Michael Russo’s Eastern Conference predictions
1. Washington Capitals
2014-15: 45-26-11 (101 pts.)
This team might have it all with Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, newcomers T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams, budding star Evgeny Kuznetsov, a tremendous blue line led by John Carlson, a Vezina Trophy-type goalie in Braden Holtby and Barry Trotz manning the bench.
2. Tampa Bay Lightning
2014-15: 50-24-8 (108 pts.)
Last year’s Eastern Conference champion will be motivated. Steven Stamkos is in a contract year; the Lightning has tons more firepower up front with Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov and Ondrek Palat; Victor Hedman on the blue line; and Ben Bishop in goal.
3. Pittsburgh Penguins
2014-15: 43-27-12 (98 pts.)
Barely got into the playoffs last season, but has Sidney Crosby ever had a winger like Phil Kessel? Crosby will be feeding Kessel all season and will resurrect this team to where it should be.
4. Montreal Canadiens
2014-15: 50-22-10, (110 pts.)
It’s hard to imagine goalie Carey Price will be able to repeat a campaign that earned him Hart and Vezina trophies, but he’ll still be the backbone of the fast, well-balanced Habs.
5. New York Rangers
2014-15: 53-22-7 (113 pts.)
Set franchise records for wins and points last season. As long as Henrik Lundqvist continues to be good, this team is stacked with standouts.
6. Detroit Red Wings
2014-15: 43-25-14 (100 pts.)
Playoff streak now at 24 seasons. Coach Mike Babcock moves to Toronto, but Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar are the toast in Motown. Big question will be if Mike Green can revive his career.
7. Columbus Blue Jackets
2014-15: 42-35-5 (89 pts.)
If healthy, this would have been a playoff team last season. Now, they might have the most prolific first line in the NHL with Ryan Johansen, Nick Foligno and Brandon Saad.
8. Ottawa Senators
2014-15: 43-26-13 (99 pts.)
So many young studs with Norris Trophy-winning Erik Karlsson, Mark Stone, Mike Hoffman, Kyle Turris, Cody Ceci and Mika Zibanejad. The big question is goaltending.
9. New York Islanders
2014-15: 47-28-7 (101 pts.)
Now playing their games in Brooklyn, so John Tavares will become the biggest hockey star in New York. But could this be the year coach Jack Capuano finally loses his job?
10. Florida Panthers
2014-15: 38-29-15 (91 pts.)
With only one playoff appearance since 2000, things must turn at some point with talents such as Nick Bjugstad, Aaron Ekblad, Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleks Barkov in the fold.
11. Boston Bruins
2014-15: 41-27-14 (96 pts.)
The balloon began to burst last season when they missed the playoffs, fired their GM and almost seemed pained to retain Claude Julien as coach. This could be a long year for Patrice Bergeron, Zdeno Chara and gang.
12. Philadelphia Flyers
2014-15: 33-31-18 (84 pts.)
New coach Dave Hakstol will need to be a magician to fix this team. The Flyers are thin up front and underwhelming on the blue line.
13. Buffalo Sabres
2014-15: 23-51-8 (54 pts.)
Tried hard for Connor McDavid, but Jack Eichel is one heck of a consolation prize. He will be the future of a team that should only get better with Dan Bylsma as coach and Tim Murray accumulating draft picks and prospects galore.
14. Toronto Maple Leafs
2014-15: 30-44-8 (68 pts.)
Mike Babcock said a week ago the chore in Toronto might be even bigger than he imagined. Dion Phaneuf and Nazem Kadri and the goalies won’t have Kessel to help take the brunt of the Toronto media’s scorn.
15. Carolina Hurricanes
2014-15: 30-41-11 (71 pts.)
At some point GM Ron Francis has to tear this team apart. New goalie Eddie Lack faces some long nights.
16. New Jersey Devils
2014-15: 32-36-14 (78 pts.)
Ex-Penguins GM Ray Shero has his work cut out for him. The Devils have quality defensemen, but up front, let’s put it this way: Shero doesn’t have Crosby and Malkin anymore.