Well hockey fans the time has finally come- NHL hockey has returned to us and tonight marks "NHL hockey eve", a night more exciting than Christmas itself for some. Since the 2013 NHL season is set to get underway on Saturday and a 48 game season is set to bring many surprises, it's time to break down how I see the Eastern Conference shaping up.
1. New York Rangers
What's not to like about the Rangers- They have solid goaltending, top notch forwards, shutdown defenceman, a coach who speaks his mind and they went out and acquired a piece to help them become even better. The "Blue Shirts" finished first in the East last season and with the addition of Rick Nash and not losing any key players they are easily the team to beat in the Eastern Conference. With Richards, Gaborik, Staal and Girardi- the Rangers arguably have the most talented roster.
Key Players to watch- Rick Nash was acquired to help get the Rangers into the Stanley Cup Finals, a goal which they fell just short of last season. Will the acquisition of Nash pay off? Or will Nash crack under the pressure in the big city. Will Henrik Lundqvist be able to match his Vezina winning season and retain his throne as the King? Also keep an eye on how many games the Rangers play Lundqvist in this 48 game sprint, they have a solid back up in Martin Biron who is capable of carrying some of the load and still putting up "W's".
2. Pittsburgh Penguins
Similar to the Rangers, the Penguins have a star studded lineup that is used to winning. With a healthy Sidney Crosby and the emergence of Evgeni Malkin and James Neal look for the Penguins to start off the season hot. They signed Thomas Vokoun which will allow them to rest Marc- Andre Fluery before the playoffs where they will need him to step up after his pitiful performance last year against the Flyers. Just for a minute take in the fact that Crosby may be their 2nd line centre- yeah the Penguins are that good!
Key Players to Watch- This will be Crosby's first full season in 2 years, and because of the lockout will be a shortened season anyways. There are reports that Crosby is in the best shape he's ever been- Crosby is ready to the hit ice to prove he's fine and still a top notch players.
3. Boston Bruins
Depending on how well Tukka Rask adjusts to being the number one goalie without Tim Thomas around- the Bruins could easily win their division which would see them in 3rd in the conference. While the Bruins don't exactly have all the skilled finesse players the Rangers and Penguins have, they have the type of players who are willing to do the dirty work to help the team win. Everyone on the Bruins has a role, from Milan Lucic to Tyler Seguin each player has a role they must fill. Every member of the Bruins have bought into their system and they're as deep a team as you'll see in the Eastern Conference- look for them to come out early and play physical hockey while other teams are still trying adapt.
Key Players to Watch- Rookie defenceman Dougie Hamilton will likely be on the roster opening night and should have an immediate impact on the blue-line. How will Tukka Rask adapt to being the number one goaltender- this team will only be as good as Rask plays, remember they're used to having Thomas bail them out.
4. Carolina Hurricanes
[caption id="attachment_2062" align="alignright" width="300"] Jordan Staal[/caption]
The Hurricanes made it clear this offseason that they're ready to make another Stanley Cup run. The additions of Jordan Staal and Alex Semin will help add more offencive depth taking the pressure of Eric Staal and Jeff Skinner. The Staal brothers should have instant chemistry and push each other to be better- combine that with the steady play of Cam Ward between the pipes and the Hurricanes have a recipe for success.
Key Players to Watch- Jordan Staal will finally get the opportunity to play top 6 minutes and will be counted on to deliver and help lead the team, how will he adapt to the bigger role?
5. Washington Capitals
I have the Capitals a little lower than most, but I think this is a good spot for them. After losing Alex Semin and head coach Adam Oates moving Alex Ovechkin to wing there's lots of questions that need to be answered. Which Ovechkin is going to show up? Who is this team- is it the high scoring team that would light up opponents but choke in the playoffs or a defence first team that wants to win 2-1 games? With the addition of Mike Ribeiro and Braden Holtby emerging from the shadows the Capitals are set for another solid season that will see them make the playoffs.
Key Players to Watch- After a sub-par season from the Capitals captain Alexander Ovechkin will need to find his game again if the Capitals are to have long-term success. After a injury plagued campaign for Mike Green, he is now healthy and will need a big year on the blue-line to prove he's worth the money and hype.
6. Philadelphia Flyers
The Flyers shouldn't have any trouble putting up points with newly named captain Claude Giroux, Danny Briere, Brayden Schenn and Scott Hartnell but will be weak on the blue-line without Chris Pronger and Matt Carle and no one know's what's up with Ilya Bryzgalov. The Flyers will make the playoffs but will have a rocky season.
