The BRUINS are on edge, which is bad news for the rest of the conference. After heartbreaking playoff exits in each of the last two seasons—Boston lost in seven games to the Canadiens in the second round last spring, one year after falling to the Blackhawks in a thrilling Stanley Cup finals—the Presidents' Trophy winners are filled with what goalie Tuukka Rask calls "anxious purpose, like we have to finish our business."
The "business" to which Rask is referring is winning the Stanley Cup, which the Bruins feel they should have at least played for last season. Boston had 84 more goals for than goals against in 2013--14, a differential that was 27 more than any other team's. Rask, with a career-high 36 victories and a .930 save percentage, tops among goalies who played 30 or more games, won the Vezina Trophy. He also bolstered a blue line that, while led by former Norris Trophy winner Zdeno Chara, lost stalwart Dennis Seidenberg last December when he tore both the MCL and the ACL in his right knee.
The return of Seidenberg is one reason that the Bruins are the pick to go to their third Stanley Cup finals in five seasons. The defense will be airtight—only the Kings allowed fewer goals than Boston last year. The Bruins also have three young defensemen who should only improve: Matt Bartkowski, 26, Dougie Hamilton, 21, and Torey Krug, 23. Last year the trio combined for a +62 rating.
Center Patrice Bergeron scored 30 goals last season to tie for the team lead with Jarome Iginla, but six other Boston forwards also scored at least 10. Despite the off-season loss of Iginla to free agency, there's no team in the East that can match that kind of offensive balance.
ON THE DOORSTEP
The stars are back, but look past Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and the PENGUINS are a different team, one with a new GM (Jim Rutherford) and coach (Mike Johnston). Pittsburgh shed seven regulars during the off-season and, with an eye toward getting tougher, signed or traded for a handful of rough-edged new players, including front-of-the-net poacher Patric Hornqvist, who scored 22 goals last year for the Predators. He should help make up for the loss of left wing James Neal (27 goals in 2013--14). Still, the Penguins don't have the supporting players necessary to win a Cup.
The LIGHTNING have loads of young talent. Center Steven Stamkos, who missed half of last season with a broken right leg, has been one of the league's top scorers for the last five years, and he's only 24. He'll be complemented this year by improving forwards J.T. Brown, 24, Alex Killorn, 25, and Nikita Kucherov, 21. It will be hard for goalie Ben Bishop to play better than he did in his first full season (37-14-7, 2.23 goals-against average, .924 save percentage), but Tampa Bay has enough talent up front to strike fear into the East's top teams.
The RANGERS overachieved to reach the Stanley Cup finals last spring, lifted by the superb efforts of goalie Henrik Lundqvist and several now-departed role players. Veteran front-line acquisitions Tanner Glass, Matthew Lombardi, Ryan Malone and Lee Stempniak add more savvy than skill—all are at least 30 and scored a combined 21 NHL goals last season.
The RED WINGS should reach the playoffs for the 24th straight season, but health is an issue. Detroit lost 421 man-games to injury last year, second most in the NHL, and forwards Henrik Zetterberg (back surgery) and Pavel Datsyuk (knee) played just 45 games apiece. (On Sept. 22, Datsyuk suffered a separated shoulder during a preseason game and will miss the next four to six weeks.) Center Stephen Weiss is a four-time 20-goal scorer, but—hampered by a groin injury that led to season-ending hernia surgery last December—he had just two in 26 games.
ONE PLAYER AWAY
The defense pairing of P.K. Subban and slick-passing Andrei Markov will make the CANADIENS better. Subban, the 2013 Norris Trophy winner, was more productive with Markov on the ice last year than he was with any other defenseman. Goalie Carey Price is coming off a breakout season, and left wing Max Pacioretty is a steady leader, but Subban is the new face of the franchise. He's dynamic and unpredictable—just like the Habs.
The BLUE JACKETS are poised to be one of the better teams in the East, but there could be trouble if they can't sign leading scorer Ryan Johansen. With a career-high 33 goals last season, he led a core of talented youngsters. Rugged newcomer Scott Hartnell, the only Columbus forward over 30, joins a group that includes 25-year-old winger Cam Atkinson (21 goals) and 28-year-old center Brandon Dubinsky (16).
