Atlantic Division: Team-by-team preview

It's going to be a real fight at the top of the Atlantic. (USATSI)
It's going to be a real fight at the top of the Atlantic Division. (USATSI)

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The Northeast was the surprise division of the NHL last season, with four of the five teams making the playoffs, including the Leafs. That division stays together with a monster from the West in the Red Wings plus the Florida pair.

In other words, this will be a really good division. From the defending East champs in Boston to the division winner from last season in Montreal, this is a top-heavy class and somebody from that group of five playoff teams from last season is going to miss out.

1. Boston Bruins

Most important player: Zdeno Chara. The constant in Boston is the defense will be good and that all begins with Chara. He is their leader and with the Bruins losing some offensive potential this summer, the D will need to be as nasty as ever in front of Tuukka Rask.

X-factor: Jarome Iginla. What does he have to give them at this point in his career? He looked awfully slow in Pittsburgh but could put up points with quality guys around him. Does he have that in him still?

For the first time in a few years, the Bruins will actually have some different faces. The salary cap finally caught up to them and the Bruins had to part ways regulars Tyler Seguin, Rich Peverley, Nathan Horton and Andrew Ference. To help fill those voids they welcomed in Loui Eriksson and Iginla and will stay in-house with the plethora of defensemen.

What that fails to mention, though, is that the core is still here. As this last season should have proved, the Bruins have talented offensive players as well. This is not just a defensive team. Guys like David Krejci, Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, Milan Lucic, etc., are all capable scoring forwards. Losing Seguin's speed doesn't help but Eriksson won't represent a drop off at all for the Bruins. In fact at this point he might be an upgrade.

What makes the Bruins so good year in, year out, though, is the balance they have. They have a solid four lines and cornerstone defensemen in Chara and Dennis Seidenberg. They help an already very good goalie in Rask. The Bruins don't have many weaknesses -- though they might have one on the wing this season -- and they consistently outshoot opponents. Those things shouldn't change and the Bruins will once again be competing for the Cup. Things changed but they didn't change that much.

Standings with last season's records
Team Wins Losses OTL Points
1. Canadiens 29 14 5 63
2. Bruins 28 14 6 62
3. Maple Leafs 26 17 5 57
4. Red Wings 24 16 8 56
5. Senators 25 17 6 56
6. Sabres 21 21 6 48
7. Lightning 18 26 4 40
8. Panthers 15 27 6 36

2. Ottawa Senators

Most important player: Jason Spezza. It's tough between him and Erik Karlsson, who controls so much of the offense, but Spezza is their huge scorer and getting him back this season from a missed campaign is huge.

X-factor: Craig Anderson. He put up insane numbers last season despite the injuries. It's a major question to wonder if he can do it again, simply because the sample size was short and they were crazy good numbers. If he regresses, will the team?

If Years 1 and 2 of the Paul MacLean regime were any indication, things will only get better this year for the Senators. Silly trends aside, there's no reason to think the Sens aren't going to be improved and give the Bruins a serious run for the money atop this division. That's assuming one big thing -- they can stay healthy. That has been perhaps the most amazing part about this team's ascent in the past couple of seasons; they've hardly been all they can be thanks to injuries.

Take last season for example. They reached the second round of the playoffs despite not having Spezza all season, Karlsson for most of the season and going parts without Anderson in net or with Milan Michalek. Those are some pretty critical players yet they kept pace and then some. Now all of them should be ready to go. Add them to the young nucleus the Sens have been building toward, sprinkle in a couple of excellent additions in Bobby Ryan and Clarke MacArthur and all of a sudden you have the makings of a true contender.

What's fair to wonder about is the defense. After all, their best defenseman is almost a forward in disguise with Eriksson. But last season Marc Methot was a solid addition and they're going to hope they can get the same sort of mileage out of Joe Corvo this season, though I wouldn't hold my breath. Beyond that it's mostly a group of young but promising players like Jared Cowen.

While Anderson was able to handle the workload last season, the way the Sens play lends itself to giving up a lot of shots -- and taking them as well -- and that's a dangerous game. As long as the Sens aren't surrendering scoring chances, they're OK with that. Still, you would like to see them turn the shot attempts further in their favor to start taking the next step. (There, a whole team preview without talking about a departed former captain. Time to look forward.)

3. Detroit Red Wings

Most important player: Henrik Zetterberg. When it all comes down to it, this is still his team to lead. The issue for Detroit last season was somewhat surprising -- the Wings weren't scoring enough. At his bestm Big Z helps remedy that.

X-factor: Danny DeKeyser. It was a massive addition when the Wings signed the free agent out of college. This season he should get a true chance to show what he has. If he's all he was hyped to be, the Wings look solid on D. Who woulda thunk that last year?

Before last season, people were starting to write their eulogies for the sport's longest playoff streak, which stretches back a couple of decades. Heck, GM Ken Holland was pretty much the first one who put pen to paper. And he wasn't far off -- the Red Wings did struggle for much of the season. They came on strong at the end of the year and not only got in the postseason but won a series and came oh-so-close to beating the eventual champs from Chicago.

