The Washington Capitals are convinced that it was only a super-human effort from Montreal goaltender Jaroslav Halak that ended their Stanley Cup hopes last spring.
That’s why the Caps made only minor changes to a high-powered offensive team that is likely to dominate the NHL Eastern Conference in the regular season again.
While Halak has left the conference for St. Louis, dangerous oppostion remains in Sidney Crosby’s Pittsburgh Penguins and a big, bad Philadelphia Flyers squad riding a high from its trip to the Stanley Cup final.
Here’s a look at every team in the Eastern Conference, listed in predicted order of finish:
Last season: 54-15-13, 121 points, 1st seed in the East, lost in first round to Montreal.
Breakdown: Revenge is word in the U.S. capital, but redemption is a better description of what Washington wants after blowing a 3-1 lead and losing in seven games to the Canadiens. They needed far better team play, including from virtuoso star Ovechkin, which could not be driven home better than by the frustration they encountered against Halak and the shot-blocking Montreal defence. No major changes were made, other than to drop veteran Jose Theodore and go with young goalies Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth. But the emergence of budding defence star John Carlson should make an offensive juggernaut even more powerful. There will be no trouble repeating as the league’s highest scoring team with 50-goal man Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin, Mike Knuble, Tomas Fleischmann, Eric Fehr and big Brooks Laich up front—not to mention roving rearguard Mike Green.
Last season: 41-35-6, 88 points, 7th seed in the East, lost Stanley Cup final to Chicago.
Breakdown: They only made the playoffs by beating the New York Rangers in a shootout in the final game of the season, but the team that went to the final was a better indication of the Flyers’ talent and depth than the up-and-down regular season crew. The playoffs saw the creation of the dynamic line of Daniel Briere, Scott Hartnell and Ville Leino, which backs up a big, skilled top unit of Mike Richards, Jeff Carter and possibly the repatriated Nikolai Zherdev. Young forwards Claude Giroux and James van Riemsdyk should give them third-line production as well. Adding Andrej Meszaros from Tampa Bay boosts a strong puck-moving defence anchored by veteran Chris Pronger. The big question is in goal. Out-of-nowhere playoff hero Michael Leighton is now on the hot-seat as the starter, backed up by veteran Brian Boucher.
Last season: 39-30-13, 91 points, 6th seed in East, lost in second round to Philadelphia.
Breakdown: The loss of top centre Marc Savard to concussion symptoms may be offset by the addition of scoring winger Nathan Horton from Florida and a big rookie year from second overall draft pick Tyler Seguin. Happily for Boston, they are deep at centre with Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci, who is looking to rebound from only 17 goals last season, with perhaps Seguin or Blake Wheeler on the third line. Big winger Milan Lucic will be hungry for much more than his nine goals and 20 points and looks like he’ll start with Krejci and Horton, with Bergeron between 42-year-old Mark Recchi and rookie Jordan Caron. With Tuukka Rask backed up by veteran Tim Thomas, Boston is set in goal. Dennis Wideman left in exchange for Horton, so there’s a need for a puck-mover on an otherwise decent defence led by towering Zdeno Chara.
Last season: 47-28-7, 101 points, 4th seed in East, lost in second round to Montreal.
Breakdown: The loss of big centre Jordan Staal for an undetermined period with a foot injury puts a damper on the 2009 Cup champions’ move from the Igloo to the 18,087-seat Consol Energy Centre. They also lost veteran winger Bill Guerin, although the departure of power play anchor Sergei Gonchar was offset by the signing of Paul Martin. Sidney Crosby has had Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis as wingers in camp, while second superstar Evgeni Malkin has spent time on right wing with newcomer Mike Comrie and either of two prospects—Dustin Jeffrey and Eric Tangradi. A nasty third line has Max Talbot between bad boy Matt Cooke and crasher Arron Asham. The defence has thinned since their 2009 Cup win. Martin, Brooks Orpik and Kris Letang are the key pieces, and the addition of shot-blocking rearguard Zbynek Michalek from Phoenix makes two strong pairs. The unpredictable Marc-Andre Fleury remains in goal.
New Jersey Devils
Last season: 48-27-7, 103 points, 2nd seed in East, lost in first round to Philadelphia.
