Thursday Theory: Atlantic Division Prediction

2015-16 was an eventful year for all teams that make up the Atlantic Division.

Florida made the biggest splash amassing 103 points and taking their first division crown since 2011-12.

Detroit made the post season (by the skin of their behinds) once again for an unprecedented 25th season in a row.

Tampa had another outstanding campaign. Despite the drama that permeated throughout their locker room dragging behind them for the duration of the regular season.

Montreal skidded, spun out, then proceeded to explode all over themselves without Carey Price manning the pipes. Backing up my claim that he is the best player in the world, bar none.

Boston, Buffalo, Ottawa and Toronto all suffered less than ideal endings to their year. Resulting in major changes across the board in an attempt to change 2017’s outcome.

Over the weekend a colleague of mine did his research and came up with the “dream team” lineup for every organization in the Atlantic Division. Now, being the less than creative lad I am, I’ll piggy back on his idea.

In hockey, the most feared division in the game is the Central, for very good reasons. Next, would be the Metropolitan. Last, should be the Atlantic.

You may find that last part to be a bit of a head scratcher and I understand that. But make no mistake this time next year, you will agree.

Look at Tampa Bay, with some smart managing they have the potential to be the next dynasty in this league. Florida has come out of no where with some smart drafting and great trades, but they need to find some stability when it comes to the future of their goaltending situation.

Buffalo and Toronto are absolutely loaded with soon to be studs. Detroit is always a threat to make the postseason, if history is any indicator at least. Finally, Boston and Ottawa play hard but need some fortunate bounces this season to get back to form.

Make no mistake, I am not a betting man, literally ask anyone who knows me. But, if you held a gun to my head and asked “how will the Atlantic Division shake out in 2016-17” this is probably what I would say.

In order to sustain suspense throughout the remainder of the article I will go in reverse order, worst to first.

You giddy yet?

 

8. Ottawa Senators: Finishing just above .500 with a 38-35-9 regular season record, it was a frustrating affair for the Senators. Now, 2017 may be doomed to have the same result.

With the bulk of their offense flowing through the two men pictured above, Erik Karlsson and Mike Hoffman, I have a hard time sitting here telling you the Sen’s will take a massive step forward. Derick Brassard was a wonderful addition via trade, but fancies himself as more of a playoff producer, which the Senators failed to qualify for last year. So, the Sen’s are top heavy in their upper six forwards and lack meaningful experience on defense. Not exactly a cocktail titled success.

Dion Phaneuf and Craig Anderson are my players to watch, sounds odd doesn’t it, simply because their play will make or break the season. Toronto practically held a parade when Phaneuf was traded to Ottawa last season, so it’ll be interesting to see how he rebounds in his first full year in a new city. Speaking of rebounds, Mr. Anderson could you please put in a pedestrian effort to control those? Like it or not, Ottawa Andrew Hammond will not be your saving grace in net, Anderson will.

Senator Nation, keep your hair doctor on speed dial, you may need to phone him.

Jack Eichel #15 of the Buffalo Sabres watches the play against the Toronto Maple Leafs from the bench at First Niagara Center on October 21, 2015 in Buffalo, New York.

7. Buffalo Sabres: 35-36-11 is as average as you can be. Exhale Buffalo, this very well may be the last time you find yourselves on the bottom portion of this list. Furthermore, take a good look at the man pictured above, he is your new lord and savior. Elite centers are an absolute necessity in the NHL. Just like fish can’t breath without water, cars wont run without gas and you cannot, and I literally cant reiterate this enough. You can-not win without an elite center in today’s NHL.

2+2=4, the sky is blue, the grass is green. There ya go kids. Science lesson from Professor Russo.

Buffalo tricked out management last offseason bringing in Dan Bylsma, a man who just so happened to take an unorganized Penguin team to a Cup final, and win in 2009. A kid named Sidney Crosby was the star on that team, so I guess you could say the change worked. He can handle the heat.

Kyle Okposo signed a monster deal to come to western New York, adding depth to their scoring wing pool.

Finally, Buffalo was active at the draft again taking Alex Nylander 8th overall. Fantastic all around player with a nose for the net.

Offensively Buffalo is set to grow over the next two seasons, that should almost be the least of their worries moving forward. My concern, similar to Ottawa, falls on goaltending and defense. All around there’s a lack of sustainability on both fronts.

