The Pittsburgh Penguins still have the core for another Stanley Cup run, but who might challenge Crosby & Co.? PSN hockey analyst Jan Levine takes a closer look at the Eastern Conference.
By Jan Levine, PSN hockey analyst
1. Pittsburgh Penguins: Still the class of the division. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin remain elite talents, now coupled with the return of Kris Letang and expectations of a full season from goaltender Matt Murray. Be wary of playoff wear and tear, though, and lack of a third-line center.
2. N.Y. Rangers: Call it a hunch, but the Rangers’ improved blue line should take pressure off goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. The team needs a third-line center at a minimum, currently trying Flip Chytil there, and questions linger whether Mike Zibanejad and Kevin Hayes can handle top-two roles.
3. Columbus Blue Jackets: After a magical regular season run a year ago, can they repeat? The offense gets upgrade in moving from Brandon Saad to Artemi Panarin. If goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky repeats last year’s Vezina Trophy campaign, they will be even more dangerous – but he still needs to prove he can do it in the playoffs. Plus, will coach John Tortorella revert back to his old style, grinding down this team?
4. Washington Capitals: Perhaps lowered expectations will result in a deeper playoff run. Washington still has Alex Ovechkin and Niklas Backstrom, and the team elected to sign T.J. Oshie long-term. That led to trading away Marcus Johansson to satisfy salary cap purposes. Braden Holtby is still elite in goal, but who steps up next to John Carlson on defense?
5. Carolina Hurricanes: Another hunch as a team on the rise. I love the Scott Darling acquisition in net and the ‘Canes young defense is deep, possibly allowing one to be dealt for additional help up front. Look for RW Sebastian Aho to take a step forward, the same for LW Teuvo Teravanian, with Justin Williams providing leadership and Jeff Skinner quietly scoring 30 goals.
6. N.Y. Islanders: John Tavares’ contract status and future location of the franchise loom as two major possible stumbling blocks for the team. Jordan Eberle should be better next to JT, aided by Anders Lee. C Mathew Barzal is a Calder candidate and the Isles need a strong year from their blue line to contend. If the arena situation gets satisfactorily resolved and Tavares signs, this team could be in the playoffs.
7. Philadelphia Flyers: Lucking out in the lottery landed the Flyers young stud Nolan Patrick. Brian Elliott is a mild upgrade in net, but not enough to result in a material rise in the standings. Claude Giroux’s production has fallen off each of the past few seasons and he was tried at left wing in the preseason, where he might play next to Sean Couturier. The cupboard is stocked for the future, so it’s likely better days are ahead.
8. New Jersey Devils: The drafting of C Nico Hishier and additions of LW Marcus Johansson and D Will Butcher are improvements, but the Devils still require time and a further uptick in talent to reach the next level. Losing C Travis Zajac to injury hurts, but it allows Pavel Zacha to garner more ice time and Taylor Hall is their star. The future looks bright at The Rock.
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1. Tampa Bay Lightning: The Lightning likely upgrade in net with transition from Ben Bishop to Andrei Vasilevskiy. A healthy Steven Stamkos bolsters a deep offense that features Nikita Kucherov along with Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, etc. Victor Hedman may win the Norris Trophy and the blue line is aided by the addition of Mikhail Sergachev, though he likely will play just 40 games so the team keeps the conditional second-round pick from Montreal.
2. Toronto Maple Leafs: The Kids Are Alright, Year 2. Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander and Connor Brown all burst on the scene last year and there is more in the pipeline. If the blue line can be passable and G Frederik Andersen plays well, Toronto could advance to the second round and beyond.
3. Boston Bruins: David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand carry the offense in the Hub, but David Krejci and Patrice Bergeron need to provide support. D Charlie McAvoy will contend for the Calder Trophy, while Zdeno Chara is on the tail end of what should be a Hall of Fame career and Torrey Krug provides the production from the blueline. Tuukka Rask is a top goaltender, but the team needs a competent backup to rest him periodically.
4. Ottawa Senators: The stars aligned for Ottawa last year, riding the emotional lift from G Craig Anderson’s return and sublime play by D Erik Karlsson to finish one goal shy of the Stanley Cup Finals. The Senators don’t play an exciting style but Mike Hoffman, Mark Stone and Kyle Turris provide sufficient offense. Karlsson will miss Marc Methot on the back line, while everyone else other than Dion Phaneuf is nondescript. Maybe uber-prospect Thomas Chabot comes up sooner rather than later.
5. Florida Panthers: Last year, I foolishly predicted Florida to win the East. A combination of poor management and play on the ice resulted in a horrible season. The former seems to now have been ironed out, while the latter remains to be seen. A healthy Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau help, along with the return of LW Evgeny Dadonov after five years in the KHL. Aaron Ekblad looks to regain his status as a top defenseman alongside Keith Yandle.
6. Montreal Canadiens: Montreal helped their offense by trading for Jonathan Drouin, but it cost them Mikhail Sergachev and it’s partially offset by losing Alexander Radulov to the Stars. The loss of P.K. Subban will eventually be felt, but Shea Weber is still pretty darn good. Carey Price remains an elite goalie but the team around him, especially on defense, doesn’t help him much.
7. Buffalo Sabres: Jack Eichel, Jack Eichel, Jack Eichel and new coach Phil Housley. Combined, they bring hope to upstate New York. In the final year of the six-year, $31.5 million deal he signed with the Jets, Evander Kane is playing for a new deal after scoring 28 goals last season. Ryan O’Reilly gives the Sabres a solid 1-2 combination down the middle, while Sam Reinhart looks to build off his slight step forward last year. Rasmus Ristoliainen is the team’s best defenseman, though he is prone to defensive lapses. Robin Lehner has yet to show he can be a true No.1 goalie – if he struggles again this season, the team could move on.
8. Detroit Red Wings: That 24-year streak of making the playoffs is long past. A team in rebound, Detroit could finish last in the NHL as they transition from vets to kids. Henrik Zetterberg is on the tail end of his career, so who is the future face of the franchise? Dylan Larkin was expected to be, but he fell off a cliff last year. Maybe Anthony Martha is the one. Detroits’ blue line and goaltending are sub-optimal.
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