What a fun offseason. The Atlantic and Metropolitan divisions are back after another summer of free agency. While the eastern conference’s two year streak of winning the Stanley Cup snapped, the conference is deeper and more uncertain compared to the last five years. Teams like the New York Rangers and Florida Panthers made trades to bolster their rosters and re-signed important depth players. The Toronto Maple Leafs and Carolina Hurricanes should be more dangerous in the postseason. Like last year, it’s apparent the Boston Bruins and the Washington Capitals, two teams known for consistency, are fading and closer to a re-build if neither make the second round.
It’s time to break down which four teams in each division can make the push back or surprise a lot of people in making the 2022-23 playoffs.
The Panthers are one of four teams in the eastern conference both fans and analysts feel will take the next step and make the Stanley Cup finals this season. They traded Jonathan Huberdeau to Calgary for Matthew Tkachuk, a fantastic player who scores a lot and pesters goalies in front of the net. They acquired veterans Eric and Marc Staal and signed Colin White away from Ottawa. The defensive core led by Aaron Ekblad should grow more this season.
Last but not least, the reigning President’s Trophy winners hired a head coach to turn the page on the Joel Quenneville saga. Enter Paul Maurice, the winningest head coach in NHL history who’s yet to win a championship. He knows how to bring the best out of a roster while being honest about long-term improvement. His early resignation last year is a reason he was one of the best candidates available in the offseason. Don’t be surprised if Florida is one of the most complete teams in professional hockey this year.
Toronto Maple Leafs
The Leafs are lights out in the regular season. Franchise star Auston Matthews should have another 50 plus goal season. The defensive quartet of Morgan Reilly, T.J. Brodie, Mark Giordano and Victor Mete solidify the weakest section on the team. The signings of forwards Zach Aston-Reese and Calle Jarnkrok establish a physical fourth line.
The problem come playoffs could be the dropoff of talent in net with Ilya Samsonov as the undisputed starter since Jack Campbell left in free agency. Matt Murray is a good backup choice in case Samsonov becomes a nuisance. Toronto’s regular season should be fine since they have a plethora of goal-scorers to snuff out defensive mistakes.
Tampa Bay Lightning
Despite the injuries the Lightning suffered in the Stanley Cup playoffs last season, anyone who’s watched this team knows if coach Jon Cooper is on the bench and Andrei Vasilevskiy is in net, Tampa Bay is a lock to make the playoffs.
The Atlantic might have five teams make the playoffs due to a weaker Metropolitan division. If that happens, Detroit or Boston could clinch one of those spots. Ottawa however is the pick if that doesn’t work.
The key for the Senators is to have a better start than the last two seasons. It’s realistic with the skill players and depth added this offseason. General manager Pierre Dorian traded for forward Alex DeBrincat, goalie Cam Talbot and signed former Philadelphia Flyers captain Claude Giroux. Dorian also added Travis Hamonic and extended Mathieu Joseph after his trade to Ottawa last season from Tampa Bay.
Smith is the most tenured coach with one team between the Ottawa-Boston-Detroit trio. While Detroit added a lot of players in free agency, the roster and coaching have to work well together in a continuing re-build. Boston has a great coach in Jim Montgomery, but the depth past the second line and lack of quality defensemen makes it hard to pick them as a good fourth team in the Atlantic.
Despite an upper body injury to Talbot pushing his debut to November, Anton Forsberg was a pleasant surprise last year and a reason the Senators played close games. The young core Dorian drafted are complimented with quality veterans, scorers and role players. They just need a faster start to the season.
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The Hurricanes bowed out round two of the playoffs without starting goaltender Frederik Anderson. They lost every road game before being knocked out in their only home loss. Every viewer should expect an angrier and more prepared Carolina team to take the ice and dish out payback this season.
The Hurricanes are the favorite to reach and possibly win the championship this season. General manager Don Waddell signed Calvin de Haan, Brent Burns, Paul Stastny, Ondrej Kase and Ryan Dzingel. He also traded for Vegas’ top scorer Max Pacioretty with little lost.
The top seeds in the eastern conference will be a race between Carolina and Florida most of this season unless either have a rash of injuries they can’t overcome. It’ll be hard for either to hit a slump.
New York Rangers
New York was two games away from representing the eastern conference in the Stanley Cup finals. They lost to one of the best teams the league’s ever seen despite an impressive postseason. General manager Chris Drury added to the standout roster by signing Jaroslav Halak to backup last year’s Vezina winning goaltender Igor Shesterkin. Then came the signing of former Carolina Hurricane center Vincent Trocheck.
The Rangers have one of the best fourth lines in hockey with Barclay Goodrow, Sammy Blais and Ryan Reeves. It’s possible we see New York have a playoff run similar to last season’s once they punch their postseason ticket.
The Penguins bring back their trio of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang for another season. Pittsburgh will face a lot of pressure not just to return to the playoffs but to win a first round series, something they haven’t done since winning their last championship.
For now, it’s safe to say the first part of their mission should be fine. The Penguins added Brock McGinn and Josh Archibald for forward depth and signed Jeff Petry and Jan Rutta on defense to help Tristan Jarry’s ascent.
Mike Sullivan is still one of the league’s best coaches. Plus the team shouldn’t have as many injuries this season. Like Toronto, this will only be a talking point when the playoffs begin.
It’s hard to decide who in this division makes the playoffs after the top three teams. The signing of Stanley Cup winning goaltender Darcy Kuemper helps Washington. The problem is Kuemper’s never played a full season healthy. Backup Charlie Lindgren might see more action than expected and nobody knows how good the defense will be outside of John Carlson.
That leaves the offense to do most of the work. Alex Ovechkin will probably score 40-50 goals this season and Anthony Mantha, Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie are offensive playmakers. Yet there’s a lot of pressure on the centers and forwards to step up.
Regardless of their finish, it’s difficult to believe Columbus, Philadelphia, the New York Islanders and especially New Jersey place better than the Capitals when the regular season ends.
Last year’s eastern conference playoff picks: 8-2