Our two hockey writers, Leah Blasko and Nick Vucic, have their thoughts on how the Eastern Conference is going to shake out this year. And then just for fun they each selected the various award winners for the upcoming season. Naturally, we’ll check back at the end of the season to see how they did.
EASTERN CONFERENCE PLAYOFF TEAMS
Leah: Champion ? Tampa Bay Lightning
The Atlantic Division, especially with the Bruins losing Seidenberg in addition to all their off-season losses, is a two horse race. The Bolts and the Habs will challenge each other all season and push one another to be better. The Red Wings will make the playoffs but can ?t quite match what the Bolts and Habs have just yet. The Senators are also on the upswing as well but again just shy.
Rest of the playoff field in the Atlantic ? Montreal Canadiens, Detroit Red Wings
Nick: Champion ? Tampa Bay Lightning
Despite my wishes to see Stamkos head to Toronto next season and Tampa Bay to fall into oblivion, it looks like that will only be an option after another dominant season by the Lightning. The biggest question for the Lightning is in net, but otherwise, they might have the strongest team in the East. The Canadiens are bound to have an off season soon and likely lead to the departure of Therrien. Also, this is the year the Red Wings won ?t make the playoffs and break the streak. The Senators, even without another outlier outing from Hammond, will be a strong contender, but not quite it. However, the Florida Panthers will make their return to the playoffs this year, but not as a wild-card.
Rest of the playoff field in the Atlantic ? Ottawa Senators, Florida Panthers
Leah: Champion ? Pittsburgh Penguins
The Metro title race is seemingly wide open this year. Don ?t be surprised if the Penguins get off to a slow start with the new faces and changes in the lineup, but the lack of serious Metro opponents until later will give them time to settle in first. Look for the rivalry between the Penguins, Islanders and Capitals to intensify this year with a three horse race. Since the Penguins only play seven Metro games in the three calendar months of 2015, this season the race will be tight late. With Eric Fehr out until almost Christmas it will be good for the flightless birds to have him back.
Rest of the playoff field in the Metro ? New York Islanders, Washington Capitals
Nick: Champion ? Washington Capitals
It ?s bound to happen eventually. The Capitals have got their stuff together for the first time in years. Barry Trotz has the team ready to contend, Ovechkin will continue scoring at an unbelievable clip and Oshie and Williams will help round out a strong team, but the surprise of the season will be the continued breakout of youngster Evgeny Kuznetsov. Yes, the Penguins will be a much improved team this year, even with the potential risks on defense, but the Capitals will edge them out by the end of the year. The Penguins will be a close second. The Rangers (on the downward trend) and the Blue Jackets (on the up and up) will round out the division.
Rest of the playoff field in the Metro ? Pittsburgh Penguins, New York Rangers
Eastern Conference Wild Cards
Leah: Columbus Blue Jackets, Ottawa Senators
Yes, I have the Rangers missing the playoffs and that ?s by no fault of their own. However, the Blue Jackets are due for a healthy year and have added some huge pieces. Look for them to snag a wild card since they ?ll just miss out to the three powerhouses in the Metro. The Senators will also nab another wild card and will probably fight with Detroit for most of the season for the three seed in the Atlantic, with Detroit just slightly edging them.
Nick: Montreal Canadiens, Columbus Blue Jackets
As mentioned earlier, the Canadiens will struggle this year. Price might not be on, or Subban may not continue to be at the top of his game, or they may just not click, but they will make it into the playoffs, and face off against division rivals Tampa Bay in the first round ?and win. The Blue Jackets, coming off the worst season of injuries in the league will rebound and face the Capitals in the first round…and lose.
Hart (Most Valuable Player)
Leah: John Tavares (Islanders)
The Isles didn ?t improve much but didn ?t regress either. Tavares will be their difference maker again. As he goes so will the team.
Nick: Steven Stamkos (Lightning)
There ?s just no way that the Lightning aren ?t powered this year by Stamkos. Not only is he playing in a contract year, he ?s on one of the best composed teams in the entire league. In other words, the puck is coming across the ice to Stamkos wide open, all he has to do is finish, and he will, repeatedly.
Art Ross (Most Points)
Leah: Sidney Crosby (Penguins)
Crosby had a down year last year, but look for some magic when he ?s out there on the regular with Phil Kessel. As the NHL has already seen in limited preseason action, they ?re going to be fun.
