2015-16 NHL Preview: Atlantic Division

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There is no division that has more scrutiny than that of the Atlantic Division where some of the biggest names and teams in the league reside.

It is the division that features teams from all around the biggest hockey areas in the world.

There is Boston where fans love their sports and have taken hockey as one of their main loves.

The Bruins are a team with some of the most loyal fans in the NHL and are often competing to be the biggest team in the USA.

Then there are the super powers of the league in the Montreal Canadiens and the Toronto Maple Leafs.

They may not both be super powers on the ice but in terms of following the debate can rage on as to who has the better fan base.

The Canadiens and Leafs don’t like each other much because of the constant debate about who has the most loyal fans.

What is for sure is that their fan bases extend far beyond their own cities and their own country.

The Detroit Red Wings boast their own massive fan base as another Original Six teams in the division.

They have a long winning tradition and one that made them one of the greatest franchises ever after they ran through the 1990s and are in the midst of a 24-year run where they have yet to miss the playoffs.

They are also a team that has a massive fan base that extends beyond their city as one of the favourites in the USA.

Not too far beyond these teams with huge followings are the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Buffalo Sabres and the Ottawa Senators.

None are bigger than the big teams in the division or in the league but they are respectable.hockey-sidebar

The Senators may be sandwiched by Canadiens and Leafs fans but they are definitely a proud group that loves seeing their team on the resurgence.

In Buffalo they are proud of their sports teams but they are also a long-suffering group of fans.

They have plenty of fans to back them but they will try to give them something to cheer about.

The Lightning have recently shown just how strong of a fan base they have thanks to their recent success.

They are a team in Florida that is doing things right in a market that isn’t necessarily the biggest and best.

Then on the exact opposite side of things is the Florida Panthers who have not been seeing much success.

They may very well not be in Florida for much longer as they continue to set record lows for attendance.

Aside from Florida there are more fans following the Atlantic division than any other division in the NHL.

The fan bases are huge and with big fan bases come big media presence.

That means a lot more scrutiny than some teams are ready to handle but they have been going through it for decades now.

They are some of the oldest teams and some of the most successful but that means that the expectations are that much higher.

Those expectations are sky-high for another year as teams try to become the first team in three years from the East to win a Cup and hope to bring it back to the east coast.

boston_bruins

If there has been a dominant team in the east over the last few years it would have to be the Boston Bruins. They were often the only team that was guaranteed a shot at the Stanley Cup in a conference that has sent a different representative to the finals every year in the last four seasons. The Bruins were the only team to make the finals twice in the last five years from the east and they are consistently in the fight. That ended last year though as they finished the season just outside of the playoffs and with expectations high changes were made. The Bruins fired long-time GM Peter Chiarelli, who brought a cup to Boston in 2011, and brought in Don Sweeney to take over. The new GM went to work this off-season as the Bruins were the most active team in the off-season making constant moves. The offence saw the most changes as Sweeney traded away Milan Lucic, Carl Soderberg, and Reilly Smith while seeing Gregory Campbell walk away in free agency. In their place Sweeney brought in Matt Beleskey, Jimmy Hayes, and Zac Rinaldo. It is a new-look offence but the top line remains the same as they will look to Patrice Bergeron, Louie Eriksson, and Brad Marchand to lead the way. After that top line the Bruins have some secondary scoring in David Krejci while the addition of Beleskey and Hayes provide some good support. The offence is not bad after the facelift as they replaced some good players with other good players but they also didn’t upgrade. The defence could be a concern this year as it has been the backbone of successful seasons for the team. Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg are good but they are not getting any younger and that has been evident this off-season. Chara has had limited playing time with an upper body injury while Seidenberg will miss two months of the season after undergoing back surgery. They are a great pair but the Bruins need to get young and instead they traded away their best young defenceman in Dougie Hamilton. Behind that aging defence is a bit of a mystery as many wonder if they will get a Vezina level Tuukka Rask or just a middle of the road goalie. He has the ability to be the best but can sometimes just fall in among the good but not great goalies. The Bruins are a rebuilt team but they didn’t upgrade their biggest need and for that they may very well miss the playoffs again this year.

