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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 off season has barely begun, and yet we’re under a year from Brent Burns becoming an unrestricted free agent. While he has easily had the best years of his career from a production standpoint in San Jose the team hasn’t won anything, and is unlikely to be better two years from now than it was this spring. Burns may well decide to move on, and I’m not sure that’s a bad thing for him.

If you look at the team you have two players from the 1996 draft who have never won, and are nearing the end of their careers. Joe Thornton is a far better competitor than people give him credit for, and he was a point a game in the regular season last year. But at 36 years old that almost has to be counted as a fluke given that it was his best production since the 2009-10 season. Perhaps even more gratifying for fans of the future hall of famer is that Thornton stayed very nearly at that pace through the playoffs. Patrick Marleau will be 37 when hockey starts up this fall. His production numbers have been sliding for years, and it is very unlikely he’s anything but a 3rd line winger and maybe powerplay specialist in two years, assuming he is still playing.

That leaves the teams other stars, and Brent Burns should he decide to stay, as the team’s foundation. Logan Couture proved he lives up to the hype by being productive all through the playoffs and into the Stanley Cup Finals. Then there’s the newly minted 33 year old Joe Pavelski, who aside from sensational faceoff prowess in the finals was a no show. One point in six games. Is he going to be better and more productive at 35 and 37 in the playoffs than he is now?

If you go further down the roster to guys who can be expected to be around in two years, you get Joonas Donskoi and Tomas Hertl, two young forwards with a lot of upside who haven’t yet peaked. But no one sees these two as franchise cornerstones the way Thornton and Marleau were viewed, or even at the level of Couture and Pavelski.

So maybe Brent Burns does what is in his own best interest and moves on. Perhaps the best model for him to follow would be the one Marian Hossa used several years ago. Like Burns he was in his prime and he and the Atlanta Thrashers weren’t going to get a deal done. He was traded to a contender for some serviceable players, picks, and prospects. Then the next year he signed with a different contender before finding his long term home in Chicago.

It’s hard to imagine any team not throwing a bid at his agent if Burns does hit free agency. In all likelihood, his rights even as late as the draft next year would fetch a respectable return. We know when he moved from Minnesota to California he had to give up his herptoculture, maybe he wants to take it up again, or play for his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs. Perhaps he thinks together him and Ovechkin can raise the Cup. Whatever he decides, there are a lot of reasons not to stay in San Jose.

This may be the best first round matchup for hockey. The Kings have won a cup recently, as have have the Ducks. The Sharks spent half a decade as the favorites to win it and still haven’t. A first round meeting of two California teams where the winner will quite likely play the third California team is likely to catapult the youth hockey enrollment numbers. And yes, seeing guys like Carter and Richards go toe to toe with Thornton and Pavelski will be more than a bit fun to watch too.

San Jose Sharks

The Sharks a very interesting mix of household names and guys no ones ever heard of. They have arguably the deepest six defensemen in the NHL, without having a guy currently at an elite level back there. Thornton and Marleau will get most of the media attention, but Vlasic, Pavelski, and Couture have worn out some boots this season getting them here.

Best Players

While Joe Thornton is still the best pure passer in the NHL, he’s not getting any younger, Joe Pavelski is a different case. They younger Joe is clearly at, or possibly just reaching the height of his powers, and Marleau just keeps trucking along.

X-Factor

Do they want it? This team has not ever reached its potential. Some years they went into the playoffs very damaged, others they got hurt early, and some years they just showed up and expected to win. This year they need to go attack the ice like it is their last chance at glory and their only hope at salvation, because it just well may be.

Los Angeles Kings

Same story, different year. The Kings enter the playoffs this year with bottom tier scoring and top end defense. The backup goalie could be a starter on many teams, and the late season trade piece (in this case Gaborik) are expected to scare up offense for the whole team. If you’re looking at recent history, that was what happened their Cup year. Can it happen now? Who knows?

Best players:

Jonathan Quick is having a solid, if not spectacular year, Drew Doughty is still improving in his own zone, and Jeff Carter and Anze Kopitar are the only two players who managed to break 20 goals this season. For the team to make a deep run, they are going to need help from all over the roster.

X-Factor

Goaltending. If Quick can regain his cup winning form, or Martin Jones goes in and makes people look as foolish as he did in the regular season, the Kings will likely be playing in May. They will still need to score goals however and that has been a problem in LA for at least half a decade.

