As the 2013 NHL season gets underway, one thing is for sure: the Eastern Conference is wide open. The Pittsburgh Penguins were the sexy pick last year but they were knocked out in the first round of the playoffs rather easily by the Philadelphia Flyers.
This season, a case can be made for a number of teams out of the Atlantic Division, as the New York Rangers, Penguins and Flyers are all serious contenders.
Here’s a look at the NHL futures to win the Stanley Cup with the focus on the Eastern Conference:
Favorites: Pittsburgh Penguins +575
The biggest disappointment from last year’s playoffs had to be the play of Marc-Andre Fleury. No one has any explanation what happened to him in the playoff loss to Philadelphia. Fleury posted a 2.36 GAA and .913 save percentage in the regular season but those numbers deteriorate to 4.63 and .834 in the postseason. If this was just a bad six game stretch and Fleury regains his form, the Penguins should be competitive again.
Even after trading Jordan Staal to the Carolina Hurricanes, the Penguins are still stacked up front. Both Evgeni Malkin and Crosby come into this season healthy and motivated after last year’s playoff failure.
On defense this team is led by dynamic offensive defenseman Kris Letang who also dealt with injuries last season.
Favorites: New York Rangers +650
The Rangers made the biggest offseason splash trading for Rick Nash, who scored over 30 goals seven times as a Columbus Blue Jacket. The season starting late help benefits Marian Gaborik, who is just getting healthy after undergoing offseason surgery.
No one in the East has a defensive blue line core like the Rangers, who feature Marc Staal, Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh. The Rangers also have the best goaltender in the conference in Henrik Lundqvist.
New York seemed to run out of gas in last year’s playoffs. After playing back-to-back seven game series versus Ottawa and Washington, they fell short in the East Final versus New Jersey. In a shortened season, they might have more in the tank to last for a longer playoff run this time around.
Sleepers: Buffalo Sabres +2000
Essentially, the season was over for Buffalo very early last year when Ryan Miller suffered a concussion versus Boston and the team did not respond physically. The Sabres spent a ton of money heading in the 2012 offseason but injuries to Miller and a number of other key players put them in too big of a hole. This year they acquired gritty sniper Steve Ott and if some of their acquisitions from last year can step up, they could be a dark horse. Miller is finally healthy and with Cody Hodgson for a full season in Buffalo, the Sabres could surprise a couple teams in the postseason.
Sleepers: Carolina Hurricanes +2500
After Kirk Muller took over as head coach midseason, the Carolina Hurricanes became a team no one wanted to face. They are hoping to carry that momentum into the 2013 season and they should be able to given their outstanding offseason. One of their major weaknesses last year was goal scoring but they addressed that by trading for Jordan Staal and signing Alex Semin.
Their top sniper, Jeff Skinner, is fully recovered from his concussion. Paired with the Staal brothers and Semin, the Hurricanes could be on the rise. Goaltender Cam Ward is as durable and reliable as it gets in net, so if the blue line holds up, the Hurricanes have a good shot of going from a non-playoff team, to a division winner – and therefore, a top three seed in the playoffs.
Prediction: New York Rangers +650
The Rangers were so close last year and filled their only glaring hole up front, practically stealing Rick Nash from Columbus. We saw Jonathan Quick steal many NHL betting playoff games last year in Los Angeles and certainly Henrik Lundqvist is capable of doing the same helping the Rangers get back to the Finals for the first time since 1994.