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Last season the Atlantic division sent four teams to the playoffs. It did not go well, the division winning Montreal Canadiens were beaten soundly by wild card and Metropolitan division middleweight Rangers. The Ottawa Senators downed the Boston Bruins and were the only division team to advance to the second round. The Toronto Maple Leafs crossed over to battle the Washington Capitals and fell to a team that’s not ever shown itself in the best light in the playoffs.

What’s happening with the Atlantic Division this year?

The Buffalo Sabres have gotten a full season from All American stud Jack Eichel, and his linemate Evander Kane. Together the pair rank among the top duos in the league, particularly at even strength where most game minutes are played. This year they’ve brought in under rated veteran defenseman Marco Scandella to strengthen a blueline that was misused and under performing last season. Behind the bench they have rookie head coach Phil Housely who is the architect that made the Nashville Predator’s defense so effective. In net they add Chad Johnson to one of the best goalies in the NHL.

The Florida Panthers regressed notably last season. They had one decent stretch of wins but were just three points better than the Sabres, and still 14 points short of the playoffs with a losing record. Like the Sabres they added a first time NHL head coach in Bob Boughner, who will have Jack Capuano and Rob Tallas helping him steer the club. Aside from naming Chris Pronger an Shawn Thornton VP’s, and signing a couple of draft picks (Owen Tippett, Sebastian Repo) to entry level deals, not much else has gone on.

The Tampa Bay Lightning missed the playoffs by just one point thanks to catastrophic injuries up and down their lineup. Towards the end of the year they traded Ben Bishop who had been their number one net minder.  Incoming are Dan Girardi formerly of the New York Rangers, and Chris Kunitz late of the Pittsburgh Penguins. While I suspect a large part of why the two older players were brought in is leadership, no leader can prevent injuries. A return to good health is likely the best off season transaction they could make.

The Detroit Red Wings missed the playoffs and are currently embroiled in a contract dispute with a one of their better young forwards. The two biggest changes for the Wings in the last twelve months were both off ice. ‘The Joe’ is gone, bringing about an era in a building that isn’t an embarrassment to professional sports. And Mike Ilitch, owner, and driving force behind much of the hockey growth in the Midwest and beyond has passed away. Not enough has changed at ice level for the team to do much worse or much better.

Montreal Canadians, in the last twelve months no Atlantic Division team has changed more. New coach, an almost entirely new blueline including Joe Morrow and Karl Alzner. Up front the Radulov experiment came to an end. Last year’s 103 points are going to be hard to duplicate, but Julien has showed he can drag worse teams than this one to the playoffs, and squeeze 100 or more points out of nearly any roster as long as they show up.

The Boston Bruins had a topsy-turvy season that saw their two best forwards start the year slow. They fired their Stanley Cup winning coach, reshaped their roster, and lucked into a playoff spot. This year Brandon Carlo has a full season under his belt, Charlie McAvoy may well steal the show, and David Pastrnak is still unsigned. It remains to be seen if head coach Bruce Cassidy can recapture the magic that buoyed the team into a playoff spot last spring. The roster will need a lot of young players to step up and not just claim ice time, but own roster spots.

Last years Toronto Maple Leafs were the sensation of last season. They had dazzling rookies, stellar goaltending, and a coach with an aura of greatness. They ran hard towards the playoffs and never anything slow them down. They also had extraordinary good luck in health. Their top 11 scorers missed a total of 10 games. They put on a strong showing in the playoffs, and growth seems likely. The addition of Patrick Marleau for three seasons and more than six million has to be considered at least a little curious given the raises that will be needed for last years rookies next summer and the summer after. The 37 year old spent his entire career to date with the Sharks and has been a very up and down playoff performer.

