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NHL Eastern Conference Preview

Murray Pam, a contributor to MHM and The Hockey News among others, gives us his take on the the NHL’s Eastern Conference roster shakeups and Atlantic and Metropolitan division races.

Murray Pam, a contributor to MHM and The Hockey News among others, gives us his take on the the NHL’s Eastern Conference roster shakeups and Atlantic and Metropolitan division races.

Each NHL season presents a fresh challenge. Last year it was the lockout-induced 48 game sprint. This season its realignment. For the first time since 1997-98, fans will see two divisions in Eastern and Western Conferences.

Clubs need to defeat rival foes to reach the pinnacle in a new playoff format. The top three teams in each division within their respective conference automatically gain post-season entry. Two wildcard spots are also up for grabs. These will be awarded to the next two squads in line with the most points.

Realignment also creates a new look. Detroit and Columbus transfer East, while Winnipeg heads West. The geographical changes makes sense. However, the road to the Holy Grail will be a lot tougher in the East as it’s comprised of 16 teams compared to the in the West.

Confused yet? I am. Let’s just move on to the Eastern Conference preview starting with the Atlantic Division. You know, the one with only two of eight clubs being remotely close to the ocean.

1. Boston Bruins

Advancing to the Stanley Cup Final in two of the past three campaigns make the Bruins a favorite once again; this time in the Atlantic Division. Defense and goaltending provide the “B’s” strength.

When netminder Tim Thomas took his puck and went home, Tuukka Rask grabbed the reins backstopping the Bruins to a Stanley Cup Final appearance. For that Rask was rewarded with a 8-year contract extension. But GM Peter Chiarelli didn’t stop there. Chiarelli shipped alleged problem child and underachiever Tyler Seguin to Dallas in a multi-player deal that netted Loui Eriksson. If the club has a weakness, it could be that Boston deploys the league’s 5th worst power play. Three-time 70 point man Eriksson will definitely help in that area. The Bruins also brought in veteran RW Jarome Iginla hoping that “Iggy” has something left in the tank.

Zdeno Chara leads an experienced blueline that adds playoff sparkplug Torey Krug.Sophomore Dougie Hamilton will also see increased ice-time.

Key Newcomers: Loui Eriksson, Jarome Iginla, Chad Johnson

Key Departures: Andrew Ference, Nathan Horton, Jaromir Jagr, Anton Khudobin, Rich Peverley, Tyler Seguin

2. Ottawa Senators

No club battled adversity more than the Senators did last season. Despite losing the 2012-13’s 4th leading point-producer Jason Spezza, reigning Norris Trophy-winner Erik Karlsson and USA netminding hopeful Craig Anderson for long stretches; the club not only qualified for the playoffs, but coach Paul MacLean guided them to a second round berth. MacLean earned Jack Adams honors for his effort.

The Senators will sport a new look up front. Daniel Alfredsson, a mainstay for 17 seasons winged it to Detroit. The ink was barely dry on Alfie’s deal when GM Bryan Murray added Clarke MacArthur from arch-rival Toronto. Then for good measure Murray acquired four-time 30 goal scorer Bobby Ryan from the Ducks. The 26 year-old gives playmaking center Jason Spezza the winger that he has missed since, dare I say it…Dany Heatley.

If the injured Senators are completely healed, they will be be reckoned with.

Expect them to challenge for top spot all season.

Key Newcomers: Joe Corvo, Clarke MacArthur, Bobby Ryan.

Key Departures: Daniel Alfredsson, Andre Benoit, Sergei Gonchar, Peter Regin, Jakob Silfverberg

3. Detroit Red Wings

If you ask coach Mike Babcock, the Wings had an off-year. Their offense ranked woefully 19th and specialty teams were in the middle of the pack. Despite their average performance, Detroit eked out a playoff spot for the 22nd consecutive season. In fact, the Wings held a 3-1 series lead over the Black Hawks in the Western semi-final, then “let them off the hook”, losing in seven games.

