Eastern Conference Outlook

Now that the draft is over and the major part of free agency concluded, it’s a good time to take an early look at how the Eastern Conference is shaping up. This isn’t a prediction of where teams will finish necessarily, but just a look at how teams will fare in the upcoming season.

Northeast Division

Boston Bruins – The Bruins finished last season near the bottom in both goals scored and team GAA, and that’s not likely to change for this season. They have some good forwards in Savard, Bergeron, Sturm, and Kessel, but lack depth. The defense is big, but slow, and won’t provide a lot of scoring. Goaltending should be improved with the acquisition of Manny Fernandez, but he isn’t good enough to turn the whole team around. There also isn’t much cap room to add any big name players. Expect the Bruins to miss the playoffs, but be about a .500 team.

Buffalo Sabres – With the loss of Briere and Drury, the Sabres simply will not be as good as last season. Unless they receive spectacular years from Connolly and Roy, their championship window has closed, at least short term. The forwards are fast and play a team game, and they have a steady defense that can contribute offensively. And with Ryan Miller playing net, the Sabres will have a chance in every game. The Sabres should definitely make the playoffs, probably in the 5th to 8th seed, but they have a young team that likely won’t advance very far.

Montreal Canadiens – The Canadiens season will probably go very similarly to the 06-07 season. They will be a middle of the pack team in most categories. If they get good goaltending from Huet, they might sneak into the playoffs, but won’t make it very far. They have good scoring depth, but the big name players, particularly Kovalev and Koivu, won’t have enough points to push them to the next level. The defense is improved with Hamrlik, but it’s made up of a number 1 and 2 defensemen, and then four 5th or 6th defensemen.

Ottawa Senators – The Senators lost Preissing and Comrie, but still have the same core group of players. Heatley, Spezza, and Alfredsson will have another great season, and the defense won’t miss Preissing that much. They need to re-sign Emery, and they will have solid goaltending. Ottawa is clearly the best team in the division, and should finish in one of the top two seeds. Even though they made the Finals, this year’s team probably won’t be as good as last year’s, and their playoff performance will be questioned yet again, whether it’s deserved or not.

Toronto Maple Leafs – The Leafs had a decent offseason, acquiring Toskala and Bell, and signing Blake. But they still remain an average team. The offense should continue from last season, but the defense will probably be the downfall again, unless Toskala proves he can save them when Raycroft couldn’t. The Leafs will be a bubble team, and should probably slide into the playoffs, as the 5th to 8th seeds will finish very close like last season.

Atlantic Division

New Jersey Devils – With the losses of Rafalski and Gomez, the Devils should be expected to drop in the standings. But it seems like that’s supposed to happen every season and it never does. They need to get the coaching situation figured out as soon as possible. It’s rumored that they are pursuing Souray, but I fail to see how he fits into their system. As always, the Devils will be a hardworking team with an excellent defense, and as long as Martin Brodeur is in net, they can’t be counted out.

New York Islanders – Smyth, Kozlov, Yashin, Blake, and Poti are gone. Guerin and Comrie are in. DiPietro has about 34 years left on his contract. The Islanders will definitely miss the playoffs, but will be an aggressive team that no one likes to play against. And with Nolan coaching, they will perform better than they should, but it won’t be enough to push them into a playoff spot.

New York Rangers – The Rangers made the biggest offseason splash in getting Gomez and Drury. Personally, I think the Rangers would have been better off keeping Nylander and not signing Gomez. Nylander is a better goal scorer than Gomez, and is a much better stickhandler. Gomez might be a better passer, but he still only amassed 13 goals and 60 points playing with Elias and Gionta. Drury is a good signing, as he is the best 2nd line center in the league. They have plenty of depth and great goaltending. The only flaw is the defense, which doesn’t have any spectacular players, but should play well in front of Lundqvist. They will compete for the Atlantic Division crown with the Penguins, unless there are chemistry problems or major injuries.

Philadelphia Flyers – The Flyers are the biggest question mark in the East. Some think they have turned things around and will be a good team, while others see them in the same place as last season. Briere and Gagne should definitely light the lamp a lot, and they could potentially play with Knuble, Lupul, or Hartnell, going with power, speed, or both. They have good young depth in Umberger, Carter, Richards, and Upshall, and the defense should be improved from last season with Timonen and Smith. Finally Biron gives them solid goaltending and eliminates the one goal handicap they had playing Esche or an injured Niittymaki. The Flyers should make the playoffs as a lower seed, but could also miss the playoffs depending on how the team meshes and how the young players perform.

Pittsburgh Penguins – With Crosby and Malkin, the Pens have the best young duo in the league. Recchi and Roberts, and now Sykora, provide some veteran leadership, and the defense should be better with Sydor and Whitney having another year of experience. Fleury isn’t an all-star goalie yet, but he’s good enough to keep the Pens in games. The Pens and Rangers will compete for the division title, and probably the number 1 seed in the Conference. If they are good enough to make it far in the playoffs remains to be seen. But with a series of experience, they now have a better idea of what to expect come May and June.

Southeast Division

Atlanta Thrashers – As always, the Thrashers are unpredictable. They have the offense and the goaltending to win the division and compete in the playoffs, but can never seem to put things together. The defense looks slow and doesn’t pack much of a punch offensively, and could be the downfall of the team. Additionally, too much of the offensive responsibilities are placed on the first line, even though they have performed well under that pressure. The Thrashers will compete for the division and have a chance of making the playoffs, but they don’t have the defense or the experience to make it very far.

Carolina Hurricanes – The Hurricanes are just a year removed from winning the Stanley Cup, and the team has not changed that drastically. They should return to form and make the playoffs and will have a chance of advancing far. They have one of the best group of forwards in Staal, Brind’Amour, Whitney, Cole, Stillman, Williams, and Walker. The defense is aging and doesn’t provide much offense. Ward needs to show his playoff run wasn’t a fluke. If the defense and goaltending can hold it together, the Hurricanes should win the division and have a chance at a long playoff run.

Florida Panthers – With Vokoun playing net, the Panthers should improve upon last season, but probably not enough to make the postseason. They have a good group of young forwards, and some promising defensemen, but they haven’t done enough to be a legitimate playoff team.

Tampa Bay Lightning – The Lightning are another question mark in the East. They clearly have a great trio in Richards, Lecavalier, and St. Louis, but the rest of the forwards are mediocre
, and the defense is merely adequate beyond Boyle. Goaltending is the biggest issue here, as they are basically stuck with Denis. The Lightning could linger in the Eastern Conferences basement, or surprise with some good goaltending and compete for the division.

Washington Capitals – The Capitals improved their offense with Nylander and Viktor Kozlov, and with Ovechkin, Semin, and a surprising Chris Clark, shouldn’t have a problem putting the puck in the net. The defense is still shaky, and the addition of Poti doesn’t change that. Kolzig will play his usual game and keep the Caps in many games they have no right being in. They should be better than last season, but playing in a strong offensive division, their poor defense should keep them out of the postseason hunt.