There is one word that best describes the NHL on the eve of its 98th season: change. A league where fighting and grit were once valued has become one where speed and depth and skills are coveted attributes teams seek. New rules have been implemented in an attempt to increase scoring, and to penalize players who attempt to embellish penalties. Yet for all of the changes, there is one constant: the Stanley Cup. Thirty teams will begin the 2014-15 season with the Cup as their goal, but only one will be able to claim it this June. Today, Metro New York has examined the NHL’s Eastern Conference as part of our season-preview package.
1. Tampa Bay Lightning: General manager Steve Yzerman spent the summer retooling a squad that finished the 2013-14 season with 101 points before being swept in the first round by Montreal. Ex-Rangers Brian Boyle and Anton Stralman were signed in free agency, as was former Islanders goaltender Evgeni Nabokov and veteran forward Brenden Morrow. Jason Garrison was acquired in a trade, while Ryan Callahan reupped with the Lightning. Have we mentioned Vezina finalist Ben Bishop or that Steven Stamkos guy? Yeah, the Lightning are loaded.
2. Pittsburgh Penguins: The Metropolitan Division final series loss to the Rangers prompted an organizational blood letting in Pittsburgh. GM Ray Shero and head coach Dan Bylsma were dismissed for Jim Rutherford and Mike Johnston. Right wing James Neal was traded to Nashville for wingers Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling. Defensemen Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik signed with Washington in free agency. Whether or not the changes were worthwhile will be determined by how the Penguins perform in the playoffs.
3. Boston Bruins: The NHL’s best team in the regular season last year should be a strong squad in 2014-15, despite the salary cap-created loss of Jarome Iginla. Boston’s other on-ice personnel losses — Andrej Meszaros, Shawn Thornton and Chad Johnson — can be remedied fairly easily.
4. Montreal Canadiens: Les Habitants were criticized during the playoffs for their brash off-ice personas and their penchant for embellishing penalties on ice. Left unsaid was that the Canadiens are very good. Montreal has cornerstones in goaltender Carey Price, defenseman P.K. Subban and left wing Max Pacioretty, while Brenden Gallagher and Alex Galchenyuk are burgeoning stars.
5. New York Rangers: The Rangers’ first appearance in the Stanley Cup Final since 1993-94 was the final arc in a season-long production in which a new coach and new faces were introduced on Broadway. Now the challenge is to return to the Cup Final — and win the franchise’s fifth Stanley Cup.
6. Columbus Blue Jackets: Last season marked only the second time in franchise history Columbus qualified for the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Blue Jackets gained admirers for the way they challenged the Penguins in the six-game, first-round series. Enthusiasm is high for Columbus, but the high hopes could be tempered if Ryan Johansen’s contract squabble carries over into the regular season.
7. New Jersey Devils: Five points is what separated the Devils from a playoff berth in 2013-14. Instead, an organization whose DNA is encoded with success had to come to terms with a season in which were 0-for-13 in the shootout. The Devils should be improved this season with Cory Schneider (16-15-12, 1.97 GAA, .921 save percentage) receiving the majority of starts in goal, and the offseason additions of top-six wingers Mike Cammalleri and Martin Havlat.
8. Philadelphia Flyers: Following a first-round series loss to the Rangers, the usually free-spending Flyers were forced to essentially stand pat over the summer outside of trading Scott Hartnell to Columbus for R.J. Umberger. Philadelphia’s season will be determined by how well goaltender Steve Mason and the defense corps performs.
9. Detroit Red Wings: Prior to last season, the popular thinking was the move to the not-as-arduous Eastern Conference would benefit the Red Wings. And while Detroit did qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs, a five-game, first-round dismissal at the hands of the Bruins isn’t the accepted standard in Hockeytown. But the Red Wings squad which made the playoffs as an eighth seed returns intact this season while much of the conference — outside of Carolina — made real changes to their rosters.
10. New York Islanders: Long criticized for possessing a conservative streak that would rival Sen. Ted Cruz, GM Garth Snow was progressive in improving the Islanders during the offseason. Prior to the draft, Snow traded for Jaroslav Halak’s negotiating rights, and the goaltender agreed to a four-year contract. Backup netminder Chad Johnson and forwards Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin were signed in free agency.
11. Toronto Maple Leafs: No pressure, Brendan Shanahan. All you’re tasked with is stewarding one of the NHL’s pre-eminent franchise’s to its first Stanley Cup championship since 1967, and do it in arguably the league’s most hyper-charged market.
12. Washington Capitals: Try this on for size: An owner watched his high-priced team miss the playoff by three points, then promised change. He fired his general manager, only to promote the former GM’s deputies to new roles within the organization. Not even Frank Underwood could salvage anything out of this.
13. Ottawa Senators: How do you rebuild after a 37-31-4 campaign? By being forced to trade top-line center Jason Spezza over the summer, and enter this season not knowing if defenseman Marc Methot will sign a long-term extension. Locking up right wing Bobby Ryan for the next seven years was a boon.
14. Florida Panthers: How do you incubate precocious young talent? By acquiring mentors to teach the kids. GM Dale Tallon signed reserve goaltender Al Montoya, defenseman Willie Mitchell and forwards Shawn Thornton, Jussi Jokinen, Dave Bolland and Derek MacKenzie. First overall draft pick Aaron Ekblad could make the team.
15. Buffalo Sabres: Yes, Buffalo is restocking for tomorrow, but organizational decision-makers are concerned about today, too. GM Tim Murray signed, re-signed or traded for veterans who can teach Buffalo’s prospects how to be NHL players.
16. Carolina Hurricanes: The Eastern Conference’s reigning, defending, undisputed 13th place team returns essentially intact. Carolina added bottom-six forwards Brad Malone and Jay McClement, re-signed defenseman Ron Hainsey and signed blueliner Tim Gleason, who was bought out by defensively deficient Toronto. Then there is the oddity of having Cam Ward and his $6.3 million cap hit back up Anton Khudobin, who is earning $2.25 million. The Hurricanes will be in the mix for the Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel sweepstakes.
Follow NHL writer Denis Gorman on Twitter @DenisGorman.