They seemed to find their stride as the season wore on, taking on a bit of a new identity. With guys like Pavel Datsyuk and Zetterberg they still have offensive potential but became a much stronger defensive squad, turning a perceived weakness into a strength. It helps having one of the more steady goaltenders in the league in Jimmy Howard behind them.

Now they move forward with a couple of new additions in Stephen Weiss and Daniel Alfredsson. Alfie is up there in age but he came to Detroit in part to win the Stanley Cup. He's going to have to tap into that fountain of youth a bit to do his part but he showed last year he still has some game. Weiss is coming off a terrible, injury-shortened season and will play his first games not in a Panthers sweater. As the second center, he's going to be relied on big time to give them a solid top six. They have their usual bottom six guys to take care of those responsibilities.

Every year people get ready to count out the Wings and every year they keep on winning. They still have a good season (or a few) to go with this core, though we'll have to wait and see if they shape up to be an elite contender. They shouldn't be far behind.

4. Montreal Canadiens

Most important player: Carey Price. The end to last season was brutal. Otherwise they had the scoring and were good at preventing shots. The other pieces were there, they just need him to be an All-Star again.

X-factor: Danny Briere. The veteran forward is seen by many to be over the hill. Not by the Habs. It looks like he'll actually start the season as a top-line wing. They're counting on him to rebound, a big question at this stage.

Last season was a welcome reprieve from an ugly couple of years in Montreal. The Habs returned to their rightful position in the playoffs by winning the division. It seems like people forget that but they edged out the Bruins for that honor.

It's hard to imagine they would have hung in a full season on because as the season wound down, so did the Habs. That's a concern coming into this season, especially with Price. It started with what looked like a funk but carried through the last month-plus of the season. Price seemingly lost "it." That was one issue they can only wait to see if it has been fixed. The other issue was the Habs' lack of size and grit. At least that's what they thought. So the offseason goal was all about getting bigger and tougher, giving Brandon Prust some help. That's what George Parros and Douglas Murray came to town for. It's fair to ask if that's actually a good use of roster space because those players are liabilities otherwise.

One thing the Habs will do is score. They have a very balanced group of scorers, enough to fill up a few lines. Combine them with some good puck-movers on the back end, led by Norris Trophy winner P.K. Subban (a pretty darn good defender, too) and scoring is the least of their concerns. Replacing Michael Ryder with Briere -- a ways removed from his best days  -- might not help much in that regard. Montreal was pretty strong defensively too, giving up the fifth-fewest shots per game last season. There are a lot of things to like with the Habs. I'm not sure they're up to the top teams in this new division but they should be a playoff team again.

5. Toronto Maple Leafs

Most important player: James Reimer/Jonathan Bernier. A major factor in the Leafs' success last season was Reimer's play. But Toronto was insistent on getting Bernier to compete. The only way the Leafs are back in the postseason is if this duo can provide better than average play.

James Reimer (USATSI)

X-factor: Nazem Kadri. He had 44 points in 48 games last season but did it with a very high shooting percentage and tailed off at the end of the season. If he can't sustain that kind of pace, it will sting.

Is there a more intriguing team in the NHL coming into the season that the Maple Leafs? I don't think so, not with the changes they made, the money they spent and the drama of the summer that so often seems to surround this franchise. You add in the fact that this team ended the playoff drought this past season and it's fraught with possibilities.

Problem is, did the moves make them better or even make sense? Mikhail Grabovski out, Dave Bolland in. Clarke MacArthur gone, replaced by David Clarkson. Ben Scrivens, Matt Frattin and salary-cap room departed in favor of Bernier. The decision to keep Tyler Bozak at a big price and the mismanaged use of cap space that has defenseman Cody Franson still unsigned. Now going into the season you'll have the issue of contract extensions for Dion Phaneuf and Phil Kessel, who has said he doesn't want to negotiate in the season, hanging around. There's never not anything going on in Toronto.

As for the on-ice prospects, I don't see a team that's likely to repeat its playoff appearance from last season. Yes, the Leafs reached the postseason rather comfortably in the short season before going out in gut-wrenching fashion to the Bruins. Now, it feels like the Leafs did it with smoke and mirrors. They had the second-lowest Fenwick Close rating last season -- in tight games when presumably both teams are still playing their game, the Leafs were being outshot worse than any team not named Buffalo. It's not a recipe for success. The Leafs got by on a high shooting percentage with very good goaltending. Those are the types of things that normally regress. Simply put, shoot more than your opponent and your chances of scoring more (and thus winning) go up. Frankly, they spend too much time icing guys like Colton Orr and Frazer McLaren, whose primary function is fighting, not anything useful for hockey purposes. That's how coach Randy Carlyle likes to play and why they brought in "grittier" guys like Bolland and Clarkson.

Of specific interest on this team will be the situation on defense. It might not be so bad. Remember Paul Ranger? He's back from his NHL hiatus and could make a real difference on the blue line. They have such good talent back there that Jake Gardiner is a third-pairing option and this is all with Franson still unsigned. The challenge will be clearing the zone with more frequency and getting the puck to guys with excellent skill like Kessel, Kadri and James van Riemsdyk.

