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Button breaks down the Eastern Conference

NHL Network analyst Craig Button, the former general manager of the Calgary Flames, takes a look at how Eastern Conference teams will fare during the 2010-11 season.

Check back each day as more analysis from Button is added.

Atlanta Thrashers -- There has been much change in Atlanta since the conclusion of last season. The change with the potential to have the most positive effect on the team is the hiring of Craig Ramsay as coach. He helps players perform to their capabilities and understands how to weave those abilities into a cohesive and well-performing team.

There is Stanley Cup-winning experience in the group with the additions of Dustin Byfuglien, Fredrik Modin, Andrew Ladd, Ben Eager and Brent Sopel. The young, talented players, led by Zach Bogosian, Evander Kane, Niclas Bergfors and Bryan Little should be beneficiaries of that experience as they look to contribute to winning times in Atlanta.

Scoring isn't an issue for the Thrashers (12th in scoring in 2009-10), but any designs on qualifying for the Stanley Cup Playoffs will be determined on the ability of their team to play strongly without the puck and reduce opponents' scoring chances (28th-most shots against per game in 2009-10). The Thrashers are a more balanced team with improved depth and that should help them be squarely in the hunt for playoff positions come April.

Boston Bruins -- Bruins fans may have asked at the end of last season, "Is the glass half-full or half-empty?" One win away from the conference finals suggests half-full. Being the lowest-scoring team in the NHL suggests half-empty. I propose they are pouring into the glass and filling it.

Boston is a good team that is improving and only will get better. The Bruins have a blend of experience and youth, a blend of skill and power, and with improved scoring they will have a blend of offense and defense (second-best goals against in 2009-10). They are solid in goal with the competitive Tim Thomas and an emerging Tuukka Rask. Zdeno Chara is a pillar on the blue line and the forward group is multi-faceted and deep.

GM Peter Chiarelli sacrificed some offense last season in parting with Phil Kessel, but the return in the form of Nathan Horton and Tyler Seguin will reward the Bruins with increased scoring this season and well into the future. Marc Savard's eventual return to full health only will strengthen this team. Nonetheless, the Bruins are positioned very well to compete for the Stanley Cup now and into the future, and that is reason enough for optimism to prevail in Boston.

Buffalo Sabres -- The Buffalo Sabres don't survive, they thrive. Year after year, GM Darcy Regier and coach Lindy Ruff exhibit the qualities of leadership and competency in assembling and preparing their team for success.

The past season saw them exit the playoffs in a disappointing first-round loss to the Boston Bruins. But what should excite Sabres fans is the fact that they were a 100-point team, with the ability to score (tenth in goal scoring), and play defense (fourth in goals-against).

Ryan Miller, the reigning Vezina Trophy winner, provides capability and stability in goal whereby confidence can permeate throughout the team.

The defense remains mobile and adept with the puck, and has size and physical strength with Shaone Morrisonn and Craig Rivet and with the emergence of Tyler Myers, the reigning Calder Trophy winner, as an all-round force on the blue line. This group is solid.

The forwards have shown scoring ability, but Thomas Vanek needs to improve on last season's totals to ensure the Sabres are keeping opponents on the edge and giving themselves some breathing room. They can skate and have some physical players and can make a game very challenging for their opponents. The Sabres are a very good team and seriously should look at themselves as Stanley Cup contenders.

Carolina Hurricanes -- The first half of the 2009-10 season was not kind to the Hurricanes.  They had the League's worst record during this period, in large part, due to the extended injuries to Eric Staal and Cam Ward. Every team experiences injuries, but to lose stalwarts who contribute greatly to success becomes an almost impossible task to overcome. The second half saw the squad challenging for a playoff spot with the fourth-best record during this period, before falling just short of qualifying.

There has been a "passing of the torch," so to speak, with the retirement of Rod Brind'Amour after a great career, with Staal becoming the captain and unquestioned on-ice leader. Brandon Sutter had a terrific second season and gives the Hurricanes a player who can contribute in any situation. The apple doesn't fall far from the tree, as his father, Brent Sutter, played similarly.

Jussi Jokinen talks softly but carries a big stick and is instrumental to the offensive prowess of the Hurricanes. Tuomo Ruutu has the ability to impact a game when healthy, and if Erik Cole and Sergei Samsonov can return to form, scoring will not be a problem for the Hurricanes. First-round pick Jeff Skinner is a prolific scorer and being able to play behind Staal could make him a leading Calder Trophy candidate.

Joni Pitkanen and Tim Gleason anchor a defense which has some inexperience, but the return of Anton Babchuk alongside Joe Corvo will help the power play. In a very challenging Eastern Conference, with some of the best players in the game playing, I like the Hurricanes' defense and their ability to compete against those players.

