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Top Shelf: Average teams create Eastern Conference intrigue

Carey Price had a 13-20-5 record last season. (Getty Images)

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Carey Price had a 13-20-5 record last season. (Getty Images)

Being called a “playoff team” in a league where almost half the squads fall short of the post-season is no doubt a compliment, but it’s far from a ringing endorsement when dealing with the utterly average Eastern Conference.

It’s amazing how, when discussing a cluster of East teams with tenuous playoff hopes, after rhyming off all their deficiencies and reasons they should fall short, the conversation inevitably ends up with, “but the East is so bad, you never know…”

The way we’ve got it figured, Washington, Pittsburgh, Boston, Philadelphia and New Jersey can be penciled in for post-season spots; not necessarily in that order.

The only teams we’re prepared to write off fully at this early juncture are the Islanders and Florida. That leaves eight teams battling for three spots and there’s a case to be made for and against all of them.

Here they are.

ATLANTA THRASHERS

IN A complete culture change and the return to 30-goal form for Bryan Little sparks the Thrashers. Now in his third year on the Atlanta blueline, Zach Bogosian takes his game to a new level.

OUT Having Nik Antropov as your top center two years running is a tough way to nab a post-season berth, even if the big man set a career high with 67 points last year.

BUFFALO SABRES

IN Ryan Miller plays the way Ryan Miller does and Thomas Vanek finishes closer to 40 goals than 30. A 70-point player would help, too.

OUT The small Sabres could simply be muscled out by bigger clubs if they’re not the most determined team on the ice most nights. A sophomore slump from Tyler Myers would be crippling for an already-underwhelming blueline.

CAROLINA HURRICANES

IN The team keeps playing the way it did in the second half of last season, after burying itself with a horrid start. Eric Staal and Brandon Sutter could soon be one of the most enviable 1-2 punches up the middle.

OUT Is Jussi Jokinen good for 30 goals again? Ray Whitney’s points have left for Phoenix. It has been a patchwork blueline for a while and this season is no different. Kids also often take a year longer to develop than people hope.

MONTREAL CANADIENS

IN Carey Price is finally ready to assume the No. 1 role, while both Benoit Pouliot and Andrei Kostitsyn put up goal totals worthy of top-six forwards. A big rookie season from P.K. Subban would go a long way, too.

OUT It will be an excruciating winter in Habland if Price isn’t as good as he needs to be. The Canadiens struggled to score last season – they tied Toronto for 25th in the league with 2.56 goals per game – and there’s no reason to assume the offense will be dramatically improved.

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NEW YORK RANGERS

IN Martin Biron holds the fort for 15 games, allowing a fresh Henrik Lundqvist to shine brighter than ever in the remaining 67. The Rangers got a healthy, productive campaign from Marian Gaborik during his first season on Broadway; will they be lucky enough to get an encore plus a bounce-back year from Alexander Frolov in his Ranger debut?

OUT Gaborik once again fails to stay in the lineup consistently and the Blueshirts are completely dominated up the middle thanks to a shocking dearth of impact centers.

OTTAWA SENATORS

IN Old guy Sergei Gonchar and young guy Erik Karlsson do an excellent job moving the puck up to improving forwards such as Nick Foligno and Milan Michalek.

OUT
With shot-blocker extraordinaire Anton Volchenkov gone, goalies Pascal Leclaire and Brian Elliott will see even more rubber. Maybe that’s OK, maybe it’s not.

TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING

IN Dan Ellis stabilizes the goaltending situation, while hulking defender Victor Hedman takes a leap forward worthy of those long legs in Year 2.

OUT The talent drop from the top two lines to the bottom two proves simply too precipitous. Another down year from Vincent Lecavalier won’t help matters, either.

TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS

IN None of the other seven teams scrapping it out for these three playoff slots has a better blueline – on paper, anyway – than the Leafs. Between J-S Giguere and Jonas Gustavsson, competent crease work is a good bet.

OUT Dion Phaneuf continues to show the defensive holes that have pocked his game for a couple years, while Phil Kessel is left to provide all the offense on his own.

Ryan Dixon is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Tuesday and his column, Top Shelf, appears Wednesday.

For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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