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2019-2020 Atlantic Division preview: The contenders

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The top end of the Atlantic division is a gauntlet of DEATH.

NHL: Tampa Bay Lightning at Toronto Maple Leafs Tom Szczerbowski-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.

Montreal Canadiens

Ranking

Staff: 5th (Highest: 3rd Lowest: 6th)

Readers: 5th

Doom and gloom was all everyone talked about for the Montreal Canadiens last season. No one was sure if the pieced together forward corps would be able to maintain pressure on opposing teams last season. Well, Montreal only went out and became one of the most dominant 5v5 teams last season. What ultimately sank their post-season dreams was an absolutely putrid performance on the power-play last season.

A distinct lack of creativity and true finishing talent is what hampered that unit. With only one mid-tier sniper in Tomas Tatar and an over reliance on the aging Shea Weber’s point shot, the Canadiens weren’t hard to stifle with the man advantage. Jonathan Drouin hasn’t been the ‘savior’ he was christened to be when Tampa Bay sent the disgruntled winger up north for Mikhail Sergachev, and he’s already had the Montreal media begin to turn on him.

That said, Montreal still boasts a surprising amount of depth among their forward corps. Max Domi, Brendan Gallagher, Tatar, Drouin, Phillip Danault, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Nick Suzuki, Paul Byron, and Arturri Lehkonen is not something to just shrug at. Yes, they don’t have any truly elite players to bridge the gap between them and the top of the Atlantic, but the Canadiens can send wave after wave to wear down their opposition.

Montreal is banking on their core of Domi, Drouin, Kotkaniemi, Gallagher, Tatar, and Danault to anchor the team moving forward while some other new forwards nget settled, specifically Suzuki, and potentially Ryan Poehling if he earns a call up this season.

On defense, the Canadiens should be just fine. Shea Weber might not be the Weber we remember from a few seasons ago, but he’s still a good top pairing defensemen. Add in Victor Mete, Brett Kulak, Jeff Petry, Ben Chiarot, and newcomer Cale Fluery and this is a defensive unit that can take care of itself. It isn’t the flashiest or the most explosive, but it is reliable, which is probably all Montreal needs with Carey Price in net.

Speaking of Price, he was relatively ‘average’ last season and the Canadiens still barely missed the playoffs. If Price evokes some of the play from his Hart Trophy winning season, then this Montreal team is going to be a massive pain to beat. There is worry with Keith Kinkaid as a backup though. Kinkaid has never been especially good at the NHL level, a backup who has been good for short periods of time, but has never shown any kind of consistency. This means that Montreal is going to lean heavily on Price yet again, which, in an age that is becoming more inclined to lessen the load on starting goaltenders, is a bit worrisome.

The biggest issue for Montreal? They play in arguably the toughest division in the NHL. It’s almost guaranteed that Tampa Bay, Toronto, and Boston will secure the top three spots in the division in some manner. Unless one of the big three hits some really bad injury trouble, then it’s really difficult to see Montreal break into that area. Then again, with how strong Montreal is at 5v5, if they get Hart Trophy Carey Price play for a prolonged length of time, then it’s not out of the question they could nudge one of the big three out. Unlikely, but this is the NHL and these things aren’t as far-fetched as we believe. Remember, Buffalo was on top of the league after 25 games last season before they collapsed. Montreal is a far better team than Buffalo is, and if a similar surge happens to the Canadiens, they have the roster to steady themselves after regression hits.

Personal Opinion: I have Montreal as the second wildcard team. They don’t have the top-end talent to keep up with the top teams in the East, but they’re also a team that no one wants to deal with.

I put the Canadiens in 5th

Florida Panthers

Ranking

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

Readers: 4th

Finally, there is some legitimate hype about the Florida Panthers. After winning the division four years ago, the Panthers have been a dysfunctional mess. However, after altering their front office yet again, reinstalling Dale Tallon as general manager, firing Bob Boughner, and hiring Joel Quenneville over the last few seasons, the Florida Panthers are finally looking to get over the hump of mediocrity.

This starts with their star forwards Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau. These two are the linchpins for Florida’s offense. Add in Evgeny Dadonov, Mike Hoffman, and Vincent Trocheck and the Panthers can pack a punch in their top forwards. Their top line of Huberdeau, Barkov, and Dadonov was one of the best lines in the NHL. Good thing too because the deeper into the lineup we go, the more uncertain it becomes. There’s a gaping hole at the second right wing position, their third line doesn’t impress much outside of Brett Connolly, and their fourth line does little to move the needle. It’ll be interesting to see how Quenneville gets the rest of the roster outside of their five best forwards to produce.

Defensively, I just don’t see how they’re that strong. Don’t get me wrong, they’re ok as a unit, and maybe Quenneville can provide a structure where they excel, but just ‘ok’ isn’t good enough for how strong they are with the top of their forward corps.

