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2019-2020 Atlantic Division preview: The pretenders

The rebuilders and the have-nots of the Atlantic Division look toward another year of pain and suffering.

NHL: Ottawa Senators at Buffalo Sabres Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

Tampa Bay Lightning hockey is back, folks. The previews are flying around the hockey writing world and it’s no different here at Raw Charge. Just like last season, we’ll be breaking down our preview into two sections: pretenders and contenders. Today, we’ll be taking a look at the teams that we predict will be in the bottom three of the Atlantic division.

We’ll provide the blog’s aggregate ranking of the teams with their highest and lowest rank in parentheses. Additionally, we’ll provide the reader ranking.

Buffalo Sabres

Ranking

Staff: 6th (Highest: 4th Lowest: 7th)

Readers: 6th

Misery knows Buffalo all too well. It’s been eight seasons since the Sabres last made the post-season and no team in any major sports league has been as dreadful as the Sabres since then. Over those eight seasons the Sabres have finished 19th, 23rd, 30th, 30th, 23rd, 31st, and 27th. Last year’s end likely hurt more after Buffalo was on top of the NHL after 25 games before descending down the standings after having their 10-game winning streak snapped by the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The Sabres don’t have the same level of optimism as last season since the team didn’t make any big changes over the offseason, but they did manage to make a few nice moves. Jimmy Vesey, Colin Miller, Marcus Johansson, and Brandon Montour are in. Prospect Alex Nylander was shipped to Chicago for Henri Jokiharju (a win for Buffalo). There were rumors of a Rasmus Ristolainen trade, but nothing has materialized as of yet. The goaltending tandem remains the same. Phil Housley was replaced by Ralph Kruger who last coached in the NHL for Edmonton during the 2012-2013 season.

The bright spot for Buffalo lies in their top players: Jack Eichel, Jeff Skinner, and Rasmus Dahlin. These three were electric for the Sabres last season, and will be the straw that stirs Buffalo’s offense throughout the season. Casey Middlestadt’s first full season was forgettable, but there is still plenty of time for him to develop into the second-line center the Sabres envision. Sam Reinhart has shaken off the “bust” label from his reputation after another strong season, and Buffalo is hoping Victor Olofsson and Vesey can mesh with Evan Rodrigues on the third line to provide some much need depth scoring.

The defense doesn’t inspire a whole lot of confidence, but Rasmus Dahlin is the cornerstone of it. Ristolainen is Ristolainen at this point in his career. Adding Montour and Miller does help, but Zach Bogosian and Jake McCabe don’t move the needle. Add in the mediocre goaltending tandem of Carter Hutton and Linus Ulmark and the back end of this team screams mediocrity (if only they had kept Robin Lehner).

If last year was the year we all expected the Sabres to finally make a real push for the playoffs, then this year is the one where we expect them to sort of hang around before sputtering out after the All-Star break. There’s always a chance they manage to catch lightning in a bottle and maintain it—unlike last season—but it’s likely the Sabres marginally improve over last season but whiff on the post-season for a ninth straight year.

Personal Opinion: They’re better than the two worst teams in the division, but they aren’t close to the other five teams in the Atlantic.

I put the Sabres in 6th.

Detroit Red Wings

Ranking

Staff: 7th (Highest: 6th Lowest: 8th)

Readers: 7th

The doldrums of the rebuild are in full force in the motor city. From a playoff attendee for 25 years to a bottom feeder looking to groom the future of Red Wings hockey, the past three years have humbled the Detroit faithful. That said, Detroit does have some bright spots. Dylan Larkin is a bonafide first-line center in the NHL, and though he isn’t in the top tier of centers, he’s still Detroit’s best player—by far. Anthony Mantha looks to be another first-line player who was plagued by a rough start to last season. Tyler Bertuzzi was a pleasant surprise last year for Detroit and should mesh well on the top line with Larkin and Mantha.

Andreas Athanasiou enjoyed a 30-goal season last year, but appears to be more of a trigger man than a real line driver. If Detroit plans to keep the Bertuzzi-Larkin-Mantha line together, then that leaves Athanasiou with Frans Nielsen, a center who is playing far too up in the lineup at this stage of his career. Valtteri Filppula is a replacement level center at this stage of his career, as is Luke Glendening. Darren Helm provides little outside of his penalty killing capabilities, which at this point could just be his reputation.

