The NHL is back this Wednesday as the long road to the Stanley Cup begins anew. Here I will preview the seasons of those teams expected to lead the way in the Eastern Conference, and a club I think has a chance of performing better than their current stock.
The Favourites – Boston Bruins, 8.50 to win the Stanley Cup
A quiet summer in Boston sees almost the same group of players that topped the regular season table return determined to put right their bitter Game 7 loss to rivals Montreal. Admittedly their one significant departure was joint leading goalscorer Jarome Iginla, but with Loui Eriksson ready to reassume a top six role after his concussion issues I don't believe it will hit them too hard.
There's always a superb defence in front of the league's best goaltender Tuukka Rask to fall back on too, and those guys are helped further by the puck possession system devised by Claude Julien that makes them consistently tough to create chances against. Captain Zdeno Chara's size and reading of the play more than make up for his ageing legs, plus youngsters Torey Krug and Dougie Hamilton have bought into the defensive ethos yet still manage to provide offensive assistance.
As the most complete team in the conference I strongly fancy the Bruins to make good on their favourites tag.
Next In Line – Pittsburgh Penguins 12.00
Another chastening postseason collapse brought some testing self-examination to Pittsburgh and the result of that introspection was an off ice revolution rather than a loss of faith in their core playing staff.
New GM Jim Rutherford was quick to dispose of existing head coach Dan Bylsma but only managed to secure his second choice Mike Johnston as a replacement. A rookie at this level, Johnston inherits a roster rich in big name offensive talents such as Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin that should be a banker to make the postseason no matter what. Some free agency departures couldn't be prevented either, Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik were the big losses on defence which will need to be covered by the shrewd signing of Christian Ehrhoff as well as the promotion of Simon Despres from their prospect pool.
Of all the true leading sides I'd have the most reservations about backing the Pens until they prove themselves capable of performing at the sharp end against the best.
Consistent Performers – New York Rangers 15.00
Getting beaten comfortably 4-1 in the Finals by LA shouldn't put too much of a downer on Alain Vigneault's first season coaching in NYC. A slow start was eventually rectified, and entering the playoffs with momentum paid off in a big way. More than any other team mentioned here their lineup will look a little different after Brad Richards, Brian Boyle and Anton Stralman were let go. To make those decisions pay off guys like Mats Zuccarello and Chris Kreider will be looking to maintain their progress as they make the Rangers a fun team to watch on the rush.
A strong mentality within the organisation and the presence of Henrik Lundqvist in net has kept them there or thereabouts in recent seasons and that looks set to continue.
Hungry For More - Montreal Canadiens 17.00
A stronger effort than many predicted for Montreal until they were eventually knocked off by the Rangers brings greater expectations moving forward. Their major offseason saga concerned the resigning of the electrifying PK Subban and an arbitrator was required to resolve negotiations, the eventual eight-year settlement at $9m a year made him the league's highest paid defencemen.
A few big names on the wane have been allowed to leave, the exceptions to that could be the leadership of departed captain Brian Gionta and stalwart defender Josh Gorges. Young talent backing up the likes of Max Pacioretty and Carey Price could have the defining say in their success, Alex Galchenyuk and Nathan Beaulieu are strong candidates to have breakout campaigns. Even though it's a tough ask the Habs might have just enough vitality to make another deep run.
Bounceback Candidates - New Jersey Devils 61.00
A new era in Jersey begins after legendary netminder Martin Brodeur ended his 23-year tenure with the franchise. Unfortunately it didn't end on a high down at sixth in the Metropolitan Division, however even a mild improvement on their bizarre 0-13 shootout record would have swung the five point difference.
As one of four clubs to net fewer than 200 goals additions were necessary, Mike Cammalleri and Martin Havlat can make a short term impact although the whole forward group looks a little aged. I guess the time is now for coach Peter DeBoer and the added plus is that Cory Schneider has already had a year to bed into the role of being Brodeur's replacement. The Devils were losing Stanley Cup finalists in their only postseason appearance of the last four years so there is experience of a run into June.
Whilst the Devils are unlikely to be the last team standing I'd back them to finish as one of the top three teams in their division at 2.80.
Mike will preview the action in the Western Conference on Tuesday