Since 2009 no team has won more games or scored more goals than the PENGUINS 1. Last season Pittsburgh had a 15-game winning streak and led the league with 165 goals. And yet.... Nagging injuries, poor chemistry and, especially, inferior goaltending resulted in a fourth straight season without a Stanley Cup.
Why should this season be different? For one, the team's superstars, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, are both healthy at the same time, something that rarely was the case last year. With solid, complementary forwards James Neal, Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis signed to long-term deals and embattled coach Dan Bylsma re-signed, G.M. Ray Shero will roll the dice with his core group for a while. Scoring will not be the problem; the Penguins need at least one young defenseman to emerge a year after Shero dealt three prospects and five draft picks in the month leading up to the trade deadline. Puck-rushing Derrick Pouliot, 19, and Boston College standout Brian Dumoulin, 22, could win spots as rookies this year. Though Shero has fewer assets at hand, he has some spare talent up front that he could dangle at the deadline if the blue line and wobbly goalie Marc-André Fleury falter.
A wild card, of course, is Crosby, who over the last three seasons has 159 points in just 99 games but has missed 113 games with head and jaw injuries. He seemed completely worn out in the conference finals against the Bruins, during which he went scoreless in a Boston sweep. It's hard to pick against the defending conference champs, especially in the wake of their total domination of the Penguins last June, but Pittsburgh has the most talent. They're the favorites.
ON THE DOORSTEP
By the end of the 2013 playoffs, Patrice Bergeron's body looked like a medical school case study: a broken rib, a separated shoulder and a punctured lung. He's fine now, and with Bergeron and goalie Tuukka Rask re-signed, the BRUINS 2 are positioned to contend for years to come. Bergeron downplayed his toughness as "nothing special" and his team's trip to the finals as "incomplete." It's that kind of attitude that will keep Boston in the fight for the championship. The signing of free-agent forward Jarome Iginla should ease the loss of Nathan Horton, but with Andrew Ference also gone and Zdeno Chara now 36, the trio of Torey Krug, 22, Matt Bartkowski, 25, and Dougie Hamilton, 20, will have to step forward to bolster the D.
THE RANGERS' 3 hell-bent, shot-blocking style never quite fit their quick, smallish roster. New coach Alain Vigneault, far more fire wagon than his predecessor, John Tortorella, will give core players such as Derek Stepan and Ryan Callahan more room to create and build on the strong seasons they had in 2012--13. Expect bigger roles, too, for Mats Zuccarello and late-season pickup Derick Brassard, creative forwards who will be freer to flash their skills under Vigneault. But as star goalie Henrik Lundqvist enters his walk year, this team must blend its old grit with new acquisitions on defense to give Lundqvist a reason to stay. A Cup would certainly do it.
The Red WINGS 4 needed to infuse their veteran roster with youthful enthusiasm as they relocated to the East. So whom did they add? Forty-year-old forward Daniel Alfredsson. Detroit also added forward Stephen Weiss, who joins two-way forwards Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, and that's enough for the Wings to make another run for the aged.
Imagine that four of the NHL's top rookie scorers last year came from one team. Then say that injuries caused that team's most valuable defenseman (Erik Karlsson), ace goalie (Craig Anderson) and top forwards (Jason Spezza and Milan Michalek) to miss a combined 123 games. Bring them back healthy and hungry, and you have a SENATORS 5 team that has the opportunity to make the biggest leap in the conference.
ONE PLAYER AWAY
Canada's two flagship franchises are not far from new glory. CANADIENS 6 GM Marc Bergevin decided not to go on an off-season spending spree because he has faith in his young players: Norris Trophy winner P.K. Subban, 24, and forwards Max Pacioretty, 24 (39 points), Alex Galchenyuk, 19 (27 points), and Brendan Gallagher, 21 (28 points). The Habs are a bottom-half playoff team right now, but Bergevin's patience will be rewarded in the coming years. The MAPLE LEAFS 7 toughened up by signing forwards Dave Bolland and David Clarkson from teams (Chicago and New Jersey, respectively) accustomed to thriving in the postseason. New acquisition Jonathan Bernier should challenge James Reimer for the top goalie spot, giving Toronto a chance to do better than last season's opening-round exit from the playoffs.
