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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.

Question for Bruins (again): How long can Chara keep going?

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BOSTON (AP) — How much longer can Zdeno Chara keep this up?

The Boston Bruins defenseman – and leader in ice time – will turn 42 this season, and sooner or later the window will close on his opportunity to skate around the ice again with the Stanley Cup. For his teammates, that means focusing on this season as their best and possibly last chance to win with him.

”The older you get, it’s just about winning,” said David Krejci, one of five holdovers from the franchise’s last title, in 2011. ”We know that we’re not going to be playing in the league for 10 more years, but we have maybe three, four, five years left, who knows, but this is it. We worked really, really hard this summer to get the job done this year.”

Chara was already an eight-year veteran and two-time All-Star when he signed with Boston a dozen years ago, and the Bruins built a contender around him that went to the Stanley Cup finals twice in three years. (They lost to Chicago in 2013.)

Patrice Bergeron, Tuukka Rask, Brad Marchand and David Krejci are the only other players remaining from the 2011 champs. Bergeron is 33, Rask and Krejci will turn 32 during the playoffs, and Marchand will turn 31. (Steven Kampfer was traded away in 2012 and rejoined the Bruins this summer; he just turned 30.)

Charlie McAvoy, the 20-year-old defenseman paired with Chara for most of his career, has seen players come and go and values the stability brought by the core.

”As long as we have those veteran guys the culture will always be the same, I really believe that,” he said. ”I really think it could be another special year. You bring back all these guys, the veterans, it could be an awesome year and I’m really excited to get it going.”

Here are some other things to look for from the Bruins this season:

SOPHOMORES

Helping to take some of the pressure off the aging core is a group with about one year of experience, led by McAvoy. Also among the sophomores are Jake DeBrusk, Danton Heinen, Matt Grzelcyk, and Sean Kuraly.

”None of us are forecasting a setback, I call tell you that,” McAvoy said. ”Something about the experience of having a full season, playing a few playoff series now, seeing that element. I can use all those things to allow me to come in and play great hockey from the start. That’s my goal.”

Those five combined to score 151 points (48 goals, 103 assists) last season.

MORE NEW BLOOD

Joining the youth movement are players in their first full season like Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson, Ryan Donato and Anders Bjork. Brandon Carlo has two years behind him but is still just 21.

”You need those young guys,” Krejci said. ”And our young guys are fast, they’re good, they’re smart, they make plays. They deserved to make the team last year and I’m looking forward to what they’ll bring again this year, one year under their belts.”

IN NET

Rask returns for his 12th season but he has a new backup.

Jaroslav Halak signed a two-year contract to come to Boston from the Islanders, where he started 49 games last season and had a 3.19 goals-against average. He replaces Anton Khudobin, who had been the backup for two years and started last season 7-0-2 filling in while Rask had a concussion.

The fast start led fans to call for him to replace Rask, when he won just three of his first 13 games. But the 2014 Vezina Trophy winner did not lose a game in regulation from Nov. 26 until Feb. 10, finishing with a 34-14-15 record and a GAA of 2.36.

LONG TRIPS

The Bruins played two exhibition games in China against the Calgary Flames, with Cassidy and half the squad heading over to Shenzhen and Beijing for a week while the rest of the team stayed back in Boston. The split squad wasn’t ideal, but the Bruins started the 2010-11 regular season with two games in Prague and went on to win the Stanley Cup.

Cassidy said that would be a nice precedent to follow.

”Well if it’s a repeat of ’11, yes,” he said. ”I’d love that to happen, trust me.”

AP freelancer Matt Kalman contributed to this report.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/tag/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Bruins prospect Frederic seems to be exceeding their original expectations

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Projecting draft picks is always an imperfect game, even for the people that are highly paid to do just that.

But when the Boston Bruins used a first-round pick in 2016 on Trent Frederic, a player that former director of amateur scouting Keith Gretzky said, “is not going to be a top-two line guy, we know that,” it really lowered any expectation anybody had for the pick. Of course first-round picks turn out to be useful bottom-six players all the time, but it’s usually because they never reached the top-line expectations teams had for them. It’s not often you hear a team come right and say about their top-pick that they want him to be a third-or fourth-liner.

One year later, after a season that saw him average more than a point-per-game and finish second in goals and points for the University of Wisconsin, Frederic seems to be exceeding those original expectations the Bruins had for him.

Jamie Langenbrunner, the Bruins’ director of player development, told Steve Conroy of the Boston Herald this week that there has been a re-thinking within the organization of Frederic’s potential.

“There is in my mind so far,” said Langenbrunner, via the Herald. “He plays top line at Wisconsin. Obviously, time will tell what he’ll be in pro hockey but there’s more skill to his game than people thought coming out of the draft.”

Frederic was Boston’s second first-round pick in 2016, going 29th overall. The Bruins acquired that pick from the San Jose Sharks in exchange for goaltender Martin Jones.

The 2016 draft is already looking like a promising one for Boston given the early promise shown by their top pick that year, defenseman Charlie McAvoy.

Thanks to trades involving Jones, Milan Lucic and Dougie Hamilton the Bruins had five first-round picks between 2015 and 2016 which they used to select McAvoy, Frederic, Jakub Zboril, Jake Debrusk, and Zachary Senyshyn. The 2015 second-round also produced Brandon Carlo and Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson, both of whom have already played in the NHL, with Carlo already looking like a mainstay on the Bruins’ defense.