Atlantic Preview: Rivalries set to flare in top-heavy division

Cam Lewis
October 03 2017 03:11PM

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PHOTO CREDIT: © ERIC BOLTE-USA TODAY SPORTS

The Atlantic Division might not feature a true Stanley Cup favourite as a sportsbook like Bodog would suggest, but this division is loaded at the top. The Leafs, Canadiens, and Bruins all appear poised to return to the playoffs, a healthy Lightning squad will be in the mix, and the Senators want to prove their run wasn’t a Cinderella story.

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8th: Detroit Red Wings

Last year’s record: 33-36-13 (79 points)

Last year’s stats: 48.2 CF% (24th), 47.1 GF% (22nd), 7.9 SH% (12th), 91.7 SV% (25th)

Notable additions: Trevor Daley, Luke Witkowski, David Booth, Robbie Russo.

Notable subtractions: Tomas Nosek, Mitch Callahan, Edward pasquale, Drew Miller, Joe Vitale.

It still feels weird to have the Red Wings at the bottom of the division, but it’s been a long time coming. After over two decades of unprecedented success, the Wings refused to accept their roster was in decline and rebuild. I mean, you can sort of empathize with why considering the success they’ve had at building teams with late draft picks and developing them slowly into a winning culture. But because of that, the Wings are now trapped in quicksand without an escape in sight.

The biggest problem with the Wings is that they’re loaded with terrible contracts. As a result, they have virtually zero wiggle room and that’s what we’re seeing right now with their inability to sign Andreas Athanasiou, who just come off of his entry-level deal. Athanasiou was a bright spot for the Wings last season, but the team is literally jammed against the top of the cap ceiling and can’t fit him in.

What’s going to happen next summer when they need to sign Petr Mrazek, Dylan Larkin, and Anthony Mantha? They have players like Danny DeKeyser, Niklas Kronwall, Justin Abdelkader, Jonathan Ericsson, and Riley Sheahan who bring virtually zero value to the team signed at a combined $20 million. And, oddly enough, rather than trying to shed salary, the Wings added free agent defenceman Trevor Daley on a three-year deal worth $3,166,667 annually. The 33-year-old middle-pairing defender became the 10th player on this Wings squad with some kind of no movement clause in his contract.

So not only is the short-term outlook bad, the long-term outlook is terrible too. The Wings were one of the league’s worst teams in virtually every statistical category last season, and the black holes and boat anchors that drag the roster down are players signed well into the future. After 25 consecutive seasons making the playoffs and four Stanley Cups, the Wings look like they’re en route to a decade of disaster as punishment.

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7th: Buffalo Sabres

Last year’s record: 33-37-12 (78 points)

Last year’s stats: 47.2 CF% (29th), 44.8 GF% (25th), 6.4 SH% (27th), 92.9 SV% (6th)

Notable additions: Viktor Antipin, Marco Scandella, Nathan Beaulieu, Jason Pominville, Benoit Pouliot, Chad Johnson.

Notable subtractions: Tyler Ennis, Marcus Foligno, Brian Gionta, William Carrier, Dmitri Kulikov, Anders Nilsson, Cody McCormick.

After a massive 27-point jump in the standings between 2014-15 and 2015-16, the Buffalo Sabres hype train crashed last year. The Sabres’ wheels spun in the mud and the team ended up finishing last in the division rather than pushing for a playoff spot like many expected they would. As a result, the organization fired general manager Terry Murray and head coach Dan Bylsma and replaced them with former players Jason Botterill and Phil Housley.

After a disappointing season, it’s easy to be skeptical and dismiss the Sabres, but there’s still some reason for excitement about this roster. For 2017-18? Maybe not. But there’s a framework for long-term success. Jack Eichel had a very good sophomore season, scoring 57 points in 61 games, but it was overshadowed by the fact he missed a good chunk of time at the beginning of the season. Ryan O’Reilly, who’s still somehow only 26 years old, had another good season in a two-way role, Sam Reinhart and Kyle Okposo both produced at a solid level, and Robin Lehner had the best season of his career. But after that, it becomes pretty desolate.

The Sabres have virtually zero forward depth, as their top six is strong but their bottom six is a nightmare. One of the team’s biggest weak points last season was its putrid blueline, which was improved slightly over the summer with the additions of Marco Scandella and Nathan Beaulieu, but still isn’t particularly good. Rasmus Ristolainen is a weird wild card because the eye tests suggests he’s good while his underlying numbers are terrible. Hopefully a new coach, system, and deeper blueline can help change that.