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 San Jose Sharks are once again on the outside looking in. Despite years of solid regular season performances, tons of hope, lots of trades and stars who are paid quite well, they no longer have a chance of lifting Lord Stanley’s Cup, and the finals haven’t even started. The core of this team has spent half a decade proving they can’t win when it counts. Worse, unless ownership and management decide to resort to methods that’d earn disapproval from the UN committee on human rights, it is unlikely to be something that is fixable by moving those players who have failed longest.

Twenty million of the clubs sixty four million in cap space is tied up in just three players. Joe Thornton, former league MVP and team captain sits at the top of the food chain. With a cap hit over seven million, him moving out could open the door for lots of possibilities. The UFA market this year has quite a few guys with their name on the Cup who could give the team star power, depth and winning experience. With one more year on his contract, the soon to be thirty four year old is more valuable to a team like the Nashville Predators or Saint Louis Blues who need an injection of offensive flair, than the San Jose Sharks who need depth and balance.  Unfortunately he has a no movement clause.

Patrick Marleau has the all time lead in pretty much every statistic the San Jose Sharks keep, including games played without winning a Cup and being called gutless on national tv by a former teammate. For another year, he failed to justify it. Fourth in post season scoring, and well under a point per game. He was third in scoring in the regular season and failed to register a point in five of the seven games against the Los Angeles Kings. If there is any man in the western conference in more dire need of relocation than Marleau, I don’t know who he is. With a year left on his contract, Marleau who can play center, or wing successfully, at least in the regular season, might just thrive on a team like The Islanders, Devils, Canadiesn, or Red Wings where he’d be about the six or seventh best known forward. Also soon to be 34, he too has a no movement clause.

It might just be time for rumors to meet reality in the case of Dan Boyle. He’s shown he can contribute under pressure, unfortunately he’s on a team that wilts when spring arrives. He’s he’s played internationally, on good NHL teams and bad, he was part of the last Olympic win. Unfortunately at 37, he’s unlikely to play much more than three or maybe four more seasons if he stays healthy and motivated. Based on what Douglas Murray brought the Sharks this year, he ought to easily fetch a first round pick and two solid prospects.

One, two or perhaps even all three of these players might believe they have unfinished business and want to stick around and win one with the guys they know and have played years with. Unfortunately, that just isn’t true. The Sharks don’t have the depth or the chemistry to win a Stanley Cup. If they want to repay the fan base for ill spent  support the best thing the core of the Sharks can do is waive their no movement clauses and allow themselves to be traded for the best package for the team and fans.

#1 Vs #8

The Chicago Blackhawks seemingly have everything going this season. They have two goalies putting up top flight numbers. they have an upgraded defense that has allowed Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook to reclaim the form that helped the team win the Cup a few years back. Better still, they have arguably the best forward group in the NHL; Toews, Kane, Hossa, Saad and Sharp.

The Minnesota Wild are that new kid in playoff town no one knows quite what to make of. On paper the Wild have every tool they need to be dangerous, and even contend. In reality, they lack playoff experience, especially with Pominville and Heatley on the shelf. Add that to five of six blueliners who have never seen the NHL playoffs, and you have a recipe for a dicey playoff series.

Players to watch:

For the Wild, don’t be surprised if rookie Charlie Coyle comes up big in spots, Setogouchi is a threat, and Mikko Koivu is never to be underestimated.

On the other side of the puck for the Blackhawks, Kane, Hossa and Toews can all take over games individually.

Edge:

Chicago, it isn’t purely the quality that they lead in, it is the playoff experience, particularly on the blueline that will decide this series.

#2 vs. #7

Anaheim Ducks have almost no pressure this year. Sidney Crosby and the Penguins are drawing an inexplicable amount of attention, and Chicago was start to finish the best team in the NHL. The Ducks simply have to get on the ice and execute. They have savvy older veterans in Koivu and Selanne. They have high quality younger veterans still in their prime in Ryan, Getzlaf, and Perry. They also have a surprisingly strong backend in net and on the blueline. They don’t have any dominant or elite players there, but they do have several really good ones.

The Detroit Red Wings have made the playoffs again keeping their two decade long streak intact. They have Jimmy Howard who again very quietly put up impressive numbers, they have Datsyuk, and Zetterberg. These are not your Dad’s Red Wing’s though, they just don’t have even one elite talent on their blueline, much less two or three as they have had in years past.

