The Atlantic Division seems to be in a period of transition, with historic franchises like the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs being revamped for better and or for worse. Meanwhile, at the southern end of the Atlantic, both Florida based clubs are key components in the 2016-17 divisional playoff chase.
That’s just a brief remark about the Division and there is so much more that’s happened for teams. The Atlantic Division preview will be a quick review of the state of each team in the division heading into the season. In Part One we’ll look at elements from the top teams of the standings last year and projections for the season ahead: Montreal, Florida and Detroit.
Finished 6th in the Atlantic at 38-38-6 (82 Points). 4-0 against the Lightning
The Canadiens had one of the more remarkable seasons in recent memory in 2015-16. They started the year looking like possibly the best team in the league. After starting 17-4-2 including winning the first nine games of the season, the Canadiens began to unravel when star goaltender Carey Price suffered an injury on November 25th. From that point, the team went 21-34-4 and by season’s end, looked like one of the worst teams in the NHL. At one point in December, the team lost ten out of eleven games.
For a club that entered the season expecting to compete for the Atlantic Division title and hoping to make a deep run in the 2016 NHL Playoffs, the outcome was a disaster. It led to fans calling for changes at head coach and in the front office as the club seemed unable to adjust to the loss of Price. Throughout 2015-16, rumors of discord behind the scenes led to speculation about possible trades involving key players. By April, most Montreal fans were glad the season was over and hoping for an off-season that would address some of the issues that had become apparent during Price’s absence.
Key additions: Shea Weber, Alexander Radulov, Andrew Shaw
Key departures: P.K. Subban
Instead of the changes many fans were hoping to see, the Canadiens organization doubled down on their philosophy making moves that will impact the franchise for the next decade. First, they traded two second round picks for Andrew Shaw and signed him to a six year extension. Two days later, the Habs made the move that will be discussed for years to come, trading away the face of the franchise and NHL superstar, defenseman P.K. Subban to the Nashville Predators for Shea Weber. The move is perfect in its demonstration of the difference between traditional hockey evaluation methods and new, more analytically minded approaches. But just when many Habs fans were questioning if the club had the right people making decisions, they made a move widely regarded as one of the best of the off season by bringing in prolific scoring winger Alexander Radulov on a one year low risk deal.
With so much pent up tension and frustration in the fan base, the Habs will be under pressure to perform early in the season. Despite all of the recent chaos, they are likely to do well. Carey Price is still one of the best goalies in the world. While the Weber/Subban trade can be debated into eternity about the deal and results, the reality is that Weber is still a good top pairing defender. The Habs still have one of the best forwards in the game in Max Pacioretty. They still have Alex Galchenyuk. They still have Brendan Gallagher. And they’ve added Radulov who has the potential to be one of the better pure scorers in the NHL. Given all of that, the team will be expecting to return the playoffs and hoping to advance once they get there. If they do, the debate about Subban/Weber is likely to hit another level.
2016-17 prediction: 2nd in the Atlantic, 2-2 against the Lightning
Finished 1st in the Atlantic at 47-26-9 (103 points). 3-1 against the Lightning
The Florida Panthers were one of the biggest surprise teams in the NHL in 2015-16, outperforming most people’s expectations and rising all the way to the top of the Atlantic Division. Jaromir Jagr continued with his steadfast refusal to age like a normal human being, leading the team in scoring with 60 points at the bright, young age of 43. Aside from Jagr, the Panthers are stacked with talent. Aaron Eklblad, Aleksander Barkov, Johnathan Huberdeau, and Vincent Trocheck are all among the young players who are propelling the Panthers toward a bright future.
The Panthers also have an age-defying top performer in net. Roberto Luongo had one of the best seasons of his career in net for the Panthers in 2015-16 posting a .935 save percentage at 5v5 according to corsica.hockey. His performance was a big reason for Florida achieving as they did.
Despite all of the positives, Florida’s playoff tenure and the season in general came to a quick and disappointing end with a controversial, double overtime, game 6 loss to the New York Islanders in the first round of the 2016 NHL Playoffs. The crucial moment had been at the end of regulation when the Islanders scored the controversial tying after an obvious missed penalty.
Despite the disappointing end, the season was unarguably a success and with so much youth, the Panthers are headed in a positive direction as an organization.
