Who will win the Atlantic Division in 2015?

Kim Klement/USA Today Sports

Kim Klement/USA Today Sports

8. Buffalo

  • 21-51-10, 52 points, 8th in the Atlantic
  • -91 goal differential, -10.35 Rob Vollman Luck Score (RVLS in short) (2nd unluckiest)
  • 25.3 Even Strength SF60 (30th), 33.2 Even Strength SA60 (28th)
  • 43.0% Corsi (29th), 46.8% FO (29th), 982 PDO (29th)
  • 14.1% PP (29th), 81.4% PK (20th), -18 penalty differential

Oh Buffalo. It’s a real shame a city like this has to suffer watching terrible hockey from their NHL club because they are an important city to the hockey world: hosting World Junior Championships, All-American Showcases and being directly south of Toronto and Ontario. GM Tim Murray has, at least, made some acquisitions that will make this side competitive, but with a head coach with a not-so-great track record and an even worse advocate for advanced stats, you can count on another really good 18-year old to be drafted by the Sabres over the summer. Bertram Griffin look-alike Sam Reinhart is their original 18-year old phenom they have on the team as the second overall pick in last year’s draft is expected to play second line center with Cody Hodgson and new captain Brian Gionta. Matt Moulson returns to the Sabres via free agency this time and will join Tyler Ennis and the struggling Drew Stafford on the top line. At the very least, Zemgus Girgensons should be a fun player to watch this season and his partnership with Chris Stewart could be interesting on the third line. The fourth line players are what you would expect for a team that just won’t cut it in the playoffs, but one has to wonder how on Earth Patrick Kaleta is still in the NHL at all, let alone the Buffalo Sabres.

In defense, Jamie McBain and Henrik Tallinder are gone without any NHL team signing them in the off-season. The fact that those were two of Buffalo’s best defensemen last season should tell you how disgusting it was over there. Andrej Meszaros and Josh Gorges replace them, Andre Benoit could be an upgrade after having a surprisingly good season with Colorado last year and Rasmus Ristolainen is another one to watch after helping Finland to the World Junior title last January. Tyler Myers will have better talent around him, but this better be the last time seeing him play top line minutes if he looks even mediocre playing his role again. Watch for former Canadian Junior alum Mark Pysyk as well after he recovers from his upper-body injury. Both Michael Neuvirth and Jhonas Enroth have been solid in net in their past roles as backups, but pressure will be on both of them to withstand at least half the season as the team’s number one. By definition, this is still a bad team that won’t be hurt getting a top five spot in the draft, but the question will be whether they are 50-, 60-, are 70-points bad.

7. Florida

  • 29-45-8, 66 points, 7th in the Atlantic
  • -72 goal differential, -14.66 RVLS (unluckiest)
  • 29.9 Even Strength SF60 (10th), 29.6 Even Strength SA60 (21st)
  • 51.0% Corsi (12th), 48.3% FO (24th), 980 PDO (30th)
  • 10.0% PP (30th), 76.0% PK (30th), +7 penalty differential

After being one of the oldest team’s in the league last year and miss the playoffs again, you would think Florida should try to get younger and hope their rookies get more playing time and shine through. Instead, GM Dale Tallon signed more veterans because none of those youngsters even bothered to hit the 40-point mark last year despite being very good in possession and producing many shots at even strength. Shawn Thornton, Dave Bolland and Jussi Jokinen come in with plenty of playoff experience, but like their signings last year, who knows if any one of them will be able to live up to the roles they are expected to be placed in. Jokinen may be Europe’s answer to Chris Kunitz, but I don’t know if he’ll be able to produce those same numbers with players like Jonathan Huberdeau, Brad Boyes or Aleksander Barkov playing with him. Boyes is more of a wizard in the shootout than he is at 5-on-5 while Barkov and Huberdeau will have to step up right now or be faced of being another of a long list of failed Florida Panthers first round picks.