Players to watch:

If the Wings don’t have Howard playing top notch goaltending, they don’t have anything, For them to win,  guys like Tootoo, Smith, and other role players will have to elevate their game.

The Ducks need to have their defense continue to smother their opponents, and have at least one of their goaltenders show up and never take their eyes off of Zetterberg and Datsyuk.

Edge:

Wings can’t win this if the Ducks show up and execute. It’s just that simple.

#3 vs. #6

Vancouver Canucks, it is put up or shutup time in Vancouver. They drama in their net has covered up the fact that this isn’t as good a team as it was in years past. They only won their division by four points, by comparison the Washington Capitals won by 6, and of the six division winners this is the team that scored the least this season. The Sedin twins combined for less goals than Jiri Tlusty. They put up the mediocre season numbers with three of the bottom four teams in their conference playing in their division.

San Jose Sharks are also at the point where if they don’t win the Cup it is tie to break up the band. Marleau, Boyle, and Thornton don’t have many more years left in them and behind them there isn’t much to write home about. What gives this squad a bit of believability is that Niemi, who was part of the Chicago cup run, has turned in the best regular season of his career and played in 43 of the teams 48 games.

Players to watch:

Ryan Kesler and Kevin Bieksa are two guys you should never ever count out, for the Canucks to do well, these two will likely be the biggest impact players.

Joe Thornton appears to have learned how to play big in the playoffs, and Raffi Torres (when he plays clean) is a surprisingly good playoff player.

Edge:

This series is almost a push, but I give the edge to San Jose, Thornton, Marleau, Couture are are better right now than any three forwards you can name for the Sharks, and with Schneider’s injury and the general chaos in British Columbia I don’t like the Canucks chances.

#4 vs. #5

The Saint Louis Blues boast some damn fine players no one talks about because the team is too far south. David Backes is a game changer, Pietrangelo is one of the best defensemen in the game, and Chris Stewart turned in more points in 48 games this year than he did in 79 last year. Goaltending is clearly this teams weakness, but with Oshie coming back the team gains immediately in two way play.

The reigning champions the Los Angeles Kings have to get scoring from more people than just Jeff Carter and Dustin Brown, if for no other reason than Jonathan Quick is not as good this year as last. They’ve gotten a slight refresh adding Regehr and injecting Muzzin into the lineup, but the roster is really almost identical. You have to question the teams hunger a little.

Players to watch:

Drew Doughty emerged as an elite two way defenseman during last year playoffs establishing his bona fides in his own end in addition to the offensive ability he’s always displayed, he and Mike Richards who is frequently overlooked on this team will be crucial to this team going anywhere.

For the Blues, Vladimir Sobotka just finds an extra gear in the playoffs and he can tilt the ice, but he won’t be enough, Bouwmeester, Oshie, and Perron will have to show up and put in work.

Edge:

This is a push, the Blues I think have the edge in hunger, the Kings have the edge in knowing how to win in the post season.

Total Wins by eliminated teams this round; 9

 

The San Jose Sharks are an interesting team. By almost any logic this or last off season were the time to blow the team up. And yet they remain. In fact they grow. Last seasons sixth place finish was hardly what people have come to expect of the team.

Good News

  • The acquisitions were clearly targeted to address their god awful penalty kill.
  • Two seasons ago, before injuries ended their second-season the team looked like it knew how to win in the playoffs.

Bad News

  • The key players on this team are not young. Thornton, Marleau, Boyle, Stuart will all be at least 33 before the season closes.
  • Depth?
  • Character of second tier guys, specifically Pavelski who wasted twenty minutes of ice time a night in last years playoffs need to be answered in the affirmative.

Forecast

High: 6-9  Arguably the division has gotten easier with so much talent leaving Phoenix Some  of it landed in Dallas, but the Kings also had a long, long run and could be weaker this year at least in the regular season.

Low: If they don’t fix their penalty kill, or Niemi and Greiss are not average to above average all season, It is likely Todd McLellan and several names off their roster will be going to a different rink before seasons end.

X-Factor

The big one with the San Jose Sharks is can they take the regular season seriously enough to get home ice and then stay healthy in the post season. The trend in the NHL the last three years has been to end long cup droughts, there’s qualifies.

The west is a little less difficult to parse than the east. In the east there are three clear groups of teams currently in playoff position or just outside it. In the west there are just two groups. Those with a viable shot at the Cup, and those who have a shot at playing past the second week of April. The first group comes down to Vancouver, Detroit and maybe San Jose, the other group is the everyone else.

