Who Will Win the Atlantic Division in 2017?

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Dirk Shadd/Tampa Bay Times

8. Ottawa

Let’s start previewing the Ottawa Senators with this not-so-big-deal tweet.

Good job, good effort Eugene Melnyk!

Also, remember when he made that massive rant stating that no Senators player was safe after last season? Welp, all the Senators did in the offseason was trade Mike Zibanejad for an older Derek Brassard and sign Chris Kelly. Oh, and some “hard worker” with the last name of Pyatt is back in the NHL. Not great!

There are good pieces to this team. Just two years ago, everyone of their top six forwards was on pace for 20 goals while Erik Karlsson continued to do Erik Karlsson things. Sadly, their too high PDO was predictably not repeatable and Andrew Hammond’s too high save percentages turned to league average last season. They aren’t one of the worst teams in the NHL, but it’s just completely astounding that management did absolutely nothing to make this team better. I know they’re the Senators and will always be a cheap franchise, but somewhere along the line, offseasons like this summer’s has to punish this team so badly that they become a draft lottery team, right?

7. Toronto

On the other side of Ontario, the Toronto Maple Leafs are actually building something for the long haul. It has taken a while for them to get to this point and there still will be plenty of growing pains for this franchise to go through, but there is excitement for the first time in a generation for this team. To top it all off, they have one of the best coaches in the sport in Mike Babcock to develop a young group of players to reach their maximum potential.

Austin Matthews will certainly bring plenty of excitement to their fan base, but so should Mitch Marner and William Nylander. Along with that, Morgan Reilly received plenty of experience as a top line defensemen in pressure-packed World Cup of Hockey games that could translate well to how he develops as a top tier defensemen. Along with that, Fredrik Andersen and Jhonas Enroth have been brought in with solid reputations from previous teams that should be able to produce positively when playing in goal. Either way, this Maple Leafs team shouldn’t be boring.

6. Buffalo

The future also seemed quite promising for Buffalo, until Jack Eichel twisted his ankle in practice and could be out until as soon as Thanksgiving. The Sabres won’t feel any pressure to get back into the postseason, but considering how weak the top tier of the division is, the potential for improvement was quite high.

Among the reasons for that is the continuation of adding young veteran additions to a developing roster. Last season was the addition of two-way center Ryan O’Reilly. This season was the signing of goal scoring winger Kyle Okposo. Like Toronto, the continued development for players like Eichel and Sam Reinhart will be the key to the Sabres’ success. After all, they finished 26th in the NHL in scoring. Matt Moulson simply has to do better than the eight goals and 21 points he hit last season and Evander Kane will have to prove that he is a legitimate top six wing, let alone one that is counted upon on the top line for the Sabres.

Buffalo’s defense can be better too, but they finished 14th in goals against last season. Still, Rasmus Ristolainen and Dmitry Kulikov need to do better to prove that they can be long term answers as top tier defensemen. It will be an interesting season for Buffalo and a pivotal one for their future.

5. Detroit

Everyone in the NHL has wondered when Detroit’s massive streak of consecutive playoff runs would come to an end. This year might be that year, but this year might be another year where we could be proven wrong. That’s how Detroit has been since Niklas Lidstrom retired.

It is not like Jeff Blashill is a terrible systems coach. He did, however, struggle mightily to get the best line combinations he could at the tale end of last season. The likes of Brad Richards and Pavel Datsyuk are gone and in comes two-way forward Frans Nielsen. Along with that, plenty of younger players will hope to make a name for themselves. Dylan Larkin excited the league last season, but like the rest of his teammates, he struggled to get to 50 points. Scoring depth will be critical if the Red Wings are to make the playoffs again.

Petr Mrazek has proven to be such a good starting goaltender that he was in line to win the Vezina trophy at the half-way point of the season. Then, along with the rest of the defense, his save percentage began to plummet. The key to this season will be how well all Detroit’s younger players beyond Larkin perform this season. Xavier Ouellet, Ryan Sproul and Alexei Marchenko are all expected to get sweaters on the blue line while Andreas Athanasiou is expected to play on the top line with Nielsen and Tomas Tatar. This is not an ideal roster by any means, but any elite level contribution would come a long way in determining Detroit’s future. Otherwise, Thomas Vanek and his terrible puck possession might poison this team out of the postseason.

