by Dustin Kagan-Fleming
Alright, last time we took a look at the bottom half of the Atlantic division, the teams that will become very competitive in the coming years but have less of a chance of making a mark this season. With them out of the way, this article will be about the more immediate contenders for the division this season.
Ottawa: The Senators went on a record breaking run to make it into the playoffs last year but don’t look for a repeat of that. Even captain Erik Karlsson said they can’t expect to start this season like last if they want to be serious playoff contenders. Luckily for them, they seem to have a found a gem of a coach in Dave Cameron who has really transformed a struggling, weak team into a competitive one. Ottawa is on an awkward place at the moment. They’re a talented team but they’re just outside the big 3 of the division and still in the shadow of some of the Eastern juggernauts. The team seems to be banking on the ability to succeed under Cameron’s system all year like they did in the later parts of last season. With no real blockbuster trades or major signings this offseason, the Senators will be going into the year with a very similar lineup again, a strategy that relies on the development of young stars like Karlsson, Stone and Lazar. Expect a dangerous offense from Ottawa this year. With dangerous scorers all over their 4 lines, Ottawa provides an example of solid depth with pieces that just need to fall into place to make them elite. Players like Ryan and Turris will provide their usual flair and the young guns seem to be developing well, especially Curtis Lazar who provides a bright future to the team. One forward to watch will be Mark Stone. After tying the lead for rookie scoring and earning a Calder nomination, it will be interesting to see if it will 2014 Mark Stone or 2015 Mark Stone playing this season. That will be a difference maker for this team and pretty much symbolizes expectations for how Ottawa will do this season. On defense you still have one of the most dangerous players in the NHL in Erik Karlsson. He’s a dominant offensive force and anyone who tells you he can’t play defense because of that has never watched him play. Around him is a supporting cast of weaker defenseman that pose some questions. That’s not to say it’s a weak core but it doesn’t quite match the rest of the team and might get bolstered with some trades into the season. Behind all of this are Craig Anderson and Andrew Hammond. The team seems to have put all their chips on the two of them after trading away prospect Robin Lehner. Hammond put up ridiculous numbers when he had his time in the league (which seemed to be a trend this year; skilled backups coming in or AHLers turning into goaltending studs this year). Can he keep it up? Hammond was shaky in the playoffs and one can’t lean on the fact that he’s young because he’s 27. Not old but not young either. He’ll start as backup to Anderson but if Anderson falls into some bad play as he often has rather than his normal level, Hammond will be given the chance to prove he’s more than a flash in the pan. I see the Senators being competitive and probably earning themselves a wildcard spot but they will have to fight for it.
Detroit: Don’t expect the Red wings league leading streak of 24 consecutive playoff appearances to end this year. They are still a deadly and incredibly skilled team from top to bottom. However, expect some growing pains this year. With longtime coach Mike Babcock gone, there are some large shoes to fill. However, even with a new (yet able) coach at the helm, Detroit is still filled with weapons. The issue standing is the fact that Detroit is in that strange place of having older veterans that are still incredibly skilled but getting on as well as emerging rookies that have not quite hit their prime yet. No one can deny that Nyquist or Tatar are going to be stars or that they are already good, they just aren’t quite where they can be yet. Same goes for a player like Henrik Zetterberg or Pavel Datsyuk who is getting on in years. The thing about Datsyuk is that he still has probably the best hands in the league and though he played few games last year, he was a point per game player while active. The tough part will be the time that the wings will have to play without Datsyuk while recovering from ankle surgery. If the wings can do well enough until early November, things should become much smoother with his return. Their offense remains potent as ever and should be improved with center Brad Richards signing fresh of a Stanley cup victory. Their defense has also been solidified by Mike Green who should allow for some improved transition play and a stronger top 4 defense. With their usual deadly offense and ability to clog up the ice so well defensively, the Red Wings look set for the season. Add on the fact that Peter Mrazek will create competition for Jimmy Howard’s starting goalie position, thereby improving both their play and you’ve got a scary looking team. Like I said, expect another playoff performance. The only question is how far they go.
Tampa Bay: The first of the two giants of the Atlantic, Tampa Bay is one of the truly elite teams of the NHL. Both their offense and defense are full of stars and expect some of those stars like Victor Hedman and Jonathan Drouin to develop even further this year. On offense you have one of the best players of this generation in Steven Stamkos. Behind him is the triplet line that rocked the NHL last year; Johnson, Palat and Kucherov. Add in Callahan, Filppula and a stellar supporting class and you have what is one of if not the most potent offenses in the league. Behind them there’s a defense led by guys like Hedman and Stralman that dominate both sides of the ice with size and skill. They didn’t need to do much this offseason because there weren’t exactly many holes in their lineup that needed to be filled. Honestly it’s hard to find much to say about Tampa other than that they are simply one of the league’s best. However, they do have two weaknesses (though only one is a factor right now). They’re goaltending is by no means bad, Ben Bishop is probably physically speaking the best goalie in the league at a towering 6’7 and 216 pounds. Yet that size is also his weakness. Big goalies like him have smaller gaps for goals to get through and as a result aren’t as focused or aware of them. With the snipers in this league that simply isn’t acceptable for a top tier goalie. He also has a tendency to move too much on harder shots, creating rebound opportunities as well as having a frankly weak glove. Bishop isn’t a bad goalie but I would not go as far as to call him elite like the defense helping him out. Expect the Lightning to dominate the league and be a part of a hard fought battle for the top of the Atlantic division with the next team.
Montreal: The Canadiens recognized the need for change on their team if they wanted to take the next towards competing for the Stanley cup. Moving Galchenyuk to center, picking up Alexander Semin, beefing up the defensive core of the team, acquiring Kassian and transitioning their prospects into the farm system. All of this has been part of a plan towards what the team needs to do to develop into a more powerful force in the league, That’s not an easy task after finishing second in the regular season. Goaltending is no issue for Montreal with the best player out there in Carey Price. There’s two competent goalies in positions to fight for a spot as backup and the starter for the AHL team as well (Dustin Tokarski and Mike Condon). Expect a more well balanced and dangerous offense with the additions of Semin and Kassian. With these 2 players added and the possible addition of Thomas Fleischmann on a professional tryout contract, both wings have gotten some incredible depth and with Galchenyuk centering the second line and performing incredibly well in camp and preseason, there’s a lot of hope for an offense that already boasted weapons like Pacioretty, Plekanec and Gallagher. Along with the new offense comes a strong defense. Subban looks better than ever after a career season, Markov is still a strong defenseman despite his age and the signing of Jeff Petry along with the development of Nathan Beaulieu increases the depth and skill of the defense by leaps and bounds. I would not be surprised to see the Habs win the Atlantic for a second year in a row. Expect them to be even more of a contender this year than last.
So that’s the Atlantic division. With the season starting in the next few days, we will see how things unfold but I cannot wait for what looks like it will be an incredibly exciting 2015-2016 season.
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/.