2013 NHL season preview: Eastern Conference

2013 NHL season preview: Eastern Conference
January 18, 2013, 7:52 am
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Previewing how the NHL will play out during this lockout-shortened season. We looked at the Western Conference on Thursday (see story). Now let's break down the Eastern Conference.
Atlantic Division
1. New York Rangers
Still boggles the mind how King Henrik Lundqvist didnt take the Blueshirts all the way to the Stanley Cup Final. Goes to prove that sometimes the best teams in the regular season arent the best when the playoffs come around. General manager Glen Sather almost stole Rick Nash from Columbus. New York needed scoring help and got it. The Rangers' defense is still stronger than the Flyers and so is the goaltending.

2. Pittsburgh Penguins
The Flyers may have erased the Penguins in last years playoffs, but the Pens now get a fully healthy Sidney Crosby and a less stacked Flyers' roster in the division. The big question is whether Brandon Sutter delivers where Jordan Staal once did. Although the Penguins' defense is neither better nor worse than the Flyers', Kris Letang has the ability to run the game from the back-end. Marc-Andre Fleurys playoff was likely an aberration. Just in case, however, Tomas Vokoun is now his backup in goal.

3. Philadelphia Flyers
It took until training camp before the Flyers finally conceded they had a glaring hole on a revamped blue line that still is questionable in terms of chemistry and especially puck movement because of injury. Regardless, the defense is not as strong as it was to start 2011 when Chris Pronger and Matt Carle were here. Andrej Meszaros Achilles' heel makes it dicey, too. Ilya Bryzgalov has to resemble the goalie he was in March for this team to win the division. And a number of younger players have to step up to compensate for Jaromir Jagrs departure.

4. New Jersey Devils
No Zach Parise. Thats really all you need to know in Newark, N.J., isnt it? The one kid who might have been able to save the franchise on the ice has left the building and unlike Elvis, he aint coming back. Marty Brodeur continues to amaze, but last years Stanley Cup run figures to be it for awhile. The Devils will reshuffle but no one replaces Parise (31 goals, 69 points), not even Ilya Kovalchuk (37 goals, 83 points).

5. New York Islanders
Is this the most pathetic club in the league? Garth Snow might not be the best GM in the league, but how do you let P.A. Parenteau -- one of your core, up-and-coming players -- sign in Colorado (four years, 16 million)? Every time you think this group is about to skate away and surprise in the division, it hits a rut in the ice. The Isles are doomed to finish last again, although goalie Evgeni Nabokov is capable of perhaps giving them a chance for a playoff run.

Northeast Division

1. Boston Bruins
Finally, its Tuukka Time in Boston now that the Bruins' political hack of a pretty good goalie Tim Thomas is gone. But will Tuukka Rask be ready to carry the load in a very tough division, not to mention an extremely volatile conference in which the unexpected can happen? If Rasks career numbers -- 2.02 GAA and .926 save percentage -- hold up, the transition back to full-time starter should be easy. The biggest question is power forward Nate Horton and whether he can rebound from multiple concussions that have plagued him since the 2011 Cup win. Boston locked up all its key people long-term before the lockout. Smart.
2. Ottawa Senators
People mocked the youth movement the Sens went through two years ago. No one is laughing now. Led by Kyle Turris, this a strong group of skilled players. GM Bryan Murray has the Sens back on the path to playoff success. Funny, but when you talk about Ottawa now, its not about Jason Spezza or Daniel Alfredsson. Its superstud defenseman Erik Karlsson (78 points), who won the Norris Trophy and was within seven points of leading the Senators in overall scoring. Goaltending, however, remains average with Craig Anderson.
3. Montreal Canadiens
No club in this division has undergone more change, top to bottom, within the organization, over the last decade than Les Miserables. Coaches, GMs, players, more coaches. This offseason saw new GM Marc Bergevin add two players who bring a decided edge to their game -- Brandon Prust and Colby Armstrong. Its something Montreal has lacked. Whether Rene Bourque can make people forget about Mike Cammalleri remains to be seen, but the Habs need more goal scoring if theyre going to be a playoff club. D-man P.K. Subban, an RFA, remained unsigned heading into Friday.
4. Buffalo Sabres
After goalie Ryan Miller got roughed up in the playoffs, the Sabres decided to get some protection in Steve Ott and John Scott. Coach Lindy Ruff expects even bigger things from sophomore Cody Hodgson -- maybe 30 goals and a rebound year from Tomas Vanek (26 goals). Miller didnt play well and if he fails early, he could lose his job to Jhonas Enroth. The Sabres have had back-to-back seasons with poor starts and cant afford that in this division, especially with surging Ottawa and the overall power in the East.

