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2018-2019 Atlantic Division Preview: The Pretenders of the Atlantic

There are teams that are legitimate contenders and then there are teams that like to think they are.

Detroit Red Wings v Ottawa Senators Photo by Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photography/Getty Images

The Tampa Bay Lightning 2018-2019 NHL season is right around the corner. Thus, it’s time for Raw Charge to give our predictions on how the season will go. This is the first in a two part series covering our predictions for the Atlantic Division.

First, we start the pretenders in the division. Provided will be the blog’s aggregate ranking of the team with their highest and lowest rank being in parenthesis. Additionally, the fan vote ranking will be annotated as well.

Buffalo Sabres

Ranking

Staff: 5 (Highest: 4 Lowest: 7)

Fans: 5

The Sabres are an interesting team entering this season. There is optimism surrounding their young talent in Jack Eichel, Alex Nylander, Sam Reinhart, Casey Middlestadt, Tage Thompson, and Rasmus Dahlin. Aside from drafting Dahlin in the most recent draft, the Sabres biggest move was trading center Ryan O’Reilly (who was one of, if not the best, player on their team) for Tage Thompson, Vladimir Sobotka, and Patrik Berglund. Thompson was a first round pick (26th overall) in 2016 by the St. Louis Blues and the centerpiece of the trade. Sobotka and Berglund are quality players in their own right, but will likely be used in the middle of the Sabres lineup. Additionally, the Sabres pulled off a trade with Carolina to bring winger Jeff Skinner into the fold.

Buffalo also moved on from goaltender Robin Lehner and replaced him with Carter Hutton, who was one of the league’s best backup goaltenders last season. Linus Ullmark will back up Hutton this season.

The talent is definitely there for the Sabres. The aforementioned youngsters don’t have the greatest supporting cast with them but Kyle Okposo, Skinner, Conor Sheary, Jason Pominville, Berglund, and Sobotka will provide better offensive depth than last season, which should enable them to threaten some teams.

Defensively, it’s a little more worrisome. Dahlin is going to be a star in the NHL, but he’s still a rookie, and with that comes growing pains. Rasmus Ristolainen is the only other name on defense that stands out as a real impact player (some might argue otherwise). Zach Bogosian, Marco Scandella, Nathan Beaulieau, Matt Hunwick, and Jake McCabe round out the rest of the defensive corps. Beaulieau is a an average defender but doesn’t scream ‘game-changing’, and the rest of the defensive corps is unimpressive. Buffalo does have youngster Brendan Guhle who played great for them in his 18-game tryout, so, maybe he makes the roster and provides a little more talent on the backend. Regardless, the defense as a whole doesn’t lend itself much optimism.

Hutton in net is interesting to me. He has a career save percentage of 0915—entirely respectable for a goaltender that has been a backup for the majority of his career. He’s 32 and just had his best season last year when he posted a .931 save percentage. He won 17 games for the Blues last year (his career high in wins is 20 with the Nashville Predators in 2013-2014) and provided stability for St. Louis when Jake Allen struggled.

What worries me with Hutton is his save percentage last year was ridiculously high for a rather average netminder, and at 32 it’s unlikely he will repeat that performance (note, he played in 32 games last season). The most games he’s ever played in a season was 40 back in 2013-2014.

If Buffalo is aiming to split Hutton and Ullmark’s time in net, there could be a positive to this. Ullmark looks to be, at a minimum, an average goaltender—his career save percentage is .917 (only in 26 games), but has performed admirably when called upon by Buffalo. If the Sabres manage the workloads of these two, they might have something moving forward. I’m skeptical on it, but I can see the logic behind Buffalo’s strategy here.

Regardless, Buffalo is still a longshot to make the playoffs. Tampa Bay, Toronto, and Boston are near locks to secure the top three spots in the division (barring injuries and subpar play) and Florida looks to be the biggest spoiler in the division, as either a wildcard or a top three finisher in the division. Unless Buffalo’s youngsters completely floor the league and their goaltending plays over their head, I don’t see how the Sabres squeeze into the playoffs.

However, I would not be surprised if Buffalo is more competitive this upcoming season. I can easily see them challenging some of the top tier teams in the division and playing spoiler, but Buffalo has been a trendy pick for the past few seasons and have disappointed every time. Thus, until Buffalo proves otherwise, they’re in the 5th spot trying to battle their way into the wild card race.

Personal opinion: If things break right for the Sabres, they could very well make some noise.

Montreal Canadiens

Ranking

Staff: 6 (Highest: 4 Lowest: 7)

Fans: 6

The Max Pacioretty deal that occurred in the early morning hours on Monday does alter the perspective for Montreal, but it doesn’t change their fortunes much for this season. The trade is pretty good from a Canadiens perspective. A public relations mess, yes, but Montreal got one legitimate top six forward and a top prospect for the future. Montreal now has Tomas Tatar and Nick Suzuki in their system.

Tatar’s a good player who should slot into Montreal’s top six, or at worst their top nine. Suzuki, however, will probably not be on the roster come opening night (who knows though, it’s Montreal), but is the real piece in this trade. Suzuki is a natural center and put up 100 points in 64 games for the OHL’s Owen Sound Attack—he should be good for Montreal in the future.

