Three Bold Predictions for the Eastern Conference

By Dave Turner

Michael Miller/ Wiki Commons

Michael Miller/ Wiki Commons

1. The Pittsburgh Penguins will struggle for a while, but will be a better team because of it. 

After years of success under Dan Bylsma, the Penguins begin the season with Mike Johnston at the helm. Bylsma won his only Stanley Cup with the team when he took over for Michel Terrien late in the 2008-2009 season. Sure, it would be a tall task to have expected Bylsma to succeed every year, but after that first season, Bylsma and the Penguins have not won a single game in the third round or beyond, it was time for a change.

Fast forward to this season and there was some roster upheaval in Pittsburgh. With the new man behind the bench in Johnston and so many new faces, it is going to take time for Pittsburgh to jell. Long-time blueline mainstay Brooks Orpik left for Washington in free agency, along with Matt Niskanen. Though on paper that may seem like a sizable loss for the Pens, Christian Ehrhoff comes in from Buffalo and will help fill the void on the power play. Ehrhoff is a player that throughout his career has shown he can score, even lately when toiling away with the Sabres during their rebuild.

The Penguins also suffered losses on offense, losing Jussi Jokinen (21g, 36a last season) to the Panthers and then traded James Neal to the Predators for Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spalling. There’s no doubt that the loss of Neal (when he was healthy) and Jokinen will hurt this club, but in Hornqvist, Pittsburgh receives a player who has the tools to be a big-time point producer.

With all of these new pieces to the puzzle, the Pens may struggle early on. It’s only natural that with new players and a new, rookie head coach, it will take time for this team to click.

In the long run, this upheaval may help this team as the pressure should stay off of enigmatic goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury (as long as he’s playing at a decent level) early on as this team gets their act together. The fact is, if this team does struggle early on, the blame may be placed on Johnston. A team with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin is not going to tank as long as those two are in the lineup. As the Penguins become accustomed to the new system and begin to find some synergy between the incumbents and the new players, they should emerge as a even better team. Pittsburgh may be more dangerous going into the playoffs this season, looking to put their past failures quickly into the rear-view mirror.

Michael Miller/ Wiki Commons

Michael Miller/ Wiki Commons

2. The New York Islanders will give the fans on Long Island a nice send off in their last season at the Nassau Coliseum.

After qualifying for the playoffs in 2012-2013, things were looking up for the Islanders. Fast-forward to last season and it was more of the same old futility that has become expected from the once proud franchise. With the team looking to build around John Tavares as the centerpiece, they went out and shored up the back end in a big way. The signing of Jaroslav Halak gives the Isles a solid netminder and even backup Chad Johnson looked more than serviceable last year while playing as the backup to Tuukka Rask in Boston.

This week, the Islanders made another splash, by trading for Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy. In Boychuk they get an excellent veteran player who will instantly upgrade their defense. Leddy, at only 23, is a potential star in the making. He finished with 31 points (7g, 24a) while averaging only 15:50 of ice time while in Chicago. With more ice time and power play time expected, Leddy may flourish.

Garth Snow, who had been much maligned since the puzzling deal that eventually saw the team give up Matt Moulson, Tomas Vanek and a first round pick, all for essentially a second round pick in return. (Note: The Islanders also surrendered a second round pick in the trade with Buffalo).

Now, Snow has put that utter debacle of a trade in the past as they’ve shored up the back end with two saavy moves, made with teams that needed to get under the cap.

With young prospects like Ryan Strome and Griffin Reinhart in the mix this season, the Islanders should continue to grow as the season goes on. They have a legitimate first line anchored by Tavares and acquired Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin in the offseason to help bolster their scoring.

It might take some time for this team to hit its stride and it may not even result in a playoff spot this season, but the Islanders should finish out the season as an exciting team with a bright future. Really, when was the last time that anyone could say that about the Islanders? Sure, the Coliseum may be a dump, to put it nicely, but it would be great for the fans if this team is able to stick around in the playoff run and they should.

(Photo Courtesy of Rich Papelette/Rich Image Photgraphy)

(Photo Courtesy of Rich Papelette/Rich Image Photgraphy)

3. The Tampa Bay Lightning aren’t going to be quite as good as people think, yet.

After reading quite a few predictions for the Eastern Conference, there are a good amount of writers across the continent that believe that the Lightning can be a potential Stanley Cup contender. While the Lightning should definitely be a playoff team, it seems a bit too early to make them the “sexy, dark-horse” contender out of the east.

You have to learn to walk before you run and that’s the case with this team. I fully expect the Lightning to become one of the best teams in the league within the next few years, but they have to prove they can take the next step first. Normally, there is a natural path a team takes where they go from a fringe playoff team to appearing in the Stanley Cup Final. It took the Los Angeles Kings two quarterfinal exits before they won in 2011-2012.

Steven Stamkos is an all-world player, we know that. 2nd year players Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat have to avoid the dreaded “2nd year slump,” and though Jonathan Druin looks like he’s poised to set the NHL world ablaze, he has to prove it first. I remember people clamoring about Steven Stamkos’s rookie season where he scored only 23 goals, how’d he turn out? Not everyone is going to come in and notch 102 points in their rookie season like Sidney Crosby did, no matter how good they may be down the road.

Defensively, this team is still lacking. The acquisition of Jason Garrison will help, especially on the power play, but this team lacks the kind of defensive depth that other contenders and cup winners have had. Looking at the Kings, Blackhawks and Bruins, all three of those clubs have an incredibly deep and talented defensive corps. You can make the case that Ben Bishop is good enough to make up for some of those deficiencies, but come playoff time, you have to possess the kind of rugged defenders it takes to win. Furthermore, as good as Bishop has been, he has exactly zero playoff starts on his resume after being hurt for last season’s series against Montreal.

This is still a very talented club and they should improve as the season goes on and their young players continue to grow. It’s a bit early to expect this team to possibly unseat the Bruins as the top team in the Atlantic Division and win multiple playoff rounds. It’ll come, but not quite yet.