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Off-season changes make wide-open Eastern Conference hard to predict

The Canadian Press
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Montreal Canadiens goalie Carey Price (31) makes a save against Boston Bruins winger Milan Lucic (17) during second period NHL playoff hockey action Thursday, May 8, 2014 in Montreal. The Bruins are the closest thing to a powerhouse in the wide-open East. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz Author: The Hockey News

News

Off-season changes make wide-open Eastern Conference hard to predict

The Canadian Press
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Over the past six seasons, five different teams have represented the Eastern Conference in the Stanley Cup final. The Boston Bruins are the closest thing to a powerhouse in the wide-open East.

Those Bruins also lost in the second round of last year's playoffs to the Montreal Canadiens, made no off-season additions and lost right-winger Jarome Iginla, enforcer Shawn Thornton and backup goalie Chad Johnson.

"You never want to see changes, you never want to see guys go," said Patrice Bergeron, Boston's MVP candidate. "It's always hard at first but it's part of the game, part of the business and see what happens."

Meanwhile, the New York Rangers and Habs went through changes, and the Tampa Bay Lightning are expected to be a year older and better. And don't forget about the much-improved New York Islanders, New Jersey Devils and maybe even the Florida Panthers.

Put 16 teams into a hat, pick out eight and you might have as good a chance as any of choosing which ones make the post-season in the East.

And then, as Rangers defenceman Ryan McDonagh said: "When you get in, everybody feels like they got a chance."

Here's a look at the Eastern Conference in the predicted order of finish by division (asterisk indicates wild-card playoff teams):

ATLANTIC DIVISION

1. Boston Bruins

Last season: 54-19-9, 117 points, first in Atlantic, lost in division final to Montreal

Who's gone: RW Jarome Iginla, LW Shawn Thornton, G Chad Johnson, D Andrej Meszaros

Who's new: None

Outlook: In a salary-cap crunch to round out the roster, the Bruins have kept their core of Selke Trophy-winner Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, Milan Lucic, Brad Marchand, Zdeno Chara and Vezina Trophy-winner Tuukka Rask together. Because of that, Boston is still the beast of the East. What the Habs series showed is the Bruins are beatable with the right matchup, but over an 82-game regular season their depth is difficult to match.

2. Tampa Bay Lightning

Last season: 46-27-9, 101 points, second in Atlantic, lost in division semifinals to Montreal

Who's gone: G Anders Lindback, LW Ryan Malone, RW Teddy Purcell, F B.J. Crombeen, F Nate Thompson

Who's new: C Brian Boyle, D Anton Stralman, D Jason Garrison, G Evgeni Nabokov, LW Brenden Morrow, LW Jonathan Drouin

Outlook: Despite a first-round sweep at the hands of the Habs, coach Jon Cooper's team is considered on the rise thanks to star captain Steven Stamkos, defenceman Victor Hedman and goalie Ben Bishop. The addition of rookie Jonathan Drouin to a team that already had two Calder Trophy finalists in Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat gives the Lightning even more of a spark. Winning in the playoffs is the next test for Tampa Bay, and Boyle and Stralman should help in that department.

3. Montreal Canadiens

Last season: 46-28-8, 100 points, third in Atlantic, lost in conference final to New York

Who's gone: RW Brian Gionta, LW Thomas Vanek, D Josh Gorges, F Daniel Briere, C Ryan White

Who's new: RW P-A Parenteau, D Tom Gilbert, C Manny Malhotra, F Jiri Sekac

Outlook: Even with plenty of roster turnover, the Habs maintain the identity of a scrappy team that gets offence from P.K. Subban and relies on goaltender Carey Price in big situations. Trading Briere for Parenteau helps replace Gionta, while the signing of Malhotra fills an important bottom-six role. Price staying healthy is always important for Montreal, and that's especially true in such a competitive Atlantic Division.

4. Florida Panthers*

Last season: 29-45-8, 66 points, seventh in Atlantic

Who's gone: D Ed Jovanovski, D Tom Gilbert, F Scott Gomez, G Scott Clemmensen

Who's new: C Olli Jokinen, C Dave Bolland, LW Shawn Thornton, D Willie Mitchell, D Aaron Ekblad, C Derek MacKenzie, G Al Montoya

Outlook: Stable goaltending from Roberto Luongo for a full season and the growth of youngsters like Jonathan Huberdeau, Nick Bjugstad and Dylan Olsen could mean the Panthers make a big leap. Florida won't be a bottom-feeder anymore, but is it a playoff contender already? A top four on the blue-line of Brian Campbell, Dmitry Kulikov, Mitchell and Erik Gudbranson isn't half bad and if the progression of prospects continues the sun could be rising on another bright era of hockey in South Florida.

