2014-15 NHL Preview: Atlantic Division

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The Atlantic Division is a mix of some of the best teams and some of the worst teams in the NHL as the division is one of the hardest to figure out. On one end of the spectrum lies the Boston Bruins, Tampa Bay Lightning, and Montreal Canadiens. These three teams have proven to be some of the most talented teams in the league over the last few years. The Bruins are the team that leads the pack with one of the best combinations of skill and toughness that make them a true contender in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Meanwhile the Lightning and Canadiens have been built with skill in mind as both are loaded with offensive talent although the toughness has suffered on both of the teams. As these teams represent some of the best in the league there are a number of teams in the division that represent the worst of the league. The Florida Panthers and Buffalo Sabres have been two of the worst teams in the past few years. They continue to fight for the top pick in the draft and cannot seem to find these pieces they need to compete in the Eastern Conference playoffs. The Sabres seemed to overpay time and time again for stars that never worked out while the Panthers have yet to find anyone to support Jonathan Huberdeau, one of the league top young stars. These two teams represent the other side of the division that does not seem to compete at the same high level as the top teams in the division. The rest of the teams are stuck in the middle and although they are good they are also not great as they continue to try to figure out where they stand in the league. As they look to figure that out this year they begin to take on the style of the rest of the conference. They are the embodiment of the Eastern Conference as they are the offence first division. With the Bruins as the only exception to that rule in the division with a more defensive team. The rest compete in an arms race every year. With players like Steve Stamkos, Phil Kessel, Pavel Datsyuk, PK Subban, and Erik Karlsson the Atlatnic division has a lot of scoring power. That is the constant battle in the division but many times it can be the reason that not many of these teams have had a lot of success in the playoffs. Playoff teams are built slightly differently than those in the Atlantic Division as they require that balance of skill and toughness which is what the Bruins have figured out. As the rest of the teams continue to develop into true contenders they begin to adjust to the playoff atmosphere while keeping the skill that has made them great. The Atlantic Division is one of haves and have-nots and a division full of skill but they are trying to add another description to their group as they hope to provide a lot more contenders than just the Boston Bruins this year. They are trying to become the best division in the NHL but it is going to take a lot more than just the regular suspects to do that which will be the true challenge this year.

 

Boston Bruins

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The Boston Bruins have been the most consistent team in the Atlantic Division for the last few years. They moved to the Atlantic Division in 2013 with the realignment but have been one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference for years. They enter the 2014 season looking to continue that stretch and they are doing it the same way they have for the last few years. The Bruins are and always have been built for the playoffs above everything else. They go against the rest of the Atlantic in building from the blue line out. They prefer to focus on their defence first and that includes the players on the blueline and the players in front of it. Everyone on the Bruins is expected to pitch in to the defensive style. Leading the style of play from the back is Zdeno Chara who remains one of the best defenceman in the league and leads a solid mix of veterans and young defenders. Alongside Dennis Seidenberg, Chara has a veteran partner to help players like Dougie Hamilton and Torey Krug develop into top-tier defenceman. That development will only help Tuukka Rask who has a slightly easier job with a great defence in front of him and an offence that looks to prevent shots on goal. Still he is a great goalie and after a Vezina worthy year he is ready to repeat as the league’s best goalie. Meanwhile the offence is built with two-way players in mind while they have no true top goal scorer to lead them. Instead they find ways to get everyone in on the action and it has worked fine in the pass. The loss of Jarome Iginla takes away the one guy that had that ability to be the offensive go-to but with David Krejci and Patrice Bergeron still in Boston there are players that can put up points. The Bruins will enter the new season as they always do, favourites to win the division and move far into the playoffs. There is little to say that they won’t do that either as the losses were limited and the system continues to roll on as the Big Bad Bruins are alive and well in 2014.

