Photo: by Matthew PaulsonAs the NHL season gets underway, the Eastern Conference is set to be wild. The top powerhouse teams like the Boston Bruins, Montreal Canadiens and Pittsburgh Penguins will all have fantastic seasons yet again. But here are some teams that could surprise a lot of people this year.
Tampa Bay Lightning
The Bolts were swept out of the first round of the playoffs last season at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens. This groups enters the 2014-15 season healthy and strengthened. Goaltender Ben Bishop has recovered from the injury that sidelined him late last season.
They added Anton Strålman to a defensive corps that needed some depth. They also added solid backup goaltending in Evgeni Nabokov. Their forward unit looks more or less the same. 2013 first round pick Jonathan Drouin will finally be making the jump to the NHL from junior hockey.
Of course, you can’t forget about Steven Stamkos, perhaps the most prolific goal scorer in the league, who missed significant time last season with a broken leg. All the weapons are there. If the team can stay healthy, they could make a deep run in the playoffs.
New York Islanders
After giving the Penguins a run for their money in the 2013 NHL playoffs, the Islanders failed to qualify for the playoffs last season. They lost superstar John Tavares to injury for the second half of the year. He’s back and primed for a big performance. The Isles added some offensive weaponry in Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin. Returning forwards Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen will also look to put up solid numbers.
They finally solved their goaltending issue by adding Jaroslav Halak and Chad Johnson to the roster. And, just this weekend, they traded for defensemen Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy. With the additions of Boychuk and Leddy, the Isles let the rest of the East know that they mean business this year.
This is a solid team. Look for them to potentially slide in to the playoffs as a wild card team, or maybe even the third Metropolitan Division slot.
The boys from South Florida have had a few seasons of futility. However, after some solid drafting and hard work over the off-season, the Panthers are primed to rebound. The Panthers have three top-five draft picks in Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov and Aaron Ekblad, the first two of whom showed plenty of promise last season.
They also went out and signed some key free agents, including Dave Bolland, Jussi Jokinen, and Willie Mitchell. Their goaltending is also pretty solid. They brought in Roberto Luongo at the trade deadline last season. He will provide some stability at the position for Florida.
With the stiff competition in the Atlantic Division, the Panthers will probably not make the playoffs. However, they won’t be the East’s doormat anymore.