A handful of Pittsburgh Penguins players whose names are on the Stanley Cup, some of them twice or even three times, are gone.
The same goes for core players from the back-to-back Presidents’ Trophy winning Washington Capitals.
The goliaths of the East haven’t fallen apart, but maybe they’ve lost just enough to make the conference winnable for just about anyone. Pittsburgh no longer has forwards Nick Bonino, Chris Kunitz and Matt Cullen, defensemen Trevor Daley or goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. Washington couldn’t afford to keep Justin Williams, Karl Alzner and Kevin Shattenkirk.
The Penguins and Capitals are still favored to finish 1-2 in the brutal Metropolitan Division, but improvements made by the New York Rangers, Carolina Hurricanes and a return to health for members of the Tampa Bay Lightning have cracked the Eastern Conference wide open.
“The competition level is as high as ever,” Boston Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask said. “There’s a lot of teams that have a chance to win the Cup. Making the playoffs, it’s very tough nowadays. I think we’re not the only team when we always say, ‘We want to make the playoffs and then we’ll see what happens’ because you just want to make the playoffs and then anything can happen. There’s no real favorites.”
Pittsburgh is still the betting favorite, and if Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Co. make it happen they’d become the first NHL team with three consecutive titles since the early 1980s New York Islanders dynasty. Then again, Lightning captain Steven Stamkos is healthy after a knee injury ended his 2016-17 season, the Hurricanes got a top goaltender in Scott Darling and the Toronto Maple Leafs are only expected to get better now that Auston Matthews and the kids have some playoff experience.
“Toronto obviously made a big step forward, Columbus is a team that has tremendous upside, made a big move this summer, and then you look at a team like Carolina who’s going to be knocking on the door in the next few years,” said Shattenkirk, who signed with the revamped Rangers.
In a league with considerable playoff turnover from year to year, there’s no rest for the eight teams that made it last year: the Penguins, Capitals,…