Feature photo courtesy of Lisa Gansky.
The Eastern Conference lagged behind the West in terms of possible conference winners last year. Nearly all Stanley Cup brackets finished with either the Rangers, Lightning or Canadiens representing the East in the Final, compared to the five or more options on the other side of the tournament. But, with some dramatic shifts in the landscape this offseason, it’s very possible the Eastern Conference has opened up.
To prepare yourself for the puck officially dropping on a new season Wednesday, here’s a tiered preview of what to expect on the eastern side of North America.
Tampa Bay Lightning: They’re young, deep, talented, and, after last spring’s loss to the Chicago Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup Final, experienced, too. Talk about a killer combination.
Here’s another way youth benefits the Lightning: They didn’t have to worry about free agents this offseason, and kept everyone around. Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov can continue to conquer the universe, this time with a year’s more wisdom and comfort with each other. Victor Hedman is ready to contend for Norris Trophies, which should help bolster goalie Ben Bishop’s numbers even further. Watch out for 20-year-old Jonathan Drouin, the 2013 3rd overall pick who should get more playing time this year.
Tampa Bay’s only concern is off the ice: Steven Stamkos’ contract. If the two sides can reach a deal or Stamkos can keep negotiations from being a distraction, the Lightning will have one of the league’s premier goal scorers working for them, possibly on the second line, which is still baffling no matter how many times the Lightning used that look in last year’s postseason.
Primary threats to the throne
New York Islanders: The problem I had with the Islanders last season: they had depth, but not enough for that postseason. Like the Lightning, they bring back mostly the same team, which might suggest they could meet the same fate as last spring, when they lost in seven games to the Capitals in the first round.
But also like the Lightning, the Islanders are young. Of the players I was most concerned about not having enough to guide New York on a deep run — namely Ryan Strome, Brock Nelson, Anders Lee, Nick Leddy, Josh Bailey and Travis Hamonic — none are over the age of 26. The experience gained from last year could help put them in the same position the Lightning were in: ready to make their first deep push.
Having Art Ross and Hart Trophy candidate John Tavares certainly doesn’t hurt the cause, either. Kyle Okposo, the second option after Tavares, is primed for a great year.
Washington Capitals: The Capitals must have some cautious optimism following a splashy offseason. T.J. Oshie is a tad overrated, with his maximum output being 21 goals, 39 assists and 60 points in 2013-14. Justin Williams isn’t very young at 33. Mike Green is gone and he took his power play prowess with him. Braden Holtby may feel some exhaustion, following a season in which he played 73 regular season and 13 postseason games. Nicklas Backstrom will miss the beginning of the season, at least the first four games.
These are all legitimate concerns, but I’m buying in on this group. Barry Trotz is a great defensive-minded coach and just having some year-to-year continuity behind the bench will help Washington tremendously. Green was a defensive liability who they had to hide on the third pairing. Oshie needed a fresh start after some frustrating finishes in St. Louis. Williams can help deliver a “Game 7” mentality the Capitals have been sorely lacking for years.
Overall, it’s a very solid team that seems to be just slipping into its prime.
New York Rangers: They’re always threatening at this point, but it’s getting late in Henrik Lundqvist’s prime and they still haven’t gotten him a Cup. Their road won’t be easy to get it this year, either.
Speedster Carl Hagelin had to be traded to save cap room to sign Derek Stepan with. That will hamper the offense slightly, but they’ll survive. The defense, with a full year of Keith Yandle, will remain a positive attribute. Overall, the team is solid in all areas, but mostly unspectacular outside of Lundqvist. It feels like Chris Kreider isn’t developing as quickly as the team would prefer, but he could turn that around this year.
Other teams to watch out for:
Montreal Canadiens: Not a great team, in terms of possession numbers, scoring or depth. But as we learned last year, Carey Price can steal a lot of games. All he did last year was win 44 regular season contests, the Vezina and the Hart Trophy. Ho-hum.