5. Detroit Red Wings

Last season: 39-28-15, 93 points, fourth in Atlantic, lost in conference semifinals to Boston

Who's gone: F Todd Bertuzzi, F David Legwand

Who's new: None

Outlook: The Red Wings made it 23 consecutive playoff appearances even after injuries to stars Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datysuk and a host of others ravaged their season. Detroit hopes it can be better by having young players like Tomas Jurco and Tomas Tatar replace aging veterans' ice time and by staying healthy. Gustav Nyquist might have to score 25 to 30 goals, especially with Datsyuk already hurt. Star coach Mike Babcock is in the last year of his contract.

6. Toronto Maple Leafs

Last season: 38-36-8, 84 points, sixth in Atlantic

Who's gone: C Dave Bolland, LW Mason Raymond, F Nikolai Kulemin, D Carl Gunnarsson, C Jay McClement, D Tim Gleason

Who's new: LW David Booth, F Daniel Winnik, C Mike Santorelli, F Petri Kontiola, F Leo Komarov, D Stephane Robidas, D Roman Polak, F Matt Frattin

Outlook: The Maple Leafs are the biggest mystery in the NHL with a host of new bottom-six forwards and talk about a changing culture under new president Brendan Shanahan. But the core and coach Randy Carlyle remain. Toronto could finish as high as third or as low as seventh in the division because so much is unknown. Maybe after a debilitating late-season slide, this is a step-back-and-reassess year for the Leafs and 2015-16 becomes the playoff target.

7. Ottawa Senators

Last season: 37-31-14, 88 points, fifth in Atlantic

Who's gone: C Jason Spezza, RW Ales Hemsky, LW Matt Kassian

Who's new: RW Alex Chiasson, C David Legwand

Outlook: Paul MacLean didn't become a bad coach from his Jack Adams-winning 2013 season to last year's disappointment, but this is still a team that lacks whatever Daniel Alfredsson brought beyond production. If prospects like Mark Stone and Curtis Lazar contribute more than expected, the Senators could surprise. Or maybe it's on goaltenders Craig Anderson and Robin Lehner to show last season was a blip and not the start of a downturn in Ottawa.

8. Buffalo Sabres

Last season: 21-51-10, 52 points, eighth in Atlantic

Who's gone: D Christian Ehrhoff, F John Scott

Who's new: RW Brian Gionta, LW Matt Moulson, D Josh Gorges, C Sam Reinhart, D Andre Benoit, D Andrej Meszaros

Outlook: Even with some smart, veteran off-season additions, the race for Connor McDavid (or Jack Eichel or Noah Hanifin, take your pick) is on in Buffalo. General manager Tim Murray has the rebuild going well, but a top-end talent like that could get it on the fast track. Something to watch for is the development of young players Zemgus Girgensons, Rasmus Ristolainen and maybe Mikhail Grigorenko and Nikita Zadorov, too.

METROPOLITAN DIVISION

1. Pittsburgh Penguins

Last season: 51-24-7, 109 points, first in Metropolitan, lost in division final to New York

Who's gone: RW James Neal, D Brooks Orpik, D Matt Niskanen, F Jussi Jokinen, C Joe Vitale, LW Tanner Glass, D Deryk Engelland, RW Lee Stempniak

Who's new: D Christian Ehrhoff, F Patric Hornqvist, F Nick Spaling, G Thomas Greiss, RW Steve Downie, LW Blake Comeau

Outlook: The regime shift from Ray Shero and Dan Bylsma to new general manager Jim Rutherford and new coach Mike Johnston were just a couple of the Penguins' changes. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin is each still in his prime, but this is a different mix without Neal, Orpik and Niskanen. Marc-Andre Fleury bears watching in a contract year, as does the youth, like defenceman Olli Maatta and winger Beau Bennett. Expectations remain high in Pittsburgh, and justifiably so.

2. Washington Capitals

Last season: 38-30-14, 90 points, fifth in Metropolitan

Who's gone: C Mikhail Grabovski, LW Dustin Penner, G Jaroslav Halak

Who's new: D Brooks Orpik, D Matt Niskanen, G Justin Peters

Outlook: Defensive breakdowns were Washington's biggest problem in 2013-14, when the playoffs only got within reach with a late run. The Capitals weren't as close to making it as the standings look. But with Evgeny Kuznetsov around from the start, new coach Barry Trotz running the show and Alex Ovechkin coming off a 51-goal season, the Capitals could get right back into the post-season. Braden Holtby is key to that possibility.