The post season banner bearers for Atlantic Division were the Ottawa Senators. Despite their inability to fill the stadium, they were perhaps the most consistent team in the division and very quietly finished second. Erik Karlsson will be healthier, Craig Anderson will lack the distractions of last year, and remains a very solid goaltender. They added Nate Thompson and Ben Sexton for depth, but perhaps the most important thing that’s happened to the team was the late year and playoff emergence of the very good Bobby Ryan. He moved crisply, shot precisely, and finished the second round healthy.

Predictions:

Biggest points riser: Buffalo Sabres, I’ll be shocked if they improve less than twelve points.

Most impactful standings rise: Tampa Bay Lightning, Victor Hedman very nearly lifted this team into the playoffs himself last year. There were other contributors, but not enough. Expect them to move up higher than the wild card slot.

Biggest wild card: Toronto Maple Leafs. As I mentioned above, this team was extraordinarily lucky in the way of health. With more than half a dozen rookies breaking out, and making the playoffs the video sessions for the Leafs are going to be much more intense this season. They have about an equal chance of winning the division as they do sliding two or three spots down the standings.

The Pittsburgh Penguins picked up a 1-0 win over the Ottawa Senators. This should be a grave cause of concern for the boys from the steel city. As a whole, Craig Anderson is statistically having his worst playoff run in terms of save percentage. Yet he is still in the Eastern Conference Finals. Lifetime the Park Ridge Illinois native has a .929 playoff sv% and that’s a pretty staggering number considering some of the teams he’s played behind.

This season his total is .920, and there’s been an enormous spike in the last three games where he’s seen an average of 33 shots per game, and had final numbers of .949, .964, and .966. Against the Rangers he had no consecutive games with a save percentage over .900, and he still dragged the Senators past their New York series. The Rangers put a lot more shots on net than the Penguins have managed. The only game of that series in which he faced less than 33 per game was the one he was pulled.

With Craig Anderson heating up, and Bobby Ryan looking like the guy who justified the “still there at two” appellation Brian Burke bestowed on him in his draft year, that’s alarming all by itself. Mike Hoffman has also been a pretty consistent points producer, and him going more than two games without getting on the score sheet is a rarity. Jean Gabriel Pageau has also proven to be an unsolveable riddle for defenses in the second season potting goals against the two previous goaltenders, both Vezina winners, and Fleury doesn’t seem to have an answer either.

Even leaving aside Ryan the three time 30 goal scorer, and both Pageau and Hoffman, the second scariest reason after a hot Anderson the Penguins should be worried comes in two bodies. Dion Phaneuf who seems to finally have learned not to take himself out of position for his earth shattering hits, and Erik Karlsson who has yet to produce a point in this series. Karlsson entered the Eastern Conference Finals one of a handful of skaters and the only defenseman with more than a point per game production. I don’t think it’s likely he’s going to stay off the board much longer.

The Conn Smyth is the NHL’s highest award for an individual player. More times than not the man who hoists the award given to the post season MVP has helped his team win the only team award in the post season. This year each team has a player that is leading the team in what they do, and maybe just a little more.

The Nashville Predators

It’s almost insulting to put anything but the name of the an on this team who is through two rounds the most valuable player. Pekka Rinne is so far ahead of every other goalie to play this year in save percentage it isn’t even worth making comparisons. His goals against average having played two strong playoff opponents is equally eye popping. Seriously, .951 and 1.37 sound like numbers from an exhibition game against a German league team. Add in only 8 skaters on his team having more points than the three assists he’s garnered, and yeah Rinne may just win the Conn Smyth if they make it to the Stanley Cup Finals and lose.

Anaheim Ducks

It’s become something of a truism that when the chips are down and you need a guy to do something special if you close your eyes and pick a guy drafted in 2003 it’s pretty likely to happen. For the Ducks, Ryan Getzlaf is that man. His 1.36 points per game average this post season is probably secondary to the terror he has been to opposing players he’s being credited with three hits a game, picking up blocked shots on a regular basis, he’s played more time than any forward or defenseman on the Anaheim roster, and he’s playing in all situations. The 54.6 faceoff % is worth putting him on the ice for all by itself.

