The Pittsburgh Penguins have dominated the Eastern conference the past two seasons on their way to winning back to back Stanley Cups. The Washington Capitals have also been on top, winning the President’s Trophy in both of those seasons for being the league’s regular season champions. But there could be a shake-up happening this season to threaten these teams’ positions. The conference saw the number one and two picks in the draft go to the New Jersey Devils and the Philadelphia Flyers. Toronto was a young playoff team that will be more experienced. Teams lost players in the expansion draft, and brought new ones in during free agency. With all of those factors, here is one way the season could shake out.
Carolina Hurricanes (Last Season 36-31-15, Did not make Playoffs)
Following a season where they finished 7th in the division, the Canes improved their team over the offseason, starting in goal by acquiring Scott Darling from Chicago to replace 2006 Stanley Cup champion Cam Ward. Acquiring Trevor Van Riemsdyk from Chicago adds to a young defense featuring Noah Hanifan. Taking advantage of the Blackhawks trying to create salary cap space, and with the number of young players they have, the Canes are a candidate to vastly improve over last season. But in such a tough division, they will be hard pressed to even capture a wild card spot.
Columbus Blue Jackets (Last Season 50-24-8, Lost in First Round to Pittsburgh)
Under the guidance of coach John Tortorella, and with Sergei Bobrovsky winning the Vezina Trophy, the Blue Jackets had a successful regular season. They even had a streak of 16 consecutive wins, but lost in the first round of the playoffs to Pittsburgh. If Bobrovsky can continue to be one of the top goalies in the league, then they can make another run at the playoffs. The addition of 2016 Calder Trophy winner and two time 30 goal scorer Artemi Panarin should help with that push. But now they’ll be targeted as one of the better teams in the conference, and will still have to get past Pittsburgh if they want to make it deep into the playoffs.
New Jersey Devils (Last Season 28-40-14, Did not make Playoffs)
If a hockey team could be a Bruce Springsteen song, it would be the New Jersey Devils. Always in the shadow of their big city neighbors, they have been down on their luck since their two Stanley Cups in the early 2000s. But their luck might finally be changing, as they won the draft lottery and selected Nico Hischier with the first overall pick. They also signed Will Butcher, winner of last year’s Hobey Baker Award as the best men’s collegiate hockey player. With another addition up front in winger Drew Stafford, they have improved enough that they could be in playoff contention late in the season, but with such a young team, they will probably be on the outside looking in.
New York Islanders (Last Season 41-29-12, Did not make Playoffs)
Switching coaches midseason only left the Islanders one point out of the playoffs last year. Having just put in a plan to leave the Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn and move back to Nassau County, the Isles need a good season or risk the low attendance of their Barclay’s basketball counterparts. They took a step in the right direction by trading Ryan Strome to Edmonton for 50-point scorer Jordan Eberle to play alongside captain John Tavares. They will be in the mix for a wild card spot now that coach Doug Weight is without the interim tag.
New York Rangers (Last Season 48-28-6, Lost in Second Round to Ottawa)
The Rangers landed the biggest signing in free agency by inking defenceman Kevin Shattenkirk to a four year contract. Shoring up the blue line (even with a defenseman not know for his defence) was an important step for a team that wants to win a Cup before Henrik Lundqvist retires. If Mats Zuccarello can stay in the neighborhood of 60 points, and Lundqvist maintains a light workload during the regular season, they will be primed for a deep playoff run.
Philadelphia Flyers (Last Season 39-33-10, Did not make Playoffs)
The Flyers were winners in the lottery, getting the second overall pick despite 2.4 percent odds. With that pick they selected Nolan Patrick, strengthening a forward corps that had four 50-point players last season. Claude Giroux, Wayne Simmonds, and company are all in their primes, so if the team can solve their goalie problem, they should have enough scoring ability to stay in games and could sneak into a wild card spot.
Pittsburgh Penguins (Last Season 50-21-11, Won Stanley Cup)
Even after winning their second Stanley Cup in a row, expectations for the Penguins are still high. They have a talented young goaltender in Matt Murray, a returning Kris Letang (strengthening a defense which was able to win a Cup without him), the offensive fire power of Phil Kessel and Evgeni Malkin, and of course, one of the best players in the world in Sidney Crosby. But, the team lost Nick Bonino and Chris Kunitz to free agency, and did not make any major upgrades. Even in the face of those loses, this is still the Penguins’ conference to lose, and they will be in contention deep into the playoffs.
Washington Capitals (Last Season 55-19-8, Lost in Second Round to Pittsburgh)
Last season was supposed to be their year–another President’s Trophy, all the right pieces in place–but the Caps lost early in the playoffs yet again. In the aftermath, rumors swirled about the team trading Alexander Ovechkin and starting from scratch. But, at the start of a new season the team remains mostly intact. They passed on signing rental defenceman Kevin Shattenkirk, who was brought in for the second-half push for the Cup, and instead locked up T.J. Oshie and Evgeny Kuznetsov for the next eight years. And, Ovechkin is still on the team, even after threatening to stick one to Commissioner Gary Bettman and go play in the Olympics. He has since changed his tune, and this team is locked in for more regular season success, and hopes to play for the Cup. They have the talent, but if they cannot shake their demons, an early playoff exit is imminent.
