NHL Preview: Looking East (Part 1 of 2)

After months of seemingly unjustified arguing and debating between the league’s bosses and the players, the puck will finally strike the ice Saturday afternoon to commence a shortened 48-game NHL season. The reigning Stanley holders from Los Angeles will get to unveil their first cup banner at Staples Center, after a rather lengthy delay to being able to do so. The Kings take on 2010 winner Chicago in a barn-burning matinee opener in California. Also on ice in the afternoon will be Pennsylvania rivals Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, and Winnipeg begin their second season back in the big time with the visit of the Ottawa Senators. With ten other games making up the schedule for Saturday, the best hockey league around will be back with an almighty bang. We go division-by-division to view the chances of these American and Canadian sides for this sprint season.

Starting off with the extremely competitive Atlantic Division, you’d think that it is advantage New York Rangers after they added All-Star Rick Nash to their roster in the offseason. A tremendous signing and they didn’t have to give up a star to get him; it was Brandon Dubinsky, Anisimov, Erixon and a first-rounder that went to Columbus. For a team that finished atop the East with a massive 109 points, they only tallied 2.71 goals on average per game (11th in the league), showing that an offensive boost was still required to give them a better chance at the Cup. Winger Nash will give them that unquestionably. They’re a strong all-round side, with one of the league’s best in King Henrik backstopping them and outstanding defencemen in McDonagh, Del Zotto and Staal. They’ve got the experience of going to the conference final now, which will stand Tortorella’s team in good stead for a repeat or an extra step or two.

Despite falling at the first hurdle in the playoffs last April, the Penguins will surely be running them close now that they have a healthy Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and James Neal to play with. The fans in Pittsburgh are incredibly fortunate to have three of the NHL’s most exciting players in their forward line-up. Netminder Marc-Andre Fleury, whose play faded off in the series with the Flyers last year, has help this season after GM Ray Shero snapped up the steady Tomas Vokoun. Though Zbynek Michalek has gone, the defence still remains very solid with Letang, Martin, Orpik and Niskanen. A somewhat interesting (maybe odd) trade was getting centre Brandon Sutter from Carolina and prospects for young star Jordan Staal.

New Jersey need to pick themselves up from the loss of star Zach Parise to his hometown Minnesota. No doubt about it that he leaves a large gap in the Devils’ offence, but they have to make the best of what they’ve got. Travis Zajac has signed an extension to show his commitment to the cause, and Kovalchuk, Elias and Clarkson can all produce well. Youthful Adam Henrique has shown good promise too, with 64 points in total last term. Their real strength lies in the back-end; they let very few goals in with a good top six D-men and Martin Brodeur between the pipes. If they can make the playoffs again, another run is possible, as they’re built as a strong defensive playoff team.

Philadelphia are the fourth strong side in the division and performed well once again in 2011/12. They have an elite group of forwards, containing a perfect mix of youth and experience, finesse and power. Claude Giroux is their “leader” and will be called upon to put up many points once again. Sean Couturier and Brayden Schenn are set to have big seasons I’d suggest. Schenn is joined by his defenceman brother Luke, who was intriguingly traded for James van Riemsdyk with Toronto. It was a tough offseason for the Flyers as they lost out on many of the top players available in the market and Jaromir Jagr decided to leave for Dallas too. Ilya Bryzgalov had a difficult and testing season in his first as a Flyer and needs to respond quickly in 2013 if the Pennsylvania side want to make the playoffs. The firepower they have and the solidity of D should make sure they’re fine for that though. The New York Islanders complete the Atlantic and once again hope that they can push on up the standings this season. John Tavares again leads the line for the Rangers’ big geographical rivals, with Matt Moulson too, who needs to carry on where he left off. It’s difficult to see where lots of goals are going to from though really; unless Brad Boyes plays as well as we know he can in his new location. One great defensive prospect is Griffin Reinhart, who is starting to come into his own now. If they can start well in this shorter season, who knows, they might be able to hold out for a playoff spot. I can’t see it myself though unfortunately with the lack of depth.

Sticking in the East, we head to the Northeast Division and the favourites for the divisional title once again, who were forced into a change of starting netminder this season. The Boston Bruins are going with Finnish-born Tuukka Rask au lieu de double Vezina trophy winner Tim Thomas, who is having a little break for a year. Fans of the Bruins should be confident in the ability of Rask. He has backstopped the side on many occasions before and this will give him the chance to get out of the shadow of veteran Thomas. If the Finn shines through in 2013, Timmy may never be number one for Boston again. Looking at the rest of the side, not a lot has altered from last season. The core group remains with the impressive Tyler Seguin (I bet he’s glad he got picked 2nd in his draft now really) leading the forwards, with Krejci, Lucic and Bergeron. Much will be expected of Nathan Horton too. The towering blue-liner Zdeno Chara brings his intimidating presence and powerful shot also. Couch Claude Julien will be expected to deliver his team to a strong season in pursuit of the Cup again. They’ve got most of the pieces of the jigsaw in place. But will it transfer to another Stanley?

