Leafs look to be one of the East’s bubble teams

It’s almost time to see just how far this new-look Leafs team has come.

After bringing in highly-touted players such as Mike Komisarek, Jonas Gustavsson and Phil Kessel, more is expected from this season’s edition of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

There is no question that the Leafs are looking towards the playoffs, but what are their chances of making it in?

The Eastern Conference breaks down into four categories — cup contenders, playoff probables, bubble teams, and the rebuilding projects.

The teams line up as follows:

Cup Contenders

Pittsburgh Penguins – The defending cup champs boast a similar lineup, with almost every current roster player now earning the moniker of being “a cup veteran”. No reason to believe that they won’t be in the thick of things again.

Washington Capitals – Alexander Ovechkin has a pretty strong surrounding cast and if goaltender Simeon Varlamov plays as well as he can, this team becomes a perennial cup contender.

Boston Bruins – Even without forward Phil Kessel (traded to the Leafs), the team is steady all around. Goalie Tim Thomas continues in his role as the NHL’s resident Rodney Dangerfield.

Philadelphia Flyers – As every competitive Philly team post-Bernie Parent has been, their only real question is the goaltending. Defenceman Chris Pronger just seems like he was born to be a Flyer.

Playoff Probables:
Carolina Hurricanes – They may not make it to the conference finals again, but with two quality scoring lines and a couple of puck-moving defencemen on the back end, the team should have no problem making it back to the post-season.

New Jersey Devils – New/old coach Jacques Lemaire and his hard-nosed defensive system may not be pretty, but it works. It should be interesting to see how it affects forward Zach Parise and his 94-point campaign.

Bubble Teams:

New York Rangers – Forward Marian Gaborik is a dangerous threat, if only he were ever healthy. The Rangers have a habit of winning a lot of 2-1 games, and if goalie Henrik Lundqvist holds up, they’re a playoff contender.

Toronto Maple Leafs – Toronto got bigger, tougher and better. The team won’t be pushed around anymore, allowing their limited skill to produce.  Kessel has the chance to become the best young scorer for the Leafs since Mats Sundin.

Ottawa Senators – The fact the team got anything valuable from the Sharks for star forward Dany Heatley speaks volumes about general manager Bryan Murray. If goalie Pascal Leclaire can return to his ’07-’08 form, Ottawa has enough potential offence up front to make a playoff run.

Buffalo Sabres – This team keeps falling just short of the playoffs. They’ll need strong defensive work and players like forward Drew Stafford and defender Andrej Sekera to get to the next level if they want to have any post-season hope.

Montreal Canadiens – The Habs are an unknown given the amount of change they’ve undergone in the off-season. Forwards Scott Gomez and Mike Cammalleri have played in big markets, but they’ve never faced one like this. Can they handle the heat?

Florida Panthers – Former Leaf defender Bryan McCabe was recently named the team’s captain. Despite losing blue liner Jay Bouwmeester they remain strong defensively, but will need offensive output from more guys than just forwards Stephen Weiss and Nathan Horton.

Rebuilding Projects:
Atlanta Thrashers – It looks as though forward Ilya Kovalchuk will finally have some quality linemates. Bryan Little and Nik Antropov provide some pop and Atlanta is at least four-deep in offensive defencemen. It’s still unlikely they make the playoffs, though.

Tampa Bay Lightning – Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis continue to be islands of scoring on a team of turmoil. The speed of Steven Stamkos and defenceman Victor Hedman’s development will affect how soon Tampa gets back into the post-season.

New York Islanders – They’re hoping that first overall pick John Tavares draws people back to the team. On the ice however, they’ll still be pretty bad. Their three-headed goaltending situation of Rick DiPietro, Martin Biron and Dwayne Roloson should support this team if it doesn’t cause rifts in the dressing room.