Robin Lehner was brought in from Ottawa to repair the damage that was left when Ryan Miller was sent to St. Louis a couple years back. Buffalo would only get 20 games out of their newly appointed starter before he was subject to a season ending injury. So Chad Johnson.

No, not that Chad Johnson. The other one, had to step in.

Johnson did a damn good job as a starter, but you can’t fight what you aren’t and Johnson is not a full time starter in this league.

While their defense isn’t spectacular, its not exactly horrid either. Primarily made up of men who go to work everyday and do their job to the best of their ability. They come as advertised, there is no clear cut number one guy that can take a game over, but there also isn’t a massive gap in their armor. With a team full of young players prone to mistakes, they’ll need to be ready to bail them out.

2016 NHL Draft - Round One : News Photo

6. Toronto Maple Leafs: 29-42-11, yikes. Ugly record right there. Toronto was absolutely deserving of the number one overall pick. Starving for that game changing center, remember what I was saying about the importance of a number one center? Well, he fell directly in Toronto’s lap. Auston Matthews is the definition of stud. He has impeccable vision on the ice, makes offense out of nothing and can play a 200 foot game.

Just look how happy Toronto’s brass was to have drafted him! Can’t fake that type of emotion.

Toronto is a lot like Buffalo in distinct areas. Filled to the brim with young talent, they both have American born superstars and still won’t make the playoffs this year for the same reasons, defense and goaltending.

Now, it’s not crazy to argue that Matthews could have a similar impact that Nathan McKinnon had on Colorado. For those unfamiliar, McKinnon was drafted by Colorado first overall in 2013 and was the spark plug to get them into the playoffs the following spring.

With that being said, they have the player, the coach and a pseudo starting goalie in Freddy Anderson, so what could stop them?

Ah, the famed injury bug will do that. Last year Toronto got obliterated by the injury bug like you read about. Joffery Lupul, Stephan Robidas and James van Riemsdyk were all shut down for half the season to recover.

In doing so William Nylander began to emerge as a major piece for the Leafs moving forward. If there’s chemistry between Mathews and Nylander, look out.

5. Boston Bruins: 42-31-9 last season and still couldn’t make it to the dance. My friends, that is a tough pill to swallow. Such has been the story of the previous two seasons for Boston’s hockey club. Battling to the bitter end, only to come out on the wrong side of the fence.

Loui Eriksson signed an impressive deal with Vancouver which leads many to believe Boston will be reeling to replicate his 30 goal production from last year. Frank Vatrano was a pleasant surprise but doubts on his ability to stay consistent remain. David Pastrnak needs to put some meat on his bones despite an impressive offensive year. Boston needs more all around scoring and those men can provide it.

Once again the weight will fall on Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand to take the wheel and drive the bus.

David Backes is obviously the big name to watch after a monster season with St. Louis. David Krejci staying healthy is a huge hope of theirs. Finally, replacing Dennis Seidenberg on defense should be priority number one.

Last and honestly the greatest evil is goaltending. Tuukka Rask is the guy but ever since Tim Thomas kissed Boston goodbye, he has struggled with his work load. Tuukka needs a worthy backup and it appeared for the vast majority of last season that it was Malcolm Subban, until a freak injury kept him out for most of the AHL season. He will need a strong camp to sway opinions of him.

Defensively, Boston may have to turn to its draft picks over the last two seasons for help. A baptism by fire perhaps, but the bleeding needs to stop. Expect another up and down season from Boston, folks.

4. Detroit Red Wings: 41-30-11, hey Hockey Town, when you do something for 25 years in a row, people begin to take it for granted. 2017 will be the first year Detroit does not qualify for the post season. I went there.

Tampa Bay, in consecutive seasons, has taken the Red Wings recipe for success in the playoffs and dumped it on their head. Speed through the neutral zone, stretch passes to draw the D back and generate shots that produce rebounds. It may be simple but it’s what has kept the Wings in the playoffs every single year since before I was born. For reference, I’m 22 years old.

Now a Datsyuk-less Red Wings will be left licking their wounds trying to devise a plan for 2017. They have been in a gradual decline since Lidstrom and Rafalski called it quits. Now only Nik Kronwall remains as their dynamic defensemen and he is well into the twilight of his career. Henrik Zetterberg will captain an above average hockey team that will be in the mix until the dog days of the season. Undoubtedly, that playoff record will begin to take its toll. After all, that’s a ton of hockey.

