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By Jake Shoemaker

The strike shortened 2013 season made it difficult to discern which conference was more powerful. This year, with plenty of inter-conference play, the East will reign supreme as the deeper more talented conference.

Below you will find my predictions for how the Eastern Conference will shake out during the regular season. Teams are listed by their projected divisional finish with their overall conference finish noted in the parentheses. Stay tuned for my Western Conference and Playoff predictions.

Metropolitan Division:

Pittsburgh (1)

Few, if any, teams can match the star-power that the Penguins boast. Crosby, Malkin, Neal, Kunitz, Letang…the list goes on and on. The Penguins can score. The Penguins can play defense. The Penguins can keep the puck out of the net (in the regular season). So what is Pittsburgh’s flaw? Boston showed the league that the Penguins can be bullied and beat down by physical, relentless play. However, although the Bruins wrote the script, Boston bullied Pittsburgh over the course of a series. Other teams will not have the luxury of a shortened schedule to be able to consistently grind the Penguins down, and thus the Penguins will yet again thrive during the regular season. In the long run, however, there are too many great, physical teams in the East who are not intimidated by Pittsburgh, and one of them will bounce the Penguins out before the Finals.

X-Factor: Marc-Andre Fleury. Yes, Fleury has won a Stanley Cup. Yes, Fleury has been moderately successful during the regular season. However, the Canadian netminder needs to rediscover his top form and display an increased level of confidence in order for the Penguins to win a Stanley Cup. Pressure is on, Fleury.

Washington (4)

The Capitals will finish second in the conference and second in the division solely because they play in the Metropolitan Division. The offensive minded group will yet again put pucks in the net with the best of them, hoping to build on their late season success in 2013. And, with Braden Holtby in net for his second full season, Washington will win regular season games with regularity. However, until they make a deep playoff run under Alex Ovechkin’s “leadership”, I’m not going to buy the Capitals as a legitimate contender.

X-Factor: Alex Ovechkin. The incredibly talented face of the franchise saw his production decline significantly from 2010-2012, but he bounced back in the second half of the 2013 season to carry the team to a division title. The Capitals seem to “go” as Ovechkin goes, feeding off of his energy and commitment (when he brings them to the ice). If Adam Oates can find a way for his star to play two-way hockey and to contribute upwards of 100 points, the team has the depth and talent around him to compete with the best in the East throughout the playoffs.

New York Islanders (8)

After a long-awaited return to the playoffs, the Islanders will prove that the short 2013 season was not a fluke. After increasing their confidence following a challenging series with the Penguins in the playoffs and after gaining more experience for their stars John Taveres and Matt Moulson, the Islanders look poised to make the playoffs again this year. Can they hang with the Eastern Conference powers over the course of an entire season? Probably not, but they will yet again be a dreaded first round opponent and could win their first playoff series since 1993 of the matchup is right (Toronto, Washington, Tampa Bay).

X-Factor: Evgeni Nabokov. How long will Nabokov be a relevant goaltender in the NHL? The Islanders hope he has at least another quality season in him as his consistent play in 2013 helped solidify a position that has haunted the team for years (looking at you Rick DiPietro, sorry). Save Washington and Pittsburgh, the Metropolitan Division doesn’t appear to have the offensive star power that the Atlantic does, so if Nabokov is consistent, the Islanders should find themselves on the right side of the playoff bubble.

Carolina Hurricanes (9)

Much was expected of Carolina in 2013 after Jordan Staal came over from Pittsburgh. Unfortunately, the Hurricanes did nothing well. They gave up the second most goals per game and their power play and penalty kill both ranked in the bottom four in the league. And, the worst part is that they did all of this playing in the worst division in the league. On the bright side, the Hurricanes have talent. They should continue to score goals as last year’s marquee additions of Alexander Semin and Staal continue to gel, but the stars must come together on defense for the Hurricanes to compete. If coach Kirk Muller can’t get this group to support Cam Ward, his tenure will be cut short and Carolina will miss out postseason hockey yet again.

