Are The Rangers the Team to Beat in the East?

2014 Eastern Conference Champions (NY Daily News)

In 2014, the New York Rangers went on an improbable run to the Stanley Cup Final. Although they went on to ultimately lose to the Kings in 5 games, the Rangers still were the Champions of the East.

In theory, the Rangers should be considered the team to beat for the upcoming season, but are they really? Has this offseason kept New York up to the Eastern Conference Championship standard? While the Rangers do still have a nice core of their players still intact from last season, my prediction is that while the Rangers may be a team to beat, they are not the team to beat.

Just look at the last 7 winners of the East; 4 of those 7 years were won by the same 2 teams: The Pittsburgh Penguins (2008 & 2009), and the Boston Bruins (2011 & 2013), and what these teams have most in common is their consistent retention of championship caliber players, however when it comes to goaltending, the Bruins have the pretty clear cut edge with Tuukka Rask.

Let’s first look thoughat those pesky Habs from Montreal. After a very successful 2013-2014 campaign in which the Canadiens reached the Conference Finals, the Habs will hit the ice with a squad that is in the end recognizable to the 2014 roster, but one which has gone through some notable changes. So how come the Habs aren’t the team to beat in the East?

Well, despite signing PK Subban to an absolutely gargantuan contract after nearly allowing an arbitrator to handle the work for the 2 sides, the Canadiens allowed 2-time 40 goal scorer Thomas Vanek leave for Minnesota, as well as their former Captain Brian Gionta for Buffalo due to free agency. In addition to those 2, the Habs also traded lefty defenseman Josh Gorges to the Sabres for a 2nd round draft pick.

Those are 3 departures that just cannot be understated, and will leave plenty of weight for the shoulders of Max Pacioretty, Tomas Plekanec, Lars Eller, and the like. The Habs definitely won’t be irrelevant, as Carey Price has the ability to steal a game any given night, but they are not the team to beat.

Then there are 3 teams which didn’t reach the conference finals, will still be very tough opponents all season long, but are not quite at the level of the Bruins. Those are the Penguins, Flyers, and the Lightning.

As we all know, Pittsburgh has Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, and company. That crew out in western Pennsylvania should never be taken lightly, but unless Mark Andre-Fleury can change the pattern of his inconsistent play in recent times, in the playoffs in particular, the Penguins will struggle to reach the level it takes to once again achieve real playoff success.

The Flyers, well, they’re the Flyers. For starters, as has been the case for the recent past, the Flyers struggle with goaltending. Steve Mason has the potential to be a solid starter, but his numbers last season were not exactly stellar. Of course Claude Giroux is a tremendously talented player, and when you have him up front alongside guys like Wayne Simmonds, RJ Umberger, and Brayden Schenn, there’s always the chance that they will make some noise, but again, championship caliber? Not quite.

And then the Lightning. After a great 2013-2014 regular season where Tampa Bay played a large chunk without the always dominant Steven Stamkos, they were still able to make the playoffs where, thanks in part to an unfortunate injury to goalie Ben Bishop, they were swept in the first round by the Montreal Canadiens.

The Lightning though have had a pretty successful offseason, making key free agent acquisitions such as Brian Boyle and Anton Stralman. Ben Bishop was also awarded with a nice new contract, cementing him as the Lightning’s future between the pipes. Believe me when I say that Tampa Bay is not far off, but like 15 other teams in the East, the Lightning are not the team.

And finally the defending Eastern Conference Champions, the Rangers. The Rangers won this past seasons’ Eastern Conference Championship with a healthy mixture of championship caliber veterans, and young core, depth, and character players. But while the 2014 offseason wasn’t cruel to the Rangers, because of salary cap pressures, it also wasn’t the standout offseason that some had hoped for.

As was mentioned earlier, Brian Boyle and Anton Stralman left for Tampa Bay. The Veteran presence of Brad Richards also was bought out by New York and was re-signed by the Chicago Blackhawks. Additionally, Benoit Pouliot was also lost to Free Agency, and while the holes have in theory been filled, there are still many unknowns facing the Rangers as the 2014 training camp quickly approaches.

On defense, the void left by Stralman will be filled by veteran defenseman Dan Boyle, but at age 37, will he be able to put in the minutes at the high level and consistency that Stralman was able to day in and day out last season?

Up front, will young kids like Kevin Hayes, JT Miller, Jesper Fast, and Ryan Haggerty get their big break? Or will those vacant spots be filled by veterans like Lee Stempniak and Matthew Lombardi? The only obvious constant, and big time advantage that the Rangers have is of course Henrik Lundqvist, but for most of the other pieces, only time will tell.

The Rangers are not visibly any worse than they were last season, but some new pieces have moved in leaving a good number of question marks heading into the 2014-2015 campaign, too many to be considered the beast of the east.

But the team with arguably the fewest question marks, and considered in my opinion the class of the eastern conference, are the Boston Bruins. The Bruins have found a way to hold onto so many key pieces through the years, it is simply impossible to rule them out. Ever.

Of course there’s Patrice Bergeron, Chris Kelly, David Krejci, Milan Lucic, Brad Marchand, Danny Paille, Johnny Boychuk, Big-Z Chara, and Tuukka Rask, but even the players who maybe don’t stand out quite as much are still hugely important and talented. The guys like Gregory Campbell, Loui Eriksson, Carl Soderberg, Dougie Hamilton, and Matt Bartkowski. Looking at the Bruins roster, it’s almost impossible to bet against them. They are big, tough, and talented, and have tremendous, Vezina worthy goal-tending.

There are plenty of good teams in the east this upcoming season, including the Rangers, but the Bruins are a step above the rest. That is not to say that the Bruins will win the east, but heading into this new 2014-2015 season, Claude Julian’s Bruins are the class of the East. In my opinion, they are the team to beat.