Boston Bruins (Last Season 44-31-7, Lost in First Round to Ottawa)
Despite firing their longest serving and winningest head coach and seeing him return to arch-enemy Montreal, the Bruins closed the season as one of the hottest teams in the league. With Bruce Cassidy now free of the interim tag, the Bruins will look to improve upon last year’s first round playoff exit with the same core group of veterans, and a promising number of young players. Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and David Pastrnak will lead the team offensively, and 40-year-old Zdeno Chara will anchor the defense, now alongside Charlie McAvoy, starting his first full season in the league. If Tuukka Rask can play at the Vezina-worthy levels he is capable of, and the young defence can pull together, then this team will be in contention for the conference title. But in a crowded division, just making the playoffs will be a challenge.
Buffalo Sabres (Last Season 33-37-12, Did not make Playoffs)
This is Jack Eichel’s team now. Thanks to his complaints, the Sabres have a new GM and Hall of Famer Phil Housley is the new coach. They brought in Benoit Pouliot from the Wild and star prospect Alexander Nylander will be making the jump to the big leagues full time. Still, this was a bad team last year, finishing last in the division, and they do not look to be much better this year. Even if Jack Eichel breaks 70 points (which he very well could) he is not strong enough to drag the team into the playoffs by himself.
Detroit Red Wings (Last Season 33-36-13, Did not make Playoffs)
Last season was the end of an era in Detroit. They played their last game in Joe Louis Arena, long time owner Mike Ilitch passed away in February, and the team failed to make the playoffs for the first time in 25 years. They have brought in two-time Cup winner Trevor Daley to shore up the defense, and goalie Jimmy Howard will return from injury. But the Wings have been clipped by big contracts to old players. Henrik Zetterberg had 68 points, but only 17 goals, and his production will surely decline as he gets older. This will not be the season that a new playoff streak begins, but rather the start of a rebuild that could take quite a while.
Florida Panthers (Last Season 35-36-11, Did not make Playoffs)
The Panthers have tried to be the Oakland Athletics of the NHL, and it is yet to work. After failing to make the playoffs, they brought in Radim Vrbata, capable of 60 points. They even let the aging but effective Jaromir Jagr go, after he scored 16 goals and had 46 points. New coach Bob Boughner will try and bring the team back to the playoffs, but they will probably continue to struggle this season.
Montreal Canadiens (Last Season 47-26-9, Lost in First Round to New York Rangers)
Claude Julien is back for a full season after a 10-season hiatus with rival Boston. The Canadiens will look to improve upon last year’s first round playoff exit where Henrik Lundqvist outdueled Carey Price. They lost the player with the second most points on the team last season, Alexander Radulov, to free agency, but brought in Jonathan Drouin in a trade with Tampa Bay to play center for captain and leading goal scorer Max Pacioretty. They also signed Carey Price to an eight-year contract extension. Even with Shea Weber, the team lacks strength on defense, and will rely on Carey Price to be as good as he can. If he is, the Habs will be a playoff team and in contention for the Cup in the spring.
Ottawa Senators (Last Season 44-28-10, Lost in Conference Finals to Pittsburgh)
After coming only one goal short of playing in the Stanley Cup finals last year, Guy Boucher and the most boring hockey team in the league will try and take their 1-3-1 formation back to the playoffs. Johnny Oduya will join a talented defensive corps led by Erik Karlsson, who could single handedly lead this team to the playoffs again. Goalie Craig Anderson received a contract extension after a stellar postseason, and if he can play as well as he did, the Senators will once again be challenging for the Cup.
Tampa Bay Lightning (Last Season 42-30-10, Did not make Playoffs)
The Lightning missed the playoffs by one point without Steven Stamkos for most of the season. Stamkos will rejoin Nikita Kucherov and Victor Hedman, and new teammate Chris Kunitz, who signed as a free agent after winning the Stanley Cup with Pittsburgh. The Lightning also got defenseman Mikhail Sergachev in the Jonathan Drouin trade with Montreal. With blue line reinforcement, two solid choices in net in Andrei Vasilevskiy and Peter Budaj, and Stamkos back up front, the Lightning should be one of the best teams in the conference.
Toronto Maple Leafs (Last Season 40-27-15, Lost in First Round to Washington)
The Leafs thrilled with their young stars Mitch Marner and Calder Trophy winner Auston Matthews last season, and exceeded all expectations by making the playoffs. The team will gain experience by being a year older and bringing in veteran Patrick Marleau to play up front with the young players. If their young stars continue to develop and avoid a sophomore slump, the Maple Leafs will make it farther in the playoffs than they did last season.
Conference Champion: Tampa Bay Lightning
With the return of Stamkos, the additions of Sergachev and Kunitz, and the returning cast of characters, Tampa Bay is well positioned to make a run for the Cup. They have a bevy of goal scorers and shored up their defense. Even playing in a tough division with the up and coming Maple Leafs and offense-stifling Senators, once in the playoffs, their ability to outscore opponents will make them a hard team to beat. And with two good options for goalie, they should be able to stay in games against high scoring teams like Pittsburgh and Washington, and return to the Stanley Cup Final after a two year absence.
Photo: Dirk Shadd/Tampa Bay Times