2017-18 NHL Eastern Conference Preview

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Hey Jack, hockey’s back!

The puck will drop this Wednesday, October 4 on the 2017-18 National Hockey League season and once again HockeyClan has got you covered. This is part two of our two-part series previewing the Eastern and Western Conferences.

Here are team-by-team previews letting you know who’s new, who’s where and where they’re going:

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Atlantic Division

Tampa Bay Lightning

A healthy Steven Stamkos should vault the Tampa Bay Lightning back up the standings. (Photo by Scott Iskowitz/Getty Images)

The Lightning took a big hit when top centerman and face of the franchise, Steven Stamkos went down with a leg injury 17 games into the season. Despite failing to even qualify for the post-season in 2016-17, many experts predict the Lightning to return to the form that saw it reach the Stanley Cup Finals just two years ago.

Stamkos’ absence allowed forwards Nikita Kucherov, Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Alex Killorn to flourish in his place earning valuable ice time in critical situations that should pay dividends with a healthy Stamkos back in the mix. Blessed with one of the top defensemen in the league in Victor Hedman, the Lightning arguably got stronger during the off-season with the additions of Dan Girardi and Mikhail Sergachev to the blue line. Still, the biggest question is young Andrei Vasilevskiy in between the pipes and whether the Russian is ready to seize the reigns full time.

Key Additions: Dan Girardi, Mikhail Sergachev, Chris Kunitz

Key Losses: Jonathan Drouin, Jason Garrison

Toronto Maple Leafs

The kids can play. One of the most exciting, young teams in the league, the Toronto Maple Leafs turned heads by qualifying for the post-season for just the second time in the last 13 years. Blessed with a bevy of talented forwards including heralded No. 1 pick Auston Matthews, the Leafs are no longer the laughing stock of the league and it may be Toronto which in fact has the last laugh in 2017-18.

In addition to Matthews’ 40 goal, 69-point rookie campaign en route to the Calder Trophy, the Leafs also line up William Nylander, Mitch Marner, Nazem Kadri, Tyler Bozak, Connor Brown, Leo Komarov and Kasperi Kapanen alongside veterans James van Riemsdyk and Patrick Marleau, the latter of whom was brought over from San Jose via free agency. While questions remain regarding in defensive core in Morgan Reilly, Jake Gardiner and Nikita Zaitsev, the Leafs did well bringing over Stanley Cup champion Ron Hainsey from Pittsburgh to bolster their unit. Frederik Andersen excelled in his first year to the tune of 33-16-14 with a 2.67 GAA and .918 save %.

Key Additions: Patrick Marleau, Ron Hainsey, Dominic Moore

Key Losses: Brian Boyle, Matt Hunwick, Brendan Leipsic

Boston Bruins

Frank Vatrano #72 celebrates with Zdeno Chara #33 and David Pastrnak #88 after a Boston Bruins goal. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Zdeno Chara seems like he’s been around forever. At 6’9”, “Big Z” is the tallest player to ever play in the National Hockey League. He’s also 40-years old and entering his 19th year in the league. While he isn’t the player he used to be, the Bruins have done well bridging the gap to the next generation with Torey Krug and former first round pick, Charlie McAvoy, waiting in the wings.

Boston is still one of the best teams in the league. Diminutive forward Brad Marchand has transitioned from pest to one of the best goal-scorers in the league, lighting the lamp 39 times while dishing out 46 assists. The B’s have a nice blend of up-and-comers in David Pastrnak, Frank Vatrano and Ryan Spooner to compliment veterans Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, David Backes and Matt Beleskey. Goaltender Tuukka Rask continues to put up a wall in net, checking in at 37-20-5 with a minuscule 2.23 GAA and .915 save %.

Key Additions: None

Key Losses: Colin Miller, Dominic Moore

Ottawa Senators

The Senators nearly played the role of spoiler when it came within inches of sending the Pittsburgh Penguins home in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals. While it was an abrupt end to what was an otherwise highly successful season with two series victories in the playoffs, the Senators will be hungry to prove it was no fluke this season.

