Ted Kulfan's NHL preview: Breaking down the Eastern Conference

Ted Kulfan
The Detroit News
Pittsburgh Penguins center Zach Aston-Reese defends Red Wings center Dylan Larkin during a preseason game.

Ted Kulfan previews the NHL's Eastern Conference:

Atlantic Division


Coach: Jon Cooper

2018-19 record: 62-16-4 (128 points, 1st)

2018-19 leaders: Goals — Steven Stamkos, 45. Assists — Nikita Kucherov, 87. Wins — Andrei Vasilevskiy, 39

Pressure is on: Cooper — Last season’s supreme thud in the first-round loss to Columbus will be on everyone’s mind. Because of salary cap restrictions, this might be the Lightning’s last, real good chance.

Rising star: C Brayden Point — The Lightning managed to fit Point in under their tight salary cap, and he isn’t holding out. Good thing, because this is one of the NHL’s best young players.

Skinny: This roster is still deep and talented, and signing D Kevin Shattenkirk could be a shrewd move. But you wonder what the psyche will be after getting swept last spring after a historic regular season.

More: Ted Kulfan’s NHL breakdown: Top players, contenders, dark horses and more

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Coach: Mike Babcock

2018-19 record: 46-28-8 (100 points, 3rd)

2018-19 leaders: Goals — John Tavares, 47. Assists — Mitch Marner, 68. Wins — Frederik Andersen, 36

Pressure is on: C Auston Matthews — Especially after last week’s revelations about disturbing the peace in Arizona during the off-season. Leading the Leafs to a Stanley Cup just became more difficult.

Rising star: RW Marner — Now armed with a rich new contract, Marner should be a 100-point player this season.

Skinny: The pressure is also on Babcock, who hasn’t been able to get the Leafs past the first round. But with GM Kyle Dubas’ moves this summer, this roster looks deeper and capable of advancing.


Coach: Bruce Cassidy

2018-19 record: 49-24-9 (107 points, 2nd)

2018-19 leaders: Goals — David Pastrknak, 38. Assists — Brad Marchand, 64. Wins — Tuukka Rask, 27

Pressure is on: C Patrice Bergeron — In the sense Bergeron, who has had groin problems in his career, needs to remain healthy because without him, this lineup weakens noticeably at center.

Rising star: D Charlie McAvoy — This exciting young player should be a No. 1-caliber defenseman for a long time.

Skinny: They lost in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals last spring, and you get the sense with this roster, they’ll be angry and hungry this season. Don’t ever underestimate this veteran core.


Coach: Joel Quenneville

2018-19 record: 36-32-14 (86 points, 5th)

2018-19 leaders: Goals — Mike Hoffman, 36. Assists — Jonathan Huberdeau, 62. Wins — Roberto Luongo, 18

Pressure is on: G Sergei Bobrovsky — His arrival has spurred expectations that haven’t been associated with this organization in a long time.

Rising star: C Aleksander Barkov — The next step is being in the MVP conversation, and Barkov should be in those discussions this season.

Skinny: Quenneville is a Stanley Cup-winning coach and he’ll mold this roster into a playoff winner. Tough to imagine them missing the playoffs this spring.


Coach: Claude Julien

2018-19 record: 44-30-8 (96 points, 4th)

2018-19 leaders: Goals — Brendan Gallagher, 33. Assists — Max Domi, 44. Wins — Carey Price, 35

Pressure is on: GM Marc Bergevin — The Canadiens have been in the mix for some big names, but Bergevin hasn’t been able to wheel them in. This roster is playoff caliber, but could use just a bit more experience.

Rising star: C Max Domi — The Canadiens appear to have completely won the trade of Domi for Alex Galchenyuk. Domi was sensational last season.

Skinny: This is a fine roster, and if Price plays to his incredible level, Montreal could sneak into the playoffs.


