Pittsburgh Penguins: With Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh can beat anyone. Without him? Who knows. While Sidney Crosby’s health is vital, a good sign is that even without Crosby and Malkin for large chunks of last season and the playoffs, the Penguins finished fourth and pushed Tampa Bay to a tough seven game series. The captain’s absence allowed for the emergence of Chris Kunitz, defenseman Kris Letang and a stellar finish from Marc-Andre Fleury. If Crosby is healthy, the Penguins will give the Flyers a run for their money for the division, and challenge for the cup.
Philadelphia Flyers: After a disappointing end to last season, Holmgren shook up the team by trading away captain Mike Richards and leading goal scorer Jeff Carter. Despite losing a lot of firepower up front, the Flyers may have filled the position they needed most by finally acquiring a proven goaltender in Ilya Bryzgalov. Philadelphia has some upcoming talent in newly acquired Brayden Schenn along with fourth-year forward Claude Giroux. Much of the Flyers’ success this year hinges on the play of Jaromir Jagr. If he can play up to his old form, look for Philly to be a powerhouse in the east.
New York Rangers: The Rangers won the free agent battle for Brad Richards, who had 77 points in 72 games last season with the Stars. The question is if Richards is enough to allow the Rangers to move up in the standings and make a legitimate playoff run. Success also rests on the health of superstar Marion Gaborik. If he can stay healthy, he and Richards, a natural playmaker, will be a dynamic duo up front. With Henrik Lundqvist in net the Rangers will have a chance to win every night.
New Jersey Devils: Despite a ton of hype last year, the Devils’ season was disappointing. Star Forward Zach Parise got hurt early in the season, Ilya Kovalchuck didn’t seem to fit in the Devils offense, and 39-year-old Martin Brodeur started to show signs of age. However, the Devils did go 23-5 between mid-January and mid-March, which bodes well for this year. Look for New Jersey to bounce back and look almost as good on ice as they do on paper.
New York Islanders: Despite finishing 14th in the east last year, Islanders fans should be excited that their team is on the way up as they rebuild through the draft. Highly touted John Tavares is beginning to live up to the hype, and Michael Grabner and Matt Moulson look like legitimate NHL scorers, with each potting over 30 goals last season. Don’t expect the Islanders to be good this year but watch for them in coming years as they develop.
Boston Bruins: With the tandem of Tim Thomas and backup Tuukka Rask in net, and Zdeno Chara protecting them, this team’s always going to be tough to score on. The B’s have a great system under Head Coach Claude Julien, and play gritty, physical hockey from the first to the fourth line. As usual, the only question is whether they can get sufficient scoring to win—the addition of offensive defenceman Joe Corvo should help out here. There’s a chance this team could be even better than it was last year, depending on the development of youngsters like Tyler Seguin and Brad Marchand.
Buffalo Sabres: For once, star goaltender Ryan Miller isn’t the biggest story in Buffalo at this time of the year. That honour goes to 6’8″ third-year defenceman Tyler Myers, and the enormous contract extension he just signed with the club. Armed with new owner Terry Pegula’s endless pipeline of money, this year’s Sabres reversed the trend of departing free agent talent by bringing in blueliners Christian Ehroff and Robyn Regehr, along with forward Ville Leino. Still, the team as it stands is in serious cap trouble so GM Darcy Regier will have to make some moves before the puck drops.
Montreal Canadiens: Carey Price’s performance last year proved that he can withstand the heat that comes with playing in hockey-mad Montreal. The only question is, will anyone else on this team step up and help him? With an overpriced core (Gomez and Gionta particularly) that’s had the team locked on a steady course for good-but-not-greatness over the past couple of years, we can expect more of the same this time around. Erik Cole’s a nice addition but he won’t make the difference.
Toronto Maple Leafs: Reimer fever is sweeping Leafs nation. For a team that hasn’t had much stability between the pipes since the heyday of Eddie Belfour, Reimer may be the answer, or he might just be the next in a string of disappointing flash-in-the-pan keepers. An improved defensive corps, along with another year of development from Luke Schenn, Nazem Kadri, and the rest of the team’s young guns should see yet more improvement in the win column. Still, likely not enough to make the playoffs.