Nick: Evgeni Malkin (Penguins)
While newly acquired Penguin Phil Kessel will start the season on Sidney Crosby ?s line, he won ?t end there. Instead, he ?ll end up alongside Evgeni Malkin and that duo will spend the better part of the season terrorizing the league. Malkin will be the only player in the NHL with over 120 points this season, which is even more impressive considering nobody broke 90 last season.
Rocket Richard (Most Goals)
Leah: Phil Kessel (Penguins)
Kessel, with a quality linemate and phenomenal power play, will take the Richard this year. Not by a wide margin, but he ?ll nab it. Another dark horse for this one? Vladimir Tarasenko (Blues).
Nick: Steven Stamkos (Lightning)
It ?s likely that on the war path this season, Stamkos could surpass most of the NHL on his way to the Rocket Richard. Ovechkin will be a close second, with Phil Kessel and Tyler Seguin coming in tied for 3rd.
Norris (Best Defenseman)
Leah: P.K. Subban (Canadiens)
Subban has grown into a great player and person in Montreal under Michel Therrien. Mostly gone are his dirty-play antics. Instead he ?s smoothly skating all over the ice and making people look silly. Look for him to edge finalists that will probably include Letang and Erik Karlsson (Senators).
Nick: Victor Hedman (Lightning)
While his teammate will be stealing the spotlight, putting up unreal and highlight reel goals, Hedman will steady the backend and become one of the best in the league on the blueline, putting himself up there with the likes of Weber and Keith.
Selke (Best Defensive Forward)
Leah: Anze Kopitar (Kings)
Kopitar is the best defensive forward on a solid team right now. Jonathan Toews is great, too, but Kopitar is just slightly better.
Nick: Ryan Kesler (Ducks)
While the Lightning are making quick work of the East in the regular season, the Ducks will be dominating the West on their way to the President ?s Trophy. While Perry and Getzlaf will lead the team offensively, it will be the two-way play of Kesler that sets them apart.
Lady Byng (Best Sportsmanship and Conduct)
Leah: Jonathan Toews (Blackhawks)
A few years ago Patrick Kane was a Lady Byng finalist, yet Toews hasn ?t been even a finalist yet. Don ?t be surprised to see Captain Serious get seriously considered for this one this year. Jiri Hudler has a chance at a repeat, though, and don ?t count out Pavel Datsyuk.
Nick: Sean Monahan (Flames)
After a strong showing last season with the Flames, Monahan will catapult from 5th in the voting last year to first. While teammate Jiri Hudler will have another great season and be in the finalist conversation, it will be Monahan who walks away with the award.
Vezina (Best Goaltender)
Leah: Pekka Rinne (Predators)
Price won last year and with good reason. This year, he will be a finalist again but look for a surprise in the winner ?s circle. Pekka Rinne, who is such a large part of the Nashville Predators ? success, nabs this one from his dark horse role.
Nick: Braden Holtby (Capitals)
Speaking of breakout seasons, in a crowded field of the classics like Lundquist, Price, and Rinne, Braden Holtby will be the standout this year. Carrying the Capitals to the top spot in the Metro, Holtby will not only lead the offensive juggernaut Capitals from behind, but will also lead the league in shutouts behind the defensive genius of Coach Barry Trotz.
Masterton (Perseverance and Dedication)
No words besides his own needed.
While Dupuis will miss time to start the season with an unrelated and undisclosed injury, how he performs in his return from a career-threatening blood clot will mean a lot less than his determination to play again and be safe while he does it.
Nick: Jaromir Jagr (Panthers)
Mumps, injuries, and strokes were not enough to capture the trophy last year and it won ?t be enough this year. More than double the age of most of his teammates, Jagr will lead the Panthers in points and to their first playoff appearance in years. There won ?t be another better example of perseverance in the league this year.
Calder (Rookie of the Year)
Leah: Jack Eichel (Sabres)
Connor McDavid may have been the first overall pick, but Eichel is the one with the right team to make a difference. While the Oilers have been circling the wagons with their first overall pick laden line-up, the Sabres have been truly rebuilding. Eichel is in the best place to make a difference that ?s palpable and on a team poised to make steps forward.
Nick: Max Domi (Coyotes)
Don ?t get me wrong, McDavid and Eichel will put up points and help their team, but no one in the league will have the impact on their team that Max Domi will in the desert. Similar to Ekblad ?s win with the Panthers last year, Domi is on a Coyotes team that is bursting at the seams with young players bound for big seasons.