The NHL’s short offseason version of silly season is complete, with the NHL draft, trades, insane free agent signings, and a few reasonable signings having taken place in the past few weeks. The Montreal Canadiens did not indulge in major renovations, but rearranged the furniture.
A few teams in the Atlantic Division underwent drastic changes and could change the balance of power in the Habs division. The standings at the end of the 2013-14 season allowed the Boston Bruins, Tampa Bay Lightning, Canadiens and Detroit Red Wings to qualify for the postseason, which had the Toronto Maple Leafs, Ottawa Senators, Florida Panthers and Buffalo Sabres on the outside looking in.
So who is going to make the playoffs out of the Atlantic Division next season? The final standings from this April are listed below.
Boston Bruins 117
Tampa Bay Lightning 101
Montreal Canadiens 100
Detroit Red Wings 93
Ottawa Senators 88
Toronto Maple Leafs 84
Florida Panthers 66
Buffalo Sabres 52
The Sabres finished dead last in the NHL standings with just 52 points and would need to improve by about 40 just to make the postseason next year. They added a few veterans in Matt Moulson, and former Habs Brian Gionta and Josh Gorges to their very young core, and also drafted Sam Reinhart with the second overall pick in the draft.
They are stacked with young, impressive prospects such as Rasmus Ristolainen, Nikita Zadorov, Mark Pysyk, Zemgus Girgensons and Mikhail Grigorenko to go with Reinhart. However, they are a long way from competing in the division, and though they will improve their point total on their putrid season, they will likely finish last once again.
The Panthers made plenty of headlines in silly season, drafting defenseman Aaron Ekblad with the first overall pick and then overspending in free agency on Dave Bolland, Jussi Jokinen and Willie Mitchell. This will improve their team in the short term, but last time they spent freely on July 1st, they filled the roster with overpriced mediocre talent in Sean Bergenheim, Scottie Upshall, Ed Jovanovski and Tomas Kopecky. It looks like their recent spending spree got them similar mediocre talent, but no all-star calibre talent.
Florida will have a full season of Roberto Luongo in net, after acquiring the veteran at the trade deadline, and if Dmitri Kulikov can bounce back, they will have a solid blue line led by Brian Campbell. Kulikov, Erik Gudbranson, Ekblad and Mitchell make for a decent group of defenders.
Up front, youngsters Jonathan Huberdeau, Nick Bjugstad and Aleksander Barkov lead an upstart offense that will be complimented by the incoming veterans. The Panthers could be a darkhouse that sneaks into the postseason with a wildcard berth, but are unlikely to challenge for a division title.
The Maple Leafs made a lot of depth moves, but return with the same core that just missed the postseason. The club will be led once again by Phil Kessel, James van Riemsdyk, Joffrey Lupul, Dion Phaneuf, Jonathan Bernier, Tyler Bozak and Nazem Kadri.
They traded Carl Gunnarson to the St. Louis Blues for Roman Polak and signed Stephane Robidas on the blue line. Trading Phaneuf’s partner for a third pairing guy, and signing a 37 year old who broke his leg twice last season to a three year deal comes with plenty of risk, but the continued development of Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner could ultimately see the blue line improve next season.
Up front, Mason Raymond, Nikolai Kulemin, Dave Bolland, Jay McClement and Jerry D’Amigo are out, with Matt Frattin, Leo Komarov, Petr Kontiola and Mike Santorelli taking their place. It is mostly sideways movement, but the offense provided by Raymond in his single season with the Leafs may be tough to replace.
In the end, I really don’t see how the Leafs changes make them any better than they were this past season. Like Florida, they will battle to the end for a postseason position, but are a wildcard team at best.
The Ottawa Senators only missed the playoffs by a handful of points, but got much worse in the past few weeks in my estimation. One year after losing franchise scoring leader Daniel Alfredsson for nothing, the Sens dealt second leading all time scorer Jason Spezza to the Dallas Stars.
