2013-14 Tampa Bay Lightning Season preview: part 5 Atlantic Analysis
With a new season comes a new division, as the Lightning joined the new Atlantic (Flortheast) Division in spite of being over 100 miles away from the titular body of water. Their closest out-of-state rival is now the Detroit Red Wings, 995 miles away and hundred of miles away from the Atlantic Ocean
You're not going to stop me from calling it the "Flortheast".
When you take the old Northest Division and add Detroit + the two Sunshine State teams, you can't then call that division the "Atlantic" and not expect ridicule. Geographic designations in general for the current divisional alignment are humorous at best and asinine at worst.
That said, the Lightning have moved into a stacked division full of real, actual contenders, something this club just hasn't seen since the SouthLeast division was born in 1998 (may it forever rest in peace).
So how do the Lightning stack up? (Spoiler alert: It ain't pretty.)
2012-2013 Record: 28-14-6 (62 points)
The Boston Bruins are the class of the Atlantic Division. They won the Eastern Conference last year and were one of the only teams to seriously challenge the Chicago Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup Finals.
The Bruins have (perhaps inarguably) the best defensive forward and defenseman in the league in perennial Selke candidate Patrice Bergeron and captain Zdeno Chara. Put them in front of one of the brightest young netminders in the league in Tuukka Rask and add in Claude Julien's balanced, two-way system and you have a recipe for success that has seen the Bruins win a Stanley Cup (in 2010-2011) and make the playoffs every season since 2007-2008.
Boston gets a lot of attention for playing a rougher, physical style than many NHL teams. Just ask Ryan Miller. But even more impressive is how well they play team defense and dominate puck possession on a night-to-night basis. Zdeno Chara and Patrice Bergeron are virtually impossible to score against when they're on the ice together, and when the Bruins do have an off night, they have a Vezina-caliber goaltender capable of stealing a game they don't deserve to win.
With Chara and Bergeron likely to be deployed against Steven Stamkos whenever possible (particularly at TD Garden), the Bolts will have to look for secondary scoring to carry them. If the Lightning keep Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, and Richard Panik up in the NHL, and it seems they will, they might match-up well against the bottom-6 of other teams due to their chemistry, speed, and skill. Penetrating the stifling defense and taking advantage of what scoring chances they are able to generate will be key when facing the Bruins this season.
2012-2013 Record: 21-21-6 (48 points)
The Sabres are in an odd holding pattern; after both Ryan Miller and Thomas Vanek were expected to be moved, both ended up staying in Buffalo, at least for now; they eschewed the trend of bridge contacts with newly re-signed forward Cody Hodgson, who might end up being their captain.
Buffalo struggled to score goals last season and didn't do much for embattled goaltender Ryan Miller, which spelled trouble as they tumbled to the bottom of the now-defunct Northeast Division. Some puzzling additions to the roster since the Milan Lucic/Ryan Miller collision have left this team with an excess of toughness but not enough offensive or defensive depth. Buffalo was one of the worst special teams clubs in the league last year at 29th on the power play (14.1%) and 26th on the penalty kill (79.2%) and there's little reason to expect more than marginal improvement for either unit. The Lightning should eat the Sabres up in 5v4 or 4v5 play, so if the teams break even at 5v5 I don't see the Sabres causing the Lightning too much trouble in 2013-2014, though Thomas Vanek is a notorious Lightning killer.
Detroit Red Wings
2012-2013 Record: 24-16-8 (56 points)
Detroit, the franchise the Lightning are modeled after, looks to jump to the Eastern Conference and continue to play the game that has made them a model team for so many other clubs. They are littered with elite two-way forwards even after losing Val Filppula to the Bolts, and they added some veteran top-6 forwards in Stephen Weiss and Daniel Alfredsson.
Jimmy Howard is a seriously underrated goaltender who deserves consideration for Team USA in Sochi this February, and while the defense isn't quite what it was since Niklas Lidstrom retired and Brad Stuart left for San Jose, they've made due with a solid team effort and arguably the best hockey coach in the world in Mike Babcock.
The Bolts will look to go strength-on-strength with the Red Wings this year, and we'll find out if the system GM Steve Yzerman and head coach Jon Cooper has built is strong enough to defeat the one they've used as a model and now as a measuring stick. The Red Wings will look to dominate puck possession, enter the offensive zone with control, and deny any sort of meaningful offense for the Lightning by keeping pucks off Steven Stamkos' and Martin St. Louis' sticks. How well the Bolts respond to the type of smart, aggressive pressure Detroit forwards will apply will determine how the Lightning fare against this Western juggernaut headed East.
2012-2013 Record: 15-27-6 (36 points)
Last year was one Panthers fans will want to soon forget.
