Why sugar coat it? The East is the weaker sister of the league. In a College football comparison, the East is the Big 10 while the West is the SEC. And it isn’t as though it’s just recently been like this. It has been this way since 1996.
Since 96, if you take out the Devils, the East has won 4 Cups. All 4 of them they had to go 7, and I would say in 3 of the 4 they were considered upsets. The Flames should have beat the Lightning had they reviewed the Gelinas goal in game 6, the Oilers would have beat the Canes had Roloson not got hurt, and the Red Wings and Canucks both blew 2-0 series leads and lost game 7 at home.
Like the East is BAD. Probably 2004 was the only year it was the superior conference. So now that I’ve talked it up, I bet you can’t wait to watch some Eastern conference hockey this season! I’ll say this, while it has weaker teams, it is normally much more exciting hockey to watch.
1. Boston Bruins
This is the slam dunk pick of the year. If they don’t win the division I would be flat out shocked. This team is just so much better than every other team in the East and even if someone like Tampa or Pittsburgh or Washington ends up with more points, it would take a lot of injuries to this team for me to take someone else to come out of the East next spring. They got being upset out of their system, now they should be primed for another run. Great down the middle, great 2 ways, best power forward in hockey, great on the blueline, great in goal. And they keep developing kids as good as anyone in the league. Dougie Hamilton might take a big step forward this season now that Johnny Boychuk is gone.
2. Tampa Bay Lightning
I think they’re a pretty safe pick for the 2nd place team in this division. Good young forward group, an emerging elite number 1 D-man, and a star goaltender. But I had to roll my eyes when the Hockey News picked them to go to the finals. Ben Bishop had a great regular season, but he’s still not proven, and he still hasn’t played a playoff game, their forward group is drastically undersized, and Steve Stamkos has to become a better all around player. He was last season, but it’s still not good enough. I believe he was starting to distribute the puck better after St.Louis was moved, and he was better in the dot. But can you trust him defensively? Not yet. He doesn’t have to be a Selke winner, but better than what he is. Right now they’re set up to be a nice regular season team, but a pretender come playoff time.
3. Ottawa Senators
Nobody else is going to call this shot, I am. I think they have real good goaltending that was really average last season. I’m a homer for Curtis Lazar, but the fact of the matter is he is already a better 2 way center than a lot of guys in the East. The kid is 20 going on 35. I’m expecting him to make the team, but it remains to be seen if they start him on the wing or in the middle. And don’t forget about Mika Zibanejad, who’ll take the step they need him to sometime soon. So while they lost Spezza in the offseason, running Turris, Zibanejad/Lazar and Legwand down the middle is going to be pretty good. They’re well balanced, and Paul McLean has proven himself to be a great coach and real good when expectations are low, like they are now. If you read my stuff you know I love to go out on a limb and this is just that. Sens are going to the playoffs.
4. Montreal Canadiens
This franchise has really been up and down, but somehow they’ve managed to put together most of the pieces you need to build a contender. Price, Subban, Pacioretty, Galchenyuk and they’ve got a very good system with a lot more talent on the way. I have them 4th in the division, they might finish 2nd. I don’t think much separates them and the Lightning, and I think they’re better than the Sens it’s just that I think the Sens will have a big bounce back season and maybe finish ahead of the Habs. I would take the Habs in a best of 7. Anyway, they have a lot of good pieces and are finally getting some size up front after years of having one of the smallest teams in the league. I don’t know if I would call them a contender in the East despite going to the ECF last season, but a strong darkhorse.
5. Detroit Red Wings
THN has Florida finishing ahead of the Wings. The Panthers definitely improved this offseason but that is just something that shouldn’t have been said out loud. But I think this season the Wings finally miss the playoffs. Now that I’ve said that they won’t. But all the stars seem to be aligning for it. They really struck out in the offseason, they’re key guys are getting older and are having a lot of trouble staying on the ice, and Mike Babcock is in the final year of his contract. It is incredible what they have done, but they just simply are fading. 2012 they bowed out in 5 to the Preds. A little better in 2013 beating the Ducks in 7 before losing to the eventual Cup champs in 7. But then last year again they bowed out in 5 and it’s not that they can’t play anymore, it’s just that they keep running out of gas.