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Buffalo Sabres

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In 2011 the Sabres were purchased by Terry Pegula and a new age was supposed to begin for the long-suffering franchise. Pegula began investing in the team and the positivity increased. With new commitment from the top the Sabres seemed like they could be on the climb and yet they continued to struggle. After an initial boost where they just missed the playoffs in 2011-12 but since then have finished near the bottom of their division every year. Now with a new season ahead of them the Sabres are in the midst of a rebuilding phase. Last year the Sabres let the last parts of the old team go with Ryan Miller being traded to the Vancouver Canucks. The rebuild begins in earnest this season as they move on with a team that looks a little less familiar than years past. The Sabres were very aggressive this offseason as they looked for the parts of a team that will help them in the rebuild. It all started on the bench when they officially signed Ted Nolan as the head coach, removing his interim title. Nolan has proven to be a coach that can produce wins but has had some iffy relationships with players and GMs. That has proven to be his downfall as disagreements with general managers and notably Dominik Hasek his first time in Buffalo. If that doesn’t repeat itself he could be the steady hand that the Sabres need. In terms of the lineup the Sabre brought back Matt Moulson, who was traded to Buffalo and then to Minnesota last year, and added Brian Gionta that should help Tyler Ennis and Cody Hodgson develop. On defence the addition of Josh Gorges is a big change to the blue line and will provide Tyler Myers with a solid veteran partner. The additions were a positive move for the Sabres and are a good start to the Tim Murray era in Buffalo. Although they are a positive move the Sabres are still not ready to be considered a top team in the division. They have some pieces now and are moving on from the old team that seemed to be holding them back but there are just too many holes as they will struggle to stay out of the bottom of the division but might give some teams a bit of a challenge this year.

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Detroit Red Wings

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The Detroit Red Wings had a period of adjustment in the 2013-14 season as they were forced to move into a new conference. The once dominant team in the west now had a new style to learn as they played teams with much more offence and less defence. After being the best offensive team in the west for ears they fell in behind many of the potent scoring attacks of the East. They struggled at the start of the season but eventually found their way to the playoffs and remained one of the contenders in the league. Unfortunately for the Red Wings the writing seems to be on the wall as they are slowly losing grip on the dominance that made them the most feared team in the NHL. They were always the team to beat but with an aging team they are beginning to fall behind everyone else. It has been a storyline of the Red Wings for the last few seasons and although they have remained a playoff team they are falling away from what they used to be. This year the Red Wings will try to make it 24 years in a row making the playoffs but if they keep trending the way they have been that streak might be in jeopardy. The Red Wings are built around a number of key pieces that have been some of the best pieces in the NHL. Pavel Datsyuk is one of the most skilled player in the NHL while Henrik Zetterberg and Niklas Kronwall provide solid leadership. The problem with this trio of cornerstones is that all are around 35 years old and are no longer built to carry a team. They are all still very good players but when it comes to the long season they begin to break down without a good supporting cast. The offence does not have enough young guns to help Datsyuk put up points with Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar have promise but there is not much beyond them. On the blue line Kronwall leads a few pieced together parts that are good but not what they used to be. The Red Wings are still a good team and they will fight to keep their streak alive but it might just come to an end this year as they are trending down.

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Florida Panthers

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The Florida Panthers may give the Boston Bruins a run for their money when it comes to consistency but that is not a good thing for the Panthers. The consistency for the Panthers has been the constant mismanagement of a team that continues to struggle financially. Last year a host of very talented young players were left to carry the team and not surprisingly things didn’t go well. The Panthers ended up with only 29 wins on the year and in last place in the league. The one positive for that last place finish is that they got a defenceman that everyone is looking for in this year’s draft. Aaron Ekblad will join the Panthers and could be the cornerstone for the Panthers to build on for their blue line. He will join two more, young defenceman in Erik Gudbranson and Dimitri Kulikov while Brian Campbell and new addition Willie Mitchell provide the veteran leadership. On offence the additions of Jussi Jokinen and Dave Bolland are risky but could be what the Panthers need off of the ice more than on the ice. Both have had their moments offensively but they have also been around for a while and can help the young core of this team. With Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau in the lineup the Panthers have talent it is just a matter of learning how to win. The addition of Jokinen and Bolland can provide that leadership. More than any of these additions though, was the addition last year of a former Panthers goalie in Roberto Luongo who although he is aging is still one of the best goaltenders in the league. Luongo returned to Florida last year after spending years in Vancouver where his future always seemed to be in question. Now he comes back to the place his career started with stability as there is nobody that will unseat him as the starting goaltender. Luongo is the type of goaltender that can win games for a team and if he can give the Panthers a chance to win they may just be able to win. The Panthers are still very young and they still need time and leaders to help them along. For that reason they won’t get far out of the basement if at all.