Coach: Ralph Krueger

2018-19 record: 33-39-10 (76 points, 6th)

2018-19 leaders: Goals — Jeff Skinner, 40. Assists — Jack Eichel, 54. Wins — Carter Hutton, 18

Pressure is on:  Eichel — It seems to grow each season, as the Sabres keep adding pieces but swim toward the bottom of the Eastern standings.

Rising star: D Rasmus Dahlin — The No. 1 pick in 2018 did nothing to discourage talk of being a franchise-altering defenseman. Dahlin will eventually become a star.

Skinny: Naming Krueger, who has so much respect around the game from players who’ve played for him, as head coach could become one of the off-season’s best moves.


Coach: Jeff Blashill

2018-19 record: 32-40-10 (74 points, 7th)

2018-19 leaders: Goals — Dylan Larkin, 32. Assists — Larkin, 41. Wins — Jimmy Howard, 23

Pressure is on: Blashill — There’s a new GM, a roster that is getting younger but remains riddled with aging veterans, and playing in a tough division. This isn’t an easy situation at all.

Rising star: C Moritz Seider — Seider has shown that GM Steve Yzerman didn’t reach at all when surprisingly picking Seider early in the 1st round in June.

Skinny: It’s difficult seeing the Wings improve that much in what is a deep and talented division, and for that matter, Eastern Conference. They’re just not talented enough right now.


Coach: D.J. Smith

2018-19 record: 29-47-6 (64 points, 8th)

2018-19 leaders: Goals — Brady Tkachuk, 22. Assists — Thomas Chabot, 41. Wins — Craig Anderson, 17

Pressure is on: GM Pierre Dorion — The Senators are committed to a rebuild and they’re right smack in the middle of it. The hope in Ottawa is Dorion is collecting the right young players.

Rising star: D Thomas Chabot — The Senators made the bold move last week of extending Chabot to a long-term, big-money contract, a sign they believe Chabot will continue to develop. Many believe there’s a Norris Trophy in his future.

Skinny: This roster isn’t anywhere close to contending for a playoff spot. But give Dorion and his staff credit, there does appear to be a glimmer of hope.


►Tampa Bay, Toronto, Boston, Florida (wild card)

Metropolitan Division


Coach: Rod Brind’Amour

2018-19 record: 46-29-7, (99 points, 4th)

2018-19 leaders: Goals — Sebastian Aho, 30. Assists — Teuvo Teravainen, 55. Wins — Petr Mrazek, 23.

Pressure is on: Mrazek — This is a young, talented roster that appears to be growing and improving quickly. There aren’t a lot of weaknesses. But Mrazek remains a question mark.

Rising star: Aho — The young center is blossoming into a franchise-leading player and should crack the 90-point barrier.

Skinny: This organization made a significant step forward last spring, reaching the third round, and could go just as far this season. Brind’Amour does a good job of pushing and prodding this young roster.


Coach: Todd Reirden

2018-19 record: 48-26-8 (104 points, 1st)

2018-19 leaders: Goals — Alex Ovechkin, 51. Assists — John Carlson, 57. Wins —Braden Holtby, 32.

Pressure is on: GM Brian MacLellan — Some big personnel decisions loom next summer, with C Nicklas Backstrom and Holtby both free agents next summer. The window is still open, but definitely inching to be closed.

Rising star: LW Jakub Vrana — Reached the 24-goal mark last season and the Capitals would love to see him get 30 this time around. Adds quality depth to an already deep roster.

Skinny: MacLellan made some shrewd moves, getting D Radko Gudas and RW Richard Panik, and this roster should be hungry after last spring’s bitter disappointment. The Capitals are dangerous.


Coach: Mike Sullivan

2018-19 record: 44-26-12 (100 points, 3rd)

2018-19 leaders: Goals — Jake Guentzel, 40. Assists — Sidney Crosby, 65. Wins — Matt Murray, 29.

Pressure is on: C Evgeni Malkin — Malkin had an OK season (72 points), but down from his usual standards. He needs to be close to 90-100 points for the Penguins to reach their potential.