Ottawa Senators: The best thing about this year’s Sens team is the design of their new heritage-style jerseys. Craig Anderson is the best goaltender the franchise has had in a long time, but the team in front of him is too young to compete. Although this year will be painful, Ottawa has a bright future ahead. First-round pick Mika Zibanejad joins an impressive young core that includes David Rundblad, Jared Cowen, and college standout Stephane Da Costa.
Washington Capitals: Alexander Ovechkin is coming off of a “disappointing” year after registering 85 points, which is still more than a point per game. The entire Capitals team is looking to bounce back after a shocking four-game sweep at the hands of the division rival Tampa Bay Lightning. GM George McPhee decided to solve his goaltending problem and signed veteran goalie Tomas Vokoun to a paltry $1.5 million contract to stabilize the team and add the missing piece to an already formidable Capitals roster.
Tampa Bay Lightning: The Tampa Bay Lightning are known for having one of the most potent offences in the NHL. Dwayne Roloson surprised many last year, but his 42-year-old body will probably be unable to bear the full brunt of the goaltending responsibilities and Dan Ellis is no longer around to be his backup. The defence is good and Victor Hedman is a burgeoning star, but in order for this team to make it deep into the playoffs, it will once again have to lean on its offence.
Carolina Hurricanes: Hurricanes fans will be disappointed this year, after seeing their team come off of a surprise 91-point season that had them finishing nine games over .500 last year. Last year’s rookie of the year Jeff Skinner will have to match his unbelievable 31 goal season and a number of things will have to go right for them to even sniff the playoffs in 2012. Eric Staal will provide much needed leadership for this young team and Tomas Kaberle should instantly help bolster their powerplay.
Florida Panthers: The Florida Panthers spent a lot of money this off-season to get up to the cap floor and incidentally improved their team in the process. The Panthers shelled out expensive, risky contracts and traded for the grossly overpaid Brian Campbell this past summer, but in doing so have turned themselves into a dark horse team in the Eastern Conference. The Panthers will be able to put out four solid lines this year, and will surprise a lot of fans.
Winnipeg Jets: All the Winnipeg Jets have to do is show up to have a successful year for the born-again franchise, which is a good thing considering how poorly the team did last year. Thirteen of their players are born between 1985 and 1991, so youth will be a big part of the 2012 season in Winnipeg. The Jets’ slogan is “Fuelled by Passion,” which is a good thing because they certainly won’t be fueled by victories.
Detroit Red Wings: Despite the many changes to their division rivals’ rosters, Detroit isn’t about to step down as division leader this season. Even after losing fan favourites like Brian Rafalski, Kris Draper, and Chris Osgood, the Wings have solid goaltending in Jimmy Howard and retain their core of outstanding players in Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Johan Franzen, and Nick Lidstrom. Detroit’s clock is ticking, but it’s not midnight yet.
Chicago Blackhawks: The Blackhawks were very active during the off-season, trading away yet more members of the 2010 Stanley Cup team, such as Brian Campbell and Troy Brouwer, while toughening up with the likes of Steve Montador and the infamous Dan Carcillo. The ‘Hawks’ biggest addition of the off-season though, was Andrew Brunette who, at 38 years old, has played over 1,000 games and has over 700 points. Chicago should challenge Nashville for the second spot in the division and should make the playoffs as long as rookie goaltender Cory Crawford can keep up his numbers from last season.
Nashville Predators: Nashville’s off-season moves were not brilliant, as they lost excellent young players in Joel Ward and Cody Franson, but were able to retain defensive superstar Shea Weber after going to arbitration. Nashville still features the league’s top defensive pairing in Weber and Ryan Suter; they also have one of the league’s top three goaltenders in Pekka Rinne. With many other young players wanting to make a lasting impression, the Predators should have a strong year ahead of them.
St. Louis Blues: This year, the Blues enter the season with a core of very young, talented, but raw players, such as Chris Stewart, T.J. Oshie, Patrick Berglund, and David Perron. To aid in their development, GM Doug Armstrong signed a couple of strong veterans, Jason Ar
nott and Jamie Langenbrunner, to mentor the younger players while helping to fill out the bottom six. Although the Blues’ young talent will excite, the playoffs are still a couple of years away.
Columbus Blue Jackets: The Jackets made a huge splash this summer by acquiring superstar centre Jeff Carter from Philadelphia, and signing defenceman James Wisniewski to a long-term deal. Carter should serve as the elite centre that captain Rick Nash has never had, while Wisniewski was brought in to help ignite Columbus’ failing power play. If Steve Mason can rediscover his rookie form, Columbus should have a good season but a playoff berth might be a stretch.
