The Pittsburgh Penguins looked nothing like a threat to win the Eastern Conference, let alone a Stanley Cup, when Mike Johnston was fired in mid-December.
That changed when Mike Sullivan spurred a turnaround in Pittsburgh, and with Sidney Crosby firmly back atop the sport there's every reason to think the Penguins will contend for a second straight NHL title.
Here's a look at the Eastern Conference, from the contenders right on down to the hopefuls.
Tampa Bay Lightning
Last season: 97 points, second in Atlantic, lost in Eastern Conference final
Key off-season move(s): Re-signed F Steven Stamkos, D Victor Hedman (starting in 2017), and G Andrei Vasilevsky
Outlook: The Lightning have been to two straight Eastern Conference finals and looked poised to get back there again this season. With Stamkos back in the fold, Ben Bishop near the top of the goalie world and plenty of young skill, this group has all the ingredients of a Stanley Cup contender once more. Their primary concern is unsigned Russian star Nikita Kucherov, the team's scoring leader last season.
Last season: 120 points, first in Metropolitan, lost in conference semi-finals
Key off-season move(s): Re-signed D Dmitry Orlov, traded for F Lars Eller
Outlook: Washington ran away with the President's Trophy as top regular-season team last year, a juggernaut in both ends of the rink as well as in goal with Vezina Trophy winner Braden Holtby. With a solid defence and great depth up front behind Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, the Capitals will be a threat to rule the East again this season.
Last season: 104 points, second in Metropolitan, won the Stanley Cup
Key off-season move(s): Re-signed F Matt Cullen and D Justin Schultz
Outlook: Pittsburgh became a different team when Mike Sullivan took over behind the bench, scoring in droves and blazing by opponents all the way to the Cup. Though Sidney Crosby owned the second half, it was the Penguins depth that vaulted them to a Cup, especially a Phil Kessel-led third unit. Can Pittsburgh recapture that same magic? Perhaps, though questions in goal (Matt Murray or Marc-André Fleury) need some settling first.
Last season: 103 points, first in Atlantic, lost in conference quarter-finals
Key off-season move(s): Re-signed F Jaromir Jagr, traded for/signed D Keith Yandle, signed D Jason Demers and G James Reimer, extended F Reilly Smith, named Tom Rowe GM
Outlook: Florida was busy this summer after a franchise record-setting campaign. It's the young core that makes them a continued threat in the East though. Beyond well-known stars like Aleksander Barkov, Aaron Ekblad and Jonathan Huberdeau are the likes of Vincent Trocheck (25 goals) and Reilly Smith (25 goals). There are reasons to think regression is possible with this group, but the additions of Demers and Yandle and further growth of all that young talent makes such a reality less likely.
MIDDLE OF THE ROAD
New York Rangers
Last season: 101 points, third in Metropolitan, lost in conference quarter-finals
Key off-season move(s): Signed F Jimmy Vesey, traded F Derick Brassard for F Mika Zibanejad, lost Yandle to free agency
Outlook: There's reason to believe that the Rangers have passed their window of Cup contention, with an creaky defence as well as aging stars Rick Nash (36 points) and Henrik Lundqvist. New York tried to add some youthful buzz to their mix, winning the Vesey sweepstakes while swapping Brassard for a younger model in Zibanejad. There's enough talent for this group to remain competitive, just not enough to contend for their first Cup since 1994.
New York Islanders
Last season: 100 points, fourth in Metropolitan, lost in conference semi-finals
Key off-season move(s): Signed F Andrew Ladd, F P.A. Parenteau, lost F Kyle Okposo, F Frans Nielsen and F Matt Martin to free agency, re-signed F Casey Cizikas
Outlook: New York made one of the riskier bets of the summer when it signed Ladd, approaching 31, to a seven-year deal worth almost $40-million (U.S.) while opting to let go of the younger Okposo. The Islanders also lost Nielsen to Detroit while bringing back Parenteau for an offensive boost on the wing. John Tavares' continued presence, a sturdy defence and goaltending duo should keep this group firmly in the middle of the East, just nowhere near Stanley Cup contention.
Last season: 93 points, fourth in Atlantic, missed the playoffs
Key off-season move(s): Re-signed F Brad Marchand and F Torey Krug, signed F David Backes, D John-Michael Liles and D Christian Ehrhoff, lost F Loui Eriksson to free agency
Outlook: Like the Rangers, the window for Cups with this group has likely passed. There's still a solid talent base here though with Patrice Bergeron still sharp, Marchand rising and David Krejci remaining somewhat underappreciated. Boston also has a well-reputed prospect pool, 24-year-old Ryan Spooner (49 points) and 20-year-old David Pastrnak (15 goals) already showing well last season. A return to form for goalie Tuukka Rask might just get this group back into the playoffs.
