A peek into the East in NHL

ASSOCIATED PRESS Alain Vigneault, new Rangers head coach.
ASSOCIATED PRESS Alain Vigneault, new Rangers head coach.
Posted: October 01, 2013

IT'S A BRAVE new world in the NHL.

With hockey's first major realignment since 1993, divisional play returns, and qualifying for the Stanley Cup playoffs will be even tougher in the Eastern Conference, which has two more teams than the West. The top three teams in each division will automatically qualify, followed by two "wild-card" teams, which can both come from one division based on higher point totals.

Therefore, one division theoretically could have five teams make the playoffs.

What does all of this mean for the Flyers? Here's a look at how Daily News hockey writer Frank Seravalli sees this season shaking out:

METROPOLITAN DIVISION

* denotes playoff team

*1. Pittsburgh: Their goaltending may be a huge question mark - especially with backup Tomas Vokoun out to start the season because of a blood clot - but the Penguins still have the best top-end talent in the East. Sidney Crosby finished just four points off the scoring pace last season despite playing 12 games less than the league leaders, and he's healthy to start the season. Plus, it's put-up or shut-up time for Dan Bylsma in the playoffs.

*2. N.Y. Rangers: It won't be a pretty start to the season for the Rangers, since they don't play a home game until Oct. 27 with the final stages of a $1 billion renovation finishing up at the Garden. But they will jell pretty quickly under new coach Alain Vignault, who could finally get the best out of Rick Nash and Brad Richards since he won't be hounding them to block shots. Serious bonus: Henrik Lundqvist.

*3. Washington: No one knows quite what to expect out of the Capitals. Second-year coach Adam Oates finally got the production out of Alex Ovechkin in the second half of last season. Ovechkin closed with 32 goals in 48 games. Losing center Mike Ribeiro will hurt, and the Caps aren't incredibly inspiring in net, but they are still a solid playoff team.

*4. Columbus: The Blue Jackets have hit the reset button as a franchise with their relocation to the East after 12 seasons in the West. They missed the playoffs last season on a tiebreaker behind Vezina winner Sergei Bobrovsky. Whether "Bob" can continue that play will make or break their season, but this scrappy team will fly nearly 15,000 fewer air miles and will be playing a ton more games in their home time zone.

5. Flyers: It's dangerous to base a prediction on the preseason, but the Flyers really do not look like a team that has turned the corner. Or at least, they haven't shown it yet. So far, it's been more of the same. That could well change, something this playoff-starved city could use. The Flyers defense - and not the goaltending - is their real liability. Plus, they didn't get any faster in the offseason. If they limp out to a poor start, the heat will really be turned up on everyone to produce.

6. N.Y. Islanders: The young Islanders were one of the most fun teams to watch last season, coming within a goal of pushing the Penguins to a seventh game in the first round. Can they do it again in a full, 82-game season? I don't see it happening in this division - and it certainly isn't going to happen with a losing record at home like last year.

7. New Jersey: We've doubted the Devils before and it has come back to bite us. But this team is really going to miss Ilya Kovalchuk, who suddenly retired this summer and left $76 million on the table to bolt to Russia. They struggled last season without him. New goaltender Cory Schneider (stopped 80 of 81 in preseason) could have a lot to say about where they will finish.

8. Carolina: Two summers ago, the Hurricanes looked like a team going in the right direction when they added Jordan Staal to play alongside brother Eric. Jeff Skinner was blossoming as a true star. Now what? Cam Ward has been flailing in net, they have zero depth scoring, and they've already lost defenseman Joni Pitkanen for the year. Yikes.

ATLANTIC DIVISION

* denotes playoff team

*1. Boston: The Bruins are still the class of the East. They've been in the Stanley Cup finals twice in the last 3 years and they are still impressive at every position. Loui Eriksson is perhaps the East's best offseason addition no one is talking about. They acquired Eriksson in a surprising swap for Tyler Seguin. Jarome Iginla may not be the star he once was, but he has a lot of motivation with his incentive-laden contract.

*2. Detroit: The Red Wings have made the playoffs every year since playing in the West (1991, actually) and now the road just got a little easier. That's a scary proposition for one of professional sports' most consistent franchises. Plus, after taking the Blackhawks to seven games last year, they've added Daniel Alfredsson and Stephen Weiss. Jimmy Howard will bounce back after a so-so preseason.

*3. Ottawa: The Senators were almost as fun to watch as the Islanders last season. They are young, fast and scrappy - with some "no names" built almost entirely from the draft. Alfredsson won't be in a Senators uniform for the first time, but adding four-time 30-goal scorer Bobby Ryan will more than make up for that. If Craig Anderson falters in goal, Robin Lehner is waiting in the wings.

*4. Toronto: Like Washington, the Maple Leafs are a polarizing team in the view of experts. No one is quite sure what to make of Toronto. I believe that Jonathan Bernier will be the starter many projected he would be behind Jonathan Quick in Los Angeles. Missing David Clarkson for the first 10 games (suspension) might hurt, but his actions could have actually rallied his teammates and bonded them together.

5. Montreal: In some ways, I'm still surprised that the Canadiens were a playoff team. On paper, they aren't all that impressive - their depth at forward is alarming. But they've added Danny Briere and they still have Carey Price in net, which helps. Look for a Norris Trophy-type season from P.K. Subban as he works for his next contract.

6. Tampa Bay: Vinny Lecavalier is gone. Valtteri Filppula is new. Could GM Steve Yzerman soon be the on hot seat? Aside from Steven Stamkos taking feeds from Martin St. Louis, who else do the Lightning have to strike fear in any opposing coach? Not good.

7. Florida: The Panthers have a new owner, but that means little in the NHL. They still aren't going to be spending to the salary-cap ceiling - and they are going to miss the playoffs for the 14th time in the last 15 seasons. Tim Thomas will be their opening night starter in goal after taking a hiatus last season, which doesn't exactly inspire a ton of confidence.

8. Buffalo: It's going to be a long, cold winter in Buffalo. Then again, when isn't it? Terry Pegula's team is filled with young kids: As many as four recent first-round picks were with the team as recently as last week. There's at least something to pay attention to with the Sabres: It's possible Thomas Vanek and Ryan Miller, both pending free agents and unlikely to return, could be traded.


On Twitter: @DNFlyers

Blog: ph.ly/FrequentFlyers

seravaf@phillynews.com

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