By Jon Roe
1. Washington Capitals
This team has Alexander Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green. The offence is set. And after that embarrassing loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins in game seven of last year’s Eastern Conference semi-finals, they’ll be motivated. Of course, there are a lot of question marks on this team: Can Semyon Varlamov play as well as he did in the playoffs? Does the team have the defence to help him out? Maybe. But with the offence they have, they can cover a lot of mistakes.
2. Boston Bruins
Sure, they lost a few pieces in the off-season in the emerging Phil Kessel and on the backend with Steve Montador and Aaron Ward, but this team is still by far the best in the Northeast division. If Tim Thomas can keep up his Vezina form and Zdeno Chara his Norris form, than the Bruins shouldn’t have too many problems next year.
3. Pittsburgh Penguins
It took a coaching change to cure a Stanley Cup-losing hangover last year, how will this team react to being hunted as last year’s Stanley Cup winner? With Sergei Gonchar around for a full season, and productive years from trade-deadline additions Bill Guerin and Chris Kunitz, probably pretty well. But they’ve played a lot of hockey over the last two years, so it wouldn’t be surprising if they dropped out of the division lead.
4. Carolina Hurricanes
The ‘Canes looked great in last year’s playoffs and the team hasn’t changed much in the off-season. They still have Eric Staal, who was money in the playoffs. They still have Cam Ward, who is coming off his best save percentage in his career last year. If those two play as they can, this team should easily be amongst the top third in the conference.
5. Philadelphia Flyers
Chris Pronger will add a lot to this team, but it remains to be seen whether their other off-season addition, Ray Emery, will be a curse or a blessing. The last time Emery was in the NHL, he was causing numerous off-ice problems for the Ottawa Senators. But that was after a season where he led the Senators to the Stanley Cup Finals. A year in Moscow may have cooled him off. Well, except for that whole trainer punching thing.
6. New Jersey Devils
Maybe this is the year they take a further step back and fall out of the playoffs. But come on, it’s the Devils. Do you really see that happening? People say that every year. Even without Martin Brodeur last year, they won the Atlantic Division. I wouldn’t expect that this year, but I wouldn’t count them out of the playoff mix.
7. Montreal Canadiens
Yeah, they’re small. Yeah, they have had a significant changeover. Yeah, this whole thing could go really, really bad. But they have the scoring, they have the speed and they might have the goaltending if Carey Price bounces back. Can it really get any worse than the embarrassment of a season that was their centenary?
8. Toronto Maple Leafs
As much as I really don’t want this to happen, it seems like everything is falling into place. Phil Kessel gives them another offensive weapon. The defence is significantly better. A better year from goaltender Vesa Toskala, and this team is actually pretty decent. They at least have as much of a shot as the rest of the cruddy middle-of-the-pack Eastern Conference teams.