Last season, the Atlantic Division was home to the President’s Trophy-winning team as well as the team with the fewest points in the NHL. In other words, there was quite a gap between the top and bottom of this division in terms of talent. This year, things should be slightly more even.
Boston: The Bruins will enter this season after winning last year’s President’s Trophy as the team to finish the regular season with the most points (117). Despite being the best team in the regular season, Boston couldn’t make it past the second round of the playoffs where they lost in seven games to a determined Montreal team. This year, I’m thinking the Bruins will take a step backwards. They were so good during the regular season last year that it will be extremely difficult to put the same numbers this year. Offensively, the Bruins were the highest scoring team in the East last season even though they didn’t have any real superstar scorers on their roster. Most of that roster will be back again this year, minus Jarome Iginla. I think the Bruins will still have one of the better offenses in the league this year, but they won’t duplicate last year’s numbers. As for their defense, the Bruins will once again be one of the deepest defensive team in the league. Led by Zdeno Chara, Boston’s defensive unit is composed of a number of solid, hard-nosed defensemen like Dennis Seidenberg (who will be returning from a season-ending injury from last year), Johnny Boychuck, Dougie Hamilton, Matt Bartkowski, Torey Krug, and Adam McQuaid. When you take into account that Boston has one of the best groups of defensive forwards in the league, led by Selke Trophy-winner Patrice Bergeron, it becomes clear that these guys will be tough to score on. That’s not even to mention the fact that they’ll have the reigning Vezina Trophy-winner starting in goal. While the Bruins won’t have the same numbers as last year, I still think they have the best shot at winning this division.
Buffalo: Last season ended as another last place finish for the Sabres. They finished the year with the lowest point total in the NHL (52), and didn’t really seem to make any strides towards getting better. This offseason, Buffalo signed Brian Gionta and Matt Moulson to try and add some offense to the lineup. Moulson played 44 games with the Sabres last season before being dealt to the Wild at the trade deadline, and his presence back in the Buffalo lineup will be noticed. The Sabres will also have Chris Stewart for the whole season this year. While he’s not an offensive juggernaut or anything remotely close to one, he is a big, physical forward who isn’t afraid to play in the corners or in front of the net on offense. Defensivley, the Sabres signed Andre Benoit and Andrej Meszaros this summer. These two are not all stars by any means, but they are an upgrade from what the Sabres were working with last season. It will be interesting to see if Tyler Myers finally takes his game to the next level this season after putting together multiple disappointing seasons since his rookie campaign. The defensive unit as a whole for Buffalo is not great by any means. In goal, they will have Jhonas Enroth and Michal Neuvirth. Neither one of them is a true number one goalie in the NHL, so the combination of them plus a weak defense should lead to another long season for the Sabres.
Detroit: Well I messed up pretty bad on my prediction for the Red Wings last season. In my season preview, I had this team finishing near the top of the conference, only to see them grab the last wild card spot. This year, I think it’ll be a similar outcome. The Wings have a number of good, young players on their roster who should only be getting better this year. Gustav Nyquist finished last year’s regular season on an absolute tear, and the Red Wings will be looking for him to produce again this year. Whether or not he can regain his form from the end of last year or not should be interesting to keep an eye on. Still, the two offensive leaders of this team are Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg. If these guys don’t shoulder the majority of the load for Detroit, the Red Wings will have problems. On defense, we’ll be looking at much of the same names that we saw last year. Niklas Kronwall will be Detroit’s number one d-man again this year, which is not necessarily a good thing. While the Wings have a number of quality players on their back end, they lack the high-end talent in their top two that the good teams all have. As for the goaltending situation, Jimmy Howard has be better this year than he was last season. Without good goaltending, no team in the league has a legitimate shot at winning anything. We’ve seen Howard play at elite levels before, so hopefully for the Wings he can get back to doing so. Whether or not Detroit makes the playoffs again may lie on the shoulders of Howard.
Florida: You want to talk about a team with a lot of young and potential talent, let’s talk about the Panthers. This team is stacked with youngsters that they’ve either brought up through their system or acquired from other teams. Players such as Brandon Pirri, Aleksander Barkov (this year’s number one pick), Nick Bjugstad, Jimmy Hayes, and Jonathan Huberdeau are all young guys with a lot of potential upside to their game. Then you’ve got guys like Tomas Fleischmann, Dave Bolland (Florida greatly overpaid for him), Tomas Kopecky, and Scottie Upshall who are all proven veterans with good play-making and scoring abilities. If the young forwards on this team can improve their own individual games this season, good things could happen in Sunrise this year. Defensively, Brian Campbell is still Florida’s top defenseman, but the Panthers did add Willie Mitchell who will provide a lot of experience and leadership along their blueline. Still, Florida is one of the weaker defensive teams in the East which will inevitably hurt them again. However, now that they’ll have Roberto Luongo in goal from day one of the regular season, their defense can afford to make a mistake here and there without getting scored on. Luongo should single-handedly lead the Panthers to a few more wins than they had last season. All in all, this is still not a playoff team.