Daniel Alfredsson shocked the hockey fraternity July 5. The 17-year veteran fled the Senators to the Motor City declaring that he had “a better chance to win the Cup.” The Wings also locked up dependable center Stephen Weiss via free agency. However, the ex-Panther is coming off an injury-plagued campaign that saw him play just 17 games.

Goaltender Jimmy Howard arguably their best player last season, may have to be again due to the Wings once-vaunted defensive core being in a state of flux.

Exepect Brendan Smith to receive more ice-time and NCAA Western Michigan’s Danny DeKeyser to be phased into the top six.

To a man, the Wings are hoping that Alfredsson’s declaration rings true. Reality is, Detroit will be fighting to make the playoffs.

Key Newcomers: Daniel Alfredsson, Stephen Weiss

Key Departures: Damien Brunner, Carlo Colaiacovo, Valtteri Filppula

4. Montreal Canadiens

The question dogging Canadiens fans is which team will show up this season? The one that won the Northeast title or the club that exited with a whimper.

Fielding a lineup with 12 players under 200 lbs, Les Habitants were soundly beaten in the alley. Tough guy George Parros arrives from Florida to be a much required deterrent.

Despite the forward majority being small in stature, the club possessed the league’s 4th-ranked offense. Look for sophomores Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher to improve on their rookie totals. Daniel Briere is a welcome addition. Briere adds battle-weary playoff experience.

By his standards, goalie Carey Price had an average campaign. To that end; GM Marc Bergevin brought in ex-Hawks coach Stephane Waite, hoping a new voice will lend motivation.

Offensively, the Canadiens defense is in good hands. Norris Trophy-winner PK Subban and Andrei Markov were 2-3 in blueliner scoring. One negative is hard-hitting Alexei Emelin is recovering from a major knee injury and may not return until December. Late free agent signee Douglas Murray and rookie Jared Tinordi will fill in.

Canadiens fans hope that they witness Briere’s playoff exploits first-hand, but they have to get there first.

Key Newcomers: Daniel Briere, Douglas Murray, George Parros

Key Departures: Colby Armstrong, Tomas Kaberle, Michael Ryder, Yannick Weber

5. Toronto Maple Leafs

Last season Leafs fans rode an emotional rollercoaster. For the first time in eight years, the club made the playoffs only to lose a first round matchup to the Bruins in a stunning manner. It will be interesting how the team jumps out of the gate, especially after blowing a third period 4-1 Game 7 lead to the eventual Cup finalists.

Dave Nonis was one of the most active off-season GM’s. Nonis was able to ink possibly the Class of 2013’s most-sought after free agent, David Clarkson. The former Devil combines grit and goal-scoring. Center Dave Bolland arrives from Cup winner Chicago.

After being acquired from the Kings, highly-touted netminder Jonathan Bernier will try to pry the no.1 role from incumbent James Reimer.

The Leafs weakness is their defense. Dion Phaneuf and Cody Franson lead the core, but there is no true physical presence.

Nonis’ biggest challenge will be locking up potential 2014 UFA’s Phil Kessel and Phaneuf. Leafs fans hope that this doesn’t become a distraction in an attempt to make the playoffs.

Key Newcomers: Jonathan Bernier, Dave Bolland, David Clarkson, Paul Ranger, Mason Raymond (PTO)

Key Departures: Matt Frattin, Mikhail Grabovski, Mike Komisarek, Mike Kostka, Clarke MacArthur, Ben Scrivens

6.Tampa Bay Lightning

The Lightning aren’t the most talent-laden squad in the league, but they sure are a treat to watch. 23 year-old Steven Stamkos has already earned two Maurice Richard trophies. At age 38, Art Ross Trophy-winner Martin St. Louis shows no signs of slowing down. Now the Bolts add 2013 third-overall pick Jonathan Drouin to the mix. Drouin, the Canadian Junior Player of the Year amassed 105 points in just 49 games.

As great as the Lightning are offensively, the same can’t be said for the defensive side of the puck. While, Eric Brewer, Matt Carle and Victor Hedman are decent blueliners; the issue may be that the young forwards have not yet mastered defensive zone coverage.

At 6-foot-6 and 6-foot-7 respectively, Ben Bishop and Anders Lindback literally stand tall in the crease. However, neither have proven themselves as a no.1.

