Editor’s note: Popblerd is happy to present its initial foray into hockey coverage with this weekly column, authored by Jay Kumar and Stephen Mapes. In the first of a two-part series, Jay looks back at the NHL’s brutal summer and previews the Eastern Conference.

The NHL regular season kicked off last night with some marquee matchups, including Boston vs. Philadelphia and Toronto vs. Montreal. Usually, the offseason is a quiet time for the NHL other than the draft and free agency, but this year the league managed to stay in the news for all the wrong reasons. In the three short months since the Boston Bruins defeated the Vancouver Canucks in June to win their first Stanley Cup in 39 years, the following took place:

  • Death. Two current enforcers (the Rangers’ Derek Boogaard and Winnipeg’s Rick Rypien) and a recently retired one (Wade Belak, who last played for Nashville) were found dead. Boogaard’s cause of death was an accidental overdose, while Rypien and Belak were reportedly suffering from depression. On September 7, the league was hit with even more shocking news as a plane carrying the entire Lokomotiv team from Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League crashed , killing 43 on board including several former NHLers.
  • Movement: After 11 seasons, the Atlanta Thrashers up and moved to Winnipeg, which had lost its NHL franchise in 1996. Shockingly, the Thrashers never quite caught on in the noted hockey hotbed of Atlanta, so now they return as the second incarnation of the Jets; the first one moved to Phoenix to become the Coyotes, another team that spent much of last season under the dark cloud of possible relocation. Meanwhile, folks in Quebec City are waiting patiently (i.e., salivating) for their second chance at an NHL franchise. The league’s Southern expansion has predictably started crumbling.
  • Injury: The league’s biggest star, Sidney Crosby, has been suffering from post-concussion symptoms since January. He only recently started practicing again. As a result of Crosby’s and many other head injuries, the NHL has started getting stricter with players who dole out so-called head shots. Former player Brendan Shanahan is the league’s new rules enforcer and has begun with a bang, issuing several pre-season suspensions to players who deliver hits to the head. And he did so by recording video explanations of the suspensions while illustrating the infractions. Some critics say Shanahan’s efforts make take hitting out of the game entirely, but I’m reserving judgment for now.

Here’s hoping the NHL can focus on the game itself this season after such a tumultuous stretch and ward off any pestilence or plagues. Hey, at least there’s no labor strife going on (looking at you, NBA).

And now, let’s take a look at what’s in store for the NHL’s Eastern conference:

The division winners

There are several good teams in the East, but these three are the best (on paper, anyway):

Boston Bruins

There was plenty of player movement in the East in the offseason, but the one team that kept its team intact was the defending Cup champion Boston Bruins. Indeed, the B’s may have been too busy partying it up all over New England to notice any changes. The Bruins lost veteran leader Mark Recchi to retirement and sniper Michael Ryder as well as late-season addition Tomas Kaberle to free agency, but the team still has its core: Goalie and Cup MVP Tim Thomas (as well as his stellar backup Tuukka Rask), captain/man-mountain Zdeno Chara, forwards Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, Milan Lucic and Nathan Horton. Youngsters Tyler Seguin and Brad Marchand will likely be given bigger roles. Joe Corvo was brought in to be the power play quarterback that Kaberle wasn’t. The Bruins’ ascendance was well-timed to console Boston fans, who were crushed by the Red Sox’s end-of-season choke job.

(more after the jump…)

Washington Capitals

Speaking of chokes, the talented Washington Capitals have disappointed their fans with early playoff flameouts the last few years. Alex Ovechkin and crew saw their offensive prowess dry up last year as they tried to be better defenders. The Caps pulled off a huge steal at the draft, dealing unproven goalie Semyon Varlamov to Colorado for a first-round pick and then signing veteran Tomas  Vokoun on the cheap. They also picked up wingers Joel Ward and Troy Brouwer to add a little muscle to their forward corps, so look for Washington to be even tougher to play this year.

Pittsburgh Penguins

Pittsburgh’s hopes rest on the health of stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, plain and simple. The team was impressive last year despite a slew of injuries; with any luck, the Penguins will be a force again. Center Jordan Staal gives the team tremendous depth up the middle, while Kris Letang is an emerging star on defense. Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury hopes to rebound from a disappointing playoff performance to be his old dominating self.

The contenders

These clubs may not win their divisions, but they have enough talent to go deep into the playoffs and knock off higher seeds.

Buffalo Sabres

The Sabres and new owner Terry Pegula acted like a drunk who hit a scratch ticket, blowing tons of cash on free agents Ville Leino and Christian Erhoff. The real key for Buffalo will be goalie Ryan Miller and young d-man Tyler Myers bouncing back from off years. Holdovers Derek Roy, Jason Pominville, Thomas Vanek and Tyler Ennis should provide plenty of offense.

Philadelphia Flyers

Philadelphia made some major moves, finally getting a number 1 goalie in Ilya Bryzgalov and shockingly shipping out captain Mike Richards and key scorer Jeff Carter in return for younger talent in Wayne Simmonds, Jakub Voracek and Brayden Schenn. Oh, and they signed frickin’ Jaromir Jagr, who had been playing in the KHL the last few years and whose mighty mullet helped power Pittsburgh to Cup wins in the ‘90s.

Tampa Bay Lightning

Tampa GM Steve Yzerman pretty much stood pat, content that he has two of the best scorers in the league in Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis and good support from Vinny Lecavalier, Teddy Purcell and Ryan Malone. The defensive corps is also strong with Mattias Ohlund, Victor Hedman and Eric Brewer leading the way, and ageless goalie Dwayne Roloson should continue to play well.

The bubble teams

It will likely be a dogfight for the last two playoff spots in the conference among these five clubs, battling it out right to the end of the season.