Beginning and ending with goaltender Craig Anderson in between the pipes, the Senators return nearly intact with four solid lines and two solid pair of defense. Up front, Kyle Turris centers the top line in between Mark Stone and Mike Hoffman. Playoff hero Bobby Ryan heads up the second line along with Derick Brassard and Ryan Dzingel, but it’s role players like Alex Burrows and defensive dynamo Jean-Gabriel Pageau which is the glue that holds Ottawa together. Erik Karlsson continues to recover from off-season ankle surgery but he is skating with the team. His presence is vital at both of the ends of the ice as the offense flows through him. Ottawa lost Marc Metho to Vegas in the expansion draft but retain Dion Phaneuf, Cody Ceci and Thomas Chabot.

Key Additions: Nate Thompson, Johnny Oduya

Key Losses: Marc Methot, Tommy Wingels

Montreal Canadiens

Carey Price of the Montreal Canadiens.
(Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty Images)

With 24 Stanley Cups on its resume, the Montreal Canadiens are the team by which all others are measured. Even though most of those cups came in the pre-expansion, six-team era, it has been 25 years since Les Habitants last hoisted Lord Stanley in 1992-93.

In the highly-scrutinized Canadian market, fans live and breathe Le Bleu-Blanc-et-Rouge but it’s been a tough go lately. After bouncing back from an 82-point season in 2015-16, goaltender Carey Price returned to form with a 37-20-5, 2.23 GAA, .923 save % regular season which produced 103 points and a playoff berth. That success did not carry over to the post-season, however, as the Rangers bounced them in six games. To muddle the waters further, the Canadiens dismantled the team by releasing or trading eight players which bringing back very few in return.

Still, with Price in between the pipes and the vigorous Shea Weber policing the blue line the Canadiens remain contenders. The team traded for the much-maligned Jonathan Drouin from the Lightning and the former first round pick will be given every chance to excel on the top line along with Alex Galchenyuk and Max Pacioretty.

Key Additions: Jonathan Drouin, Alex Hemsky, Peter Holland, Karl Alzner, David Schlemko, Mark Streit

Key Losses: Alexander Radulov, Andrei Markov, Nathan Beaulieu, Alexei Emelin, Mikhail Sergachev, Brian Flynn, Nikita Nesterov, Steve Ott

Buffalo Sabres

The Sabres season was seemingly over before it started when franchise savior Jack Eichel suffered a high-ankle sprain on the last day of practice before the start of the season. Eichel was limited to just 61 games last season and still led the team in scoring with 57 points. His value to the rebuild in Buffalo is immeasurable.

It is a new era in the Queen City with a new coach in Phil Housley and a new GM in Jason Botterill running the show. The tandem is off to a great start and has a lot to work with surrounding Eichel with the likes of Sam Reinhart, Kyle Okposo, Ryan O’Reilly, Evander Kane, Matt Moulson and Jason Pominville. Defense continues to be an issue but the team added Marco Scandella and Nathan Beaulieu to a core that includes Rasmus Ristolainen, Zach Bogosian and Jake McCabe. The team retained goaltender Robin Lehner who will look to build upon last season’s .920 save %.

Key Additions: Jason Pominville, Benoit Pouliot, Jordan Nolan, Marco Scandella, Nathan Beaulieu, Chad Johnson

Key Losses: Tyler Ennis, Marcus Foligno, Dmitry Kulikov, Anders Nilsson

Detroit Red Wings

After a stellar collegiate career at the University of Maine, Jimmy Howard still patrols the crease for the Detroit Red Wings. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

It was an end of an era in more ways than one last season, not only as the Red Wings closed the doors to the hallowed hallways of Joe Louis Arena, but the team missed the playoffs for the first time in 27 years. While there have certainly been more good times than bad for the 11-time Stanley Cup champions, it may get harder before it gets easier.

