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NHL Preview: Atlantic Division

Salute’s NHL Coverage drops with a preview of the division where hockey itself dropped: The Atlantic Division–home of four of the League’s Original Six teams.

Montreal Canadiens

When you finish first in the toughest division in the league, you don’t fix what isn’t broken, and the Montreal Canadiens are returning with the league’s stingiest defense. P.K. Subban continues to be the hero for the “Appuyez ‘Deux’ por Anglais” crowd, and Carey Price will again tend the nets at the Bell Centre. The team also chose to keep Jeff Petry, their late-season rescue from Edmonton, who will now have a season to work with the team as a top-four defenseman.

Montreal was quiet on the free agent front, only adding winger Alexander Semin from Carolina. A second line featuring Semin and Lars Eller has the potential to make the Habs a dangerous offensive team in the first two lines. However, if there were one term that could describe Eller and Semin over their careers, it would be “potential.”

If the Habs could use some bolstering, it would be in forward depth. Max Pacioretty and Thomas Plecanek are very good, but they would not be on the first line for a lot of contenders. However, help is on the way: left-wing Jacob De La Rose will finally get a full year on the roster and future star power forward Michael McCarron should be making some trips from St. John’s to Montreal during the season.

Tampa Bay Lightning

After nearly bringing the Cup to Florida for a second time, the Tampa Bay Lightning will once again attempt to win with youth. But All-Galaxy center, and face of the franchise, Steven Stamkos is in the last year of his contract with the Bolts, and is being coy with the media about signing an extension. At issue is fitting what could be a lumpy new contract (that Stamkos has earned) into Tampa’s salary cap.

But part of the reason why his contract demands and the salary cap could clash is also the reason that Lightning fans are excited for this season–that crowded cap is paying for some amazing young talent. Let’s not forget that center Tyler Johnson matched Stamkos’ point total from the second line, with help from Nikita Kucherov. And the Lighting have Valtteri Filppula, Ben Bishop and Ryan Callahan as well.

The Bolts are young and now improved with playoff experience. The season could hinge on Stamkos–or whomever he gets traded for at the deadline if he doesn’t sign by February.

Detroit Red Wings

The departure of Mike Babcock from the helm of the Detroit Red Wings was for the best as the most dominant team in hockey for the past two decades has become a relative disappointment over the last four seasons–not reaching past the second round during that time (and nearly missing the playoffs the past two seasons). New coach Jeff Blashill exemplifies Detroit’s philosophy of building from within, having won an AHL title at Grand Rapids while grooming several current Red Wings.

Among those Blashill previously coached were wing Tomas Tatar and defenseman Danny DeKeyser, and both have a chance to truly star this season. Tatar will be part of a strong second line with Johan Franzen and new arrival Brad Richards, and DeKeyser should have a crack at minutes in the top four for Detroit.

Henrik Zetterberg, 34, will be back for his 12th season and still has a few more years left. Justin Abdelkader is a legit offensive threat, as is Gustav Nyquist, and Pavel Datsyuk will miss a few weeks from an injured ankle, but will be back. Jimmy Howard will not remind anyone of the glory days of Dominik Hasek, but he won’t remind anyone of the dark days of Tim Cheveldae either.

Ottawa Senators

The late run of the Ottawa Senators to make the playoffs last season was inspirational and Ottawa fans should enjoy it while they can; a repeat performance, much less a rise to the top of the division, will be tricky. Mark Stone had a breakout rookie season and was hot on the late-season run that put the Sens’ in the playoffs, and Andrew Hammond won hearts and hamburgers in goal. Mika Zibanejad is also a rising talent on the offense, and Erik Karlsson is a fantastic defensive leader and captain.

That’s the good news. The Sens are faced with a choice in goal between Hammond and the injured starter he replaced at the end of the season, Craig Anderson. Anderson is average, and Hammond, loveable story aside, is not good enough for the long haul. Bobby Ryan, hailed as a huge signing last season, does not have the scoring spark he had at the start of his career in Anaheim.

Boston Bruins

Going from a Cup in 2011 and the Finals in 2013 to missing the playoffs in 2015, the Boston Bruins had the choice to either stay the course or clean house. And while they did send General Manager Peter Chiarelli packing (to the even-more noxious tire fire that is Edmonton), the only major player movement was picking up left-wing Matt Beleskey to replace Milan Lucic, who was traded to Los Angeles–while also adding former Lucic target Zac Rinaldo to the roster.

Other than that, everything is the same. Defenseman and captain Zeno Chara is returning from an injury-riddled 2014-15 season and, at 38, could be in for another one (as will 34-year-old blueliner Dennis Seidenberg, who will return in December from back surgery). Center Patrice Bergeron and wing David Krejci will keep the offense threatening, but as it stands now, this is a team on the decline.

Florida Panthers

The Florida Panthers — which are the first team people who hate the NHL’s southern expansion will mention to back up their position — are led by 43-year-old right-wing Jaromir Jagr. His career exceeds the existence of the franchise he now plays on the first line for, and defensive star Aaron Ekblad, who was born after the last time the Panthers won a playoff series, is another.

The ages of Jagr, starting goalie Roberto Luongo (36), and captain Brian Campbell (also 36) aside, Florida is launching a heavy youth movement this season. Over half of the roster — including Jagr’s line mates Alex Barkov and Jon Huberdeau — clock in at under 25. The Miami fan base only rewards winners, however, and four playoff visits in 23 years isn’t exactly drawing them in.

Toronto Maple Leafs

Few teams can top the Toronto Maple Leafs when it comes to falling apart at the seams and spreading despair across a province/state. They spent the first third of the season looking like title contenders before falling apart yet again and finishing well out of playoff position.

Name Kadri has talent but has already clashed with management, and that doesn’t bode well in most situations. They can’t decide between Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer in goal (my suggestion: Bernier, because he can win fights). Phil Kessel left for Pittsburgh though, which hurts the roster a bit. Mike Babcock, who knows how to get to the playoffs at least, is here to help. But the worst of this is that President Brendan Shanahan isn’t narrating those awesome suspension videos anymore from the league’s Department of Player Safety.

Buffalo Sabres

New coach Dan Bylsma will join Toronto escapee Cody Franson and second-overall pick Jack Eichel to make the 2015-16 Buffalo Sabres better than last season, but that’s not much of a stretch because nobody scored 50 points last season. Buffalo tried out five different options in goal last season, and now all are gone. Chad Johnson isn’t the answer, and neither is Robin Lehner.

The best option for the Sabres is to let Eichel, Ennis and Franson make the core that Bylsma builds around, keep racking up draft picks and not let Brett Hull Jr. kick in the puck in the 2022 Cup Final.

Predicted Order of Finish:

  1. Tampa Bay Lighting – Stamkos and the most talented young team in the league. The Cup is in their grasp again.
  2. Montreal Canadiens – Montreal fans don’t seem to mind that the flashy offenses of the Richard and Lefleur eras have been replaced by the defense of the Subban era.
  3. Detroit Red Wings – Blashill takes over a talented roster, like those before him.
  4. Boston Bruins – Here by default; if either of the teams below gets their act together, Boston will slip.
  5. Toronto Maple Leafs – If Babcock can fix the dysfunction, they’ll finish higher.
  6. Ottawa Senators – Last year was just a dream, just a dream…
  7. Florida Panthers – At least there won’t be many witnesses.
  8. Buffalo Sabres – Bylsma has until the end of the decade to change this.

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