NHL: Who Will Be The Division Champions in the Eastern Conference?

BIG FAVOURITES: Zdeno Chara and the Boston Bruins are the biggest favourites to win their division in the Eastern Conference

BY JEFF ANGUS

We looked at the Western Conference, now let’s take a look at the favourites – and a sleeper team to watch for – in the three divisions that make up the NHL’s Eastern Conference: the Southeast, the Atlantic, and the Northeast.

SOUTEAST DIVISION
THE FAVOURITE: Carolina Hurricanes (+260 to Win the Southeast Division)
Perhaps no NHL team did more to upgrade its roster since the 2011-12 season concluded than the Carolina Hurricanes. Carolina acquired two-way center Jordan Staal from Pittsburgh, reuniting him with older brother Eric. Not many NHL clubs boast a one-two punch at center that can stack up with Carolina’s. A few weeks later, the Hurricanes decided to gamble on the supremely talented Alex Semin. Semin has his fair share of detractors – he has been called out in the media for his lack of effort by both coaches and former teammates – but he is one of the most talented scorers in the game. He is going to provide an instant boost to Carolina’s offense. The Hurricanes also have a solid defensive group led by Tim Gleason and impressive sophomore Justin Faulk.

THE SLEEPER: Washington Capitals (+300 to Win the Southeast Division)
It was only a few years ago that the Washington Capitals were a dominant run-and-gun offensive club. After an upset loss in the postseason to Montreal back in 2010, Washington decided to remake their roster into one that played more of a defensive, gritty style of hockey. The only problem is that they didn’t really have the players to do that, so they had to make a number of personnel changes. The plan was never really successful, and Washington’s offensive talent all suffered with the change in system.

New head coach Adam Oates was one of the best playmakers during his playing days, and he is expected to revitalize the Washington attack, led by Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Mike Green. Washington has a very good hockey club and will benefit from a fresh voice behind the bench. Dale Hunter played his favourites and he did lead the Capitals into the second round of the playoffs, but he effectively neutralized a lot of his important players.

ATLANTIC DIVISION

THE FAVOURITE: Pittsburgh Penguins (+120 to Win the Atlantic Division)
Pittsburgh may be the best team in hockey right now, and that is reflected in their preseason odds to win their division. They did trade away Jordan Staal this summer, but GM Ray Shero did a tremendous job maximizing the return. Center Brandon Sutter should slide in seamlessly into the checking role on the third line, and Pittsburgh also received valuable prospects and draft picks in the trade. Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury imploded during a first round defeat to Philadelphia last season, and for that reason the Penguins were quick to sign veteran Tomas Vokoun last summer. Vokoun will play more than your typical backup, because he is much more talented than your typical backup. He signed with Pittsburgh for a chance to win the Cup, and he may get a chance to start more than a few games if Fleury struggles again.

THE SLEEPER: New York Rangers (+220 to Win the Atlantic Division)
I use the term “sleeper” lightly here, as the Rangers may have the best team in hockey. They certainly have the best goaltender in the game with Henrik Lundqvist, and they have a really good defensive group, too. Former Wisconsin Badger defenseman Ryan McDonagh may be the most underrated player in the league, and he is capable of going up against any forward in the league. Up front, the Rangers have an impressive mix of proven talent, future stars, grit, skill, size, and speed.

Their offense will be led by household names like Rick Nash, Brad Richards, and Marian Gaborik, and their secondary scoring will be provided by do-it-all captain Ryan Callahan, Derek Stepan, speedster Carl Hagelin, and rookie Chris Kreider. It will be interesting to see how Nash adjusts to playing for John Tortorella – Nash has never played for a team with Stanley Cup aspirations before.

NORTHEAST DIVISION

THE FAVOURITE: Boston Bruins (-125 to Win the Northeast Division)
The Bruins have far and away the best team in the Northeast Division on paper. They are primarily a veteran team, but thanks to the Phil Kessel trade and some impressive drafting, their window to win will be open for a few more seasons. In goal, Tuukka Rask is ready to prove he is one of the best goaltenders in the world. Zdeno Chara anchors a balanced and physical defensive group, and rookie Dougie Hamilton is expected to crack the final roster. Up front, Patrice Bergeron is one of the best two-way forwards in the game. Tyler Seguin was a scoring sensation during the lockout over in Switzerland, and he has the upside to be one of the best forwards in the entire league.

Milan Lucic, Brad Marchand, Nathan Horton, and David Krejci are all very capable top six forwards who bring a lot to the table in their own ways. Lucic is the most intimidating physical presence since Cam Neely, and Marchand is one of the most versatile – and annoying – players in hockey.

THE SLEEPER: Toronto Maple Leafs (+420 to Win the Northeast Division)
Assuming Toronto is able to land a proven goaltender through a trade (Roberto Luongo), the Leafs could surprise people this season. They have a number of forwards capable of putting the puck in the back of the net (including newcomer James van Riemsdyk), and they have done a good job of quietly adding solid defensive forwards like David Steckel and Jay McClement to the roster in recent years. On the back end, Captain Dion Phaneuf leads a blue line corps that should be better than last season. Jake Gardiner may miss some time with a neck injury to start the season, but the Leafs can lean on the likes of JM Liles and Carl Gunnarsson to eat up some of Gardiner’s minutes in his absence. If Toronto decides to go with the James Reimer-Ben Scrivens tandem, they aren’t as likely to surprise in the Northeast Division.