by Dustin Kagan Fleming
Alright with the season quickly approaching (and preseason already in full swing), it’s a great time to take a look at how teams have changed and where they stand coming into opening night. Today I want to take a look at what is becoming one of the most competitive areas in the NHL; the Atlantic division. With 8 teams, 3 playoff spots guaranteed and 1 or 2 wild card spots attainable, there’s going to be a serious battle for playoff spots this year.
Buffalo: After some bad years (including a dead last finish at 54 points last year), expectations are finally starting to rise for the sabres. With the second overall pick they selected Jack Eichel; a player touted a generational talent that would have easily been selected first had he not been in the same draft as Connor McDavid. The sabres are hoping that Eichel will develop into a franchise center and be the face of the rebuild in Buffalo. The team isn’t naïve though; they aren’t hedging all their bets on a kid who has yet to play his first NHL game. General Manager Tim Murray has kept himself busy, acquiring Evander Kane earlier this year as well as highly sought after trade target, Ryan O’Reilly. Along with this comes 2014’s second overall draft pick center Sam Reinhart. That forms an incredibly deep center core (if a little lacking in experience). Add in Zemgus Girgensons on the wing and you have a top 6 and center core that might just be able to fix Buffalo’s abysmal offense (last in the NHL with only 161 goals in 2014/2015). While that’s one hole plugged, there’s two other leaks in this team. Another offseason trade was made to acquire goaltender Robin Lehner. Lehner’s reputation is that of a promising prospect but he has never had a #1 goalie job and won’t be working behind the strongest defense in the league. He’s put up average numbers that suggest future success is possible but not guaranteed and frankly I don’t see him coming into his own just yet. That leaves defense and things don’t look good just yet for the sabres. While Josh Gorges is still a solid top pairing defender and Zach Bogosian will be a great addition to the team’s core but it seems the team will need to depend upon young defensemen like Rasmus Ristolainen and Mark Pysyk to take on bigger roles. This will be great for future development but young defenseman can be an issue before they grow into their role (though there are exceptions like Aaron Ekblad). Expect a better year from the Sabres and hopefully a move out of the bottom teams but nothing spectacular with the holes in their lineup.
Toronto: Toronto is going to take a lot of time before they are good again. Building one of the best management teams in the league is an excellent step with guys like Mike Babcock and Lou Lamoriello is a great start but this tire fire is not quite put out yet. I see these guys building a bright future, they are in it for the long haul. They still have 2 goalies who are middling at best. Their defensive core has what I believe to be a future star in Morgan Rielly but other than that there isn’t much to talk about. Dion Phaneuf along with retained salary from the Phil Kessel trade hurt them on the salary cap front and now they’ve traded away the one superstar they had. With Phil Kessel gone, the onus of scoring big goals will fall into the hands of James Van Riemsdyk; a good player but without the offensive prowess of Kessel and the continued lack of a true first line center, he won’t be making any major offensive waves. Expect a probable lack of goal scoring and generally bad results but games that will be at least interesting to watch due to excellent coaching. Toronto should look like a different team although not a good one just yet.
Florida: I expect Florida to fight for a spot in the playoffs this year. They earned themselves 91 points and we’re 7 out of a wildcard last season but expect the young core to drastically improve this year. The addition Jaromir Jagr has done nothing but help young guns Barkov and Huberdeau. He came off with 18 points in his 20 games with the panthers and makes for an incredibly dangerous first line. Throw in guys like Bjugstad and Pirri and you have a dangerous offense that will only get better. Along with that they’ve shed unnecessary cap space and made room for younger players to come in by letting players walk and buying out contracts at low cost to the team. Their defense has great size and grit to it and creates a tough style to play against. Not to mention they have one of the best young players in the league in Aaron Ekblad who should be a dominant defensive force for years to come. A constantly improving offense, complimented by one of the best players of all time who is still a dangerous force on the ice, A big, strong, skilled defense, and behind it all is Roberto Luongo, a proven goalie at every level who has the ability to backstop this team to some success. Expect to see this team develop into a perennial contender for a playoff spot.
Boston: After missing the playoffs last year, you get the feeling that the Bruins are looking to rebuild to an extent. Trading away Lucic and Hamilton will definitely give their team a different feeling this year. It will also leave a huge hole in their defense. With Chara getting older and much slower and a young core that isn’t quite ready to take on full defensive responsibilities, the recent announcement that Seidenberg will be out for 8 weeks is a real blow regardless of how good he actually is. While defense is a big danger for the team, they can feel a little safer with a top 5 or 6 goalie like Rask. While last season was a let-down for Rask, that’s to be expected when the team in front of you is dealing with constant injuries like Boston was last year. Rask remains an elite goaltender that gives the Bruins some serious talent between the pipes. I see this year as a transition one or even just the beginning of a transition period for the Bruins. They’re going to be giving younger guys like Pastrnak a chance to crack the lineup because if you look at what GM Don Sweeney pulled in the off season, you’ll notice he’s preparing the team’s future. To me it looks like the bruins will dip in the next few years and come right back up to where they were as much as I hate to say it. The question becomes just how long this dip will be? Will Chara descend even further due to age? How much will the physical presence and goal scoring tenacity of Milan Lucic be felt? Can the young members of the team help hold up their share? These will be the questions that will define Boston’s 2015/2016 season.
Stay tuned for analysis of the top half of the Atlantic division
Dustin Kagan Fleming is a Montreal student. An upbringing in the city has left him with a passion and love for hockey and the Canadiens from day 1. To read more of his work, visit his website https://canadienspostgame.wordpress.com/.