It’s hard to really gauge what the Canadiens are doing with their roster. Their center depth is just...bad. Here are their centers: Jonathan Drouin (a winger), Andrew Shaw (solid 3rd/4th liner), Phillip Danault (good 2nd/3rd liner), Tomas Plekanec (a 4th liner at this point in his career), Matthew Peca (unproven and his underlying numbers while in Tampa were not great), Jacob de la Rose (could be something if he gets more icetime), and Jesperi Kotkaniemi (their recent first round pick who could be something very special).

Max Domi wasn’t listed because, with Montreal, there is a certain level of ambiguity with what they are going to do with him. They’ve said they’ll put him at center, but we’ll see. In terms of how Domi will do in Montreal, he’ll be a good player for the Canadiens. Maybe not what they need exactly (which is immediate center help), but Domi is still a good player who should help them in all phases of the game.

Regardless, in the NHL you need good centers and Montreal has two real ones—Danault and Plekanec. Danault is injured to start the season and Plekanec’s best days are behind him. Drouin is gifted offensively but a mess defensively—that’s not what you want as your top center. Shaw is a solid player for the bottom part of a lineup, and Peca and de la Rose are unproven.

Kotkaniemi and Suzuki are Montreal’s future, however, if neither make the roster this season then Montreal isn’t going to be impressive down the middle. How does Montreal expect to battle in a division that boasts the following centers: Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point, Anthony Cirelli, Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Nazem Kadri, Patrice Bergeron, David Krecji, Jack Eichel, Aleksander Barkov, and Vincent Trochek?

Sure, Montreal has Brendan Gallagher, Paul Byron, Tomas Tatar, Max Domi, Nikita Scherbak, Joel Armia, and Charles Hudon on the wings, but does that forward corps scare the top teams in the Atlantic? Most likely not, which is disappointing since Montreal was actually a good hockey team not too long ago. This upcoming season though, it might get ugly.

Defensively, it isn’t pretty outside of Shea Weber (who is out until at least December). Jeff Petry is a good defender in the NHL and any team would want him. However, he’s now Montreal’s number one guy and that is probably a bit too much to ask of him. Victor Mete and Noah Juulsen are the young guns on the back end and do provide some optimism, but neither are bonafide top defenders for the Canadiens yet. Karl Alzner, Jordie Benn, David Schlemko, Mike Reilly, and Xavier Ouellet make up the rest of the defensive corps, and it doesn’t inspire much confidence.

If there is one player that can legitimately carry this team, it’s their goaltender Carey Price. The 2015 Hart Trophy winner is the sole superstar on this Montreal team and will be the focal point in determining how their season goes. He wasn’t good last year, and has struggled with injuries over the last few seasons but if there is any inkling of hope for Montreal, it starts and ends with Price. Can he replicate the 2015 form he had where he posted a .933 save percentage? Or will Price be around his career average of .918? With the defensive personnel on this team, it’s hard to be optimistic about Price’s season. But at the least, it’s unlikely he repeats his .900 save percentage from last year—which, by the way, was his worst season of his entire career. If any goaltender can bounce back, it’s Carey Price.

Montreal has been criticized for being a team that was carried by Price, and that criticism does have some warrant, but the way this roster is constructed makes it difficult to think that Price can carry the Canadiens to the playoffs once again. They could overachieve and snag a wildcard spot, but it’s unlikely that they knock one of Tampa Bay, Toronto, or Boston out of the top of the division.

Personal opinion: I have no idea how to gauge Montreal.

Detroit Red Wings

Ranking

Staff: 7 (Highest: 5 Lowest: 8)

Fans: 7

How times have changed in the motor city. Detroit used to be the model franchise in the NHL—one that everyone wanted to emulate. Now, they’re the oldest team in the league with only a few young players on the roster to try and carry them forward.

Dylan Larkin, Anthony Mantha, Andreas Athanasiou, Thomas Vanek, and Gustav Nyquist are their best established forwards. Tyler Bertuzzi, Michael Rasmussen, and Filip Zadina are the young prospects hoping to solidify a roster spot in camp. Justin Abdelkader, Darren Helm, Luke Glendening, and Frans Nielsen are the overpaid anchors that the Red Wings must deal with. Additionally, it appears that Henrik Zetterberg might be unable to play this season—which is legitimately terrible, Zetterberg might be well past his prime but he is still one hell of a hockey player and captain for the Red Wings.

Detroit’s forward corps doesn’t inspire much confidence. Larkin is a good player, but he’s battled some inconsistency. Mantha looks to be a future 30 goal scorer (and possibly 40 if things break right), after struggling to make the roster at first. Athanasiou is a smart fast player who should improve on his 33 point season last year, but still has his warts.

Nyquist and Vanek are what they are at this point in their careers. Nyquist is a top six winger who is a lock for 40+ points, but he’s 29 and unsigned after this upcoming season. Vanek is an offensive specialist who provides most of his value on the power play, which, at $3 million a year for 35-50 points is pretty good.