Speaking of first round picks, Aaron Ekblad was the number one overall pick and is already expected to play top line minutes with Brian Campbell. There is no doubt Ekblad was the best player overall in the entire draft class, but with all the research showing that drafting a forward works out better than drafting a defenseman, will Florida regret this pick while Reinhart, Sam Bennett and Leon Drasaitl make any impact instantly for their respective teams? The whole situation for the Panthers feels very 2007 St. Louis Blues to me. Dmitri Kulikov and Erik Gudbranson are very underrated young defensemen as both got paid this off-season to the tune of three years/$13 million and two years/$5 million respectively. Willie Mitchell joins the team after winning his second Stanley Cup with Los Angeles and was just named Captain after the always-injured Ed Jovanovski did not get resigned. Roberto Luongo will now have his first full NHL season since returning back to Sunrise and put the finishing touch on a sneaky talented cast of blue-liners. Even if someone like Tomas Fleischmann can get going, this Florida team is capable of partying like it’s 2012 again, but until then, another wasted 80-point season is in the cards.

6. Toronto

  • 38-36-8, 84 points, 6th in the Atlantic
  • -25 goal differential, 7.82 RVLS (5th luckiest)
  • 26.7 Even Strength SF60 (25th), 34.9 Even Strength SA60 (30th)
  • 42.9% Corsi (30th), 48.3% FO (25th), 1013 PDO (4th)
  • 19.8% PP (6th), 78.4% PK (28th), -16 penalty differential

“Randy Carlyle: it almost rhymes with LOL.”

That should be Toronto’s current slogan until they fire the guy and replace him with Dan Bylsma. Until then, they will have to deal with a head coach that insufferably allows his teams to get out-shot every night and not utilize his players to the best of their abilities. There were plenty of additions to the Maple Leafs this off-season, but they consist of only bottom six forwards and aging defensemen. Leo Komarov had to play in the KHL last year in order to force Toronto’s hand to pay him properly this summer. David Clarkson is already playing on the fourth line after signing his disgrace of a contract last season and Matt Frattin returns to do, well, Matt Frattin things. Oh, and David Booth was brought on and got hurt again with no Maple Leaf executive seeing it coming. They already started the season being out attempted roughly 52-45 at even strength in last night’s game against Montreal and that was against a team that was terrible in out-shooting teams last year. It’s a real shame, because James Van Riemsdyk was incredible last year and has one of the best contracts in the league. Phil Kessel had another fine season and any smart Maple Leafs fan will realize that he is one of the best wingers in the world.

The defense is, well, indefensible. Stephane Robidas, at age-37 and coming back from a broken leg last year, is partnering with Dion Phaneuf on the top line while Roman Polak is expected to improve Toronto’s disgusting penalty kill. Cody Franson and Jake Gardiner are great defenseman but both will be leaving during the trade deadline or free agency because not a single one of them get the respect they deserve from all the “Colton Orr for Captain” types. Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer might seriously be the best goaltending tandem in the league if they could just breath once in a while and not face so many shot attempts every night. Man is this team going to be horrible to watch this year!

5. Ottawa

  • 37-31-14, 88 points, 5th in the Atlantic
  • -29 goal differential, -3.70 RVLS
  • 33.1 Even Strength SF60 (1st), 33.3 Even Strength SA60 (29th)
  • 52.4% Corsi (8th), 51.2% FO (11th), 997 PDO (20th)
  • 18.4% PP (14th), 80.9% PK (22nd), -49 penalty differential

