1. Washington Capitals - Similar situation as last year, scary-good offense, young and developing defensemen, questonable goaltending. Look for 1 or both of young blueliners John Carlson and Karl Alzner to step up and help carry the load on defense.
2. Boston Bruins - Last season they couldn't score, they addressed that in the offseason with the trade for Nathan Horton who should thrive in a new enviroment, and drafting Tyler Seguin 2nd overall. If key offensive producers Marc Savard and David Krejci can stay healthy, they should have no problem scoring and their forward depth is easily near the top of the league. Their defense corps are thin, but coach Claude Julien's defensive mindset combined with a number of defensively strong forwards (Krejci, Patrice Bergeron, etc.) should help offset this issue. With rookie sensation Tuukka Rask and 09 Vezina winner Tim Thomas in net they should have no problems there. Rask is the current #1 guy after his season last year, but look for a strong push from Thomas, especially if Rask is hit with the sophomore slump.
3. New Jersey Devils - Will be tough to repeat as Atlantic divison champs with Pittsburgh and Philly right behind them but New Jersey always seems to prove the doubters wrong (in the regular season at least). They have a revamped blueline led by off-season acquisition Anton Volchenkov, Ilya Kovalchuk and Jason Arnott added to a forward group already employing Zach Parise and Travis Zajac, among others, and of course Martin Brodeur in net, who should finally get some much needed rest in-season.
4. Pittsburgh Penguins - They are a top-heavy team, but when the talent at the top is as high as it is here thats not necessarily a bad thing. Their blueline lost offensive stalwart Sergei Gonchar but replaced him quickly with mobile Paul Martin and the defensive Zbynek Michalek. It seems as though they will go another year without top-flight wingers to play alongside Crosby and Malkin, but there is talk of playing Malkin on the wing with Crosby and letting Jordan Staal take over the #2 center position, which he is certainly capable of.
5. Philadelphia Flyers - Their biggest question last season, goaltending, will once again be the biggest question this year as they have brought back traditional journeyman Michael Leighton after his Finals appearance last year. Their defense has been strengthened and they now have one of the deepest top six (or even 8) in the league, led by Chris Pronger. Simon Gagne was sacrificed due to cap restraints over the off-season, but this team is still paced by top forwards Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Daniel Briere and more.
6. Tampa Bay Lightning - Saw a massive off-ice overhaul in the offseason and it continued on the ice as new GM Steve Yzerman signed goalie Dan Ellis, defenseman Pavel Kubina and traded for top-6 forward Simon Gagne to make a formidable group also including Marty St. Louis, Steven Stamkos and Vincent Lecavalier. Ellis and incumbent Mike Smith will engage in some healthy competition for the top goalie spot and Kubina joins vet Mathias Ohlund and up and comer Victor Hedman on a steadily improving blueline.
7. Montreal Canadiens - Returns much of the same team to make the final four last year, however that team only squeaked into the playoffs as the number 8 seed and will be hard pressed to do so again. Carey Price will have to finally excel as the number one goalie as playoff hero Jaro Halak was jettisoned to St. Louis in the off-season. Much of this seasons success (or lack thereof) will depend on how Price can perform. If he holds his own they should once again be able to scratch and claw their way into one of the final playoff spots in the East and as they proved last year, anything can happen then.
8. Ottawa Senators - Had a decent showing last year, making the playoffs when not much was expected of the team and they put up a good fight against Pittsburgh in the first round, but now they need to take the next step. They lost defensive D-man Anton Volchenkov in the off-season but signed Sergei Gonchar, who is a much more offensive player, and this change signals the direction the Senators want to go. Gonchar and young Erik Karlsson should lead the D this year along with steady Chris Phillips, and they have offensive firepower up front with Jason Spezza, Daniel Alfredsson, Alex Kovalev and Milan Michalek. One of Brian Elliot and Pascal Leclaire needs to assume control of the #1 goalie position, however, and this could end up determining where the Sens finish this year.
9. Buffalo Sabres - Buffalo is one of the 'bubble' teams that will likely end up somewhere in the logjam that is likely to be the #6-10 spots in the Eastern conference standings this year. Ryan Miller will determine where in that area they end up, and even with a second consecutive superhuman performance he might not be enough to get them into the playoffs. They lost more than they added in the offseason, and there doesn't look like there is a lot of potential candidates within the organization to step up and replace some lost goals. However, coach Lindy Ruff always keeps this team competitive.
10. Carolina Hurricanes - Had a horrendous start to last season, but regrouped near the end and need to continue that uphill trend this season. They lost longtime Cane Rod Brind'Amour in the offseason to retirement as well as Ray Whitney, who departed via free agency. Eric Staal and goalie Cam Ward need to stay healthy this year to avoid another long losing streak like the one early last season.
11. Atlanta Thrashers - Underwent major offseason changes as new GM Rick Dudley tries to get this team on the right track. They no longer have Ilya Kovalchuk as their big name, instead they will attempt to become a team where the whole is bigger than the sum of its parts. They have a solid young D and their forwards are young and talented, but mostly unproven. Chris Mason and Ondrej Pavelev will battle for playing time in net.
12. Toronto Maple Leafs - A new era is on in Toronto and Dion Phaneuf is the face. He has talked the talk in the offseason, and now it is time for the new captain to walk the walk and resurrect his career with a strong season. The blueline is deep and strong and backed up in net by dependable JS Giguere and young Jonas Gustavsson. The offseason search for a big bodied top 6 winger was unsuccessful and scoring will once again be the main question mark in Toronto for this team on the upswing.
13. Florida Panthers - New GM Dale Tallon impressed at the draft with his stockpiling of picks, but unfortunately for Panthers fans, the positve results from that won't be seen at the NHL level for a couple years. It should be a long season in Florida, but help is on the horizon in the form of goaltending stud prospect Jacob Markstrom and a slew of other young, top prospects.
14. New York Rangers - Last year this teams main struggle was toughness, both physical and mental and little was done in the offseason to address this. Inconsistent Alex Frolov was brought in from LA, and GM Glen Sather vastly overpaid for heavyweight Derek Boogaard. Henrik Lundqvist will once again have to carry this team along with oft-injured sniper Marian Gaborik. The defense is young and relatively unproven, but has a lot of potential.
15. New York Islanders - One more year of losing. The Islanders are on the right track with their drafting and internal rebuild of this team, but they are about a year away from finally being able to fight for a playoff spot. John Tavares should improve greatly on his rookie year, and personal improvements across the board can be expected. The biggest question mark this team faces is in goal, with perpetually injured Rick DiPietro's status still unclear, but the capable Dwayne Roloson can still perform as this teams #1 goalie.
Playoffs 1st rd:
Washington over Ottawa
Boston over Montreal
Tampa over New Jersey
Pittsburgh over Philadelphia
Tampa over Washington
Boston over Pittsburgh
Boston over Tampa