Do you smell that? It’s the smell of freshly zambonied ice, a cold Miller Lite draft, and freshly printed pages in the game program. Training camps around the NHL are underway and the regular season is so close I can taste it. Now, pump your brakes. Before I can talk about the best team in the world, we have to talk about the other teams, and we start with the Atlantic Division. This is a division with three very good to great teams and three bad to dogshit teams with the Florida Panthers somewhere in the middle. Let’s take a look at this top — and bottom — heavy division.
2017 record: 28-43-11
GF/G – 2.70 (25th)
GA/G – 3.55 (30th)
PP – 16.53% (27th)
PK – 76.17% (t-26th)
Key additions: LW Mikkel Boedker, D Dylan DeMelo, C Chris Tierney
Key losses: D Erik Karlsson, LW Mike Hoffman
Goals – Matt Duchene/Ryan Dzingel (23)
Assists – Mark Stone (42)
Points – Mark Stone (62)
GAA – Mike Condon (3.25)
Sv% – Mike Condon (.902)
The 2018-19 Ottawa Senators will truly test just how hot and how bright a dumpster fire can burn. If that statement and their placement in this preview weren’t obvious enough, I’m picking the Senators to finish eighth in this division. So, forgive me because I will talk at length about this beautiful disaster. I won’t talk quite as much about the other terrible teams, but this is a special case.
Last week, the Senators released the most awkward video I’ve ever seen on Twitter in which the team’s owner, Eugene Melnyk, announced a rebuild in a sit down interview with depth defenseman Matt Borowiecki.
The Ottawa Senators are proud to share the vision for the future of our team and this organization. We are about to launch an exciting plan to rebuild our team and we are inviting you to be a part of our rise to new heights. #OttawaRising pic.twitter.com/hok2jYCUVi
— Ottawa Senators (@Senators) September 11, 2018
There are any number of things I love about that video. The first is that this video even exists on the internet. Who vetted this? Who allowed this to pass through to the public eye? Sure, Melnyk being the egomaniac he is probably would’ve insisted they make it, but couldn’t another member of the staff have created a fake Ottawa Senators Twitter account to release this on and just told Melnyk that it was really popular?
The second thing I love about this video is that the team seems to be lifting Borowiecki up as a face of the franchise. That’s an odd choice. All due respect to Borowiecki, but someone a little more recognizable would’ve brought this more credibility. Or not.
The third thing I love about that cringe-worthy example of how not to announce a rebuild is that Melnyk, the rich owner of an NHL team, is wearing an old jersey. That really sums up the situation in Ottawa. An owner would rather keep something old and worse because it’s cheaper than buying something new and good. There couldn’t possibly be a better metaphor.
Anyway, that video put the writing on the wall in the brightest neon paint possible. Just days later, superstar defenseman Erik Karlsson was traded to the San Jose Sharks. I did my best to keep Karlsson out of the Western Conference. I threatened to cancel my non-existent season tickets, but Ottawa called my bluff and dealt him to San Jose anyway. That’s second big piece the Senators have traded away this offseason after sending Mike Hoffman to the Sharks too. However, Hoffman wasn’t a Shark for long. He was immediately dealt to the Panthers. The key losses portion above may be out of date by the time the season starts. Matt Duchene and Mark Stone should probably be making plans to move too.
So, what do the Senators have left? Well, nothing really. Outside of Stone and Duchene, the cupboard is pretty bare. Depth center J.G. Pageau will be out for quite a while, which only makes matters worse. Without Karlsson, the biggest piston in the engine that drives the offense for the Senators is gone. Without Karlsson, the best defenseman the Senators had is gone. To put it plainly, Ottawa may even be worse than it was last year. The funniest part of it all, which I haven’t even gotten to yet, is that the Senators don’t have their No. 1 pick this season. It belongs to the Colorado Avalanche thanks to the Matt Duchene/Kyle Turris trade. Ottawa may get the top overall pick in the 2019 NHL Draft, and it won’t even belong to them. I feel so bad for the fans of this team. They deserve better.
2017 record: 29-40-13
GF/G – 2.55 (29th)
GA/G – 3.22 (t-26th)
PP – 21.31% (12th)
PK – 74.14% (30th)
Key additions: C Tomas Plekanec, LW/RW Tomas Tatar, FWD Nick Suzuki
Key losses: C Alex Galchenyuk, LW Max Pacioretty
Goals – Brendan Gallagher (31)
Assists – Jonathan Drouin (33)
Points – Brendan Gallagher (54)
GAA – Antti Niemi (2.46)
Sv% – Antti Niemi (.929)
The Montreal Canadiens are lucky the Ottawa Senators exist. Otherwise, all the attention would be on how bad the Habs will be this upcoming season. There are plenty of media members in Montreal that will document the demise of the Canadiens, but far more national and international coverage would be about them if not for the Senators.
