The Eastern Conference is a wide-open battle this year. Several teams have lost big time talent in the offseason. The most dynamic young players in the game are in the East. Through it all, the Canadiens are one of the few teams that can claim to have made significant upgrades in the offseason. We'll get to them later...
BOTTOM OF THE BARREL
15. Toronto Maple Leafs - The good: Vesa Toskala, Tomas Kaberle.
The bad: Ryan Hollweg, Jeff Finger and Jamal Mayers are your prized offseason acquisitions. I'm not going to include Niklas Hagman in that group, he's a great checking forward.
The ugly: Coach Ron Wilson came out and said the Leafs won't give veterans ice time just for the sake of staying in hockey games. Even their coach is thinking about next year and John Tavares. It will be a long and ugly season in T.O.
14. New York Islanders - Where to begin? Rick DiPietro is a good goaltender. Beyond him, things look grim. Habs fans know Mark Streit is not a number one defenceman. Andy Sutton and Brendan Witt will be doing their best to support him. Up front Bill Guerin, Mike Comrie, Doug Weight and Mike Sillinger are all in contract years and looking for strong performances. These guys will get ice time to stay in close games, which is why they will be better than the Leafs but only by the slimmest of margins. They won't get blown out a whole lot but won't win many games either.
13. Atlanta Thrashers - Poor Ilya Kovalchuk. The NHL's leading goal scorer since the 2001-02 season has very little support. Mathieu Schneider will help but who does Kovalchuk play with? The answer is Vyacheslav Kozlov and a third liner. Thanks to the utter craptaculence of Toronto and The Islanders, the Thrashers won't be the worst team in the conference.
12. Tampa Bay Lightning - Rod Francis pointed out on Melnick in the Afternoon the other day that the Lightning resemble a fantasy draft team. Fan favourite Dan Boyle is gone, replaced by Matt Carle, who took a drastic step back in his development last year in San Jose. Rookie Steven Stamkos will have his growing pains but being flanked by Ryan Malone and Radim Vrbata should help. People expecting an Ovechkin or Crosby-like rookie season for Stamkos should take a step back and remeber the growing pains Vincent Lecavalier experienced in his first year in Tampa. Mike Smith is a capable goaltender but is a huge question mark when it comes to handling the number one role. The Lightning will struggle.
11. New Jersey Devils - The Devils are still a few years away from getting back to their dominant years. Martin Brodeur is still Martin Brodeur but age and losing one defenceman after another every year will catch up. Brian Rolston is a great acquisition but isn't capable of providing the scoring the Devils need. Patrik Elias needs a huge season and Brian Gionta needs to rediscover his lightning quick wrist shot and scoring touch if the Devils want to avoid missing the postseason.
ON THE EDGE
10. Carolina Hurricanes - The 'Canes possess some of the game's best forwards in the form of Eric Staal and Rod Brind'Amour. They will be supported by guys like Sergei Samsonov, Ray Whitney and Matt Cullen. The loss of Justin Williams for the first three months of the year will hurt this club big time. The addition of puck-moving defenceman Joni Pitkanen will help but not enough to bolster a defensive corps that gave up 249 goals last year. Brandon Sutter is a heck of a player and should make life hell for the 'Canes opponents.
9. Boston Bruins - The Bruins showed a lot last year, overcoming the loss of Patrice Bergeron to a season-ending concussion. Tim Thomas was a revelation in goal, Zdeno Chara was a Norris trophy contender and Marc Savard filled the void admirably. I Don't expect all those things to happen again this year. Blake Wheeler made the squad and could turn some heads and I'd love to see Bergeron bounce back with a huge season but he is second to Savard on the depth chart in Claude Julien's defence-oriented system. They will be close but on the outside looking in.
ON THE EDGE
8. Buffalo Sabres - The Sabres had a rough time last year. Ryan Miller struggled, especially early in the season. The absence of a true leader after the departures of Daniel Briere and Chris Drury hurt. Also missing was veteran blue-liner Teppo Numminen. This year the Sabres will rebound and new captain Craig Rivet will shine. I'm expecting big things from Miller and Tomas Vanek will return to his form of two years ago.
7. Florida Panthers - Big additions on the blue line and a healthy Tomas Vokoun equal a return to the postseason for the Panthers. They will play a boring brand of hockey and win close games. Nathan Horton is a very good player and will likely lead the team in scoring. With 57 points. You heard it here first.
6. Ottawa Senators - Unless the Sens add Mats Sundin I can't see them contending for the division crown. They're thin up front beyond the big three of Spezza, Alfredsson and Heatley. They're thin on the blue line beyond Chris Phillips and Anton Volchenkov. Martin Gerber is their goaltender. Nuff said.
KNOCKING ON THE DOOR
5. Philadelphia Flyers - The Flyers are thin on the blue line. Beyond Braydon Coburn and Kimmo Timonen there are huge question marks on defense. Martin Biron is a capable goaltender but will have difficulty. The reason the Flyers will make the playoffs will be their forwards. Mike Richards is one of the best two-way forwards in the game. Daniel Briere, Jeff Carter and Simon Gagne will be the big-time players they're expected to be.
4. New York Rangers - They don't have a superstar anymore. Markus Naslund should have a big year with something to prove. Wade Redden is overrated and Nikolai Zherdev is a selfish jerk but having King Henrik in goal is enough. They will be lacking the physical edge they had last season with the losses of Sean Avery and Ryan Hollweg but more finesse isn't a bad thing.
3. Washington Capitals - They're a huge injury away from being in the cellar but the Caps look fantastic on paper. Mike Green is a beauty. Jose Theodore will get the job done. Alexander Ovechkin is a pretty good player. The supporting cast looks good. There will be nights when their blue line will look awful and be exposed but their depth at the forward position will win them the Southeast, which will once again be the worst division in the league.
CREAM OF THE CROP
2. Pittsburgh Penguins - They will feel the losses of Ryan Whitney and Sergei Gonchar to long-term injuries in the first half of the season but will come out of it a better team. Marc-Andre Fleury will have a big year. Sidney Crosby is the best player in the NHL and will get his team to the promised land again. Crosby will win the Hart.
1. Montreal Canadiens - The Habs are deep. Scary deep. Having guys like D'Agostini and Weber in Hamilton knocking on the door will bring out the best in the players. Andrei Markov is emerging as the leader on the blue line and is capable of putting up 70+ points. Mike Komisarek will continue to punish forwards who try to squeeze past him. Up front, Andrei Kostitsyn is going to be huge. If he can keep his head in the game and his intensity level is there he could lead the team in scoring. Saku Koivu and Alex Kovalev are in contract years. Carey Price will be dominant if can get his glove going again. Something special is brewing in Montreal. Expectations are high and it's almost impossible to follow up the magic of last year but the difference will be in the playoffs. This team is far better prepared for postseason play and the experience they gathered last year will only help.