6. Tampa Bay Lightning

Most important player: Steven Stamkos. He's the best and I say most important because if the Lightning are going to beat you, they're going to have to simply outscore you (as in, win high-scoring games).

X-factor: Goaltending. Just see below. It should go a long way in determining this team's success.

Going into last season the belief was that even moderately improved goaltending would make a massive difference but Tampa still didn't really get it together. Anders Lindback was not blowing anybody's socks off so the Lightning brought in big Ben Bishop. In his short time with the Bolts it looked like perhaps he might be able to give them what they needed.

If he's able to keep a save percentage at or around the .917 he posted for Tampa Bay last season then perhaps this team could be able to jump back up the standings. Scoring wasn't an issue. They were third in the league in goals scored but 26th in goals against. It led to an odd situation; a team with the third-worst record had a goal differential of just minus-2. That's not typically how it's supposed to work.

Statistically speaking, the Lightning looked a bit like the Leafs, just without the goaltending, and they didn't do a whole lot to change matters. About the only thing they did was buy out Vincent Lecavalier and bring in Valtteri Filppula. Is that going to make a major difference, especially for a team whose big issue is in their end zone? Not if their Fenwick Close stays down below 45 (meaning they only had 45 percent of the shot attempts).

But when they have a guy like Stamkos who can convert on a high percentage of his shots, they can get away with that a little bit. With his presence alone, the offense is potent. Having Martin St. Louis and the rest of the gang doesn't hurt, especially now that they have added a player with the skill of Jonathan Drouin. So really it all comes down to the back end; if they are able to get league-average goaltending or better, they become a dangerous team, even in a very tough division.

7. Florida Panthers

Most important player: Whoever is in net. The best goalie last season was Jacob Markstrom with a .901 save percentage. The defense did no favors but still, the goalies weren't good enough. Whether it's Markstrom or somebody else, it must be shored up.

X-factor: Kris Versteeg. Versteeg had a very good season for Florida two years ago but missed almost all of this past season. Getting him back is almost like adding a free agent. If he's able to return to top-line production, it helps fill a huge hole for this team -- the ability to score.

Last season was simply wretched. It was as if they were cashing in on the back end of the karma ticket they purchased that finally got them into the playoffs the season before. They dealt with injury after injury and overall declining play across the board. Pretty much the only bright spot was the Calder Trophy-winning play of Jonathan Huberdeau, who is now dealing with the effects of offseason hip surgery.

The Panthers will have a blend of old and new with GM Dale Tallon electing to go with a largely inexperienced roster and seeing what their much-ballyhooed system has in the wings. At the same time, though, he has tried supplementing it with some veterans, the typical mix you see on a team so young. Scott Gomez was signed this summer, they're giving a workout to Brad Boyes and, yes, they're in talks with Tim Thomas. Bring back a couple of the injured guys like Versteeg and Sean Bergenheim and really, you don't know what this team might do.

You're looking at the possibility of having 10 or 11 players 25 years old or younger start the season with the team. The latest player to add to that mix is No. 2 draft pick Aleksander Barkov, who held his own and then some in Finland's top league against grown men. It's possible he could be the top center when the season opens, but so could a couple of others. They have some bodies but no obvious choices for top-six centermen at this stage of their careers. That's an issue.

The good news is the Panthers can't really do worse than they did last season. I would venture to say they weren't that bad. Bring in a guy like Thomas who, if he's still able to play close to his old form, can make a big difference in pulling up an awful even-strength save percentage and the team becomes a little more interesting. Still likely a far cry from a playoff team but I don't foresee the awful season many others do.

8. Buffalo Sabres

Most important player: Thomas Vanek. He could be on his way out of town, at which point what he fetches in return is important. If not, he's the attraction for this team as their top scorer. Without him, it's even rougher sledding.

X-factor: Mikhail Grigorenko. We've been hearing about Grigorenko's talent since he fell to Buffalo in the draft two years ago but he didn't show it last season in limited opportunities. If he does this year then it's a boon.

Let's put it this way: The most interesting thing about them this season will likely be seeing whether their two best players -- Vanek and Ryan Miller -- are traded away before it ends. Otherwise it figures to be a bad season in Buffalo, but that's something they are prepared for.

GM Darcy Regier finally pulled the plug on the longtime core that was underachieving the past couple of seasons and has committed to this rebuild. What you get is a very young team that doesn't have a high payroll and has the expectations to match. Not that he's a bad player, but you're talking about Cody Hodgson being the best player not named Vanek or Miller. While Hodgson can score, his all-around game leaves something to be desired.

So this season is going to be more about learning on the fly with the team they have now and seeing how they look down the road. There are some players to work with in Hodgson, Tyler Ennis, Marcus Foligno and Grigorenko, but at this point they're still young and growing, not ready to challenge in this division. They can start by cleaning up the fact that they gave up more shots against than any team in the league last season. No wonder Miller got frustrated at times.

Division Previews: Metropolitan Division | Central Division, Sept. 16 | Pacific Division, Sept. 18

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