The Canadiens should be better than the Senators, but bar is so low you might trip over it. Just last week, Montreal traded captain Max Pacioretty to the Vegas Golden Knights. I’m not sure there has ever been a more relieved human beings in the world than Pacioretty when he got that news. The former Canadiens’ captain always took heat from the media for any small mistake he would make. That won’t be the case in Vegas. In addition to trading Pacioretty, the Canadiens also traded much maligned center/winger Alex Galchenyuk to the Arizona Coyotes. Of course, almost everyone that plays in Montreal is maligned, even P.K. Subban. In return for Galchenyuk, the Canadiens received Max Domi, who has yet to live up to expectations after being a highly-touted prospect. I’m sure he’ll blossom in a low pressure situation like Montreal. The team also signed Tomas Plekanec back and got Tomas Tatar back in the Pacioretty trade, but that’s just a drop in the bucket. The Habs were 29th in goals per game last season, and that could potentially get worse this year.
On the defensive side of things, the news isn’t any better. The Canadiens announced that Weber would be out for 5-6 months back in July. That means he’ll miss around one half of the season. This all started when the team allowed Weber to play on a fractured foot for much of last season. That’s the philosophy of the Canadiens organization. Short-term gains are more important that potential long-term losses. It’s truly baffling that GM Marc Bergevin still has a job. Maybe there aren’t too many potential GM candidates who speak French, so Bergevin’s job is safe for now.
The only reason the Canadiens would be better this season would be if goaltender Carey Price has a bounce back year. Despite the team in front of him, Price should be better. 2017-18 was easily the worst in the career of the perennial Vezina Trophy contender. If Price returns to his old form, that’ll be worth a several more wins in Montreal. However, it won’t be near enough to get them into the postseason.
2017 record: 25-45-12
GF/G – 2.43 (31st)
GA/G – 3.41 (29th)
PP – 19.07% (20th)
PK – 77.87% (22nd)
Key additions: C Jeff Skinner, C Patrik Berglund, RW Tage Thompson, G Carter Hutton, LW Vladimir Sobotka, D Rasmus Dahlin
Key losses: C Ryan O’Reilly, G Chad Johnson, G Robin Lehner
Goals – Jack Eichel (25)
Assists – Jack Eichel (39)
Points – Jack Eichel (64)
GAA – Linus Ullmark (2.00)
Sv% – Linus Ullmark (.935)
Continuing the trash fest that is the bottom of the Atlantic Division, the Buffalo Sabres at least have a fair amount to look forward to. Between Jack Eichel and the 2019 NHL Drat No. 1 overall pick, the future is relatively bright in Buffalo. The roster is full of holes and the team doesn’t seem to have a clear direction, but they have two huge cornerstone pieces already in place.
Jack Eichel is one of the most dynamic young players in the game, but the team traded away veteran center Ryan O’Reilly to the Blues. That would be an understandable move from the Sabres if they were going all in on a rebuild, but they turned around and traded for Jeff Skinner from the Hurricanes. So, who the hell really knows what the though process is up there? Skinner is a good player, but depth scoring will be an issue for Buffalo.
Rasmus Dahlin instantly makes the Sabres’ defense better, but that’s not exactly a huge feat. Buffalo has had one of the worst bluelines in the entire league for the last few seasons. There is some potential for improvement, but that position will still be a weak spot for the team.
In net, Big Hutts will get a crack at a starting gig. Hutton was phenomenal last season as he kept St. Louis’ season afloat while Jake Allen rode the struggle bus. I’m not sure Hutton is definitely the answer in net up there, but I’m happy he at least gets a chance. His backup will be young Linus Ullmark. That may be who ultimately takes the reins in net for the Sabres as the year progresses.
It’ll be another long year for the tortured sports fans in Buffalo, but at least they have Josh Allen and Rasmus Dahlin up there doing the sports. Things won’t be quite as bad this time around in Phil Housley’s second season as head coach.
Detroit Red Wings
2017 record: 30-39-13
GF/G – 2.65 (28th)
GA/G – 3.11 (21st)
PP – 17.52% (24th)
PK – 77.61% (23rd)
Key additions: N/A
Key losses: C Henrik Zetterberg
Goals – Anthony Mantha (24)
Assists – Dylan Larkin (47)
Points – Dylan Larkin (63)
GAA – Jimmy Howard (2.85)
Sv% – Jimmy Howard (.910)
I’m far from the first person to say this, but the Red Wings are in a bad spot. They have a roster full of third and fourth line players — second at best — and have exactly zero dollars in cap space. That’s not hyperbole. According to CapFriendly, Detroit is listed as having $0 in salary cap room. That makes the team’s decision to sign 32-year old defenseman Mike Green to a two-year extension worth over $10 million even more curious.
