PHT’s 2018-19 Eastern Conference predictions

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There was plenty of change in the off-season in the Eastern Conference.

In the Atlantic Division the Toronto Maple Leafs added John Tavares. Rasmus Dahlin landed with the Buffalo Sabres. Henrik Zetterberg is done playing hockey. Steve Yzerman is no longer general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning. After being traded seven times over the summer, Erik Karlsson is now a San Jose Shark.

The Metropolitan Division houses the defending Stanley Cup champions for the third straight season. Meanwhile, the champs have a new head coach and their old head coach is now with the New York Islanders. There’s also a cloud above the heads of the Columbus Blue Jackets with the unknown futures of Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky. The New York Rangers are in a weird transitional phase while Henrik Lundqvist remains atop of his game. There’s been an identity change in Carolina, but they still want to eat up that revenue-generating goodness that comes with selling Hartford Whalers merchandise. And the Flyers, well, they gifted the world Gritty.

With the season beginning Wednesday night, we’re rolling out our conference predictions. Below are our picks for the East along with who we believe will stand out from the rest and reach the 2019 Stanley Cup Final. (Our playoff selections sit above the line in each column.)

Let us know in the comments how you see both East divisions shaping up.

EASTERN CONFERENCE CHAMPION

LEAHY: Maple Leafs. It’s been building to this and John Tavares is the final piece of the puzzle. The young Leafs have been growing together the last few years, gaining valuable experience as they trended in the right direction. They’re set up front and in goal and maybe could use a little help on the backend, but that’s something that can be fix in-season. Their toughest job this season may be getting out of the Atlantic Division.

O’BRIEN: Maple Leafs. People forget just how explosive this offensive core already was, and Tavares makes it almost unfair. If you want tiebreakers – and this is a tough call – then consider greed (contract years for Marner and Matthews) and supply (Toronto has a ton of rental-friendly cap space, even once Nylander signs). This isn’t a make or break year, but as strange as it sounds, this might be Toronto’s biggest chance before they sacrifice depth thanks to expiring rookie contracts. Here’s saying they make that chance count.  Bonus points if Mike Babcock really is a great coach.

[Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule]

GRETZ: Bruins. They have the best line in hockey, high-end talent at the top of the lineup, and a bunch of really good young players that were able to get their feet wet in the NHL last season that are going to give them top-line production for a dirt cheap price, giving them the added cap flexibility they will need to make another big splash at the trade deadline.

ALFIERI: Bruins. Yes, I think the Bruins will finish third in the division, but I also think they have what it takes to go all the way to the Stanley Cup Final. Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak are three big reasons why I feel Boston can do damage. I also like some of the youth the Bruins have up front. Guys like Ryan Donato, Anders Bjork, Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson and Jake DeBrusk will all contribute, too. On defense, Charlie McAvoy is a year older, which means he should be even better.

BILLECK: Lightning. Perhaps the most complete team in the NHL. If Vasilevskiy can stay relatively fresh, there’s no reason to think this team, with all it’s scoring, with its potent blueline, can’t finally finish the job. 

PHT’S SEASON PREVIEW:
• Atlantic Division
• Metropolitan Division
• Central Division
Pacific Division

Western Conference predictions
Stanley Cup picks
NHL Awards picks
Power Rankings: Who is the NHL’s best team entering 2018-19?

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.