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.
How they miss the playoffs: It ends with goaltending, where Emery and Mason struggle behind a questionable defensive corps. Defencemen like Andrej Meszaros and Niklas Grossmann suffer enough injuries to deplete depth and an offence led by Giroux and Vinny Lecavalier can’t keep up.
5. New York Islanders
Last season: 24-17-7, 55 points, eighth seed in East, lost in conference quarter-finals to Pittsburgh
Who’s gone: LW Nino Niederreiter, C Keith Aucoin, D Mark Streit, G Rick DiPietro
Who’s new: F Pierre-Marc Bouchard, RW Cal Clutterbuck
How they make the playoffs: John Tavares is an MVP candidate in his first season as captain, carrying the Islanders back into the playoffs. Lubomir Visnovsky stabilizes a largely unproven blue-line that lost Streit to Philadelphia.
How they miss the playoffs: Evgeni Nabokov struggles, and Kevin Poulin has no chance of saving the Islanders. Tavares, Matt Moulson and Kyle Okposo can’t do it all themselves, especially in front of a defence that is counting on Andrew MacDonald to play big minutes.
6. Columbus Blue Jackets
Last season: 24-17-7, 55 points, ninth in West, missed playoffs on tiebreaker
Who’s gone: G Michael Leighton, LW Vinny Prospal
Who’s new: RW Nathan Horton
How they make the playoffs: Vezina Trophy-winner Sergei Bobrovsky isn’t a fluke, gets close to being the first goaltender since Dominik Hasek to put up back-to-back seasons with save percentages above .930. Horton returns from shoulder surgery in January and provides Columbus with a welcome offensive spark.
How they miss the playoffs: Bobrovsky is human and can’t almost singlehandedly get the Blue Jackets in. There’s simply not enough offence beyond Marian Gaborik after Prospal was not re-signed, and Horton isn’t the same without the kind of talented linemates he played with in Boston.
7. Carolina Hurricanes
Last season: 19-25-4, 42 points, 13th in East, missed playoffs by 13 points
Who’s gone: D Joni Pitkanen (injury), D Joe Corvo, D Jamie McBain, D Marc-Andre Bergeron, D Bobby Sanguinetti, G Dan Ellis
Who’s new: C Elias Lindholm, D Ron Hainsey, D Mike Komisarek, D Andrej Sekera, G Anton Khudobin
How they make the playoffs: Goaltender Cam Ward and forward Jeff Skinner stay healthy for a full season and play at peak performance. Eric and Jordan Staal play their solid, consistent game and Justin Faulk bounces back from a rough year.
How they miss the playoffs: Ward gets hurt again and can’t recapture past magic, and the loss of defenceman Joni Pitkanen from an already thin blue-line proves disastrous. Prospects Lindholm and Ryan Murphy aren’t yet ready to take on NHL roles.
8. New Jersey Devils
Last season: 19-19-10, 48 points, 11th in East, missed playoffs by seven points
Who’s gone: RW Ilya Kovalchuk, RW David Clarkson, D Henrik Tallinder, G Johan Hedberg
Who’s new: LW Ryane Clowe, RW Michael Ryder, RW Jaromir Jagr, RW Rostislav Olesz, G Cory Schneider, F Damien Brunner
How they make the playoffs: Martin Brodeur and Schneider make magic as a goaltending tandem, and the Devils get big-time production from Patrik Elias, Travis Zajac and Adam Henrique. Additions Ryder, Clowe and Jagr make up for the surprising departure of Ilya Kovalchuk.
How they miss the playoffs: Kovalchuk leaves a gaping offensive hole that can’t be filled. The Devils respect Brodeur too much to make him Schneider’s backup, and the 41-year-old plays like his age.
1. Boston Bruins
Last season: 28-14-6, 62 points, fourth seed in East, lost in Stanley Cup final to Chicago
Who’s gone: F Tyler Seguin, F Nathan Horton, F Jaromir Jagr, F Rich Peverley, D Andrew Ference, G Anton Khudobin
Who’s new: F Matt Fraser, F Loui Eriksson, F Jarome Iginla, F Reilly Smith, F Nick Johnson, D Joe Morrow, G Chad Johnson
How they make the playoffs: Steady as Zdeno Chara and Tuukka Rask go. Claude Julien’s team keeps natural chemistry even while adding Loui Eriksson and Jarome Iginla to the mix.
How they miss the playoffs: Injuries that took their toll in the Cup final pile up. The Bruins can’t afford to lose Rask for any length of time, especially with Chad Johnson replacing Anton Khudobin as the backup.
2. Ottawa Senators
Last season: 25-17-7, 56 points, seventh seed in East, lost in conference semi-finals to Pittsburgh
Who’s gone: RW Daniel Alfredsson, F Jakob Silfverberg, F Peter Regin, D Sergei Gonchar
Who’s new: LW Bobby Ryan, F Clarke MacArthur, D Joe Corvo
How they make the playoffs: Alfie, who? Bobby Ryan makes up for Daniel Alfredsson’s departure, and centre Jason Spezza and defenceman Erik Karlsson stay healthy. Reigning coach of the year Paul MacLean’s system is made to last and goaltenders Craig Anderson and Robin Lehner thrive behind it.