X-Factor(s): Jordan Staal, Justin Faulk. Ok, Carolina. I’ll give you two x-factor’s after last season’s debacle. Jordan Staal’s first season playing with brother Eric was a disaster. The center, known for his two-way play, posted a -18 and contributed minimally to the team’s offensive cause. Jordan Staal must return to form as a steady offensive contributor and reliable defensive forward in his second year in Raleigh. His brother, team Captain Eric Staal, was the team’s lone bright spot in 2013 posting more than a point per game, but he can’t do it all. Ultimately, if the Hurricanes want to make the playoffs, they have to keep the puck out of the net. Cam Ward has shown that he can be a premier goalie with a bit of help in front of him, and if Justin Faulk turns into the shutdown defender that scouts thought he would become, Carolina has a shot to compete for a postseason birth.

New York Rangers (11)

To say New York was a disappointment in 2013 is an understatement. After a dazzling 2012-2013 season, the Rangers took a step back in the strike shortened year. Henrik Lundqvist was yet again stellar in net, but the offense and defense proved unstable and inconsistent. A midsession panic trade of Marian Gaborik will not help New York’s offense in the upcoming season but the Rangers hope that two former top-10 picks, Derick Brassard and Benoit Pouliot, continue to prove that their recent ascents toward relevancy were not flukes. Additionally, the presence of Alain Vigneault as the new head coach should spark the offense to support the team’s top-5 ranked defense. The Rangers have a high ceiling as the group is loaded with talent, but they must get off to a fast start to gain confidence if they want to compete in the Eastern Conference. My bet, the Rangers take a while to gel and will be playing catch-up for the majority of the season.

X-Factor: Brad Richards. Richards gets paid as an all-pro forward. Last year, he produced like an aging veteran who was playing with nothing on the line. In the playoffs, Richards produced one point in ten games with a negative plus/minus rating. The coaching change should help to kick-start Richards, but he needs to find the passion that he has been lacking since he came over from Dallas. If Vigenault can get Richards to produce like the distribution minded Sedin brothers did in Vancouver, he will make everyone around him better and New York can compete with anyone.

Philadelphia Flyers (12)

The Philadelphia Flyers have been a trendy bounce back pick for the upcoming season. Not many teams experienced the number of injuries that Philadelphia did last year and they still managed to finish among the top third in the league in goals scored, power play percentage and penalty kill percentage. So, why will the Flyers finish toward the bottom of the Eastern Conference again? They are counting on Steve Mason and Ray Emery to carry them in net. Mason, a model of inconsistency over the last five seasons, posted a sub 2.00 GAA in six starts as a Flyer. Emery, in 18 games for Chicago, lost only one time in regulation. The problems: over the course of the 3.5 seasons between 2009 and 2013, Mason’s GAA was over 3.00, and Emery has not started more than 30 games in a season since 2007. So, the Flyers are hoping that the 164 start stretch was an anomaly for Mason as compared to his 6 game sampling last year, and that a 31 year old can break from his injury ridden past. Everyone in Philadelphia should keep their fingers crossed and brace for the worst.

X-Factor: Ray Emery. Ilya Bryzgalov couldn’t handle the pressure of playing under a massive contract in front of a vicious fan base. Steve Mason came to town last year at a time when the Flyers had no shot at playoff hockey, so whether he can handle the heat remains to be seen. Emery, on the other hand, returned to Philadelphia by choice this offseason – a place where he performed on an average level three years ago. If he can maintain his recent form and not wilt under the pressures of the rabid fans, Philadelphia can contend. If he repeats his 2009-2010 Philadelphia form of 27 games started and a 2.64 GAA, the Flyers are unlikely to improve on last year’s finish.

New Jersey Devils (15)

Two years removed from a Stanley Cup Finals loss, the Devils are still reeling. The post-Parise era began poorly in the strike shortened 2013 season, and Devils fans can’t be optimistic for the upcoming year after Ilya Kovalchuk’s departure for Russia. Although New Jersey brought in promising goalie Cory Schneider to gradually take the reins from Martin Brodeur, Cam Ward has shown us that a good goalie has little hope on a bad team. The Devils will have to improve on their 28th ranked offense in support of Schneider and the exchange of Kovalchuk and David Clarkson for Michael Ryder and Jaromir Jagr is not helping.

X-Factor: Jaromir Jagr. Jagr, despite his willingness to play any role during Boston’s Stanley Cup Finals run, looked both slow and unable to play both ends of the ice last Spring. Although he continued to dazzle with his puck handling skills, Jagr’s scoring touch seemed to fade when Boston needed it most. With Clarkson and Kovalchuk gone, the ageless forward must be a point per game scorer for the Devils to succeed. Does he still have the skills with his stick? Yes. Can his body keep up with the young talent around the league? Devils fans don’t want me to answer that.