Similar to Boston, Detroit has begun their soft “rebuild” by having a team good enough to compete, all the while sprinkling in younger players to gain experience. It’s cute, but not a blue print to win a Cup in the near future.

Also, no disrespect to Frans Nielsen but you can’t replace the magic man.

 

3. Montreal Canadiens: In Montreal, the expectation every season is to make it to the Stanley Cup Final. Having failed to do that since 1993, a 38-38-6 record in 2015-16 isn’t exactly what the “ghosts of Montreal” that donned the jersey accept as a successful season. That’s not to undermine the fast start Montreal jumped out to. Throughout October and well into November, they were the best team in hockey.

Until, Carey Price busted his knee. From there, as I eluded to earlier, completely derailed the entire organization. “It’s just a goalie” you may ask, “what’s the big deal?” sigh.

How well did the Colts play in the time between Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck? I rest my case. Sure he is just ‘one guy’ but it’s a pretty damn important guy.

Montreal decided last season was a blemish to put in the rear view. Drastic moves were made, Lars Eller was traded away, along with PK Subban. In return, Andrew Shaw and Shea Weber took their place. Bold move.

While Montreal is soul searching for that all important number one center. They will enter 2016 with Brendan Gallagher, Alex Galchenyuk and Max Pacioretty to carry the load. Tomas Plekanec and Alex Radulov also offer plenty of secondary scoring. Shea Weber will man an aging and inexperienced blue line. Carey Price will return to form and stop anything that comes his way (that’s typically how they win).

You’ll notice they are in the 3 spot, only the first two teams go to the playoffs, Montreal will be a wildcard team for sure.

2. Florida Panthers: Most people laughed at the Florida Panthers when they selected Alexander Barkov 2nd overall at the 2013 NHL draft. Especially with Jonathan Drouin still on the board. After all, he was the least talked about of the top three players selected in that draft. Well they knew what you and I didn’t. No disrespect to Drouin but Barkov has emerged as a superstar for Florida. In 66 games he tallied 28-31-59. Damn good production.

Florida had their nose rubbed in the criticism and half hearted compliments for nearly all of their existence. Now, they have appeared to turn the page on all of that. Their 47-26-9 record and 103 points amassed over the regular season speak for itself.

Without a doubt the Panthers are the feel good team of the year. Who hates the Florida Panthers, honestly? When they made the post season, I found myself rooting for them like I was a long time fan, bananas how fast I turned for them.

The Panthers are solid in every possition. A healthy mix of veterans and extremely talented youth. Aside from Barkov, they have Nick Bjugstad, Aaron Ekblad, Jonathan Huberdeau, Vincent Trocheck, Keith Yandle and Reilly Smith. That’s a lot of goal scoring talent that can be moved all over the ice by head coach Gerard Gallant.

However, I don’t expect this team to repeat as division champs. But you should hop on this bandwagon now, all the fun will end when Luongo calls it a career.

1. The Tampa Bay Lightning: Want to hear something scary? Steven Stamkos in the high slot about to unleash his lethal slap shot. Want to hear something even scarier? Jonathan Drouin feeding Steven Stamkos in the high slot so he can unleash that lethal slap shot. Here is the grand finale, Stamkos is the ripe age of 26, while Drouin is only 21.

I am petrified.

Tampa Bay was one goal away from sending game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Penguins to over time. This, was without Stamkos playing in the first 6 games of the series and their starting goaltender being forced out for the rest of the season in the first period of game one. Impressed yet?

Tampa is a really, really good hockey team. They are good because they gel well and have all bought into the coaches system of play. Now with a full season of Stamkos and Drouin, the league has been set on watch. Chicago has Kane and Toews, Pittsburg has Crosby and Malkin. Sensing what I am getting at?

Between Nikita Kucherov, Tyler Johnson, Victor Hedman, Alex Killorn, Ondrej Palat and the best fourth line center in the league Brian Boyle. Tampa is set to not only eclipse the 100 point mark, but go well beyond it. Expect this team to be back in the Conference Final at the very least.

Tampa is better than you and they know it. And they have no problem proving that to you either. Don’t wake a sleeping beast as they always say. Last years Conference Finals loss to Pittsburgh may have done just that.

Follow FI on Twitter @FIsports and on Facebook.

Also, follow me on Twitter @JoeyRusso12.

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