How they miss the playoffs: It’s not as much about Alfredsson as injuries, which were the reason the Senators almost missed the playoffs last season. Spezza can’t shake the injury bug, and the Senators miss Silfverberg, who goes on to have more success with the Anaheim Ducks than Ryan does in Ottawa.
3. Detroit Red Wings
Last season: 24-16-8, 56 points, seventh seed in West, lost in conference semi-finals to Chicago
Who’s gone: C Valtteri Filppula, D Carlo Colaiacovo
Who’s new: RW Daniel Alfredsson, C Stephen Weiss
How they make the playoffs: Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg beat up on the Eastern Conference and show that Alfredsson was right to think the Red Wings had a better shot at the Cup than the Senators. Jimmy Howard makes good on the first year of his new contract.
How they miss the playoffs: The stars age fast, unable to keep up with the physicality of the division. Well removed from Nicklas Lidstrom’s retirement, Detroit’s blue-line still misses him badly.
4. Montreal Canadiens*
Last season: 29-14-5, 63 points, second seed in East, lost in conference quarter-finals to Ottawa
Who’s gone: RW Michael Ryder, D Tomas Kaberle, D Yannick Weber
Who’s new: F Danny Briere, D Jarred Tinordi
How they make the playoffs: Size really doesn’t matter, as the Habs use their speed to remain a productive offensive team. Norris Trophy-winner P.K. Subban is a contender for the trophy again.
How they miss the playoffs: Carey Price plays like the goaltender who finished last season, forcing coach Michel Therrien to rely too much on Peter Budaj. Alexei Emelin’s early absence with a knee injury has a long-term effect on the blue-line.
5. Toronto Maple Leafs
Last season: 26-17-5, 57 points, fifth seed in East, lost in conference quarter-finals to Boston
Who’s gone: C Mikhail Grabovski, F Clarke MacArthur, F Matt Frattin, D Mike Komisarek, G Ben Scrivens
Who’s new: RW David Clarkson, LW Mason Raymond, C Dave Bolland, D Paul Ranger, G Jonathan Bernier
How they make the playoffs: The goaltending is stellar, whether it’s James Reimer or Bernier stealing the job or the two splitting the starts almost down the middle. Phil Kessel finally scores 40 goals in a contract year.
How they miss the playoffs: Giving big money to Clarkson and Tyler Bozak turns out to be a disaster, as neither can produce the kind of goals the Leafs need to keep up in a tough division. The Game 7 heartbreak lingers, even as players deny it’s a factor.
6. Tampa Bay Lightning
Last season: 18-26-4, 40 points, 14th in East, missed playoffs by 15 points
Who’s gone: C Vinny Lecavalier, F Benoit Pouliot, F J.T. Wyman, D Brendan Mikkelson
Who’s new: LW Jonathan Drouin, C Valtteri Filppula
How they make the playoffs: Drouin and Steven Stamkos are magic together, and the Lightning’s young players like Alex Killorn and Brett Connolly show they’re ready to fill full-time NHL roles. Victor Hedman shows he can be a legitimate No. 1 defenceman.
How they miss the playoffs: Goaltending still isn’t right with Ben Bishop and Anders Lindback clearly the league’s tallest tandem but not a good one. Art Ross Trophy-winner Marty St. Louis’ production falls off dramatically.
7. Florida Panthers
Last season: 15-27-6, 36 points, 15th in East, missed playoffs by 19 points
Who’s gone: C Stephen Weiss, RW Jack Skille, F George Parros
Who’s new: C Aleksander Barkov, RW Bobby Butler, G Tim Thomas
How they make the playoffs: Thomas, signed to a professional tryout during training camp, shows Conn Smythe Trophy form all season, stealing countless games for the Panthers. Jonathan Huberdeau leads the youth movement up front.
How they miss the playoffs: Young goalie Jacob Markstrom struggles again, making the future in net one of the biggest roster questions facing GM Dale Tallon. There are plenty more questions too, like who’s going to score goals and who on defence can prevent them.
8. Buffalo Sabres
Last season: 21-21-6, 48 points, 12th in East, missed playoffs by seven points
Who’s gone: C Jochen Hecht, D Andrej Sekera
Who’s new: D Jamie McBain, D Henrik Tallinder
How they make the playoffs: Ryan Miller and Jhonas Enroth combine to be one of the best goaltending tandems in the league, and young players like Zemgus Girgensons and Mikhail Grigorenko shine when given the playing time. Big defenceman Tyler Myers bounces back in a big way.
How they miss the playoffs: Miller is trade bait at the deadline because the Sabres simply don’t have enough talent to get by. Cody Hodgson can’t handle the pressure of a new contract, and Ville Leino continues to prove he can’t stay healthy.