Columbus Blue Jackets (16)

Welcome to the better conference, Columbus. After a surprising 2013 season, the Blue Jackets hope they can build on their success and avoid regressing back to the franchise norm of being a cellar-dweller. The low scoring squad with a weak power play is unlikely to keep pace with its high octane competition no matter how well Vezina winner Sergi Bobrovsky plays. Marian Gaborik must stay healthy and produce at an All-World level in his first full season as a Blue Jacket to help spark the anemic offense and to make this team a playoff contender.

X-Factor: Brandon Dubinsky. Dubinsky came to Columbus in 2013 with playoff experience and the pedigree of a proven leader. If Dubinsky can produce at both ends of the ice, help keep Marian Gaborik motivated, and keep the squad persistent through the inevitable rough patches in a relentless schedule, Columbus has a fighting chance. Unfortunately, the task seems a little too tall.

Atlantic Division:

Boston (2)

After their second trip to the Stanley Cup Finals in three years, the Bruins look poised to make yet another deep playoff run. The acquisitions of two Cup seeking veterans, Jarome Iginla and Loui Eriksson, should help the Bruins maintain a hunger that teams that have consistently been at the top sometimes lose. Also, the healthy blue line competition between Dougie Hamilton, Torey Krug and Matt Bartkowski should help to keep the defense sharp and rested in front of Tuukka Rask. Look for the Bruins to challenge the Leafs, Red Wings and Penguins for Eastern Conference supremacy.

X-Factor: Tuukka Rask. Rask had a strong regular season in 2013 and an even better postseason. After signing Rask to a handsome contract in the offseason, the Bruins hope that he can maintain his Vezina caliber play through an 82 game schedule. With four strong offensive lines and three great defensive pairings that will no doubt get the Bruins to the postseason, Rask will be the man who decides their ultimate fate.

Toronto (3)

Toronto “almost” upset the eventual Eastern Conference champion Boston Bruins in the first round of the 2013 playoffs. The loss left the ill-fated franchise with one round of playoff experience and But how will the Leafs’ blown lead to the Bosin 7? How will they bounce back in 2013-2014? A talented, fast, deep Leafs team will look to prove that their 2013 return to relevance was not a fluke. This team can compete with anybody in the East.

X-Factor: Jonathan Bernier. Bernier will finally get his shot to be “the man” in net during the 2013-2014. The question is, will he play like the top-tier netminder that the Kings expected him to be before Jonathan Quick turned into arguably the NHL’s best goaltender? The Leafs outplayed the Eastern Conference champion Bruins before Tyler Bozak fell injured and, with the addition of David Clarkson, David Bolland and Mason Raymond, they should be an even deeper team in 2013-2014. If Bernier emerges as a star, the Leafs may just find themselves in the Stanley Cup Finals.

Detroit (5)

Once again, an “almost” team…although almost doesn’t earn you anything in the NHL, the Red Wings almost upset the NHL’s most dominant team in the 2013 playoffs and will look to carry that momentum into the upcoming season.

X-Factor: Stephen Weiss. Although the spotlight will be on Daniel Alfredsson after his high-profile signing in the motor city, Weiss will be the difference maker in Detroit. Alfredsson will score his goals, Pavel Datsyuk will yet again be a Selke candidate and Jimmy Howard will play inspired as he looks to earn a spot on the U.S. Olympic team. But the team will need Weiss, the former 4th overall pick who missed the majority of the 2013 campaign while playing for Florida, to provide what he has his entire career – strong power play production, significant minutes on the ice, and strong two-way play. If Weiss can return to the top of his game, the Red Wings have all of the pieces needed to emerge from the East.

Ottawa (6)

It’s no secret that the Senators “over-achieved” in 2013 after facing incredibly bad luck with injuries. However, the experience that some of the young Senators gained when Alfredsson, Spezza, Anderson and Karlsson went down will serve them well when their stars return in October. The Senators have arguably the best goalie tandem in the league with Craig Anderson, who will try to avoid a regression as he seeks to earn a U.S. Olympic spot, and Robin Lehner as well as depth on offense and defense.

