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Previewing the 2016-17 Atlantic Division: Part Two

Just in time for the season, here’s the second part of our look at the the NHL’s Atlantic Division.

Tampa Bay Lightning v Boston Bruins Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

We ran the first part of our 2016-17 Atlantic Division preview yesterday , focusing on three specific forces in the Division and what we predict they’ll do for the season ahead. Today we focus on the other four clubs in the Division: and gauge the state of each franchise and what we think they’ll do in 2016-17.

Boston Bruins

Finished 4th in Atlantic at 42-31-9 (93 points). 2-2 against the Lightning

Last Season:

Despite firing GM Peter Chiarelli after the 2014-15 season, trading defender Dougie Hamilton during the summer of 2015, and trading Milan Lucic during the season, the Bruins almost made the playoff, coming up on the wrong side of the tie-breaker with the foe who advanced to the 2016 playoffs, the Detroit Red Wings..

Boston scored plenty of goals (236 good for 5th in the league) but they also allowed many (228 11th in the NHL). Their inability to keep the puck out of the net was their biggest flaw, which is a bit surprising when they have big Zdeno Chara patrolling the blue line and perennial Selke nominee Patrice Bergeron among the forwards. However, after Chara and Torey Krug, the defense was a bit thin.

Tuukka Rask saw his numbers dip for the second straight season as he finished with a .915 save percentage and a career-high (as a starter) 2.56 goals against average. Part of that could be blamed on the collection of talent in front of him but he wasn't able to be the savior the Bruins needed him to be last season.

There were some bright spots: Brad Marchand had an offensive awakening, scoring 37 goals alongside Bergeron. Torey Krug sparked the offense from the blue line as he chipped in 40 assists including 18 on the power play. Rookie Frank Vatrano provided a spark at the end of the season scoring 8 goals in 39 games.

Off Season:

Key losses: Loui Ericksson, Brett Connolly, Dennis Seidenberg, Lee Stempniak
Key additions: David Backes, Anton Khudobin, Riley Nash, Dominic Moore

This Season:

Krug (who is coming off of shoulder surgery) and Chara will lead a revamped defense that looks to tighten things defensively. They are already testing their blueline depth as Kevan Millar and Adam McQuaid (who played 71 and 64 games respectively last year) will start the season on injured reserve. Filling those spots will be two rookies - Rob O’Gara and Brandon Carlo. That could make for an interesting start to the season.

The big challenge will be replacing Erickson's 30 goals with a combination of Backes and some of the other young talent on the roster.

They Bruins were likely hoping to rely on Vatrano to replace some of that scoring but he is now on the shelf until December as he recovers from tearing ligaments in his ankle suffered during off-season training. That's a big blow to a squad that needs cheap, young talent to offset some of the large contracts they have on the team.

They do have some youth in the organization that could start making an impact this season. Malcolm Subban is recovered from his fractured larynx and could make the team as the backup goaltender. Danton Heinen is a versatile 21-year-old winger who has had a strong training camp and could take advantage of some injuries to find a spot on the roster.

Boston's fate is going to be determined by their veterans. Marchand looked great in the World Cup of Hockey, skating on a line with Sidney Crosby and perhaps he has moved on from his past reputation as a “pest” and evolved into being a legitimate scoring threat. Boston has literally banked on it as they signed him to an 8-year $49 million contract.

In order for the Bruins to keep pace with the Lightning Rask has to stop the downward slide, Marchand has to keep scoring, David Krejci has to stay healthy, and Zdeno Chara has to look more like a 30-year-old than a 40-year-old. That's a lot to ask for a team.

2016-17 projection – 5th in the Atlantic, 2-3 against Lightning

Ottawa Senators

Finished 5th in the Atlantic at 38-35-9 (85 points), 1-3 against the Lightning

Last Season:

The Senators didn't put their fans through too many boring games, that's for sure. They scored 236 goals, which was 8th best in the league and not bad for a group of somewhat anonymous forwards. They also surrendered 247 goals, which is bound to happen when you give up over 32 shots on goal per game on average.

Erik Karlsson led the team in scoring, as he usually does, racking up 82 points in 82 games. Only six players averaged a point per game last season and you guessed it, Karlsson was the only defenseman. Sadly his efforts were wasted as Ottawa missed the playoffs for the second time in three years.

Goaltender Craig Anderson appeared in 60 games (his most since 2011-12) and was solid if not spectacular. A big trade at the end of the season brought in veteran Dion Phaneuf in an effort to add some veteran leadership and stability to a relatively inexperienced blue line.

While Karlsson paced the team when it came to points, the Senators had a very well rounded mix of forwards contributing goals. They had five forwards score 20 or more goals during the season with Mike Hoffman's 29 leading the way. Mark Stone had his second straight solid year scoring 24 while Zack Smith broke out in a big way scoring 25. The names might not have garnered much recognition outside of Ottawa but they got the job done.

Off-Season:

Key Additions: Derick Brassard, Guy Boucher
Key Departures: Mika Zibanejad

This Season:

This season will come down to Erik Karlsson and new Sens head coach Guy Boucher. Can an offensively gifted defenseman thrive in Boucher's 1-3-1 system? Will Boucher adapt his system to allow Karlsson to play to his strengths? If they figure that out, Ottawa could be a surprise team in the division.

As Lightning fans can confirm, Boucher's system can work. But it can also lead to a lot of odd man rushes in the wrong direction if it's not played correctly. That means Anderson and Hammond will be under stress to make key saves on breakaways to keep the Senators in the game.

