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

The top of the Atlantic Division is arguably the strongest group of teams in the entire NHL

NHL: Toronto Maple Leafs at Tampa Bay Lightning Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

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

First, we started with the pretenders in the division. With the bottom feeders out of the way, let’s talk about the teams that can do some real damage. The top of the Atlantic division is arguably the strongest group of teams in the NHL. Our writers’ aggregate ranking of the team and the reader ranking are included in each team’s write-up.

Florida Panthers

Ranking

Staff: 4 (Highest: 3 Lowest: 5)

Readers: 4

Florida is the one team that could disrupt the balance of power in the Atlantic. Currently, they are viewed as the “tweener” team that separates the good teams and the bad teams in the division. But if the Panthers can get some consistency (and health) from their goaltenders, this is a team that could find a way to bump one of the contenders down a spot.

The Panthers’ top six forwards are impressive. Aleksander Barkov (78 points), Vincent Trochek (75 points), Jonathan Huberdeau (69 points), Evgenii Dadonov (65 points), and Mike Hoffman (56 points) isn’t a forward corps to scoff at—these guys are good.

Unfortunately for fans in Sunrise, the talent level drops quickly in the bottom six. After Nick Bjugstad (49 points), no other forward for Florida breaks 30 points, and four sit in the 20’s. Contending teams need productive scoring from all of their lines and Florida’s biggest weakness at forward stems from their 3rd and 4th lines not providing enough scoring depth. They’re good enough to overcome this issue during the regular season but the postseason is where depth matters most. And for a team hoping to secure a wildcard spot, that depth could be exposed by a good team.

Despite the apparent lack of depth, Florida is still a team that could be a threat. With with the possibility of their young prospects in Henrik Borgstrom and Owen Tippett making the roster and the growth of Denis Malgin, Jared McCann, and Frank Vatrano, the Panthers offense could rise from league average (14th in goals last year) to borderline top ten.

Defensively, the Panthers are...fine. Only one defender is over 30, and it’s Keith Yandle (32). The next oldest are Mark Pysyk and Alex Petrovic (both 26). Quality wise, the Panthers don’t have a serviceable group with room for improvement. Aaron Ekblad anchors them, and though he might not be as good as he appeared when he entered the league, he’s still solid and will hopefully recover some of his early-career form.

Yandle is more of a power-play specialist at this point in his career and isn’t suited for top pairing minutes, but with some smart usage by the coaching staff he can still be a productive blueliner. Pysyk and Petrovic are reliable right-handed defensemen who anchor their 2nd and 3rd pairings. Michael Matheson, Ian McCoshen, and Weegar MacKenzie round out their left handers. It’ll be interesting to see what Florida does with McCoshen and MacKenzie since those two are essentially battling for the sixth spot, but better it be two young players doing that than an aging veteran holding back a prospect.

In net, the Panthers have a future Hall of Famer in Roberto Luongo and the ever lovable James Reimer. Luongo battled injuries last season holding him to just 33 games. But when Luongo was in net for Florida, he was dominant. He posted 18 wins, a 2.47 GAA, and a .929 save percentage. If Luongo can stave off father time and the injury bug for another season, the Panthers will be just fine in net.

If not, it’ll be Reimer running the show. Reimer is an average goaltender in the NHL, which is perfect for backup. He has a career Sv% of .915 and has only gone over .920 twice in his career (he hit .938 once, but that was during an eight game stint with the San Jose Sharks). Florida’s season isn’t over if Luongo gets hurt and Reimer has to take the starter’s workload. It just isn’t optimal.

Personal opinion: If Florida stays healthy and their depth scoring improves, they are going to have a say in who is going to run the Atlantic.

Boston Bruins

Ranking

Staff: 3 (Highest: 1 Lowest: 3)

Readers: 3

Boston reemerged last season as one of the Atlantic’s elite teams. A year after bowing out to the Ottawa Senators in the first round of the 2016-2017 playoffs, the Bruins were underhyped entering 2017-2018. They responded with an injection of youth that helped bring them back to the top of the division and into the collective mindset of everyone in the hockey world. Boston’s core players are aging but they still have plenty left in the tank with their younger players providing a much needed layer of depth the team had been missing in seasons prior.

Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak, and David Krejci make up the aging core of Boston while Anders Bjork, Danton Heinen, Jake DeBrusk, and Ryan Donato spearhead their youth movement. The remainder of Boston’s forwards consist of David Backes, Sean Kuraly, Chris Wagner, Joakim Nordstrom, and Noel Acciari.

Boston’s top line will continue to be one of the best lines in hockey this coming season. Marchand (30) and Bergeron (33) have shown no signs of slowing and Pastrnak (22) is one of the league’s premier right wingers. Krejci’s production is a little more worrisome since he’s produced less offense for three consecutive years (63 to 54 to 44). But with DeBrusk flanking him on one wing and another young Bruins forward (one of Donato, Bjork, or Heinen) expected to flank him on the other, he should be fine and could even bounce back above the 50 point threshold.