Key additions: Keith Yandle, Colton Sceviour, Jonathan Marchessault
Key departures: Erik Gudbranson, Lawson Crouse
Despite the success last season, the Panthers were active during the 2016 NHL off-season. They re-signed Jagr, signed Aaron Ekblad to an eight year extension, signed Trocheck to a six year extension, and signed one of the biggest free agents on the market in defenseman Keith Yandle. They also dealt defender Erik Gudbranson to Vancouver in exchange for prospect Jared McCann and moved former first round pick Lawson Crouse along with Dave Bolland’s contract to Arizona for a conditional second and conditional third round pick. In a smaller signing but one of particular note to Lightning fans, the Panthers also added former Bolt Jonathan Marchessault. These moves showed that Florida is committed to surrounding its young core with useful players and is not satisfied with their unexpected run to the playoffs in 2015-16.
The Panthers have plenty of reasons for optimism heading into 2016-17. They have a ton of skill in their young group of forwards and Alex Barkov in particular is emerging as one of the best centers in the game. According to corsica.hockey, he was a top 20 forward in 5v5 primary points per 60 minutes last season and every indication is that he will improve on that as he is just 21 years old and not even in his prime yet.
The only red flag from last season was a high PDO of 102.7. A PDO that high is usually an indicator of unsustainable luck. Florida has also suffered some significant injuries in the preseason to forwards NicK Bjugstad and Huberdeau. The Huberdeau injury in particular will be difficult as he is expected to miss 3-4 months. But even allowing for a PDO regression and acknowledging the injuries, the continued development of Florida’s young players combined with their improved roster should have be enough to have them competing with the Lightning and Canadiens for the Atlantic Division title.
2016-17 prediction 3rd in the Atlantic, 2-3 against the Lightning
Detroit Red Wings
Finished 3rd in the Atlantic at 41-30-11 (93 points), 2-2 against the Lightning (1-4 in the playoffs)
With former coach Mike Babcock having departed for Toronto, new coach Jeff Blashill was tasked with keeping the Red Wings organization’s playoff streak alive. He managed to just barely accomplish that as Detroit made it to the post season before being eliminated in five games by the Lightning.
Henrik Zetterberg led the team with 50 points while rookie sensation Dylan Larkin led the team with 23 goals. Pavel Datsyuk's final season saw him score 16 goals and 49 points. Petr Mrazek supplanted Jimmy Howard as the team's starting goaltender and won 27 of the 54 games in which he appeared. However, it was Howard who appeared in 10 of the last 11 games down the stretch as the Red Wings chased a playoff spot.
The Wings did clinch a playoff spot on the last day of the season. Even though they ended up in the playoffs, it seemed that the team had suddenly gotten very old and their Stanley Cup window had almost closed. A poor showing against Tampa Bay in the first round led some to question the Wings reliance on aging veterans instead of trusting some of the young talent they have in the system.
Key Additions: Franz Nielsen, Thomas Vanek
Key Departures: Pavel Datsyuk, Kyle Quincey
The departure of Pavel Datsyuk leaves the Red Wings in a bit of a transitional state. The old guard is almost gone and the next generation isn't quite ready. Henrik Zetterberg is still around as is Niklas Kronwall, but their contributions to the success of the team are diminishing with every day. As they get set to play their final season at Joe Louis Arena, they will need some new players to produce.
The youth movement led by Dylan Larkin on offense and Danny Dekeyser on defense isn't quite ready to keep the team competitive with the top teams in the division. In the meantime, General Manager Ken Holland will be hoping that his free agent signings Franz Nielsen and Thomas Vanek can help bridge the gap. Steve Ott was also signed purportedly to address a perceived lack of grit and toughness.
Nielsen will fill a role on the top line along with Zetterberg and Gustav Nyquist (who they hope bounces back from an off year). Vanek and Ott seem to be placeholders until some of the younger players like Andreas Athanasiou and Anthony Mantha are ready to play full time.
The goaltending duo of Petr Mrazek and Jimmy Howard are good enough to steal enough games to keep the Red Wings within sight of the playoffs. However, their defense is patched together even when Kronwell is healthy. Would they be better off blowing everything up and starting from scratch with their young players? In the long term, probably. However, Detroit is all about consistency. Even if that consistency is on a downward trend.
2016-17 prediction 4th in the Atlantic, 3-2 against the Lightning