They received a nice package of prospects in return, but the only player that is likely to see time with Ottawa this season is Alex Chiasson, who is a big step down from what Spezza brings right now.
The Senators signed David Legwand who is a sound two way center, and have a great top line in Kyle Turris, Bobby Ryan and Clarke MacArthur. They also have good young forwards in Mika Zibanejad, Colin Greening and Chiasson but return the same group of defensemen and goaltenders who allowed the fourth most goals in the league last season. The group of forwards, combined with the offensive wizardry of defenseman Erik Karlsson will help them try to overcome the lost offence from the Spezza deal. However, the Senators will be fishing a lot of pucks out of their net once again this season.
Both Craig Anderson and Robin Lehner had disappointing seasons after a shorthened 2013 that saw them post astonishing numbers. Anderson began to show his age, and the young Lehner took a huge step backwards, and now the duo will attempt to bounce back.
I see the Senators taking a huge step back without Spezza this season, as the offense lost with him and Ales Hemsky who both ended up with the Stars, is too much for their young forwards to overcome. Unless Lehner bounces back with an extremely great season, the Sens will be in huge trouble, and even if Lehner is great, they may not be able to score their way into the postseason.
The Red Wings are on a near historic stretch of consecutive postseason appearances, but that run is in jeopardy heading into next season. They barely squeaked in this year, thanks to a crazy goal scoring run by rookie Gustav Nyquist.
Status quo may not be good enough for the Red Wings, but with several young players getting their feet wet last season, they will battle for a playoff berth once again, but will not be the top team in the division.
This brings us to the Montreal Canadiens who began a bit of a youth movement by allowing Murray, Bouillon and Gionta to walk, while dealing Briere and Gorges. Led by Carey Price once again, you can bet the Canadiens will be battling for supremacy in the Atlantic Division.
The Tampa Bay Lightning, the team who Montreal swept in the opening round of the playoffs, have also been busy this offseason. Without losing any of their top players, the Lightning signed Anton Stralman and dealt for Jason Garrison to upgrade a below average blue line.
Tampa also signed huge forwards Brian Boyle and Brenden Morrow to help out on the bottom six, and will have third overall pick Jonathan Drouin to add to their impressive scoring. If young forwards Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Alex Killorn can take the next step, and Ben Bishop continues his great play, the Lightning will be a powerhouse this season.
This brings us to the defending regular season division champ Boston Bruins. The Bruins are in a bit of a salary cap logjam, and lost power winger Jarome Iginla because of it. Thus far, they have been unable to replace the 30 goal scorer, and still need to get Reilly Smith and Torey Krug to agree to new contracts.
The Bruins will have a healthy Dennis Seidenberg and Adam McQuaid back next season, who both missed the playoff series loss to the Habs. This will take some pressure off Kevan Miller and Matt Bartkowski who both struggled at times for the Bruins in the postseason.
Chara is 37 years old and beginning to show signs of aging, but is still a great defenseman for the B’s. With Tuukka Rask in goal, the Bruins defense does not have to be spectacular to keep the puck out of their net.
With Iginla gone, Chara getting close to 40, and the Bruins still in need of freeing up cap space, they won’t be able to match their 117 point regular season. The Bruins are still a great team, and probably the deepest in the division, but are one injury on the blue line away from forcing their young defenders into too much ice time once again.
The way I see it, there is a three horse race shaping up for the Atlantic Division title. The Bruins, Lightning and Canadiens all have a chance of finishing on top of the division, and it should be a tight race right down to the wire.
If the Bruins can stay healthy, and tiptoe around the salary cap without losing any more talent, they remain the favorite, as much as it pains me to say that. However, if the salary cap forces them to move Boychuk to make room for Smith, their defense may not be up to the task of keeping them on top of the division.
The Habs were able to finish on top of the division in 2013, and were the Atlantic Division playoff champs this spring. There is no reason to suggest they are not a strong contender to win that title once again next season.