*1 – New York Rangers: Henrik Lundqvist may not have a new contract yet, but he’s still the best goalie in the Eastern Conference. The Rangers should be more fun to watch, too, as Alain Vigneault takes over for John Tortorella. The abundant firepower on this roster will finally appear under a new, offensive-minded coach.
*2 – Pittsburgh Penguins: The Penguins have a huge question mark in goal with Marc-Andre Fleury, but their offensive attack, led by Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and James Neal, is still among the league’s best. A defense anchored by Kris Letang includes some youngsters that could break through.
*3 – Washington Capitals: Alex Ovechkin reverted back to his superstar self in 2013, and there’s no reason to think he can’t return with another great season under Adam Oates. Michael Grabovski could be a good fit, too. Maybe these guys can finally do some damage in the playoffs.
*4 – Columbus Blue Jackets: Columbus just missed out on the playoffs last season, and will need another Vezina-type campaign from Sergei Bobrovsky. It says here he’ll do it again, and the Jackets will get back into the postseason after a much more travel-friendly schedule.
*5 – Philadelphia Flyers: The Flyers signed a pair of players past their prime in Vinny Lecavalier and Mark Streit, and didn’t upgrade their defense enough to be a serious threat. Steve Mason has been a disaster for the last four seasons, and Ray Emery is coming off of a great year in Chicago – but in front of a much better team. Still, the Flyers have a powerful offensive attack led by Claude Giroux.
6 – New York Islanders: It’s an exciting time for the Islanders and they prepare to move in to the new Barclays Center in 2014, and have an MVP candidate in John Tavares, but this team isn’t deep enough on defense. An ancient Evgeni Nabokov isn’t the answer in net, either.
7 – New Jersey Devils: Ilya Kovalchuk’s sudden departure leaves a hole here that the Devils won’t be able to overcome, and they overpaid for Ryane Clowe, who is coming off of multiple concussions in San Jose and New York. Cory Schneider and Marty Brodeur can’t score goals (well, Brodeur can).
8 – Carolina Hurricanes: Joni Pitkanen will be missed on defense, as it’s already been announced he’ll miss the entire season. Defensively, these guys are a mess, and there isn’t much up front after the Staal brothers and Alex Semin. Commence the rebuild.
*1 – Boston Bruins: Still the clear-cut favorite in the division, and the entire conference. Tyler Seguin is out, Jarome Iginla and Loui Eriksson are in, and a balanced offense and skilled defense can play any style of game necessary to get the job done. Tuukka Rask is a rock in net, too.
*2 – Detroit Red Wings: Even without Nicklas Lidstrom, the Red Wings nearly upset the eventual champion Chicago Blackhawks in the postseason. If some of their young defensemen emerge, the Henrik Zetterberg’s and Pavel Datsyuk’s can still keep this team in contention. Daniel Alfredsson can still lead on and off the ice, too.
*3 – Ottawa Senators: The Senators managed to remain in the hunt last season despite some major injuries, but it’s difficult to predict how they will react to losing the face of the franchise in Alfredsson. There’s still enough talent here to make the playoffs.
4 – Montreal Canadiens: For me, Carey Price is still a huge question mark in goal, spectacular one night and spectacularly average for the next three. Sure, P.K. Subban is an emerging star, but the Canadiens didn’t do enough to improve in the offseason, and that includes the signing of Douglas Murray.
5 – Toronto Maple Leafs: The Maple Leafs have talent at the wing, but at center, they are among the weakest teams in the league. It’s debatable whether Jonathan Bernier is an upgrade over James Reimer, and the buyout of Grabovski rightfully raised some eyebrows. Losing prized free agent Dave Clarkson for the first 10 games due to suspension isn’t favorable, either.
6 – Tampa Bay Lightning: Rookie Jonathan Drouin could help offensively right away, but the Lightning still have major problems on defense and in goal. Still, Steven Stamkos will still be fun to watch, and he’ll probably make a push for another 50-goal season.
7 – Buffalo Sabres: It’s rebuild mode for the Sabres. The biggest question surrounding this team could be whether Ryan Miller and Thomas Vanek are still on the team by the end of the season.
8 – Florida Panthers: The light-spending Panthers are hoping some of their other young players can emerge the way Jonathan Huberdeau did last year, but this team is at least a couple years away from being a threat of any kind.
* = playoff team
Conference Finals: Bruins over Rangers