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Montreal Canadiens

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The Montreal Canadiens have been getting stronger every year under Marc Bergevin and Michel Therrien. The pair have taken the Canadiens from an inconsistent team to a consistently strong team. The shrewd moves have ensured that the Canadiens remain one of the playoff contenders every year. This year Bergevin went to work again shoring up the core of the team while no making much of a splash Bergevin went about making small moves to help the team. The biggest of them being the signing of PK Subban that will keep the biggest star in Montreal. Subban will lead the defence but will lean on his defensive partner Andrei Markov. Subban has long been criticized for his inability to stay in the defensive zone as he takes risks in the offence. Pairing him with Markov has worked out as he provides the defensive stability to allow Subban to do what he does best and get involved in the offensive zone. The biggest issue for the defence will be to move on from Josh Gorges who provided another defensive stalwart that will be missed. The rest of the defence stays much the same including the most important part for the Canadiens in Carey Price. After offseason surgery Price returns hoping to complete the season as the sure backstop that can lead a team to the Stanley Cup. The offence is slightly more change than the defence in the offseason as Daniel Briere and captain Brian Gionta are gone. Briere was replaced by PA Parenteau in a trade with Colorado that seems like almost a younger version of Briere. Meanwhile Gionta’s leadership will not be replaced as four players received assistant captaincies as Montreal will go with no one captain. Still Brendan Gallagher, Max Pacioretty, and Alex Galchenyuk can provide the points the Canadiens need. The Canadiens are still a good team and their small moves in the offseason have not much to the team but if they can stay healthy they remain a strong team that is headed to the playoffs while hoping to make a run at the Stanley Cup. They continue to improve and they look to do the same this year with a new year and a new chance at making a run at the Cup.

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Ottawa Senators

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The Ottawa Senators were just out of the reach of the playoffs last year as they needed everything to go right and much of it did not. They played average hockey for most of the season hovering around even and in their division that is not good enough to earn a spot in the division. The offseason was a turbulent one for Ottawa as they said goodbye to their second captain in as many years. In 2013 Daniel Alfredsson left the team to go to Detroit and in 2014 his replacement and longtime face of the franchise Jason Spezza was traded to the Dallas Stars. The loss of Spezza is a big one for the Senators who lose one of their top scorers from last year and in franchise history. In his place now sits Kyle Turris who came to Ottawa two years ago and was the player he was meant to be in Phoenix. Still stepping from a secondary player to the centre on the top line is not going to be easy. A positive for the Sens is that Bobby Ryan returns as the leading scorer for the Senators to provide some scoring punch. On the blue line the Sens will look to their superstar in Erik Karlsson who should return to 100% this year. Last ear he claimed that he was not fully recovered from his Achilles injury and if he can return to form he remains one of the most dangerous offensive defenceman. The rest of the blue line is good but not great with Marc Methot provided the balance to Karlsson but a contract dispute could provide a distraction while injuries could be an issue. That uncertainty on the blue line does not help the goaltending situation where two goalies try to get the majority of starts. Craig Anderson was the man in Ottawa until a concussion sidelined him last year and allowed Robin Lehner to take the starting job. Lehner impressed while in the starter role leading to a goalie battle and much like in football with quarterback battles, when you have two goalies you really have none. The Sens are in a tough spot as they are not bad enough to be considered one of the worst teams but are not good enough to compete with the top teams and with the loss of two leaders in two years they continue to slip.