6. Florida Panthers
Well they are going to be better, but they are still a complete mess of an organization. The Dave Bolland contract is revolting, and I’m a big Dave Bolland fan. One of the few players who doesn’t have good analytics but that I think is a vital piece to a puzzle. But he’s a great 3rd line center, that’s it. So they’re paying a 3rd line center 5.5 mil a season. I don’t care how much the cap is going up, that is going to be an awful deal forever. Now they have a real good young core with Barkov, Huberdeau and now Ekblad, not to mention Kulikov, Gudbranson and Mike Matheson who is on the way. Luongo will help a lot and cover up a lot of their mistakes. Gerard Gallant steps in as the new head coach, but he didn’t do very well in his first stop in Columbus. Doesn’t mean he can’t be a great head coach, but good assistant and good CHL coach doesn’t prove anything so the jury is still out on him.
7. Buffalo Sabres
They are on the right track, but they’re still about 2 drafts away from being REALLY setup as a potential contender….POTENTIAL being the key word. I hope the same thing doesn’t happen to them as what happened to the Oilers. Obviously the Oilers have been poorly run, but a little of what’s happened with them is that the media built them up as the next great team and there for got everyone’s best every night the last few years. Anyway this isn’t about the Oilers. This is about the Sabres and I feel like they really need a top 2 pick this June to go from potentially good to potentially great. Sam Reinhart is going to be a VERY solid NHL center, but I think he is the guy you want as an elite number 2 down the middle, not your number 1. Rasmus Ristolainen has huge talent, but D-men take a long time to develop and I can’t help but remember Joni Pitkanen looking very similar to that when he was 18 or 19 years old. Nikita Zadorov has incredible potential too, but he is VERY raw. As for the current squad, they have a lot of nice players, but nothing special. Ted Nolan will get the most out of them, and they might get as high as 5th in this division and compete for a playoff spot, but that is the best case scenario.
8. Toronto Maple Leafs
Talent wise they aren’t this bad. But I have a theory that the reason they kept Randy Carlyle on as head coach was because they realize this is Connor McDavid’s draft year and why bother building a team that MIGHT compete for the playoffs when if you sacrifice a season it could greatly benefit you in the long run. Some will scoff at that and tell me how that theory blew up in the Oilers faces, but let’s just see on that one. Might be taking a lot longer than some expected but doesn’t mean it can’t pop for them. And none of the years the Oilers had the 1st overall pick was there anyone close to McDavid. This kid is going to be on Crosby’s level, and then even Jack Eichel and Noah Hanefin would normally be 1st overall picks. Oh yeah, the Leafs….they have some building blocks in Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner, but not much else. You might be saying “Willie Nylander”. I’m not a fan. I have read too many things about the kids attitude, and small skilled wingers are a dime a dozen. And if you’re going to take one in the draft, make sure you take the one with the better attitude (Ehlers). Carlyle fired after the season, I’m expecting Phil Kessel trade rumors to start up this season, and they’ll hope to land Mike Babcock in the offseason.
1. Pittsburgh Penguins
No doubt in my mind that they’ll be first in this division during the regular season. But it is playoff time where the questions lay. I absolutely HATE the Jim Rutherford hiring. You talk about a guy in hockey who has skated on being awful simply because he’s a good guy, Rutherford is the poster boy (with Sam Gagner a close 2nd). I’ll give him this though….the trade of Neal for Hornqvist and Spaling will be a steal. Neal lived off Malkin. Hornqvist is a pain in the ass to say the least in front of the net on the PP and while he doesn’t have Neal’s size he more than makes up for that with his grit. They won’t miss a beat with that trade, might even improve them. But I don’t see this team going far come playoff time. I wrote in the summer that if they really wanted to change the team they would have looked to move both Malkin and Letang, but as I wrote at the time no GM is going to do something that big anymore because of the PR more than anything. 1st in the division, they might win a round in the playoffs, but they aren’t getting out of the East.
2. Washington Capitals
I’m a little torn on this team. Talent is there, and now it appears the coach is there. But the coach has never coached big talent. Trotz has gotten the most out of the least. Now he has to get the most out of the most, never an easy task. Braden Holtby should be the guy who benefits from this hire the most. Holtby was phenomenal playing in Dale Hunter’s system, and Tortz will run a similar system to that. Not as boring, but similar. So while some will likely question their goaltending, I don’t. And I think Trotz has a lot to work with on this blueline. Alzner and Carlson are a top pairing and still have a lot of room to grow, Dimtry Orlov is a good young D-man, and Mike Green is going into the last year of his deal so I’m expecting a big year out of him. Andre Burakovsky is going to be a Calder candidate, Evgeny Kuznetsov could finally be the answer as a 2nd line center, but up front of course it’s all about Backstrom and Ovechkin and weather or not they’ll buy in to Trotz system. If they do, this is where they’ll end up, maybe even 1st in the division. If they don’t, they won’t make the playoffs.
