1.) Boston Bruins: The Bruins are big, mean, and talented throughout their roster. They boast incredible depth at both forward and defence, able to go toe to toe with any team in the league. Despite the departure of Tim Thomas, the Bruins should be fine in net. Former Maple Leaf Tuuka Rask has shown in the past that he can handle the #1 job. Expect the Bruins to battle for top spot in the east all season long.
2.) New York Rangers: With the addition of Rick Nash to last season’s Eastern Conference finalist core, the Rangers are primed for success in 2012-13. Anchored by the unflappable Henrik Lunqvist, the Rangers will ice a solid d-core and a trio of game breakers up front. Few teams can match the overall depth of the Bruins, but the Rangers are definitely one of them.
3.) Washington Capitals: Do I think the Capitals are the 3rd best team in the conference? No. But they are definitely the front runners in a relatively weak Southeast Division. I expect a swing back to a more offensive brand of hockey under new head coach Adam Oates, which should benefit both Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. The Capitals goal tending remains a concern, but this wont stop them re-claiming their division crown.
4.) Pittsburgh Penguins: How can a team with arguably the games 2 best players be ranked 4th? Well, the Penguins lack a key component that the league’s other top teams have, depth. After the “big 3″ of Crosby, Malkin, and Neal the scoring drops right off. On the back end the Penguins will have to rely on several youngsters in key roles if they hope to succeed. The Penguins have tremendous star power, but their overall lack of depth will keep them from reaching their full potential.
5.) Philadelphia Flyers: This is a big year for the Flyers franchise. With Chris Pronger’s return looking ever more doubtful, both the on and off-ice leadership duties are being passed to Claude Giroux. But the Flyers will have to deal with more then just Pronger’s absence as the team also let go Jaromir Jagr and defensive stalwart Matt Carle. “Mr Universe” is going to have to play lights out if the Flyers hope to make it past the beasts in the east.
6.) Buffalo Sabres: In 2012-13 the Sabres should return to form as one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference. They boast one of the deepest defences in the east backed up by one of the games best tenders. The forward core lacks size, but this was somewhat offset by the acquisition of Steve Ott. They still wont be out muscling anyone, but the Sabres should push the Bruins for tops in the Northeast Division.
7.) Carolina Hurricanes: Since winning the cup in 2005-06 the Hurricanes have only made the post season once. Look for that to change in 2012-13. The d-core remains young and inexperienced but they can rely on the rock steady presence of Cam Ward between the pipes. Off season acquisitions Alex Semin and Jordan Staal should push the Canes over the top and back into the post season.
8.) Tampa Bay Lightning: After a magical run to within one game of the Stanley Cup Final in 2010-11, the Lightning fell off the map in 2011-12. They faltered down the stretch due to an ailing d-core and an ageing goalie. By bringing in Matt Carle, Sami Salo, and Anders Lindback GM Steve Yzerman has assembled a roster that will once again see post season play. They wont catch anyone off guard like two years ago, but the Lightning will do just enough to squeak by.
9.) Ottawa Senators: The Senators are something of a wildcard entering the 2012-13 season. Erik Karlsson is sure to see a regression, but the team still contains some of the highest end talent in the league. I really wanted to slide the Senators into that 8th and final playoff spot, but the Lightning bring just a little more to the table. Missing the playoffs will be a disappointment, but the Senators are definitely a team on the rise.
10.) Montreal Canadiens: The acquisitions of Brandon Prust and Colby Armstrong were steps in the right direction. The Canadiens used to lack size up front, but not anymore. Now all they lack is some top end talent. Carey Price and P.K. Subban will both be stars in this league for years to come. Max Pacioretty has the makings of a star, but right now the Canadiens do not have the offensive output to leapfrog the Senators and Lightning for that last playoff spot.
11.) Winnipeg Jets: The Jets are a team on the cusp in Eastern Conference. Their off season additions added some much needed depth up front and should go a long way in helping Evander Kane take the next step. The team boasts a solid d-core top to bottom and a promising young goalie in Ondrej Pavelec. The only things keeping the Jets from moving up the rankings are the improvements made by their divisional competition. They are moving in the right direction, but the Canes, Caps, and Bolts are moving there faster.
12.) Toronto Maple Leafs: I really like what James Van Riemsdyk brings to the table. He has the size and skill to excel in the NHL, but unfortunately he plays the wrong position. The Leafs are in desperate need of two things (well, besides Tyler Seguin and Dougie Hamilton): a top flight goalie and a top line centre. Top line centres don’t just grow on trees, so I can’t fault Burke for failing to find one this off season. However when a top 5 goalie in Roberto Luongo could be had for a relatively cheap price, I can fault Burke for not pursuing him a little harder. As it stands the Leafs will be competitive in the east, but ultimately will fall short of the post season. With Luongo I would instantly bump them up to the 6-8 range. Your move Burke.
13.) Florida: The Panthers were a revelation last year, a team of misfits and scrap parts thrown together in a hurry who eventually went on to win their division. But there will be no encore. The future is bright for the Panthers, don’t get me wrong. They boast, without a doubt, the strongest group of blue chip prospects in the entire league (at least one at every position). But the loss of Jason Garrison on the back end is going to put even more pressure on Brian Campbell in the defensive zone, which is simply not his style. Lightning wont strike twice for the Cats.
14.) New Jersey Devils: As it stands now, no team was hurt more by free agency than the Devils. They lost their best two way forward, their heart, soul, and captain. With Zach Parise heading to the Wild, virtually every one of his responsibilities now shifts to Ilya Kovalchuk. I have no doubt he can handle the pressure, but there is simply no replacing what Parise brought to the table. The Devils are going to struggle in the offensive zone as well as in the defensive zone. Martin Brodeur is already showing signs of breaking down and this upcoming season will not be kind to the now 40 year old tender.
15.) New York Islanders: I feel for the Islanders, I really do. Garth Snow seems like a decent builder, but Charles Wang is always hovering over his shoulder. The Islanders have built a solid stable of young talent through the draft, but don’t have the pieces around them to be successful. The core of this team has contender potential, but it will not be recognized until more support is brought in around them.