Aaron Ekblad has fallen after a sterling rookie campaign several years ago. Offensively, he’s still good, but he’s been a bit of a mess in his own zone, which doesn’t help things when his partner is Keith Yandle. Yandle is still a great offensive blueliner, but his defensive acumen leaves a lot to be desired for someone making as much money as he is. Mike Matheson is serviceable, but is likely playing one spot too high in the lineup. They overpaid for Anton Stralman, and if they get the lumbering ineffective version that we saw in Tampa last year, then it’s going to be a long season for them. However, if Stralman is able to evoke his play from two or three seasons ago, then Florida has great stability on the second pairing. The bottom pairing of Mark Pysyk and Mackenzie Weegar is passable, but is mostly there to soak up whatever minutes the other pairings can’t take.

Now comes the big fish on the back end: Sergei Bobrovsky. Bobrovsky’s regular season wasn’t up to his usual standards last year, but his play in the playoffs certainly was. Florida overpaid him, both in cash and term, but sometimes you have to do that in order to fix a glaring weakness, and goaltending was a massive black hole for Florida last year. Bobrovsky alone essentially fixes all of that by himself. Sam Montembeault will probably see very few starts, so, expect Bobrovsky to be a workhorse down in Sunrise.

The most intriguing thing about Florida is Quenneville. A legend in his own right, it’ll be what he brings to the Panthers that will define their season. We’re all expecting a wildcard berth from them since they don’t have the depth throughout the lineup to go toe-to-toe with the big three in the division, but their top end talent is better than Montreal’s.

Quenneville won’t have to alter the offense much given that Florida was a top ten offensive team last year. Their advanced metrics weren’t pretty given how weak they were on the back end, but the offense was not the issue last season. This Panthers team should be able to finally put up a consistent fight against their in-state rivals and hopefully it will actually foster something more than just on-ice nonsense—maybe an actual rivalry that means something.

Personal Opinion: The Panthers finally get back to the playoffs and actually make Lightning fans worry when they’re on the schedule.

I put the Panthers in 4th.

Boston Bruins

Ranking

Staff: 3rd (Highest: 1st Lowest: 4th)

Readers: 3rd

The Boston Bruins refuse to let age define them. With a roster that is leaning a little on the older side for their core players, this is still an absolutely elite hockey team. They boast the best line in hockey with Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak crushing opposing teams. David Krejci had one of the quietest 70+ point season in recent memory, Jake DeBrusk became a trigger man on the second line and look quite good there, and Charlie Coyle looked pretty comfortable as their third center on route to the Stanley Cup Final.

Now, the interesting thing about Boston is that they can throw three lines that can control play to varying degrees. Their top line does so in a manner that no other line in the league can do, their second line is strong, but could use a stronger right wing to push it even higher, and their third line was downright dominant during their recent playoff run with Coyle driving play like never before. David Backes has gotten praise for his preseason play, but hyping up an overpaid fourth liner isn’t going to move the needle for Boston. Their fourth line doesn’t inspire much confidence in the play driving department, but with how strong their other three lines are, it’s a moot point.

Defensively, this team is really good. Zdeno Chara refuses to let age dictate how effective he is, Charlie McAvoy is a star, Torey Krug is vastly underrated as a top four defensemen, Brandon Carlo is a steady stay at home defender, Matt Grzelcyk is a great third pairing defensemen, and the last defender of Urho Vaakanainen or Steven Kampfer should be fine with Grzelcyk.

In net, the Bruins are one of the teams are the forefront of load management with the 1A/1B tandem of Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak. Halak was the better goaltender during the regular season and it allowed Rask to rest more for the post-season. And boy did it pay off. Rask was downright dominant during their run to the Stanley Cup Final, and was garnering Conn Smythe mentions in the event the Bruins had won the whole thing. Boston will likely continue platooning their goaltenders as long as it works, and there’s little reason to think it won’t. Yes, Halak has shown inconsistency in his career, but that’s when he’s been forced to be a true number one goalie. As a tandem with more rest than a usual starter, it’ll keep Halak fresh and engaged. It’s a great system that Boston has going that a lot more teams should be looking at emulating.

So, why third and not higher? Well, age is going to eventually be an issue for Bergeron, Marchand, and Krejci who are among the biggest linchpins of Boston’s offense. Pastrnak is one as well, but he’s far younger and isn’t going anywhere. Injury has also been a rather annoying trait that has nagged the Bruins the past few years as well. That said, until Bergeron, Marchand, and Krejci actually do slow down due to their age then it’s best not to count on that alone (or at all). Next, is overall depth. Boston has a good array of depth on their roster, but compared to the two teams ahead of them they are just a hair behind in that department. Not that it really matters. The regular season doesn’t matter to the Bruins, they’re a team bred for the post-season and it’s there that everything lies.

Personal Opinion: It’s the Bruins. They’re going to be good regardless. It’s just a matter of who their first round opponent is going to be.

I put the Bruins in 3rd.

