The Pittsburgh Penguins are the favorite to win the Stanley Cup once again this season. With a healthy Kris Letang, an added physical presence in Ryan Reaves, young talent with another year of experience, combined with the best core group of players in the NHL, it is understandable why the Las Vegas odds makers have picked the Penguins as 8:1 favorites to three-peat as Stanley Cup Champions.
Obviously, three-peating as Stanley Cup Champions won ?t be easy. However, some of the foes of the Eastern Conference in the Penguins ? way to the Stanley Cup Final might be different than in seasons past.
The Washington Capitals have taken a step back with departures of key players, while the Toronto Maple Leafs and Carolina Hurricanes have bolstered their rosters. Another team that could present a challenge to the Penguins is a now-healthy Tampa Bay Lightning squad. Of course, Pittsburgh ?s old Ohio foe, Columbus, will still be right in the thick of things as well.
Many agree that the biggest threat to dethrone the Penguins is Tampa Bay Lightning. With a healthy Steven Stamkos and Ryan Callahan, the Lightning are a dangerously talented team. The addition of four-time Stanley Cup winner Chris Kunitz could be the veteran bottom-six forward that could push the Lightning to the next level. The team is built from a similar mold as the Penguins ? with speed and offensive skill. It is important to note that the Lightning did lose some offensive punch when Jonathan Drouin, who had 53 points in 73 games, was traded to the Canadiens in exchange for top defensive prospect Mikhail Sergachev. The only other question for the Lightning is in net. While the play of young goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy has been very good, he has not done it for a full season yet; he played a career-high of only 47 games last season. Regardless, if healthy, the Lightning could be poised to strike down the Penguins.
The Columbus Blue Jackets will also be right there continuing to be a thorn in the Penguins ? side. Scoring was a bit of an issue for the Blue Jackets in their first-round series with Pittsburgh last season, so they went out and acquired talented left winger Artemi Panarin from the Chicago Blackhawks in exchange for center Brandon Saad. In the deal the Blue Jackets did lose Saad ?s 24 goals and 53 points, however, Panarin has scored 61 goals in his first two NHL seasons and will slide into a top-six role on the left wing. As has been the case for the past several seasons, the question remains in net where Sergei Bobrovsky always looks great in the regular season, but melts down in the playoffs. Will this be the case again this season? Only time will tell.
The Toronto Maple Leafs are also a team to watch. With the talented young core of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander, the sky is the limit for Toronto. The addition of veteran Patrick Marleau could be the steadying presence that this young core can rally around. They also brought in veteran defenseman Ron Hainsey, who is fresh off a Stanley Cup championship with the Penguins. Lastly, goaltender Frederik Andersen proved that he is more than capable to backstop this talented team, having gone 33-16-14 last season. However, there is a steep drop off in talent with back-up Curtis McElhinney. The possibility of burnout exists for Andersen if he must play 65-70 games.
The Washington Capitals will still be good enough to compete in the Eastern Conference. Any team whose offense is led by Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov and backstopped by Braden Holtby will always have a chance at accomplishing great things. However, the subtraction of 48 goals in forwards Marcus Johansson and Justin Williams, along with defensemen Karl Alzner, Nate Schmidt, and Kevin Shattenkirk are going to be difficult to overcome.
The New York Rangers and Montreal Canadiens will be good, but likely not good enough to be contenders. Both teams perennially show flashes of greatness, but then sputter in the playoffs. Expect more of the same this season. Henrik Lundqvist is another year older and while Carry Price is, perhaps, the best goaltender in the NHL there is very little goal-scoring talent for Montreal to provide the offensive support Price needs. Consider that they finished 15th in the NHL last season with 223 goals, yet finished seventh in wins with 47. That is an excellent ratio of wins to goals, but is not likely to repeat itself.
The Carolina Hurricanes are poised to be this season ?s Toronto Maple Leafs. With a stable of young talent in defenseman Justin Faulk, and forwards Victor Rask and Jeff Skinner, along with the acquisition of stellar netminder Scott Darling from Chicago, the Hurricanes are thinking playoffs and could be this season ?s surprise team.
The Senators, Bruins, Panthers, Red Wings, and Islanders all figure to be fighting for the seventh and eighth playoff spots, while rebuilding teams in Buffalo, New Jersey, and Philadelphia figure to bring up the rear in the Eastern Conference. Of course, despite analytics and educated predictions, nobody really knows in which direction the Eastern Conference will go.