Thursday, September 25, 2014

2014-15 Outlook: Atlantic Division

Today we begin out previews of the entire league with a look at how the Atlantic Division will finish.

8. Buffalo Sabres: Last year, the Sabres were THE worst team in the league. They traded away veterans Thomas Vanek and Ryan Miller while using compliance buyouts on Ville Leino and Christian Ehrhoff, signifying the franchise's commitment to a rebuilding process. They added Matt Moulson and Brian Gionta, among others, this offseason but they still are fielding a relatively young team. While the Sabres might be able to put up some goals, their real problem will be stopping the opposition from scoring as they have one of the worst bluelines and goalie tandems in the league. If there is really anything to look forward to in Buffalo this year, its the high lottery pick for next year's draft.

7. Florida Panthers: While the Buffalo Sabres may have had the worst record in the league last year, their divisional foe Florida ended up getting the first overall pick in the 2014 Draft. With that pick, the Panthers took defenseman Aaron Ekblad to be their future on the blue line. Also in the summer the Panthers added Dave Bolland, Jussi Jokinen, Willie Mitchell, and Al Montoya. Despite all this new talent, add along their great crop of young kids, and Roberto Luongo back in net, the Panthers still have a ways to go before getting back in the playoff mix. They might play in the much weaker Eastern Conference, but there are still many teams better than the Panthers.

6. Toronto Maple Leafs: If any team had a brutal finish to the 2013-14 season, it was Toronto. The Maple Leafs lost 12 out of the final 14 games to miss the Stanley Cup Playoffs following a first round playoff exit in 2012-13. The only major move for the Leafs this offseason, personnel wise, was the loss of Dave Bolland to free agency. Their biggest addition was adding noted analytics guy Kyle Dubas to be an assistant GM to Dave Nonis, along with a new stats department headed up by Darryl Metcalf (ExtraSkater), Cam Charron, and Rob Pettapiece. While the Leafs are returning almost the same squad, they are not likely to rebound quite that quickly in terms of puck possession and should be sitting out the postseason for another season.

5. Ottawa Senators: Last year, this very blog sang high praises of the Ottawa Senators. They were a team with high aspirations following the acquisition of Bobby Ryan. Well, not only did the Sens not win the Eastern Conference, they never made the playoffs. Injuries and bad play brought the Sens season down and they never could recover from it. This year, the Sens come in fresh off trading Jason Spezza this summer, leaving Erik Karlsson as the face of the franchise. Ottawa had major issues keeping the puck out of their own net last year, and not much has changed on that front and will be their down fall again in 2014-15. They will toy around with making the playoffs for some of the year, they will not be able to sustain it and will miss the postseason for a second straight season.

4. Montreal Canadiens: Had Carey Price not gone down with injury in the Eastern Conference Finals, we might be talking about the Canadiens as the reigning Eastern Conference Champs (not to take away from Dustin Tokarski's brilliant performance). But the Canadiens ended up losing the series in six games to New York. This summer, Montreal traded Daniel Briere for PA Parenteau and saw team captain Brian Gionta leave via free agency. But Price, PK Subban, Max Pacioretty, and Alex Galchenyuk form the core foundation of a solid team for years to come. The Habs might not finish as good as last year's squad, they should have enough to get them back into the playoffs.

3. Detroit Red Wings: For 23 consecutive seasons, the Red Wings have taken part in the NHL's postseason. They have relied on great players while continuing to fill their roster around young developing players throughout the years, providing a model that all franchises can look up to. This year, the Wings will try to make it a 24th consecutive postseason around team leaders Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, and Jimmy Howard. The key for Detroit this year will be the continued development of Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar as they try to take pressure off Datsyuk and Zetterberg. Behind the great crop of forwards, the Wings defense is not as strong as it used to be but is serviceable behind Niklas Kronwall and Jonathan Ericsson. Add the solid presence of Howard in goal, and the Red Wings should be a safe bet to make the playoffs once again in a weak Eastern Conference.

2. Tampa Bay Lightning: After an incredibly successful regular season (101 points, second in Atlantic), the Lightning watched their postseason hopes sink when Ben Bishop left Game One of their first round playoff series against Montreal. The Lightning were swept by the Canadiens, and went into the offseason looking to build on their regular season success. All they did this offseason was trade for Canucks defenseman Jason Garrison and signed free agent defenseman Anton Stralman. Both bring tremendous stability to their blue line and makes Tampa a great threat in the East given their big talent up front at forward (see: Stamkos, Steven). If Ben Bishop can return to his 2013-14 form for this season, the Lightning are a legit Eastern Conference power. They will give Boston a run for the division, but a late start from Bishop will hurt those chances. Look out for them in April.

1. Boston Bruins: Despite losing Jarome Iginla this past offseason, the Bruins are still the best team in the Atlantic. Led up front by Patrice Bergeron, Milan Lucic, David Krejci, and Loui Eriksson, the Bruins still boast one of the better offenses in the NHL. Now take their ability to score, and throw in the fact they have a solid defense (led by Zdeno Chara) and one of the best goaltenders in the league (Tuukka Rask) and you have yourself a legit Cup contender. This team has won the Atlantic three out of the past four years and will put up a great push to make it four out of five. They have been one of the best possession teams in the league the past five seasons, and this year should be no exception. If the Bruins can stay healthy in 2014-15, they should have no problem making a deep playoff run again next Spring.

Follow Giles on Twitter @gilesferrell

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