Ward has demonstrated the ability to perform when it matters. His excellent skills alongside a calm yet determined and competitive demeanor means the Hurricanes and coach Paul Maurice don't have to worry about the goaltending position.

I think this team resembles the one from the second-half surge of 2009-10 and what fans saw in the run to the conference finals in 2009, rather than the first half of last season. They are a good team with some good, young players, and barring any debilitating injuries to key players, they will be a playoff team, and one to be reckoned with in the playoffs.

Florida Panthers -- The playoffs have been a long time coming for Panthers fans. New GM Dale Tallon understands the disappointment of the supporters, but more importantly, he understands the remedies necessary to set this franchise on the right path toward success.

His fingerprints are all over the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks' roster. His successful experience in identifying and acquiring players and then watching them grow as a cohesive team should be reason enough for optimism in South Florida.

Tomas Vokoun is a workhorse goaltender who plays at a high level yet doesn't seem to garner the same respect heaped upon his contemporaries. He is a competitor and he gives his team a chance to win. The Panthers surrendered a League-high 34.1 shots-against per game and this has to be a primary area of improvement.

There is a good group of defensemen in place who seem to complement one another nicely. It has a blend of size, skill, offensive and defensive abilities as well as a physical element. Dmitri Kulikov showed why he was a high first-round pick and Erik Gudbranson will not disappoint with his style and brand of hockey. The two Bryans -- Allen and McCabe -- along with Dennis Wideman, add experience and give the Panthers a well-rounded group.

Losing David Booth to injury last season was significant and teams simply can't replace a player who contributes in so many important ways. Stephen Weiss is showing the continuous improvement necessary to becoming a key player in all situations. With the departures of Nathan Horton and Keith Ballard, it becomes imperative that players such as Michael Frolik, Rostislav Olesz, Steve Bernier, Michael Grabner and Shawn Matthias demonstrate the capability to be good, solid consistent players.

The Southeast Division is much improved, and for the Panthers to be in the chase for a playoff position, improvement must be evident individually and collectively.

Montreal Canadiens -- This past spring in Montreal brought back memories of unexpected championships. The script largely was the same -- an unheralded goaltender in Jaroslav Halak, evoking visions of Ken Dryden and Patrick Roy; a team with a corps d'esprit; and Stanley Cup favorites being dispatched in succession. It didn't result in a 25th Stanley Cup for Les Habitants, but the city was excited.

There was an overhaul of the roster prior to the 2009-10 season and the challenges in finding a consistent rhythm and success in their play was evident throughout the season. The power play was excellent (No. 2 in the League), which was a saving grace as other trends continuously were rearing their ugly heads. Only Tampa Bay and Columbus scored fewer even-strength goals than Montreal. The Habs were third in blocked shots but allowed the sixth-most shots-against per game.

 

So what can be surmised from this? The answer is they do not have the puck nearly enough, and when you don't have the puck you are in a defensive posture with too much reliance on a goaltender to hold the fort, so to speak. This has to change if the Canadiens want to be considered a serious threat.

That being said, a healthy Andrei Markov is a significant contributor when he is playing. P.K. Subban displayed poise and skill beyond his years with a great enthusiasm for playing and only will get better. The forward group may be small in stature but they are large competitors who are not deterred. Michael Cammalleri, Brian Gionta and Tomas Plekanec showed they will not shrink when the stakes are high, and Scott Gomez looks increasingly comfortable under the continuous spotlight of Montreal.

The organization showed tremendous confidence and faith in Carey Price to lead the Canadiens, after trading Halak to the St. Louis Blues. Carey has the skill and has performed under the pressure necessary to be an elite goaltender. He needs to reward the faith shown in him by improving his consistency and showing the Montreal faithful he has the game to be compared to greats like Dryden and Roy.

New Jersey Devils -- People look at the Devils and seemingly always think of them as a defensive team. Obviously when you consistently are at the top of the League in goals-against (first last season), and you have the winningest goalie in history, the facts support the belief.

The Devils are not a team that necessarily plays one style, but plays the style necessary to give them the best chance at success. They were a high-scoring team for three consecutive seasons, 1998-2001, finishing with a League-high 3.60 goals for per game during the 2000-01 season.

What does all this mean? GM Lou Lamoriello recognizes what areas of weakness may be holding the Devils from achieving their annual goal of winning the Stanley Cup. Enter Ilya Kovalchuk. He is a prolific goal scorer with the ability to open a game and create offensive advantages. Combined with superstar Zach Parise and very capable offensive players in Patrik Elias, Travis Zajac and Jamie Langenbrunner, the Devils have tilted offense back in their favor. 