Speaking of horrible teams to watch, Ottawa might actually be my pick for team that will fire their coach first, and it’s a darn shame. I like Paul MacLean and I had this team pegged as my Eastern Conference team for the Stanley Cup final last year. Instead, this team fell flat with only 88 standings points and Jason Spezza was traded for youngster Alex Chiasson. Where did all the cap space from that trade go; to resigning plenty of players to long term contracts and to signing an aging David Legwand who might not even make the top six on this team. Sure, Kyle Turris and Mika Zibanejad should have breakout seasons and Erik Karlsson will be his usual dependable self on the back end, but how high is Ottawa’s ceiling if Bobby Ryan, Clarke MacArthur and Craig Anderson are your best players and you have an owner that never bothers to spend money to make the team better. Cody Ceci and Curtis Lazar are youngsters to watch but players like Milan Michalek will need to increase his production from last year and someone else amongst the top-four in defense will have to step up this season. This team can be good, but there are so many elements about this team that really put me off that I really don’t know where they want to go in order to be a successful team.

4. Montreal

  • 46-28-8, 100 points, 3rd in the Atlantic
  • +11 goal differential, 4.40 RVLS (7th luckiest)
  • 27.5 Even Strength SF60 (23rd), 30.5 Even Strength SA60 (22nd)
  • 46.7% Corsi (26th), 49.6% FO (17th), 1005 PDO (9th)
  • 17.2% PP (19th), 85.1% PK (4th), -10 penalty differential

Last year, Montreal found many ridiculous ways to win games and make it to the conference finals (no, they never pulled this off before). Maybe it was Pernell Karl Subban crashing the net with a little bit of extra jet fuel or begging for mercy to give him the puck for his trademark slap shot. Maybe it’s Tomas Plekanec’s turtleneck being consistently good every year. Either way, Montreal will be interesting with plenty of turnover on the roster. Out goes Josh Gorges, Daniel Briere and Brian Gionta and in goes P.A. Parenteau, Manny Malhotra, Jiri Sekac and Tom Gilbert. Goaltending and great penalty killing were the keys to the Canadiens last season as Carey Price finished with his best season of his career. When Price went down to injury in game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals, Dustin Tokarski stepped in really nicely the rest of the series. As Gorges was seen as the team’s go-to shot blocker, his possession numbers didn’t really translate to defensive success, especially on his WOWY (with or without you) analysis. That’s why Montreal’s brass decided to let him go and bring in a dependable possession defenseman in Gilbert and promote Nathan Beaulieu from within.

Up front, the second line of Max Pacioretty, David Desharnais and Brandon Gallagher could be among the most underrated lines in the NHL. Other forwards can carry the load amongst their respective lines in Lars Eller and Plekanec, but the rest will need to step up in possession and goal scoring. Alex Galchenyuk is still really young, but that doesn’t excuse how his numbers plummeted last season. Questions will also surround Rene Bourque as to whether or not his production from last year’s playoffs were a fluke or not. In short, Montreal should be a bona fide playoff team, but there are enough holes in this roster to wonder how guaranteed it is.

3. Detroit

  • 39-28-15, 93 points, 4th in the Atlantic
  • -8 goal differential, -4.98 RVLS (8th unluckiest)
  • 28.9 Even Strength SF60 (16th), 28.3 Even Strength SA60 (11th)
  • 51.5% Corsi (9th), 50.8% FO (14th), 1000 PDO (16th)
  • 17.7% PP (18th), 83.0% PK (12th), -13 penalty differential

Like all aging rosters do, they get hurt. For Detroit’s case, however, it was the most banged up in the league. Name any world class player on this team, and odds are they missed a month or more last year to injury. Head Coach Mike Babcock was resigned to bring in much younger players for reinforcements and some of them more than rose to the challenge. One of them was Gustav Nyquist, who may or may not have just had shear luck follow him the last two months of the season. He may have to continue that same production if Detroit ever wants to hit contender status again. The veterans will also have to find a way to stay healthy in order for this season to be an improvement as well. No additions were made to this roster, but players like Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and Steven Weiss should come back in better health. It will also be interesting to see how Tomas Tatar, Tomas Jurco and Riley Sheahan can blend with the rest of the forwards.