After going 33-36-13 last season, Detroit did almost nothing to its roster, sticking with the players they’ve drafted in-house — a recipe for success in the past, which has produced the likes of Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg. While Datysuk has retired from the game, Zetterberg is the last man standing from the old regime. The hopes are that players like Dylan Larkin, Anthony Mantha, Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Tatar, Justin Abdelkader, Riley Sheahan, Andreas Athanasiou and Tyler Bertuzzi will learn on the fly. Danny DeKeyser, Mike Green, Trevor Daley and Niklas Kronwall anchor one of the worst defensive units in the league, while Jimmy Howard continues to defy Petr Mrazek in net.

Key Additions: None

Key Losses: None

Florida Panthers

The Panthers were hit the hardest in the expansion draft losing both Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith to the Vegas Golden Knights. The team also elected to not bring back Jaromir Jagr. The top line of Jonathan Huberdeau-Aleksander Barkov-Evgeny Dadanov just doesn’t instill fear in teams. Vincent Trocheck, Radim Vrbata, Nick Bjugstad and Derek MacKenzie are serviceable veterans but the Panthers will have a hard time in a tough Eastern Conference.

Prospects are not much brighter in between the pipes for Florida as Roberto Luongo attempts to make a comeback for an 18th season following off-season hip surgery — not always the best type of injuries for goaltenders. Fortunately, the Panthers brought journeyman James Reimer aboard last season. Reimer saw 43 games in net last season and could easily exceed that number in 2017-18 with Luongo on the mend.

Key Additions: Evgeny Dadanov, Radim Vrbata

Key Losses: Jonathan Marchessault, Reilly Smith, Jaromir Jagr, Michael Sgarbossa

 

Metropolitan Division

Pittsburgh Penguins

Evgeni Malkin #71 and Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrate with the Stanley Cup Trophy after defeating the Nashville Predators 2-0 in Game Six to win the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Final at the Bridgestone Arena on June 11, 2017 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Sixteen wins — that’s what it takes to hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup and the Penguins did it again, becoming the first NHL team to win back-to-back cups since the Detroit Red Wings 19 years ago. Pittsburgh continues to be the best team in the modern era thanks to Sidney Crosby and an outstanding supporting cast. The odds-on favorite to make it a three-peat, the Penguins are once again the team to beat.

Returning nearly intact, Pittsburgh arguably may be even better in 2017-18 with the healthy return of All-Star defenseman Kris Letang and the continued emergence of playoff rookie sensation Jake Guentzel. Crosby is expected to build chemistry with the rookie and Phil Kessel on his wings, while Evgeni Malkin centers the second line with Patric Hornqvist and Connor Sheary. The Penguins have additional depth in Carl Hagelin and Bryan Rust along with some added toughness in the acquisition of Ryan Reaves from St. Louis.

Defense — long considered its Achilles’ Heel, may be a strength if Letang can return to form. Justin Schultz, who stepped up in his absence last season, returns along with Brian Dumoulin, Olli Maatta and Ian Cole. Matt Murray has seized the role of No. 1 goalie for the five-time champs.

Key Additions: Ryan Reaves

Key Losses: Chris Kunitz, Nick Bonino, Marc-Andre Fleury, Trevor Daley, Ron Hainsey, Mark Streit

Washington Capitals

For as much regular season success the Capitals have enjoyed, they have enjoyed just as little once the post-season rolls around. Eclipsing the 100-point plateau for the third straight year, the Capitals also fell in the second round of the playoffs for the third straight year. It’s not to say the Capitals are a bad team. It just may not be a team that delivers in the clutch. And after building up for the run that was sure to push them over the top, the fallout after the early exit was just as tough to swallow as the salary cap crunch saw trade deadline rentals and valuable pieces Kevin Shattenkirk, Justin Williams, Karl Alzner and Daniel Winnik walk after it was all said and done.

That said, anytime Alexander Ovechkin and passmaster Nicklas Backstrom is feeding him, the Capitals will be a formidable offensive force. After registering 50 or more goals for three straight seasons, Ovi slipped to 33 last season. What is clear is they cannot do it alone. Players like T.J. Oshie, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Andre Burakovsky, John Carlson and Matt Niskanen have to do more.

