sens did improve is their goaltending. Elliot finished the year strong, and should be a good backup, but the big improvement in net is Pascal Leclaire. Leclaire struggled last season, before his injury, but the year before Leclaire had a .919 SV% with 9 shutouts, on a bad Columbus team.
13. Atlanta Thrashers
Altanta did improve by addind Kubina, a top defensman that should
anchor their powerplay, and Antropov, who had 28 goals and they plan to
centre Kovalchuk. They also added power forward Evander Kane via the
draft, who should crack the lineup. Also, Little should be improved,
coming off a 31 goal season. But the Thrashers are still not a good
enough team to get out of the cellar of the East. They have a solid
goalie in Kari Lethonen, but the problem here is he is always injured
and they don't have a good backup, nor enough depth.
14. Florida Panthers
Last season the Panthers finished tied for the last playoff spot, but on the tie breaker finished 9th and just missed postseason action. Florida's big lost came with Jay Bouwmeester, a man that had 15 goals from the backend, each of the last 2 seasons, and averaged 27 minutes a game, playing in every situation. They also last on the backend, Nick Boynton, who was a solid contributor this past season. Right now a big problem in Florida is David Booth, Booth had 31 goals in 72 games with 60 points and was plus 10. Now the problem here is that Booth, their best forward and best play now, is still an unsigned restricted free agent. They can't afford to lose him. After all these loses, I don't think the Panthers have done anything to improve, and are a much worst team now, than last season.
15. New York Islanders
The lonely Islanders. This team has also improved, but so has the rest of the east. They don't have much fire power up front, and will relay on rookie John Tavares to score a lot. They also improved their goaltening with Roloson and Biron, but this may create some tension as they have 3 goalies wanting to be starters once you add DiPietro to the mix. The Islanders are a young team that have a bright future with young guys like Okposo, but they aren't going to do much next season, but I do think they will not be last in the league this season (Colorado) , which is an improvement.