Season Preview: Atlantic Division

The new NHL season is right around the corner, and the Atlantic Division has one bona fide contender, one team hoping to start over and six teams who could do great things….or nothing at all.

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Boston Bruins

Boston BruinsIf there was an award for the ‘Most Bizarre Off Season’, Boston would win it hands down.

After missing the play-offs by 2 points, the Bruins fired General Manager Peter Chiarelli, traded power forward Milan Lucic and lost defenceman Dougie Hamilton to Calgary. With the departures of Johnny Boychuk and Tyler Sequin still fresh in many fans minds, it’s a wonder Boston’s hospitals did not admit more patients with nervous breakdowns this summer.

Forward Carl Soderberg was also moved (to Colorado, for a 6th round pick) and netminder Martin Jones was acquired as part of the Lucic deal then traded on less than a week later; but Boston did manage to add winger Jimmy Hayes (shedding themselves of Marc Savard’s contract in the process) and retain tough defenceman Adam McQuaid.

While the Bruins also signed the odious Zac Rinaldo, by far Boston’s biggest off season move was signing coveted free agent Matt Beleskey to a 5-year, $19 million deal.

The question now is whether 27-year old Beleskey is a legitimate 20 goal scorer, Zdeno Chara’s ailing body can stand up to another season and how much Tuukka Rask can take before he throws a milk crate at his own bench.

After such massive personnel losses in recent years, a bad start may raise questions over the teams direction, and the giant Slovak’s future on it; but the Bruins do at least have a strong spine. Patrice Bergeron and Dave Krejci form a heck of a 1-2 punch at centre, but Boston desperately need the likes of Hayes and David Pasternak to step up this season.

Key Player – Zdeno Chara: Another Norris worthy season from the veteran blue liner will give the Bruins a decent defensive foundation from which to mount a play-off challenge. But does he have enough left in the tank to carry that kind of burden?

*****

Buffalo Sabres

Buffalo SabresGM Tim Murray might have had to ‘settle’ for Jack Eichel, but the arrival of the Boston University phenom capped off a summer in which Buffalo took significant strides forward.

Enough to get them back in to the play-offs? Perhaps not. They will at least be competitive again though. Eichel joins a Sabres side which added Ryan O’Reilly at the Draft, has winger Evander Kane ready to go and carries a number of youngsters with high ceilings, including Robin Lehner, desperately in need of a fresh start after stalling in Ottawa, Zach Bogosian and Zemgus Girgensons.

Veterans Brian Gionta and Dave Legwand provide valuable years of experience to a team that could be very dangerous in the near future. Legwand in particular should provide a perfect tutor for Eichel.

While the former Nashville centre might lack the Massachusetts natives natural skill, as a former second overall pick he has some handle on the expectations involved, and if anyone knows a thing or two about carving out an NHL career through hard work and dependability it’s Legwand.

Key Player – Evander Kane: A team in need of some new heroes, a mercurial talent and a media not ready to lambast him at the first sign of swagger or ego; Buffalo and Kane seem like a neat fit.

Eichel will be the franchise player. O’Reilly’s reputation is established. But if 24-year old Kane can re-discover the kind of form that saw him score 30 goals in 2011/12, Buffalo’s return to the post season will come around a hell of a lot faster.

*****

Detroit Red Wings

Detroit Red WingsAfter ten years under Mike Babcock, Detroit prepares for its first season with Jeff Blashill as Head Coach.

How much will change? Whose to say, but Blashill has spent five seasons with the organisation already – one as Red Wings Assistant Coach and four running the bench in Grand Rapids. And in a system which prides itself on ensuring the AHL model is as closely aligned with the big club as possible, why should things change any more off the ice than they do on it?

Even the roster is largely the same. Veteran Brad Richards signed a 1-year deal, and Mike Green arrives in the hope of adding some sparkly to the Red Wings blue line, but Ken Holland also ensured Tomas Junco, Gustav Nyqvist and Brendan Smith were retained.

Given their track record, no one can blame Detroit for sticking with a formula that works – but question marks over how much longer Zetterberg and Datsyuk can power the Wings remain.

Key Player – Jimmy Howard: After an off beat year in which he lost the starting role to Petr Mrazek, 31-year old Howard needs to find his A game again as rivals close the gap on this storied franchise.

*****

Florida Panthers

Florida PanthersBlessed with arguably the best crop of youngsters outside of Edmonton, Florida are entering something of a ‘sink or swim’ phase. The 38 wins and 91 points they registered last term only means something if this heady mix of grizzled veterans and burgeoning youth talent keep moving forward.

Nick Bjugstad, Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov are poised to become the teams offensive spearhead, and have the luxury of being able to learn from one of the games best ever in Jaromir Jagr for at least one more year. The addition of Reilly Smith bolsters a capable group of supporting forwards.

Along the blue line, Aaron Ekblad, Florida’s second Calder Trophy winner in the past three years after Huberdeau 2013, Dmitry Kulikov and Erik Gudbranson need to solidify their places as defensive cornerstones for the franchise to progress. Having Willie Mitchell and Brian Campbell on board again provide some solid veteran presence to guide them.

How long Roberto Luongo remains a top tier NHL netminder remains to be seen – at 36, things may begin to creak – but the Panthers are a dangerous team, and might just sneak in to the wild card race if things go their way.

Key Player – Roberto Luongo: Age is not the popular goaltenders friend, and without a natural successor in the pipeline, Florida need ‘Lou’ to be the same dependable force he’s been for the past decade if serious progress is to be made in double quick time.

