NHL Eastern Conference preview

Who will win the Eastern Conference this season? Who will finish last? Check out our projected standings here and tell us if you agree or disagree.

NHL Eastern Conference preview
PITTSBURGH, PA - APRIL 13: Jason Spezza #19 of the Ottawa Senators handles the puck against the Pittsburgh Penguins during the game at Consol Energy Center on April 13, 2014 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Senators defeated the Penguins 3-2 in a shootout. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

Last week, I pointed out here that both The Sports Forecaster and The Hockey News were predicting a sad-sack season for the Ottawa Senators. Unfortunately I’m going to do the same as I jump into the fray. While the Senators have laid the groundwork for a nice bounce-back in 2-3 years, there will likely be plenty of short-term pain to suffer through en route. So with that, I give you my fearful predictions for the upcoming season.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

1. Boston Bruins: They really do have it all. Nicely balanced up front, a defence corps lead by the monstrous Zdeno Chara and, essentially, two No. 1 netminders. This season could go one of two ways — they could have a bit of a letdown if fatigue and/or complacency set in after winning the Stanley Cup, or they could attack 2011-2012 with more confidence than ever. I’m going to go with Option 2.

2. New York Rangers: This is going to serve as my Ultimate Bold/Stupid Prediction© for the season. The Rangers have a Vezina-caliber goalie, a solid group of young defencemen and, suddenly, a very dynamic attack. Of course, for this scenario to morph into reality, Marian Gaborik and Brad Richards are going to have to find a way to stay healthy. Just writing that makes me hate this pick more and more.

3. Washington Capitals: When I initially heard that the Capitals had acquired goalie Tomas Vokoun, I thought, “this could be the year.” Really though, that move is a bit of a red herring. The problem with the Caps last season wasn’t defence or goaltending (Michal Neuvirth was 27-12-4 with a 2.45 GAA and .914 save percentage), it was, shockingly, putting the puck in the net. The Caps finished 19th in goals for. That could just be a one-year aberration, but former Cap Matt Bradley’s recent interview with The Team 1200, in which he noted the dressing room was sometimes too laid back and key scorer Alex Semin “just doesn’t care,” was a little distressing.

4. Philadelphia Flyers: This lower-than-most-expect ranking is my way of taking a wait-and-see approach. With the departures of Jeff Carter and Mike Richards, there might be an adjustment period at the beginning of the season as the remaining players ease into their roles. Ilya Bryzgalov is a great regular season goalie, but don’t forget this is also the guy who ended his last playoff series with the quote: “I am goat.”

5. Buffalo Sabres: Even with top centre Derek Roy out for most of last season, the Sabres proved they could still score. Now, with the additions of Robyn Regehr and Christian Ehrhoff over the summer, the situation has improved in front of all-world goalie Ryan Miller as well.

6. Pittsburgh Penguins: The Penguins would shoot up the charts if Sidney Crosby’s return to full health was assured. It isn’t. Last week, Pens GM Ray Shero suggested Crosby has had some recent setbacks in his recovery from a couple of concussions last season. Obviously this team isn’t the same without the best player in the world.

7. Montreal Canadiens: There shouldn’t be a huge jump or dip this season for the Habs, whose biggest move was signing veteran winger Erik Cole. Once again, they’ll rely on coach Jacques Martin’s conservative, defensive system and strong goaltending from Carey Price.

8. Tampa Bay Lightning: Big deals were made last season about coach Guy Boucher’s 1-3-1 system, along with loosing two defencemen to attack the puck-carrier in the defensive zone. While Tampa scored with ease, what else would you expect from a team boasting the likes of Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier? The other side of the puck was the problem, as too many breakdowns lead to a rank of 22st in the NHL in goals against average. Only one playoff team — Detroit, if you can believe it — was worse.

9. New Jersey Devils: Quicker than you could say David Puddy last season, the New Jersey Devils were completely out of the playoff picture. The bad news was that the Devils went a putrid 9-22-2 under coach John MacLean. The good news is they went 28-17-3 under his replacement, Jacques Lemaire, creating some hope for the future. Lemaire isn’t back this season, but there’s a good chance new bench boss Peter DeBoer will get Jersey off on the right foot. He certainly has plenty more to work with than he ever did in this three seasons coaching the Florida Panthers.

10. Carolina Hurricanes: The ‘Canes have been quite the bubble boys since winning the Stanley Cup in 2005-2006. Here’s how they’ve finished since…2007 (11th, four points back), 2008 (9th, two points back), 2009 (qualified 6th), 2010, (11th, eight points back), 2011 (9th, two points back). Cam Ward is money in the bank and the team has some nice forward depth, but oy, that defence.

11. New York Islanders: The Islanders are one of those teams that could go either way. They have a good collection of young forwards, though the defence is a work in progress. Same old, same old with Rick DiPietro in goal — terrible when he wasn’t hurt, which was pretty much all the time. If he actually plays the way a guy holding a 15-year contract should, the Isles will be okay.

12. Toronto Maple Leafs: It really is a shame the Leafs couldn’t land Brad Richards this summer. A playmaking centre of his caliber is just what the Leafs have been missing the last few years, and he might have given the offence enough of a bump to challenge for the No. 8 spot. Even if you’re a Senators fan, you have to admit it’s better for the game when the Leafs are competitive. Most interesting subplot to watch this season: Is James Reimer the real deal?

13. Florida Panthers: Many have the Panthers sitting at the very bottom of the standings with the Senators. While the Cats might still be bad, the wholesale changes over the summer have me feeling optimistic. Scoring will continue to be a problem, and Jose Theodore sure is a downgrade from Tomas Vokoun, but suddenly there’s a nice mix of youth and veteran talent here. It’ll be interesting to see if Erik Gudbranson excels right away and whether or not Jonathan Huberdeau can crack the lineup out of camp.

14. Winnipeg Jets: One thing the Jets will have this season — the best atmosphere of any NHL arena. The city has been electric all summer with anticipation, and that excitement will carry through the bleak Manitoba winter. Too bad there probably won’t be any playoff whiteouts this season, though. While the Jets have plenty of buzz, what they don’t have are enough elite scorers up front.

15. Ottawa Senators: The Senators should be better this season than they were last, but the rest of the conference isn’t getting worse. That’s why I see them slipping all the way to the basement. That wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world — a top-three draft pick who could step in next season would speed the rebuild along. Could the Senators move up two, three, even four spots? I’d never rule it out. I’ve always been a big fan of Craig Anderson’s game, and we all saw what he did for Colorado a couple of seasons ago.

HOW DO YOU SEE THE EASTERN CONFERENCE SHAKING OUT? LEAVE YOUR COMMENTS BELOW.

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