Like I said, there’s quite a bit to like here in regards to young talent, but there are still too many holes on this roster for the Sabres to be a playoff team this year.

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6th: Florida Panthers

Last year’s record: 35-36-11 (81 points)

Last year’s stats: 50.5 CF% (11th), 44.8 GF% (26th), 6.6 SH% (26th), 92.2 SV% (20th)

Notable additions: Evgeny Dadonov, Radim Vrbata, Michael Haley.

Notable subtractions: Jaromir Jagr, Rielly Smith, Jason Demers, Jussi Jokinen, Jonathan Marchessault, Thomas Vanek.

The Florida Panthers were one of the NHL’s biggest disappointments last season. They overachieved quite a bit in 2015-16 with a high shooting and save percentage, shifted to a state-heavy front office approach, and fell out of the playoffs. The computer boys were scapegoated for making the team soft and easy to play against, though the reality is the Panthers struggled mightily with injuries which led to the team’s demise.

Regardless of the reason the team imploded, the organization shifted away from their analytics approach, putting Dale Tallon back in the general manager role. Tallon then went on to erase alter the team’s construction, letting Jonathan Marchessault, last year’s 30-goal breakout surprise, go in the expansion draft with the condition Vegas would also take on Rielly Smith’s contract. They also let Jaromir Jagr walk in free agency, bought out Jussi Jokinen, and dealt Jason Demers to Arizona as a cap dump.

That’s a lot of talent to shed in one off-season. Smith, Marchessault, and Jagr will partially be replaced by Evgeny Dadonov and Radim Vrbata, but if Florida is going to enjoy a bounce-back season, it’ll be because Roberto Luongo drinks from the fountain of youth and the team has better injury luck.

Luongo had a mediocre .915 save percentage last season, and decline is to be expected for a guy in his late 30s. If last year wasn’t an anomaly, the Panthers will have to give James Reimer, one of the league’s better backups, more starts. The most important losses from injury last year were Jonathan Huberdeau and Alex Barkov, who anchor one of the best top lines in hockey. The pair, along with Jagr, posted the best possession numbers on the team after Huberdeau returned from a 50-game absence, so a full season of this dynamic duo will make a big difference in 2017-18.

There were high expectations for the Panthers last year. This year? There are none. This is still a pretty good roster with young talent and upside, but it’ll be hard to overcome the volume of depth the team dumped this summer.

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5th: Ottawa Senators

Last year’s record: 44-28-10 (98 points)

Last year’s stats: 48.6 CF% (22nd), 48.9 GF% (19th), 7.0 SH% (23rd), 92.6 SV% (10th)

Notable additions: Johnny Oduya, Nate Thompson.

Notable subtractions: Marc Methot, Tommy Wingles, Chris Neil, Chris Kelly, Viktor Stalberg.

The Ottawa Senators were last year’s Cinderella story. Nobody, not even the biggest believers in The System, figured the Sens would come within one win of reaching the Stanley Cup Final, but they did. As a result, all summer Sens fans have heard about how what the team did last year was illegitimate. It was a mediocre roster that overachieved and won a bunch one-goal games despite having poor possession stats. They’re going to regress just like the 2013 Leafs, 2014 Avs, and 2015 Flames.

Right? Not so fast. There a couple of difference between these Sens and those overachievers. For starters, the Sens didn’t have possession stats as bad as any of those three teams. While Ottawa’s 48.6 Corsi For percentage was pretty weak, it wasn’t basement-feeding, and their percentages weren’t over the moon either. Can you really crash from a middle-of-the-pack PDO? The other key difference is Erik Karlsson. He’s one of the league’s best players and he can completely take over a game and make a mediocre team pretty good during his 30 minutes on the ice.

The Sens didn’t do anything to improve their roster this summer, adding depth pieces Johnny Oduya and Nate Thompson in free agency. The addition of Oduya doesn’t mask the subtraction of Marc Methot, and Thompson won’t be anything more than a marginal upgrade in a depth role.

So if the Sens are going to be competitive, they’re going to have to rely on The System — and Erik Karlsson and Craig Anderson — again. I mean, it’s doable. I don’t think the Sens were a massive overachiever last season, but they didn’t get any better while other teams in the Eastern Conference did. Ottawa was a gritty, endearing team to watch last season and it would be fun if they could prove everyone wrong. Unfortunately, it seems this year is even more of an uphill battle than last.