The bottom half of Boston’s lineup will have Backes centering their third line and likely Wagner or Kuraly centering the fourth line with a mixture of young players and veterans on the wings. Boston’s fourth line will most likely be the veteran line and the two young forwards who don’t make Krecji’s line will flank Backes. Boston’s forward group is talented, experienced, and dangerous. The Bruins scored 267 goals last season (6th in the NHL) and could surpass that number this year.

Defensively, Boston is still a strong team. Zdeno Chara continues to do his best Tom Brady impression. Charlie McAvoy looks to be a bonafide top-pairing defensemen. Torey Krug is one of the better offensive defensemen in the league. The remainder of Boston’s defensive unit looks to be a solid mixture of veterans and young players (Matt Grzelyck, Kevan Miller, John Moore, Steven Kampfer, and Brandon Carlo). Grzelcyk in particular showed flashes of high end play last year.

The only worry Boston should have is if Chara takes a noticeable step back—he’s 41 and eventually father time comes for everyone (see, Jaromir Jagr). If (and this is a big “if”) Chara’s age begins to show more, Boston’s defense could be in trouble. However, given that Chara has repeatedly bucked the trend of aging defensemen, he’ll likely continue to be a nightmare for opposing offenses.

In net, the mercurial Tuukka Rask anchors Boston’s championship hopes. It’s been a tale of two Rask’s during his tenure as a Bruin. After permanently taking over for Tim Thomas, Rask posted two strong campaign’s with a .930 and .922 in ‘13-’14 and ‘14-’15 (with a Vezina trophy). However, the following three seasons saw Rask deliver average performances with two .915 campaigns and a .917 last season. Boston has shown they can survive with Rask being “average”, but the signing of Jaroslav Halak is a wildcard moving forward. Halak won’t take Rask’s spot, but if the good Halak shows up and provides strong play, then the Bruins are going to have a solid backup plan if Rask does falter.

Boston is strong at all three major positions. Injuries to just one or two of their major contributors seem like the only thing that could slow them. They’re going to be a major factor in the Atlantic this season. Most of us have them at third, but the gap between the top three teams in this division is small.

Personal opinion: It’s the Bruins. They’re going to contend, they’re going to be good, and they’ll continue to be Tampa Bay’s baba yaga.

Toronto Maple Leafs

Ranking

Staff: 2 (Highest: 1 Lowest: 3)

Readers: 2

For some, calling Toronto an “upstart” team still seems to be the go-to description. Personally, I think they stopped being an upstart once they made the playoffs for the second consecutive year. Toronto is young, talented, hungry, and looks to be ready to finally take the next step to being a legitimate top team in the NHL.

Toronto’s forward corps is outrageous. Auston Matthews, John Tavares, William Nylander, Mitch Marner, Nazem Kadri, and Patrick Marleau highlight the top end of the depth chart (which is hilarious since Kadri is their 3rd best center—that’s scary). Zach Hyman, Connor Brown, Kasperi Kapanen, Andreas Johnsson, Tyler Ennis, and Par Lindholm round out what could be the top offense in the league next season (they were 4th last year).

This offense going to make a lot of teams look silly. The biggest question for Toronto’s forward corps will be who compliments whom. Tavares’ linemates aren’t set in stone just yet, but it likely won’t matter. Any arrangement of their top six will be deadly.

Contrary to popular belief, Toronto doesn’t have a terrible defense. Is it a top defense in the NHL? No, but it’s still a solid unit that isn’t going to automatically sink the Maple Leafs’ season. Toronto looks set to ice the following defenders: Morgan Rielly, Nikita Zaitsev, Jake Gardiner, Ron Hainsey, Connor Carrick, and Travis Dermott.

Hainsey is the biggest concern of the group; a veteran, yes, but he showed his age last season. Rielly is Toronto’s best player on the back end. Gardiner is lambasted, but is still a good player. Zaitsev is a serviceable middle pairing defensemen. Carrick and Dermott are both under 25 and are likely to continue improving. Toronto only has one defender over 30, and the next closest is Gardiner (28). They’re a young and quick skating group that is going to get out of a lot of problems just from their talent alone.

In net, it’s the Frederik Andersen show. Only two goaltenders played more games than Andersen last season. One was a Vezina candidate in Connor Hellebuyck. Andersen isn’t a world beater in net, but he’s definitely an above average goaltender. His career save percentage is .918 and his best season (percentage wise) was in ‘13-’14 when he posted a .923 in 28 games as a backup.

He’s been remarkably consistent in his last three seasons posting a .919, .918, and .918. He set a career high in wins last season (38) and has been Toronto’s best player more often than he’s needed to be. If there is one big criticism of Andersen, it’s his streakiness. He has stretches where he looks completely off, and stretches where he looks like a Hall of Famer. That can be frustrating to fans but they’re in good hands with Andersen.

The backup will likely be Curtis McElhinney or Garrett Sparks (depending on what Toronto does on the trade front), but neither of these goaltenders will likely see more than 20 games. Mike Babcock historically rides his starter, so another 60+ game campaign is likely for Andersen.