Don't expect fire wagon hockey because they are not abandoning defense. The additions of Anton Volchenkov and Henrik Tallinder strengthen an already very capable blue line. Martin Brodeur continues to perform at the highest level (first in wins during 2009-10) and I don't see any signs of decline in his play. Adding Johan Hedberg as a backup should ensure that a little more rest is afforded to Brodeur and he is not entering the playoffs feeling fatigued.

John MacLean enters his first season as an NHL coach, but he is beginning in very familiar surroundings with strong support around him. The Devils are a well-balanced team, capable of playing in any type of game, and they have improved themselves in areas that may have left them just short the past few seasons. Their goal of winning the Stanley Cup always is present, but they seem in a better position for that to be a reality for the first time since 2003.

New York Islanders -- The Islanders had an improvement of eight wins and 18 points in 2009-10 over their League-worst record in 2008-09. The hope of the franchise seemed to fall on the shoulders of John Tavares, the first pick of the 2009 Entry Draft, and he certainly didn't disappoint, but it takes more than one or two players to become a formidable team.

The Isles have accumulated a number of young players who can form the nucleus of a good team. Kyle Okposo is capable of being a force with his blend of skill and power. Josh Bailey is a very smart and creative playmaker, and 2010 first-round pick Nino Niederreiter is a gifted forward who plays with speed, skill and determination. Matt Moulson had a breakout season in 2009-10, and if he can sustain this level of play, the Islanders should be able to hold their own offensively.

The defense is led by Mark Streit, but the preseason shoulder injury he suffered is a tough pill to swallow. Streit is a much underrated player who plays the important minutes and is able to provide a steady and consistent presence to the team. His loss is a debilitating blow to the team.

Dwayne Roloson is as good a competitor as there is in the League, and his will to win and make a difference in the net is a positive for a team that needs every advantage it can muster. If Rick DiPietro can return from the injuries that have plagued him during the past few seasons, goaltending should not pose any issues.

The Islanders should be competitive for a playoff spot, but in the Eastern Conference, where a number of teams who missed the playoffs in 2010 look improved, the battle only will be heightened and they can ill afford injuries to significant players or subpar performances from players expected to produce.

New York Rangers -- The line between winning and losing can be very fine. Look no further than the season's last game when the Rangers lost to the Philadelphia Flyers in a shootout and missed out on participating in the playoffs. The Flyers went on to the Stanley Cup Final and the Rangers were left to sort through a disappointing season.

The scoring was a real concern following the 2008-09 season but was addressed with the acquisition of Marian Gaborik; a dynamic player who can change the course of a game in a moment with his great skill. He was a catalyst for the Rangers' offensive improvement but his forty-two goals were more than double the total of any other Ranger player. The signing of free agent Alexander Frolov will add some balance to the scoring and force opponents to focus some of their attention away from Gaborik. Brandon Dubinsky has shown he can be a strong two-way force and perform under all conditions.

The curtain has come down on the Wade Redden era in New York and while these situations are unfortunate, it allows both player and team to move ahead with a clear focus. Marc Staal becomes the anchor of a blue line that has been transitioning to a younger more mobile group. Michael Del Zotto and Dan Girardi fit that description and if Ryan McDonough, Pavel Valentenko and Matt Gilroy can find the means to be productive performers, the Rangers will have the opportunity to develop a unit that can grow together and become very good.

Henrik Lundqvist is deserving of every accolade that comes his way. He is a one of the very best goalies in the league and if you want to allow a young defense group to grow, he is the perfect guy to ensure that mistakes don't end up in the net. The addition of Martin Biron will allow a little more rest for Lundqvist and help him stay fresh over the season.

The Rangers improved last season and they have improved again entering this season to the point where they should be in position to be competing for a higher spot in the playoff seeding, not fighting for a spot in the playoffs.

Ottawa Senators -- The Senators found a way to be successful last season despite some injuries and less than expected performance from a few players.

Pascal Leclaire was acquired with the hope that he was the long needed No. 1 goaltender the franchise had been searching for. While possessing loads of talent he is also followed around by an "injury bug" and last season was no different for him. Brian Elliot stepped in and performed admirably but was not able to sustain the high level of play that gave the Senators a boost. If they can establish they are as good as their abilities, this can become one of the team's strengths.

Erik Karlsson may have taken a little time to find his way in the NHL but when he did, it was in dynamic fashion.  He is skilled, competitive and plays with a poise that reminds me of Sergei Zubov. The addition of Sergei Gonchar gives Ottawa an All-Star capable of playing important minutes and his puck play will make the team more dangerous and help players increase their offensive production. Chris Phillips is a steady and dependable player who competes at all times and if young defense prospects, Jared Cowan and Patrick Wiercioch, want to ensure themselves of successful careers they need look no further than Phillips as a role model.