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4th: Boston Bruins

Last year’s record: 44-31-7 (95 points)

Last year’s stats: 54.7 CF% (2nd), 49.1 GF% (17th), 6.7 SH% (24th), 91.4 SV% (28th)

Notable additions: Paul Postma, Kenny Agastino.

Notable subtractions: Jimmy Hayes, Drew Stafford, John-Michael Liles, Colin Miller, Joe Morrow, Dominic Moore.

The Bruins had a strong season last year that was largely overshadowed by a first round playoff loss against the Ottawa Senators. Boston owned the best even strength shot attempt differential in the Eastern Conference last season and fared pretty well in the standings despite having terrible shooting and save percentages. After the team fired Claude Julien and replaced him with Bruce Cassidy, they heated up, going 18-8-1 to finish the season.

With such strong possession numbers, terrible percentages that are almost certain to rebound, and strong play under their new coach to finish the season, the Bruins are a very good candidate to rebound last season. And if you’re rebounding from a season in which you already put up 95 points in the standings, you’re in very good shape. They did virtually nothing in the off-season to improve the roster, but they also didn’t lose anyone of consequence either.

The strength behind Boston’s success is one of the best lines in hockey. David Pastrnak, Patrice Bergeron, and Brad Marchand are incredible. Pastrnak broke out with 34 goals, Marchand had the best season of his career and if not for a guy named Connor McDavid he would have received legitimate Hart Trophy consideration, and Patrice Bergeron is still the best two-way centre in the league. After these guys, though, it gets a little bit sketchy. Boston’s middle six forwards will be anchored by veterans David Krejci and David Backes and then a blender of unspectacular depth players and unpredictable rookies.

The Bruins also have a low-key solid blueline. Zdeno Chara isn’t a Norris candidate anymore, but he’s still a good player who can log a lot of minutes and Torey Krug is an underrated offensive producer. The key to whether this blueline will be solid or good comes down to the progression of Brandon Carlo and Charlie McAvoy, a couple of young defencemen with upside. Tuukka Rask had a terrible season in net for his standards in 2016-17, but if he rebounds and plays like a Vezina candidate, Boston could challenge to win the Atlantic.

But Rask rebounding, along with their depth concerns and youngsters on the blueline, is a pretty big if. The Atlantic Division is top heavy with four teams at the top that could easily be interchanged based on how injuries shake out. Add the Senators as an enigmatic wild card team and this division becomes extremely difficult to predict. Boston could easily end up anywhere between first and fifth and that isn’t a slight against them, it’s just the reality of the division.

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3rd: Toronto Maple Leafs

Last year’s record: 40-27-15 (95 points)

Last year’s stats: 50.3 CF% (13th), 51.2 GF% (13th), 8.3 SH% (8th), 92.3 SV% (19th)

Notable additions: Patrick Marleau, Ron Hainsey, Dominic Moore, Calle Rosen, Miro Aaltonen, Andreas Borgman.

Notable subtractions: Brendan Leipsic, Brian Boyle, Seth Griffith, Matt Hunwick, Roman Polak.

The Toronto Maple Leafs enjoyed a breakout season earlier than anybody really expected them to. Immediately after finishing in the league’s basement and being awarded with Auston Matthews, the Leafs rose all the way up the standings and into the playoffs, where their speedy core of young players went neck-and-neck with the Stanley Cup favoured Washington Capitals.

This year, expectations are higher for the Leafs as they look to do some damage in the playoffs while their big three of Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander are still on cheap entry-level deals. The Leafs went out an acquired Patrick Marleau, a veteran winger who can still produce at a high level and lead by example on the ice. They let Matt Hunwick go, but replaced him with veteran Ron Hainsey, fresh off of a Stanley Cup win with the Penguins.

Other than that, it’s largely the same team from last year going into 2017-18, so improvement will come from the internal progression of young players. So long as the Leafs don’t suffer massive sophomore slumps, they should be able to take another step forward in this top-heavy division. They likely aren’t Cup contenders just yet, but winning at least one playoff round is an expectation for this team.

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2nd: Montreal Canadiens

Last year’s record: 47-26-9 (103  points)

Last year’s stats: 52.5 CF% (3rd), 54.4 GF% (5th), 7.6 SH% (18th), 93.3 SV% (4th)

Notable additions: Jonathan Drouin, Karl Alzner, Ales Hemsky, David Schlemko, Mark Streit.

