Here’s a team-by-team breakdown of the division, a who’s who of players to watch, what teams will need to succeed and a prediction of their order of finish.
By Bucky Gleason
news sports COLUMNIST
Offense: The Bruins could run away with the division, but it all depends on whether they can get enough production from their forwards. Loui Eriksson is a 25-30 goal scorer who will provide a boost. Milan Lucic napped last season before waking up for the playoffs.
Defense: Most know about Zdeno Chara, but the Bruins stop their opponents with sound team defense. It starts with Patrice Bergeron, one of the best two-way centers in the game. Look for young D-man Dougie Hamilton to take the next step.
Between the lines: The third and fourth lines too often are overlooked, a big mistake. Daniel Paille and Chris Kelly are underrated. Shawn Thornton’s leadership is invaluable.
Final score: Tuukka Rask will prove why he’s making big money. This team could challenge for the Stanley Cup.
Detroit Red Wings
Offense: Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Johan Franzen accounted for nearly a third of their scoring. Daniel Alfredsson signed as a free agent, but last season he had more PIMs than points for the first time in his career. Stephen Weiss was a nice addition.
Defense: Niklas Kronwall was known mostly as a hitter, but he showed after Nicklas Lidstrom retired last season that he’s an all-around defenseman. The Red Wings were tightfisted with goaltenders before signing Jimmy Howard to a big contract.
Between the lines: Justin Abdelkader, Drew Miller and Darren Helm are underrated players who play both ends of the rink. They may be underappreciated in certain places but not in Detroit.
Final score: They’re a notch below Stanley Cup contenders, but this is a balanced team that can make a run if enough comes together.
Offense: The Senators acquired Bobby Ryan, a four-time 30-goal scorer with the Ducks who will help fill the void left by Alfredsson’s departure. Ryan is looking to bounce back after scoring only twice on the PP in 46 games last season. Injured forwards Jason Spezza and Milan Michalek returned to a team that learned how to win without them.
Defense: Erik Karlsson is one of the best D-men in the league, but he was limited to 17 games last season. Goaltender Craig Anderson at his best is very good, but questions remain about whether he can maintain greatness for a full season.
Between the lines: The Sens’ injury problems last season caught up to them, but it accelerated the development of young players. Better health and steady progression should help them this year.
Final score: Ottawa was a long shot at the beginning of last year, but it can challenge for the division title if enough pucks bounce its way.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Offense: The Leafs are deep up front, which will allow them to attack with different players coming from different angles. Phil Kessel was on pace for 34 goals and 89 points last year, a shortened season. Look out for Nazem Kadri.
Defense: Toronto is hoping Jonathan Bernier will be the true No. 1 goalie they have lacked since, who, Ed Belfour? If he plays well, veterans such as Dion Phaneuf and John-Michael Liles will be that much better.
Between the lines: David Clarkson signed a big contract, but he needs to make sure he doesn’t press and stays with the style that made him successful in New Jersey.
Final score: The Leafs’ postseason slump is over. They’re ready to challenge for the division.
Offense: Daniel Briere climbs aboard to give the Canadiens another playmaking forward whether he plays wing or center. It can only help youngster Brendan Gallagher. Max Pacioretty has 104 points in 123 games over the past two years.
Defense: P.K. Subban won the Norris Trophy as the best defenseman in the league, but he was one of several good players along the blue line. He’ll be paired with Andrei Markov on the top unit. Carey Price needs to earn his $6.5 million salary.
Between the lines: Montreal had more wins on the road (15) than at home (14) last season. Having the French-speaking Briere around will take pressure off others.
Final score: The Canadiens are a playoff team, but can they take the next step?
Tampa Bay Lightning
Offense: Steven Stamkos and NHL scoring champ Martin St. Louis are two of the best forwards in the league, but there isn’t much after them. Ryan Malone is hoping to bounce back after playing 24 games and scoring only two goals last season.
Defense: Ben Bishop has been waiting for his chance to become a No. 1 goalie. Their top four defensemen aren’t bad, but he can make them look much better.
Between the lines: Coach Jon Cooper opens his first full season behind the bench after replacing Guy Boucher late last season. The chore for him isn’t coaching but getting the most from a talent-thin roster.
Final score: Good goaltending solves many problems, but their lack of depth appears to be too much to overcome.
Offense: Thomas Vanek is their only consistent scorer, and he has one skate out the door. Cody Hodgson might be a No. 1 center in Buffalo, but he’s no better than a No. 2 on most teams and a No. 3 on a contender. Marcus Foligno and Drew Stafford must produce.
Defense: Tyler Myers has been going in the wrong direction since he was named rookie of the year. Andrej Sekera is gone, finally. They have several young defensemen who are looking to establish themselves, especially Mark Pysyk.
Between the lines: Speculation about Ryan Miller and Vanek getting traded will be an ongoing distraction that can wear on a team. Darcy Regier preaching accountability sounds shallow when ownership doesn’t hold him accountable.
Final score: Regier has warned fans that there will be some suffering, as if they haven’t suffered enough with him running the show. And it could get worse before it gets better.
Offense: The Panthers have a Calder Trophy winner in Jonathan Huberdeau, but they’re very thin down the middle. Florida scored the fewest goals in the Eastern Conference last season, and it could happen again. Scott Gomez? Really?
Defense: Brian Campbell is their highest-paid player and most effective leader. They didn’t have a single player who finished the season on the proper side of the plus-minus ratio. Jacob Markstrom, 23, will be the No. 1 goalie – for now.
Between the lines: GM Dale Tallon is working under a tight budget, but he has a knack for doing more with less. Kevin Dineen is a good coach but not a miracle worker.
Final score: How far can they go? How many fans care enough to notice? Not very and not nearly enough.