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EASTERN CONFERENCE

Oct. 05, 2015
Oct. 05, 2015

Table of Contents
Oct. 5, 2015

NHL PREVIEW
  • By JEREMY FUCHS

    After six embattled seasons in Toronto, Phil Kessel could prove that one team's castoff may be a superstar center's long-awaited answer

  • The Islanders will christen their new barn in style—with a trip to the Stanley Cup finals

  • Last year's runners-up in the West, the Ducks, SI's pick to lift the Stanley Cup, will be second to none

ALI
  • The greatest is still an inspirational force: In the way his mere presence can move people to tears, in his brave fight against Parkinson's, and in the annual SI award that will bear his name

POINT AFTER
Departments

EASTERN CONFERENCE

The Islanders will christen their new barn in style—with a trip to the Stanley Cup finals

THE PICK

This is an article from the Oct. 5, 2015 issue

At age 25, Islanders center John Tavares has already matched several of his childhood hero Joe Sakic's biggest achievements, including an Olympic gold and a First Team All-Star selection. Now he can do something only the former Avalanche star has done: captain a team to a Stanley Cup in its first season in a new home.

The Islanders are now based at Brooklyn's Barclays Center after 43 seasons in Nassau County, the last of which ended in a Game 7 loss to the Capitals. Sakic's Avalanche went from a first-round exit in Quebec (as the Nordiques) in 1995 to champions in Denver in '96 by adding a pivotal piece in goalie Patrick Roy. The Islanders' key pieces are already there, in defensemen Johnny Boychuk, Nick Leddy and goaltender Jaroslav Halak—all acquired before 2014--15.

But the biggest reason the Islanders can expect to improve is their youth. Ryan Strome, 22, and Brock Nelson, 23, ranked third (with 50 points) and fifth (42 points), respectively, on the league's fourth-highest-scoring team in 2014--15. In the salary-cap era, scoring depth is a function of teams aggressively promoting inexperienced skill players. And after drafting high so often (five top five picks since 2009), the Islanders boast a nonpareil stable of forward prospects.

ON THE DOORSTEP

The Lightning's biggest weakness entering 2015--16 may be their own recent success. Opponents now know they have to plan for center Steven Stamkos and "the Triplets" (forwards Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat). Netminder Ben Bishop built upon his breakout 2013--14, but his .916 save percentage last year was buoyed by a strong penalty kill (83.7%). If he regresses, Tampa Bay may have to turn to 21-year-old Andrei Vasilevskiy sooner than it would like.

In the three seasons since they traded center Jordan Staal, the Penguins have seen progressively worse results. Part of the problem was that Staal's replacement, Brandon Sutter, struggled to neutralize opposing top lines. The team did well to ship the center to the Canucks this off-season while welcoming Toronto castoff Phil Kessel, whose uncharacteristically low shooting percentage last season (8.9%) could see a significant boost now that he's playing alongside Sidney Crosby.

Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist will keep New York in the mix even as the offense copes with the losses of speedy winger Carl Hagelin (to Anaheim) and veteran forward Martin St. Louis (retired). Alain Vigneault is one of hockey's best bench bosses, but with $11.2 million of New York's cap space devoted to overrated defensemen Marc Staal and Dan Girardi, Vigneault is too often stuck coaching around his roster's limitations.

Montreal's Carey Price is every bit the goaltender his Hart and Vezina trophies would suggest. But even exceptional goalies are subject to cruel bounces, making Price's season and, subsequently, the Canadiens' hard to predict. Defenseman Jeff Petry and winger Alexander Semin were shrewd additions, but Montreal's biggest weakness—coach Michel Therrien—went unaddressed.

ONE PLAYER AWAY

With stars Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, the Capitals have always seemed a little top-heavy. Newly acquired wingers T.J. Oshie (55 points with St. Louis) and Justin Williams (41 points for L.A.), however, balance out the right side of Washington's top six. But can overworked goalie Braden Holtby maintain excellence through another 70-start year?

The Bruins followed up a disappointing season (missing the playoffs for the first time since 2006--07) with a brutal off-season, trading future franchise defenseman Dougie Hamilton to Calgary in June for draft picks. But this team still has enough talent, starting with goalie Tuukka Rask and center Patrice Bergeron, to see playoff action again.

The Blue Jackets went 15-1-1 in their final 17 games last season, removing themselves from the Connor McDavid draft sweepstakes but proving they may not need him. Newly minted Cup winner Brandon Saad, acquired from Chicago, improves a physical and skilled top six. But the bottom six and defense are still weak.

WAIT TILL NEXT YEAR

After reaching the playoffs for the 24th straight season, the Red Wings go for 25 without longtime coach Mike Babcock. His replacement, Jeff Blashill, already knows Detroit's pattern of success, winning a Calder Cup with AHL affiliate Grand Rapids in 2013. Desperate to extend the streak, the Wings signed two players—center Brad Richards and defenseman Mike Green—equally desperate to regain past form.

Hoping to break from the past, the rebuilding Maple Leafs have a promising foundation. Morgan Rielly, 21, and Jake Gardiner, 25, two of the NHL's best young offensive defensemen, should benefit from the influence of new coach Babcock, who has a long and positive track record with puck-moving blueliners.

Being a goaltending-first team can be a tenuous proposition no matter how good the netminding (see: Montreal). But when the tandem is an aging Craig Anderson and the unproven Andrew Hammond, who shocked the world with a 20-1-2 NHL debut, it's borderline self-destructive. The Senators' best hope is that a maturing young offense will mitigate the Hamburglar's inevitable return to Earth.

If the ageless Jaromir Jagr can get the most out of rising stars Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau, the Panthers' offense could greatly improve. That said, last year's scoring (2.41 goals per game, 25th in the NHL) set a low bar.

WAIT TILL 2019

Too many of Carolina's talented forwards underperformed last season, so improvement in 2015--16 is expected. But until the Canes' poor goaltending (a conference-worst .902 save percentage) improves, the team isn't going anywhere.

Despite Jake Voracek's 81-point breakout season, the Flyers have too much dead weight on the roster. In 2017, bloated contracts for winger R.J. Umberger ($4.6 million cap hit) and defenseman Mark Streit ($5.25 million) will expire. Only then can healing begin.

Devils goalie Cory Schneider finally emerged from Martin Brodeur's shadow, averaging a .925 save percentage. But the Devils' offense was putrid and remains unimproved.

With new forwards Ryan O'Reilly, Evander Kane and No. 2 pick Jack Eichel, the Sabres have the most fascinatingly imbalanced roster in hockey. The top lines will score, but it's a wasteland behind them.

HOW THEY RANK

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SIXTEEN ILLUSTRATIONS
PHOTOBRUCE BENNETT/GETTY IMAGES