The unknowns lie with Taro Hirose, Filip Zadina, Adam Erne, and Michael Rasmussen. All have potential, and we Lightning fans know what kind of game Erne has. In Detroit, Erne should be able to generate more offense without damaging his strong defensive play. Hirose, Rasmussen, and Zadina are wait-and-see players. They’re tantalizingly talented (especially Zadina), but until there’s real production at the NHL level, expectations should be tempered.

The defense is bad. Like, one of the worst units in the league bad. Just about every defender the Red Wings have is playing over their heads. They do have a potential star in Filip Hronek, but the rest of the unit is dismal. Danny DeKeyser is a borderline top four defensemen, Mike Green isn’t the Mike Green we remember from his halcyon days as a Capital. Patrik Nemeth, Trevor Daley, Madison Bowey, and Jonathan Ericsson are all defenders that should make every opposing offense giddy to play against.

In net, Detroit is average. Jimmy Howard is a starter, but a low end one, and at 35 years old his consistency moving forward is an issue. Then there’s Jonathan Bernier, who is...well...Jonathan Bernier. There are worse tandems to have in net, but there’s only so much either of these goaltenders can do with the defensive personnel that Detroit will put on the ice this season. They’re going to be pummeled with pucks.

Personal Opinion: Detroit is bad. Like, possibly worse than Ottawa. They have the offensive talent to make some games interesting, but they’re going to bleed chances against.

I put the Red Wings in 8th.

Ottawa Senators

Ranking

Staff: 8th (Highest: 7th Lowest: 8th)

Readers: 8th

If Ottawa didn’t have the worst owner in the NHL, then this team might actually be likable with some of the young talent they have. Alas, Eugene Melnyk continues to be the ulcer that poisons this hockey club. The amount of talent that Ottawa shipped out last season is mind-boggling: Erik Karlsson, Mark Stone, Ryan Dzingel, and Matt Duchene all departed the organization last year. That’s a massive amount of talent to purge out of a team and it showed with a putrid 64-point season.

That said, there are some bright spots on this roster. Brady Tkachuk, Thomas Chabot, and Colin White are the new trio replacing the previous one of Karlsson, Stone, and Duchene. Chabot and Tkachuk specifically look to be great successors, whereas White is a little more uncertain. He’ll be a fine player, but it remains to be seen if he will be a top six contributor down the line. Outside of that, the Senators have a bunch of dudes.

Anthony Duclair, Artem Anisimov, Connor Brown, Nikita Zaitsev, Ron Hainsey, Mark Borowiecki, Tyler Ennis, and Jean-Gabriel Pageau are all names that make you shrug your shoulders and say, “Oh, ok.” They just don’t move the needle much for any team, let alone one rebuilding in a scorched earth fashion. There could be some surprises here, like with Duclair or Ennis producing an impressive season, but the bar isn’t very high for either. There are some interesting young prospects in Erik Brannstrom, Drake Batherson and Filip Chlapik who could make noise this season, but until there are results on ice there is still uncertainty. Still, it’s better to place your bets on young players rather than aging players.

On defense, it’s the “Hotsam Batcho” show. Chabot is already looks to be a top pairing defensemen from an offensive standpoint. That bodes well for the Senators after shipping out one of the best defensemen of his generation last September. However, Chabot still has work to do on his defensive game. It’s great to drive play and put up offensive numbers, but they’ll mean little if you’re, at best, breaking even. It doesn’t help that the defensive personnel Ottawa is icing is one of the weakest in the league, but even with his sheltered minutes, Chabot still struggled in his own end. With a larger workload expected next season, he has to showcase growth there.

In net, the Senators are still throwing 38-year old Craig Anderson out onto the ice, and bless that man’s heart, because he does everything in his power to try and steal games for this team. Unfortunately, this isn’t the 2016-2017 version of Anderson, and it appears age has finally caught up to him. Anders Nilsson was solid in his appearances with the Senators, but his track record shows he’s nothing more than a backup. So, Ottawa shouldn’t expect any herculean efforts in net to buoy a weak defensive unit.

Personal Opinion: Ottawa is bad, but I think they’ll end up ahead of Detroit this season, albeit by a point or two.

I put the Senators in 7th.