The offense is just fine led by the ageless Daniel Alfredsson who shows no signs of slowing down. Jason Spezza is a superb playmaker and I saw a lot of growth in his game last season and I feel he is desirous of establishing himself as an important player. Mike Fisher gives everything he has and continues to improve his game to the point where he is a contributor in all aspects. Alexei Kovalev can be the player who can give the Senators a decided advantage in games. His skills have not waned and finding the level that allows him to be considered, at times, unstoppable will ensure offense is never an issue or falling on the shoulders of only a couple players. They have the blend of size, checking, agitation, hello Jarkko Ruutu and physical play that can make them a very difficult team to face.

There are some questions to be answered but this is a capable team and if they find those answers, it could be a team that goes deep into the playoffs.

Philadelphia Flyers -- Prior to last season I felt the Flyers were a Stanley Cup favorite. While their regular season play didn't give any proof positive of this prognostication, the playoffs certainly did. The addition of Chris Pronger, an elite player capable of dominating a game from every perspective, made their defense into one of the best in the NHL. Their goaltending didn't have to win games singlehandedly and this is almost exactly how the script played out.

 

There were some growing pains for the team last season with the addition of the forceful Pronger and the change of coaches from John Stevens to Peter Laviolette, but they were able to forge a strength in their team that saw them fall short of the Stanley Cup by two wins.

Captain Mike Richards represents the heart and soul of this team and his contributions show up in so many different areas that help this team win. Daniel Briere found his magic in the playoffs and showed that when he's healthy, is as dangerous as any player in the league. Some may say that Jeff Carter had a down year but 33 goals is a very good and the Flyers have enough balance in their scoring that it doesn't have to fall upon the shoulders of one player. The emergence of Claude Giroux gives them a well-rounded two-way player who can play in any situation and can adapt to multiple positions on the ice, a nice luxury for coach Laviolette. James van Riemsdyk will build on his solid rookie season and the Flyers have the mix of forwards that make an opponent uncomfortable because they make the game challenging from a skill and a physical perspective.

 

Along with Pronger; Kimmo Timonen, Braydon Coburn and Matt Carle make up a top four defense that is as good as any in the league. The additions of Sean O'Donnell and Andrej Meszaros give them depth that may have prevented them from winning it all last season. Michael Leighton and Brian Boucher may not be sexy but they fit very nicely playing behind this defense.

 

This team is good and should be better because of their experience last season despite the painful finish. Paul Holmgren addressed what he saw as the shortcomings and the younger players will be better. It makes for 'safe' prognosticating in that I see the Flyers as being much better in the regular season and as one of the favorites for the Stanley Cup.

Pittsburgh Penguins -- When you have high expectations of yourself and then accomplish your goals, falling short of them is always disappointing regardless of what other successes you may have experienced. The Penguins arrived at that station after winning the Stanley Cup. Despite a 101-point regular season, the second round playoff exit left only the taste of disappointment in their mouths.

 

Pure and simple they are one of the very best teams in the league and enter this season as one of the favorites to win the Stanley Cup.

 

Sidney Crosby is arguably the best player in the League, Evgeni Malkin is a super star, Jordan Staal is a complete player and Marc-Andre Fleury is one of the league's best netminders. One can't look at this group and assess their chances of winning as anything less than very good.

 

Sergei Gonchar left via free agency but Kris Letang and Alex Goligoski are very good players who can more than pick up the offense that may be lost. Adding Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek may have been exactly what the Penguins needed to do to give them the best chance at winning. While scoring was not a problem for the Penguins (5th best goals for a game), Dan Bylsma feels the defensive aspect of their game must improve. Hal Gill and Rob Scuderi were unheralded, but important, contributors to the Stanley Cup and their absence was felt. Martin and Michalek along with Brooks Orpik should help them improve in this area.

 

When you have strength in the center ice position as the Penguins do, Dan Bylsma must never feel vulnerable. As well, with that strength, they are able to make those around them better. Chris Kunitz, Tyler Kennedy, Maxime Talbot, Pascal Dupuis, Matt Cooke and Craig Adams need only play to their strengths for the Penguins to have success. It would be a luxury to add a top line winger to go along with Crosby or Malkin but the reality in the NHL, is that you have to make choices and with additions to bolster the blue line, a top line winger will have to emerge from the prospect group. That could eventually be a guy like Eric Tangradi who may provide glimpses of similarity to long time Penguin Kevin Stevens.

 

All-in-all the Penguins will be competing at the top of the Eastern Conference and with their goal clearly set on winning the Stanley Cup, anything short of it will be disappointing.