Key Additions: None

Key Losses: Kevin Shattenkirk, Karl Alzner, Justin Williams, Marcus Johansson, Nate Schmidt

Columbus Blue Jackets

Sergei Bobrovsky of the Columbus Blue Jackets. (Photo by Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

After a stellar regular season, which included the second-longest winning streak in NHL history (16) while setting franchise records in both wins and points, the Blue Jackets quickly exited stage left once the playoffs rolled around. At least they lost to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins.

The Blue Jackets made an off-season splash sending popular forward Brandon Saad back to the Chicago Blackhawks in exchange for Artemi Panarin. As a winger playing alongside Patrick Kane, Panarin scored 31 goals, however, it remains to be seen if he duplicate that feat without him. Early forecasts suggest Panarin will play left wing on Columbus’ top line with Cam Atkinson and Alexander Wennberg.

Backstopped by one of the best netminders in the league, Sergei Bobrovsky gives the Blue Jackets a chance to win on most nights. There is depth in front of him, too, in Seth Jones, Zach Werenski, David Savard, Jack Johnson and Ryan Murray. More will be asked — and expected — from Brandon Dubinsky, Nick Foligno, Boone Jenner and Sonny Milano.

Key Additions: Artemi Panarin

Key Losses: Brandon Saad, Sam Gagner, Scott Hartnell, William Karlsson, Kyle Quincy

New York Rangers

Just when fans were ready to count out Henrik Lundqvist, “The King” returned. After a slow start to the season, Lundqvist came on late to eclipse 30 or more wins for the 11th time in 12 seasons during his remarkable career. While the GAA (2.72) and Save % (.910) were not up to his standards, Lundqvist did his part defeating the Canadiens in the first round before falling to the Senators in round two. And with the recent trade of backup Antti Raanta, it will once again fall on his shoulders.

The addition of Kevin Shattenkirk is the big addition in The Big Apple. Not only did they steal him away from the division rival Capitals, Shattenkirk, who hails from nearby New Rochelle, N.Y., brings the Rangers the puck-moving defenseman the team has lacked since the days of Brian Leetch. While the subtractions were substantial, the Rangers should once again hover around 100 points and a playoff spot.

Key Additions: Kevin Shattenkirk

Key Losses: Derek Stepan, Antti Raanta, Dan Girardi, Oscar Lindberg, Brandon Pirri, Kevin Klein, Adam Clendening

Carolina Hurricanes

Sebastian Aho, Carolina Hurricanes. (Photo by Greg Thompson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

In the playoffs, all you need is a hot goaltender. In Raleigh, N.C., they’re hoping for both. Say hello to Scott Darling, the new darling in between the pipes and the Hurricanes best bet in net since Cam Ward carried the team to its one and only Stanley Cup championship in 2006. In spot duty for the Blackhawks, Darling excelled to the tune of 18-5-5 with a respectable 2.38 GAA and .924 save %. While it seemed unlikely Darling would unseat incumbent Corey Crawford, most experts felt the goalie would develop into a No. 1. Now, in 2017-18, Darling will get his chance.

Up front, the Hurricanes are an exciting, young team mixed with just the right amount of veterans to go on a run. Experienced forwards in Jordan Staal, Justin Williams and Jeff Skinner will tutor the likes of Sebastian Aho, Victor Rask, Teuvo Teravainen, Elias Lindholm and Joakim Nordstrom. Defenseman Justin Faulk is one of the most underrated players in the league while Noah Hanifin readies to spread his wings.

Key Additions: Scott Darling, Justin Williams

Key Losses: Eddie Lack, Ryan Murphy, Matt Tennyson

New York Islanders

After hovering around mediocrity, the Islanders finally decided to get franchise player John Tavares some help. Following the addition of Andrew Ladd last winter, the Isles added Jordan Eberle this season. The cerebral former first round pick registered 20 goals and 51 points for the Oilers in 2016-17 and should be able to exceed those numbers easily playing alongside Tavares’ right wing.