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Tampa Bay Lightning

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The Tampa Bay Lightning are coming off of a great year last year but more important than their second place finish was what their performance proved. The Lightning had a very powerful offence that was one of the most dangerous in the league and thanks to that they finished second while making it into the playoffs. The impressive part was that they did this without their leading scorer and team leader Steven Stamkos for most of the season. In November Stamkos broke his tibia against Boston and had surgery to repair the broken leg. It was a fairly miraculous comeback as Stamkos returned for March and helped the Lightning to the playoffs although they left quickly. They enter the new season with the prospect of having Stamkos in the lineup for the entire season and for a team that averaged 2.83 goals per game last year that will make their offence scary. Ondrej Palat, Jonathan Drouin, and Valtteri Filppula will provide supporting offence that is sure to make this one of the best in the league. The defence received an upgrade when the Lightning signed Anton Stralman and Jason garrison to add to the top pairing of Norris Trophy candidate Victor Hedman and Matt Carle. Behind them is the biggest question for the Lightning once again this year. They have rarely had a goaltender without questions and it is one of the main things that has held them back when it comes to the playoffs. Ben Bishop will be the starter for the Lightning after an average year. He is not the best goalie but he is not the worst as he is just average. That is not what a Stanley Cup team needs though as they are hoping to see improvements from Bishop this year while they try to take the next step. If anything is going to hold them back it will be the performance in net although they can overcome that though the regular season and will remain one of the best teams in the division the question is whether or not they can go from being a great regular season team to being a great playoff team.

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Toronto Maple Leafs

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The Toronto Maple Leafs were just recently voted the worst franchise in sports by ESPN and yet they are the most valuable in the NHL. In fact that is what gave them the worst rankings as ticket prices continue to rise and yet the wins do not come. Year after year the Leafs seem to disappoint their fans as they just begin to get some momentum and lose it all the next year. In 2012-13 they made a great run at the playoffs and lost the Boston Bruins in the first round in an epic collapse in Game 7. The next year the Leafs were expected to return to the playoffs and take a step forward but instead they failed to make the playoffs in 2013-14. The poor performance gave the Leafs reason to make some changes in the organization when they hired Brendan Shanahan as the President and Alternate Governor. This year the Leafs did not make as big a splash in the free agent market instead focusing on their biggest issue. The Leafs added Roman Polak and Stephane Robidas to their blue line as they fill in alongside Dion Phaneuf, Jake Gardiner, and Cody Franson. They all have questions though as many wonder if Phaneuf is the top-line defenceman for this team, Gardiner continues to struggle to find his place in the system, and Robidas needs to stay healthy. Behind this defence is the duo of James Reimer and Jonathan Bernier who will continue to be the biggest debate in the city. Bernier has yet to really take the starting role that he was brought in to take. Meanwhile James Reimer received a new contract and will see that much more pressure for the goalie that is a target of the relentless Toronto media. The one thing that the Leafs don’t have to worry about is their offence that is led by Phil Kessel, who despite being a favourite target for criticism has led the team in scoring since he arrived in 2009. With James Van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak provided good partners and the return of Leo Komarov providing some grit to the lineup. The Leafs are the same as usual as they seem to be improved but it will be how they take the team on paper to the ice as they remain one of the biggest questions of the division.

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Prediction:
The Atlantic Division continues to be a battle of arms with a massive separation between the haves and the have-nots. Despite the changes made by every team this year it doesn’t seem like much will change throughout the division. The top teams will remain the top teams as the Canadiens, Lightning and Bruins fight it out for the division title. The bottom teams will also remain on the bottom as the Panthers and Sabres will not be able to make it out of the basement. Where it gets interesting is in the middle of the standings where the Maple Leafs, Red Wings, and Senators will fight for the fourth place spot and will fight for a wild card spot in the Eastern Conference. In the end it could be the Leafs that get there and get to the wild card finding their way back to the playoffs.

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