In part one of this Atlantic Division preview, we covered the Detroit Red Wings, Florida Panthers, Ottawa Senators, and Buffalo Sabres, including reviews of last season, an overview of offseason moves, and a projection for 2014-15. Part two will cover the big guns in the Flortheast (and the Toronto Maple Leafs), as we break down Tampa Bay's biggest competition in-division, the Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens.
1st place in Atlantic, 4-0 vs. Tampa Bay last season
The Bruins' dominance of the Eastern Conference continued, as they rode 51 regulation or overtime wins (51, tied for 1st in the NHL with the Anaheim Ducks) to 117 points in the standings, 8 points clear of 2nd place Pittsburgh. They had one of the best two-way centers in hockey on their second line, the world's best shutdown defensemen in Zdeno Chara, and Vezina-winner Tuukka Rask, who rocked an unreal .930 save percentage (including two shutouts of the Lightning in the regular season series). They gave up just 177 total goals (38 fewer than the Bolts) on the year and went 15-1-1 in March, riding some strong momentum into a first-round playoff series versus the 8th seeded Detroit Red Wings. While the Wings hung around in the series, winning the opening game 1-0, the Bruins ripped off four straight wins to advance into the second round, where the Carey Price and the Montreal Canadiens shut them down in Games 6 and 7 (one total goal allowed by the Habs) to knock them out.
The Bruins were victims of their own success this summer; as is common with Cup-winning teams, the years since have been a bit of a salary cap crunch as Boston has struggled to retain all their home-grown talent, many of whom want and deserve big raises. For this reason, the Bruins failed to make any significant additions to their roster for 2014-15. Part of the reason was the loss of Jarome Iginla in free agency to the Colorado Avalanche; his bonus-laden deal from 2013-14 put the squeeze on GM Peter Chiarelli this year with bonus overages applied to the 2014-15 cap. It took time (and a few KHL rumors) but key cog RFAs Torey Krug and Reilly Smith were both re-signed to very team-friendly contracts and Johnny Boychuk was traded to the New York Islanders yesterday, which means Marc Savard's LTIR space gives the Bruins a bit of a cushion to make an in-season move if needed. 2014 1st rounder David Pastrnak has impressed since the draft, and the team brought in Ville Leino and Simon Gagne (Gagne is still with the team; Leino has been released) on tryout contracts, as the Bruins look to supplement their core on the cheap.
The window may be closing on what is otherwise still an elite team. David Krejci and Patrice Bergeron might be the best 1-2 punch at center in the entire conference. Adding Zdeno Chara and Tuukka Rask to the mix gives the Bruins three of the best defensive players at their respective positions in the NHL -- scoring goals against Boston is a chore. Replacing Jarome Iginla's offensive production is something the Bruins will have to figure out, but they jettisoned some 4th line dead weight in Shawn Thornton. They have lost some depth on the blue line via the Johnny Boychuk trade and in fact, after Chara, the Bruins defense corps looks rather vulnerable compared to recent seasons. The fact remains, however, that Boston is still the class of the Atlantic and the East. There are obvious match-up concerns for Tampa Bay specifically, and the Bruins should be expected to win the division and contend for the Stanley Cup yet again given their current roster.
2014-15 projection: 1st place in the Atlantic
3rd place in Atlantic, 1-1-2 vs. Tampa Bay last season
With balanced scoring throughout the lineup and franchise defenseman P.K. Subban anchoring the blue line, the Montreal Canadiens were for most of the season in a dogfight with the Tampa Bay Lightning for 2nd place in the division and the right to home ice in the first round of the playoffs. Max Pacioretty nearly cracked 40 goals to lead the offense and their top-5 penalty kill (and a sparkling .927 save percentage from Carey Price) helped keep pucks out of their own net. Prized trade deadline acquisition Thomas Vanek never gelled in the Montreal lineup, but the Habs marched through the playoffs anyways. In spite of Tampa Bay's home ice advantage and record against the Habs during the regular season, the Canadiens came out in the first round series with a smart, disciplined game plan that frustrated the Lightning in the neutral zone and took advantage of turnovers and mistakes en route to a sweep. They carried that good play forward and rode Carey Price to a seven-game series win over the Bruins before dropping the Eastern Conference Finals to the New York Rangers in six games.