Pittsburgh Penguins: This is a team that will surely post big numbers en route to flopping early in the playoffs, as they have in just about every year since they won the Cup in 2009. Phil Kessel, brought in from the Maple Leafs, will score a lot of goals without playing much defense. Sidney Crosby, perennially one of the league’s top scorers, will be happy to rack up the assists.
Kris Letang and Olli Maatta are a dangerous defensive pairing, in multiple ways. They can break the game in favor of Pittsburgh, or they could break the Penguins’ season with more injuries. Human enigma Marc-Andre Fleury will try to replicate his impressive 2015 in net, but, like expecting Letang to play a full year, it’s something that can’t be counted on.
Columbus Blue Jackets: Here’s your dark horse team of the conference. Their players lost more than 500 games to injuries last season, effectively derailing their chances of finding their way back into the postseason. They showed what could have been at the end of the season, finishing on a scary 15-1-1 run.
Nick Foligno and Ryan Johansen are a powerful duo. Sergei Bobrovsky has won a Vezina Trophy in the past. And they added Brandon Saad, fresh off a Cup win with the Blackhawks? Watch out for Columbus.
Fringe playoff contenders
Detroit Red Wings: If for no other reason than that they have a reputation to uphold, the Red Wings could be back in the playoffs for a 25th consecutive year. Mike Babcock left for the Maple Leafs, but the team is confident in new head coach Jeff Blashill. Petr Mrazek should replace Jimmy Howard in net at some point, which will be a huge boost, at least in shootouts.
Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar should take the next step in their development, and rookie Dylan Larkin could contribute as well. Mike Green is onboard to give the Wings a right-handed shot from the blue line, which they’ve been frantically searching for for years (it’s what brought Marek Zidlicky to Detroit at last year’s deadline). Brad Richards gave a nice boost on a one-year deal with the Blackhawks last year, so he’ll try to do the same here.
The key is to keep Pavel Datsyuk healthy, as it has been for the last handful of years. Unfortunately, they’re already behind in that department once again, with Datsyuk starting the season unavailable.
Buffalo Sabres: Buffalo has endured some cruel winters, with back-to-back seasons with fewer than 55 points. Things will pick up this year.
Jack Eichel is an impact rookie who will likely end up at least nominated for the Calder Trophy. Ryan O’Reilly is a young playmaking center who can hopefully refocus after some off-ice distractions with Colorado. Evander Kane, a former 30-goal scorer, also needed a readjustment after his time with Winnipeg ran stale. Robin Lehner is just 23 and will be handed the primary goaltending duties for the first time, so he’ll be intriguing. 2014 2nd overall pick Sam Reinhart should have an increased role.
The Sabres are very young, but very interesting. They’re likely not quite ready for a postseason spot, but they’ll fight and show some flashes of potential.
There are teams with nice pieces, but probably not enough, like the Flyers, Senators and Panthers. The Flyers have their dynamic duo of Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek. The Senators have two-time Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson and Calder nominee Mark Stone. The Panthers have defenseman Aaron Ekblad, winner of the Calder Trophy at age 18, who could become one of the league’s premier defenders very soon. All three teams have more glaring weaknesses than strengths, so while they could still snag a spot, it would be unexpected.
The Bruins have leftover remnants from previous Cup winners and finalists, but are trending toward a rebuild (one that confusingly shipped out Dougie Hamilton). If they didn’t make the playoffs last year, they shouldn’t in 2015-16.
Toronto, Carolina and New Jersey each still have long ways to go in their rebuilds before coming anywhere near the postseason. Devils goalie Cory Schneider and Hurricanes defenseman Justin Faulk may be the only interesting players among the three clubs.
Is this hierarchy flawless? Certainly not. Things happen in sports that can’t be foreseen, unless you obtained Marty McFly’s almanac. But this guide stands to give you a pretty good idea of how the season should play out. It won’t come true, and that’s part of the beauty of hockey.