On the back end, Jimmy Howard was deemed to have a poor season last year, but he has been one of the more consistent goaltenders in the league throughout his career. Nicklas Kronwall and Jonathan Ericsson form a solid partnership on the top end, but it is the rest of the blue line that could be in need of an upgrade. Neither of Brandon Smith, Danny DeKeyser, Kyle Quincey or Jakub Kindl seem like players that will push up the ice to join in the offense or handle strong opposition well. With the amount of potential upgrades in the next free agent class, Detroit could go after someone at the trade deadline if they need to. With almost everyone returning healthy, the Red Wings are not gone, but who knows how far they will go after that.

2. Boston

  • 54-19-9, 117 points, 1st in the Atlantic
  • +84 goal differential, 11.98 RVLS (3rd luckiest)
  • 31.1 Even Strength SF60 (6th), 27.8 Even Strength SA60 (9th)
  • 53.9% Corsi (4th), 51.6% FO (8th), 1025 PDO (1st)
  • 21.7% PP (3rd), 83.6% PK (8th), -33 penalty differential

After being knocked out the second round of the playoffs, the Bruins went on to lose Jarome Iginla and Shawn Thornton and they were forced to trade Johnny Boychuk to free up some cap space. That is not a good sign in the long term as it has forced players like Ryan Spooner, Craig Cunningham and the legendary Bobby Robbins to join the lineup. These are great stories, yes, but I am not holding my breath for anyone of them to become the best players on the team. Dougie Hamilton, Torey Krug and Reilly Smith can take another step to their games and become world class NHL players, but this team still revolves around Tuukka Rask, Zdeno Chara and Patrice Bergeron.

There is no denying this team has all the top-tier talent to make another cup run and head coach Claude Julien has done a great job getting the best out of it. While Bergeron is getting all the accolades, some may wonder if Brad Marchand should receive any of that credit as well. Dennis Seidenberg will return for a full season after returning from injuring his right knee last season. Kevan Millar did not look out of place last year, but one has to wonder if he and the rest of the bottom tier players will have too much of a negative impact in the playoffs like they did last year. They can not afford to make too many mistakes while the core of this team is still at the prime of their careers. The majority of that group is hitting their late-20s or early to mid-30s, so the time is now for Boston to continue to be a cup contender or they will face a tough rebuilding process because of the lack of salary cap space they have.

1. Tampa Bay

  • 46-27-9, 101 points, 2nd in the Atlantic
  • +25 goal differential, 1.79 RVLS
  • 29.8 Even Strength SF60 (12th), 27.7 Even Strength SA60 (8th)
  • 51.0% Corsi (11th), 49.2% FO (19th), 1007 PDO (8th)
  • 18.5% PP (13th), 80.7% PK (23rd), 0 penalty differential

These are my favorites to make the Stanley Cup finals. While I wanted to be as hipster as possible and pick a team nobody saw coming last year, I have to think there is more of a consensus with this team. Head Coach John Cooper has done a terrific job in bringing in younger players like Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov, J.T. Brown and Radko Gudas into fold. With additional acquisitions in Jason Garrison, Brian Boyle, Anton Stralman and the promotion of 2013 first round pick Jonathan Drouin, this team should be a contender. Oh, and let’s not forget that Steven Stamkos, Ben Bishop and Victor Hedman are awesome. If it wasn’t for the Ben Bishop injury and the Martin St. Louis-Steve Yzerman feud, the Lightning should have smashed Montreal to pieces instead of the other way around in last year’s playoffs. Now their defense is upgraded and their forwards should have another year of development together. One weakness could be the lack of a backup goaltender if Evgeni Nabokov or prospect Kristers Gudlevskis is not a true upgrade over Anders Lindback. Even former first round pick Brett Connolly and aging veteran Brenden Morrow could be on their last chance to stay on an NHL roster if they don’t have good seasons. Still, this team should perform well. They play a positive brand of hockey and the back end has no weaknesses to speak of. They will be fun to watch.

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