The club was absolutely decimated with injuries in a never-ending stroke of bad luck that seemed to last the entire shortended 48-game season. They were, quite literally and quantifiably, the unluckiest team in the NHL last season, mostly due to how many man-games they lost to injury from starting players.
Panthers GM Dale Tallon has made some shrewd moves in the offseason picking up veterans to plug some holes, however, including lockout pariah Tom Gilbert, a solid offensive threat on a bargain deal in Brad Boyes, and enigmatic goaltender Tim Thomas, who is still something of an unknown but is almost certainly an upgrade over Scott Clemmensen and Jose Theodore.
They also have a burgeoning Lightning killer in Calder Trophy winner Jonathan Huberdeau, who has torched the Lightning in several preseason matches and could possibly line up with second overall pick Aleksander Barkov to give the skilled young forwards in the Lightning lineup a run for their money.
Unfortunately, even adding Tom Gilbert can't really fix what was an underwhelming blueline for the Cats last year. The Lightning should be able to score at will against an overmatched group that includes a lot of slowing veterans and unproven young players.
2012-2013 Record: 29-14-5 (63 points)
After finishing dead last in the conference in 2011-2012, the Canadiens vaulted to the top of the Northeast Division in 2012-2013 behind the play of Norris Trophy winner PK Subban and finally-healthy Andrei Markov. Head coach Michel Therrien got the most out of an undersized roster that had seriously underperformed the year before, and the team has promising young forwards Brendan Gallagher and Alex Galchenyuk bolstering a strong veteran core that includes do-it-all centerman Tomas Plekanec and an elite scorer in Max Pacioretty.
As is often the case, however, the Canadiens go the way of their goaltender. If Carey Price can put together a strong 2013-2014, the Candiens will challenge the Bruins and Red Wings for the Atlantic Division title. Ottawa exposed some of their weaknesses in their playoff series last year, outmuscling a smaller Montreal club. The Canadiens also had the boon of an unsustainbly effective power play last season (thanks in part to PK Subban's astronomical shooting percentage and Andrei Markov's unexpected health), so expectations for Montreal should be tempered a bit, but Pacioretty, Galchenyuk, and Gallagher still haven't peaked in the NHL and the Canadiens are going to be a good team in 2013-2014.
2012-2013 Record: 25-17-6 (56 points)
Ottawa may be an example of a shoestring budget actually benefiting an NHL franchise. Instead of needlessly spending on UFAs like their Ontario counterparts in Toronto, the Senators identified some bargain forwards they wanted to acquire and bolstered an already strong forward corps with elite talent in Bobby Ryan and underrated two-way forward Clarke MacArthur. They've easily replaced departed captain Daniel Alfredsson's scoring with these additions, Jason Spezza has top-5 scoring ability, and Erik Karlsson is probably the best offensive defenseman in the league today (no offense to Kris Letang).
In spite of a ludicrous amount of injuries last season to key players like Spezza, Karlsson, and starting goaltender Craig Anderson, the Senators made the playoffs and made quick work of the Montreal Canadiens in the first round before being eliminated by the hypercharged offense of the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
Former Lightning fan favorite Cory Conacher is still looking for his permanent spot in the lineup, but the Senators have a lot of speed and skill in their top-9 and some young defensemen ready to break out (Patrick Wiercioch, Jared Cowen).
Toronto Maple Leafs
2012-2013 Record: 26-17-5 (57 points)
The Toronto Maple Leafs are going to rely heavily on their goaltending this year if they're going to make a return to the postseason after a prolonged drought. They jettisoned off some of their best puck possession forwards in Mikhail Grabovski and Clarke MacArthur, re-upped with a miscast top-6 center in Tyler Bozak, and added a needless amount of "veteran toughness" with expensive contracts for players like David Clarkson and Dave Bolland.
The strength for the Leafs last year was in net, where James Reimer was simply fantastic. Adding Jonathan Bernier from the LA Kings was a bit odd, considering Reimer is a more proven starter in the NHL with better numbers at pretty much every level of competition, but while Randy Carlyle is a coach that makes you scratch your head from time to time, he's not one to bench a hot goalie and Reimer is capable of running extremely hot.
If recent trends continue, however, the Leafs might actually be a worse puck possession team in 2013-2014 than the Lightning have been in recent years, and that's saying quite a bit. Perhaps even more troubling for the Leafs is their current roster construction on defense, as highlighted by James Mirtle of The Globe and Mail:
The Leafs top seven blueliners right now are all lefties, which is a bit awkward. Teams could key on that at some point.— James Mirtle (@mirtle) September 25, 2013
The team has since signed RFA Cody Franson to a 1-year deal, so their top-7 D now includes one righty, which still a bit odd. The Lightning will hopefully look to exploit that with plenty of speed on the right wing in Martin St. Louis, Teddy Purcell, Brett Connolly, and Richard Panik.