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Montreal Canadiens

Montreal CanadiensAn extraordinary effort from netminder Carey Price propelled Montreal to the top of the Atlantic Division last season; but the Habs need to offer more as a team if they are to seriously challenge for a Cup.

Price’s efforts earned him the Hart Memorial Trophy, Vezina Trophy and Ted Lindsay Award at the NHL’s glitzy end of season awards ceremony in Las Vegas, having gone 44-16-6 with a .933 save percentage and 1.96 goals against average, but his brilliance may have papered over some cracks, especially as the British Columbia native is unlikely to repeat those numbers this year.

PK Subban’s $9 million cap hit is one thing, but tying $14.35 million to an ageing Andrei Markov, Jeff Petry and Alexei Emelin seems steep when Nathan Beaulieu and Jared Tinordi are in the system. You can perhaps dismiss this somewhat in light of the clubs ability to keep the puck out of their own net in recent years, but the Habs forwards still seem to lack serious bite.

Of the 16 play-off teams, Montreal tied with Pittsburgh for the fewest goals scored during the regular season.

The Habs still saw fit to pay Brendan Gallagher more than $22.5 million over the next six years while Tomas Plekanec future with the club remains clouded as he enters the last year of his current deal. If Alex Galchenyuk can excel down the middle then GM Marc Bergevin may be comfortable moving forward with the 21-year old, David Desharnais and Lars Eller at centre, cashing in on Plekanec after years as one of the most underrated players in the league.

Free agent signing Alexander Semin might be an absolute steal at just $1.1 million, with a low risk, high reward 1-year deal. The Krasnojarsk native wouldn’t be the first mercurial Russian winger to become a Canadiens star either. Montreal would certainly appreciate another 30 goal effort from the former Washington winger, with new Captain Max Pacioretty leaned on a little too often when the Habs needed a goal in the past.

Key Player – Max Pacioretty: The 29th Captain in Montreal Canadiens history, the Connecticut native has flirted with the 40 goal milestone in each of his last two seasons (and may have passed it in 2013/14 had he not missed nine games). On a low scoring team, his speed and eye for goal will be essential for keeping the Habs in the hunt.

*****

Ottawa Senators

Ottawa SenatorsThe Senators remarkable late season charge secured an unlikely wild card spot, what they do for an encore remains to be seen.

Folk hero Andrew Hammond was re-signed and Boston University #1 Matt O’Connor wooed. Robin Lehner was dealt to Buffalo to make way, but you might otherwise be forgiven for thinking Ottawa went in to hibernation over the summer.

Continued improvement from young stars like Mika Zibanejad and Jared Cowan (sporting a weird man bun lately…) would go a long way to keeping Ottawa in the play-off hunt, but more is needed from Bobby Ryan – who is yet to hit 30 goals in a Sens shirt despite doing so in four straight seasons for Anaheim.

Key Player – Craig Anderson: Forget The Hamburglar, Anderson is the ace up the Sens sleeve. When he is on, he’s among the best in the league. And with the rest of the East now wise to the Senators skills, they may need the veteran more than ever if they are to avoid a quick drop in the standings.

*****

Tampa Bay Lightning

Tampa Bay LightningPerhaps the most dynamic team in the NHL right now, Tampa’s run to the Stanley Cup Final was underpinned by a phenomenal home record (32-8-1) and league leading offence.

While Steven Stamkos’ contract renewal lingers, few doubt it will get done, and though it might create some cap headaches for GM Steve Yzerman, it will ensure the Bolts window of opportunity stays open for sometime yet.

In the space of a year, Victor Hedman emerged as a defensive stud, Tyler Johnson went from under the radar to ‘money in the bank’ and Ben Bishop dispelled any concerns over his post season credentials.

With Palat and Drouin both entering their prime as well, the Lightning’s depth of talent is impressive and Coach Jon Cooper remains one of the best in the business.

Key Player – Victor Hedman: The young Swede displayed the kind of poise and ability to become the Lightning’s first ever Norris Trophy winner. Every Stanley Cup team has that stud D man, now Tampa have theirs.

*****

Toronto Maple Leafs

Toronto Maple LeafsThe Babcock era begins.

But don’t expect an easy start. Toronto finally embraced the need to completely restart, firing almost everyone then hiring some of the most respected names in hockey to replace them. Combined with some smart player moves, Toronto may be taking a step back in the short term in order to make a leap forward in the near future. This is a transition year if ever there was one.

The ridiculous media circus may have cost them Phil Kessel; but with Nylander, Reilly and Marner, the Leafs’ future is looking a heck of a lot brighter than it once did.

Key Player – Nazem Kadri: The 24-year old was legitimately the Leafs best player at times, not that you’d have known it from some of the criticisms he has faced in Toronto.

An organisational reset might be just what the London, Ontario native needs to get back on track and become the offensive star he so often threatens to be.

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About Rob

Software engineer by day, Elite League Media man by night, Rob also blogs about cricket for One Stump Short, hockey for In Goal Magazine and video games for Outpost Delta as well as hosting the One Stump Short Podcast.

Posted on September 22, 2015, in 2015 NHL Draft, Boston Bruins, Buffalo Sabres, Detroit Red Wings, Florida Panthers, Hockey, Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators, Season Previews 2015, Tampa Bay Lightning, Toronto Maple Leafs and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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