Although the Eastern Conference has powerhouses like the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Washington Capitals, there are still a lot of teams out there that could make some noise. Here are five key questions for the Eastern Conference.
Can Jonathan Drouin reach his potential in Montreal?
Drouin has always been a really talented player, but he hasn’t been able to reach his potential at the NHL level yet. In his three seasons playing for the QMJHL’s Halifax Mooseheads, Drouin had 242 points in 128 games. He was drafted third overall in 2013 by the Tampa Bay Lightning. Drouin had a bad rookie year in 2014 with 32 points in 70 games. The next season, he demanded a trade out of Tampa. He even refused to play for their AHL team, Syracuse Crush, for a time. He eventually got off his high horse and had 13 points in 17 games for Syracuse and did okay in the NHL, with 10 points in 21 games in the 2015-16 season. Last season was his best with 53 points in 73 games, including 26 special team points in the NHL. At age 22, Drouin still has potential to be an elite player in this league, but compared to the other players in his draft year, he hasn’t been as good. Nathan McKinnon, Alexander Barkov, and Sean Monahan have been a lot better at the NHL level.
That’s all about to change this season, as Drouin got his wish and was traded. In late June, he was traded to Montreal for top defensive prospect Mikhali Sergachev. The Habs gave up a lot to get Drouin to his favorite childhood team, as Drouin grew up in Quebec. Montreal is one of the most pressurizing cities in the NHL to play in because of the media attention and the intense fandom. We’ll see if Drouin is up to the task. It might get really bad if he isn’t good right away. Drouin can’t ask for a trade again. Having said that, 70 points is his ceiling for this season, and getting 55 or more points is attainable. To make this situation more interesting, the Habs are reportedly going to put him at center on their top line. For fantasy purposes, he’ll get more position eligibility, but considering his size and inexperience with the position, it may not be a perfect fit.
Can Steven Stamkos return to form this season?
[the_ad id=”384″]When Stamkos is on the ice, he is one of the most dangerous scorers in the league. He has 321 goals and 582 points in 586 career games. However, Stamkos has a big injury history. He broke a tibia bone in 2013. He had shoulder surgery in April of 2016 and missed the playoffs when the Lightning made the Stanley Cup final. Last season, Stamkos tore his lateral meniscus in his right knee in the 17th game of his season. This sidelined him for the rest of the year. He still had 20 points in those games and he is 27 years old. As of now, he is healthy and ready for the season. But with the injury history, we’re not sure how good Stamkos can be and if he can play a full season.
In his absence, the Lightning did pretty well thanks to Nikita Kucherov and Victor Hedman. They also had Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat, but they were injured for a time, too. So, the Lightning can afford to lose Stamkos and not over-work him. Tampa was a point away from making the playoffs, and that was with Stamos out and their starting goalie, Ben Bishop, traded. So, If Stamkos can return to form, the Lightning are going to be a strong contending team in the East. I think 65 or more points is a reasonable expectation for Stamkos assuming he plays 82 games. He remains an injury risk, but he’ll be a late-first to mid-second round pick in most drafts.
Will Alexander Ovechkin decline?
Ovechkin is widely considered as the best scorer of this decade. That’s what 558 goals in 921 career games in 12 seasons gets you. This resulted in him being the No. 1 overall pick in a lot of drafts, even as a 30-year-old. His hits and power play points are an added bonus for every one of his owners. However, a quick look at his stat line shows that he is starting to decline. For instance, in his 12 seasons in the league, Ovechkin has had seven 50-goal seasons. Three of them were in the last four seasons. However, he had 33 goals and 69 points in 82 games last season. That’s obviously not bad, but not what we are used to from the Russian Rocket.
There are a couple of theories as to why he declined. There are theories that he was playing injured for part of last season. Another theory is that he is just changing his game up. He had more assists (36) than goals (33) last season, for instance. Lastly, it could be that Ovechkin is 31 years old and Father Time is catching up with him. But either way, the living legend is still a good pick-up. He’s just not an early first-round player anymore. He’ll be a late first rounder to early second round pick. It would be foolish to count Ovechkin out and say he will never return back to his 50-goal scoring ways, but there are some worries percolating in the air. This means that you could get a potential 50-goal scorer in the second round.
Can the Florida Panthers bounce back?