4. Boston

It’s pretty amazing how within the span of three years, the Boston Bruins have gone from being one game and one minute away from a second Stanley Cup in three years to being a forgotten franchise within the NHL’s elite. Now, Claude Julien could be among the first head coaches to get fired and many of the role players that guided the Bruins to their last Stanley Cup Finals appearance are gone. In come the likes of a possibly aging David Backes and some wonder if there is enough skill left on this team.

Sure, David Pastrnak and Torey Krug could carry some of that load, but their production will have to increase if they are to lessen the burden on the likes of Zdeno Chara, Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron. Beyond those three, there seems to be a lack of elite talent and it could lead to another down season and a real beginning of a rebuild in Boston. It is also not helping that general manager Don Sweeney continues to pick less-talented prospects within the first round of each NHL entry draft.

3. Montreal

We transition from one franchise that has made plenty of dumb offseason transactions to another. In reality, everything that could have gone wrong in Montreal last season, did go wrong. Carey Price went down for the season with an MCL sprain and with that went any form of stability in goal and, weirdly enough, the team’s ability to generate offense. Top six forwards Brendan Gallagher and David Desharnais also missed plenty of games that resulted in such ineptitude up front, but Michel Therrien’s mindless pursuit of defense-first hockey must be blamed first.

In comes Alex Radulov for this season that would hopefully cure all ills after dominating the last handful of years in the KHL. Personally, I will stop at nothing to root for him to win the Hart Trophy for comic relief considering that he was considered such a cancer in the locker room when at Nashville, yet he signed with a franchise that decided to release Alexander Semin for…wait for it…being a cancer in the locker room. Speaking of transitions from Nashville to Montreal, how’s it going Shea Weber? The 31 year old really has to prove that he can generate the same offense as the departed P.K. Subban and live up to his expensive contract extension. Even if Weber were to live up to his billing, other defensemen beyond him and the now-injured Jeff Petry will have to step up on the back end, especially with the aging Andrei Markov on the final year of his contract.

2. Florida

Just as soon as the good vibes began to roll in for Florida, they lost to the New York Islanders in which they completely outplayed them in the vast majority of the series. Now, they enter the regular season with higher expectations, but without Jonathan Huberdeau and Nick Bjugstad to start the season due to injury. That really limits the depth of a Panthers team that needs as many goal scorers as it can get after being so abysmal in that department last season. With Jaromir Jagr entering his age-45 (!!!) season and now the likes of Denis Malgin, Jared McCann and Jonathan Marchessault will be getting top nine minutes, goal scoring still seems a point of weakness for this franchise. That is, unless the Vincent Trocheks, Alexander Barkovs and Reilly Smiths continue to develop even further.

On the backend, Roberto Luongo is also getting up there in age after being outplayed by Thomas Greiss in a tight-scoring playoff series last year. Aaron Ekblad may be the next Drew Doughty, but he will now be paired with all-offense/no-defense puck mover Keith Yandle. Beyond that, no one else on the blueline that returned and played more than 40 games for the Panthers generated positive puck possession. Head coach Gerard Gallant will hope that Jason Demers and Mark Pysyk can improve the team in that department. For now, though, the Panthers could be playing half the season not at full strength. Could we see them active at the trade deadline to improve their chances at a Stanley Cup, or will this be another dour season for a franchise that has seen one too many of them.

1. Tampa Bay

Almost by default, Tampa Bay are the guaranteed favorites to run away with the Atlantic Division once again. On paper, this team has essentially stayed intact and have been the perfect role models of what a franchise should do after hitting the pinnacle and yet only coming up short due to finer margins only.

That all being said, there will be some important roster decisions to be made as early as this midseason. Brian Boyle and Ben Bishop will be free agents after this season while Valteri Filppula and Ryan Callahan have shown signs of decline from last season. Some added scoring depth could be needed for the long haul. However, that could change in a hurry if Jonathan Drouin breaks out into a star and rookie Brayden Point ends up becoming a positive contribution. Defensively, Tampa can also do better as Anton Stralman and Victor Hedman can’t carry the load all the time. In short, the Lightning aren’t perfect, but neither is the rest of this division. When in doubt, John Cooper is one of the best coaches in hockey and another Conference Finals appearance seems likely as a result.

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