Breakdown: The Ilya Kovalchuk contract battle made headlines all summer and ended with one of the NHL’s richest and most gifted wingers staying in New Jersey. Now opponents will have to deal with a potent top line of Kovalchuk with Zach Parise and centre Travis Zajac. The Devils also brought back Jason Arnott to centre a second unit with Patrick Elias, while Jamie Langenbrunner, Dainius Zubrus and Brian Rolston make them three scoring lines deep. Rookie Mattias Tedenby had a strong camp and may skate on one of the top lines. New coach John McLean (replacing Jacques Lemaire) lost top defenceman Paul Martin, but they’ve added big rearguards Henrik Tallinder and Anton Volchenkov. With Andy Greene and Colin White, that’s two solid pairs. Martin Brodeur is not getting younger, as the 38-year-old showed in the 2010 Olympics, but he’s still among the best. Johan Hedberg is his new backup.
Last season: 45-27-7, 100 points, third seed in East, lost in first round to Boston.
Breakdown: With Vezina Trophy winner Ryan Miller in goal, the Sabres always have a chance to win and they will need it in a year with no apparent improvements elsewhere. They lost veteran defencemen Henrik Tallinder and Toni Lyman, but acquired puck-moving rearguard Jordan Leopold. Leopold will likely pair with rangy sophomore Tyler Myers, a budding star on an otherwise thin defence that will be missing veteran Craig Rivet to start the season. Much of their fate rests on strong years from inconsistent star winger Thomas Vanek and oft-injured second centre Tim Connolly. There’s also hope that winger Drew Stafford will improve on last season’s 14 goals and that youngsters Tyler Ennis and five-foot-five Nathan Gerbe can become regulars. Veteran Rob Niedermayer was added to a gritty group of third and fourth-liners. A concern is grit among the top scorers, including Vanek, Derek Roy and Jason Pominville.
Last season: 39-33-10, 88 points, 8th seed in East, lost Eastern Conference final to Philadelphia.
Breakdown: Goaltender Carey Price will be under huge pressure now that Jaroslav Halak has gone to St. Louis after taking the No. 1 job and leading the team three rounds into the post-season. The 23-year-old has the size and skill, but the jury is still out on whether he has to mental strength for the job. Coach Jacques Martin believes he does and that his team, which underwent a major makeover last season, is a tighter group with strong leadership after a year together. The top two forward pairs are intact—Tomas Plekanec with Michael Cammalleri and Scott Gomez with newly named captain Brian Gionta. There’s hope that skilled wingers Andrei Kostitsyn and Benoit Pouliot will have big years and that Lars Eller, obtained in the Halak trade, can centre the third line. Top defenceman Andrei Markov will miss the start with a knee injury, so impressive rookie P.K. Subban will play the power play in his absence. Hal Gill, Roman Hamrlik, Jaroslav Spacek and Josh Gorges round out a solid defence. Checkers Dustin Boyd and Jeff Halpern were added and Alex Auld is the new backup in goal.
Tampa Bay Lightning
Last season: 34-36-12, 80 points, 12th in East, missed playoffs.
Breakdown: The enthusiasm generated by having new owner Jeff Vinik, Steve Yzerman as GM and much-touted rookie Guy Boucher as coach of a team with exceptional offensive weapons could make up for an overall thin lineup, with average defence and goaltending. With Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier, Ryan Malone and the addition of Simon Gagne, scoring should be no problem, even if they ranked 23rd in that department last season. The 2004 Cup champions have missed the playoffs the last three years and may do so again if any key players get hurt. If 2009 second overall pick Victor Hedman can step up it will greatly help a defence that doesn’t score much. They lost Andrej Meszaros and brought back Pavel Kubina. Mattias Ohlund and Brett Clark remain. Mike Smith and the repatriated Dan Ellis are in goal.
44-32-6, 94 points, 5th seed in East, Lost in first round to Pittsburgh.
Breakdown: Losing shot-block king Anton Volchenkov and physical rearguard Andy Sutton left them thin at the back, but at least they’ve added a power play quarterback in 36-year-old Sergei Gonchar, so long as he stays healthy. Captain Daniel Alfredsson turns 38 this season, but he’s a machine and remains the key on attack even if his point totals have declined the past two seasons. Same with top centre Jason Spezza, who is looking to rebound after missing 22 games with injuries. Milan Michalek is at least a 20-goal man. There are solid veterans in Chris Neil and Mike Fisher and two youngsters in Peter Regin and Nick Foligno looking to break out. If the defence holds, and either of goalie Pascal Leclaire and Brian Elliot comes through, the playoffs are in sight.
New York Rangers
Last season: 38-33-11. 87 points, 9th in East, missed playoffs.