For the first time in 14 seasons, Lightning fans will have to get used to not seeing their beloved captain Vincent Lecavalier. Lecavalier was bought out in the off-season. It will be interesting how the club reacts in his absence.

Key Newcomers: Jonathan Drouin (Rookie), Valterri Filppula

Key Departures: Mathieu Garon, Vincent Lecavalier, Benoit Pouliot.

7. Buffalo Sabres

Coach Ron Rolston will be given a long leash in his first full season behind the Sabres bench. Rolston is already dealing with two unhappy potential UFA’s and the season has yet to get underway. Leading scorer Thomas Vanek is taking the wait and see approach upon deciding if he wishes to remain a Sabre. While, backstop Ryan Miller may also be on his way out. Miller’s play has been below par the past two seasons, but a large portion of that can be attributed to the club’s porous defense.

The Sabres woes continue way past their backend. Forward depth, especially at the center position is nonexistent. Cody Hodgson who will anchor the club’s first line has yet to play a full 82-game schedule. Second-liner Tyler Ennis excels as a left winger rather than as a pivot.

GM Darcy Regier has his work cut out this season. What Regier does will determine the Sabres future direction.

Key Newcomers: Jamie McBain, Henrik Tallinder

Key Departures: Nathan Gerbe, Jochen Hecht, Andrej Sekera

8. Florida Panthers

No offence to Bobby Butler, Joey Crabb and Scott Gomez, but when these players are your new additions; things certainly aren’t looking up. And certainly a move from the Southeast to the newly-created Atlantic will not help matters. At least transplanted Snowbirds have an opportunity to watch Boston, Detroit, Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto on a regular basis.

The Panthers ranked dead last in GAA last season. GM Dale Tallon is hoping Tim Thomas will be the answer. Once again rookie Jacob Markstrom is left waiting for a long-term opportunity.

Calder Trophy-winner Jonathan Huberdeau leads the offense that will feature another hotshot youngster, 2nd overall selection Aleksander Barkov. At age 17, Barkov dominated the SM Liga, Finland’s pro league, with 48 points in 53 games. Now 18, Barkov will be a ’13-14 Calder candidate.

Key Newcomers: Aleksander Barkov (Rookie), Brad Boyes (PTO), Bobby Butler, Joey Crabb, Tom Gilbert (PTO), Matt Gilroy, Scott Gomez, Tim Thomas, Jesse Winchester

Key Departures: Peter Mueller, George Parros, Jack Skille, Jose Theodore, Stephen Weiss

Atlantic Division

1. Boston

2. Ottawa

3. Detroit

4. Montreal

5. Toronto

6. Tampa Bay

7. Buffalo

8. Florida

Metropolitan Division

1. Pittsburgh

The Penguins are clearly the class of the newly-formed Metropolitan Division. Possessing the most prolific offense in the league; Sidney Crosby, Chris Kunitz, Evgeni Malkin and James Neal are dangerous anytime they step on the ice. Forward depth has always been a Penguins trait. Jussi Jokinen and Beau Bennett will receive greater roles this season as the club chose not to re-sign Matt Cooke, Jarome Iginla and Brenden Morrow.

After a four-year absence dependable Rob Scuderi returns to the Pens blueline. Scuderi’s subtle play adds stability to the defensive core.

Former Canadiens and Senators head coach Jacques Martin was hired by GM Ray Shero to be a sounding board for Dan Bylsma. Martin and Shero go back way back to their days together in Ottawa.

The one pressing issue with the Pens is, can netminder Marc-Andre Fleury shake off his poor playoff performance? Tomas Vokoun capably stepped in when Fleury faltered. However, the club needs a bounce-back season from Fleury if they to be division champion.

Key Newcomers: Matt D’Agostini, Rob Scuderi, Harry Zolnierczyk

Key Departures: Matt Cooke, Jarome Iginla, Tyler Kennedy, Brenden Morrow, Douglas Murray

2. NY Rangers

The Rangers biggest change this season is behind the bench. In an unintentional coaching swap Alain Vigneault arrives in the Big Apple after being let go in Vancouver; while John Tortorella shifts west.

