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NHL: Atlantic Division Preview

Michael Clifford breaks down the NHL’s Atlantic Division.

Zdeno Chara

Storylines To Watch

Will Boston be among the elite again?

The answer to this question is probably yes, but there are definitely questions surrounding this team. They had to let Jarome Iginla walk in free agency, the guy who tied for the team lead in goals last year. They also had to trade Johnny Boychuk, which is a big hit to their defensive depth. While the Bruins still have an elite top-six, the bottom-six forwards have questions, and Zdeno Chara is no spring chicken. Boston should still be at the top of the division, but I don’t think it’s a slam-dunk as it’s been the last couple of seasons.

Are Florida and Buffalo going to improve on last year?

Florida had a terrible power play, but added Roberto Luongo, which should help their goaltending woes that have plagued them for a few years. This team is still a fairly young squad, but they do have a team that, with a few breaks, could be a Wild Card dark horse team. Buffalo, meanwhile, was one of the worst teams of the past decade last year. They did re-tool with additions like Brian Gionta, Matt Moulson, and Josh Gorges, though it will be up to the younger players like Cody Hodgson, Rasmus Ristolainen, and Zemgus Girgensons to really take this team out of the basement.

Is Montreal a true Cup contender?

There are many in the hockey world, including some at this very site, who see the Montreal Canadiens as contenders in the East. It’s easy to see why, with names like Pacioretty, Plekanec, Gallagher, Galchenyuk, Subban, Markov, Price, and others contributing to a pretty deep roster. I still have my concerns, though, with coach Michel Therrien, a coach who still believes in long stretch passes and dump-and-chase hockey. That type of system can lead to a lot of turnovers, which means a heavy workload against Price. The team has the talent, but I’m not sure they have the tools to be true contenders.

Will Ottawa overcome a disappointing 2013-2014 campaign?

This team was a favorite among many people last year – myself included – to build off a lockout season that saw them make the playoffs largely without Erik Karlsson, Jason Spezza, and Craig Anderson. They had a very lackluster follow up, though, as the team finished out of the playoffs by five points, largely because the team defense was among the worst in the NHL (27th in FenwickAgainst/60 minutes at 5-on-5). With Spezza gone, and Ales Hemsky with him, the team could struggle to score goals, and will need to return to 2012-2013 form to be a playoff team.

Will Toronto or Detroit overcome deficiencies?

Toronto finished last year as a terrible possession team, and that was the main factor in their collapse that saw them go 2-12-0 in their final 14 games to miss the playoffs by nine points. While an analytics budget is finally being used, it might not change coaching strategies or player deployment. They do have an improved forward group, though, so maybe it’s enough to be the difference this year. Detroit suffered injuries last year that should have decimated them but they still managed to reach the playoffs, largely in thanks to an incredible stretch by Gustav Nyquist. With Pavel Datsyuk already injured, the Wings are going into the season short-staffed as it is. Any further injuries makes me worry that they can repeat their magic from last season.

Will Tampa Bay step forward this year?

Tampa Bay still made the playoffs even though they traded Martin St. Louis and were without Steven Stamkos for half the season. With expected steps forward from Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, and Nikita Kucherov, a mostly-full season from rookie dynamo Jonathan Drouin, and the additions on defense of Anton Stralman and Jason Garrison, this team looks primed to make a deep playoff run. Whether or not this all comes together, though, is another question.

Rookies To Watch For

Jonathan Drouin – Tampa Bay

Without a doubt, the top rookie to watch this year is Jonathan Drouin. The number-3 pick from 2013 will start the season injured, but once he reaches full flight, look out. He’s a dynamic player with great vision, great acceleration, and great hands. That’s a deadly combination for any rookie. He should be among the Calder Trophy candidates.

Jiri Sekac – Montreal

The signee from the KHL looks like he will start the season on Montreal’s third line, a good place for him to grow his game. He has shown tremendous skill in the preseason, but again, it’s the preseason. If all the projections come to fruition, though, he could be a sneaky 40 points in Montreal’s bottom-six.

Curtis Lazar – Ottawa

The junior star looks like he will start the year with Ottawa, though it’s almost assuredly in a depth role. He’s projecting to be a tough two-way forward, perhaps the type of player Ottawa needs to make life miserable for skilled opponents. He won’t be a monster point-producer, but he could be a very good player for Ottawa at both ends of the ice.

Sam Reinhart – Buffalo

The 2nd overall pick from this past Entry Draft appears like he’ll be playing top-six minutes out of the gate for the Buffalo Sabres. It’s not a great position to succeed, as he could be overwhelmed by the competition while playing for a fairly weak team. He has great hands and a good shot, though, and will dazzle in spurts for the Sabres.

Predicted Final Standings

  1. Boston Bruins*
  2. Tampa Bay Lightning*
  3. Montreal Canadiens*
  4. Detroit Red Wings**
  5. Toronto Maple Leafs
  6. Florida Panthers
  7. Ottawa Senators
  8. Buffalo Sabres

I don’t see a turnover in the playoff teams from last year. The Red Wings are likely the only bubble team, but if their young players like Nyquist, Jurco, and Tatar can give added offensive punch, combined with a rebound season from goalie Jimmy Howard, I see the Red Wings back in the postseason.

Toronto will be in tough to make the playoffs. Any regression from their goaltending will tank this team, and the defense corps isn’t very deep. They will need really good seasons from both Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly to get back to the postseason for the first time in an 82-game season in a decade.

Florida might surprise with some fortune, but I don’t see a lot of scoring here. In the Eastern Conference, scoring is necessary, and the Panthers don’t have it. I also worry about Ottawa a lot this year, as there isn’t a lot of scoring depth on that team, either. They will need a great season from Craig Anderson to push for a playoff spot.

Thoughts on the Atlantic Division? Let us know in the comments!

*As always, thanks to Hockey Analysis, Behind The Net, and for their resources.

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