It's the best time of year!
In recent seasons the Western Conference has been the NHL’s deeper, better conference. They have owned the East in head-to-head play and had won three of the last four Stanley Cups before Boston tripped up Vancouver. With this summer’s activity, the Eastern Conference has closed the gap.
As we sit here today, you can make an argument that there are six teams that could challenge for the top spot in the East (something you couldn’t say before). Those six would include, in no specific order, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Boston, Buffalo, Washington and Tampa Bay. When you go through each division, though, you see that there are a lot more playoff contenders than years past.
The Atlantic Division will be strong, as always, in 2011-12. Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, who have had contrasting off-seasons, sit on top of the perch. Right below them are the Rangers and Devils. The Blueshirts added prize free agent Brad Richards up front, while a bounce-back season can be expected from Martin Brodeur and the Devils.
Dan Bylsma’s Penguins should be able to return to their top level of play this season, as long as Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin keep progressing. Remember – they were the top team in the league at the Winter Classic before everything went downhill with injuries.
Boston and Buffalo have ruled the Northeast Division over the last three years. That shouldn’t change this upcoming year. The defending champs have stood pat for the most part; Tim Thomas and company should challenge for Lord Stanley again. Buffalo, meanwhile, has been active in spending money and building a good team with a lot of depth. The Sabres will be breathing down Boston’s necks all year if their late-season momentum carries over.
As for the three Canadian teams in that division; Ottawa is the only non-contender as they continue their rebuild. You can expect Montreal and, yes, Toronto to be right there all year long. GM Brian Burke has done a great job with the Leafs by putting his stamp on the team and slowly piecing together a solid hockey team.
The Southeast Division may be the most intriguing in this conference. Not only do they have powers like Washington and Tampa Bay, but it will be interesting to see how the relocated Thrashers fair in a new city/environment. Carolina is always lurking in the playoff picture and Florida is not going to be a pushover with their newly-found energy and improved roster.
Will the Lightning take a step back or a step forward? Overall, this is a young team that had a lot of unexpected success in their first year with the new regime. If they keep improving, the Caps will have their hands full; which is saying something because Bruce Boudreau’s gang looks as strong as ever.
A good number of the top free agents went eastward this summer. Richards signed in New York, Washington stole Tomas Vokoun for a bargain, Buffalo reeled in Christian Ehrhoff and Ville Leino and Carolina inked Tomas Kaberle. Also, the Flyers now have a legitimate starting goalie in Ilya Bryzgalov.
Taking a look at the conference as a whole; when you break it down into tiers, you can see why the East has solid depth.
The fact that one of Montreal, New York or New Jersey could miss the playoffs (if the top six remains as is) shows the kind of depth the conference has built up. Not to mention the possibility of the other three clubs in Tier 2 – Toronto, Carolina and Winnipeg – becoming a ‘surprise team’ and cracking the top eight. Even the Islanders and Panthers will be competitive night in and night out.
In the Western Conference, there are five really good teams (Vancouver, Detroit, San Jose and Los Angeles) and then the rest are playoff bubble teams – like it usually is. This summer, teams in the West have either stayed quiet or made lateral movements. Only L.A. has vastly improved.
There hasn’t been a ‘power shift’, per se, because the West is still better in this writer’s opinion. But what the East now has is a strong group of 12 teams that can contend for the playoffs, which should make for an exciting season of jostling for the 7 and 8 seeds – more so than years past in the East. Not to mention the pre-established star power between Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Steven Stamkos and Ryan Miller.
The West has had the most depth and the better teams in most years since the lockout. That can’t be said with much confidence now, as the teams in the East have bulked up this off-season.
Photo credit: Getty Images
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