5. Toronto Maple Leafs
While the Flyers looked at James van Riemsdyk as a guy who could someday be a power forward in the Scott Hartnell category in front of the net, ex-Leafs GM Brian Burke saw JVR as a thoroughbred racehorse, scoring off the wing, creating with and without the puck. Time will tell whether Burke got it right because JVR is not a power forward and he got hurt in camp. The biggest issue on a team that now seems in line is that James Reimer is the goalie.

Southeast Division

1. Washington CapitalsHave the Caps become the San Jose Sharks of the East? You know, the team that is perennially picked to do great things and comes up short every year? Sure seems that way. This time, theres no Alexander Semin to kick around. Alex Ovechkin is on his own, as if he ever needed help. Ovie, Nick Backstrom and Mike Green collectively had brutal seasons last year. This season is a fresh start and look for still-a-rookie Braden Holtby to win the job in net. Adam Oates behind the bench should have that power play working again. The trade for Mike Ribeiro was the most significant move the Caps made.
2. Florida Panthers
GM Dale Tallon did a remarkable job turning this club around. The Panthers won the Southeast Division last season and put up a remarkable fight in the playoffs, as well. They got stronger on defense with the signing of Filip Kuba in the summer, but they could use more goal scoring up front. That said, Stephen Weiss line with Tomas Fleischmann and Kris Versteeg was the highest scoring unit in the NHL last season with 108 points. Impressive, no?

3. Carolina Hurricanes
We had the Hurricanes picked as a dark-horse club last season to do some damage and they didnt qualify for the playoffs. GM Jim Rutherford came up with a flurry of offseason moves to get Carolina back, including Alexander Semin, Joe Corvo, and course, the blockbuster trade with Pittsburgh that brought Jordan Staal there to play with brother Eric Staal, who subsequently signed a 10-year, 60 million offer with the Hurricanes. Kirk Muller begins his first full season behind the bench. The defense is adequate. Semin may be the key in a tight Southeast race.

4. Tampa Bay Lightning
GM Steve Yzerman is finding life in the Southeast a little tougher than in Detroit from a hockey standpoint as the Bolts failed to make the playoffs. They needed help on defense and signed Matt Carle, a move that hurts the Flyers more than fans care to admit. Vinny Lecavlier and Martin St. Louis are getting a bit long in the tooth, but 60-goal Rocket Richard winner Steven Stamkos remains the draw there, anyway. Yzermans biggest gamble was acquiring the rights to goalie Anders Lindback from Nashville. How he fares will determine much of the Lightnings success this season.

5. Winnipeg Jets
The Jets, who gave the Flyers absolute fits last season, nearly made the playoffs. Theyre hoping the addition of well-traveled centerman Olli Jokinen assures them of a spot this time around. That and winning some road games (14-22-5). They also re-signed Evander Kane to a six-year, 31.25 million contract. He had 30 goals in just his third NHL season and expectations now are that he can hit 40, which might be a tad unrealistic given the complement of players around him. Also, can Dustin Byfuglien drop 50 pounds in time? Kanes Twitter remarks have also burned the franchise.
E-mail Tim Panaccio at tpanotch@comcast.net.

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