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buffalo_sabres

The Buffalo Sabres have a fairly loyal fan base but that fan base has been tested in recent years as they continued to get worse. Last year was as far as seemingly they could go only winning 23 games and finishing at the bottom of the league. Then it got worse as they lost the draft lottery pushing them out of the top pick and preventing them from picking Connor McDavid. They also lost out on the bidding war for Mike Babcock who chose to coach in Toronto rather than Buffalo. There is still some hope though as the consolation prizes in both cases were pretty good. Instead of Babcock the Sabres hired Stanley Cup winner Dan Bylsma. In the draft they may not have gotten the best player to come into the league since Crosby but they got the next best thing in Jack Eichel. He was a leader and the best player in the NCAA for his last two years and now he looks to make the same type of impact in Buffalo. He will have plenty to play with as well with a new-look offence thanks to a number of key acquisitions. New additions Ryan O’Reilly and Evander Kane, who was acquired at the trade deadline but never played for Buffalo, are immediate upgrades on offence and will ensure a boost in top line production. The additions of Jamie McGinn and David Legwand along with the return of last year’s leading scorer for the team Tyler Ennis are sure to provide some secondary scoring. On defence the Sabres are sure to miss Nikita Zadorov in the future as the young Russian defenceman was sent to Colorado for O’Reilly. Other than that they didn’t do a lot to upgrade the group. Zach Bogosian and Josh Gorges represent the veterans of the group along with new addition Cody Franson while Rasmus Ristolainen is a good young blue liner. The group is good but not great as they still have some questions on who will be able to perform like they are expected to. In goal the Sabres were used to plenty of stability but this year it is different as Robin Lehner looks to be the starter but is not guaranteed the spot. He will get the starting role to begin the season but they won’t have a problem pulling him for Chad Johnson if he cracks under the pressure. The Sabres are not a good team and they won’t make the playoffs this year but they are a better team than a year ago, which hasn’t been the case for a number of years.

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detroit_red_wings

The last time the Red Wings missed the playoffs the internet had yet to make its way to the home and social media wasn’t even a thing. It was 1990 when the Red Wings missed the playoffs last and 24 years later they hold the record for the longest playoff streak, and hold it by a huge margin. In 2014 that streak came close to ending but last season they regrouped and had a typically strong Detroit year. This year the streak may come under fire as well as the Red Wings lost head coach Mike Babcock, a big reason for the continuation of the streak. That is going to be the question for the Red Wings as everyone is waiting to see what the loss of their head coach is going to do to the team. That question arose years ago as well when legendary coach Scotty Bowman left and the Red Wings still stayed strong and continued to win. Jeff Blashill, formerly of the AHL affiliate in Grand Rapids, takes over and has much of the same team as last year to work with. The Red Wings are an aging team and has been for a while as Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg lead the way nearing the end of their careers. Although Datsyuk will make an impact this year he will miss most of the start of the season with an ankle injury that has him returning in late October. The Wings have also built up some young talent with Gustav Nyquist showing plenty of promise last year and Justin Abdelkader moving his way to the top line. The addition of Brad Richards should provide some extra secondary scoring even if he isn’t the top-tier scoring threat he used to be. On defence the Wings will welcome the addition of Mike Green who provides a great puck moving defenceman as long as he can stay healthy. Niklas Kronwall and Danny DeKeyser still make up a solid top pair for the Wings in a good group of blue liners. Behind them is Jimmy Howard who is not going to win a Vezina any time soon but is a good goalie that can step up when needed. The Red Wings are once again a solid team from top to bottom but the age of their leaders still concerns some. The biggest question is whether or not Blashill has what it takes to keep the streak going and with his reputation makes it seem like the Wings will make it a solid 25 years in the playoffs.

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florida_panthers

The Florida Panthers are a team that has long suffered near the bottom of the league and has failed to improve year after year. That has translated to some concern over their longevity in Florida but for now they are trying to focus on getting back to the playoffs. Last year they ended the season in second to last place in the division but saw some promise with an ageless performance from their new/old goaltender and a Calder Trophy performance from their top rookie. Last year they brought back a hero as one of the best players to ever suit up for the Panthers returned. Roberto Luongo was brought back to shore up a big question mark in net for the Panthers and he did just that. He had one of the best seasons of his career but the fact was that there wasn’t a lot of support in terms of offence for him. The only way he could have led them to the playoffs was to earn shutouts every game as the offence failed to produce points. It wasn’t about the defence that has turned into a fairly good group that includes last year’s Calder winner Aaron Ekblad. He will look to continue to be the anchor of the defence alongside Brian Campbell while they hope to see a lot more out of Erik Gudbranson who was drafted third overall in 2010. The goaltending and defence have been solid but the offence needs some work as they look to give a little more cushion so that they are not putting all of the pressure on the defence. They have some good pieces on offence including another Calder Trophy winner from 2012-13 in Jonathan Huberdeau. He is the clear leader and along with Aleksander Barkov and Nick Bjustad they make up a very promising young group of forwards that need to continue to develop if they hope to compete. Jaromir Jagr and Jussi Jokinen provide the veteran leadership while new addition Reilly Smith should boost the secondary scoring. The Panthers are looking for a better showing from their young group this year as they need to have their young guns step up to provide support for what has become a good team from the blue line in. If the young forwards can step up and produce much more this year they might just surprise many by competing but more likely they will show signs of improvement and fall short of the playoffs for another year.