3. New Jersey Devils

Last season: 35-29-18, 88 points, sixth in Metropolitan

Who's gone: G Martin Brodeur, D Anton Volchenkov, D Mark Fayne, C Andrei Loktionov

Who's new: F Mike Cammalleri, RW Martin Havlat, G Scott Clemmensen

Outlook: Had the Devils won even half their shootouts after going 0-13 last season, they would've been in playoff contention. Coach Peter DeBoer playing Cory Schneider more and Brodeur less might have done it, too. With Brodeur gone, that won't be a problem this time around. Jaromir Jagr might not put up 67 points again, so that offence will have to come from somewhere. That could come from Cammalleri or bargain-basement pickup Martin Havlat.

4. New York Rangers*

Last season: 45-31-6, 96 points, second in Metropolitan, lost in Stanley Cup final to Los Angeles

Who's gone: C Brad Richards, C Brian Boyle, D Anton Stralman, LW Benoit Pouliot, LW Derek Dorsett

Who's new: D Dan Boyle, LW Ryan Malone, LW Tanner Glass, RW Lee Stempniak, D Mike Kostka

Outlook: Did the Rangers take advantage of good matchups to make the Cup final, or are they among the best in the East for years to come? Veterans like Martin St. Louis and Henrik Lundqvist bet it's the latter, and Alain Vigneault is one reason to think it's possible as New York is now accustomed to the former Vancouver Canucks coach. Losing Richards (compliance buyout), Boyle and Stralman will hurt, and there's almost no depth at centre with Derek Stepan injured.

5. Philadelphia Flyers

Last season: 42-30-10, 94 points, third in Metropolitan, lost in division semifinals to New York

Who's gone: LW Scott Hartnell, RW Steve Downie

Who's new: F R.J. Umberger, D Michael Del Zotto, D Nick Schultz

Who knows: D Kimmo Timonen

Outlook: Timonen's absence for the foreseeable future after the diagnosis of blood clots is worse than anything else that happened to Philadelphia over the summer. Timonen played every situation for the Flyers, and they'll feel his loss unless Del Zotto can do it all, too. Hartnell for Umberger was a downgrade, too. But GM Ron Hextall has talked about building through scouting and the draft, so one step back for a couple forward might be the way to go.

6. Columbus Blue Jackets

Last season: 43-32-7, 93 points, fourth in Metropolitan, lost in division semifinals to Pittsburgh

Who's gone: D Nikita Nikitin, F R.J. Umberger, LW Blake Comeau, C Derek MacKenzie, RW Jack Skille, D Nick Schultz

Who's new: LW Scott Hartnell

Outlook: Steady as she goes for the Blue Jackets, who have been on the rise with 2013 Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky and some of the best no-name talent in the league. Columbus didn't have a player in the top 30 in the NHL in points; Ryan Johansen was 34th and he was the only player above 51 points. Missing camp could put a crimp in his whole season. But Nathan Horton's potential long-term absence could really derail this season.

7. New York Islanders

Last season: 34-37-11, 79 points, eighth in Metropolitan

Who's gone: G Evgeni Nabokov

Who's new: G Jaroslav Halak, C Mikhail Grabovski, F Nikolai Kulemin, RW Jack Skille, G Chad Johhson, D T.J. Brennan

Outlook: With a healthy John Tavares after an Olympic knee injury ended his 2013-14 season and Halak and Johnson providing what should be a huge upgrade over last year's mish-mash in goal, the Islanders HAVE to be better, right? Yes, they should be, but this is a tough division and a conference with 16 teams and few who could be called non-competitive. Defence is still the problem for the Islanders, whose best are Lubomir Visnovsky and Travis Hamonic.

8. Carolina Hurricanes

Last season: 36-35-11, 83 points, seventh in Metropolitan

Who's gone: C Manny Malhotra, G Justin Peters

Who's new: D Tim Gleason, C Jay McClement

Outlook: Somebody has to be last in this division, and barring a monster season from captain Eric Staal, winger Alexander Semin, defenceman Justin Faulk or goaltender Cam Ward, it's the Hurricanes. After five straight seasons out of the playoffs, Carolina is in the midst of a retooling process under new GM Ron Francis and new coach Bill Peters. Jeff Skinner could be primed for a strong year, but Jordan Staal missing the first half of the season with a broken leg is a bad start.

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Off-season changes make wide-open Eastern Conference hard to predict