It's no secret that when it comes to Conferences in the NHL, West is best. Nonetheless, we're two days from puck drop so it's prognostication time. Here's who I think will occupy the top eight spots in the Eastern Conference (in no particular order):
NEW YORK RANGERS
PROS: For starters, the Rangers are stacked on defense with captain Ryan McDonagh and shot-blocking master, Dan Girardi. Let's not forget stalwart Marc Staal and offensive d-man Keith Yandle. Rick Nash, Chris Kreider, Mats Zuccarello, Derek Stepan, Kevin Hayes and Derrick Brassard are a formidable top six and Dominic Moore is a very serviceable third/fourth liner who tends to score clutch goals. The addition of Jarret Stoll should bolster the bottom six and take some of the pressure off the top line. The team lost Cam Talbot but filled that hole with Antii Raanta.
CONS: New York lost a strong veteran presence with the retirement of Marty St. Louis and some offense with the trading of Carl Hagelin. Henrik Lundqvist is an elite goalie in the NHL but he just can't seem to win those important postseason games despite playing behind a stellar defense. Also, which version of Rick Nash will the Rangers get this season?
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
PROS: The Lightning are a structured team built on speed and skill. At the helm is Steven Stamkos, who is without a doubt one of the most dangerous centres in the league. To compliment Stamkos are Alex Killorn, Ondrei Palat and diminutive standout, Tyler Johnson. If the preseason is any indication, Jonathan Drouin is poised for a breakout year and Nikita Kucherov looks to build on an impressive sophomore campaign. Tampa's defense begins and ends with Victor Hedman who has grown into a cornerstone defender and the re-emergence of Anton Stralman has been a pleasant surprise for the Bolts.
CONS: Jon Cooper. This may be a head scratcher for some but Cooper's tendency to put his ego ahead of the team has hurt the Lightning at times, i.e. not playing Stamkos at centre and keeping Droiun in the doghouse all postseason. Goaltending could also be an issue for Tampa as Ben Bishop tends to have lacklustre regular seasons and is a tad injury-prone.
PROS: Nobody can score goals in the NHL like Alex Ovechkin and he continues to be the straw that stirs the Capitals drink. Thanks to the arrival of Barry Trotz, the Caps now have stability behind the bench and a coach who knows how to get his offensive stars to play 200 feet. Washington is flush with young talent and the addition of 28 year old T.J. Oshie will help take the load off the young guys. "Mr. Playoffs" Justin Williams brings a wealth of experience and three Stanley Cup Rings to a franchise desperate to win it all. John Carlson and Karl Alzner continue to be staples on the Capitals blue line and are complimented quite nicely with Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik.
CONS: Washington lost Mike Green to free agency and replaced him with AHL-er Tyler Chorney. Brayden Holtby was lights out last season, especially in OT and shootouts, but should he regress or get injured the Caps back-up options are journeyman Dan Ellis, Justin Peters or Philipp Grubauer.
COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS
PROS: The Blue Jackets were the beneficiaries of Chicago's endless cap issues when they landed Brandon Saad via trade this past summer. Injuries wreaked havoc on CBJ last season so if they manage to stay relatively healthy and Foligno, Johansen and Hartnell put up the numbers they did last year, they should have little problem being in the playoff mix. Having Ryan Murray stay healthy and grow into the defenseman the Jackets projected him to be won't hurt either.
CONS: Defense, defense, defense! Columbus is very thin on the blue line with only Jack Johnson and David Savard as real standouts. Sergei Bobrovsky's health and consistency is paramount to Columbus as back-up Curtis McElhinney is average at best.
PROS: Two words: Carey Price. He swept the NHL Awards in June and many argue he was the sole reason the Habs finished where they did and there's no reason to believe he'll regress much this season. Newly-minted captain Max Pacioretty is the x-factor here as he's the closest thing Montreal has to a power forward. The always reliable Tomas Plekanec is still in the fold and is one of the best two-way forwards in the League. Galchenyuk should see a rise in point totals now that he's been moved to his natural centre position and Brendan Gallagher just needs to continue to be Brendan Gallagher. P.K. Subban is an elite offensive-defenseman and will be quarterbacking the Habs blue line for the next seven years.
CONS: If Carey Price goes down with injury, the Habs season will be in serious jeopardy. The Canadiens are still undersized and lack a true number one centre. The bottom defensive pairings are largely unproven with the likes of Tinordi and Pateryn and Alex Emelin can be a difference-maker on the ice but is injury prone.
NEW YORK ISLANDERS
PROS: The Islanders fell short in the first round last year, losing in seven close games to the Washington Capitals. With a majority of their team still intact, there's no reason to believe they won't be back again this year. The Isles have perennial Hart Trophy candidate John Tavares leading the charge and a healthy Kyle Okposo will make a difference. Anders Lee should build on his 25-goal campaign from last season and Ryan Strome is poised to build on his 50 point output from last year. NYI's top four d-men are some of the best in the league with Johnny Boychuk, Travis Hamonic, Thomas Hickey (currently on IR) and Nick Leddy.
CONS: The bottom pairings are average at best, even with the addition of veteran Marek Zidlicky. Jaroslav Halak has proven he can carry a starting goaltenders load but if he falters or gets injured, the Islanders back-up options are Thomas Greiss or rookie Stephon Williams.
DETROIT RED WINGS
PROS: Even with the departure of Mike Babcock, the Red Wings are in good hands with new coach Jeff Blashill and a roster full of well-developed talent. The franchise has a history of winning and there's no reason to think that'll stop this season. Sprinkle in (a healthy) Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg and Detroit should continue to be a tough team to play against. Gustav Nyqvist and Tomas Tatar should continue to progress and put up impressive numbers and college standout Dylan Larkin has made the Opening Day roster. Niklas Kronwall is a stalwart on the back end and the addition of Mike Green will take some pressure off of the likes of Jonathan Ericsson and Kyle Quincy. The Wings are set in goal with Jimmy Howard and Petr Mrazek.
CONS: Health will be key to Detroit as Pavel Datsyuk was limited to 63 games last season due to injury and Danny DeKeyser is currently on injured reserve. Time will also tell how the team will respond to a new coaching regime after Babcock's no-nonsense approach.
The demise of Sidney Crosby has been greatly exaggerated. The Pens captain still put up 84 points in 77 games last year despite having less-than-stellar wingers. Phil Kessel is a huge upgrade in terms of offense which will help take the load off of Malkin, Kunitz and Hornqvist. Pittsburgh's defense is a bit of a wildcard but at least the team will get a healthy Olli Maata back, who was having an outstanding rookie campaign before being struck down with a tumour in his neck and a shoulder injury.
CONS: A healthy Kris Letang is huge for the Pens if they plan to move beyond the regular season. The Quebec native is among the elite defensemen in the League but has had a hard time staying healthy. As always, Marc-Andre Fleury's play will be heavily scrutinized as he tends to have slow starts and battles inconsistencies in the crease.