There is plenty of uncertainty around the Islanders as the season begins but how does the rest of the East stack up. Over the last two seasons 13 of the 16 teams have made the playoffs, in addition Carolina and Buffalo are poised to make the leap into the playoffs this season. This leads to plenty of competition for each of the eight playoff positions. What does the competition look like? Since each division is guaranteed three selections we will look at each division separately and break the teams into groups to figure out which of the eight will make the playoffs.
First, we will look at the locks. These two teams won’t even look at the playoffs as an accomplishment and will play the regular season to get ready for the playoffs. It would take drastic steps to remove them from springtime hockey
After two consecutive fantastic regular seasons the Caps failed to make run to the Cup. With so much put into last year’s team it was not a surprise for them to lose talent in the offseason. They are primed and ready for another run though. The first 6 months will not define their season.
Are they better than the Islanders: Yes
The two-time defending Stanley Cup Champions lost many of the pieces it took to win those Cups. In addition to the superstars at the top of the lineup it takes role players to be champions. The Pens have lost plenty of those players over the offseason. The good teams find a way to replace them, whether or not the Pens have done it again is a question that is better asked later in the season. As for the question about the Pens making the playoffs, the answer is an obvious yes.
Are they better than the Islanders: Yes
The next pair made the playoffs last season, and are favored to do it again this season. Each one of them will have their own challenges and should not be considered locks, just good bets.
Columbus Blue Jackets
Last year was the season they were waiting for in Columbus. A 2014 playoff appearance and a gutty series against the Penguins lead many to believe that Columbus was a team on the rise. Two straight disastrous seasons finally lead to the breakout season. They went big in believing that Artemi Panarin would be an upgrade over Brandon Saad. The other question is with Coach Tortorella. Torts has a way of coming into a situation and making things better, at least for a while. This is basically his third season in Columbus which may start to be the time his message starts getting old. Is this the year Columbus proves whether they belong as one of the dependable playoff teams in the east or just a team that played well for a season?
Are they better than the Islanders: They could be but I would not be so sure about that.
New York Rangers
While the Rangers along with the Pens and Caps have been atop the Metro since its inception the Rangers have always been the third in the trio. They have not had the regular season success of the Caps nor the playoff success of the Pens. The addition of Shattenkirk should help the defense but this is an aging team that continues to find ways to get to the playoffs. They still lack the top level forwards to be a threat to the top of the division. I would expect the Rangers in the playoffs but there will come a season when the window closes on the Rangers and it might be this year.
Are they better than the Islanders? Until the Isles prove they are better, unfortunately the answer is yes.
The bottom section of the division is next, each of these teams finished below the Islanders last season. While it may seem unlikely that this group will make the playoffs, I would bet on one of them finding their way in.
The Flyers are only a year removed from a playoff appearance after their step backwards last season. Nolan Patrick the number two overall pick looks to have made the team as the Flyers continue their rebuild on the fly. They have plenty of young talent and would be the favorite of this group to sneak into the playoffs. Even last season they showed flashed that they were a team to be worried about. If there is a team from the bottom of the Metro that does what Columbus did last year, it will be the Flyers.
Are they better than the Islanders? I don’t think so
The Canes seem to be the team people are waiting for to make the leap this season. They have added plenty of veterans to go with this younger group. Scott Darling has been a good backup in Chicago but is he ready to take control in Carolina? This looks like a dangerous team but if the Isles lose out to the Canes, it is the Isles fault.
Are they better than the Islanders? Maybe on their best day, but overall no.
New Jersey Devils
The Devils still have plenty of room to grow before they can be considered a serious playoff contender. Cory Schneider will help keep them competitive but if there is one bottom of the division team in the Metro it is the Devils.
Are they better than the Islanders? No,
Unlike the Metro, the Atlantic Division does not have the same dominant teams on top. This top group would be a safe pick to make the playoffs and make a run towards the Cup, but each one of these teams has missed the playoffs over the last two seasons (as has everybody in the Atlantic).
Tampa Bay Lightning
This is the team the Islanders wish to grow up into. Even without their star player in Stamkos the young forwards of the Bolts have developed into quality NHL players themselves. They do not need an MVP caliber effort from Stamkos to be dangerous. They will have some questions in net without Ben Bishop but everything that could have went wrong for the Lightning did. I would not expect a repeat of that this year.
Are they better than the Islanders? Yes, you only have to look at the 2016 Atlantic Division finals to see that.
The addition of Jonathan Drouin gives them speed in the center of the ice which will make them more dangerous than last season. The biggest piece has been Carey Price, without him the Habs missed the playoffs two years ago, with him they could lift the Cup.
Are they better than the Islanders? Yes
The next two teams have been pretty dependable over the last few seasons. They will most likely put themselves into the playoff hunt but are not as dynamic as some of the younger teams in the division. Expect each of them to have in the mid 90’s in points.
The Bruins have had three straight seasons in the mid 90’s for points, and have been within 2 points of the final playoff spot. Without any dynamic additions nor subtractions they are just a year older. History shows these guys know how to play. They are going to set the mark but I would bet on enough teams clearing that mark.
Are they better than the Islanders? Most likely not
Much like the Bruins, the Senators have been bouncing back and forth between finishing in the high 80’s and high 90’s in points. There is very little boom bust potential in this team and look to be another mediocre team in the Atlantic. I would expect them again to finish in the mid 90’s and make someone take away their playoff spot.
Are they better than the Islanders? Most likely not
The next group of teams may be the most fascinating in the league. They have been bad and are trying to build the quote unquote right way. Two of these teams have had recent success but putting Buffalo in this group feels right.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Last year was a rebirth of the Maple Leafs, for the first time in decades the Leafs were a fun hockey club. They added Patrick Marleau which shows they might be ready to take the next leap forward. The Leafs arrived earlier than expected last season. Many times, those are the teams that end up taking a step back the next season. Coach Babcock is the type of coach who can prevent that from happening but sometimes nobody can stop it. The Leafs have the talent to challenge the top of this division but there are some red flags.
Are they better than the Islanders? No, are the Isles better than the Leafs? No
Speaking of teams that made a step forward only to take a step back the Florida Panthers. After winning the Atlantic in 2016, many believed that is was only a matter of time before the Panthers would challenge for a top spot in the east. Injuries and some key loses may prevent this from happening. Things have been going downhill in Sunrise since they lost to the Isles in 2016.
Are they better than the Islanders? No
While the Sabres have not had the success the other two teams in this group have had, they look poised to maybe become the young team that finally takes their step forward. They have tons of talent on this team and after a long wait for them to get ready it may finally be time. Expect a huge year out of Jack Eichel as he finally shows why he was more than a consolation in the Connor McDavid sweepstakes.
Are they better than the Islanders? If things go right for the Sabres
Detroit Red Wings
If there is a bad team in the east the Wings are the closest to it. The cupboard is bare, while they have some useful players there is nobody left that will carry this team. They had a great run but now they need to rebuild for another one. They will have a new building so that might be fun.
Are they better than the Islanders? If they trade Tavares, so no.
The playoffs in the east look to be a tall order. Over the last four years it has taken an average of 95.5 points to get the final wild card spot with it being as high as 98 points. There is no reason why it won’t take at least 96-97 this year for the Islanders to make the playoffs.
The playoff picks are:
Atlantic: Tampa Bay, Montreal, Buffalo
Metro, Washington, Pittsburgh, New York Rangers, Philadelphia, New York Islanders.