Last season: 85 points, fifth in Atlantic, missed playoffs
Key off-season move(s): Hired Guy Boucher as coach, promoted Pierre Dorion to GM, re-signed F Mike Hoffman and D Cody Ceci, traded for Brassard
Outlook: Save for Brassard, a wily centre at both ends, Ottawa (now led by Dorion) is bringing back mostly the same group as last year, albeit with a full season of defenceman Dion Phaneuf. It's Boucher who's expected to spur a turnaround in the nation's capital. Even mild improvements defensively for one of the league's worst defensive clubs a year ago might be enough for a playoff push, especially with star defenceman Erik Karlsson on top of his game and Craig Anderson still a stable presence (.916 save percentage) in goal.
Last season: 82 points, sixth in Atlantic, missed playoffs
Key off-season move(s): Traded D P.K. Subban for D Shea Weber, signed F Alexander Radulov and G Al Montoya, traded for/signed F Andrew Shaw
Outlook: Montreal rocked the hockey world when it sent Subban to Nashville for Weber, a defenceman four years older and seemingly on the decline. Weber may help in the leadership department, but won't provide what Subban offered: a game-changing element on the back-end. The Canadiens fortunes' are all but certain to change though after a nightmarish season and that will be because of superstar goalie Carey Price. His presence alone is likely to lift Montreal back into playoff contention.
Last season: 96 points, fifth in Metropolitan, lost in conference quarter-finals
Key off-season move(s): Signed F Dale Weise and F Boyd Gordon, re-signed D Radko Gudas
Outlook: The Flyers should be a playoff team again this season and might even rise higher in the Metropolitan division if Jakub Voracek returns to earlier form (55 points) and Michal Neuvirth takes over the long unstable Philadelphia crease for good. Brayden Schenn continues to emerge (career-high 59 points), Wayne Simmonds is now a perennial 30-goal threat and Shayne Gostisbehere looks like a standout for years to come on defence.
Detroit Red Wings
Last season: 93 points, third in Atlantic, lost in conference quarter-finals
Key off-season move(s): Signed F Frans Nielsen and F Thomas Vanek, traded F Pavel Datsyuk, re-signed G Petr Mrazek
Outlook: The Red Wings just squeaked into their 25th consecutive playoff berth last year and it's likely they'll face another tight test this season. Detroit's best players are on the decline and their top young players, led by 20-year-old Dylan Larkin, aren't ready to be dominant NHLers just yet. A resurgence from Mrazek, who faltered in the second half, would go a long way toward bridging the gap.
Last season: 86 points, sixth in Metropolitan, missed playoffs
Key off-season move(s): Signed F Lee Stempniak, F Viktor Stalberg, re-signed F Victor Rask, traded for F Teuvo Teravainen
Outlook: It's been seven years since Carolina qualified for the post-season, but there's plenty of reason to hope in Raleigh with a promising young core led by Justin Faulk and Jeff Skinner, solid coach in Bill Peters and shrewd stewardship from GM Ron Francis. Can the goaltending from Cam Ward and Eddie Lack, among the worst in hockey last year, stand up? If so, the drought might come to an end.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Last season: 69 points, last in Atlantic, missed playoffs
Key off-season move(s): Drafted F Auston Matthews, signed D Nikita Zaitsev and D Roman Polak, traded for/signed G Frederik Andersen
Outlook: Youth will take over the Leafs this season with Matthews, the No. 1 overall pick in June, leading the charge. Toronto will present a much speedier and more skilled attack with 20-year-old William Nylander and 19-year-old Mitch Marner also likely to step into the NHL for good. The biggest question for the Leafs: can Andersen, signed for five years following a trade from Anaheim, be an elite No. 1 option?
New Jersey Devils
Last season: 84 points, seventh in Metropolitan, missed playoffs
Key off-season move(s): Traded D Adam Larsson for F Taylor Hall, signed D Ben Lovejoy and D Kyle Quincey
Outlook: No team scored less than the Devils last year and this summer general manager Ray Shero looked for a spark and found one in Hall. One of the more productive left-wingers in hockey, Hall, still only 24, adds an element of firepower previously lacking. With a superb netminder in Cory Schneider, a little offence might push the Devils a little closer to the post-season picture.
Columbus Blue Jackets
Last season: 76 points, last in Metropolitan, missed playoffs
Key off-season move(s): Re-signed D Seth Jones, drafted F Pierre-Luc Dubois
Outlook: Little changed after Columbus fired its coach early last season, but perhaps brighter times are ahead. A return to form for former Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky would help most, as his early stumbles ultimately cost coach Todd Richards his job. Continued growth from Jones, Boone Jenner and Dubious, the surprise No. 3 overall pick, would strengthen chances of a turnaround.
Last season: 81 points, seventh in Atlantic, missed playoffs
Key off-season move(s): Signed F Kyle Okposo, traded for D Dmitry Kulikov
Outlook: The Sabres are just waiting for a youthful roster led by Jack Eichel to keep getting better. Buffalo made a 27-point improvement last year, if still finishing far out of a playoff spot. A full season with No. 1 goalie Robin Lehner (.924 save percentage) would help this group take another big leap forward.