Detroit Red Wings: Buy. A solid backup goaltender is a must. Not as much for the playoffs as for the rest of the season. Jimmy Howard is on pace for 74 games at this point. That is eleven more regular season games than either of his first two seasons. It’s also an incredible workload for any goalie. Given how long most playoff series go, that could translate to a 100 games played for a goalie if things go the way the team would like. Getting a few more games off before the post season can’t hurt, and a viable backup in case things go wrong in the post season is it’s own reward.

Vancouver Canucks: Swap. Attitude is needed, as is a tweak or two on the blueline.

San Jose Sharks: Swap/Buy. If they can shift Nittymaki elsewhere for a bit off offensive punch that’s ideal, if not they may have to expend a few assets. Getting Havlat will aid the effort, but this could be the last disco for Thornton, Marleau and Boyle.

St Louis Blues: Buy. Offense is a must. As good as Elliott and Halak have been all season, getting around some of the top teams in the west on two goals against in the playoffs is going to be all but impossible.

Nashville Predators: Stand. They have the goods to get the job done, as long as they stay healthy they have no excuse for not playing in at least the second round. If they decide they can’t resign one or both of Suter and Weber they need to bring back an oil fields worth of income.

Chicago Blackhawks: Buy. Anything on the backend will help. The goaltenders are both outside the top 30 in save percentage, but I can’t hold out much hope for defense that has both O’Donnell and Montador on it. Getting someone to help out their 27th ranked penalty kill might just be something to look into at the same time.

Los Angeles Kings: Swap. Send a prospect or defenseman out for a top six offensive minded forward. They backend is impressive, but Kopitar, Richards, Brown are outnumbered trying to carry an offense all by themselves. As good as Quick has been this season it would be a crime not to get enough offense to make a run.

Minnesota Wild: Swap. They have enough viable defensemen tor trade to bring in all the offense they need without having to sacrifice a single draft pick, juniors or college prospect. Even with all the injuries they have had they’ve shown the mental toughness to stay afloat which will do them good in the playoffs. A touch more offense on the roster might even push them back to being a team that sells out every game again.

Colorado Avalanche: Sell. A fundamentally flawed team. A number of physically and mentally fragile players in key positions. Turn out the front office and start over.

Dallas Stars: Stand. They’ve got a solid, if oddly unknown team, unless they can get big names for a reasonable price they are a bit too average to go deep but will be better next year if Benn, Eriksson and Bachman continue to develop.

Calgary Flames: Sell. Yes they’ve just pulled off two trades, one with Chicago, one with Montreal that have made them nominally more talented, but short of adding one of the leagues top ten centers, and a good middle pairing defenseman, they’d be lucky to make the playoffs and see seven games in the first round.

A look at the east.

The Toronto Maple Leafs rolled into town undefeated with the hottest forward in the NHL playing on their right wing. They pierced Thomas quickly. Then Colton Orr made himself the first to dance with Shawn Thornton on the new year. That was the last time you could say Brian Burkes squad was in holding their own.

After Steckel’s goal, the Bruins would go on a run to score six unanswered goals. This included two powerplay goals. The score sheet was more cluttered than Wayne Gretzky’s trophy case. Hits, shots, faceoff wins came in bunches. Andrew Ference had three assists, blocked four shots and made two solid hits. Patrice Bergeron took nine shots on goal and scored his first of the year. Milan Lucic ran people over and collected a goal and two assists.

Tyler Seguin set up Zdeno Chara’s first of the season, then set up Milan Lucic’s first of the season as well. The second year forward had to wait nearly ten minutes after his helper on Lucic’s before being set up for his second of the year. Steve Kampfer returned to play twelve and a half busy minutes in which he went plus two, dished out hits, blocked shots and brought a steady, speedy NHL ready presence to the blueline. Tim Thomas was Tim Thomas on a light work night with just twenty eight shots coming at him.

The most important thing about this game was what didn’t happen; they didn’t drop off after going down early. Nearly as important is they played to win until the end. Six goals, even if against a backup is not something that happens by accident. None of the goals were bobbles, they all beat Gustovsson clean. No one was sitting on the goalie when the puck went in, no reviews, all the goals were hustle and sweet feeds. Saturday will be a big test, when the Sharks come to town. Summer pickup Martin Havlat should be joining the team on the ice and should slide onto a powerplay that already has Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau.