NHL Eastern Conference questions: How good will the Devils be with Jack Hughes?

Devils rookie Jack Hughes celebrates after scoring during an exhibition against the Rangers on Sept. 20.
(Bruce Bennett / Getty Images)

Eastern Conference teams had four of the top five regular-season records in 2018-19, but only the Boston Bruins went far in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Tampa Bay, which tied an NHL record by winning 62 games, made a shockingly meek exit by losing four straight to Columbus in the first round. The third-ranked Bruins reached the Cup Final, in which they lost to St. Louis in seven games. But fourth-ranked and defending champion Washington was upset by Carolina in seven games in the first round, and the No. 5 New York Islanders were swept out of the second round by Carolina.

The East also was home to five of the six worst teams last season. The New York Rangers, Buffalo Sabres, Detroit Red Wings and New Jersey Devils ranked Nos. 26 through 29, and — after the No. 30 Kings — Ottawa ranked last at 31st. The Devils, relying on No. 1 overall draft pick Jack Hughes, and the Rangers, banking on the immense skill of No. 2 overall pick Kaapo Kakko and a wave of young forwards, are most likely to escape the bottom this season.


Here are the big questions in the Eastern Conference leading into the season:

Will Tampa Bay try to avoid finishing first again?

The Lightning won the Presidents’ Trophy for compiling the best regular-season record but got swept by Columbus in the first round. Only eight of 33 Presidents’ Trophy winners won the Cup the same season; the last instance was the Chicago Blackhawks in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season. Tampa Bay will start the season without forward Brayden Point (41 goals, 92 points), who is recovering from hip surgery. Otherwise, the Lightning — led by Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy (2.40 goals-against average, .925 save percentage) and scoring champion and MVP Nikita Kucherov (41 goals, 128 points) — appear deep and ready for another big season.

Do the St. Louis Blues stand a realistic chance of repeating as Stanley Cup champions? Will the Kings or Ducks make the NHL playoffs?

Will the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Cup drought end?

To the relief of long-suffering Leafs Nation, general manager Kyle Dubas signed restricted free-agent forward Mitch Marner to a six-year deal with an annual salary cap hit of $10.893 million. With Auston Matthews’s cap hit at $11.634 million and John Tavares at $11 million, Dubas has a top-heavy roster with more than $55 million committed to forwards this season. The Maple Leafs acquired help on defense by trading for creative defensemen Tyson Barrie and Cody Ceci, and that’s a good start. This is the fifth season for coach Mike Babcock, who hasn’t gotten his team past the first round of the playoffs and will feel heat if Toronto has a slow start. The Maple Leafs, who last won the Cup in 1967, have the pieces for a long run, but they’re not a sure thing.

Toronto's Mitch Marner reacts after scoring a goal against Tampa Bay on April 4.
(Mark Blinch / NHLI via Getty Images)

How good will the New Jersey Devils be?

They took a huge leap forward when they won the draft lottery and chose Hughes, a center whose preseason performances reinforced the notion he’s a generational talent. Veteran Taylor Hall, returning from a knee injury, is entering the final year of his contract and has incentive to produce another MVP-level season. Nico Hischier, the No. 1 overall pick in 2017, has progressed nicely, and the acquisition of defenseman P.K. Subban in a trade with Nashville will boost the blue line. Veteran forward Wayne Simmonds brings leadership. The Devils could contend for a playoff spot.

Who’s on the rise?

Hiring three-time Cup-winning coach Joel Quenneville and signing former Columbus goalie Sergei Bobrovsky gave the Florida Panthers credibility and a strong shot at the playoffs. Forward Aleksander Barkov (35 goals, 96 points) is a marvel. ... The Philadelphia Flyers seem to have made their best goaltending find since they drafted a combative guy named Ron Hextall. Goalie Carter Hart (2.83 goals-against average, .917 save percentage in 31 games last season) is only 21 but has shown poise and maturity. Kevin Hayes could fit well as the second-line center.

Who’s on a downswing?

The Blue Jackets took a big step back when they lost two key free agents. Bobrovsky, twice a winner of the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s top goalie, signed a seven-year, $70-million deal with Florida, and forward Artemi Panarin got a seven-year, $81.5-million contract with the Rangers after he scored 28 goals and had a career-best 87 points. Forward Cam Atkinson (41 goals) and defenseman Seth Jones are stars, but Columbus will need a great season from goalie Joonas Korpisalo. Forward Alexandre Texier was solid in preseason play and could be a big contributor as the Blue Jackets look for scoring by committee. ... The New York Islanders were surprisingly successful last season but lost goalie Robin Lehner to free agency. He shared the Jennings Trophy (fewest goals against) with Thomas Greiss. Coach Barry Trotz’s teams are always competitive and solid defensively, so don’t write them off yet.