Both the ISLANDERS 8 and the FLYERS 9, hulks of the 1980s, should fight for the last playoff scraps. The sight of John Tavares matching dazzling plays with Crosby in last spring's playoffs was a revelation on Long Island. Here was moxie, optimism and an identity for a franchise that has spent three decades clumsily chasing its '80s legacy. Now with a growing roster of slick forwards under 30 and a new arena waiting for them, New York is, at the very least, fun again, though defensive holes will keep it from being a real contender.
Philadelphia has seen a revolving door of goaltenders in recent years, but the Flyers may have solved their netminder problem by adding Ray Emery from the Blackhawks. Though he was a backup by playoff time, his regular-season numbers (17-1-3, 1.94, .922) were Vezina-worthy. Still, in front of Emery gasps an old defense that added 35-year-old Mark Streit from the Islanders. Of the projected top six, only Luke Schenn, 23, is younger than 27.
WAIT TIlL NEXT YEAR
Forget the bad start. The BLUE JACKETS 10 finished the year on a 19-5-3 run, and goalie Sergei Bobrovsky won the Vezina Trophy. Give them a full season with star forward Marian Gaborik and savvy veteran Nathan Horton, a stunning free-agent signee from Boston, and there will be some entertaining nights in Columbus. Not the playoffs, but lots of fun.
Expect the transplants from the weak Southeast Division to struggle. It took time last season for the CAPITALS 11 to adjust to coach Adam Oates and for Alex Ovechkin to find MVP form after his move to the right side, but Washington still finished with a 15-2-2 run. The Capitals made only a few off-season roster moves. Given the upgrades of their rivals in the new Metropolitan Division, they're in for a tough season.
A healthy Cam Ward would do wonders in Carolina. With their goalie hobbled by an MCL sprain in his left knee, the HURRICANES 12 went from division leader to playoff absentee, and only the Panthers gave up more goals than Carolina's 160. For any hope of a postseason run—and there isn't much—the team will need Ward to return to the form that won him the Conn Smythe in 2006.
How does a team with the league's top two scorers—Martin St. Louis (60 points) and Steven Stamkos (57)—finish out of the playoffs? Allowing 150 goals, 26th in the league and winning just five one-goal games were two reasons. Both return, and the LIGHTNING 13 have some talent, big talent, in 6'7" Ben Bishop and 6'6" Anders Lindback, who will split time in goal, but the team will need more than that to regain its old stature.
WAIT TIlL 2017
The prospect of another Olympics may be just what SABRES 14 goalie Ryan Miller needs to find his mojo. He was the best player on the ice in Vancouver, leading the U.S. to a silver medal in 2010. But his numbers have tumbled since then, and if Miller repeats last year's ordinary effort (17-17-5, 2.81, .915) with one of the league's youngest teams in front of him, he will be left off the roster for the Sochi Games and on vacation by late April.
The DEVILS 15 were the NHL's lowest-scoring team even with Ilya Kovalchuk. Now that the sniper has retired from the NHL in order to play in Russia and David Clarkson has signed with Toronto as a free agent, the leftovers are skimpy. Apart from winger Patrik Elias, the most prolific returning scorer is Travis Zajac, with 20 points. At 41, free agent Jaromir Jagr, who failed to score in 22 playoff games with Boston, is supposed to infuse the offense. With what? Geritol?
On the other end of the age spectrum, the newly planted youngsters on the PANTHERS 16 need time to sprout. Calder Trophy winner Jonathan Huberdeau, 20, will share the same bench with the returning Drew Shore, a 22-year-old playmaking forward; top four defensemen Erik Gudbranson, 21, and Dmitry Kulikov, 22; and starting goalie Jacob Markstrom, 23. That is enough reason to endure the three years it will take before Florida contends again.
Scoring will not be the problem—the Penguins need at least one young defenseman to emerge.
The sight of Tavares matching dazzling plays with Crosby in last spring's playoffs was a revelation on Long Island.
GREGORY SHAMUS/NHLI/GETTY IMAGES (MALKIN)
CENTER STAGE A healthy Malkin will team with Crosby in the NHL's highest-flying attack; now about that defense and goaltending....
BRUCE BENNETT/GETTY IMAGES (TAVARES)
HART HOPEFULS Ovechkin (8) and Tavares (91) are MVP-caliber playmakers, but a lack of upgrades will make the Capitals and the Islanders middle of the pack at best.
PATRICK MCDERMOTT/NHLI/GETTY IMAGES (OVECHKIN)
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