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NHL preview: Eastern Conference capsules

Helene Elliott's team-by-team preview of the NHL's Eastern Conference.

In predicted order of finish

Atlantic Division

1. BRUINS

2013-14: 54-19-9 (117 points), 1st.

Salary-cap problems forced the Bruins to let right wing Jarome Iginla (30 goals) and rugged Shawn Thornton leave as free agents. They're counting on winger Loui Eriksson to replace Iginla's production, but he's coming off a two-concussion, 10-goal season. The Bruins remain formidable because of towering defenseman Zdeno Chara, Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender Tuukka Rask (2.04 goals-against average, .930 save percentage) and Selke Trophy winner Patrice Bergeron. If they slip, it won't be a lot.

2. LIGHTNING

2013-14: 46-27-9 (101), 2nd.

Hopes for a deep playoff run vanished when goalie Ben Bishop (2.23 GAA, .924 save percentage) injured a wrist late in the season and needed surgery. He must be fit for the Lightning to have a chance. Look for a big season from Steven Stamkos, who had 25 goals in 37 games despite breaking a leg. Defenseman Anton Stralman and center Brian Boyle were smart offseason upgrades.

3. CANADIENS

2013-14: 46-28-8 (100), 3rd.

Going with four alternates instead of one captain reflects the team effort the Canadiens require. It starts with goalie Carey Price (2.32, .927) and a defense anchored by the exciting but adventurous P.K. Subban. Winger Max Pacioretty (39 goals, 60 points) and 20-year-old Alex Galchenyuk (13 goals, 31 points) will have to do more because several veteran forwards left. A return to the East finals is possible.

4. RED WINGS

2013-14: 39-28-15 (93), 4th (2nd wild card).

Every October their playoff streak seems to be in jeopardy. Every April they keep it alive; it's now 23. They'll open without Pavel Datsyuk (shoulder injury) but expect much from Gustav Nyquist (their top goal scorer last season with 28) and kids Tomas Jurco and Tomas Tatar. Coach Mike Babcock did a masterful job with a team that became young after being racked by injuries. He should guide the Wings to another wild-card berth.

5. MAPLE LEAFS

2013-14: 38-36-8 (84), 6th (no playoffs).

Tip: Take Randy Carlyle in the first-coach-fired pool. An old-school guy, he was inherited by new President Brendan Shanahan, who hired stats guru Kyle Dubas as assistant GM. Right wing Phil Kessel (37 goals, 80 points) and left wing James van Riemsdyk (30 goals, 61 points) flank Tyler Bozak on a fine first line, and Nazem Kadri has potential as a No. 2 center. Maple Leafs goalies faced a league-high 35.9 shots per game last season, making Jonathan Bernier's .923 save percentage especially impressive.

6. PANTHERS

2013-14: 29-45-8 (66), 7th (no playoffs).

Free-agent defenseman Willie Mitchell, twice a Stanley Cup winner with the Kings, should improve the Panthers' 30th-ranked penalty killing while adding physicality and mentoring their talented kids. A full season of goalie Roberto Luongo, acquired in March, will cut their 29th-ranked team GAA. They will be better but not playoff-caliber.

7. SENATORS

2013-14: 37-31-14 (88), 5th (no playoffs).

Defenseman Erik Karlsson recently became the Senators' third captain in three seasons. He follows Jason Spezza, who was traded to the Stars. The Senators did well to keep winger Bobby Ryan with a seven-year, $50.75 million extension, but they have too many holes at both ends to reach the playoffs.

8. SABRES

2013-14: 21-51-10 (52), 8th (no playoffs).

No. 2 draft pick Sam Reinhart, son of former NHL player Paul, is among the rebuilding blocks for a team that ranked last in points (52) and goals (157) last season. While the kids grow — and management scouts potential June lottery picks — veteran wingers Brian Gionta and Matt Moulson will add credibility.

Metropolitan Division

1. PENGUINS

2013-14: 51-24-7 (109), 1st.

Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are a unique 1-2 punch, but Malkin missed training camp with an undisclosed injury and his status is unclear. Olli Maatta has progressed and the defense has enough puck movers to overcome losing free agent Matt Niskanen. First-year coach Mike Johnston's up-tempo style suits Crosby. It comes down to getting a good playoff performance from goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.

2. CAPITALS

2013-14: 38-3014 (90), 5th (no playoffs).

The Capitals likely overpaid Niskanen (seven years, $40.25 million), but he's mobile and moves the puck well. New coach Barry Trotz had good defensive teams in Nashville — the Predators couldn't pay big scorers — and he can use that knack here. He also moved Alex Ovechkin (51 goals but minus-35 defensively) back to left wing, Ovechkin's natural side. Trotz will make the Capitals a much better team.

3. RANGERS

2013-14: 45-31-6 (96), 2nd.

Duplicating a surprise run to the Stanley Cup Final — where they lost in five games to the Kings — will be difficult. They'll miss steady defenseman Anton Stralman, who signed with the Lightning, and depth forward Benoit Pouliot, who went to the Oilers. First-line center Derek Stepan's broken leg leaves them perilously weak up the middle. But as long as they have Henrik Lundqvist (2.36, .920) they'll have a chance.

4. BLUE JACKETS

2013-14: 43-32-7 (93), 4th (1st wild card).

The euphoria of the Blue Jackets' first playoff wins last spring vanished during a contract stalemate with No. 1 center Ryan Johansen (33 goals, 63 points). He finally signed on Monday, but they'll open without top wingers Nathan Horton (back problems) and Boone Jenner (broken wrist). Acquiring gritty Scott Hartnell for R.J. Umberger was a win, and they have a bruising defense. Goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky can carry them. They'll earn a wild-card spot.

5. FLYERS

2013-14: 42-30-10 (94), 3rd.

Goaltending isn't the problem: Steve Mason (2.50, .917) was adequate. But a thin defense will greatly miss all-situation standout Kimmo Timonen, who was diagnosed with blood clots. Claude Giroux (28 goals, 86 points) was an MVP finalist last season and winger Wayne Simmonds has matured, but this could be a difficult season.

6. DEVILS

2013-14: 35-29-18 (88), 6th (no playoffs).

An era ended when the Devils didn't re-sign NHL goalie wins leader Martin Brodeur, but it was time for Cory Schneider to own the crease. Their forwards are old, though 42-year-old Jaromir Jagr (24 goals, 67 points in 82 games) defies the calendar and 32-year-old Michael Cammalleri had 26 goals in 63 games with the mediocre Flames last season. Not enough here for a playoff berth.

7. ISLANDERS

2013-14: 34-37-11 (79), 8th (no playoffs).

Trading prospects and draft picks to land Nick Leddy from the Blackhawks and Johnny Boychuk from the Bruins upgraded the defense. They're intent on making the playoffs in their last season at the Nassau Coliseum. They'll give it a run thanks to center John Tavares, back after a knee injury stopped him at 66 points in 59 games, and goalie Jaroslav Halak.

8. HURRICANES

2013-14: 36-35-11 (83), 7th (no playoffs).

The Hurricanes' season ended when center Jordan Staal broke his leg in an exhibition game, sidelining him three to four months. His brother Eric, who led the team last season with 61 points, is recovering from "core muscle" surgery. They did nothing to improve their 28th-ranked power play. New coach Bill Peters and GM Ron Francis will need patience.

helliott@tribune.com

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