Notable subtractions: Alex Radulov, Alexei Emelin, Nathan Beaulieu, Mikhail Sergachev, Andrei Markov, Nikita Nesterov, Steve Ott, Dwight King.

After another confusing off-season and a terrible pre-season showing, the Montreal Canadiens are a trendy choice to slide quickly down the Eastern Conference. But despite their curious moves and borderline comedic contradictions, this is a team largely still as good as the one that had the best record in the division last season. So long as Carey Price is on his game, they’ll be in that conversation again in 2017-18.

The Habs pulled off an interesting one-for-one swap, sending promising prospect Mikhail Sergachev, who seemed to be the heir to P.K. Subban’s empty throne, to the Lightning for Jonathan Drouin, who’s been dubbed as Montreal’s francophone saviour. Drouin was immediately signed to a long-term deal, and despite not showing all that much in Tampa, he’s been slotted in as their top centre.

They weren’t able to come to terms with free agent Alex Radulov, but the Habs picked up the cheap and effective Ales Hemsky as a stopgap. On the blueline, Montreal let long-time Hab Alexei Markov sign in Russia and traded once-promising prospect Nathan Beaulieu to Buffalo. They replaced them with Karl Alzner, a defensive specialist with terrible underlying numbers, and David Schlemko, a solid depth defenceman dumped by the Golden Knights after the expansion draft.

All in all, it’s a pretty new looking Habs squad. A couple years ago, Marc Bergevin stated his desire to acquire a top centre. He’s used to major assets, P.K. Subban and Mikhail Sergachev, and still hasn’t acquired one. As good as Drouin can be, he’s been a winger throughout his NHL career. Those two trades coupled with Markov’s departure has also left Montreal barren when it comes to puck moving defencemen.

This team is likely going to have a difficult time scoring goals, but they’re also going to be a nightmare to score against. As strange as the formula is, Carey Price and some solid forwards can make it work.

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1st: Tampa Bay Lightning

Last year’s record: 42-30-10 (94 points)

Last year’s stats: 51.3 CF% (7th), 49.1 GF% (18th), 7.4 SH% (18th), 92.4 SV% (16th)

Major additions: Mikhail Sergachev, Dan Girardi, Chris Kunitz.

Major subtractions: Jonathan Drouin, Jason Garrison, Nikita Gusev, Luke Witkowski.

The Tampa Bay Lightning have the biggest addition of any team in the league heading into the 2017-18 season — a healthy Steven Stamkos. Tampa finished with 94 points, narrowly missing the playoffs last season despite their best forward missing 65 games with a knee injury. A fully healthy Lightning squad will be favourites to win the Atlantic Division, picking up right where they left off as a consistent contender in the Eastern Conference.

In terms of actual off-season moves, the Lightning pulled the trigger on a deal to send the enigmatic Jonathan Drouin to Montreal for Mikhail Sergachev, a defenceman who will immediately step into the lineup and give the team another skilled, puck moving option in its top four. That was a smart trade, but the other two major additions, Dan Girardi and Chris Kunitz, were questionable. Kunitz is a veteran winger who can chip in offensively, which is fine, but Girardi has been a dumpster fire the past few seasons, allowing more shots against then anybody else in the league.

Regardless, this is a roster loaded with star power. Nikita Kucherov evolved into one of the game’s brightest starts in Stamkos’ absence with an 85-point season, and having the two of them healthy and firing gives Tampa two of the best forwards in the game. Victor Hedman has also evolved into one of the NHL’s best defencemen. Depth is a bit of a question as the Lightning’s bottom six leaves a little bit to be desired and the bottom pairing with Girardi, as I mentioned, has disaster potential. Sergachev, though very skilled, is a question mark on the team’s second pair, as is Andrei Vasilevskiy in his first season as the team’s starting goaltender. Still, there aren’t many teams that can say they have that volume of elite talent on their team.

So long as the Lightning can stay healthy and Vasilevskiy performs like the goalie everyone thinks he can be, the Lightning are the favourites to win the Atlantic Division.

Previously in this series…

Central Division Preview

Metropolitan Division Preview 

Pacific Division Preview

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Nation Network utility infielder. Twitter: @cooom, Email: cameron@oilersnation.com
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