The FLYERS announced in August that defenseman Kimmo Timonen was out indefinitely because of blood clots in his lungs and right leg. GM Ron Hextall signed free agent Michael Del Zotto soon after, but the blue line remains thin. Up front, Philly traded away grit for speed, sending 20-goal scorer Scott Hartnell to the Blue Jackets for left wing R.J. Umberger. The Flyers would love to unload former goal-scoring champ Vincent Lecavalier, who will earn $6 million this season but only had 20 goals and 17 assists in 2013--14. His underperformance has mirrored the team's.
WAIT TILL NEXT YEAR
New MAPLE LEAFS president Brendan Shanahan returns to his hometown to reverse a decade of decline—Toronto missed the playoffs last season for the eighth time in nine years. Thirty-goal scorers Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk return, but the Leafs gave up more shots than any other team, and goalies Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer must be better. Defensive additions Stephane Robidas and Roman Polak will help, but they won't be enough.
With so much emphasis on helping Alex Ovechkin last season, most everything else fell by the wayside for the CAPITALS. Ovechkin scored 51 goals, but was also --35. Washington was second best in the NHL with the man advantage but 22nd at even strength. Barry Trotz, the Capitals' fourth coach in four seasons, will give defensive sensibility to a club that added vets Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik to the blue line.
Barring the unlikely in-season re-signing of 42-year-old Martin Brodeur, a new era has begun in New Jersey. The DEVILS are all in with goalie Cory Schneider, who had a stingy 1.97 goals-against average in 45 games last year. New additions Mike Cammalleri and Martin Havlat will bolster the veteran forwards, but Schneider won't stop nearly enough pucks to put New Jersey back in the playoffs.
The ISLANDERS need to preserve leads better; New York won a league-low 56% of games that it led after two periods last season. With a healthy John Tavares, who went down in Sochi last February with a torn MCL, and the additions of goalies Jaroslav Halak and Chad Johnson, and forwards Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin, the Isles will be deeper but not playoff caliber.
WAIT TILL 2018
With brothers Eric and Jordan Staal centering the top two lines, the HURRICANES have a strong front six, but Jordan will miss the next three to four months with a broken right leg suffered during a preseason game on Sept. 23. That's bad news for Carolina's power play, which was the league's third-worst last year (14.6%). Several regulars are hoping to return strong from injuries, including forwards Alexander Semin (concussion) and Jiri Tlusty (appendectomy), and goalie Cam Ward (groin). The team isn't deep enough—especially without Staal—to go to the playoffs.
SENATORS forwards Bobby Ryan and Kyle Turris must fill the void left by Jason Spezza (23 goals, 43 assists), who was dealt to the Stars in July. Ryan had .69 points per game last year, his first in Ottawa, after averaging .76 in five-plus seasons with the Ducks. Goalie Craig Anderson also slid backward, going from a 1.69 goals-against average and a .941 save percentage in 2012--13, to 3.00 and .911. If Anderson and Ryan don't find their old form, there's no chance that the Senators—conference semifinalists two years ago—will either.
Last season the SABRES ranked last in the league in goals for (157) and shots per game (26.3). Their power play was 29th, and they were the only team in the East that was below .500 when scoring first. Buffalo added some veteran forwards with punch during the off-season, but Brian Gionta, Cody McCormick and Matt Moulson won't be able to make up for a lousy defense.
The PANTHERS' special teams are horrible. Florida was last in the NHL on both the power play (a hard-to-believe 10.0%) and the penalty kill (76.0%). New coach Gerard Gallant has defenseman Aaron Ekblad, this summer's No. 1 pick, in the fold, as well as some new veterans with Stanley Cups on their résumés (Willie Mitchell, Dave Bolland and Shawn Thornton), but there's not enough talent to make much difference.
1 BOSTON BRUINS
2 PITTSBURGH PENGUINS
3 TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
4 NEW YORK RANGERS
5 DETROIT RED WINGS
6 MONTREAL CANADIENS
7 COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS
8 PHILADELPHIA FLYERS
9 TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
10 WASHINGTON CAPITALS
11 NEW JERSEY DEVILS
12 NEW YORK ISLANDERS
13 CAROLINA HURRICANES
14 OTTAWA SENATORS
15 BUFFALO SABRES
16 FLORIDA PANTHERS
GREG M. COOPER/USA TODAY SPORTS
CREASE IS THE WORD Rask, who won the Vezina Trophy last year, is the impenetrable wall behind Boston's impenetrable blue line.
KIM KLEMENT/USA TODAY SPORTS (SUBBAN)
MONTREAL'S MAN Subban is the face of the Habs, a symbol of their potential and their unpredictability.