Breakdown: The team that missed the playoffs on the final game of the season ate defenceman Wade Redden’s $6.5 salary and sent him to the AHL to remove the cap hit. Whether the Rangers are better without him is the question. They hope that, among their signings, Alexander Frolov can regain his 30-goal touch playing with star forward Marian Gaborik and Derek Boogaard’s six-foot-eight presence will help them feel more comfortable. Also, centre Olli Jokinen is no longer around to frustrate Rangers fans. The goaltending is solid with Henrik Lundqvist and they locked up top rearguard Marc Staal with a new contract. There are high hopes for 22-year-old Artem Anisimov after a 12-goal rookie campaign.
Last season: 35-34-13, 83 points, 10th in East, missed playoffs.
Breakdown: If a new GM is going to raid a team for players, why not the Stanley Cup champs? That’s what Rick Dudley did as defenceman Brent Sopel and forwards Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd, Ben Eager and prospect Akim Aliu all came over from Chicago. Notables gone are rearguard Pavel Kubina and forward Colby Armstrong. This is the first full season without star Ilya Kovalchuk, so scoring is the question mark. Nick Peverley had 22 goals and Niclas Bergfors, part of the Kovalchuk deal in March, had 21 last season, but Brian Little plunged from 31 goals to 13. Second-year winger Evander Kane offers hope, as do young defencemen Zach Bogosian and Tobias Enstrom. Chris Mason now backs up hot and cold goalie Ondrej Pavelec.
Last season: 35-37-10, 80 points, 11th in East, missed playoffs.
Breakdown: Many “ifs” characterize the team that has missed the playoffs three times since winning the Cup in 2006. The main certainty is a first-rate top-line centre in Eric Staal. Cam Ward can also be a top goaltender when healthy. After that, it’s a fast, young team that got even younger with the departure of warhorse Rod Brind’Amour. Anton Babchuk returns after a year in the KHL to bolster the defence, but the rearguard to watch is 22-year-old Jamie McBain who had 10 points in 14 games late last season. Jussi Jokinen is coming off a 30-goal campaign, while 21-year-old Brandon Sutter can build on his 21 goals and there are high hopes for former first-rounder Zach Boychuk.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Last season: 30-38-14, 74 points, 15th in East, missed playoffs.
Breakdown: The hopes are high for Tyler Bozak, who will start the season as the first-line centre between sniper Phil Kessel and newly acquired Kris Versteeg. But big questions remain for a team that struggled to score and had the league’s worst penalty killing last season. Colby Armstrong brings a 15-goal season and a dose of grit up front from Atlanta and Nikolai Kulemin hopes to build on a 16-goal campaign. Dion Phaneuf is the new captain. He leads a physical but suspect defence that includes still-improving Luke Schenn as well as Francois Beauchemin, Mike Komisarek and, of course, Tomas Kaberle—he of the never-ending trade rumours. It should help that goalie J-S Giguere, acquired during last season, will have a full year in Toronto backed up by still-promising Jonas Gustavsson.
New York Islanders
Last season: 34-37-11, 79 points, 13th in East, missed playoffs.
Breakdown: Any pre-camp optimism on Long Island faded when top defenceman and power play anchor Mark Streit went down for six months with a shoulder injury followed two days later by a shoulder tear that will put young forward Kyle Okposo out for two-to-three months. Now the hopes are that 2009 first-overall pick John Tavares will take another step after a 54-point rookie year, that Matt Moulson can repeat as a 30-goal scorer and that injury-plagued goalie Rick DiPietro can play more than the 13 games he’s started over the last two seasons. If not, 41-year-old back-up Dwayne Roloson is there. Picking up experienced defencemen Mark Eaton, James Wisniewski and Milan Jurcina will help and gifted fifth-overall pick Nino Niederreiter may get a chance to get his feet wet in the NHL.
Last season: 32-27-13, 77 points, 14th in East, missed playoffs.
Breakdown: GM Dale Tallon, who built much of the Blackhawks’ Cup team, is using the same formula in Florida—building through the draft. Trading Nathan Horton and Keith Ballard added to his total of 13 picks, including three first rounders, in the June draft. They included third-overall pick Erik Gudbranson, a physical defenceman. The defenceman and goaltending are the strengths, with Dennis Wideman added to a blue-line that includes Bryan Allen and Bryan MCabe as well as young guns Dimitry Kulikov and Keaton Ellerby. Tomas Vokoun and Scott Clemensen are a first-rate goaltending tandem, while they also have blue chip prospect Jacob Markstrom working his way up. It will help that sniper David Booth is looking strong after missing most of last season with a concussion.