3. Columbus Blue Jackets
This is the sexy team this season. They’ve now made the playoffs, they nearly got in 2 years ago, so fans and media believe they’re about to take off. I don’t know. I think they’ll get back in the playoffs, but I don’t think they’ll go very far for a few more seasons. The Ryan Johansen holdout is going to cost them early. I don’t expect him to be on his game until November or December, and they’re starting the season with both Brandon Dubinsky and Boone Jenner on IR. So a team that is really deep down the middle, will be thin down the middle. A lot of depth up front, a lot of depth on D, but no 1 player who really stands out. Bobrovsky does, but I still have trouble believing he won’t come crashing back to earth one of these seasons. I should have had those worries put to rest last season, but they remain. This team will make the playoffs, and they’re built to pull the upset, but I don’t see them contending for another 3 or 4 seasons.
4. New Jersey Devils (wildcard winner)
People think this team is done and they’ve become a bit of a joke. By no means do I believe Mike Cammalleri is the answer to all that ails them. But he will make a difference, specifically in the shootout where the Devils were snake bit last season. Just winning a few more shootouts will go a long way to this team climbing the standings. Another thing that’ll help is no more goaltending controversy. This is Cory Schneider’s team now and I expect him to shine. Finally, they have a lot of young D-men who are about to take some steps. Adam Larsson, Jon Merrill, Eric Gelinas, these kids now have some seasoning and especially Larsson is about to get his chance to shine with Mark Fayne now gone. I fully admit, some of my thinking here is that I believe they’re done and it seems like the minute you count this franchise out they come back to life. I believe Lou Lamoriello is maybe the most overrated GM in league history, but that doesn’t mean he’s a bad GM by any means. They have the pieces to sneak in the playoffs.
5. NY Rangers
It was an incredible run for the Rangers. Everything clicked. But let’s be honest here, if the Habs don’t upset the Bruins, they wouldn’t have got through Boston. And the Metro is the worst division in hockey. So if you look at that, and add in that they lost Brad Richards (awful playoffs but during the regular season was very solid last year), lost Benoit Pouliot (Oilers overpaid for him but can’t deny he was a key contributor), and Rick Nash has been in decline since he got to Broadway. They do have some good pieces, and this is just a guess that they’ll miss the playoffs. They could finish 2nd in the division….easily. I’m guessing they have a bit of a hangover and won’t recover in time to get in the playoffs.
6. NY Islanders
I like what they’ve done! True story! Trade for Leddy, good! Trade for Boychuk, leaves them with hardly any picks in an amazing draft year, but they got a shutdown D-man with a lot of experience! And then the analytic signings so to speak of Grabovski and Kulemin. Halak steps in as the number 1 goaltender. I’m telling you this squad is going to be back in the hunt for a playoff spot this season and just might get in….but I can’t bet they’ll do that. While it’s not a good division, I don’t know that they’ve done anything to separate themselves from the middle of the division. They’ll get out of the basement, but I don’t know if they can get in the playoffs. Let’s not forget though that they were in the playoffs just 2 seasons ago and nearly knocked off the Pens in that series.
7. Philadelphia Flyers
WOAH! I know a lot of Flyers fans and they won’t like me. But basically my thinking here isn’t so much that they’ll suck, just that they’re in a group with the Devils, Rangers and Islanders and I don’t know what the order will end up being. They’ll be in the playoff hunt right until April, but I have to think they take a step back. I’m still not sold on Steve Mason. I don’t think he’s as bad as he was in Columbus, but just think he had an amazing season last year. He won’t have much help from his blueline this season as it appears to be in complete shambles. Also I’m not sold on the team being in good hands with Craig Berube behind the bench. Love how they’ve built down the middle, but they need to turn some of what they have up front into blueline help. Trading so many 1st round picks over the years looks to be catching up to the Flyers. It just feels like things are bleak, sorry Flyers fans.
8. Carolina Hurricanes
“I’m THINKING this is my odds on favorite to win 30th overall and have the best shot to land Connor McDavid.” That is what I wrote BEFORE Jordan Staal went down. Now, they have to be everyone’s favorite. The one strength they had is now significantly weakened. Ron Francis basically did nothing this offseason to improve the team, that blueline is terrible, Cam Ward is one of my favorites but he is a shell of the money goaltender he used to be, and other than Jordan Staal they don’t have many guys who play a 200 foot game….oh wait, something else I had written down BEFORE he was injured. Let’s call it the way it is, Peter Karmanos allowed Jim Rutherford to run this organization into the freakin’ ground over the last 7 years. This will get worse before it gets better for the Hurricanes.
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