X-Factor: Kyle Turris. With their long-time leader Alfredsson skating for Detroit, Kyle Turris will need to continue his ascent toward stardom in 2013-2014 for the Senators to go deep into the playoffs. In his first full season as a Senator, Turris showed why the Coyotes drafted him 3rd overall in 2007. He proved himself capable of being a top-line center who can log 20 minutes per night and he elevated his game even higher in the playoffs. If Turris can be a point-per-game scorer for the Senators, they have the balance to compete with the best in the East.

Montreal (7)

Montreal returned to the playoffs in 2013 after a dreadful season the year before. Their high flying offense carried them to a division title, but with Ottawa, Boston, Toronto and Detroit all looking like strong contenders for the Atlantic title, Montreal will have to become a much more well-rounded team in order to even return to the playoffs.

X-Factor: Carey Price. Has there been a year in recent memory when Carey Price hasn’t held the key to Montreal’s success? The Canadiens lit up the scoreboard in 2013 and, with Michael Ryder back in the Red and Blue for a full season and Alex Galchenyuk looking to improve on his fantastic rookie season, look poised to do the same again this year. In order for the Canadiens to win, Carey Price must improve on his .905 save percentage and his 2.59 goals against average…and he needs to figure out how to win in the playoffs.

Tampa Bay (10)

Tampa Bay is perhaps the most intriguing team in the division. The Lightning looked to Anders Lindback to solidify their unsettled situation in goal last year and the Swede proved himself inadequate. They then traded away one of their best young offensive stars in Cory Conacher for Ben Bishop with the hopes that the young American can become the goalie of the future. The Lightning seem to always find a way to score, led by Steven Samkos and the ageless Martin St. Louis, but their defense always finds a way to let them down. Perhaps this is the year that the two come together in front of Bishop and allow the Lightning to return to being one of the best in the East. Or, perhaps we will see much of the same. In a division loaded with physical, defensive minded teams, a move from the soft Southeast Division to the new Atlantic Division will hurt Tampa’s chances of returning to relevancy.

X-Factor: Matt Carle. Somebody must solidify the defense in order for the Lightning to be a contender. Although Carle can’t do it alone, the veteran has a winning pedigree and the potential to emerge as a defensive minded leader in Tampa. Despite Tampa’s abysmal season last year, Carle yet again posted a positive plus/minus rating. Now it is time for Carle to get his teammates on board.

Buffalo (13)

When will the Sabres live up to their potential? Buffalo fans hope that their team can bring the intensity and skill that led the team to be an above .500 team against the Northeast Division last year, not the sloppy play that led them to be 3-10-2 against the conference’s worst division. Ryan Miller will be looking to prove that he is still one of the NHL’s best and worthy of a spot on the U.S. Olympic team, but if he continues to get peppered with shots the way he did last year, he will have to elevate his game to a level it hasn’t been at since 2009-2010 to be the difference maker that Buffalo needs. Ultimately, too many players have to have career years for the Sabres to change their standing in the conference.

X-Factor: Henrik Tallinder. It comes as no surprise that the last great season that Ryan Miller had was when he was playing behind Henrik Tallinder. And, it comes as little surprise that the Sabres brought the Swede back to Buffalo after watching his former defensive partner Tyler Myers regress from “budding-star” to a below average defender. If Tallinder can elevate Myers’ game back to what it was, and the two can shut down some of the offensive star power that sits at the top of the conference, Buffalo has enough talent to compete for a Wild Card spot.

Florida (14)

Florida fans are hoping that 2013 was a fluke. Unfortunately for them, the Panthers’ team history suggests that yet another season at the bottom of the conference is more likely. Unstable in net, inconsistent on offense and defense, and without significant improvements on their roster, Florida will need a miracle to compete in their new division (one that is significantly stronger than the one that they struggled in last year).

X-Factor: Kris Versteeg. Jacob Markstrom and the rumored Tim Thomas have already been highlighted as players who would have to have incredible years for the Panthers to compete, but they also won’t be able to win without improving their 29th ranked offense. Kris Versteeg missed much of the 2013 season with an ACL injury, and the Panthers will need a healthy Versteeg to team up with budding star Jonathan Huberdeau to put the puck in the net with more frequency. Will Versteeg be able to make enough of a difference, I think not.

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