Scoring goals shouldn't be a problem as most of their 20-goal scorers return from last season. At this point in their careers, Derick Brassard and Mika Zibanejad are probably going to produce about the same amount of points... So for now, that swap is even. In a couple of years, probably not so much, but it seems the Senators are desperate to make the playoffs this year.

Along with Karlsson they also need Bobby Ryan to earn his cap hit. A $7.25 million cap hit needs to contribute more than 22 goals 56 points a season. There is hope that Brassard will be able to help Ryan out a bit.

If the Senators can figure out how to keep the puck out of the net and if Boucher's system doesn't alienate some of the veterans (as it was rumored to do in Tampa), they should be able to contend for one of the final playoff spots along with Boston and Detroit.

2016-17 projection, 6th in the Atlantic 2-2 against the Lightning

Buffalo Sabres

Finished 7th in Atlantic at 35-36-11 (81 points). 1-3 against the Lightning

Last Season:

One season removed from an obvious tank job that saw them fail to win the Connor McDavid sweepstakes, the Sabres improved by 27 points in the standings. Pretty respectable but not quite good enough to propel them into the playoffs.

Hampered by an early season injury (30 minutes into the first game) to their number-one goaltender, Robin Lehner, the Sabres struggled out of the gate, losing 7 of their first 10 games. Journeyman Chad Johnson ended up playing fairly respectably by going 22-16-4 in net, but the early season hole was too deep to escape.

Not all was bleak for Buffalo; consolation 2015 NHL Draft prize Jack Eichel had a strong rookie season as he scored 24 goals and finished third in Calder voting. The World War II RAF lookalike showed a strong two-way game and appeared comfortable from the moment he stepped on the ice. It wouldn't be surprising if he's the team captain within two seasons.

Fellow youngster Sam Reinhart also had a solid rookie campaign, chipping in 23 goals. With young defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen showing promise, at least Buffalo fans were able to see glimpses of the future throughout the season.

Off Season

Key Losses: Chad Johnson, Mark Pysyk, Carlo Colaiacovo
Key Additions: Kyle Okposo, Justin Falk, Dmitry Kulikov, Anders Nilsson

This Season:

The Sabres season could hinge on Lehner's health. If he stays healthy, his .916 save percentage could lead the Sabres into contention for one of the final playoff spots. If his body fails him, they likely won't. They don't have the defensive depth to survive a sub-par performance from their netmin and hope to keep pace with Tampa, Montreal and Florida.

They also need Reinhart and Eichel to keep the success from last season going. They only scored 201 goals in 2015-16 and that is not enough, even in the current goal-depressed era. Newly signed Kyle Okposo should help take some of the pressure off of the youngsters, so would a rebound season from Zemgus Girgensons. If Evander Kane can stay healthy and out of the courtroom, he has potential to pour in 25-30 goals as well.

It seems they are at least one more season away from truly being contenders in the Atlantic. Look for them to sniff at the playoffs until late in the season and then fade out after they move Ryan O'Reilly and Matt Moulson at the deadline.

2015-16 projection7th place in the Atlantic, 1-3 against Lightning

Toronto Maple Leafs

Finished 8th in the Atlantic at 29-42-11 (69 points). 1-3 against the Lightning

Last Season

Toronto was bad last season but they expected to be bad and they were fine with that. Clearly in rebuilding mode in their first year under a new regime headed by Brendan Shanahan and new head coach Mike Babcock, the Leafs played a mix of below-average veterans and promising young players on their way to finishing last in the Atlantic, last in the Eastern Conference, and last in the NHL. In terms of on-the-ice play, the Leafs weren’t much to watch. While the beginnings of the structure that Mike Babcock always employs could be seen, the proud franchise just didn’t have the talent to be competitive on most nights. One bright spot did emerge for the Leafs toward the end of the season: 20 year old William Nylander appears to be a lock to be a first line winger for a long time and had the 2nd best 5v5 primary points per 60 minutes on Leafs last season after James Van Riemsdyk according to corsica.hockey.

Off Season

Key additions: Matt Martin
Key departures: none

One might think being the worst team in the league would be a bad season. Yet for a team in full rebuild mode, that was a perfect finish for Toronto, who cashed in on their cache of losses by landing prized first overall pick Auston Matthews. Aside from adding Matthews in the draft, the Leafs were relatively quiet. Their only signing of note was Matt Martin to a somewhat surprising four year deal.

This Season

The Leafs performance will likely depend almost entirely on how much playing time the organization gives its young stars and how quickly they ascend toward their potential. Nylander and Matthews seem to be clear future stars, but they aren’t the only players who fit that description. 19 year old Mitch Marner is possibly the most skilled of the bunch but at this point, his role on the team is still undetermined. A team that throws out those three guys along with Nazem Kadri is going to present problems for opponents every night. Whether a team that relies that heavily on players that young can make any real noise remains to be seen.

In all likelihood, this will be another down year for Toronto and if they want to play it most strategically, they would develop their young players slowly and aim for another high draft pick. Given the amount of talent they’ve already acquired, it might be difficult for them to replicate last season’s remarkably perfect tank job.

2015-16 projection8th place in the Atlantic, 2-2 against Lightning

2016-17 Atlantic Division final standings prediction

  1. Tampa Bay Lightning
  2. Montreal Canadiens
  3. Florida Panthers
  4. Detroit Red Wings
  5. Boston Bruins
  6. Ottawa Senators
  7. Buffalo Sabres
  8. Toronto Maple Leafs