Montreal Canadiens

The Habs still boast a crew of speedy, talented forwards that can wreak havoc on opposing defenses with the likes of Tomas Plekanec, Mike Cammalleri, Brian Gionta, Scott Gomez and Max Pacioretty. Erik Cole signed in the offseason to give Montreal some much-needed size up front. PK Subban is only getting better on defense, while Montreal hopes Andrei Markov can stay healthy for once. Goalie Carey Price won 38 games last year and should repeat that.

New York Rangers

The Rangers boast one of the best goalies in the game in Henrik “The King” Lundqvist. They added the biggest free agent acquisition in center Brad Richards, who looks to click with Marian Gaborik to form a fearsome 1-2 threat. The Broadway Blueshirts have solid depth in forwards Brandon Dubinsky, Ryan Callahan and Ruslan Fedotenko, while they’re hoping defenseman Marc Staal can bounce back from a concussion to lead their young defense corps.

New Jersey Devils

The Devils had a tough year in 2010-11, suffering injuries to just about every key player in the lineup and having serious salary cap issues after signing star Ilya Kovalchuk. A big question is whether goalie Martin Brodeur can get back to his old self after battling with an elbow injury. Kovalchuk hopes to regain his 50-goal scoring touch and get some support from Travis Zajac, Zach Parise, Patrik Elias and Petr Sykora, who returned to his old team after several years bouncing around the league. Top pick Adam Larsson should stick with the big club to anchor a fairly no-name defense.

Carolina Hurricanes

For some reason, the Canes have been stockpiling former Toronto Maple Leafs: In addition to coach Paul Maurice, Carolina  added Tomas Kaberle, Jay Harrison, Alex Ponikarovsky, Tim Brent and Jiri Tlusty.  This isn’t a necessarily a good thing if you’re a Carolina fan because they all played for Leafs teams that didn’t make the playoffs. However, Carolina still has goalie Cam Ward and captain Eric Staal leading the way, with support from Jeff Skinner, Jussi Jokinen, and Tuomo Ruutu on offense. Kaberle and Joni Pitkanen should provide offense from the blueline.

Toronto Maple Leafs

The Leafs are the Chicago Cubs of hockey, blessed with a feverish, long-suffering fan base that just wants to see a championship before they die. The team hasn’t made the playoffs since 2004, but this could be the year. GM Brian Burke has totally turned the team over in the last year and a half, but over the summer he was unable to bring in the top-line center the Leafs so desperately need. Instead, former Sabre Tim Connolly was signed to play with sniper Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul on the first line. The second line of Mikhail Grabovski, Clarke MacArthur and Nikolai Kulemin may be even better if the players can improve on the career years they all had last season. Young Nazem Kadri hopes to stick with the big club this season, but he suffered an injury late in the preseason and will miss some games. Goalie James Reimer made a big splash last year to grab the top spot in the second half; the Leafs hope he can keep it going and give them their first big-game keeper since Ed Belfour left town. Power play specialist John-Michael Liles joins the defense, which is led by captain Dion Phaneuf and tough Luke Schenn.

The also-rans

New York Islanders

I know it’s hard to believe, kids, but there once was a time when the Islanders were not the laughingstock of the league. Indeed, they had a bona fide dynasty, winning four consecutive Cups from 1980-83 before some guy named Gretzky showed up and took over. Over the last 15 years or so, the Isles have been plagued by fraudulent owners, rampant mismanagement and dwindling attendance, in addition to downright awful teams. Despite all that, there’s hope for the Islanders, who have a talented group of young players thanks to all those high draft picks: John Tavares, Kyle Okposo, Michael Grabner, Matt Moulson and Blake Comeau, among others. Mark Streit leads the defense and power play, and the team has three goalies to start the year: Evgeni Nabokov, the perpetually injured Rick DiPietro and Al Montoya.

Florida Panthers

After years of dismal failure led to a stockpiling of young talent (see NY Islanders) who ended up dismally failing last season, the Panthers and GM Dale Tallon tried a different approach in the offseason. Tallon acquired every veteran he could: Brian Campbell, Ed Jovanoski, Kris Versteeg, Scottie Upshall, Jose Theodore and more. Standout goalie Tomas Vokoun left as a free agent and the team signed Theodore, who’s a downgrade. It’ll be another year without playoffs in Sunrise, Fla.

Winnipeg Jets

Fans are excited to have NHL hockey back in town, scarfing up 13,000 season tickets in 72 hours in June. The Jets have some offensive talent, with Evander Kane, Bryan Little, Andrew Ladd and Nik Antropov leading the way, and their defense contributes plenty of offense thanks to the mighty Dustin Byfuglien, Tobias Enstrom and Zach Bogosian. But defensively, the team is porous, although goalie Ondrej Pavelec was impressive at times last season. Still, it won’t be enough to get the Jets into the postseason. They’ll have a grace period of a year or two before the natives start getting restless.

Ottawa Senators

The Senators have seen their fortunes reverse since losing to Anaheim in the 2007 finals. Most of that team is gone now, except for offensive leaders Jason Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson, d-man Chris Phillips and agitator Chris Neil. The team hopes talented youngsters like Bobby Butler, Nikita Filatov and Stephane Da Costa will boost the offense. Veteran defenseman Sergei Gonchar will mentor promising young Erik Karlsson and David Rundblad and goalie Craig Anderson should be solid in the net. But they’re still not making the playoffs.

Drop the puck!

 

Jay’s predictions:

Cup matchup:  Chicago over Washington

Hart (MVP): Alex Ovechkin, Washington

Vezina (best goalie): Henrik Lundqvist, NY Rangers

Calder (Rookie of the year): Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Edmonton

Tomorrow: In part 2 of the Cold as Ice season preview, Stephen Mapes looks at the Western Conference.

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