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Sizing Up The Eastern Conference

If I say the Toronto Maple Leafs are a playoff team, will I get trolled for it?

That's the question running through my mind as I start the Eastern Conference preview. The Leafs are a very legitimate number nine team in the conference. But there's always one team that stumbles when it matters most, giving that number nine team a chance to get into the playoffs. 

So I guess the bigger question is who's going to be the team to stumble?

It could be Montreal, an undersized team playing in a much bigger, stronger division. It could be New York, if the Brad Richards experiment doesn't return immediate dividends. It could be Buffalo, which has a lot of talent on paper but a lot of question marks yet to be answered. Or it could be the Flyers, who are equally as likely to win the conference as they are to finish in dead last. 

I'm willing to bet that somebody's going to stumble. 

The division winners should be easy picks, but the Sidney Crosby situation in Pittsburgh makes the Atlantic tough to call. If he comes back soon and stays healthy and is able to play at the level he was playing at before being concussed in early 2011, the Pens should win the division. If not, it's between the Flyers and the Rangers, but I find the Bryzgalov bandwagon increasingly hard to jump on. At the same time, is Brad Richards really the answer in New York?

An improved Washington team should win the Southeast, although Tampa Bay will make things interesting. The Bruins should take the Northeast, although everyone but Ottawa will give them a run for their money. Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and New York are all playoff teams in the Atlantic, in some order. 

Who's the best team in the conference? I'll go out on a limb and put my money on Pittsburgh and a returning Crosby. Who's the second-best team? I'm going with the Bruins. 

As for the rest of the division:

3 - Washington Capitals

4 - Philadelphia Flyers

5 - New York Rangers

6 - Tampa Bay Lightning

7 - Buffalo Sabres

8 - Toronto Maple Leafs

Yes, the Toronto Maple Leafs are a playoff team. 

9 - Montreal Canadiens

10 - New Jersey Devils

11 - Carolina Hurricanes

12 - Ottawa Senators

13 - Florida Panthers 

14 - New York Islanders

15 - Winnipeg Jets