1. Pittsburgh PenguinsNever mind the absence of Marian Hossa, Ryan
Malone, Jarkko Ruutu and Georges Laraque, the Penguins still have the most formidable lineup down the middle of any team in the NHL, with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal, plus an emerging elite netminder in Marc-Andre Fleury.
2. Montreal CanadiensMany folks will pick the Habs to win the East next season, but Carey Price will have to prove he's over this spring's playoff meltdown before we hop on that train. Sundin will make that bandwagon pretty crowded if he signs on with the Habs.
3. Philadelphia FlyersWhat do Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Braydon Coburn, Daniel Briere, Kimmo Timonen et al do for an encore after going from 30th overall in 2006-07 to a berth in the Eastern Conference finals? How about a return trip?
4. New York Rangers The Rangers have been flirting with contender status for three seasons now, and they'll have a dramatically different look with Wade Redden, Nikolai Zherdev and Dmitri Kalinin in and Jaromir Jagr, Shanahan (we assume) and Martin Straka out. Different, but not necessarily better.
5. Washington Capitals OK, the defense is still a little suspect and there's Jose Theodore in net, but this Caps team can light it up with any team in the league.
6. New Jersey Devils We put the Devils here because they're always better than we expect they'll be. This will be true again with the addition of Brian Rolston and the continued growth of an underappreciated blue-line corps.
7. Carolina Hurricanes Yes, the Hurricanes have missed the playoffs twice in a row after winning the Cup in 2006, but they missed the cut by a single point this spring and have improved themselves along the blue line with the addition of Joni Pitkanen. If healthy, they're a playoff team.
8. Tampa Bay Lightning The Lightning will be much more imposing offensively this season with the addition of Malone, Radim Vrbata, Gary Roberts and Adam Hall. Defense is young, and goaltending is unproven. Still, a playoff team in the mediocre East.
--We agree that right now, on paper, it looks like Pittsburgh and Montreal at the top. But on paper and on the ice are two separate issues.
--Only one Northeast team in the top 8? Yeah, right.
--Tampa Bay is flashy but they are not a playoff team. Just wait.
--Hear that teeth gnashing sound? That's TST reader JP over the crack about the Caps defense. Their defense ought to be alright, it's the man in net that will provide the questions, if you ask us.