Anders Lee, Brock Nelson, Josh Bailey and Josh Ho-Sang bring a wealth of youthful exuberance up front while Nick Leddy, Johnny Boychuk, Calvin de Haan and Thomas Hickey should also improve. In net, the situation is muddled with Thomas Greiss and Jaroslav Halak jockeying for position in what is seemingly an endless saga. Halak bounced back and forth with Bridgeport (AHL) while Greiss fared good but not great sporting a 26-18-5 record to along with a 2.69 GAA and .913 save %.

Key Additions: Jordan Eberle

Key Losses: Travis Harmonic, Ryan Strome, Mikhail Grabovski, Jean-Francois Berube

Philadelphia Flyers

Shayne Gostisbehere #53 of the Philadelphia Flyers checks Oliver Bjorkstrand #28 of the Columbus Blue Jackets during the first period at Wells Fargo Center on March 13, 2017 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

It should definitely be interesting up and down I-95. After being passed on by the Devils with the No. 1 pick, highly-touted centerman Nolan Patrick fell to the Flyers at No. 2. Division rivalry anyone? In what should be scrutinized over and over for the next 10 years, it remains to be seen if Patrick will stick but Philadelphia will give Patrick every chance to succeed.

Fortunately, there remains a solid contingent in the City of Brotherly Love. Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, Wayne Simmonds, Sean Couturier and Valterri Filppula are experienced players with a track record of success. Unfortunately, it stops there. Defensman Shayne Gostisbehere enjoyed a highly successful rookie season in 2015-16, but regressed his sophomore campaign. There isn’t much help back there with Ivan Provorov, Radko Gudas and Andrew MacDonald expected to round out the top four in front of newcomer Brian Elliott in net.

Key Additions: Nolan Patrick, Brian Elliott, Oskar Lindblom, Jori Lehtera

Key Losses: Brayden Schenn, Steve Mason, Michael Del Zotto, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare

New Jersey Devils

Since advancing all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2011-12, the Devils have missed the playoffs altogether each of the last five years. It’s a tough pill to swallow for fans used to success with three Stanley Cup championships under its belt.

Lady Luck was signing Jersey’s tune, however, when the team was rewarded with the top pick in the NHL Draft lottery despite holding just an 8.5% chance. The Devils turned heads even further when they overlooked the top North American skater in the draft for the top European when they tabbed Switzerland’s Nico Hischier No. 1 overall.

New Jersey brought aboard former Capitals’ forward Marcus Johansson via free agency as well, but the losses, including Travis Zajac, who will miss 4-6 months after undergoing surgery for a torn left pectoral muscle, and Brian Boyle, who was diagnosed with Chronic Myeloid Leukemia, not to mention Mike Cammalleri, Jon Merrill and Devante-Smith-Pelly, ensures another long season. Will Butcher was the NCAA Hobey Baker Award Winner in 2016-17 but time will tell if he and Hischier can handle a step right into NHL action. Regardless, positive moves are being made to revitalize hockey in Newark.

Key Additions: Nico Hischier, Marcus Johansson, Brian Boyle, Drew Stafford, Will Butcher

Key Losses: Mike Cammalleri, Jon Merrill and Devante-Smith-Pelly, Jacob Josefson, Beau Bennett

New Jersey Devils center Nico Hischier (left), Philadelphia Flyers select center Nolan Patrick (right), and Dallas Stars select defenseman Miro Heiskanen (center) pose for a photo after being selected in the first round of the 2017 NHL Draft on June 23, 2017, at the United Center, in Chicago, IL. (Photo by Patrick Gorski/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

 

Projected Finish

Atlantic: 1-Tampa Bay. 2-Toronto. 3-Boston. 4-Ottawa*. 5-Montreal. 6-Buffalo. 7-Detroit. 8-Florida

Metropolitan: 1-Pittsburgh. 2-Washington. 3-Columbus. 4-NY Rangers*. 5-Carolina. 6-NY Islanders. 7-Philadelphia. 8-New Jersey

*Designates Playoff Wild Card

 

Main Image: Matt Hunwick #2 of the Toronto Maple Leafs tries to chase down Jack Eichel #15 of the Buffalo Sabres at First Niagara Center on October 21, 2015 in Buffalo, New York. (Photo by Jen Fuller/Getty Images)

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