Montreal: These guys are coming into this season after putting together a rather successful playoff run this past spring. After finishing the regular season with 100 points, the Canadiens took their game to another level in the playoffs and managed to defeat the Bruins in seven games to advance to the Eastern Conference Final, where they eventually were eliminated by the Rangers. This offseason, they lost Thomas Vanek to Minnesota and Brian Gionta to Buffalo. Both losses will hurt the Canadiens as they really did nothing to replace either player. They also traded Danny Briere to the Avalanche in exchange for P.A. Parenteau; a move that I don’t believe will help or hurt Montreal. The biggest news for the Canadiens this offseason was their agreement with P.K. Subban on a big contract extension. No upgrades were made to their defense, and no changes were needed with their goalies. So essentially, Montreal should be similar to what they were last year, only without Vanek and Gionta, which will no doubt lead to less offensive production. Depending on the play of Carey Price in goal this year, I do believe Montreal should make the postseason again, but I wouldn’t bet much money on it.
Ottawa: The major news out of Ottawa this summer was the departure of Jason Spezza to the Dallas Stars via a trade. Spezza made it clear that he wanted out, and the Senators granted his wish. In return, Ottawa received one NHLer in Alex Chiasson. Aside from his addition, the Sens also acquired David Legwand through free agency. On the offensive side of things, the Senators do have some scoring ability in players such as Bobby Ryan, Milan Michalek, Clarke MaCarthur, and Kyle Turris. After them however, there’s not much left to the forward group on this team. Defensively, they’re even weaker. Erik Karlsson is obviously a great offensive-defenseman, but he’s really not that great defensively. After him, they’ve got Chris Phillips, Marc Methot, Jared Cowen, etc. Bottom line: nothing great on the back end. This was a big problem for Ottawa last season, and it looks like it will be again this year. Craig Anderson will have his hands full in net, as will Robin Lehner who may overtake Anderson as the number one goalie by season’s end. I’m expecting another playoff miss for the Senators.
Tampa Bay: Now here’s a team that people should take note of immediately. After finishing second in this division last year with 101 points, the Lightning improved their roster this offseason by signing Brian Boyle (center), Brendan Morrow (wing), Jason Garrison (defense), and Anton Stralman (defense). They’ll have a healthy Steven Stamkos to begin the season after he missed much of last year due to injury. The fact that this team still managed to earn over 100 points last year while Stamkos only played in 37 games is pretty impressive to me. That’s a big testamate to the rest of their forwards. They did trade Nate Thompson to Anaheim this summer, which will hurt, but it’s not a loss that can’t be overcome. On defense, the Lighting really added quality depth by signing Garrison and Stralman. Stralman had a fantastic postseason with the Rangers this past spring, which led to him receiving a nice contract from Tampa Bay. Defense was a big reason for this team’s first round exit to the Canadiens last year, and I think they did a nice job of improving in that area this summer. In goal, Ben Bishop had a crazy good season last year by going 37-14-7 while posting a .924 save percentage and a 2.23 goals-against average. If he hadn’t gotten hurt at the end of the regular season last year, who know where this team may have gone in the playoffs. I’m expecting another big year from Bishop this season. If that happens, there’s no way these guys don’t make the playoffs again. In fact, I wouldn’t be shocked if they win the division assuming everyone stays relatively healthy.
Toronto: There’s really no other way to describe Toronto’s season last year than “disappointing.” Most people thought they’d be back in the postseason last year after a successful 2012-13 season, but they choked down the stretch and landed on the outside looking in. This offseason saw the Leafs acquire forwards David Booth, Matt Fratin, and Mike Santorelli. None of those three will make a huge difference to this team on their own, but the three combined add some depth to this Toronto lineup. The forward group that the Maple Leafs have is not bad by any means, but they could really use another good goal scorer other than Kessel and Van Riemsdyk. The defensive group in Toronto is not bad either. Dion Phaneuf, who many thought would be traded this summer, is the anchor on the Leafs’ back end. He is joined by Cody Franson, Jake Gardiner, Roman Polak, Morgan Reilly, and Stephane Robidas, who when healthy can be a difference maker. The goalie tandem in Toronto of Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer did not live up to expectations last year, and they’ll have to be better this season if the Leafs want a chance at the playoffs. I honestly think the offense and defense are, for the most part, in place for the Leafs to make the postseason, but they can’t afford their top players or goalies to under-perform.
1. Boston 2. Tampa Bay 3. Toronto 4. Montreal 5. Detroit 6. Ottawa 7. Florida 8. Buffalo
(Toronto is my “big prediction” for this division. I think both Florida and Buffalo will improve this year as well.)
PREDICTED EASTERN CONFERENCE PLAYOFF TEAMS:
1. Boston 2. Pittsburgh 3. Tampa Bay 4. NYR 5. Columbus 6. Toronto 7. New Jersey 8. Montreal
(I have much more faith in my Western Conference playoff prediction than I do in this one. I feel like there are no obvious playoff teams in the East outside of Boston, Pittsburgh, and Tampa Bay.)