The Pittsburgh Penguins

Most people have their Conn Smyth ballot penciled in when the Penguins make it this far. They either put Crosby or Malkin in without questioning who else is still playing. This year you just can’t do that. Malkin does indeed lead the playoffs in total scoring, but his points per game dipped in the second round, and he was held off the score board in the first and seventh games against Washington. The guy you just can’t ignore is Jake Guentzel, he leads the second season in goals, is over a point per game, and put up eight points against the Capitals

The Ottawa Senators

Like the Predators, the Senators have a no brainer pick on their roster. If this player doesn’t play at his best, they have no shot going forward. He’s currently playing through fractures in his heel. In consideration of that injury he’s taking a leisurely 28:56 of TOI a night, despite having missed the entire third period of one game in the second round. He’s the only defensemen with more than a point per game. He delicate condition has him blocking a mere two shots per game, bettered only by Ceci on the capital city squad.

The Dark Horses

Ryan Ellis is producing .90 points per game in the playoffs. That’s the second highest of any defensemen, and higher than nearly every forward. Why is he still an afterthought?

Cam Fowler missed four playoffs games, but has made up for it playing more and longer shifts than any other defenseman on the team. We all know h’s not a physical player, but he’s slick and positions himself well.

Justin Schulz is doing what no one really expected any one to do: Filling Kris Letang’s void. He leads the blueline in scoring with .67ppg and eating up powerplay time at a ravenous 3:35 per night. He’s turned in 5 powerplay points and a game winning goal in the post season.

Bobby Ryan has scored two game winners to hold him even with Karlsson, one of them in overtime against Boston. Hes also scored the first goal of a game. He’s played smart hockey since the playoff’s started and don’t be surprised if we see yet another level from him.

Last nights Boston Bruins and Ottawa Senators was an exciting affair. Seven goals, some tussles, and even bonus hockey. Some people have thrown the young defensemen under the bus already. I’m not sure that’s useful or even viable. The Senators beat the Bruins soundly and consistently all season, and they did that with the Bruins top six defensemen intact. In Game 3, they went to overtime with four regular defensemen out of the lineup. Krug was the highest scoring defenseman on the team by more than a little, and one of the top scorers in the league. Adam McQuaid who owned an on ice save percentage higher than any other defenseman on the team. Brandon Carlo who has turned in a very, very solid year playing against the best of the NHL. And Colin Miller who has spelled Krug on the powerplay, and performed solidly.

What they got Charlie McAvoy who has now played nearly 100 NHL minutes total, Tommy Cross who has played all of four total NHL games, and Joe Morrow who now has two who playoff games to his name after playing just 20 total games all year. The Bruins defense, highlighted by Morrow in this regard blocked eight shots. They only allowed one more shot than the Senators season average, and that is even taking into consideration the overtime.

Some people have blamed the last goal of the night on Tommy Cross. It is almost a logical conclusion. But if you watch closely, Cross is doing everything he can not to take a penalty, and maintained contact with Bobby Ryan all the way in. If there are two guys in the AHL who can make the shot Ryan did I don’t know who they are, and I doubt most team scouts do either. In the NHL, there maybe 15 guys who are as good at shooting the puck as Ryan. That’s it. Without taking a penalty, there isn’t anything else he could have done.

Why did the Bruins really lose the game? If you don’t believe the Senators are a better team despite the regular season record and the series lead, then there are only two options to consider. The first is that Tuukka Rask turned in his second straight game with a SV% of .875 or lower.

The other option, may just be more palatable to many of the Rask’s defenders. A casual look at one of the stats mentioned above shows an even greater issue than any of the issues with the defensemen. The truth is the forwards were not good in this game. Only two forwards had more than one shot on net.  Riley Nash and Patrice Bergeron. That is it. Stafford and Moore didn’t even have shot attempts. Over 27 minutes of ice time and not even an attempt.  The team put just twenty shots on net in a game that went into overtime. Over the regular season they had more than 32 shots on net per game. You can’t get winning results on low effort.

