The 2015-2016 NHL season is two weeks old, with each team playing at least five games. There has already been a major development in the Eastern Conference, with the Montreal Canadiens undefeated after seven games, and the Columbus Blue Jackets winless in seven games. The poor start by Columbus prompted the firing of Todd Richards, and the hiring of John Tortorella.
While it’s far too early to cast any clear conclusions just yet, here are some early-season reports regarding the three favorites in the East. All Stanley Cup Odds are provided by VegasInsider.com
Tampa Bay Lightning (50-24-8, 108 points in 2014-2015)
The defending Eastern Conference champions are virtually the same exact team they were when they beat three Original Six teams and went all the way to Game 6 of the Stanley Cup. All but one player was on the team from a year ago and second-year head coach Jon Cooper has the youngest team in the NHL with an average age of 26.4. The Lightning are off to a strong start, posting a 4-2-1 record. One of the wins was the first 3-on-3 overtime played in NHL history, that resulted in a 3-2 final score against the Philadelphia Flyers on opening day.
The recipe for success last year in Tampa began with an overachieving goaltender, an emerging defenseman, and the consistent scoring from a superstar forward. Goalie Ben Bishop was 40-13-5 before having three shutouts in the playoffs and has won four of six starts to begin the year while becoming the franchise’s all-time wins leader. Victor Hedman emerged as one of the league’s top defensemen and would have been considered MVP of the Final (Conn Smyth Trophy) had the Bolts won. Steven Stamkos has five goals in seven games after scoring the second-most goals in the league (43) in 2014-2015. The Lightning led the league in goals (259) last season with four lines capable of scoring streaks.
The Lightning have picked up where they left off. Tampa Bay is tied with Montreal for the most goals scored (23) in the early portion of the season.
The key for the season may be to avoid complacency. Should Tampa maintain their poise and determination they should have enough to finish with one of the best records in the East. But things can crumble if they look too far ahead. Cooper's squad succeeds when they act like they have something to prove.
The Bolts currently own the best Stanley Cup odds of any team in the east at 8/1. They are 4/1 favorites to come out of the East.
New York Rangers (53-22-7, 113 points in 2014-15)
The defending President’s Trophy winners had more wins than any team in the NHL and ended up falling one game short of reaching a second-straight Stanley Cup Final. New York’s window has been open for a few years since making the 2012 and 2015 conference final and winning the east in 2014. This season is largely viewed as ‘Stanley Cup or bust’ in New York, much like last season. They still managed to win the ultra-competitive Metropolitan Division and are favorites to do so again this year. Alain Vignault’s team has begun the season 4-2-1 and tied atop the division with the inter-city rival New York Islanders.
While Henrik Lundqvist is still one of the NHL’s elite goaltenders, the Rangers' fate doesn't rest solely on his shoulders. Lundqvist was limited to 46 games in the regular season and his 30-13-3 record was exceptional. But the Rangers made their surge into first while the Swede was out with a neck injury for two months. Cam Talbot served as insurance and played so well that people were talking about a permanent change at goalie. But with Talbot out, more may be required of Lundqvist this season. He is 3-2-1 thus far with a .931 save percentage after winning his first three starts. If there’s one thing the Rangers have been able to count on, it's solid goaltending from their veteran goalie.
The early returns have been solid for the rest of the squad with an elite defensive corps that continues to thrive. The Rangers allowed the third-fewest goals in the league a season ago with 2.32 led by Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi and Marc Staal and all the talent is back this season. New York is currently at 2.14 goals allowed following Monday's shutout against the San Jose Sharks. After averaging three goals per game during the regular season, the Rangers dropped off to 2.37 in the playoffs and were shut out twice on home ice in the conference final.
As for scoring, Rick Nash is still without a goal after a forgettable postseason. The likes of Derek Stepan, Derick Brassard, Chris Kreider and the rest of New York’s depth may have to play a bigger role offensively for this team to continue going deep into May.
The Rangers sit right behind Tampa at 9/1 odds to win this year’s Stanley Cup. They are also 4/1 favorites to come out of the East.
Montreal Canadiens (50-22-10, 110 points in 2014-15)
After losing in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, no team is off to a hotter start in 2015-16 than the Montreal Canadiens. The reigning Atlantic Division champions are the only undefeated team left in the NHL and have every chance of repeating a 100+ point performance thanks to their all-world goaltender. Carey Price went 44-16-6 with a 1.96 GAA en route to winning the Vezina Trophy, awarded to the league’s top goalie. This season, Price has barely flinched, winning all five games played and giving up just 1.2 goals per game in the process.
Montreal looks to their newest forward Alexander Semin, who was signed to a one-year deal, to help improve the team’s scoring and power-play production. Semin has scored 20+ goals in seven of his 10 NHL seasons. Meanwhile, captain Max Pacioretty continues to be one of the league's best players, notching seven points and a plus-9 rating in the early going after 67 points last season. The Canadiens' still have world-class defenseman P.K. Subban, who has shown little sign of slowing down. The 25-year-old had the eighth most time on ice among skaters in the regular season and the sixth most in the playoffs a season ago.
With Price in form, the Habs should only have to worry about putting the puck in the net, something they struggled with last season. While they allowed the least amount of goals in the league, Montreal finished No.11 in goals (214). Last year’s playoffs dispelled the old hockey myth that great goaltending is enough to carry a team to a title. At the moment, Michel Therrien's squad is having little trouble scoring, but will it continue? General manager Marc Bergevin may have to consider swinging a deal if it doesn't.
The Canadiens have 10/1 odds to win the Stanley Cup and 5/1 odds to win the East.