Jean-Yves Ahern – USA TODAY Sports
The NHL preseason is in full swing, and teams are gearing up for the start of the regular season on October 4. During the preseason, hockey fans have seen some new faces surrounding their favorite respective clubs.
I recently took a shot at how the Metropolitan Division might look this upcoming season. While the Metropolitan Division got 4 teams into the playoff picture last season, the Atlantic Division got 4 teams into the playoff mix too. Will there be a repeat in 2017-18? Will the same Atlantic Division teams make the playoffs, or will some fall out? Which teams could get back into the playoff picture?
Here is how I am looking at the Atlantic Division clubs in the preseason:
PROJECTED STANDINGS FINISH IN 2017-18:
1. MONTREAL CANADIENS*
2. TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING*
3. TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS*
4. BOSTON BRUINS
5. OTTAWA SENATORS
6. FLORIDA PANTHERS
7. BUFFALO SABRES
8. DETROIT RED WINGS
*denotes playoff teams
DETROIT RED WINGS
Analysis: The Red Wings will be in a beautiful new building this year at Little Caesars Arena. While the Red Wings have plenty of rich tradition, this team is not built for the current time. The core group of this team which consists of Henrik Zetterberg, Justin Abdelkader, Darren Helm, Jonathan Ericsson, and Niklas Kronwall – they are all over the age of 30. The Red Wing defense is slow and old, and the goaltenders cannot stay healthy. Old time hockey needs to be rebuilt in Detroit. This team will struggle to score goals and will have a hard time keeping goals out of their net.
Analysis: The Sabres have a new coach and GM this year. New Sabres GM Jason Botterill spent the last few seasons in Pittsburgh learning under their GM Jim Rutherford. New Sabres Head Coach Phil Housley coached for Team USA before, and played for the Sabres in the 1980s. Once Botterill took the GM job, he wasted no time and brought the Sabres some much needed defensive help with Marco Scandella and Nathan Beaulieu. While the Sabres probably still need a piece or two up front and on defense, the biggest thing the Sabres need to get done is to sign star centreman Jack Eichel to a long-term extension.
Analysis: The Panthers had a rough year in 2016-17. They were plagued by injuries, and some were very significant. Jonathan Huberdeau played in only 31 games, Aaron Ekblad played in only 68 games, Aleksander Barkov only played in 61 games, and Roberto Luongo only played in 40 games. The good news for Florida is that Roberto Luongo looks ready to go after he had hip surgery. The Panthers also have a new head coach with Bob Boughner now at the helm. If the Panthers can stay healthy, this team might be at the playoff bubble. The biggest concern facing the Panthers is their blueline. Aaron Ekblad, Mark Pysyk, Alex Petrovic, and Michael Matheson are all under 25 years of age.
Analysis: If there is a team that I am ready to sell low on, it is Ottawa. They are a team that has some nice players, but not great players. Defenseman Erik Karlsson is the most dynamic offensive weapon this club has, but the loss of defenseman Marc Methot will likely hurt this club more than what people realize. Craig Anderson is not getting any younger as he is now 36 years of age. The Senators still lack a game changing dynamic offensive forward. The Senators are a streaky team and are not deep at any position. The Senators can still be a playoff team, but I think there are others around them that will be improved in 2017-18.
Analysis: They say that sometimes the best deals that you make are the ones you do not make. After replenishing their prospect pool over the last couple of years, the Bruins got back into the playoff picture in 2016-17 after a 2-year absence. The Bruins were linked to Matt Duchene over the summer, but remained quiet on the trade front. The Bruins re-upped one of their biggest contributors from last year with David Pastrnak as they signed him to a 6-year deal. Pastrnak and fellow teammate Brad Marchand both recorded over 30 goals and 70 points for the Bruins last season. The Bruins have groomed some young defensemen in a short time, as they have brought Charlie McAvoy and Brandon Carlo into their mix. Head Coach Bruce Cassidy has a young roster to work with, but they should remain in playoff contention if Tuukka Rask gives them another strong season in net.
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
Analysis: I am not ready to sell my soul on the Maple Leafs winning the Atlantic Division now. However, this team will be very fun to watch in 2017-18. With Auston Matthews, Mitchell Marner, William Nylander, and other young players, this team will throw up some goals. Adding veteran Patrick Marleau from the Sharks was a nice add for this young team, but a pricey add. The Maple Leafs must make a tough decision soon regarding James van Riemsdyk. The 28-year old New Jersey native is on the last year of his contract and will become an unrestricted free agent next summer. He is a nice piece that could give them a nice return for some much-needed defensive help. If Frederik Andersen can play respectably and improve his goaltending numbers a little bit, the Leafs are positioned to challenge for the top of the division. For now, it is a safe bet the Leafs will be in the top 3.
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
Analysis: If there is a team that should be back in the playoffs in 2017-18, it is the Lightning. The Lightning missed out on the playoffs by 1 point in 2016-17, and Steven Stamkos missed 65 games for the Lightning. When healthy, Stamkos is one of the most potent goal scorers in the game right now. Lightning GM Steve Yzerman is one of the best GMs in the NHL right now. Over the summer, he re-signed forwards Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson to affordable long-term contracts. In October 2016, he re-signed 40-goal scorer Nikita Kucherov to a bridge deal that is under $5m per season. Yzerman is a bargain hunter, and he has done a great job managing the salary cap. In addition to managing the cap well, Yzerman shipped Jonathan Drouin to Montreal, and he landed a stud young defenseman Mikhail Sergachev. The Lightning won 8 of their last 10 games last year, but just fell short. Now, they will be healthy, and their top players will not have to worry about contract extensions looming over their head. I think the Lightning will be back, and could possibly challenge for the top spot in the Atlantic Division.
Analysis: When people think Montreal is going to fall off, the Canadiens prove everyone wrong. A major reason for this is Carey Price. Price is the best goaltender in the Atlantic Division, and it is not even close. Jonathan Drouin will bring more skill and speed to the Canadiens offense and will probably become their top offensive producer. Over the summer, GM Marc Bergevin brought in defenseman Karl Alzner from free agency to bring more defensive stability to the blueline. The Canadiens have a solid blueline, a great goaltender, and some exciting young forwards up front. They will likely be the favorite to win the Atlantic Division.
By: George Foussekis