Up front, the Red Wings have some nice young talent in the form of Dylan Larkin, Anthony Mantha, and Andreas Athanasiou. They just don’t really have the cap room to be able to build around those guys. This team is just trapped in limbo right now, and that’s not a great thought for fans in Detroit. The Senators and the Canadiens will be worse but those teams are also better positioned to burn it all down in order to build it back up. Granted, I probably trust Detroit GM Ken Holland more than anyone in charge in Montreal or Ottawa, so there’s that.
2017 record: 44-30-8
GF/G – 3.02 (T-14th)
GA/G – 3.00 (18th)
PP – 18.88% (21st)
PK – 80.18% (16th)
Key additions: LW Mike Hoffman, RW Troy Brouwer
Key losses: RW Radim Vrbata
Goals – Vincent Trocheck (31)
Assists – Aleksander Barkov (51)
Points – Aleksander Barkov (78)
GAA – Roberto Luongo (2.47)
Sv% – Roberto Luongo (.929)
The poor Florida Panthers. This team is the sad, flavorless deli meat sandwiched between the freshly baked bread at the top of the division and the moldy end piece of a loaf of white bread at the bottom. The Panthers are nowhere near as bad as the teams at the bottom of the division, but they also aren’t nearly as good as the teams at the top of the division. Even after adding Mike Hoffman (and whatever baggage his wife brings), I still can’t quite comfortably pick this team to finish in the top three teams of the division.
This team could make a run at a wild card spot this season. The Panthers made a late push for a playoff spot last season but just couldn’t quite get in. The addition of Hoffman gives them even more firepower up front to go along with Aleksander Barkov, Nick Bjugstad, Jonathan Huberdeau, and Vincent Trocheck. That’s not a bad top couple of lines. Defensively, Aaron Ekblad has been solid for them but his numbers haven’t quite improved the way many thought they would after his fantastic rookie year. Keith Yandle remains a fantastic offensive defenseman. Mark Pysyk and Alex Petrovic also provide a nice presence on the blue line. The biggest questions for this Florida team will be depth scoring and whether Roberto Luongo can continue to hold up in goal. Luongo was outstanding at age 38 last season, but can he sustain that at age 39? Father Time waits for no man. If he does defy age, Florida will be positioned for run at a playoff spot. Granted, no one will be at BB&T Center to see it, so does it really count?
2017 record: 50-20-12
GF/G – 3.29 (6th)
GA/G – 2.61 (3rd)
PP – 23.64% (4th)
PK – 83.67% (3rd)
Key additions: C Chris Wagner, C Joakim Nordstrom, D John Moore, G Jaroslav Halak
Key losses: G Anton Khudobin, D Adam McQuaid, C Riley Nash, LW Rick Nash
Goals – David Pastrnak (35)
Assists – Brad Marchand (51)
Points – Brad Marchand (85)
GAA – Tuukka Rask (2.36)
Sv% – Tuukka Rask (.917)
The Bruins were absolutely dominant a season ago, and that really shouldn’t change too much this season. Boston lost a few players of note, including Anton Khudobin, who was a reliable backup to rask. Still, they were able to add Chris Wagner as a depth center and John Moore to bolster the defensive corps. I think that both of those players will fit in quite nicely for Boston. But that’s not what is so enticing about this Bruins team. It’s what is returning that has people in Boston losing their chowder over this team.
Captain Zdeno Chara is back at the age of 67 and will still probably bully players half his age around the ice. That guy is a freak, both in looks and athletic ability, and he is the heart and soul of this Boston team. Along side him is a player who is actually half his age in Charlie McAvoy. This chipmunk-cheeked defenseman is well on his way to becoming one of the best defensemen in the NHL. Look for him to win at least one Norris Trophy in the coming years. Oh yeah, and that Torey Krug cat isn’t too bad either.
Up front, there is nothing not to like with this team. The line of David Pastrnak, Patrice Bergeron, and Brad Marchand is the best line in hockey. That’s just a fact. Watch them play and you realize that in an instant. When those three are on the ice, the other team doesn’t even touch the puck. They are fun as hell to watch unless they’re playing against your team. Backing those three up are some supremely talented young players on the way up in their careers. Danton Heinen, Jake DeBrusk, and Ryan Donato will all be great players to compliment veterans like David Backes and David Krejci.
In net, they have a great and unappreciated Finnish goaltender. No, the Predators didn’t trade Pekka Rinne. Tuukka Rask remains one of the best goaltenders in the league, but fans in Boston love to heap all the blame on him after a couple of losses in a row. That doesn’t change the fact that he’s still near the top of his game. Backing him up these days is Jaroslav Halak. Things may go south if Rask gets injured.