Vancouver Canucks: The defending western champs are set to be one of the dominant powers in the conference once again. Some may question the heart of the Sedins after their performance in the Stanley Cup Final, but this team was only one win away. Losing Christian Ehrhoff and Raffi Torres might worry other franchises, but the Canucks are so deep that Vancouver won’t even notice. Marco Sturm will be a nice addition to a team that already had what it takes to challenge again.
Minnesota Wild: It may seem odd to see the Wild placed this high, but in such a weak division, someone has to be number two. Minnesota made waves in the off-season by acquiring two former Sharks in Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi. The first line will be deadly but the loss of Brent Burns and Martin Havlat will hurt. If newly-minted Head Coach Mike Yeo can follow the recent trend of successful AHL-turned-NHL head coaches, the Wild may surprise.
Calgary Flames: The Flames are blessed with a core of players who were all good in NHL 2004, and that doesn’t bode well for them nine years later. Jarome Iginla, Olli Jokinen, Alex Tanguay, and Jay Bouwmeester have all seen better days, and that problem is compounded by the loss of long-time D-man Robyn Regehr. The addition of Lee Stempniak will add some new blood to the system, but that Stanley Cup run feels like a long time ago for a team that’s been lacking an identity for years.
Edmonton Oilers: The Oilers are blessed with some of the best young talent in the league and many believe they are poised for a breakthrough … is likely what we’ll say next year. Edmonton’s young guns may have a hard time getting used to the rough-and-tumble style of play in the western conference. Taylor Hall, Magnus Pajaarvi, Linus Omark, and Jordan Eberle welcome Ryan Nugent-Hopkins to the fold but Oiler fans will be excited about someone a tad older: Ryan Smyth is back and ready to lead this group of youngsters back to respectability.
Colorado Avalanche: A team that finished 29th in the NHL should do everything it can to stockpile draft picks and prospects for the future (ain’t that right, Leaf fans?). Colorado traded a first and a conditional second round pick to Washington for oft-injured goalie Semyon Varlamov in an attempt to score their first true number one since Patrick Roy. Gabriel Landeskog can look forward to meeting the Avs’ next top-five draft pick, when they meet in Washington next year.
San Jose Sharks: The Sharks have been one of the top teams in the league for years now, but they have not been able to get over the hump and make it to the Stanley Cup finals. Labeled as soft, San Jose went out this summer and traded Devin Setoguchi, a sniper, for Brett Burns, a tough-nosed defender from the Wild. They also swapped Dany Heatley for Martin Havlat to add some balance to their forwards. Their soft label may finally peel off and they have a strong chance of making the finals this season.
Los Angeles Kings: The Kings made some big moves this summer and are going all out for the Stanley Cup this year. Mike Richards, acquired in a blockbuster trade with Philadelphia, will add some grittiness to this already explosive lineup. Along with the likes of Anze Kopitar, Richards makes the Kings a legitimate contender in the West. L.A. was also able to lock up number-one defenceman Drew Doughty, who was in contention for the Norris last year. With a physical front line and a sturdy defence, the Kings should aim high this season.
Anaheim Ducks: Anaheim is looking to build upon an outstanding season with an even better one. The Ducks finished with 99 points last year, only six points behind the pacific division champion San Jose Sharks. Cory Perry won the Hart Trophy, Bobby Ryan also had an impressive season with 71 points and Ryan Getzlaf is fully healthy and ready to centre this elite top line. The Ducks can only improve on last year’s performance and look to contend for a top-five finish in the West yet again.
Phoenix Coyotes: After a summer filled with uncertainty due to the threa
t of relocation, the Coyotes lost some key pieces of their playoff team this summer. Their major loss was their elite goaltender, Ilya Bryzgalov, and it is hard to see the Coyotes challenging for the playoffs again this season without him. Although Phoenix is still a solid team, it will be extremely difficult for them to make the playoffs with the strength of the Western conference this year.
Dallas Stars: The Stars are coming off a 95 point season where they narrowly missed making the playoffs. Unfortunately, their chances this year will be even slimmer with the loss of Brad Richards to free agency. The Stars find themselves in the toughest division in the whole league, with the four other teams having made the playoffs last year. The Stars should plummet further as they look to rebuild their squad with youth and move away from the old guard.