Hello, Columbus — and Detroit too. The Blue Jackets and Red Wings were the big winners in realignment because they moved from the Western Conference to the East, which should mean less travel. Both teams had pushed for the move for years and both paid their dues. But switching the up-and-coming Blue Jackets and always-competitive Red Wings muddles the East playoff picture. Remember, too, the Atlantic and Metropolitan divisions are each made up of eight teams, not the seven in the Central and the Pacific. Four of the NHL’s “Original Six” teams are clustered in the Atlantic and a fifth, the New York Rangers, is in the Metropolitan. So it’s possible all of them will get into the playoffs. The top three teams in each division will automatically qualify, and the two teams with the next-best records will get wild-card berths. How the East shapes up, in predicted order of finish:
2012-13: 28-14-6 (62 points), 4th in East.
The Bruins signed premier two-way forward Patrice Bergeron and goaltender Tuukka Ras to eight-year deals, cementing an impressive core. Rask (2.00 goals-against, .929 save percentage) was superb last season. Losing wingers Nathan Horton (free agent) and Tyler Seguin (trade) shouldn’t hurt much because the team added veteran Jarome Iginla and dynamic Loui Eriksson.
2012-13: 24-16-8 (56 points), 7th in West
General Manager Ken Holland deserves infinite credit for infusing youth into the lineup and keeping the Red Wings competitive. Goalie Jimmy Howard, a contender for the U.S. Olympic team at Sochi, was their glue. Ageless wonder Pavel Datsyuk remains their leader. They added depth by signing center Stephen Weiss, and luring winger Daniel Alfredsson from Ottawa should remedy their scoring problems.
2012-13: 29-14-5 (63 points), 2nd in East.
Brendan Gallagher (28 points) and Alex Galchenyuk (27 points) had fine rookie debuts but must prove they’re here to stay. Defenseman P.K. Subban won the Norris Trophy as the top defenseman and must remain at that level. The Canadiens need more consistency from goalie Carey Price (2.59 goals-against, .905 save percentage) to be sure of a playoff berth.
2012-13: 25-17-6 (56 points), 7th in East.
A lot of good pieces. Goalie Craig Anderson posted stellar numbers last season (1.69 goals-against, .941 save percentage) but injuries limited him to 24 games. Defenseman Erik Karlsson, the 2012 Norris winner, suffered a sliced Achilles’ tendon in February, returned 10 weeks later and has had all summer to get in shape. Winger Bobby Ryan, a four-time 30-goal scorer, should make Senators fans forget Alfredsson. The defense is iffy, but they should go a couple of playoff rounds under Coach Paul MacLean.
2012-13: 26-17-5 (57 points), 5th in East.
Things are looking up in The Center of the Hockey Universe. The Maple Leafs have some prolific scorers (Phil Kessel, Joffrey Lupul) and an up-and-comer in Nazem Kadri. But they’ll miss David Clarkson, who was suspended 10 games for leaving the bench to join a fight in a preseason game. Goalie Jonathan Bernier, previously stuck in Los Angeles as the backup to Jonathan Quick, will get his chance to shine.
6. TAMPA BAY
2012-13: 18-26-4 (40 points), 14th in East.
Two-time goal-scoring champion Steven Stamkos is electrifying. In exhibition games he skated alongside Martin St. Louis — last season’s scoring champ — and 18-year-old Jonathan Drouin, a line worth watching. The Lightning can score goals but is less successful at stopping them. Goalies Ben Bishop and Anders Lindback aren’t elite, and they face a tough task.
2012-13: 21-21-6 (48 points), 12th in East.
Goalie Ryan Miller can leave as a free agent after the season and it’s a matter of when, not if, the Sabres trade him. The same is likely for left wing Thomas Vanek, whose scoring abilities would interest almost any team. The Sabres never seem to make big strides, usually competitive but never deep enough to be a real threat.
2012-13: 15-27-6 (36 points), 15th in East.
Injuries were a huge factor in the Panthers’ league-low point total and league-worst 171 goals against. But there’s hope in the form of Jonathan Huberdeau, last season’s rookie of the year, and the self-proclaimed revival of goalie Tim Thomas, who returns after taking a year off. The Panthers got the short end of the stick in realignment and those mid-winter trips to Buffalo, Montreal and Ottawa will be cruel.
2012-13: 36-12-0 (72 points), 1st in East.
The Penguins will score a lot but their problem is keeping the puck out of their net. Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury must prove he’s better than his poor playoff performances last spring. Rob Scuderi, brought back as a free agent, could mentor defense partner Kris Letang and anchor a fine pair. There’s a lot to like (Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, California-born forward Beau Bennett) but they need better goaltending.
2012-13: 27-18-3 (57 points), 3rd in the East.
Alexander Ovechkin won his third MVP trophy with a late-rushing, 32-goal, 56-point season that was vintage Ovie. Once he adjusted to playing the right side instead of the left, he was nearly unstoppable. The Capitals have two good scoring lines and Mike Green headlines a capable defense. Coach Adam Oates did a fine job last season and will only get better.
2012-13: 24-17-7 (55 points), 9th in West.
Sergei “Bob” Bobrovsky deservedly won the Vezina Trophy as the best goalie after compiling a 2.00 goals-against average and .932 save percentage. Former Bruins winger Nathan Horton should help offensively after he recovers from shoulder surgery, and Marian Gaborik is among the NHL’s most skillful players. The Blue Jackets’ defense corps is inconsistent but bruising.
4. NEW YORK RANGERS
2012-13: 26-18-4 (56 points), 6th in East.
New Coach Alain Vigneault will have a lighter touch than taskmaster John Tortorella. Vigneault’s team will get an early test: The Rangers’ first nine games are on the road because of Madison Square Garden renovations. This must be a bounce-back season for Brad Richards, who scored 11 goals in 46 games and one in 10 playoff games. Goaltending is in the capable hands of Henrik Lundqvist (2.05 goals-against average, .926 save percentage).
5. NEW YORK ISLANDERS
2012-13: 24-17-7 (55 points), 8th in East
John Tavares (28 goals, 47 points in 48 games) is a stud and their new captain. Matt Moulson has become a reliable scorer, but the Islanders will need many to chip in. Losing steady defenseman Mark Streit to free agency leaves a big hole.
2012-13: 23-22-3 (49 points), 10th in East.
The Flyers’ best goalie is Ron Hextall, their new assistant general manager. They haven’t solved their eternal goaltending issue even after buying out Ilya Bryzgalov. The tandem of Ray Emery and Steve Mason won’t carry them far. Signing Vincent Lecavalier (who was bought out by Tampa Bay) should increase their scoring but their defense is thin.
2012-13: 19-25-4 (42 points), 13th in East.
Despite a well of talent the Hurricanes have missed the playoffs four straight seasons and have qualified once since their 2006 Cup title. Free agent Ron Hainsey should be a good replacement for defenseman Joni Pitkanen, out for the season because of a heel injury. Goalie Cam Ward, recovering from a knee sprain, could be pushed by Anton Khudobin.
8. NEW JERSEY
2012-13: 19-19-10 (48 points), 11th in East.
The Devils, who were one of the lowest-scoring teams last season and missed the playoffs, lost top scorer Ilya Kovalchuk when he abruptly retired — but resurfaced in Russia’s KHL. Winger Jaromir Jagr didn’t play any exhibition games because of a lower-body injury, so it’s tough to say what he has left at 41. Acquiring goalie Cory Schneider from Vancouver established an heir to 41-year-old Martin Brodeur, but Brodeur isn’t hurrying to retire.