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Season Predictions: Eastern Conference

The only unanimous ranking out east? The Buffalo Sabres.

2021 NHL Stanley Cup Final - Game Five Photo by Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images

The NHL season kicked off last night with the defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning taking on the Sidney Crosby-less Pittsburgh Penguins. After raising the banner, the Lightning went down 3-0 before clawing their way back into the game. With the goaltender pulled, the Penguins scored three empty net goals to snuff out any hopes of a rally by the Lightning.

The Metropolitan will see its first action of the season tonight when the New York Rangers travel to Capital One Arena to take on the Washington Capitals. Will the Capitals fall off this season with Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom currently injured? Our staff seems to think it’s a greater-than-zero likelihood.

Read on to see what we have to say about the Eastern Conference this year, and then bookmark this to laugh when we are all absolutely incorrect at the end of the season and the Buffalo Sabres finish ahead of our unanimous last in their division ranking.

ATLANTIC DIVISION

Taylor: There’s a world where the Toronto Maple Leafs are the top team in the Atlantic Division. But that world only exists in the parallel universe as the Tampa Bay Lightning will be more than up to the task of winning the division in our current timeline. I could see the Bruins as the most precarious playoff team here, with the Montreal Canadiens sneaking back into the discussion depending on how their season plays out. The Sabres as the last place team might be the closest thing to a near-lock in this division.

David: Toronto may suffer from the Harold Ballard curse, but they still have players who can produce at an elite rate. I also think their depth signings like Michael Bunting, Ondrej Kase, and Nick Ritchie will pay huge dividends. They’re not an elite team, but they give you elite production: playoff hopes have to start somewhere. The Florida Panthers are primed to be a legit contender, anchored by an underrated top four on their blueline, while the Boston Bruins still has one of the best lines in hockey. Detroit Red Wings are my sleeper pick, with Lucas Raymond and Moritz Seider primed to add some spice to an otherwise mediocre roster. And yes, I think the Montreal Canadiens take a huge step back. Especially since they were never that good to begin with.

Tyler: I debated leaving either Boston or Florida out of the playoffs (I’m not big on their goaltending), but a trio of cellar-dwellers will help ensure they bank enough points to make it. Toronto and Tampa Bay will trade spots all season, with the winner taking home the No. 1 seed.

Mark: Once again, Toronto is the best team on paper – but the game is played on ice. That reality usually doesn’t hit until the playoffs, so they’ll run away with the regular season. Tampa Bay is still good, sans an entire productive forward line. The bottom four will be entertaining, in a general schadenfreude way. Boston has no goalies, and Florida is where goalies go to die – but the teams are good enough to make the playoffs. I have Boston in third, just because a Toronto-Florida playoff series will allow one of them to actually make it to the second round.

Trent: I’m not going to overthink this one, at least not at first. The Lightning win the division, probably by a lot. Maple Leafs are going to do their usual thing (these are regular season predictions, right?), and the Panthers round out the playoff spots. I think the Ottawa Senators will be a legitimate hockey team for the first time in years, and the Red Wings will improve. Our friends in Montreal won’t live up to the expectations set by the Stanley Cup Final run, a story all too familiar for any readers of this article. Bruins will be good enough to claim a Wild Card spot, although their big question mark in goal keeps me from putting me in the top three. That’s all the teams in this division, right? Did I skip anyone? Nah, don’t think so.

Greg: The question is no longer how good are the Maple Leafs. We all know how good they are. The question, now, is can they get out of the first round of the playoffs. Montreal was last year’s darling in the playoffs but will probably find themselves outside looking in this year.

METROPOLITAN DIVISION

Taylor: I debated between the New York Rangers and the Washington Capitals as the last playoff team out of this division, so that could definitely go either way. Would it surprise me if both Wild Card teams in the East come out of the Metro division? Absolutely not.

David: Zach Parise, and more minutes for top prospects Oliver Wahlstrom and Noah Dobson should ensure that the New York Islanders are the class of the Metro. They have the ingredients of being a real contender, with their ability to adapt (note that despite their reputation, they’re not super slow starters, and they’ve been able to find more offense in the playoffs). Everywhere else is a bit of a crapshoot. To me the big surprise is the New Jersey Devils. Is it because I miss Lindy Ruff’s high flying style and want to see them succeed? Maybe. But adding Dougie Hamilton, Tomas Tatar, Jack Hughes taking the next step, P.K. Subban looking healthier, and Dawson Mercer (who was amazing during their preseason) should pay dividends for a roster that wants to constantly pressure. The Carolina Hurricanes did some silly stuff, but they’ll be fine. A good system and a deep top six will go a long way.

Tyler: I don’t feel confident in any team beyond the Islanders, who I’m picking as this year’s Stanley Cup Champion. Carter Hart has a bounce-back season to drag the Philadelphia Flyers to the playoffs, while the Rangers fall just short and the wheels finally fall off in Pittsburgh.

Mark: So many teams, so little to like. I guess I’ll pull for the Great Eight (Alex Ovechkin), which likely banishes them from the post season. Other than that, the Bunch of Jerks turned out to be jerks. Watching the Isles is like watching the Stars, but without the fondness that comes from being a fan. Gritty is a bad mascot representing a city that boos its best teams. Finally, yellow uniforms just remind me of yellow snow – and that’s not just a reflection on the Penguins. Still, Metro fans will chew your ear off about how great their division is. Wrong, but who cares.

Trent: Ok I struggled with this one. I think the Hurricanes and the Islanders are the obvious one and two here. Literally everyone else is fighting for third place. I guess I won’t vote against the Penguins until I have a reason to, so let’s say they’re number three. The Rangers have too much talent to suck all that bad, so they’re four. The Columbus Blue Jackets and the Flyers might as well be the same team to me, and I’m not exactly optimistic about the Devils figuring things out. The big takeaway from this is that I’m calling a pretty severe collapse from the Capitals. No, I wouldn’t be shocked if they went out and won the division, but their time is running out (according to my friend who is a Capitals fan, “this is the beginning of the end for Washington. Could be no bueno.”), and I’d rather be early on this take than late.

Greg: This could be the year the Islanders make it to the Final. It could also be like years past where they don’t. Pittsburgh will go as well as their health goes. I feel like the Rangers and Capitals will be fighting for the final spot. I had to pick one so I picked the Caps.