NHL: The Four Biggest Questions In The Eastern Conference

ADDING BITE TO THE BIG APPLE: Has the acquisition of Rick Nash made the Rangers the team to fear in the East?

BY JEFF ANGUS

Yesterday we covered the Four Biggest Questions in the Western Conference, and today we turn our sights East, and there sure is a lot to look at: The Carolina Hurricanes made some major waves last summer with a few big acquisitions. And not to be outdone, the New York Rangers may have stole the show with their trade for Rick Nash. And the Canadian teams continue to retool in hopes of a playoff run.

4. Will anyone other than Crosby or Malkin win the Art Ross? (Crosby to Win Art Ross +350 / Malkin to Win Art Ross +350)
This season, probably not. Crosby is healthy and in tremendous shape, and Malkin has spent the past few months dominating back home in Russia. Pittsburgh hasn’t had its two superstar centers healthy at the same time to start a season in a long while. Jordan Staal will be missed, but Brandon Sutter is quite capable of filling in on the third line. He is one of the best young defensive centers in the game.

Malkin will skate on the second line (or top line, they are going to be interchangeable) with James Neal. The duo dominated the NHL in 2011-12, and fans should expect them to pick up right where they left off. Crosby will center Chris Kunitz and another winger (likely one of Matt Cooke or Pascal Dupuis). Crosby won’t get the luxury of having a star winger like Neal with him, but Kunitz is a capable top six forward, and Crosby can play with anyone and still be very successful.

Look for Crosby and Malkin to battle for the scoring lead all season long.

3. Are the Rangers the class of the Eastern Conference? (Rangers to Win Eastern Conference +450)
On paper at least, yes they are. Henrik Lundqvist is the best goaltender in the league (and it isn’t really close), and the Rangers have the right mix of offense (Michael Del Zotto and Anton Stralman) and defense (Marc Staal, Dan Girardi, and the criminally underrated Ryan McDonagh) on the back end, and they will be able to put three dangerous scoring units together up front.

However, don’t expect Nash to play with Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik (at even strength, at least). All three players love to play with the puck on their stick, and unless the NHL introduces a second puck to game action this year, the Rangers will want to spread their offensive stars out. Look for Nash to skate with Richards, and for Gaborik to be centered by Derek Stepan.

2. How much better are the Hurricanes? (Hurricanes to Win Eastern Conference +900)
The Hurricanes were a decent team at times last year, but struggled to compete with the better teams in the NHL. So GM Jim Rutherford entered the offseason with a very aggressive mindset, and he emerged with a significantly upgraded roster. He first acquired Jordan Staal at the draft from Pittsburgh, after Staal turned down a 10 year $60 million deal from the Penguins. Carolina was the only team Staal was willing to be traded to, as he wanted to play with big brother Eric, and quickly reached a long-term agreement with the Hurricanes for 10 years and $50 million. The Staal brothers are expected to center the top two lines in Carolina, but don’t be surprised to see them on the ice together from time to time (Eric can shift over to the left wing).

A few weeks later, Rutherford dipped into the free agent pool, signing Alex Semin to a one-year pact. Semin has drawn the ire of many in the hockey world for his playoff failures in recent years, but he is one of the most offensively gifted players in the league. He is also very misunderstood, as I found out when researching for this piece I wrote on him last summer.

“Some of the stories are true. Semin takes bad penalties. He isn’t the best teammate. However, calling him one-dimensional is simply wrong. Saying he doesn’t care? He would have been back in Russia long ago if that were true.

Instead of trying to figure out what makes him tick, why he doesn’t speak English more often, and why he isn’t revered by his teammates, NHL GMs should be figuring out why they are busy overpaying for average talent while one of the best possession players in the entire league continues to toil away on the open market.”

Semin wasn’t the perfect teammate in Washington, but he made his linemates better (both offensively and defensively), and his all-around game was much better than he was given credit for, as well.

And on a one-year deal, he has plenty of motivation to prove his doubters wrong.

1. Will any Canadian teams in the East make the playoffs? (Canadian Team to Win Stanley Cup +450)
The Ottawa Senators were a surprise in the East last year with their eighth place finish. They were led by the stable goaltending of Craig Anderson and impressive performances from Jason Spezza and Erik Karlsson. The Senators are a very young team, and they will be adding some new faces this year – most notably prospect forwards Jakob Silfverberg and Mika Zibanejad. However, they are far from a postseason lock.

Toronto is a bubble playoff team at the moment, but that would change if they acquire Roberto Luongo. The Leafs aren’t a perfect team by any stretch of the imagination, but a goaltender like Luongo would cover up a lot of the warts. Montreal will go as far as Carey Price carries them – like Ottawa, they are a team on the way up, but they aren’t quite there yet. The new regime also has to quickly get to work on a new contract for PK Subban.

And finally, Winnipeg has an impressive group up front and on defense, but their playoff hopes rest with goaltender Ondrej Pavelec. The Jets made Pavelec a rich man last summer (to the tune of five years and $19.5 million), and many people didn’t think he was deserving of the large pay day. Blake Wheeler has quietly emerged as a star forward, and Evander Kane isn’t far behind. On defense, the Jets have a capable group led by the underrated Tobias Enstrom and the oversized Dustin Byfuglien.

If I had to guess, I’d say Toronto (with Luongo) has the best shot at a playoff spot, followed by Winnipeg, Ottawa, and finally, Montreal.