Alex Brandon/The Associated Press
The Washington Capitals were the best team statistically in the 2015-16 regular season. They dominated within the Metropolitan Division and performed well against most of their main rivals. While the Capitals were successful inside of their own division, the Capitals crushed the Atlantic Division in 2015-16.
The Capitals went 19-5 against their Atlantic Division foes last season. Out of the 8 teams in the Atlantic Division, the Capitals swept 4 of them (Tampa Bay, Boston, Ottawa, Toronto).
Like the Metropolitan Division teams, the Atlantic Division teams saw some changes during the off-season.
What can the Washington Capitals expect from their Atlantic Division foes in 2016-17? Who has improved, and who has not from the 2015-16 season? Will the Capitals be able to achieve another 19-5 record or better record against the Atlantic Division in the upcoming season?
The Bruins were a few points short of making the playoffs in 2015-16. Heading into the off-season, some blueline adjustments were needed to make the club more competitive. Unfortunately for the Bruins, they’ve been unsuccessful in landing a top-4 defensemen this summer. Instead of adding a top-4 defenseman, they added former Blues Captain David Backes to a 5-year, $30 million contract in free agency. Backes, 32, recorded 21 goals and 45 points for the Blues last season. In addition to adding Backes, the Bruins decided to let forward Loui Eriksson go in free agency, as Eriksson decided to join the Vancouver Canucks. 39-year old Bruins Captain Zdeno Chara led all Bruins blueliners in total icetime in 2015-16.
The Bruins will most likely be on the playoff bubble entering the new season. The blueline is still not quite deep enough, and Zdeno Chara isn’t getting any younger. The Bruins will have to depend on Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and David Krejci for a majority of their goal scoring.
The Capitals swept the Bruins in 2015-16, and should continue to perform well against them this upcoming season.
The Sabres improved their team a bit this off-season. GM Tim Murray traded for former Florida Panthers defenseman Dmitry Kulikov at the NHL Draft. On top of adding Kulikov, Murray signed former NY Islanders forward Kyle Okposo to a lengthy 7-year, $42 million deal at the beginning of the free agency period.
The Sabres are still in the middle of a rebuild, and 2015-16 got a bit derailed for them as goaltender Robin Lehner missed several months of action with an injury. There is plenty of optimism surrounding the Sabres and their young forwards. Jack Eichel, who was taken #2 overall in the 2015 Draft, had a fantastic rookie season for the Sabres in 2015-16. The Sabres have another young promising forward with Sam Reinhart, who was the #2 overall pick in the 2014 Draft.
The Capitals went 2-1 against the Sabres last season. The Sabres compete hard under Head Coach Dan Bylsma, so they are a team that the Capitals cannot sleep on during the season.
DETROIT RED WINGS
Pavel Datsyuk’s departure is the biggest news out of Detroit in years. The 38-year old decided to go back home to Russia after spending 14 seasons with the Red Wings.
With Datsyuk gone, the Red Wings were busy in free agency. They signed former Islanders forward Frans Nielsen to a 6-year, $31.5 million deal at the beginning of free agency. In addition to Nielsen, they signed former Wild forward Thomas Vanek to a 1-year deal.
The Capitals went 2-1 against the Red Wings last season, and their two wins against them came in the overtime and shootout periods respectively. The Red Wings two goalies, Jimmy Howard and Petr Mrazek, played phenomenal hockey against the Caps. In the 3-game series against the Red Wings, the Capitals threw 105 shots at the two netminders and only tallied 5 goals.
The Red Wings have a long playoff streak going, it is expected to continue heading into the 2016-17 season. If Petr Mrazek and Jimmy Howard can keep up their stellar play against the Capitals and other teams, the Red Wings should see the playoffs again.
Like the Red Wings, the Panthers gave the Capitals fits last season. The Panthers have steadily become a force in the Atlantic Division. They are young, hungry, fast, and well-coached.
