Saturday, October 11, 2014

NHL Preview: 2014-15 Season: Eastern Conference

The power structure hasn't really changed in the East, compared to last season. Most teams remain with the same question marks, despite minor roster changes - barring an Ottawa Senators-type exception here and there.

Eastern Conference:

The Atlantic Division:

1. Boston Bruins

Perennial contenders, the Bruins have lost Johnny Boychuk and Jarome Iginla, but had the means to replace them internally, which might mean some adjustments for 10 or 15 games, but once they've settled into their groove, they'll be back on track. They can surely afford testing stuff out because they have Tuuka Rask, the reigning Vezina trophy winner and definitely a top-3 goalie. I see Loui Eriksson come back to his usual 60 points per season with more ice time and no injuries, though the Bs just might have trouble adjusting to the NHL's crackdown on diving this year.

2. Montréal Canadiens

Their Final Four finish was no surprise, really, if only a year ahead of schedule. Carey Price no longer has the burden of trying to be the best goalie in the league now that Dustin Tokarski can step in at any time - the future is also bright with Zach Fucale waiting in the wings. With Price concentrating on just being the best he can be (a guy who stops 91% of shots faced), Norris Trophy winner - and possibly next captain - P.K. Subban can lead the team like he did in the playoffs. Sniper Max Pacioretty is barely 25, and Alex Galchenyuk is a superstar in the making. The present's not bad either, with one of the best and most consistent two-way centers in the world in Tomas Plekanec and one of the league's top-5 defenders of the last decade, Andrei Markov. Nathan Beaulieu makes for a very reassuring insurance policy should Markov or Subban get injured - or tremendous trade deadline bait.

3. Tampa Bay Lightning

Forget the 4-game sweep at the hands of the Habs - they didn't have Ben Bishop in nets, and the Vezina nominee is the real thing. Steven Stamkos is one of the two purest goal-scorers in the game, and likely a Hart nominee for years to come. Ondrej Palat, Alex Killorn, Ryan Callahan, Nikita Kucherov and Valtteri Filppula make for a strong supporting cast, and Jonathan Drouin might win the Calder this year. It looks like Victor Hedman is becoming a Norris trophy contender, and I like the addition of Jason Garrison for the powerplay. They will need more help on the back end, though, as the rest of the D isn't all that mobile nor physical.

4. Detroit Red Wings

Never count the Wings out. They played half the season without their first line, their starting goalie, and maybe even their whole defense, but still managed to squeak into the playoffs on the strength of Gustav Nyquist and the rest of their AHL affiliate's contributions.

5. Ottawa Senators

Ha! Here's how I started my post on the Sens last season: ''How do you replace the team's heart and soul when the captain decides to leave as a free agent?'' Well, the same can be asked this year, only the answer is clear (Kyle Turris), and so will the end result be: a step back. Goaltending will be a strength with Craig Anderson and Robin Lehner, the defense will have improved after a year's experience kicking in, and Clarke MacArthur might score even more goals with actual first-line playing time, but part of acquiring experience is growing pains, and this year will hurt a little bit.

6. Florida Panthers

Roberto Luongo will be back in Vezina-nominee form, and the future looks bright with Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov, Aaron Ekblad and Erik Gudbranson; there is veteran leadership in Stanley Cup winner Willie Mitchell and, to a lesser extent, Brian Campbell and Shawn Thornton, but it won't be enough to make the playoffs. Perhaps in a couple of years... when they're playing out of Québec City.

7. Toronto Maple Leafs

Oh, look, the Leafs are into ''fancy stats''. By the time the playoffs start, the team will have fired their coach and GM, and the ''new era'' will be ushered in... with the same results. There are keepers on this team: Phil Kessel is a heck of a scorer, and Jonathan Bernier might be that goalie. Nazem Kadri's cool, but tainted by the Leaf Stink. That's about it, though.

8. Buffalo Sabres

I hate to be like everyone else and put the Sabres behind the Leafs, because I like their young crop of kids, and the veterans they brought in to keep the ship afloat until the youngsters are ready are trustworthy and reliable. There's something about having Jhonas Enroth as the #1 goalie that scares me, though.

