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NHL Eastern Conference team previews and predictions

NHL Eastern Conference team previews and predictions
Pittsburgh center Sidney Crosby is the reigning MVP and scoring champ but has a new coach and general manager after the Penguins came up short in the playoffs again. (Paul Sancya / Associated Press)

Scoring champion and MVP Sidney Crosby and goal-scoring champ Alexander Ovechkin have more in common than shiny trophies. Both Crosby's Pittsburgh Penguins and Ovechkin's Washington Capitals have a new coach and general manager.

The Penguins, who squandered a 3-1 series lead over the New York Rangers in the second round of the playoffs, hired Mike Johnston for his first NHL head coaching job and appointed former Carolina executive Jim Rutherford their GM.

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After missing the playoffs, the Capitals hired former Nashville coach Barry Trotz and promoted former assistant general manager Brian MacLellan.

Will new hands guide the two teams to successful seasons? How the East shapes up, in predicted order of finish:

Atlantic Division

1. BOSTON

2013-14: 54-19-9 (117 points), 1st Atlantic and NHL.

Salary cap problems forced the Bruins to let right wing Jarome Iginla (30 goals) and rugged Shawn Thornton leave as free agents. Boston is counting on winger Loui Eriksson to replace Iginla's production, but he's coming off a two-concussion, 10-goal season. The Bruins remain formidable because of towering defenseman Zdeno Chara, Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender Tuukka Rask (2.04 goals-against average, .930 save percentage) and Selke winner Patrice Bergeron. If they slip, it won't be a lot.

2. TAMPA BAY

2013-14: 46-27-9 (101), 2nd Atlantic.

Playoff hopes vanished when goalie Ben Bishop (2.23 goals-against, .924 save percentage) injured his wrist late in the season and needed surgery. He must be fit for the Lightning to have a chance. Look for a big season from Steven Stamkos, who had 25 goals in 37 games despite breaking his leg. Defenseman Anton Stralman and center Brian Boyle were smart off-season upgrades.

3. MONTREAL

2013-14: 46-28-8 (100), 3rd Atlantic.

Going with four alternates instead of one captain reflects the team effort the Canadiens require. It starts with goalie Carey Price (2.32, .927) and a defense anchored by the exciting but adventurous P.K. Subban. Winger Max Pacioretty (39 goals, 60 points) and 20-year-old Alex Galchenyuk (13 goals, 31 points) will have to do more because several veteran forwards left. A return to the East final is possible.
 
4. DETROIT

2013-14: 39-28-15 (93), 4th Atlantic, 2nd wild card.

Every October the Red Wings' playoff streak seems to be in jeopardy. Every April they keep it alive; it's now 23. They'll open without Pavel Datsyuk (shoulder injury) but expect much from Gustav Nyquist (28 goals last season) and kids Tomas Jurco and Tomas Tatar. Coach Mike Babcock did a masterful job with a team that became young after being racked by injuries. He should guide Detroit to another wild-card berth.

5. TORONTO

2013-14: 38-36-8 (84), 6th Atlantic, no playoffs.

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Tip: Take Randy Carlyle in the first-coach-fired pool. An old-school guy, he was inherited by new team President Brendan Shanahan, who hired stats guru Kyle Dubas as assistant GM. Right wing Phil Kessel (37 goals, 80 points) and left wing James van Riemsdyk (30 goals, 61 points) flank Tyler Bozak on a fine first line and Nazem Kadri has potential as a No. 2 center. Maple Leafs goalies faced a league-high 35.9 shots per game last season, making Jonathan Bernier's .923 save percentage especially impressive.

6. FLORIDA

2013-14: 29-45-8 (66), 7th Atlantic, no playoffs.

Free-agent defenseman Willie Mitchell, twice a Stanley Cup winner with the Kings, should improve the Panthers' 30th-ranked penalty killing while adding physicality and mentoring their talented kids. A full season of goalie Roberto Luongo, acquired in March, will cut their 29th-ranked team goals-against average. They will be better, but not playoff caliber.

7. OTTAWA

2013-14: 37-31-14 (88 ), 5th Atlantic, no playoffs.

Defenseman Erik Karlsson recently became the Senators' third captain in three seasons. He follows Jason Spezza, who was traded to Dallas (where winger Ales Hemsky signed as a free agent). The Senators did well to keep winger Bobby Ryan with a seven-year, $50.75-million extension, but they have too many holes at both ends to reach the playoffs.


