If you’re trying to figure out which division will see the most upheaval in the standings from last season to the upcoming one, it may be the Atlantic. There are teams like the Lightning and Canadiens looking to take things to the next level against perennial power Boston. On the other hand, you have teams like Detroit and Ottawa trending in the other direction. Heck, even Florida should be improved this year. Late in the season, I have a feeling this division will be one of the more entertaining to scoreboard-watch.
The Bruins are entering this season with essentially the same roster they finished last year with, minus Jarome Iginla and Shawn Thornton. The emergence of Reilly Smith will offset the loss of Iginla, while the recently re-signed David Krejci solidifies the 1-2 punch at center with Patrice Bergeron. The Bruins are talented from top to bottom, with depth and skill at forward, one of the NHL’s best blueliners in Zdeno Chara, and 2014 Vezina winner Tuukka Rask in net.
Nipping at Boston’s heels should be the Tampa Bay Lightning. Led by Steven Stamkos, the Lightning have a great mix at forward. Valtteri Filppula and Ryan Callahan are two-way veterans with offensive ability, joining the two players who finished 2nd and 3rd behind Nathan MacKinnon in Calder Trophy voting- Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson. The Bolts will enter the season with another rookie in the lineup, who is arguably the 2015 Calder Trophy favorite- Jonathan Drouin. The defense can be seen as the team’s weak point, but it still features an interesting mix of two-way guys, shutdown blueliners and offensive threats like newcomers Jason Garrison and Anton Stralman. The leader on the back end is Victor Hedman. Ben Bishop gives the team near-elite goaltending.
Though the headlines in Montreal were dominated by the P.K. Subban contract negotiation, the team spent the summer quietly transitioning to the next generation. Gone is Captain Brian Gionta and veterans Josh Gorges, Thomas Vanek and Daniel Briere, with the direction of the team handed over to the younger players like Subban, Max Pacioretty, Brendan Gallagher and Alex Galchenyuk. The team isn’t devoid of veteran players however, as Andrei Markov and Tomas Plekanec are still integral components of the lineup. P.A. Parenteau was brought over from Colorado to help boost scoring, and the team made a splash with the signing of Jiri Sekac, a highly-sought after European free agent. Carey Price is a rock in net.
It’s been a very long time coming, but I think this is the year the Red Wings miss the playoffs. Jimmy Howard has plateaued, giving the team unreliable goaltending. The defense is in need of a skill boost, but is still strong with the likes of Niklas Kronwall, Jonathan Ericsson and Danny DeKeyser leading the way. The Wings made no significant additions this past offseason, and are again going to rely on aging veterans Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and Johan Franzen to lead the offense. Don’t get me wrong- these are elite players, but you can’t hide the fact they’ve lost a step. If Tomas Tatar, Tomas Jurco and Gustav Nyquist can speed up their development, perhaps there won’t be a season or two where the team struggles during transition. The hope for the Wings is that the jump from the old guard to the new will be seamless, but I think this year’s transition will be a difficult one for the Wings.
Have the Panthers finally put themselves in a position to contend? I’d say they are close, but not quite ready. Bringing back Roberto Luongo was huge, and they are slowing building a strong defense corps. Brian Campbell is still a very good puck mover, while Dmitry Kulikov, Erik Gudbranson and 2014 first overall pick Aaron Ekblad are some of the best young defensemen in the game. Bringing in veterans Dave Bolland and Jussi Jokinen are nice moves, but the team still needs more pop up front. Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau are stars in the making, but it would take them breaking out in a big way for the team to make the playoffs this year.
Who knows what the Leafs are going to do this year? They rearranged the blueline a bit, bringing in Roman Polak and Stephane Robidas. They brought back Leo Komarov. They lost scoring depth with the departures of Bolland, Mason Raymond and Nikolai Kulemin. While they still have excellent forwards like Phil Kessel, James van Riemsdyk and Nazem Kadri there are questions about what they can expect from David Clarkson and Joffrey Lupul. Jonathan Bernier is the clear number one, even though they brought back James Reimer. Having two of the league’s best young defenders in Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner doesn’t hurt. For the simple fact that I believe there are better teams in their division, I have them missing the playoffs.
If there was one team in the NHL ready for a free fall in the standings, I’d put my money on the Ottawa Senators. Losing Jason Spezza for a song is the first step toward the team going from elite to also-ran. It’s not like they’re devoid of talent or anything- Bobby Ryan and Kyle Turris can put points. It’s the rest of the forwards that makes one wonder if the team can compete. David Legwand was an OK addition in free agency, but his best years are behind him. I don’t have faith in Milan Michalek, Erik Condra and Clarke MacArthur leading this team to the playoffs. Outside of the Norris-caliber Erik Karlsson and the steady Marc Methot, the team is weak on defense. Goaltender Craig Anderson will keep them in games.
If you want a lesson in how to rebuild a team, just ask the Buffalo Sabres. Granted, the process is not yet complete, but you have to be impressed with the wealth of young talent the team has acquired by making shrewd trades and smart draft choices. They aren’t just throwing the kids to the wolves either, rather they brought in Gorges and Gionta from Montreal to serve as mentors. They also brought Matt Moulson back, a move that not only will keep the team respectable, but he can also serve in a leadership capacity. The team will struggle this year because the defense (which in a few years should be one of the best in the NHL) is still developing. Tyler Myers, Rasmus Ristolainen and Nikita Zadorov are three future stars, but need more time to figure it out. Michal Neuvirth and Jhonas Enroth as the team’s goaltending tandem will likely be the reason why this team is in the Connor McDavid sweepstakes.
Here's how we see it happening:
|4||Red Wings||Lightning||Maple Leafs||Lightning||Red Wings||Red Wings|
|5||Panthers||Red Wings||Red Wings||Senators||Maple Leafs||Maple Leafs|
|6||Maple Leafs||Maple Leafs||Senators||Maple Leafs||Panthers||Senators|