It will be interesting how this relatively unchanged roster reacts to a new voice.

Healthy playoff scratch Brad Richards has a new lease on life and needs to shine if he wishes to remain a Blueshirt. Injuries may be a factor to open the campaign. Captain Ryan Callahan is iffy to start the season after shoulder surgery and Carl Hagelin may not be ready as well. Derek Stepan missed the opening days of training camp due to being unsigned. The Rangers will be relying on Stepan to be their no.1 pivot.

Marc Staal rejoins the blueline after missing most of last season with a debilitating eye injury. All eyes will be on Henrik Lundqvist in the crease. King Henrik is slated to be a UFA at season’s end. Something tells me this won’t happen.

Key Newcomers: Justin Falk, Dominic Moore, Benoit Pouliot

Key Departures: Ryane Clowe, Matt Gilroy

3. Philadelphia

With the exception of defenseman Chris Pronger who will placed on LTIR, the Flyers enter the campaign relatively healthy. Which bodes well for the club that featured as many as three AHL Phantoms blueliners per game last season. Incoming ex-Islanders captain Mark Streit solidifies the defense; while his superior puck skills make a good power play even greater.

Securing Vincent Lecavalier was a coup for the Flyers. The addition of the 14-year veteran gives the team arguably, the best group of centers in the conference. All Star Claude Giroux, Brayden Schenn and Sean Couturier lends credence to that.

GM Paul Holmgren bought out Ilya Bryzgalov in the off-season. The Flyers now sport a goaltending tandem of Ray Emery who returns after a banner year with the Black Hawks and Steve Mason. Neither is a clear-cut no.1, but the pair are more than adequate.

Key Newcomers: Ray Emery, Hal Gill (PTO), Vincent Lecavalier, Mark Streit

Key Departures: Brian Boucher, Daniel Briere, Ilya Bryzgalov, Ruslan Fedotenko, Simon Gagne

4. Washington

Last season’s start was so horrid that first-year coach Adam Oates was almost fired. Oates got his club back on track with some help from league MVP and goals leader Alex Ovechkin. “Ovie’s” phenomenal second-half play propelled the Caps to the playoffs.

In what may be viewed as a head-scratcher, GM George McPhee elected to pretty well stay the course over the summer. Mikhail Grabovski becomes the second line center after Mike Ribeiro signed to play in the desert. The remaining forward core is steady, but not spectacular.

The issue dogging the Caps is on the back end. Mike Green, when healthy is among the best in the league. However, Green is out of the lineup as much as he is in it, missing 101 games over the past three campaigns. Karl Alzner and John Carlson are still learning the ropes.

Braden Holtby provides consistent goaltending. Holtby’s abilities garnered an invite to Canada’s Olympic Orientation Camp.

The Caps will be chasing a wildcard spot all season in the new-look Metropolitan.

Key Newcomers: Mikhail Grabovski

Key Departures: Joey Crabb, Matt Hendricks, Mike Ribeiro, Tom Poti, Jeff Schultz, Wojtek Wolski

5. Columbus

Last season the Bluejackets failed to qualify for the post-season by an eyelash. Although GM Jarmo Kekalainen has built a stronger roster, the club will have a rough time vying for a playoff berth, especially after moving east.

Kekalainen started his makeover at the 2013 trade deadline by acquiring three-time 40 goal man Marion Gaborik. Free agent Nathan Horton will arrive in December after off-season shoulder surgery. The Jackets weakness is their 25th-ranked offense and fans hope that these additions address their needs.

Defense and goaltending are the team’s strength. Ryan Murray, the 2012 2nd overall pick joins a blueline that includes Jack Johnson and Fedor Tyutin.

If there was an award for Breakout Player of the Year, netminder Sergei Bobrovsky would have been the hands-down victor. “Bob’s” .932 Save Pct. and 2.00 GAA ranked him 2nd and 5th respectively league-wide.

One thing is for certain, the Jackets make it tough on their opponents.