8. BUFFALO

2013-14: 21-51-10 (52 ), 8th Atlantic, no playoffs.

No. 2 draft pick Sam Reinhart (son of former NHLer Paul) is among the rebuilding blocks for a team that ranked last in points (52) and goals (157) last season. While the kids grow — and management scouts potential June lottery picks — veteran wingers Brian Gionta and Matt Moulson will add credibility.

Metropolitan Division

1. PITTSBURGH

2013-14: 51-24-7 (109), 1st Metropolitan.

Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are a unique 1-2 punch, but Malkin missed training camp with an undisclosed injury and his status is unclear. Olli Maatta has progressed and the defense has enough puck movers to overcome losing free agent Matt Niskanen. Johnston's up-tempo style suits Crosby. It comes down to getting a good playoff performance from goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.

2. WASHINGTON

2013-14: 38-3014 (90), 5th Metropolitan.

The Capitals probably overpaid Niskanen (seven years, $40.25 million), but he's mobile and moves the puck well. Trotz had good defensive teams in Nashville — the Predators couldn't pay big scorers — and he can use that knack here. He also moved Ovechkin (51 goals but minus-35 defensively) back to left wing, Ovechkin's natural side. Trotz will make the Capitals a much better team.

3. NEW YORK RANGERS

2013-14: 45-31-6 (96), 2nd Metropolitan.

Duplicating a surprise run to the Stanley Cup Final — where they lost in five games to the Kings — will be difficult. They'll miss steady defenseman Anton Stralman, who signed with Tampa Bay, and forward Benoit Pouliot, who went to Edmonton. First-line center Derek Stepan's broken leg leaves them perilously weak up the middle. But as long as they have Henrik Lundqvist (2.36, .920) they'll have a chance.

4. COLUMBUS

2013-14: 43-32-7 (93), 4th Metropolitan, 1st wild card.

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The euphoria of the Blue Jackets' first playoff wins last spring vanished during a contract stalemate with No. 1 center Ryan Johansen (33 goals, 63 points). They'll open without top wingers Nathan Horton (back problems) and Boone Jenner (broken wrist). Acquiring gritty Scott Hartnell for R.J. Umberger was a win and they have a bruising defense. Sergei Bobrovsky, whose .923 save percentage ranked ninth last season, can carry them. They'll earn a wild-card spot.

5. PHILADELPHIA

2013-14: 42-30-10 (94), 3rd Metropolitan.

Goaltending isn't the problem: Steve Mason (2.50, .917) was adequate. But a thin defense will greatly miss all-situation standout Kimmo Timonen, who was diagnosed with blood clots. Claude Giroux (28 goals, 86 points) was an MVP finalist last season and winger Wayne Simmonds has matured, but this could be a difficult season.

6. NEW JERSEY

2013-14: 35-29-18 (88), 6th Metropolitan, no playoffs.

An era ended when the Devils didn't re-sign NHL goalie wins leader Martin Brodeur, but it was time for Cory Schneider to own the crease. Their forwards are old, though 42-year-old Jaromir Jagr (24 goals, 67 points in 82 games) defies the calendar and 32-year-old Michael Cammalleri had 26 goals in 63 games with mediocre Calgary last season. Not enough here for a playoff berth.

7. NEW YORK ISLANDERS

2013-14: 34-37-11 (79). 8th Metropolitan, no playoffs.

Trading prospects and picks to land Nick Leddy from cap-strapped Chicago and Johnny Boychuk from cap-squeezed Boston upgraded the defense and said the Islanders are intent on making the playoffs in their last season at Nassau Coliseum. They'll give it a run thanks to center John Tavares, back after a knee injury stopped him at 66 points in 59 games, and goalie Jaroslav Halak.

8. CAROLINA

2013-14: 36-35-11 (83), 7th Metropolitan, no playoffs.

The Hurricanes' season ended when center Jordan Staal broke his leg in an exhibition game, sidelining him three to four months. His brother Eric, who led the team last season with 61 points, is recovering from "core muscle" surgery. They did nothing to improve their 28th-ranked power play. New Coach Bill Peters and GM Ron Francis will need patience.

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