If the Toronto fanbase wasn’t so insufferable, it’d be near impossible to dislike this team (and even with that, they’re still really hard to dislike). Young, fast, skilled, and with plenty of cap space to make moves in the interim to bolster themselves at the trade deadline, Toronto is set to be one of the league’s best teams moving forward. They could very well win the division and make some noise in the playoffs. They impressed by pushing the Bruins to a game seven after falling flat on their face to start the series.

The Maple Leafs are here to stay, folks. They aren’t going to be just an entertaining sideshow.

Personal opinion: Toronto is going to be stupid good on offense, solid on defense, and they’re going to win a playoff round this season (just let it be against the Bruins or some team from the Metropolitan—yes, I know this means I just jinxed either the Leafs or the Lightning).

[Alan’s note: I see the person who voted Toronto last and I respect it.]

Tampa Bay Lightning

Ranking

Staff: 1 (Highest: 1 Lowest: 3)

Readers: 1

Tampa Bay looks to be one of the best teams in the NHL yet again. Hopefully, this is the year the team is able to get over the hump and win their second championship in franchise history. However, with the Toronto Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins nipping at their heels, it’s likely the battle for Atlantic supremacy is going to be a nail-biter.

Toronto is the trendy pick to win the division (and the Stanley Cup) due to their big splash in free agency, but Tampa Bay is still the team to beat. Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point, J.T. Miller, Ondrej Palat, Yanni Gourde, Tyler Johnson, Alex Killorn, Adam Erne, Anthony Cirelli, Ryan Callahan, Cory Conacher, Andy Andreoff, and Cedric Paquette make up a forward corps that led the league in offense last season. If there is one team in the Atlantic that can go toe-to-toe with Toronto’s impressive forward group, it’s Tampa Bay.

Kucherov, Stamkos, and Miller will likely be the top line. Point will anchor a second line with Palat and a mix of Johnson and Gourde that will befuddle and frustrate opposing lines all season. Cirelli looks to lock down the third center position in camp, and if early signs are to be believed, Cirelli could be a steal there. Paquette is a serviceable fourth line center, albeit one that doesn’t provide much offense.

Killorn, for all the flak he takes from the fan-base, is a good middle six winger who regularly scores 40+ points and plays in all situations. Callahan, once he returns from injury, will provide a defensive presence deeper in the lineup, and is a leader on the penalty kill (and the team in general). Erne, hopefully healthy, looks to be a younger version of Ryan Callahan. Conacher and Andreoff are the fringe players who will have to battle for their roster spots with Mathieu Joseph, Alexander Volkov, Mitchell Stephens, Taylor Raddysh, Boris Katchouk, and the rest of the young Lightning prospects looking to break into the lineup.

Defensively, the Lightning bring back everyone from last season except for the recently departed Andrej Sustr. Victor Hedman, Anton Stralman, Ryan McDonagh, Mikhail Sergachev, Dan Girardi, Braydon Coburn, Slater Koekkoek, and Jake Dotchin make up the defensive corps. Some have posited that Cal Foote or Eric Cernak could break into the lineup but both are likely a year away. The Lightning want Foote and Cernak to get ice time. Even if they’re talented enough to make the roster (which, they both are), it’d be difficult for the coaching staff to provide them ice time with so many veterans in the lineup.

The best case scenario is for Coburn and Girardi to be scratched for a few games this season to allow Koekkoek and Dotchin to get more minutes. This would keep Coburn and Girardi fresher for the postseason and allow Koekkoek and Dotchin to develop more. Tampa Bay needs one of these two younger defenders to supplant a veteran moving forward.

For as fast and skilled as Tampa Bay’s forward corps is, the defensive side isn’t as fleet of foot. Outside of Hedman, Sergachev, and McDonagh, the Lightning don’t have defenders who can keep up with faster players. Stralman, Girardi, and Coburn are intelligent players, but it’d be foolhardy to think they will handle the speed Toronto can throw at them. With new assistants coming in, hopefully the structure Tampa Bay uses on the back end will alleviate these concerns.

The big cat runs the show in net. Andrei Vasilevskiy had a Vezina worthy season in his first year starting and the hope is he improves even more. Louis Domingue should provide quality starts for Tampa Bay, and hopefully will lessen the load on Vasilevskiy. I’ve already written about Vasilevskiy’s workload before and it’s something we should keep an eye on this season. Regardless, if Vasilevskiy simply maintains his play from last season—a .920 season—then the Lightning will be just fine in goal.

Consistency is Tampa’s biggest challenge this season. The high end talent is there, the experience is there, the goaltending is there. But last season, the Lightning’s inability to maintain a high level of consistency was worrying. Every season has ebbs and flows but Tampa Bay seems to consistently falter in the months of January and February. Their talent gets them through much of it, but it’d be a welcome change if the team could mitigate those defensive collapses (looks at first Vegas game and throws rock through a window) and score in dire situations (games 6 and 7 of the Eastern Conference Final).

Nonetheless, Tampa Bay is primed for another chance at a division title and is a legitimate contender for the Stanley Cup.

Personal opinion: Deepest team in the division. Most experienced team in the division. Still a few years of contending before a real decline happens. However, Tampa Bay can’t rest on their laurels with three hungry teams frothing at the mouth to dethrone them. If they get complacent, it’ll happen this season.