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NHL Eastern Conference preview - Metro US

NHL Eastern Conference preview

Think back to before hockey-related revenue, variance and disclaimer of interest replaced goals, saves and absurdly short John Tortorella press conferences in the lexicon of NHL fans.

Do you remember when they actually played hockey?

The Los Angeles Kings authored the franchise’s first Stanley Cup. The Devils reached the finals despite not having home-ice advantage in any of their three Eastern Conference playoff series. And the Rangers won the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference regular-season championship for the first time since 1993-94.

The lockout should officially be over within a day or two — the votes to approve the collective bargaining agreements by both sides should take place over the next two days — and training camps will likely open on Saturday. The season will start as soon as Jan. 19, a week later.

Before training camps open, Metro breaks down the Eastern and Western Conferences, starting with our picks for how the East will finish, including Sidney Crosby at the top and the Rangers descending from 2012.

Predictions …

1. Pittsburgh Penguins: Call it a painful lesson learned. The Penguins entered last spring’s playoffs as the prohibitive favorite to win the Cup, but exited after a six-game, first-round series loss to the in-state rival Flyers. That series was marked by Pittsburgh’s inability to defend, allowing an almost unfathomable 30 goals (an average of five goals allowed per game). To strengthen the Penguins’ overall defense, general manager Ray Shero was able to pry away checking line center Brandon Sutter and reserve goaltender Tomas Vokoun in trades with Carolina and Washington.

2. Boston Bruins: The biggest question about the Bruins is goaltending. When Tim Thomas announced on his Facebook page in early June that he was going to take the season off “to reconnect with the three F’s: Friends, Family and Faith,” it forced the Bruins to name Tuukka Rask the No. 1. While he has played well (11-8-3, .929 save percentage, 2.05 goals against average last season) in the past, can he be the goaltender for a Cup-winning team?

3. Carolina Hurricanes: Historically, a franchise that viewed spending in the same prism as Paul Ryan and Eric Cantor, the Hurricanes spent freely and intelligently in the offseason. General manager Jim Rutherford traded for Penguins center Jordan Staal at the draft, and subsequently agreed to terms on a 10-year, $60 million extension that kicks in beginning next year. Rutherford also signed left wing Alex Semin (one year, $7 million) and defenseman Joe Corvo (one year, $2 million) to bolster a core of Eric Staal (Jordan’s older brother), Jeff Skinner and goaltender Cam Ward.

4. New York Rangers: On Memorial Day, John Tortorella said the Rangers “have to continue to improve as an organization, not just skill but all throughout.” Fifty-six days later, general manager Glen Sather landed sniper Rick Nash from Columbus. The power wing is expected to provide offensive potency for a team that reached the Eastern Conference finals.

5. Philadelphia Flyers: Among the NHL’s most explosive teams, the Flyers have very real concerns with their defense corps and goaltending. Philadelphia settled for Luke Schenn (acquired in a trade with Toronto) after Nashville matched the 14-year, $110 million RFA offer sheet to Shea Weber. Expect the Flyers to exercise their compliance buyout on Ilya Bryzgalov if the goaltender struggles as he did last season (33-16-7, 2.48 GAA, .909 save percentage).

6. Tampa Bay Lightning: Goaltending — or the lack thereof — kept the Lightning out of the playoffs last spring. Rather than relying on Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis to outscore opponents, their general manager traded three picks to Nashville for goaltender Anders Lindback. Lindback, the reserve to Pekka Rinne in Nashville, compiled a 5-8-0 record in 16 games with a 2.42 GAA and .912 save percentage.

7. Ottawa Senators: The Senators caught the NHL by surprise in 2011-12. That won’t happen this year, not coming off a playoff appearance and the reigning Norris Trophy winner in Erik Karlsson.

8. Washington Capitals: The Capitals aren’t exactly entering this truncated season as a model of organizational stability. Adam Oates is the third head coach in 14 months and it will be interesting to see the reaction of teammates to defenseman Roman Hamrlik and goaltender Michal Neuvirth, after both garnered headlines for criticizing the NHLPA during the lockout.

9. Florida Panthers: The Panthers qualified for the playoffs for the first time since 2000 despite losing 44 games (26 in regulation, 18 in overtime and/or shootout). Much of the playoff berth had to do with the Panthers winning the moribund Southeast Division. Florida is well-positioned for the future but Carolina, Tampa Bay and Washington look to be better this year.

10. New Jersey Devils: Following a charmed spring run to the Stanley Cup Final, it was a painful summer on Mulberry Street. The Devils lost Zach Parise (Minnesota), Alex Ponikarovsky (Winnipeg), Eric Boulton (New York Islanders) and Matt Taormina (Tampa Bay), while Jeff Vanderbeek had to restructure the team’s debt so he could retain ownership.

11. Buffalo Sabres: The two moments crystallized the Sabres’ 2011-12 season both involved Boston Bruins left wing Milan Lucic. On Nov. 12, Lucic steamrolled Ryan Miller after the Sabres goaltender played a free puck in the Buffalo zone. Eleven nights later, at the First Niagara Center, Paul Gaustad challenged Lucic to a fight and was summarily pummeled. In response, General manager Darcy Regier traded for agitator Steve Ott and John Scott. Will additional muscle lead to wins?

12. Montreal Canadiens: The legendary bleu blanc et rouge was tarnished in 2011-12, which led to the hirings of GM Marc Bergevin, head coach Michel Therrien and a complete overhaul of the Player Development Department. Their first order of business was to add grit, which was accomplished by the free agent signings of right wing Brandon Prust, left wing Colby Armstrong and defenseman Francis Bouillon.

13. Toronto Maple Leafs: The Leafs are in the midst of an organizational overhaul from the small, speedy team that ex-coach Ron Wilson preferred to a physical outfit favored by Brian Burke and Randy Carlyle. Did we mention the Leafs’ need for a legitimate No. 1 goaltender? Other than that, the Leafs are in prime position to win the franchise’s first Cup since 1967.

14. Winnipeg Jets: The NHL’s return to Winnipeg was a commercial success as every home game at the MTS Centre was sold out despite missing the playoffs. They won’t make the playoff this year but core of Mark Scheifele, Jacob Trouba, Patrice Cormier, Zach Bogosian and Tobias Enstrom appear solid. The only questions are Dustin Byfuglien’s weight and Evander Kane’s maturity.

15. New York Islanders: The good news is that the Islanders will stay in New York after announcing in late October a 25-year agreement to play in the Barclays Center beginning in the 2015-16 season. With apologies to the Beastie Boys, the bad news is there probably won’t be too many wins till Brooklyn.

Follow NHL beat writer Denis Gorman on Twitter @DenisGorman.

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