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montreal_canadiens

The Montreal Canadiens are on a great runs as their massive fan base is loving seeing them as one of the best teams in the league. Last year they seemed ready to make a long-awaited run at the Stanley Cup and win it all. The problem was that in the playoffs the problems of every team are exposed and the Canadiens had a big one. They were one of the worst teams in the league for shots against but luckily for them they had the best goaltender in the league. Carey Price was the entire reason the Canadiens made the playoffs last year as most other teams that surrendered an average of 30.1 shots against per game is not going to win the division. This year they are trying to fix that issue but they did not do a lot in terms of finding some help on the blue line. The moves were minimal this year but there is plenty to get excited about as a good team returns. Price is still in net and although he likely won’t have the same type of performance as last year he is still going to be the best in the league. In front of him is a good group but one that is much better on offence than they are on defence. The top pairing of PK Subban and Andrei Markov account for a big part of the production up front. The problem with that is they can sometimes take chances, especially Subban, leaving Price out to dry. Once again it is fine with Price there as he can make up for the mistakes. The offence struggle last year to produce goals but once again that was hidden with the fact that Price played so well throughout the season. There is no need for a great offence when one goal is often enough to win a game. Max Pacioretty was the leader last year on offence and this year he is officially the leader of the team earning the captainship in the off-season. Pacioretty will hope for some more production from Brendan Gallagher, Alex Galchenyuk, as well as new addition Alexander Semin who has shown an ability to score but has fallen off recently. The Canadiens depend on their goaltender and he can take it but at some point there needs to be more support on offence and defence. It is not a winning formula as the team depends too much on one player, albeit a great player, and although they will likely compete for the division this year a Stanley Cup seems out of reach unless things change.

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ottawa_senators

The Senators were never supposed to make the playoffs last year as many assumed their young talent was going to help them improve but not that much. The biggest part of that crazy run into the playoffs was the fact that they found a surprise in the form of Andrew Hammond. The man affectionately known as “The Hamburglar” led the Sens as the starting goalie at the end of the season. He couldn’t extend that hot streak into the playoffs but the tone was set for a young team. As they enter a new season the expectation is to make the playoffs for another year but they are still a young team with little experience. The main reason for making the playoffs was a back-up goalie that couldn’t keep it going and despite the questions they had after the season little to no changes were made to improve the team. Hammond will not be the starter this year but he is an option is Craig Anderson can’t find his swagger again. Anderson has been a solid netminder for the last few years but last year he did not play at the same level and if he struggles again Hammond may turn into the starter. In front of the net the Senators have a good group led by Norris Trophy winner, Erik Karlsson who continues to put up more points than the rest of the team. Karlsson and Marc Methot form a great top pair that leads a group that is not the best in the league but still doesn’t make many mistakes. The offence came alive last year averaging almost three goals a game thanks to their young corps. Kyle Turris, Mark Stone, Mika Zibanejad, and Curtis Lazar have proven to be a good young group and all developed earlier than most thought. Alongside Clarke MacArthur and Bobby Ryan this group is a good one that can produce a lot of goals if they are all firing. The problem with the Sens is that they got a great performance from their goalie that led them to the playoffs and seem to believe it was enough to keep the team relatively unchanged. Aside from another great performance from a goalie late in the season the Sens are not a guarantee to make the playoffs this year as they could be fighting for the wild card which is always a tough fight in the ever-changing Eastern Conference. The playoffs are not out of the question for the Sens if they continue to develop but there is no guarantee that they are in either.

