The variables of a lockout-shortened season and condensed schedule are gone, replaced by the normalcy of 82 games before the Stanley Cup playoffs get underway.
But in 2013-14, the NHL debuts a new four-division alignment and playoff format. The Detroit Red Wings and Columbus Blue Jackets were moved into the 16-team Eastern Conference, leaving 14 in the West.
The division formerly known as the Atlantic is now the Metropolitan with the Pittsburgh Penguins, Philadelphia Flyers, New York Rangers, New York Islanders, New Jersey Devils, Washington Capitals, Carolina Hurricanes and Blue Jackets. The former Northeast is now the Atlantic with the Boston Bruins, Buffalo Sabres, Toronto Maple Leafs, Ottawa Senators, Montreal Canadiens, Tampa Bay Lightning, Florida Panthers and Red Wings.
The Rangers and Penguins figure to be the favourites in the Metropolitan and the Bruins and Red Wings in the Atlantic, but beyond that much of the East is a mystery. The odds of making the post-season are lower in the East than the West, and the addition of one playoff team and one almost-playoff team take the uncertainty a step further.
The top three teams from each division make it, along with the two teams with the next-highest point totals. The top wild-card team plays the division champion with the most points, making for cross-over potential.
Here’s a look at the Eastern Conference in the predicted order of finish by division (asterisk indicates wild-card playoff teams):
1. New York Rangers
Last season: 26-18-4, 56 points, 6th seed in East, lost in conference semi-finals to Boston
Who’s gone: LW Ryane Clowe, C Kris Newbury
Who’s new: F Benoit Pouliot, C Dominic Moore
How they make the playoffs: Henrik Lundqvist continues to be one of the best goaltenders in the NHL, and the Rangers are energized under new coach Alain Vigneault. Brad Richards revives his star career, Marc Staal stays healthy and Chris Kreider gets to finally show his offensive potential.
How they miss the playoffs: A team built to block shots and defend under John Tortorella simply doesn’t have the firepower to play a more up-tempo style. Richards doesn’t live up to his contract, and Rick Nash remains ineffective. It would also probably take an implosion by Lundqvist in a contract year.
2. Pittsburgh Penguins
Last season: 36-12-0, 72 points, first seed in East, lost in conference final to Boston
Who’s gone: RW Jarome Iginla, LW Matt Cooke, F Tyler Kennedy
Who’s new: D Rob Scuderi, F Matt D’Agostini
How they make the playoffs: Everything Ray Shero believes in bounces back from last year’s disappointing playoff exit, including an offence led by Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and franchise goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. Kris Letang starts his long-term deal off with a strong season.
How they miss the playoffs: Fleury continues to be a disaster and Vokoun, out after having a blood clot removed from his pelvis, isn’t there to save the Penguins. Crosby can’t get through another full season without injury.
3. Washington Capitals
Last season: 27-18-3, 57 points, third seed in East, lost in conference quarter-finals to New York
Who’s gone: C Mike Ribeiro, F Matt Hendricks, D Jeff Schultz
Who’s new: C Mikhail Grabovski, RW Tom Wilson
How they make the playoffs: Alex Ovechkin continues to prove coach Adam Oates was right to move him to right wing and scores at a Rocket Richard Trophy pace again. Goaltender Braden Holtby makes his case to be on Team Canada in Sochi, and ex-Maple Leafs centre Grabovski proves an ample replacement for Ribeiro.
How they miss the playoffs: NHL teams figure out how to stop Ovechkin on right wing like they did on the left side, cutting off the Capitals’ top offensive force. The blue-line after Mike Green, Karl Alzner and John Carlson is a liability, Brooks Laich can’t stay on the ice and Holtby can’t be superman.
4. Philadelphia Flyers*
Last season: 23-22-3, 49 points, 10th in East, missed playoffs by six points
Who’s gone: F Danny Briere, LW Simon Gagne, LW Ruslan Fedotenko, D Andreas Lilja, G Ilya Bryzgalov
Who’s new: C Vinny Lecavalier, D Mark Streit, G Ray Emery
How they make the playoffs: It starts with goaltending, where Emery and Steve Mason team up to show Ilya Bryzgalov was the problem. Claude Giroux comes back from a finger injury to show he’s a top-10 player in the NHL, and the blue-line makes a marked improvement.