The Metropolitan Division:

1. Pittsburgh Penguins

''The Pens have the actual best player in the world (Evgeni Malkin) as well as the guy most people think is the best in the world (Sidney Crosby)'' - that much remains true from last year's post. Pittsburgh now have a new GM (though they chose the wrong one), a new head coach, and pretty much a new bottom-6. I am under the impression that Marc-André Fleury will either leave town or share the net with the Carolina Hurricanes' Cam Ward before the end of the season, but that won't make much of a difference. The Penguins' fate rests in the hands of Crosby, Malkin, and Kristopher Letang - three guys who have a tendency to get injured and/or almost die.

2. Washington Capitals

Alex Ovechkin and Niklas Backstrom are tremendous offensive weapons, the likes of which new head coach Barry Trotz has never led before. There'll be growing pains, but they'll work around their differences and make it work. I see them winning their division in 2015-16 when they are familiar enough with each other, but for now, a second-place finish seems reasonable. Brian Holtby needs to find consistency, and having Justin Peters as the backup might put him in confidence - though if I were Trotz, I'd be having nightmares already. The defense improved by 50% just by stealing Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen (as well as their defense coach) from Pittsburgh, enabling John Carlson to keep developing at his own pace.

3. New York Rangers

So they won't have their top centers for a third of the season... with Henrik Lundqvist in nets and a defense comprised of Ryan McDonagh, Marc Staal, Dan Girardi, Dan Boyle and Kevin Klein, they'll be able to win their fair share of 2-1 games. They still have the ageless Martin St-Louis, Derick Brassard, Rick Nash and Chris Kreider to hold the fort until Derek Stepan comes back. I'm not worried about the Stanley Cup finalists.

4. Philadelphia Flyers

Ok, so they're the opposite of the Rangers: a devastating offense led by Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, Wayne Simmonds, Brayden Schenn and perhaps Vincent Lecavalier, but a defense that was already thin when Kimmo Timonen was signed - and now he's probably out for the season, slotting Braydon Coburn, Andrew MacDonald, Mark Streit, Luke Schenn and Nicklas Grossman in positions they might not be comfortable with. Oh, and kudos to goalie Steve Mason for getting back on track, I hope it lasts.

5. New York Islanders

GM Garth Snow may just have sent his team straight to the playoffs by adding Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk to his other summer acquisitions, star goalie Jaroslav Halak and forwards Mikhail Grabovski, Nikolai Kulemin and Cory Conacher. They already had MVP candidate John Tavares and linemate Kyle Okposo to build on, and coach Ted Nolan is a great motivator.

6. New Jersey Devils

Exit Martin Brodeur, enter full-time Cory Schneider. That's the storyline, but that's not the right one. No, the real story is how the once offense-starved Devils now have a legitimate top line with the ageless future Hall Of Famer Jaromir Jagr now joined by 30-goal man Mike Cammalleri to play with Travis Zajac. Stefan Matteau might put his ego in check and eventually make a decent NHL player, Martin Havlat may still have gas in the tank, Patrik Elias and Adam Henrique may remain consisent, and the nameless defense might hold up. That's a lot of ''ifs'' - too many to slot them in the division's top-4 teams - but enough positive answers to those interrogations will at least make the Devils watchable, which I don't think has ever been said about this franchise.

7. Columbus Blue Jackets

I don't see them regressing too much,but the early-season injury bug and the drama surrounding RFA Ryan Johansen will prove to have been too much to bear. If the Jackets have any sense, they'll get rid of Johansen and move forward without him, even in exchange for another ''problem child'', such as Winnipeg's Evander Kane (and a draft pick). Brandon Dubinsky, Cam Atkinson, Scott Hartnell, Jack Johnson and Nick Foligno have enough heart to keep as a core, it's just a matter of adding two 60-point players to the mix to bring Columbus back into (playoff) contention.

8. Carolina Hurricanes

Ladies and gentlemen, the worst team in hockey. Not just that, but they lost half their scoring in the pre-season when Jordan Staal and Jeff Skinner fell to injury. The fact that they only have two ''guys I would want on my team'' (Andrej Sekera and Justin Faulk, and not as first-pairing defensemen) speaks wonders.

The playoff picture:
Boston (1A) - NY Islanders (8)
Montreal (2) - Tampa Bay (3)
Pittsburgh (1B) - Philadelphia (7)
Washington (2) - Rangers (3)

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