Moving to the French-Canadian province of Quebec, the most successful NHL club of all time, the Montreal Canadiens, had what can only be referred to as a nightmare last campaign. After finishing in last place in the East, new GM Marc Bergevin has unsurprisingly revamped the roster. Brandon Prust and Colby Armstrong have been brought in to provide some character and grit to the team. Pacioretty, Desharnais and Cole were excellent last season and the Habs need them to do similarly in 2013 if they are to get anywhere near the playoffs. Rookie Alex Galchenyuk could be vital at centre for the side, after being selected to the roster after the short training camp. Carey Price is the undisputed number one goaltender and Montreal can rely upon his shoulders. One thing is for certain, the vocal, passionate fans at the Bell Centre won’t take another year like the last; they’ll be a lot of boos all round otherwise.

The Senators from Canada’s capital battled hard in 2011/12 for a playoff spot and pushed the Rangers all the way to a Game 7 in the opening round. They look to have two excellent forward lines with Michalek, Spezza and Alfredsson, and Latendresse, Turris and Neil. They have arguably the best offensive defenceman in the whole NHL with Erik Karlsson and Craig Anderson will be between the sticks again. Ontario rival Toronto stack up well up front, particularly after adding the promising James van Riemsdyk from Philadelphia. They have lots of options and a good balance of skill and toughness. However, gone is Luke Schenn and the D is lacking some depth. Problems also remain in net where the unproven James Reimer continues to reside. It’s still going to be tough for Toronto to get into the post-season again. This shortened schedule is going to change the dynamics of the league though and there could be some shocks from the somewhat inconsistent sides therein.

Lindy Ruff’s Buffalo Sabres couldn’t quite propel themselves into a playoff spot last year so something had to be done. Steve Ott and Adam Pardy have come in from the Dallas Stars and a key centre, Derek Roy, has gone in the opposite direction. Ott will provide some grit and he can score well too. Those guys that seem to have been around for decades – Thomas Vanek, Jason Pominville and Drew Stafford – can still contribute a lot to the team. There are some young guys coming through as well. Tyler Ennis is now seemingly the number one centre; Cody Hodgson, acquired mid-season from Vancouver, should hopefully play a larger role for the team this season; Marcus Foligno is promising too. Defensively, it looks strong. Tyler Myers and Christian Ehrhoff are elite NHL defencemen, and are perfectly complemented with the strong, rugged Robin Regehr and Andrej Sekera. Ryan Miller is one of the league’s best goaltenders too. If all these areas perform to their potential, if injuries don’t strike and if they get a good start (like they haven’t done for the last couple of seasons), they’ve got a great chance of challenging for the division and getting into the fight for the Stanley Cup.

Last season’s Southeast Division champions Florida Panthers were 27th in the league in terms of goals scored on average per game, despite their playoff berth. For the team to take that next step this campaign, they need to find more secondary firepower. The top line is great with Fleischmann, Weiss and Versteeg. But where else are the goals going to come from? That aside, there is every reason to be very positive if you’re a Panthers fan and it’s pleasing to see the huge strides of improvement they’ve made in making themselves a top club. The defence has some real leaders on it: Brian Campbell is crucial offensively from the back end, particularly on the powerplay; Weaver, Kuba and Jovanovski too. Jason Garrison, who was tremendous last term, has been tempted away to the Canucks. If the Sunshine State side can get some points out of Jonathan Huberdeau, Peter Mueller and newly-signed Alex Kovalev, the Panthers can make a real splash this year and maybe retain their divisional title.

Two of the brothers Staal are to be united in Carolina this upcoming season and, add in a bit of the talented but unpredictable Alex Semin, the Canes’ offence seems improved. Justin Faulk is one of the ones to watch in 2013 too on the blue line. Additionally, Cam Ward has got some help in Dan Ellis. Those few little improvements here and there may help the Hurricanes back into the playoffs. Tampa Bay boast possibly the league’s top player. With Steven Stamkos you always have a chance, but he can’t do it all on his own. The Bolts, along with another Southeast team, Winnipeg, lack some depth offensively and defensively. Lindback could potentially be a cunning little pick-up by the Lightning though. Winnipeg pushed hard at the end of the year for the playoffs but didn’t quite have enough skill to pull it off. They were strong at home in front of that raucous crowd and they’ll need that solid home form once again in this tough-to-call division.

Finally, we come to a team that are always in the headlines for one reason or another. If it’s not their superstar Alex Ovechkin scoring another ridiculously good goal, it’s their coach being fired or them being caught up in a close playoff race, like in 2012. Adam Oates is the new boss in charge and he’s tasked with getting the Washington Capitals back to being the cup contender they were two to three years ago when they were superb throughout the regular season. Braden Holtby is surely the new number one goaltender for the team, after he was quite simply brilliant in the 2012’s post-season. He’ll be backed up by Michal Neuvirth. There’s real quality throughout the roster that Oates has inherited and he’s got a couple of new additions too. Ovechkin, Backstrom, Green, Carlson and the second line centre that they’ve been crying out for in Mike Ribeiro. There’s some great depth in there too. With the roster that they have, the Capitals really should be challenging for the Cup and I think we could see a return to the top of the division and maybe the conference if Oates can get some consistency from his talented team.

The Southeast is unquestionably one of the toughest to call. Many are predicting the return of the Capitals to where they were a couple of years ago under Boudreau with Ovechkin and Backstrom firing. Carolina and Tampa Bay are improved though so they also may try and take Florida’s title off them. The Jets are in pretty much the same position they were this time last year I feel. But get off to a good start in this 48-game sprint, you could squeak into the post-season.

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