Best case scenarios for the NHL's Eastern Conference teams in 2014-15.
Each new season brings hope to fans, no matter how modest their team's talent and goals may be. Here's a look at the Eastern Conference and what each club needs to go right in order to make 2014-15 a success:
BUFFALO SABRES: Ideally, the veterans brought in over the summer by GM Tim Murray—especially former Habs Brian Gionta and Josh Gorges— will aid in the development of the team's young players without leading the Sabres to so many wins that it impacts their ability to take Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel in the draft. It would be nice if Jhonas Enroth or Michal Neuvirth shows enough to suggest that he's a keeper that Buffalo can move forward with as well.
CAROLINA HURRICANES: As with the Sabres, the 'Canes benefit most from a one step forward, one step back season. They may already have assured the latter with the devastating injury to top-six forward/defensive whiz Jordan Staal. Without him, an already thin center group looks threadbare and all but ensures residency near the Eastern Conference basement (and the high pick that comes with it). But they'd like to see top prospect Elias Lindholm progress in his second season, possibly proving that he's ready to move off the wing and into the center ice position he's destined for.
DETROIT RED WINGS: With the team's aging core struggling to stay healthy (Pavel Datsyuk is already sidelined with a shoulder injury), the Wings need a superlative effort from their kids if they hope to stretch their playoff streak to 24 seasons. It's unfair to expect Gustav Nyquist to score at the same pace he did as a rookie, but they have to get at least 25 from the sophomore winger. Tomas Tatar, Tomas Jurco and Riley Sheahan also have to prove they can be reliable top-nine scorers.
FLORIDA PANTHERS: Ideally, this is a year of baby steps and focusing on realization of potential on the ice, if not necessarily in the standings. That starts with an offense that won't be as anemic as it was last season when not one Panther reached 40 points. At least four players could top 50 this season if all goes well, including top prospects Jonathan Huberdeau, Sasha Barkov and Nick Bjugstad. That's the sort of progress a young team can build on.
NEW JERSEY DEVILS: The Devils might have the league's oldest group of forwards (only one regular, Adam Henrique, is younger than 28), but it's also a much deeper group than last season's when only the Sabres scored fewer goals at five-on-five. Ideally, there's enough tread left on these tires to score an additional 20 to 25 goals and move New Jersey into the middle of the pack. Something closer to a .500 record in the shootout, instead of the 0-13 mark the Devils posted in 2013-14, would be nice too.
NEW YORK RANGERS: A highly motivated Rick Nash and new arrival Dan Boyle could help the Rangers avoid the post-Cup final depression that hobbles so many runners-up. With Chris Kreider employed on a full-time basis for the first time and Oscar Lindberg on hand to offset the loss of Brad Richards, the Blueshirts could muster enough offense to contend for the Metro title.
OTTAWA SENATORS: Surprisingly, the Sens boasted one of the league's top five-on-five offenses last season, scoring 162 times to rank sixth in the league. Can they maintain that lofty standing after shipping ace Jason Spezza to the Stars? Maybe ... as long as Kyle Turris and Mika Zibanejad take the necessary steps forward. Turris was the team's 1A center last season, playing tougher minutes and proving to be more reliable defensively, but he needs to move close to a point-per-game to keep Ottawa's offense humming. Zibanejad has the tools and the experience to establish himself as the team's new No. 2, chipping in 45-50 points.
PHILADELPHIA FLYERS: The Flyers were a bottom-third defensive team last season with Kimmo Timonen in the lineup. Somehow they have to improve on that performance with their No. 1 defenseman presumably lost for the season. Mark Streit can handle Timonen's power play responsibilities, but covering everything else he does will require a massive step-up performance from Andrew McDonald. A mature-beyond-his-years effort from Sam Morin wouldn't hurt, either.
PITTSBURGH PENGUINS: Avoiding the league-lead in man-games lost would be a nice start (529 in 2013-14, 108 more than runner-up Detroit). So would a defining season from netminder Marc-Andre Fleury. Whether he sails or fails in the final year of his contract, the Pens need to know whether he's the guy they still want manning their pipes when the Sidney Crosby/Evgeni Malkin era winds down. Ideally, he removes all doubt with a performance that echoes 2008-09.
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING: A boldly executed plan to address depth issues across the roster has the Bolts in contention for the Eastern crown, but they don't get there without three core players performing at personal-best levels. Steven Stamkos has to net 50-60 goals, Victor Hedman must emerge as a legitimate Norris candidate, and Ben Bishop has to display that Vezina-worthy groove. If those three peak, the Lightning take the conference.TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS:
WASHINGTON CAPITALS: All eyes will be on Barry Trotz and his relationship with Alex Ovechkin, but the key to the Caps becoming something more than an entertaining sideshow is the revamped blueline and the play of Braden Holtby under the guidance of new goalie coach Mitch Korn. Washington allowed 229 goals last season, finishing in the bottom third of the league. Shaving a quarter-goal per game is a realistic goal ... and one that gets them in the playoffs.