This irregular feature will run when I get bored. It will ask one scintillating question about each NHL team.

 

Anaheim Ducks: Can this team take advantage of its abundance of youth to compliment its savvy and skilled veteran core?

Boston Bruins: Is there a single hockey observer anywhere who doesn’t think the team is dangling Matt Bartkowski for trade?

Buffalo Sabres: So ah, how about those Buffalo Bills?

Calgary Flames: Are you the one non Flames fan or executive who expected the team to start the season 2-0?

Carolina Hurricanes: Isn’t it great that the Canes put in a great effort for their goaltender Cam Ward opening night and only allowed 38 shots on goal?

Chicago Blackhawks: If the media doesn’t have Patrick Kane’s off ice antics to talk about, will they actually cover the team now?

Colorado Avalanche: We all know the limited shelf life of firey over the top NHL coaches like Guy Boucher and Patrick Roy right?

Columbus Blue Jackets: Do we blame Bobrovksy’s four goal opener on moving east, a lack of defenders who play defense, or just a fat pay day?

Dallas Stars: Will Alex Goligoski ever get recognized as top defenseman?

Detroit Red Wings: Is there a player in the system 30 or under who can emerge as the next “face of the franchise”?

Edmonton Oilers: Can prodigal son and eco-warrior Andrew Ference lead his band of merry man-children to liberate a playoff spot from and deliver it to their poor fans?

Florida Panthers: With new ownership and oodles of cap space this year, how wide with the tap be opened for established NHL talent in the future?

Los Angeles Kings: Without a proven backup will Quick get overworked in the regular season?

Minnesota Wild: Will the Wild faithful stay true if the team underperforms this season?

Montreal Canadiens: With the soon to be 35 year old Brian Gionta’s star waning and an expiring contract, will the Habs relocate the C to another jersey possibly before moving him?

Nashville Predators: Barry Trotz entered the season the NHL’s longest tenured head coach, will he end the season in his current position?

New Jersey Devils: With the leagues oldest team, and all but one of the free agents brought in this season over 30, does this franchise have a path to the future?

New York Islanders: The Islanders took a big step forward last year climbing into the playoffs and battling Sidney Crosby and the Penguins, can Tavares and Hamonic make themselves household names this year?

New York Rangers: How long will it take Marc Staal, Brad Richards and the rest of the blueshirts to adapt to Alain Vigneault’s system?

Ottawa Senators: Captain Spezza, with Bobby Ryan, Milan Michalek, Jared Cowen and Craig Anderson are more than enough to get this team to the second round of the playoffs right?

Philadelphia Flyers: Who will lead the Flyers in the three categories that have defined the team in recent seasons: missed games, PIMS and suspensions?

Phoenix Coyotes: Is Mike Ribeiro the right centerpiece for the teams offense or just another free agent that will do just ok and move on?

Pittsburgh Penguins: This is the year that Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are both healthy right? Right?

San Jose Sharks: Will Bruan, Vlasic, and Hertl emerge to form the new core of this team with Logan Couture?

Saint Louis Blues: Does this team have enough scoring talent and the right coach to take advantage of it?

Tampa Bay Lightning: Does Steve Yzerman who wants fighting out of the game have a punchers chance of seeing his team in the playoffs any time soon?

Toronto Maple Leafs: When the Olympic break rolls around will we be asking where they will find a center, or marveling at Tyler Bozak and Nazem Kadri as a one two punch?

Vancouver Canucks: With a new coach and system in John Tortorella and a general manager Mike Gillis, who has to be fighting for his own job, how much of the current roster will still be in place after the trade deadline?

Washington Capitals: We can all agree that Alex Ovechkin is good for 50+ goals this season, and Mikhail Grabovski will set a personal high in at least one offensive category right?

Winnipeg Jets: With Evander Kane, Dustin Byfuglien, Blake Wheeler, Zach Bogosian, and more in full stride, the biggest question about this team is once again in the crease isn’t it?