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tampa_bay_lightning

The Lightning have been through a few rough years but their rebuild is finally starting to pay off with some great talent beginning to mature. Last year they found their way to the Finals thanks to some unbelievable years from unknown players. The biggest of them all was Tyler Johnson who emerged as the second best centre on the team but matched the captain in points. It wasn’t bad for an undrafted free agent and along with Johnson came Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov. That “Triplets” line was the surprise of the season and provided plenty of depth in scoring that helped the Lightning to the finals. Although they did lose the finals there is a sense that their time is just beginning as they are still a young team coming into their own. They hope that is the case and that the experience gained in las year’s playoff run will put them over the edge this year. Steven Stamkos is still the leader on and off of the ice but his contract is up at the end of the year and there will be plenty of talk surrounding when and if he will get a new one. Stamkos and whoever he ends up paired with along with the Triplets line provide plenty of scoring depth. That triplets line will be relied upon this year and they will need to keep up their development if the Lightning want to continue their strong run. With Ryan Callahan, Brian Boyle and Jonathan Drouin, who the Lightning are hoping develops more this year, filling out the third line the Lightning are one of the deepest offensive teams. The defence is led by Victor Hedman who had the best year of his career last season but after him the talent level drops off. Anton Stralman, Jason Garrison, and Braydon Coburn are all good but they do have their issues that could show up throughout the year. Last season their biggest question was in net and Ben Bishop proved that he truly can be the #1 netminder. His playoff performance has made him a great goalie and he hope to translate that to the new season as there is no question in net any longer. The Lightning are a young team but some of their best young talent are now coming into their own on the ice which will translate to plenty of success. Another run at the Cup is not out of the question along with a battle for the division crown.

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toronto_maple_leafs

The Toronto Maple Leafs are at one time the most valuable team in the league and at the same time one of the worst. They don’t usually finish at the bottom of the league but they also don’t often compete for the playoffs. They are a frustrating team that seemed like they were ready to compete in 2012-13 when they made the playoffs in a great late season push. It seemed like they were a few pieces away but missed the playoffs the next year and the year after that. The two seasons without a playoff appearance after seeming so close prompted something that the Maple Leafs don’t like to do, a rebuild. The rebuild truly began two years ago when the Leafs hired Brendan Shanahan as the President of the team. After taking a season to see what he had Shanahan went to work firing most of the scouting staff, the GM, and the head coach. He then went all-out to replace them when the Leafs won the bidding war for Mike Babcock and later hired legendary GM Lou Lamoriello. With the new regime in the place the changes continued heading into the new season. The oft scrutinized, he often was seen as not putting forth full effort, and leading scorer Phil Kessel was traded away to Pittsburgh while a number of NHL players made their way to Toronto. The offence looks completely different as James Van Riemsdyk and Nazem Kadri will be looked at to lead the offence. New addition P.A. Parenteau should have a bigger impact than in recent seasons in Montreal with more responsibility while everyone will be watching William Nylander who may see time this year and is likely the future building block of the team. The defence is led by captain Dion Phaneuf who, despite the criticism, eats up minutes in front of a less than great group. In net the debate will continue as James Reimer and Jonathan Bernier will likely fight most of the year to figure out who is the starter. The Leafs are a new team but it doesn’t mean they are any better. The biggest moves this off-season were in the front office and behind the bench as Babcock is going to change the attitude of a team that tends to work a little less than a lot of teams. That is not going to happen under Babcock while Lamoriello is sure to make smart moves as the GM with the brain trust around him. The Leafs are starting a rebuild and it will get worse before it gets better but they are finally committed to changing things which is good news for the future.

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Prediction:
The Atlantic Division is one where there are some major differences between teams and that will be seen in the standings. The Sabres, Panthers and Leafs will not fight for any spot this year as all three are just not good enough to compete. Most are in the midst of a rebuild and although the Sabres and Panthers will be better the Leafs are going to be worse. Then there are the competitors as the Bruins and Senators are both good but not great teams as neither made the moves they needed to truly compete. They will be good enough to get into the wild card conversation but the Metropolitan is better and will put two teams in this year. The battle at the top will be a good one as the Lightning and Canadiens are sure to see a full season fight to win the division. The Lightning are just that much better though and will take the Atlantic while the Canadiens finish second. The Red Wings won’t compete for the division but they also won’t come close to missing the playoffs as they finish in third to continue their streak. The Atlantic will be interesting this year with good battles but the entire division is still split, at least for a few more years.

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