Late July and August are the dead weeks of the hockey season. Those of us who enjoy discussing hockey on a daily basis are left with writing a number of prediction pieces. Colleague Larry Fisher recently predicted what he thinks will be the entire NHL standings at the end of the 2015-16 season. Yours truly, on the other hand, has broken up playoff predictions into two sections. Last week, I predicted the eight teams that will come out of the Western Conference. This column takes a look at the eight teams who will come out of the Eastern Conference.
Atlantic Division Winner: Tampa Bay Lightning
There is so much to like about the Tampa Bay Lightning. Besides the obvious of getting to last year’s Final, and featuring one of the game’s top-five players in Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay has depth at every position. Offensively, they can roll four lines, and may even have yet another break-out star this year in Jonathan Drouin. Tampa Bay dominated the league last year, despite Drouin not yet reaching his potential. He is likely to add further firepower to the group up front. Defensively, this team has one of the best in the game in Victor Hedman, the criminally underrated Anton Stralman, plus Matt Carle and Jason Garrison leading the way (not to mention Braydon Coburn and Andrej Sustr are solid depth options on the blue line). Between the pipes, Ben Bishop has been a late bloomer with Tampa Bay and backup Andrei Vasilevskiy is a highly touted up-and-comer.
2nd Place in Atlantic: Montreal Canadiens
Montreal won the division last year, but Carey Price is unlikely to sustain his insane level of play from last season. He will still be phenomenal and likely will be a Vezina candidate, but repeating his .933 save percentage will be nearly impossible. Furthermore, the team in front of him is still the same old same old. Will they ever find a true No. 1 center? Imagine how good they could be if they just had that one game-changing center like an Anze Kopitar, Joe Thornton, Ryan Getzlaf, Pavel Datsyuk, Jonathan Toews or someone of that ilk. Without having that dominant No. 1 center, this team will always struggle to get over the hump. There are a lot of quality pieces, but they are missing that key ingredient up front. Price, P.K. Subban, Max Pacioretty and company will lead the Canadiens to a strong regular season again but can’t see why anyone would pick them to win the Stanley Cup.
3rd Place in Atlantic: Buffalo Sabres
That’s right, I’m sipping the Sabres’ Jack Eichel Kool-Aid much more than I am the Connor McDavid Edmonton Oilers’ Kool-Aid. This is primarily because of the conference differences. The East has been getting better, but the West is still superior. Buffalo with Eichel and O’Reilly as their top two centers will once again be a competitive team. While I’m not sold on Robin Lehner in net, wingers like Matt Moulson, Evander Kane and Tyler Ennis are a decent supplement for Eichel and O’Reilly. Not to mention 2014 second overall pick Sam Reinhart could potentially make the Sabres incredibly dangerous down the middle one, two and three. Defensive depth has me worried, but the firepower and new-found confidence/buzz around this city will push this team into a playoff spot in the lesser conference.
Metropolitan Division Winner: New York Islanders
The Islanders finished tied with the Washington Capitals last season for second in the division with 101 points. Defense acquisitions of Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk helped improve the team’s back end. Up front, the Islanders featured plenty of depth players on lower lines including the likes of Anders Lee, Cal Clutterbuck and Casey Cizikas. In terms of high-end talent, another year of development for Ryan Strome is going to help improve the overall offense for next season. The Islanders ended up losing in the first round last year to the Capitals, but there is a lot to like about this young group moving forward. They have the depth up front and have yet to go deep in the postseason. They are extremely fresh in terms of games played. The older Rangers will take a step back after having gone deep two years in a row.
2nd Place in Metropolitan: New York Rangers
The Rangers may be a bit long in the tooth with some of their bigger names like Henrik Lundqvist, Rick Nash and Dan Boyle, but they still have a younger core, led by captain Ryan McDonagh. Not to mention Lundqvist remains one of the best goalies in the world, despite his lengthy workload over the last few years. Kevin Hayes will only be getting better and Derek Stepan is far from old. The Rangers still boast one of the best blue lines in the league with McDonagh, Marc Staal, Dan Girardi and Keith Yandle. They will no doubt be a tough out in the Eastern Conference with their ability to skate and shut teams down at the other end. It will be interesting to see, though, how the team does up front without Marty St. Louis.
3rd Place in Metropolitan: Washington Capitals
The Capitals still boast some of the top talent in the NHL, particularly on offense and in goal. Alexander Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom are as good of a 1-2 punch on a top line as there is in the league. Furthermore, Braden Holtby has arguably entered into elite territory among goaltenders. If you had to think of a fifth best goalie behind Lundqvist, Price, Tuukka Rask and Pekka Rinne, Holtby is the name that jumps out of the pack. Defensively, the Capitals still have concerns, but while they will never be mistaken for the 2013-14 Los Angeles Kings, head coach Barry Trotz has the team playing a much more sound defensive game than in years past. The Capitals added some scoring depth in the offseason bringing in T. J. Oshie and Justin Williams, although they lost Joel Ward to free agency. All in all, the Capitals will once again be a playoff team with the talent to make some noise. Perhaps this year, they will finally break through past the second round?
Wild Card 1: Pittsburgh Penguins
The Pittsburgh Penguins are going to have to score a lot of goals this season. Good thing is a power play with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel should scare the living bageezes out of opposing penalty-kill coaches. Losing Paul Martin to free agency is going to hurt the back end. Perhaps a healthy Olli Maatta and the young Derrick Pouliot can help make up for that loss but it will be tough on the Penguins blue line to manage, particularly against some of the deep-forward teams they will have to match up against when playing against Western Conference teams. Crosby and Malkin are still Crosby and Malkin but the depth questions remain yet again. Ever since Jordan Staal left, nobody looks at the Penguins and thinks “wow, they are deep.”
Wild Card 2: Columbus Blue Jackets
Columbus made the playoffs two seasons ago before falling back last season. There is a lot to like about the Blue Jackets, though. Ryan Johansen is one of the best centers in the Eastern Conference. He is a flat-out beast to handle and this offseason, the Jackets brought in Brandon Saad to play on his wing. These two on a top line should do lots of damage. Brandon Dubinsky, Nick Foligno and Scott Hartnell add to the scoring up front. Defensively is where the main concerns lie for Columbus, but Sergei Bobrovsky is solid between the pipes. The way this team competes each and every night is what makes them so likable. They could use a bit more than Jack Johnson on defense, though, and that could be their undoing this season.
Just Missed the Cut: Detroit Red Wings and Ottawa Senators
Two playoff teams from last season have lots of pieces of the puzzle but just not enough to really make a real threat at going deep in the postseason. Detroit has the long playoff streak but this is the year it comes to an end. They have withstood injuries to Pavel Datsyuk before, but this time around they won’t be able to overcome it with non-playoff teams from a year ago getting better. Ottawa was a nice surprise last season, but the Blue Jackets and the Sabres just have a bit more in my opinion in terms of getting into the dance.