The Eastern Conference is getting much more competitive as teams look make an impact in the playoffs. At the beginning of last season, there seemed to be a toss up for the lead in the East. The Penguins got off to a sluggish start and other teams seemed poised to take top spots from teams that have enjoyed success in seasons before.
Two teams stand out as favorites, but as always we start with the worst, first.
15. Tampa Bay Lightning: Do they even know who their owner is? The debacle that was last season for the Bolts will continue into this season as management is not sure what its doing. It certianly won't be a boring year for Tampa as they try to make all their off season signings somehow all fit together into a cohesive team. They did clean up some of the mess this off season by buying out a few contracts and getting solid talent in return, but will it be enough for the once darlings Vincent Lecavalier and Marty St. Louis return to the spotlight? In a word, no.
14. New York Islanders: Long Island is putting all their eggs in the John Tavares basket. They have brought in some good goaltending in Martin Biron and Dwayne Roloson as they will fight for a number one spot as Rick DiPietro recovers from injuries. But with injuries already hampering the Isles, it's doubtful they will make much noise in the East this year. If Kyle Okposo didn't get demolished in the preseason game against Calgary, it might be a different outcome for the once great franchise.
13. Atlanta Thrashers: The Thrashers just need an identity going into this season. The management has made an effort to continue to build a team around Ilya Kovalchuk and young goaltender Kari Lehtonen. They traded for Pavel Kubina and Tim Stapleton from the Leafs and adding some punch from the free agent list in Nik Antropov, Noah Welch and Anthony Stewart. The Thrashers are a much better team than the 13th place in the East they received last year, but when this team's chips are down, they would rather cash in and leave the table rather than tough it out. Blue land will be signing the blues this season again.
12. Ottawa Senators: The Danny Heatley saga took up most of the Sens off season. In return though they do get Alex Kovalev. The team is trying not to let the whole Heatley situation bother them, but usually moral is low after that kind of public affair. Their new acquisitions in Jonathan Cheechoo and Milan Michalek in the trade should help them get a few games under the belt. But their goaltending situation still stinks and there defensive core never recovered when Wade Redden and Zdeno Chara left. It will be a disappointing year for the capital city.
11. Philadelphia Flyers: The Flyers got some size on the blue line by bringing in Chris Pronger. But there has been a slow leak on the forward lines. Joffery Lupul and Scottie Upshall were contributors to the Flyers rough offense. The Flyers didn't make very many changes up front but got bigger and tougher. But the bigger and tougher you get, the less talented you get. If their top forwards in Daniel Briere, Jeff Carter and Michael Richards can stay healthy, the Flyers might be okay.
10. New York Rangers: It is not going to be John Tortorella's fault, but this team will underachieve yet again. Newcomers Marian Gaborik, Vaclav Prospal, Ales Kotalik, Tyler Arnason and Donald Brashear should keep them in the hunt for a playoff spot. But they lose quite a bit of talent in Scott Gomez, Nikolai Zherdev, Derek Morris, Paul Mara, Nik Antropov, Colton Orr, Fredrik Sjostrom and Blair Betts. The Rangers have a salary cap problem that forces them to bring up more youth.
9. Toronto Maple Leafs: Sure some toughness is going to give the Maple Leafs some respect. But they will need to follow that up with some scoring. They are hoping Phil Kessel will help in that regard. With Brian Burke at the helm, you know the Leafs will not back down from a fight. But he also added some good goaltending talent bringing the "Monster" Jonas Gustavsson and solid defense in Micheal Komisarik and Francois Beauchemin. If the Leafs can get some chemistry, they could be battling for a playoff spot late in the season.
8. Carolina Hurricanes: There will be a couple teams that will fall from grace this year in the East. I think the 'Canes is one of them. After making a coaching change late in the season and a few last minute trades, Carolina made a better effort to finish their season and earn a playoff spot. But they have a bad habit of taking things for granted. They made very little changes to the line up, a change here or there. They bought out Frantisek Kaberle and traded Patrick Eaves to bring back Aaron Ward. Add Stephan Yelle and the 'Canes should make the playoffs, barely.
7. Buffalo Sabres: The Sabres won't be denied a second season in a row. The changes are minimal, but it may be all they need. Coming into the Buffalo fold are Mike Grier and Steve Montador. The Sabres will also allow their young talent develop naturally. They will have Ryan Miller back in net with Patrick Lalime back him up, the pair should able to get the team into the playoffs.
6. Florida Panthers: The Panthers were oh so close to that last playoff spot last season. But this might be the year that they shed all that have held them down and make a run into the playoffs. Tomas Vokoun has to have a good season for this to happen since Craig Anderson left for Colorado. The Panthers have good core of young players returning in David Booth, Keith Ballard and Stephen Weiss. When these players get into the winning ways, I smell a playoff spot for an up and riser in the Southeast Divsion.
5. Pittsburgh Penguins: The hangover from the Stanley Cup will hamper the Pens all year. With Sidney Crosby injured so early in the year and the loss of Rob Scuderi and Hal Gill, the Pens lose a little expertise and strength on the blue line. But they are still a dangerous offensive team that should make the playoffs no problem. They won't have the chip on their shoulders they had last year, and that may lead to a lack of motivation.
4. Montreal Canadiens: The Habs did a major overhaul. Normally that would be cause for concern. But this could be a good thing for the Canadiens. A change in attitude and a new coach the Habs have replaced the same old disappointments from seasons past. Talent streaming into Montreal include Scott Gomez, Mike Cammalleri, Brian Gionta, Travis Moen, Jaroslav Spacek, Hal Gill and Paul Mara and goaltender Curtis Sanford. Chemistry should be key through the first half of the season, but I expect the Canadiens to be fighting rival Bruins for first in the division.
3. New Jersey Devils, Atlantic Division Champions: Everytime they are counted out, the Devils prove people wrong. They have a system that works, a GM that knows his team inside and out and quite possibly the best goaltender of all time in net. Bottom line, they compete every season for top spot in the East. Bringing back Jacques Lemaire as head coach for his second stint with the Devils fits into the defense/goaltending first, every thing else second. Expect the Devils to be a tough team to beat this year.
2. Boston Bruins, Northeast Division Champions: Zdeno Chara, Tim Thomas and Marc Savard. Three names that will make the Bruins a tough team to face this year. They were almost unstoppable, until they faced the Carolina Hurricanes in the playoffs. They finished first in the East last season, and they should play with a bit of a chip on their shoulder this year. With all their off season drama behind them (mainly with the deal that sent Kessel to Toronto). Now all is left to do is lean on Milan Lucic, Savard and Blake Wheeler for some offensive production.
1. Washington Capitals, Eastern Conference Champions: The Capitals felt they had the Stanley Cup Finals with in their grasp. But one bad game left an unsettling feeling in their stomachs. The game 7 debacle against the Penguins have made the Capitals even more ready for this season. Alex Ovechkin put on some weight in the off season and the goaltending battle has heated up between Jose Theodore, Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth. This is basically the same team returning, very little change over the off season. The additions of Mike Knuble and Brendan Morrison replace the departing Viktor Kozlov and Sergei Fedorov. There is only one goal for this team, and that is the Stanley Cup.
Top spot in the Eastern Conference could go either way between the Bruins and the Capitals. But both will have to save enough for the post season too. The biggest improvement from last year would be the Panthers. I didn't give them much respect last year, but they surprised me. I don't think they are going to waste another season trying to get to the playoffs, and I see them being a good team this year.
I will work on the Caps season preview before the game on Thursday.