The remainder of the forward corps is either young unproven players (which isn’t bad, Zadina and Rasmussen should be fantastic for Detroit in the future) or old overpaid players. Detroit only scored 212 goals last season (4th worst) and that number probably won’t improve much this season.

Just like with Montreal, Detroit’s center depth just doesn’t match up to the top teams in the division, and their wingers don’t do enough to tilt things in their favor.

Defensively, it’s ugly. Mike Green is arguably the best defender Detroit has, and even though Green does help drive the offensive engine for the Red Wings, his defensive game is not one to be lauded. Niklas Kronwall, Jonathan Ericsson, and Trevor Daley are all old and overpaid defenders who aren’t going to tilt the ice in Detroit’s favor. Danny Dekeyser is still 28, but hasn’t looked especially good the past couple of seasons and is signed until 2021-2022 (his age 31 season). Nick Jensen could provide some quality play for Detroit, but he’s already 27 and not likely to improve much moving forward.

In net, Detroit has Jimmy Howard and Jonathan Bernier. Howard has a career average save percentage of .915 and Bernier has a career average of .914. These goaltenders are basically equal. They’re not terrible, but they’re not world beaters. At a minimum, these goalies should provide stability in net for Detroit, but with how poor the defensive corps is, it will likely go to waste. Both Howard and Bernier have a history of streakiness which could help Detroit steal a few wins when things are going well. But their lows will inevitably give those wins right back. My money is on Howard being the starter for the season given that he has had a bit more sustained success than Bernier.

Detroit needs more impact young players to take over the roster, especially on defense. They have some pieces at forward that are about to enter their prime years, but if Detroit’s management continues to attempt a quick “retooling” instead of properly building, then it could get even uglier.

Personal opinion: Detroit is a mess, and needs to inject a lot of youth.

[Alan’s note: Reader who voted Detroit in second place, identify yourself in the comments and defend this decision. I need to hear your side of the story.]

Ottawa Senators

Ranking

Staff: 8 (Highest: 6 Lowest: 8)

Fans: 8

Perception is reality in the NHL, and the Ottawa Senators are perceived as a mess of an organization. They have a boisterous owner who can’t refrain from sticking his foot in his mouth, relentless trade rumors regarding their best player, a general manager who hasn’t made many wise moves, and a roster that fosters little optimism as the season approaches. That Eastern Conference Final appearance just two seasons ago feels like an age ago.

Here are Ottawa’s most notable forwards: Mark Stone, Matt Duchene, Mikkel Boedker, Ryan Dzingle, and Bobby Ryan. The rest of the forward corps is uninspiring and gets worse the deeper into the lineup one goes. The Senators did draft Brady Tkachuk in the most recent draft, but it’s unknown if Tkachuk will play in the NHL this season. Additionally, there are some other young forwards in their system who could break into the roster and bring some much needed offense. Filip Chlapik and Colin White are both 21 and could be ready for NHL time. If those two can push out some ineffective forwards, it could bring some much needed optimism to Senators fans. Nonetheless, overall, the forwards Ottawa has leave a lot to desired.

Defensively, it is Erik Karlsson and his merry band of gentlemen. Karlsson is still one of, if not the, best defensemen in the NHL. He alone can make up for a lot of holes the Senators have, but given his apparent rocky relationship with management and the incessant trade rumors, Karlsson might not even end the season with the Senators. He’s been linked to a variety of teams (including the Tampa Bay Lightning) and it feels like his departure from Ottawa is inevitable. The only other defenders worth mentioning from Ottawa are Thomas Chabot, a 21 year old who could be something special and Christian Wolanin, a 23 year old who could be a solid on the middle pair.

In net, the Senators still have a 37 year old Craig Anderson. Anderson has been inconsistent. He will do well one year and falter the next. Here are his numbers since arriving in Ottawa.

2010-2011 .939 Sv% in 18 games

2011-2012 .914 Sv% in 63 games

2012-2013 .941 Sv% in 24 games

2013-2014 .911 Sv% in 53 games

2014-2015 .923 Sv% in 35 games

2015-2016 .916 Sv% in 60 games

2016-2017 .926 Sv% in 40 games

2017-2018 .898 Sv% in 58 games

When Anderson is on, he is great, but when he’s not, he’s at best an average goaltender on a team with defensive issues. Add in his age and the chances he bounces back is unlikely. Anderson is backed up by Mike Condon, who has a career save percentage of .907. Condon looked to be a solid backup after playing 40 games and putting up a .914 in 2016-2017, but this past season he posted a .902 in 31 games. He’s 28 and is unlikely to vastly improve.

Ottawa could very well be the worst team in the division next season (and the league). There isn’t a lot to be optimistic about, especially if they do actually trade Karlsson. What makes matters worse is if Ottawa does end up in the bottom five and somehow wins the lottery, they forfeit that pick to Colorado thanks to the Duchene trade. So, the reward for being terrible isn’t even available to the Senators unless they trade their best players. It’s just a poor situation that they’re in, and it’s largely self-inflicted. The players and fans deserve a lot better than what management and ownership are providing them.

Personal opinion: From the outside this team looks like a disorganized lugubrious mess. Please trade us Karlsson.