Rising star: D Marcus Pettersson — He played some big minutes last season, and the coaching staff is hoping Pettersson can develop into a top-four defenseman.

Skinny: Trading away Phil Kessel was an interesting move, giving away offense but possibly improving the chemistry. The core is championship caliber, but the depth isn’t as strong as it used to be.


Coach: John Hynes

2018-19 record: 31-41-10 (72 points, 8th)

2018-19 leaders: Goals — Kyle Palmieri, 27. Assists — Nico Hischier, 30. Wins —Keith Kinkaid, 15.

Pressure is on: Hynes — GM Ray Shero’s moves last summer created a playoff contending team. The Devils took a step back last season but that shouldn’t be the case this time around.

Rising star: C Jack Hughes — The NHL has been waiting for the arrival of the 2019 No. 1 overall pick for a while now. Given Hughes’ skills he’s not likely to disappoint.

Skinny: Acquiring D PK Subban, drafting Hughes, and signing RW Wayne Simmonds, there’s a significant talent upgrade here. If they get decent goaltending, this should be a playoff team.


Coach: Alain Vigneault

2018-19 record: 37-37-8 (82 points, 6th)

2018-19 leaders: Goals — Sean Couturier, 33. Assists — Claude Giroux, 63. Wins —Carter Hart, 16

Pressure is on: Hart — The young goaltender has to demolish so many demons that Flyers’ goaltenders have had to overcome. This is an improved roster, but Hart has to stop pucks.

Rising star: LW Joel Farabee — The former US National Team program graduate is going to be a long-time producer for the Flyers, who have a deep farm system.

Skinny: Many of their best prospects are probably a year away. But this roster should contend for a playoff spot up until the final days of the season.


Coach: Barry Trotz

2018-19 record: 48-27-7 (103 points, 2nd)

2018-19 leaders: Goals — Anders Lee, 28. Assists — Mathew Barzal, 44. Wins —Robin Lehner, 25

Pressure is on: Barzal — The young center fell from 85 to 62 points in his sophomore season. For the Islanders to remain in the playoff hunt, Barzal has to be closer to 80-85 points.

Rising star: RW Oliver Wahlstrom — The former USNTDP product looks like an effective goal-scorer down the line.

Skinny: GM Lou Lamoriello and Trotz did a wonderful job of changing the culture of this organization. The Islanders shouldn’t drop much, but on paper, a couple of teams may have passed them.


Coach: John Tortorella

2018-19 record: 47-31-4 (98 points, 5th)

2018-19 leaders: Goals — Cam Atkinson, 41. Assists — Artemi Panarin, 59. Wins —Sergei Bobrovsky, 37

Pressure is on: GM Jarmo Kekalainen — Not re-signing G Sergei Bobrovsky and LW Artemi Panarin weakens this roster, and Kekalainen’s decision to go all in at the trade deadline will be analyzed for a long time.

Rising star: D Seth Jones — There’s been whispers of a potential Norris Trophy season, and it wouldn’t be shocking to see Jones make that jump this season.

Skinny: Losing Panarin and Bobrovsky hurts, but this roster isn’t devoid of talent. Tortorella is going to push them, and they’ll remain competitive.


Coach: David Quinn

2018-19 record: 32-36-14 (78 points, 7th)

2018-19 leaders: Goals — Mika Zibanejad, 30. Assists — Mika Zibanejad, 44. Wins — Henrik Lundqvist, 18

Pressure is on: Quinn — The infusion of talent — drafting RW Kaapo Kakko, signing Panarin, acquiring D’s Jacob Trouba (Rochester) and Adam Fox — sped the rebuild, and increased expectations.

Rising star: Kakko — Although Jack Hughes is ticketed to be a huge star, Kakko, the No. 2 overall pick behind Hughes, might be ready physically to make a quicker impact in the NHL.

Skinny: The Rangers are much better, but they remain questionable at center, and the depth isn’t quite there yet.


►Carolina, Washington, Pittsburgh, New Jersey (wild card)






Twitter: @tkulfan