What I’m taking many words to say here is that the Bruins will be a great team again in 2018-19. Because I can’t make it a three-way tie at the top of the division, I’m putting them in third, but they could easily win the Atlantic.
Toronto Maple Leafs
2017 record: 49-26-7
GF/G – 3.38 (T-2nd)
GA/G – (T-11th)
PP – 25.00% (2nd)
PK – 81.39% (11th)
Key additions: C John Tavares, C Tyler Ennis
Key losses: C Tomas Plekanec, LW James van Riemsdyk, C Tyler Bozak, C Leo Komarov
Goals – Auston Matthews (34)
Assists – Mitch Marner (47)
Points – Mitch Marner (69)
GAA – Curtis McElhinney (2.15)
Sv% – Curtis McElhinney (.934)
The Toronto Maple Leafs won the John Tavares lottery, and expectations in Toronto are reasonable and level-headed. Just kidding, people will lose their minds if this team doesn’t make a deep playoff run. Let me just say I am here for a good old fashioned Canadian riot. There haven’t really been any since Vancouver lost the Stanley Cup, but this Maple Leafs team seems poised to trigger one.
On offense, the Leafs certainly have the guns to be able to get to the Cup Final. After getting Tavares, Toronto now has a superstar veteran presence to go along with young stars like Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander. Veterans Nazem Kadri and Patrick Marleau help complete one of the best top sixes in the NHL. Though Nylander is still undergoing contract negotiations with the team, a deal is expected to get done. Depth players like Connor Brown and Zach Hyman will need to step up to replace some of the production lost with James van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozak.
Toronto is pretty set in goal. Freddie Andersen was very good as the team’s starter last season, and Curtis McElhinney was great in a backup role. While McElhiney may lose his backup job to an up-and-coming goaltender, Andersen is still locked in as the team’s starter.
Where Toronto may encounter trouble is with its defense. Young players on the blue line like Morgan Rielly, Connor Carrick, and Nikita Zaitsev offer lots of potential, but they still make the mistakes that young blueliners make. Jake Gardiner is the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde of the NHL, so it’s tough to fully trust him in the defensive zone. Ron Hainsey is the veteran of the group. He was fine for the team last year, but he’s 37 now and opposing forwards ain’t getting any younger. This may be the Achilles Heel that sinks the Leafs, but probably not in until the playoffs.
I think Toronto will be a helluva lot of fun to watch this season. In the regular season, I think they’re offense propels them to a second-place finish in the division, but I may take the Bruins in a seven-game series in the postseason as the two teams stand now.
Tampa Bay Lightning
2017 record: 54-23-5
GF/G – 3.61 (1st)
GA/G – 2.88 (13th)
PP – 23.91% (3rd)
PK – 76.03% (28th)
Key additions: N/A
Key losses: LW Chris Kunitz
Goals – Nikita Kucherov (39)
Assists – Nikita Kucherov (61)
Points – Nikita Kucherov (100)
GAA – Andrei Vasilevskiy (2.62)
Sv% – Andrei Vasilevskiy (.920)
The Tampa Bay Lightning didn’t do much this offseason, and that’s because they didn’t need to. This team is already a legitimate Stanley Cup contender and an absolute machine. This team has high end talent and depth at every position. It’s scary how good they are, so let’s go ahead and look at this wagon of a team.
Five of Tampa’s returning forwards scored at least 20 goals last season, and it simply does not get any scarier than Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov being on the same line. Those are two of the most lethal scorers in the same league and they’re enough to make opposing net minders fill their pants. Outside of those two stallions, the Bolts have the upstart Brayden Point, Yanni Gourde, Tyler Johnson, J.T. Miller, Ondrej Palat, and Alex Killorn. That is a fantastic group of forwards, but the defense is nearly just as good.
Defensively, the Lightning are somehow just as good. Victor Hedman won the 2018 Norris Trophy, and Tampa also got Ryan McDonagh from the Rangers last season. Anton Stralman is another solid defenseman, and Mikhail Sergachev is a brilliant young player at just 20-years old. Hell, even Dan Girardi had a resurgent year last season. That just shows that Tampa Bay can do no wrong right about now.
Andrei Vasilevskiy was Pekka Rinne’s biggest challenger for the Vezina Trophy for much of the season until he seemed to fizzle out at the end of the year. He even admitted that he was getting tired down the stretch. Perhaps head coach Jon Cooper will use backup Louis Domingue on a more consistent basis this year.
The Tampa Bay Lightning are a team with no discernible flaws. Thank your lucky stars they are in the Eastern Conference.
Final Atlantic Division Prediction
- Maple Leafs
- Red Wings