NHL's Eastern Conference still runs through Tampa Bay
Blue Jackets, Senators looking to shake up East
Steven Stamkos and the Tampa Bay Lightning are accustomed to short offseasons.
This one, the Lightning captain said, "wasn't as fun as the previous two."
The Stanley Cup relocated to Colorado after the Avalanche dethroned the two-time defending champion Lightning in a six-game final in July.
The Eastern Conference, however, still seems very likely to run through Tampa Bay. Despite another round of off-season, salary cap-forced departures, the Lightning believe they remain the team to beat.
WATCH | Lightning fall short of 3rd straight Stanley Cup:
"Sure, there are a lot of factors that are going against us in terms of losing some good players, and people are going to talk about the core getting a little older," Stamkos said. "But I still think that we're a team that's going to be competing for the Stanley Cup at the end of the season."
Minus defenceman Ryan McDonagh and winger Ondrej Palat, the Lightning still feature a playoff-tested core that enabled them to become the NHL's 14th franchise to reach the final in three consecutive seasons, and first since the Edmonton Oilers did so from 1983-85.
"We've got a few new faces, fresh blood for our team," Vasilevsky said. "And we'll do or best to get back on top."
It won't be easy.
The degree of difficulty steepened following an off-season in which the shift in talent tilted heavily eastward.
Panthers, Blue Jackets, Senators making moves
A conference already featuring Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby and Auston Matthews became the landing spot for a trio of 40-goal-scorers, with Johnny Gaudreau signing with Columbus, Florida acquiring Matthew Tkachuk and Alex DeBrincat's arrival in Ottawa.
The talent splurge follows a season in which 16 points separated eighth-place Washington and the ninth-place Islanders, the largest differential between the final playoff qualifier and its nearest rival since the NHL went to an East/West format in 1993-94.
Bruins GM Don Sweeney has taken notice and is doing his best to stay ahead of the pack with a new coach in Jim Montgomery, and a lineup that will open the season missing Brad Marchand (hip surgery), Charlie McAvoy (shoulder surgery) and potentially Taylor Hall (upper body).
"You look at Florida, they made a lot of changes and they're not looking to take any steps back. And neither are we," Sweeney said. "You can't not look in your rearview mirror."
Rangers looking to back-up last season's play
The New York Rangers made, perhaps, the biggest jump during a season in which they finished with 110 points and rallied to beat Pittsburgh and Carolina in seven-game playoff series before finally running out of steam against Tampa Bay in the East final.
And yet, nothing is a given, Rangers captain Jacob Trouba said.
"We were obviously in the Eastern Conference finals, and we were also one game away from being out in the first round. So, you can look at it both ways," Trouba said. "You can't really get too ahead of yourself."
The 28th captain in <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/NYR?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#NYR</a> history: <br><br>Ja©ob Trouba <a href="https://t.co/PhhYhPeOAy">pic.twitter.com/PhhYhPeOAy</a>—@NYRangers
In a sign of just how competitive the East is, the off-season coaching carousel was not limited to non-playoff teams. Aside from Montgomery in Boston, the Presidents' Trophy-winning Panthers went with experience in hiring former Jets coach Paul Maurice to replace Andrew Brunette.
John Tortorella is back behind the bench in Philadelphia. Detroit hired former Lightning assistant Derek Lalonde. And the Islanders promoted Lane Lambert after abruptly firing Barry Trotz.
Maple Leafs, Capitals in need of results
Is this the season the Toronto Maple Leafs shed the label of playoff pushovers? GM Kyle Dubas is on the hot seat entering the final year of his contract, and he's sticking with a roster coming off its latest first-round collapse.
Toronto hasn't won a playoff round since 2004 and has lost the decisive game in each of its past five appearances.
Speaking of early exits, Capitals GM Brian MacLellan isn't pleased with Washington getting knocked out in the first round four years in a row since winning the Cup in 2018.
"Everybody is a little frustrated that we haven't had more success," MacLellan said of the Capitals bowing out in six games to Florida after enjoying a 2-1 series lead. "We all should be motivated to get beyond that point, and I think it's important for this group to do that."
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