With so few of the division’s teams actually on the Atlantic, or even within an hour or two’s flight of the ocean, the name is a mystery. So is the number of teams that will see the second season. The top two are a gimmie, the next four are just a hairs breadth apart.  With three teams boasting Norris trophy winners, and two Selke winners you’ve got a very tough division to climb the ladder in.

Montreal Canadiens:

Good news: Never underestimate the impact of healthy, mobile, two way blueline. PK Subban, Markov, and company are more than a handful.

Bad news: Carey Price wore out last year from being played too much, this year they have the same backup goalie.

Buffalo Sabres:

Good news: The team is returning the highly likeable Tyler Ennis, and is clearly intent on playing the next stars of the team as much as they can.

Bad news: The lingering trade rumors around goalie Ryan Miller and Tomas Vanek are likely to drag the team below even its modest talent levels.

Detroit Red Wings:

Good news: Datsyuk is still wearing the winged wheel, as are Zetterberg and Kronwall.

Bad news: The off season addition don’t put the team over the top.

Toronto Maple Leafs:

Good news, John Scott didn’t manage to kill Phil Kessel in the preseason, and Tyler Bozak is looking energized.

Bad news: Coaches who drive one good player out of town for unknowable reasons, probably won’t stop their.

Ottawa Senators:

Good news: A healthy Spezza with an angry Bobby Ryan is a recipe for magic.

Bad news: With the players moved for Bobby Ryan, they sacrificed some youth, and maybe a little depth.

Florida Panthers:

Good news: They added a veteran goaltender in the person of Tim Thomas, and they picked up ownership that may just open the money tap.

Bad news: The Panthers don’t have much depth at any given position.

Tampa Bay Lightning:

Good news: Stamkos, Stamkos, Stamkos and some guy named Martin St Louis.

Bad news: Those are 100% of the teams valuable players.

Boston Bruins:

Good news: Savvy off season moves make this team arguably better than the one they won the Stanley Cup with.

Bad news: The only position you can’t say that about is goaltending if only because they’re backup is clearly a backup.

Top three teams:

Boston Bruins, Ottawa Senators, Montreal Canadiens.

The Bruins are clearly the cream of the crop, The Senators probably have the best goaltender in Craig Anderson when he’s healthy, and the Canadians have admirable depth at forward and defense. The Red Wings, and Leafs are within striking distance of an assured post season berth. The rest of the division would all require some form of hefty upgrade between now and Thanksgiving.

The west is a very intruiging mix this year. Because of how few teams there are in the west, the races will be very, very tight after the number two slot in each division.

The Pacific Division:

The Phoenix Coyotes:

Good news is there is no more ownership drama. The better news is the roster was filled out a little bit more with the addition of the fiesty Mike Ribiero and at least currently with David Rundblad on the backline.

Bad news is they are an above average roster on paper in a division with several teams who are on paper better.

Anaheim Ducks:

Good news: Depth was added to the forward group over the summer, last years home grown young players are more developed as well.

Bad news: With the exile of Bobby Ryan, this team that was for so long Getzaf, Ryan, Perry, up front will have to recreate their on ice identity.

San Jose Sharks:

Good News: The teams core group is still intact.

Bad news: With the exception of Logan Couture and Marc-Edouard Vlasic, this group is aging rapidly, and prone to breaking down in the playoffs.

Los Angeles Kings:

Good News: The roster is changed very little since they won the cup. Tyler Toffoli is in, Dustin Penner is gone.

Bad News:  They are bad news for their opponents.

Vancouver Canucks:

Good news: No more “1a and 1b starters”, better depth at center.

Bad news: A backup that no one can name or recognize who hasn’t proven he’s NHL ready

Edmonton Oilers:

Good news: The defense has finally been upgraded. Finally.

Bad news: They still need to learn how to play defense as a team.

Calgary Flames:

Good news: Leadership finally acknowledged they need to rebuild.

Bad news: The job they are doing with that rebuild is still iffy.

 

Top three teams:

Anaheim Ducks, Los Angeles Kings, Vancouver Canucks.

If the Ducks can get solid performences from the guys after Getzlaf, Perry and Selanne, like Kyle Palmeri and Matthieu Perreault upfront, and on the backend Cam Fowler and Hampus Lindholm the division is there to be taken. If they can’t the Kings will grab it.

The San Jose Sharks ended last year the way they do almost every season. They showed lots of flash and polish, but eventually ended up disappointing everyone on the ice and in the corner office. They made the playoffs, and swept the Vancouver Canucks, then went to the mat with the Los Angeles Kings. Patrick Marleau was again smothered, failing to register a single point in the final five games against the Kings. Logan Couture didn’t tally a single goal in the final three games of that second round series, and Niemi did all that could be expected of him giving up more than two goals in the series just once. Per usual, Joe Thornton got too much blame and little to no credit.

Then the off season came, and went. No major changes. The forward additions are Tyler Kennedy and possibly one of the half hundred young and unknown quantities like Tomas Hertl, Freddie Hamitlon, or James Livingston. The long anticipated breakup of the team core never happened. At least part of that is due to the contracts or performances making players unmovable. A new backup goalie will need to emerged as Thomas Greiss has vacated the scene.

The first five games of the Sharks season will be very interesting. They meet up with the Vancouver Canucks and their new coach John Tortorella  twice, Raffi Torres, Thomas Greiss and the Phoenix Coyotes, and then play host to the Daniel Alfredsson-less but Bobby Ryan enriched Ottawa Senators.  With four of their first fist-full at home and no back to backs, they have a good shot at swimming to the front of the division early.

Number of days 1-5: 9

Number of cities: 2

Best opponent: New York Rangers

Weakest opponent: Phoenix Coyotes

Home games: 4

Projected points: 7

With three of their opening five games against teams with new head coaches, the Sharks have the chance to jump on teams not quite used to a new system. The team has been in “win now” mode for at least the last half decade, it is time to produce or get off the pot. Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, and Dan Boyle are all on contracts that expire at the end of the season. As things stand today, they are slightly over the salary cap so an early season, or late preseason trade if one or two of the younger players push someone out the door isn’t out of the question. They have the tools to have a good regular season, but that hasn’t been in doubt for many years.

The Anahiem Ducks had an enormous regular season. Then in the playoffs they fell to the weaker Detroit Red Wings when they couldn’t push the dagger into finish the series and advance. Since then they have traded away Olympian, and consistent 30 goal man Bobby Ryan. In exchange they got even younger adding Jakob Silfverberg, Stefan Noesen, and a first round draft pick in the 2014 draft. The team already had youngsters Kyle Palmieri, Nick Bonino, Cam Fowler and Emerson Etem. Teemu Selanne is not signed, David Steckel and Matthew Lombardi are even less likely to return. Jonas Hiller crept back towards his previous career save percentage, and turned in a very solid seven games in the playoffs. Pushing him every step of the way was Victor Fasth who if he’d been a bit younger or played a few more games might just have won an individual award last year.

The Ducks season starts with a three game road trip taking them to visit the Avalanche, Wild and Jets. They open at home and host the New York Rangers and their new head coach. After that they throw down with the Ottawa Senators and old friend Bobby Ryan.

Number of Days 1-5: 11

Number of Cities: 4

Best Opponent: Toss up, there isn’t muchto separate the Senators and Wild

Weakest Opponent: Avalanche

Home Games: 2

Projected points: 5+

Overall the season outlook is very good for the Ducks, their own youngsters are maturing and got a taste of the NHL playoffs and Silfverberg should slide in nicely having gotten his second taste of the NHL playoffs last season. Cam Fowler’s game is rounding out to a more well rounded three zone game than in his debut season. And they have two solid goalies going into the season.