Key Newcomers: Nathan Horton, Jack Skille

Key Departures: Vinny Prospal

6. NY Islanders

Last season, the Islanders did the unexpected, making the playoffs for the first time in seven years. They not only earned a post-season berth; the Isles gave the mighty Penguins a scare, winning a pair of games.

With Mark Streit leaving, this is John Tavares’ team now. The 23 year-old is wise beyond his years and was every bit deserving of his third place finish in MVP balloting. Underrated Matt Moulson is not too shabby himself with three consecutive 30 goals campaigns prior to this past shortened 48-game season.

GM Garth Snow shored up the forward core over the summer by experienced help by way of the Wild. Cal Clutterbuck was acquired in a draft day trade, while Pierre-Marc Bouchard was a free agent signee.

Defense may be the club’s undoing. Lubomir Visnovsky leads a group of up and comers that include Travis Hamonic and Andrew Macdonald.

Tavares may be able to carry the Islanders on his back, but the team will need 38 year-old goalie Evgeni Nabokov to shut the door if they want a return trip to Lord Stanley’s Dance.

Key Necomers: PM Bouchard, Cal Clutterbuck, Peter Regin

Key Departures: Keith Aucoin, Brad Boyes, Rick DiPietro, Nino Neiderreiter, Mark Streit

7. Carolina

The Hurricanes ice a top six up front that is the envy of many teams. And when healty, a legitimate all star goaltender – but that’s where it ends. Even a lineup including Alex Semin, Jeff Skinner, the Staal’s and Cam Ward can’t save this team.

The club lacks forward depth to compete on a nightly basis. While Cam Ward has displayed periods of greatness in goal, he is injury-prone.

The Canes defense is in shambles. Stalwart Joni Pitkanen is out for the year due a broken heel suffered late last season. In fact, it may be career-ending. Ron Hainsey replaces Pitkanen. Jamie McBain was swapped for Andrej Sekera, while GM Jim Rutherford took a flyer on Mike Komisarek, whose best years may be behind him.

Inconsistency dogged the Canes last season. Offensively, they ranked in the upper half of the league, but were conversely atrocious in their own zone, ranking 29th in GAA.

There’s no reason to believe that coach Kirk Muller can’t right the ship. However, at best, the club will challenge for a wildcard position.

Key Newcomers: Ron Hainsey, Anton Khudobin, Mike Komisarek, Elias Lindholm (Rookie), Andrej Sekera

Key Departures: MA Bergeron, Joe Corvo, Dan Ellis, Nathan Gerbe, Jamie McBain

8. New Jersey

First Zach Parise fled to Minnesota. This summer, it was David Clarkson and Ilya Kovalchuk who jumped ship – not to mention owner Jeff Vanderbeek. With Clarkson and Kovalchuk gone , who will score the goals for last season’s third-worst offense. GM Lou Lamoriello kept busy this summer by adding Ryan Clowe, Jaromir Jagr and Michael Ryder. Red Wing rookie standout Damien Brunner was given a training camp invite. The question is; will the offensive output of these four players surpass the two that left.

Change is the name of the game behind the blueline. Sophomore Adam Larsson vies for increased ice-time. Look for youngsters Eric Gelinas, Jon Merrill and Alexander Urbom to don the uniform at times this season.

Perhaps the biggest change takes place in the crease. Cory Schneider arrives from the Canucks to be the heir apparent to Martin Brodeur. The Schneider trade ended one goaltending controversy. However, it may have started another.

The Devils have many hills to climb. However, if coach Pete DeBoer has the club playing Devils hockey; that is winning 2-1 games, one never knows where they may finish.

Key Newcomers: Damien Brunner, Ryane Clowe, Jaromir Jagr, Michael Ryder, Cory Schneider

Key Departures: David Clarkson, Matt D’Agostini, Johan Hedberg, Ilya Kovalchuk, Henrik Tallinder

Metropolitan Division

1. Pittsburgh

2. NY Rangers

3. Philadelphia

4. Washington

5. Columbus

6. NY Islanders

7. Carolina

8. New Jersey

Follow Murray Pam on Twitter at @Pammerhockey

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