Key Players to Watch- After being named captain and putting up 93 points last season it will be interesting to see how Claude Giroux adapts to his new role and if he can keep up his production from last season. After being traded from the Leafs, Luke Schenn will have an opportunity to be a key defenceman yet fly under the radar unlike in Toronto- that should help him find his confidence again.
7. Tampa Bay Lightning
The Lightning went out and acquired a new young goaltender in Anders Lindback to become the new starter. With the red hot Steven Stamkos, playmaker Martin St. Louis and captain Vincent Lecavalier leading the way offencively for the Bolts they should be able to break into the playoffs.
Key Players to Watch- After reaching the 60 goal plateau last season it will interesting to see what Steven Stamkos has planned for an encore this year.
8. Buffalo Sabres
It was a disappointing year for the Sabres last season, falling just short of the 8th and final playoff spot- but this year I see them snatching the last playoff spot and returning to the post-season. If the Bruins get off to a rocky start and don't win the division, the Sabres are the next viable option to win the division which would bump them up to the 3rd. Ryan Miller is bound to have a bounce back year, Marcus Foligno is poised for a full season in the NHL and rising star Mikhail Grigorenko will put up his fair share of points- the Sabre should have no problem scoring goals.
Key Players to Watch- Will Ryan Miller be able to bounce back from a slow start and continue the hot streak he was on at the end of last season? Just how good will Marcus Foligno be- good enough to win the Calder?
9. Ottawa Senators
The Senators are an interesting team. They had a surprising year last season when they made the playoffs and excelled, but for them to do that again is highly unlikely. This season everyone know's not to underestimate the Senators and they'll have a tough time with the constant divisional play. Erik Karlsson had a Norris winning season but will be hard-pressed to do the task again, could be a roller coaster year for the Sens.
Key Player to Watch- Can Erik Karlsson prove he's an elite defenceman and last year wasn't a fluke? Daniel Alfredsson is getting older, how will he hold up in the 48 game sprint?
10. Florida Panthers
The Panthers made the playoffs by the skin of their panther teeth- more specifically points earned for lost shootouts. While the shootouts will play a major part in this years shortened season, the chances of the Panthers getting lucky again are slim. They have young stars in Jonathan Huberdeau and Kris Versteeg but their luck will run out.
Key Players to Watch- Will goaltender Scott Clemmensen be able to get the job done?
11. New Jersey Devils
Yes the New Jersey Devils made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals and gave the Los Angeles Kings a legitimate run for their money and may deserve to be a bit higher but losing Zach Parise this summer really puts the Devils behind the eight-ball. Adam Henrique will be called upon to help fill the void left by Parise.
Key Players to Watch- Martin Brodeur is another year older and who know's if he'll be able to keep up his all-star type numbers in the extra tough shortened season
12. Winnipeg Jets
There's not a lot to say about the Jets- they were the feel good story of the NHL last season after being moved from Atlanta, but they are still very much the Atlanta Thrashers team that couldn't win. Look for Evander Kane and Andrew Ladd to lead the team but it could be another long hockey season in Winnipeg- good thing fans are just happy to have their team back.
13. Toronto Maple Leafs
Will the Toronto Maple Leafs finally end their playoff drought? Unfortunately for Leaf fans that doesn't seem to be in the cards this season. The Leafs
[caption id="attachment_2065" align="alignright" width="150"] Zazem Kadri will get his chance to prove he can play in the NHL[/caption]
desperately need to add a proven veteran goaltender but are choosing to give James Reimer and Ben Scrivens a chance- there's nothing wrong with that in the long run but it will likely result in the Leafs failing to reach the post-season again.
Key Players to Watch- goaltenders Ben Scrivens and James Reimer as they battle for the starting job. Will be interesting to see how Nazem Kadri will adapt to centering the 3rd line and finally being given a chance to prove himself.
14. Montreal Canadiens
The Canadiens had a rough season last year and it doesn't look like it will be much better this season. As of right now they have failed to reach an agreement with defenceman P.K Subban and have bought out Scott Gomez. Carey Price will have to come up big night in and night out for them to have much of a chance most nights. Look to see if they keep rookie Alex Galchenyuk all season and how his offence will help the team.
15. New York Islanders
After deciding to cut Ryan Strome and Griffin Reinhart after training camp, it looks like the Islanders may be going into a re-build in an attempt to get a top pick in the 2013 draft and allow their prospects more time to develop. It will be a long season on the Island, that will likely see them finish last again.
Key Players to Watch- John Tavares should still put up solid numbers despite being on a last place team.
What do you think of my Eastern Conference predictions? What teams would you change and who are you looking to come up big this season?