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NHL preview: How the Eastern Conference shapes up

Columbus and Detroit head east in realignment, which places four of the 'Original Six' franchises in the Atlantic Division.

September 28, 2013|By Helene Elliott
  • Gustav Nyquist, left, and the Detroit Red Wings head east to play in a new conference agianst the likes of John-Michael Liles and the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Gustav Nyquist, left, and the Detroit Red Wings head east to play in a new… (Abelimages / Getty Images )

Hello, Columbus — and Detroit too. The Blue Jackets and Red Wings were the big winners in realignment because they moved from the Western Conference to the East, which should mean less travel. Both teams had pushed for the move for years and both paid their dues. But switching the up-and-coming Blue Jackets and always-competitive Red Wings muddles the East playoff picture. Remember, too, the Atlantic and Metropolitan divisions are each made up of eight teams, not the seven in the Central and the Pacific. Four of the NHL's "Original Six" teams are clustered in the Atlantic and a fifth, the New York Rangers, is in the Metropolitan. So it's possible all of them will get into the playoffs. The top three teams in each division will automatically qualify, and the two teams with the next-best records will get wild-card berths. How the East shapes up, in predicted order of finish:

ATLANTIC DIVISION

1. BOSTON

2012-13: 28-14-6 (62 points), 4th in East.

The Bruins signed premier two-way forward Patrice Bergeron and goaltender Tuukka Ras to eight-year deals, cementing an impressive core. Rask (2.00 goals-against, .929 save percentage) was superb last season. Losing wingers Nathan Horton (free agent) and Tyler Seguin (trade) shouldn't hurt much because the team added veteran Jarome Iginla and dynamic Loui Eriksson.

2. DETROIT

2012-13: 24-16-8 (56 points), 7th in West

General Manager Ken Holland deserves infinite credit for infusing youth into the lineup and keeping the Red Wings competitive. Goalie Jimmy Howard, a contender for the U.S. Olympic team at Sochi, was their glue. Ageless wonder Pavel Datsyuk remains their leader. They added depth by signing center Stephen Weiss, and luring winger Daniel Alfredsson from Ottawa should remedy their scoring problems.

3. MONTREAL

2012-13: 29-14-5 (63 points), 2nd in East.

Brendan Gallagher (28 points) and Alex Galchenyuk (27 points) had fine rookie debuts but must prove they're here to stay. Defenseman P.K. Subban won the Norris Trophy as the top defenseman and must remain at that level. The Canadiens need more consistency from goalie Carey Price (2.59 goals-against, .905 save percentage) to be sure of a playoff berth.

4. OTTAWA

2012-13: 25-17-6 (56 points), 7th in East.

A lot of good pieces. Goalie Craig Anderson posted stellar numbers last season (1.69 goals-against, .941 save percentage) but injuries limited him to 24 games. Defenseman Erik Karlsson, the 2012 Norris winner, suffered a sliced Achilles' tendon in February, returned 10 weeks later and has had all summer to get in shape. Winger Bobby Ryan, a four-time 30-goal scorer, should make Senators fans forget Alfredsson. The defense is iffy, but they should go a couple of playoff rounds under Coach Paul MacLean.

5. TORONTO

2012-13: 26-17-5 (57 points), 5th in East.

Things are looking up in The Center of the Hockey Universe. The Maple Leafs have some prolific scorers (Phil Kessel, Joffrey Lupul) and an up-and-comer in Nazem Kadri. But they'll miss David Clarkson, who was suspended 10 games for leaving the bench to join a fight in a preseason game. Goalie Jonathan Bernier, previously stuck in Los Angeles as the backup to Jonathan Quick, will get his chance to shine.

6. TAMPA BAY

2012-13: 18-26-4 (40 points), 14th in East.

Two-time goal-scoring champion Steven Stamkos is electrifying. In exhibition games he skated alongside Martin St. Louis — last season's scoring champ — and 18-year-old Jonathan Drouin, a line worth watching. The Lightning can score goals but is less successful at stopping them. Goalies Ben Bishop and Anders Lindback aren't elite, and they face a tough task.

7. BUFFALO

2012-13: 21-21-6 (48 points), 12th in East.

Goalie Ryan Miller can leave as a free agent after the season and it's a matter of when, not if, the Sabres trade him. The same is likely for left wing Thomas Vanek, whose scoring abilities would interest almost any team. The Sabres never seem to make big strides, usually competitive but never deep enough to be a real threat.

8. FLORIDA

2012-13: 15-27-6 (36 points), 15th in East.

Injuries were a huge factor in the Panthers' league-low point total and league-worst 171 goals against. But there's hope in the form of Jonathan Huberdeau, last season's rookie of the year, and the self-proclaimed revival of goalie Tim Thomas, who returns after taking a year off. The Panthers got the short end of the stick in realignment and those mid-winter trips to Buffalo, Montreal and Ottawa will be cruel.

METROPOLITAN DIVISION

1. PITTSBURGH

2012-13: 36-12-0 (72 points), 1st in East.

The Penguins will score a lot but their problem is keeping the puck out of their net. Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury must prove he's better than his poor playoff performances last spring. Rob Scuderi, brought back as a free agent, could mentor defense partner Kris Letang and anchor a fine pair. There's a lot to like (Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, California-born forward Beau Bennett) but they need better goaltending.

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