The start of the 2023-24 season is right around the corner, and it comes with a large amount of excitement.
Last season, teams like the Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs were expected to contend for the Stanley Cup coming out of the East. However, both teams ran into the buzzsaw known as the Florida Panthers, who made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final for just the second time in franchise history. Florida returns the bulk of its roster in 2023-24, so another postseason run could be in the cards. On the other hand, the East is extremely deep heading into the upcoming campaign.
Here's a breakdown of the Eastern Conference as we enter the 2023-24 season.
Can the Panthers make another deep Stanley Cup run?
The Panthers did the unthinkable as they reached the Stanley Cup Final despite barely making the postseason. It was the coming out party for star forward Matthew Tkachuk, who registered a career-high 109 points (40 goals and 69 assists). It was a performance that made Tkachuk a Hart Trophy finalist, and he could've taken home the award if it wasn't for a superhuman year from Oilers star Connor McDavid.
The Panthers return the majority of their core from a season ago, including Aleksander Barkov, Carter Verhaeghe and Sam Bennett. The biggest question mark will be in net as Sergei Bobrovsky will look to put a complete season together. If Florida gets a strong year from Bobrovsky, it's extremely possible the franchise can make another Stanley Cup charge.
Can the Lightning survive without Vasiilevskiy?
Last week, Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy underwent back surgery and will . Losing Vasilevskiy is huge, but the bigger issue is the Lightning don't have a ton of proven talent that can replace him. Currently, Jonas Johansson and Hugo Alnefelt are the two options behind Vasilevskiy who are set to play in his absence. Johansson, 28, has spent time with the Avalanche, Panthers and Sabres, recording a 3.35 career goals-against-average. On the other hand, Alnefelt has just one career NHL game under his belt, as he played a period in 2021-22 against the Panthers and allowed three goals during that span.
It's likely the team will pursue an outside option to help fill the void until Vasilevskiy is back. Brian Elliott was Vasilevskiy's backup in 2022-23 and is still a free agent. Perhaps the Lightning make a call to bring Elliott back into the fold. Regardless of what direction they go, it'll be worth watching to see if the Lightning can keep their heads above water while Vasilevskiy is on the shelf.
Could this finally be the Maple Leafs' year?
The Maple Leafs have been labeled as a Stanley Cup contender for several years, but they've had a tendency of getting eliminated in the opening round of the postseason. However, Toronto finally shifted its fortunes last season as the team defeated the Lightning to get out of the first round for the first time since 2004. The Maple Leafs saw their Stanley Cup aspirations come to an end in the next round, however, as they were bounced by the Panthers.
It ended up being a very eventful offseason as the Maple Leafs landed winger Tyler Bertuzzi on a one-year deal to play alongside Auston Matthews. Speaking of Matthews, Toronto finally inked its star center to a . The Maple Leafs also signed forward Max Domi, who should slot into one of the wing spots on their third line. Considering the talent the Maple Leafs were able to add, this is a team that could certainly make a deep run at the Stanley Cup.
Changing of the guard for the Bruins
For such a long time, the Bruins relied on veteran forwards like Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci, but both announced their respective retirements during the offseason. Bergeron was the heartbeat of the franchise, and he really helped set the table for the Bruins defensively. Now the Bruins will move forward with players like Brad Marchand, David Pastrnak and Charlie McAvoy leading the charge.
Last year, the Bruins had the most historic regular season in NHL history to the tune of 135 points. Despite the sensational regular season, though, the Bruins were eliminated by the Panthers in the opening round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Bruins didn't make many moves in the offseason aside from a reunion with an aging Milan Lucic. This is likely still a playoff team, but it's certainly possible Boston is this regular season compared to the last.
Hurricanes have loaded up for Stanley Cup chase
The Hurricanes had one of the more eventful offseasons of any team across the league. The team landed winger Michael Bunting on a three-year deal, while also signing star defenseman Dmitry Orlov to a two-year deal. Bunting has been a productive goal scorer as he's tallied 112 points (46 goals and 66 assists) over the last two seasons. Meanwhile, Orlov is coming off of a strong season splitting time between the Capitals and Bruins, and he now gives the Hurricanes a phenomenal top pairing with offensive-minded blue-liner Brent Burns.
Adding a ton of talent is huge after Carolina managed to reach the Eastern Conference Final even without forwards Max Pacioretty and Andrei Svechnikov. Both Pacioretty (Achilles) and Svechnikov (knee) were lost for the year down the stretch, and the Hurricanes didn't exactly have the offensive firepower they're accustomed to. If the Hurricanes can stay healthy, this is certainly a team with after beefing up their roster over the summer.
Acquisition of Erik Karlsson makes the Penguins a contender
The Penguins had made the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 16 consecutive seasons, but that streak finally came to an end when they missed the postseason in 2022-23. Pittsburgh dealt with multiple injured list stints when it came to goaltender Tristan Jarry, and they found themselves trying to grab one of the final wild-card spots late in the season.
After missing the playoffs a season ago, the Penguins made a huge splash over the summer when they acquired star defenseman Erik Karlsson from the San Jose Sharks in a three-team trade. The back end was a huge area of focus for the team throughout the offseason. In addition to Karlsson, the team also signed Ryan Graves away from the Devils on a six-year deal. Along with Kris Letang, the Penguins now have a much-improved defensive core, and Karlsson should also give them a huge boost offensively. Considering Sidney Crosby is still playing at an elite level, the Penguins could potentially have one more Stanley Cup run in them.
Devils ready to take the next step
The Devils have spent the last several years building their roster around a young core that includes the likes of Jack Hughes, Jesper Bratt and Nico Hischier. The team even made a bold move to acquire star forward Timo Meier from the Sharks at the 2023 trade deadline. The team defeated the Rangers in the opening round of the postseason, and it got some much-needed playoff experience.
Meier is back in the fold, while the team also acquired veteran winger Tyler Toffoli from the Flames in the offseason. The Devils top six group of forwards could be among the best the Eastern Conference has to offer, and they've now had an experience that could help them take their game to the next level. The biggest question mark remains in net with the team still having Vitek Vanecek and Akira Schmid in the fold. Schmid completely shifted the team's series against the Rangers last season, and he could be ready to take a huge leap if he wins the starting job. The Devils definitely have the potential to come out of the East if they can capitalize on their potential.
Can the Rangers respond after their early postseason exit?
The Rangers were a team that loaded up for a run at the Stanley Cup during the 2022-23 campaign. The team acquired veteran forwards Vladimir Tarasenko and Patrick Kane at the trade deadline, and they didn't have to give up a ton to get them. Even with those added pieces, New York was eliminated in Round 1 by the Devils, leaving the franchise searching for answers.
The team made a head coaching change when they replaced Gerard Gallant with Peter Laviolette. The Rangers did add veteran winger Blake Wheeler to their roster on a very team friendly one-year deal, while deciding against bringing back Kane and Tarasenko. It's a lot of the same pieces playing in front of 2022 Vezina Trophy winner Igor Shesterkin. It'll be interesting to see if Laviolette ends up getting more out of this group. Trade deadline deals can also never be ruled out when it comes to the Rangers, so it could be a work in progress.