The Habs, very quietly, had a terrific offseason, filling holes and finding value in free agency. While they did lose veterans like Josh Gorges, Danny Briere, and Brian Gionta (their captain) they replaced them with quality depth guys like Manny Malhotra, Jiri Sekac, and P.A. Parenteau (who might actually be a good fit in the top-6). The most high-profile move was locking up P.K. Subban long-term, but Signing free-agent defenseman Tom Gilbert was probably their shrewdest move. That helps with shoring up their second-pair, as Gilbert is an always-underrated minute muncher. Mike Weaver was actually quite good after coming over from Florida, so they opted to keep him around over increasingly pylon-like Douglas Murray. Murray and enforcer George Parros not getting new contracts is addition via subtraction for a Canadiens team that looks to improve on their 100-point season from a year ago.
Montreal is going to be good again. They addressed their needs and avoided any big gaffe signings or trap contracts. They're likely to get strong forward production out of lynchpins Max Pacioretty and Tomas Plekanec on their top lines, and Carey Price is still one of the best in the world. The Lightning should have obvious concerns that Habs head coach Michel Therrien has figured out a game plan to beat them after the four-game sweep last spring.
2014-15 projection: 3rd place in the Atlantic
Toronto Maple Leafs
6th in the Atlantic, 2-2 vs. Tampa Bay last season
After taking the Boston Bruins to seven games two years ago, the Toronto Maple Leafs doubled-down on grit by acquiring Dave Bolland in a trade with the Chicago Blackhawks and signing David Clarkson in free agency. Those moves ... didn't exactly work out. Plenty of words have been written about the Toronto Maple Leafs' collapse last season, so there's no need to rehash it all here. Suffice to say, the Leafs were a very poor puck possession team who relied on a high shooting percentage and fantastic goaltending to stay in the game on a night-to-night basis. That sort of play is unsustainable, and eventually, their luck turned, as they tumbled from contention for home-ice in the first round all the way out of the playoff picture entirely, leaving some mainstream types with egg on their face and many analytics-inclined writers gleefully exclaiming "We told you so!". A 2-14 stretch doomed their season, punctuated by a 3-0 shutout at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning that officially eliminated them from post-season contention.
The Leafs reacted to the collapse in surprising fashion -- they answered the years-long call of Leafs bloggers to catch up with the rest of the league on analytics. They hired former OHL GM Kyle Dubas -- a well known proponent of hockey analytics -- as their Assistant GM and hired Darryl Metcalf (creator of Extra Skater) and blogger Cam Charron to join a new analytics team. What followed was a focused, fervent rummaging through the NHL bargain bin, finding quality depth like David Booth, Mike Santorelli, and Daniel Winnik for cheap. They also brought back Leo Komarov and Matt Frattin into the fold to push for ice time and flipped Carl Gunarrsson for Roman Polak, balancing out their right-side defense by signing Stephane Robidas.
The big question mark is still Randy Carlyle; while they've added some front office and on-ice personnel to try and win more games, many have pointed fingers at Carlyle and his systems as the real culprit for the Leafs failures in recent seasons. He's likely on a short leash after missing the playoffs last year, and that's part of why the Leafs are so difficult to project for 2014-15. If everything breaks right -- Jonathan Bernier is excellent again, their depth signings pan out, Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk continue to carry the offense, and youngsters Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner, and Nazem Kadri take steps forward -- they could contend for a playoff spot or even home-ice in the first round. But if their systems, which made them a bottom-feeder a year ago in terms of 5v5 shot differentials and penalty kill efficiency, don't change, then they could be in for yet another season of golf in the spring.
2014-15 projection: 5th place in the Atlantic
So, if you've been following along, Raw Charge's complete projection for the Atlantic Division is as follows:
- Boston Bruins
- Tampa Bay Lightning
- Montreal Canadiens
- Detroit Red Wings
- Toronto Maple Leafs
- Florida Panthers
- Ottawa Senators
- Buffalo Sabres