For years, the National Hockey League’s Eastern Conference was viewed as secondary to the Western Conference.
That may be changing.
The Pittsburgh Penguins are the reigning Stanley Cup Champions, and in doing so may have changed the way the sport is played at the NHL level. Instead of the prototypical two scoring lines, a checking line and a fourth, heavy line, under Mike Sullivan the Penguins used fast, skilled players to pressure opponents. Tampa Bay is the two-time Eastern Conference finalist and possesses youth, skill, depth. Washington is the reigning Presidents’ Trophy winners. Florida spent the off-season bolstering the Atlantic Division champions.
Delving further into the conference, it is populated with stars in John Tavares, Henrik Lundqvist, Cory Schneider, Taylor Hall,Carey Price, Erik Karlsson, Shayne Gostisbehere, Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, Tuukka Rask, Jack Eichel, and Justin Faulk, among others.
1: TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING: The two-time Eastern Conference finalist returns almost entirely intact. Tampa has youth, depth, skill at all positions. And GM Steve Yzerman is among the league’s pre-eminent executives.
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2: PITTSBURGH PENGUINS: Like Tampa Bay, the reigning Stanley Cup Champions return virtually intact. During training camp, head coach Mike Sullivan said he believes the up-tempo Penguins can play at an even faster pace this season, which should concern the rest of the NHL.
3: WASHINGTON CAPITALS: The Capitals did everything but win the Cup in 2015-16. Washington earned the Presidents’ Trophy with a 56-18-8 record. Braden Holtby took home the Vezina Trophy as a reward for 48-9-7 regular season with a 2.20 and .922 save percentage. Alex Ovechkin led the NHL with 50 goals. The Capitals only lost winger Jason Chimera and centers Mike Richards and Michael Latta in the off-season, so unless things go drastically wrong expect them to compete for the Cup.
4: FLORIDA PANTHERS: The Panthers finished first in the Atlantic Division in 2015-16. Naturally, the organization underwent a front office overhaul, which led to an off-season which included the acquisitions of Keith Yandle, Jason Demers, Mark Pysyk, James Reimer, Jared McCann, Colton Sceviour, Jonathan Marchessault and Reto Berra. Florida is in position to compete for division and conference supremacy for the foreseeable future.
5: MONTREAL CANADIENS: This is where the Eastern Conference drops off. If Carey Price is healthy and able to play 60, the Canadiens are a playoff team. If Price is injured and misses most of the season, like he did in 2016-16, both GM Marc Bergevin and head coach Michel Therrien could be out of jobs.
6: NEW YORK RANGERS: After a five-game first round dismantling at the hands of the Penguins, GM Jeff Gorton spent the summer reconstructing the Rangers. Among the added are Mika Zibanejad, Jimmy Vesey and Pavel Buchnevich. But the defense corps remains the same. Essentially the Rangers’ 2016-17 season will come down to how the defensemen play.
7: NEW YORK ISLANDERS: The first summer under new ownership Jon Ledecky—the uncle of Olympic gold medalist Katie Ledecky—and Scott Malkin saw the Islanders ante up for top-six winger Andrew Ladd, along with the additions of P.A. Parenteau, Jason Chimera and Dennis Seidenberg. The biggest question remains in net. Can the Islanders continue to manage their three goaltender rotation?
8: PHILADELPHIA FLYERS: The organization enters its 50th year by having stockpiled quality youth on its back end. Up front, Travis Konecny looked good in the exhibition season. The future is bright.
9: BOSTON BRUINS: Speculation persists that the mandate from ownership is playoffs or bust. That would go a lot better if management maximized the returns for Tyler Seguin and Dougie Hamilton. Or, you know, kept them.
10: DETROIT RED WINGS: Think about this: the Red Wings have enjoyed a quarter century of being a playoff team. But they’re trending in the wrong direction. Detroit lost to Tampa in the first round, following a season in which the Wings were a bottom third team offensively and middle of the pack on special teams.
11: CAROLINA HURRICANES: The post-Eric Staal Era is officially underway. Carolina spent the off-season by adding Lee Stempniak and Viktor Stalberg in free agency, and added Teuvo Teravainen and Bryan Bickell in a trade from Chicago. Still, goaltending is a significant weakness.
12: NEW JERSEY DEVILS: Prior to last season, the outside expectation for New Jersey was to compete for the first overall pick. Instead, the Devils were in the playoff mix until after the trade deadline, mostly due to Cory Schneider, Kyle Palmieri, Adam Henrique and Ray Shero. Adding Taylor Hall, Vernon Fiddler, Beau Bennett and Ben Lovejoy adds depth to the forward and defense corps.
13: OTTAWA SENATORS: Newly installed GM Pierre Dorion has publicly spoken about being a playoff qualifier in 2016-17. There are pieces in place, but not nearly enough to reach the top eight in the East.
14: TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS: The reconstruction of the Leafs isn’t nearly complete, but the addition of first overall pick of Auston Matthews provides a foundational piece. Do prospects William Nylander, Mitch Marner and Kasperi Kapanen make the team?
15: BUFFALO SABRES: Like Toronto, Buffalo’s rebuilding process is still underway. The Sabres have a definitive strength in top two centers Ryan O’Reilly and Jack Eichel. The addition of top-six winger Kyle Okposo adds more upfront scoring. But the back end needs work.
16: COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS: A trendy pick to be a Stanley Cup Playoff team last year, the Blue Jackets were terrible at the start of the season which led to the firing of Todd Richards and the hiring of John Tortorella. By the end of the 2015-16 regular season, Tortorella openly wondered if the organization had the right veterans.