Two years ago, the Florida Panthers won their first ever division with 103 points. However, they weren’t able to maintain that success last season. They finished sixth in the Atlantic Division, partly because their three best players, Alexander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau and Aaron Ekblad, missed a fair amount of time due to injury. They also fired their coach Gerard Gallant mid-way through the season. The general manager turned head coach Mark Rowe wasn’t able to inspire their team. This offseason, Dale Tallon is back to being the general manager, and he hired Bob Boughner as head coach. Boughner has been the assistant coach for the San Jose Sharks the last two seasons but has never been an NHL coach.
There was also a goalie controversy, where James Reimer was outperforming Roberto Luongo. They’ll be splitting time this season. Because the Panthers weren’t great last season, there is a chance that Barkov, Huberdeau, and Ekblad will slip further in drafts than they should. Vincent Trochek, Nick Bjugstad, and Keith Yandle might be interesting sleepers for the Panthers as well. This team may not have Jaromir Jagr, Jason Demers, Reilly Smith, and Jonathan Marchessault, but if their key guys can stay healthy, Boughner is a good coach. And if their goalie situation is figured out, Florida will be a playoff team and fantasy relevant again. However, they did just trade defenseman Jason Demers (had 27 points last year) to Arizona for forward Jamie McGinn (had 17 points last season) for some reason. It brings into question whether their defense will be up to standard and what direction this team will take in the future.
How will Kevin Shattenkirk do in New York?
The Rangers had the 11th best power play percentage last season (20%). They had 47 goals in 233 power play opportunities. A lot of their power play production was from Derek Stepan, who had 18 power play points. He led the Rangers in that stat, which isn’t great. This offseason, Stepan was traded to the Arizona Coyotes, and it’s unclear which forward will step up when the Rangers get the man-advantage. Now, the interesting thing here is that the Ranger signed the biggest free agent this offseason in Kevin Shattenkirk. The Rangers have been waiting for a playmaking defensemen who can quarterback the powerplay for a long time now. A couple years ago, they acquired Keith Yandle through a trade, and they have Ryan McDonagh. Both are good defensemen, but it hasn’t worked out for them on the power play.
Shattenkirk had 27 power play points. That total is tied for eighth in the league and third amongst defensemen. Shattenkirk will help the already decent power play, regardless of which forward takes the leap. He should also help them at even strength. Shattenkirk’s ceiling is 55 points, but 45 points is probably his floor, which, of course, is very good for a defenseman. It will interesting to see how Shattenkirk can handle the pressure of New York. Shattenkirk will likely be the fourth defensemen taken in most drafts, which will roughly put him in the third or fourth round.
How sustainable are Conor Sheary and Jake Guentzal? They haven’t slumped dramatically yet, but they very well could.
Will Auston Matthews, William Nylander and/or Mitch Marner suffer a sophomore slump? Sophomore slump may be a myth, but at least one of these three could disappoint this season.
Can Buffalo not be a bottom-dwelling team? Jack Eichel seems poised to do so. It really depends on if their core players (Eichel, O’Reilly, Kane, and Okposo) can stay healthy and if their defense is improved.
Will Artemi Panarin go along with John Tortorella’s coaching plan? Tortorella is known to favor players who can block shots and back-check. Panarin didn’t exactly excel in that area in Chicago.
Will Scott Darling be a reliable starting goalie? He has the potential to be the next Cam Talbot. He certainly put up good numbers as a back-up in Chicago, but he has yet to play a full season. Time will tell.
How will Jordan Eberle mesh with John Taveres and the Islanders? Tavares finally has someone to keep him happy for a little while, but will this be enough?
How will Nico Hischier and Nolan Patrick do their rookie year? For Hischier, he’ll likely get top-six minutes but won’t be as good as Auston Matthews was out the gate. If Nolan Patrick can stay healthy, he could really help out the Flyers in their playoff run.
What about Thomas Chabot and Charlie McAvoy? Chabot is set to start the year as a third-pairing defenseman, but he does have a lot of hype surrounding him and could move up in the lineup during the year. He already has high praise from Erik Karlsson. As for McAvoy, he already showed what he can do at NHL’s highest level: the playoffs. It will be interesting to see how he does during the regular season as a likely second-pairing defenseman.