By Alex Valle
As part one of a two part series, I will be examining the best teams in each conference and giving my predictions on who will make the playoffs. Last year, my Eastern Conference predictions were almost completely accurate, with the Flyers being the one exception (I thought Voracek and Giroux would be able to rise above the rest of a horrible team and be good enough). This year’s east boasts a lot of competitive teams as well as a lot of teams that are on the cusp of making the playoffs. So who do I think will make it this year?
1. Tampa Bay Lightning
The Lightning almost won the division last year and then made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals. For all intents and purposes, they still have the same team and with Andrei Vasilevskiy injured, their backup goalie was their only question mark. But recently they claimed Kevin Poulin, a solid goalie, off waivers from the Islanders and he should be able to fill the void and fit nicely behind Ben Bishop. In addition, Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov are in a contract year after respective superstar campaigns in 2015, so the drive will be there for them to lead the Lightning in scoring. Tampa is a contender for sure and I have no doubt they will have a great regular season.
2. Montreal Canadiens
The Canadiens are still a solid team, but seem to be taking a chance (depth wise) on Zack Kassian and Alexander Semin. I think they will win their division only if both of those signings pay off or at least if Semin returns to his 2011 or 2012 form. On defense, Jeff Petry is now locked up long term and the team looks ready to contend once again. With P.K. Subban and Carey Price, they will always have a great shot at a Stanley Cup. Though, if they want to take that next step, Alex Galchenyuk will have to continue to impress. EA Sports might have picked them to win the East, but I think, as of right now, the Lightning boast a better depth team.
3. Detroit Red Wings
Out with Mike Babcock, in with Mike Green and Brad Richards. The Wings already looked good last year, barely losing in the first round to the eventual Eastern Conference champions Lightning. Now with more depth options and upgrades, Detroit should make the playoffs again and extend their post-season streak another season further. One has to wonder how long they can keep this up with all those miles on Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, but the Wings have also drafted well in recent years and possess an army of depth (Sheahan, Mantha, Bertuzzi) should the unthinkable happen. Jimmy Howard and Petr Mrazek will once again battle for the crease, which results in enough depth in goal.
1. Washington Capitals
Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin are always a solid combo, but will be even deadlier with T.J. Oshie on the right wing. Adding to the scoring, youngsters Andre Burakovsky and Evgeny Kuznetsov should also play important offensive roles with the team and should be relied on a little more to facilitate offense following the departure of Green. After collapsing in game seven against the Rangers, Washington went out and added Justin Williams, who should also provide offense in a supporting role. Williams is certainly an upgrade over the departed Joel Ward and should really help be a leader in the dressing room. In net, Braden Holtby was in his own league, as he turned into an elite goalie with last season’s impressive performance. Look for him to continue that domination. Defensively, the loss of Mike Green looks bad, but expect the underrated John Carlson to play a big role for this team. Furthermore, I think Matt Niskanen is also going to have to be a major contributor for the Capitals, something that has been familiar to him for a while now.
2. Columbus Blue Jackets
Last year, the Jackets suffered so many injuries that even I couldn’t keep track of who was playing. Despite that, at the end of the year, they went on a solid run that looked really impressive and was a cause of concern for the rest of the East. This year, look for them to expand on that role. After all, Sergei Bobrovsky is still a top five goalie in the league and he’s going to need to prove it again this year. Ryan Johansen and Nick Foligno really helped carry the offense, but now the Jackets have added Brandon Saad to make a formidable trio. A full season of David Clarkson, Scott Hartnell, and Jared Boll should really help the team advance farther, as they are going to bring a lot of size to the table. Meanwhile, Brandon Dubinsky, Cam Atkinson, and Matt Calvert should provide needed depth in goal scoring. The one weakness is that Columbus doesn’t have a lot of experience on the blue-line, but fortunately for them, the talent is there. Ryan Murray (if he can stay healthy) should still be a quality top four, while Fedor Tyutin and Jack Johnson will be forced to help lead a group of young rear guards comprised of David Savard, Dalton Prout, and Cody Goloubef.
3. Pittsburgh Penguins
The Penguins literally have the worst defense of anyone who can be considered a playoff team. Kris Letang is returning from yet another concussion, Rob Scuderi and Ben Lovejoy took steps backwards with the team, Ian Cole and Olli Maata are going to be asked to play a big role, and Brian Dumolin and/or Derrick Pouliot might have to be a top four defensemen. However, with all these cheap defensive contracts, such as Adam Clendening and Tim Erixon, at least they won’t have to play with five rear guards like they did last April. In goal, Marc-Andre Fleury is usually solid during the regular season and should be good enough to lead them to a playoff spot. One big mistake of the Penguins is that this summer, Pittsburgh threw all of their money at offensive woes that should have been spent in other areas. Eric Fehr and Nick Bonino were added to try and help the team with depth, while Phil Kessel is going to be asked to do a lot offensively. No matter how good those Kessel, Crosby, Kunitz and Malkin, Perron, Hornqvist lines look, that’s pretty much where the big names end as Pascal Dupuis, Beau Bennett, and the aforementioned Fehr, and Bonino will be asked to carry the depth scoring. Keep in mind the injury histories of Depuis and Bennett (Bennett has yet to play 50 games or score more than 14 points in a season and Dupuis has played just 55 games in the last two seasons). I guess we will see how far Crosby, Malkin, and Kessel can carry this team.
1. New York Rangers
With the absence of Carl Hagelin, Emerson Etem and Kevin Hayes are going to have to play pivotal roles in the Big Apple. Even worse, Martin St. Louis is also gone and the burden will fall on Derek Stepan to show that he has earned that new contract. Though at the end of the day, NYR still bolsters one of the best blue-lines and King Henrik is still starting in net. Look for the Rangers to make it to the big dance, but don’t consider them a contender just yet.
2. New York Islanders
It was tough for me to pick a second wildcard team, since after the Rangers, everyone kind of falls off the map. The Islanders were probably the best choice as they made the playoffs last year, then got beat by the Capitals. As a response, they added Marek Zidlicky and Thomas Greiss and haven’t done much else to improve. Besides trading Griffin Reinhart for two first round picks and Michael Grabner to the Leafs for prospects, this is a very similar team to last year and will rely heavily on Kyle Okposo and John Tavares. The good news is that the Islanders have a lot of depth, but a lack of key players will hurt them in the long run.
In the East, my only alternate choice is Ottawa, whose roster practically stayed the same. While they made the playoffs last year, they did so because of an impressive and unique run featuring Andrew Hammond. Honestly, I doubt he repeats that success and beyond him, I think the Senators have a good team, but not a great team. Bobby Ryan has not been the same player without Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry to set him up and look for Mike Hoffman and Mark Stone to take a step back during their sophomore campaigns. That will be the Senators’ downfall.
Reasoning: It is worth mentioning that Boston, despite Patrice Bergeron and Tuukka Rask, are going to be too shorthanded on the blue-line to be one of my picks (especially with Seidenberg out). Like the Senators, Florida is a decent choice, but I haven’t seen anything improvements that would be a cause to select them, mainly due to a mediocre defense and a lack of consistent scorers. Lastly, the Sabres may have added Evander Kane, Jack Eichel, and O’Reilly, but there are still a lot of questions on a blue-line made up of Cody Franson, Josh Gorges, Zach Bogosian, and Mike Weber, especially when the unproven Robin Lehner is the starting goalie and Chad Johnson is the backup.
With this selection of teams, expect the East to be a hard-fought battleground this season and a dogfight in the playoffs.
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