With the season about to kick off later this week, here's my take on the Eastern Conference. Last week's predictions for the Western Conference can be found here and here.
Outlook: The Islanders seem to make as much news off the ice with their quest for a new arena (or potential relocation) than the on-ice product. They've notably added Next-next-next One, John Tavares and a couple of goalies in Martin Biron and Dwayne Roloson who are at least capable NHL'ers. Other than that, the cupboard remains bare - the Isles payroll is amongst the lowest in the league.
How they could make this prediction wrong: Tavares ends up being more "Crosby" than "Stamkos" in his first season. The young core of players like Josh Bailey, Kyle Okposo and Blake Comeau all need to blossom to avoid the basement, but it's hard to picture NYI making a realistic run to get to the playoffs this season.
Player to watch: Mark Streit [74 games played, 16 goals, 40 assists last season]
Young gun: Tavares [rookie]
After the jump, the other teams in store for a long winter, which includes a big named team who made it to the playoffs last season...
Outlook: The circus of the management and ownership woes and headscratches continues in Tampa. Before last season they brought in a ton of forwards and saw injuries ravage their defense corps. This season they brought in a host of more defensemen, more than they need, and are thin at forward. Tampa boasts some great skill up front, but they could be in real trouble scoring if any of their big guns goes down to injury.
How they could make this prediction wrong: Steven Stamkos (who scored at nearly 1 point per game in the last 30 games of last season) trained all summer with his former teammate and noted fitness freak Gary Roberts. If Stamkos can live up to his immense promise, new addition Victor Hedman can make a smooth jump to the NHL (tough for an 18 year old) and goalie Mike Smith can shake concussion headaches, Tampa could make a run.
Player to watch: Vincent Lecavalier [77 games, 29 goals, 38 assists last season]
Young gun: Stamkos [79 gp, 23g, 23a]
13. Ottawa Senators
Outlook: With Dany Heatley out of the picture the Sens can look forward, with more depth they hope. But I'm seeing problems for them, especially if the mercurial Alexei Kovalev doesn't pan out. Also new #1 goalie Pascal Leclaire hasn't been able to stay healthy and establish himself as a #1 NHL goalie, which is something of a concern entering the season.
How they could make this prediction wrong: Addition by subtraction with Heatley gone and the hope that Cory Clouston can "coach ‘em up". Clouston helped the Sens to a good finish once he took over, there's hope he could be a coach in the mold of Bruce Boudreau or Dan Byslma to go from the minors to a major league success story.
12. Florida Panthers
Outlook: Florida moves on with the loss of a franchise player in Jay Bouwmeester. The Panthers were able to trade him for Jordan Leopold and also signed Dennis Seidenberg to help steady the blueline. The Panthers didn't add much in terms of free agency, they're banking on a young nucleus of players to continue improvement to put them back in the playoffs.
How they could make this prediction wrong: Those young players pan out; guys like Stephen Weiss, Nathan Horton, Rostislav Olesz and Michael Frolik have shown their talent but haven't parlayed it into a full season full of winning. The goaltending duo of Tomas Vokoun/Scott Clemmensen is probably quietly one of the best tandems in the East as well.
Player to watch: David Booth [72 games, 31 goals, 29 assists last season]
Young gun: Frolik [79gp, 21g, 24a]
Outlook: Brian Burke is starting to put his mark on this team with the notable additions usually giving the Maple Leafs' more size, grit and snarl. But by getting Phil Kessel from division rival Boston, he added some skill too. Toronto will be one of the most altered and overhauled team in the East; but results aren't always as immediate. Kessel, after all, starts the year on the IR and hitting and fights may inspire but they don't put the puck in the net (or keep it out of your own).
How they could make this prediction wrong: Goalie Vesa Toskala holds the fort down, or new intriguing pickup Jonas "The Monster" Gustavsson does it for him.
10. Buffalo Sabres
Outlook: Fairly quiet off season for the Sabres; which is good because they didn't lose any stars this summer unlike the past. This team is banking on guys like Tim Connolly and Ryan Miller staying healthy and picking up some slack to kick them over the top. Buffalo has some good skill (like Tomas Vanek and Derek Roy) but with a relatively no-name blueline - which could include 19 year old 6'8" Tyler Myers - the Sabres seem very much a bubble playoff team that could go either way with/without some luck.
How they could make this prediction wrong: A shot in the arm is found somewhere, perhaps by 5'6" Nathan Gerbe to help Buffalo be a little more explosive offensively. A great season by Miller could put them over the top, but if he struggles or gets hurt in this Olympic year, it likely dooms the Sabres back to the draft lottery.
Player to watch: Vanek [73 games, 40 goals, 24 assists last season]
Young gun: Gerbe [10gp, 0g, 1a]
Outlook: Big changes in Manhattan with a lot of new faces. John Tortarella gets his first full season with the Rangers but with so much roster turnover, it's hard to imagine a settled product right out the gates. Defensemen Wade Redden and Michal Rozsival had rough seasons and are the goats of the town, can they bounce back from it and show the talent that got them big-time contracts in the first place?
How they could make this prediction wrong: Marian Gaborik, though immensely skilled, has been impossible to keep healthy, with a history of hip and groin problems. Throw in that Madison Square Garden has some of the league's choppiest and worst rated ice and there's a recipe of disaster to be found. If Gaborik stays healthy, he'll pot 40+ goals and the Rangers are in the post-season. However if he doesn't play 40 games, their offense is going to be in big trouble, with a repeat of last spring's difficulty to score goals.
Tomorrow we look at your playoff bound teams in the East.