Before free agency began in July, the Panthers made a slew of moves to change their blueline. They traded defenseman Erik Gudbranson to the Vancouver Canucks in exchange for forward Jared McCann. In late June, the Panthers traded for the rights of Rangers defenseman Keith Yandle. A few days later, Yandle signed a lengthy 7-year deal to stay in South Florida. At the Draft, they traded defenseman Dmitry Kulikov to the Buffalo Sabres in exchange for defenseman Mark Pysyk. At the beginning of free agency, the Panthers signed former Stars defenseman Jason Demers to a 5-year, $22.5 million deal. The Panthers also added goaltender James Reimer to the mix, to add some insurance for Roberto Luongo.
In addition to their blueline changes, the Panthers handed out contract extensions to several of their own players this summer. The most notable names with brand new contracts include Aaron Ekblad, Reilly Smith, and Vincent Trocheck.
The Capitals went 1-2 against the Panthers in 2015-16. Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby did not play in any of the games against the Panthers. The Panthers won the Atlantic Division last season, and are the favorite to win it again.
The pitchforks were out on June 28 when the Montreal Canadiens shipped All-Star defenseman P.K. Subban to the Nashville Predators in exchange for defenseman Shea Weber. The NHL universe went crazy with the news of this mega deal.
The wheels fell off for the Habs in 2015-16 when goaltender Carey Price missed significant time with a right knee injury. Heading into 2016-17, GM Marc Bergevin and Head Coach Michel Therrien could both be on the hot seat if the club does not improve in the standings.
The Habs were busy at the NHL Draft. They traded Lars Eller to the Washington Capitals, and they also acquired former Chicago Blackhawks forward Andrew Shaw via trade. At the beginning of free agency, the Habs signed forward Alexander Radulov, who has spent the last few years in the KHL.
The Capitals went 2-1 against the Habs in 2015-16, and did not have to face Carey Price in any of the matchups. If Price is healthy the whole season, the Habs will rebound and maybe become a playoff bubble team.
The Senators have gone through multiple changes in their front office and coaching. Longtime GM Bryan Murray stepped down in early April, and assistant GM Pierre Dorion was promoted as the club’s new GM.
In early May, Dorion brought in Guy Boucher as the new Head Coach, and Marc Crawford as an associate coach.
Dorion remained fairly quiet at the Draft and at the beginning of free agency. In mid-July, Dorion traded forward Mika Zibanejad to the NY Rangers in exchange for forward Derick Brassard. The move was questionable, considering Zibanejad is 5 years younger than Brassard, and Dorion sweetened the deal by throwing in a 2nd round pick.
The Capitals went 3-0 against the Senators in 2015-16. Alex Ovechkin tallied his 500th (and 501st) career goals against Ottawa back in January in a 7-1 win. The Senators will most likely be a non-playoff team in 2016-17.
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
GM Steve Yzerman was a busy man this off-season. Right before free agency began, he locked up Steven Stamkos to a lengthy 8-year deal worth $68 million. At the beginning of free agency, he extended defenseman Victor Hedman for 8 years and goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy for 3 years. Midway through free agency, Yzerman re-signed forward Alex Killorn to a 7-year deal.
It is now mid-August, and young star forward Nikita Kucherov has not been signed to a new contract yet. Kucherov is coming off back-to-back 60+ point seasons. Both sides are confident a deal will get done before the season gets started.
The Lightning have had plenty of success the last number of years. They have been to the Eastern Conference Finals in 3 out of the last 6 seasons, and have been to the Stanley Cup Final once in that time frame.
The Capitals went 3-0 against the Lightning in 2015-16. All three games were decided by 2 goals or less. The Lightning will compete for the Atlantic Division title in 2016-17, and could very well end up back in the Stanley Cup final with the amount of talent that they have at every position.
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
The Maple Leafs have been hoarding draft picks, as they are now in full rebuild. They landed the #1 overall pick at the 2016 NHL Draft, and selected Auston Matthews with that pick.
The Maple Leafs management and fans are hopeful that Matthews can become the elite #1 center for them for many years to come. This is a position that they have not truly filled since Mats Sundin departed the organization.
In addition to Matthews, the Maple Leafs top prospects include William Nylander, Mitchell Marner, and Kasperi Kapanen. The Leafs are forming a solid young core group of players, and should be fun to watch in a few more years down the road.
The Capitals went 3-0 against the Leafs in 2015-16 and the Caps will probably keep that winning trend going for the next few years.
By: George Foussekis