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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.

Terry Pegula finally got around to selecting a general manager for the Buffalo Sabres. The rumor mill was a little better than average this time with early word that Jason Botterill was the man who was getting the job. Botterhill comes out of the Pittsburgh Penguins organization where he was a fixture for about a decade. His stated goal is to build a contender every year at both the NHL and AHL levels.

Man is that delusional. In order to build a contending NHL team in the salary cap era you have to be constantly flushing talent out of your farm system. Yes there are exceptions, and Pittsburgh is one of them, but they aren’t common. Further more the biggest factors the Penguins have in their favor simply don’t apply to the Buffalo Sabres organization.

The Pittsburgh Penguins have cache they have the two of the top ten players in the NHL in Geno Malkin and Sidney Crosby. They have two cup wins in the last decade. They have an owner who won multiple cups, multiple MVPs, and who is one of those rare generational talents who actually understand’s the business side of the game as well. The other sneaky thing they do that is the kryptonite of other teams is bring players from their successful AHL franchise to their successful NHL franchise while they’re still young

While there are a lot of players who would like to play in one city for their whole career, the truth is that all of them simply want to play in the NHL the bulk of their career. If they can put a couple seasons with Malkin and Crosby on their resume, they know they will get better offers when it is time to go elsewhere. Those players also know that the next man up mantra isn’t just lip service. Unlike with the Red Wings or Boston Bruins the next roster spot will open up before players drafted into the system at 18 turn 25 or 30.

That window to get into the NHL and play for a bigger salary is longer and closer. This enables them to sign free agent out of the USHL, college, and the CHL. While Pittsburgh is hardly America’s premier metropolis, its total metroplitan area population is larger than that of Buffalo and Rochester combined. All those additional opportunities for entertainment are important when you have two or thee months off every year, and when you just want to take your billet parents or your family to a couple nice places.

Buffalo doesn’t have that winning tradition. While Eichel, Kane, Lehner, and O’Reilly are all well above average players, most hockey observers would rate the star appeal of Malkin and Crosby higher, and some would say that either Penguin outweighs the four Sabres.

Am I saying there’s no one in the world who will want to play hockey in Rochester and Buffalo? No. Just that the pool of talent is so much smaller that building not one but two contenders is likely beyond the ability of anyone, much less a newly minted general manager who like his ownership group has done two things when in the big chair. One of them is ‘jack’ and the other starts with ‘s’.

George McPhee as general manager of the Washington Capitals had a well earned reputation for loving Russian players. It’s no surprise there are reports he’s slid his finger into every vatrushka in Russia to see which he likes best. For years it seemed there more Russians than North Americas in the Capitals lockerroom. Don’t be surprised if there are two, three or even five Russian players on the ice when the Vegas Golden Knights go for broke on the very first night they play for real.

But he’s not going to build a cap complaint, or more importantly a competitive NHL team out of KHL dissidents. He needs to take a look at talented players in the NHL right now, who for one reason or another aren’t a fit in the city they are playing now. For all the rumors and swirling talk about players like Eichel wanting out of Buffalo or Kucherov calling out his team in Tampa, no one seriously thinks either of those players is being moved.

But there are a pair of forwards, both on the opposite end of the continent from the Golden Knights that might just be perfect for a team that needs youth, skill, hope, and names the fans and media are familiar with. The elder of the two is a geriatric twenty-five year old who has speed and agility that easily place him in the top five percent in both categories league wide, passing ability that puts him on an even more exclusive, and no end of frustration on the Boston Bruins. The younger of those players reminds many observers of a larger Sergie Samsanov. He’s thickly built without any excess, he’s agile, he’s got a dynamic scoring touch, and speaks with a nearly palpable accent, despite where he was born.

It’s impossible to wander onto any Canadiens or Bruins focused forum and avoid links, rumors, and stories about the imminent trade of Ryan Spooner and Alex Galchenyuk. These two have for varying reasons managed to disappoint in the markets that drafted them. I think the case against Spooner is probably a better one, but even there when he played with guys who could skate with him, and were active shooters and didn’t possess the same pass first (and second, and third, and possibly fourth) mentality he does he did really well. A lot was made over the downturn in Galchenyuk’s production this year. After a 30 goal season I think many expected him to eclipse the forty goal mark in short order. He didn’t, and while his goal scoring was down, his actual points per game production was up.

Then came the playoffs. His first taste of post season action where Galchenyuk had to be considered in the top two or three as offensive threats, and he got smothered by Ottawa, he still produced at half a point per game, but that wasn’t enough to mollify Montreal observers. Spooner who has playing between guys who are more grinders than finesse players and who haven’t a hope of keeping up with him in speed was supplanted by Sean Kuraly in the playoffs and has likely played his last game in a Boston Bruins uniform.

McPhee could do so very much worse than to acquire this pair of forwards. The two have name recognition, playoff experience, are old enough to have passed through Vegas as adults a couple times, and both are almost certainly in need of a fresh start. I can’t imagine GM GM building a team that wasn’t speed and skill based, and these two fit the bill. I doubt the Bruins would expect to get more than a second round pick for Spooner who is an RFA with arbitration rights this summer. A Galchenyuk acquisition might take a little more, but is even a first and a third too much to pay for a 23 year old who leads the 2012 draft class in points and has a 30 goal season on his resume?

Duke Reid and Vadim Shipachyov need team mates, Vegas needs skill, recognition, and youth. Galchenyuk and Spooner likely need to play for their second NHL team. Together they could make beautiful hockey.