Part 2 of our preview of where teams stand going into training camp will finish off the Atlantic Division and start with the top two clubs of the Metropolitan Division.
2014-15 Finish: 38-29-15 record, 10th in Eastern Conference
Noteworthy Gains: Reilly Smith
Biggest Strength: Florida was surprisingly involved in the playoff hunt last season thanks to superb goaltending from Roberto Luongo as well as a very good mix of talented young players and solid veterans. Jonathan Huberdeau, Nick Bjugstad, Aaron Ekblad and Aleksander Barkov represent the core group of the team and they are all younger than 24 years of age. Jaromir Jagr proved to be valuable addition and Willie Mitchell provided leadership and experience on the back end.
Biggest Weakness: Relying on youth can be exciting and it does bring plenty of intrigue, but it's not without its headaches. Most of the Panthers key offensive threats are still learning at the NHL level, so having a future Hall of Famer like Jagr in the fold is especially helpful. Consistency has been an issue for Florida's offense and scoring was a big problem for them over the course of the year. The Cats finished 25th in the league with 2.42 goals per game and their power play was 24th overall with 40 goals on 246 opportunities.
Player to Watch: Aleksander Barkov was the second overall pick in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft and he is still looking to fully establish himself in the NHL. He has 24 goals and 60 points in 125 games so far and that is likely to improve this year. Barkov was averaging 0.75 points per game over 20 appearances during March and April. He is expected to build on the chemistry he displayed alongside Jagr and Huberdeau. The ceiling is high for Barkov, who will turn 20 years old on Sept. 2. He has the skill set to at least be a 50-point player this campaign.
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
2014-15 Finish: 30-44-8 record, 15th in Eastern Conference
Noteworthy Losses: Phil Kessel
Biggest Strength: The Leafs were expected to make changes after a disastrous season and the team made some very good hirings in the coaching and management departments. Mike Babcock was brought in as the head coach and Lou Lamoriello jumped ship from New Jersey to serve as Toronto's general manager. The Leafs made assistant coach alterations as well and the scouting staff was overhauled too. James van Riemsdyk went out of his way to praise the hirings of Babcock and Dr. Jeremy Bettle, who will be the club's director of sports science and performance. The hiring of Lamoriello was certainly surprising and it will be interesting to see how he meshes with progressive assistant GM Kyle Dubas.
Biggest Weakness: Toronto is going into a full rebuild and trading star player Phil Kessel to Pittsburgh kicked off that process. The Leafs are prepared to put their fans through further suffering in an attempt to build back up with scouting and drafting at the forefront. Toronto had a successful 2015 draft, but none of their top prospects are expected to be used in 2015-16. That coupled with Kessel's exit won't help a team that plummeted to 24th in the NHL in goals per game (2.51) last season. The Leafs had even more trouble preventing goals and ranked 26th overall in goals against per game at 3.13. It's going to be another long season in Toronto, as the team isn't expected to improve much in either area.
Player to Watch: Nazem Kadri is projected to get playing time as Toronto's top center in 2015-16. Tyler Bozak might be traded or bumped down the lineup, so that the Leafs can make better use of Kadri's offensive skills. He didn't have a very good season in 2014-15, but he displayed great promise during his previous two campaigns when he racked up 94 points in 126 games.
2014-15 Finish: 23-51-8 record, 16th in Eastern Conference
Biggest Strength: Buffalo brought in some much-needed depth down the middle. The last-placed Sabres selected Jack Eichel with the second overall pick in the 2015 draft and they acquired O'Reilly from Colorado in a five-player trade. David Legwand was also obtained from Ottawa in the deal that brought new number one goalie Robin Lehner. With Evander Kane ready to make his Buffalo debut in 2015-16, the club has a vastly improved top-six forward group.
Biggest Weakness: It won't take much to improve an offense that scored just 1.87 goals per game. Buffalo had the second-worst goals against per game (3.28) last year and there's still plenty of work to do to get that back on track. New bench boss Dan Bylsma will have his hands full trying to fix the team's defensive troubles. Lehner is also a big question mark between the pipes, as he was never able to seize the number one job in Ottawa.
Player to Watch: When you are billed as a generational talent, you are going to have plenty of eyes on you and Eichel will be in the spotlight this season. There were 17,115 fans in attendance for a development camp scrimmage he played in, so it's obvious to see how excited the city of Buffalo is for his arrival. Eichel oozes potential as a creative and dangerous point producer. He will be a key player for the Sabres in 2015-16.
NEW YORK RANGERS
2014-15 Finish: 53-22-7 record, Eastern Conference Final loss to Tampa Bay (4-3)
Biggest Strength: The Rangers won the Presidents' Trophy last season and topped the NHL with a plus-60 goal differential. New York also had the best road record in the league (28-11-2). The team used a balanced blend of offense and defense to achieve those feats. The Blueshirts ranked third overall in goals per game (3.02) and third in goals against per game (2.28). When star goalie Henrik Lundqvist was injured Cam Talbot stepped up behind a deep and stalwart defense corps. With Talbot gone, Antti Raanta should be successful whenever he is called upon.
Biggest Weakness: New York didn't have many sore spots in 2014-15, aside from not reaching the Stanley Cup Final, but their 21st-ranked power play will need to improve. A full season with Keith Yandle should help in that regard. The retirement of Martin St. Louis opens a hole in the top-six group that needs to be filled. Kevin Hayes, Jesper Fast and Stalberg will probably get chances to impress.
Player to Watch: Kevin Hayes came out swinging in his rookie season with 17 goals and 45 points in 79 games. He will be a top-nine forward for the Rangers this year and could get a look on the second or first unit. There's always a risk for a sophomore slump, but he should be able to avoid that.
2014-15 Finish: 45-26-11 record, second round loss to New York Rangers (4-3)
Biggest Strength: The offensive duo of Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin combined for 159 points, including a league-leading 53 goals by Ovechkin and an NHL-high 60 assists from Backstrom. Ovechkin netted 25 goals with the man advantage to help the Capitals post the most efficient power play (25.3%) in the NHL. Washington netminder Braden Holtby had a spectacular 2014-15 campaign and Philip Grubauer is a promising backup option.
Biggest Weakness: Washington gets plenty of mileage out of the offense that Ovechkin and Backstrom generate, but their secondary scoring still leaves a lot to be desired. Defenseman John Carlson was third on the Capitals in scoring with 55 points and Marcus Johansson was next with 47 points. Troy Brouwer, who was traded to St. Louis for T.J. Oshie, was second on the club with 21 goals and Johansson was the team's only other 20-goal scorer. The Capitals hope that Justin Williams and Oshie can add some depth to the top-six forward group and that Evgeny Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky can further their development.
Player to Watch: Burakovsky is tempting to put here because he may play on the second line as a winger or as the third-line center, but Tom Wilson should have the interest of fantasy poolies. He got to play on the top line for part of the 2014-15 campaign and the Capitals don't see him as a fourth-line player. He is capable of chipping in more than the 17 points he had last season, while registering a plethora of hits and penalty minutes. Wilson finished fourth in the league with 172 PIMs last season and he recorded 205 hits. He is a solid option if you are unable snag Steve Downie or Antoine Roussel.