Toronto Maple Leafs

Ranking

Staff: 2nd (Highest: 1st Lowest: 3rd)

Readers: 2nd

The hype train for Toronto continues for another season. This time they might be able to live up to it. There’s no argument that Toronto isn’t a good team—far from it. It’s more so that the Maple Leafs have done little to supplement the talent they have with success. Sure, they’ve won games and hit 100 points consecutively for the first time in franchise history, but they’ve been unable to defeat any playoff opponent in three seasons, leading to a playoff series win drought that dates back to 2004, and have been ousted by their biggest rival two years in a row. It’s time for the Leafs to do something with their talent.

There’s no excuse for being in the toughest division in the NHL for a team as loaded as Toronto. It’s either win or shut up. You don’t get excuses when you have John Tavares, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, Morgan Rielly, Andreas Johnsson, Kasperi Kapanen, Tyson Barrie, Jake Muzzin, and Frederik Andersen.

The forward corps that Toronto boasts is terrifying. Tavares, Matthews, Nylander, Marner, Johnsson, and Kapanen make up their top six at this point (Zach Hyman is on IR), and there is little reason to doubt that this group won’t be one of the three best offenses in the league. If Matthews can stay healthy for the first time since his rookie season then 50-goals is not out of the question, especially with Nylander flanking him again. The Tavares-Marner combinations effectiveness has been beaten to death by analysts. Johnsson and Kapanen will score 20-goals just by standing near the net with those four leading the way. That doesn’t even touch the third and fourth lines which both look to be strong in their own right. Newcomer Alex Kerfoot is the hopeful answer at the third center position with Ilya Mikheyev flanking him on the left. Trevor Moore, Frederik Gauthier, Jason Spezza, and Nick Shore round out the rest of the lineup. It’s clear that Toronto is aiming for a faster and even more skilled team.

Defensively, they’re led by Rielly, who is immensely gifted offensively, but a tire fire in his own zone. He does great in the transition game out of his own zone, but his actual defensive play should terrify Leafs fans in the worst way. Luckily, they have Muzzin back there to hold the fort down, but Tyson Barrie is essentially a less explosive version of Rielly. Travis Dermott will be on IR at the start of the season, but it appears that Rasmus Sandin has turned a lot of heads this preseason and will start the year with the big club. The Leafs also have Cody Ceci set to play top-four minutes and that just sounds like a recipe for pain for them. They’re not the best defensively in their own zone, but they do excel at transitioning the puck from defense to offense and keeping it there. They’re also exceptional skaters. It looks like Toronto’s strategy is to simply never let the opposition touch the puck, which in theory is brilliant, but we’ll see if that works in practice.

In net comes one of the more underappreciated starters in the league in Frederik Andersen. He was arguably the teams’ MVP last season with the amount of vulcanized rubber thrown at him. Toronto is likely a wildcard team without the efforts of Andersen the past two seasons—that’s how good he’s been. It looks like they’re going to rely on him just as much again given that the backup goaltending position is held by Michael Hutchinson. So, the Leafs better stick to the whole “don’t let the opposition get the puck” because Andersen is gong to have to bail them out when they don’t. Now, he’s been exceptional in that regard, but grinding him down doesn’t seem like the best idea for this team. They want Andersen sharp for the playoffs, an area where he’s been more of a Dr. Jekyll Mr. Hyde the past two years.

It’s put up or shut up time for Toronto moving forward. They might not win the division but getting home ice advantage against the third-seeded team will do wonders for this young group.

Personal Opinion: They finally win a playoff round. After that, all bets are off.

I put the Maple Leafs at 2nd.

Tampa Bay Lightning

Ranking

Staff: 1st (Highest: 1st Lowest: 3rd)

Readers: 1st

Here we are at the top of the totem pole, though Toronto and Boston are far closer than most would like to admit. Another year in Tampa Bay means another year eyeing the Stanley Cup, and being the team most predict to win it all. Last year’s embarrassing defeat to the Columbus Blue Jackets ‘humbled’ the Lightning last season, an excuse many weren’t buying. However, progression isn’t linear, especially in the NHL. In the crapshoot that is NHL playoffs anything and everything will happen. Every division winner lost in the opening round last year, something that has never happened. A team that was left for dead at the half way point ended up winning the whole damn thing. The playoffs make no sense and the sooner we all accept that the sooner we can just relax.

Tampa Bay basically returns the entire forward corps from last year except for some forward at the bottom of the lineup. Ryan Callahan and Adam Erne are gone via retirement and trade. Enter Patrick Maroon, Carter Verhaeghe, and Gemel Smith. The rest of the forwards are identical to last season. Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, Alex Killorn, Yanni Gourde, Anthony Cirelli, Mathieu Joseph, and Cedric Paquette make up the deepest collection of forward talent in the league. Point and Paquette will miss the season opener due to injuries, but Point should be back before the month ends. Paquette’s timetable is currently unknown.

There’s been a lot of talk of Cirelli augmenting the top six, and I’m one of the few who is skeptical about it. Cirelli is a fantastic third center, is one of the best defensive forwards on the roster, and has a deceptive amount of skill to his game. However, Cirelli is one of the weakest players on the team in regards to transition and shot contributions. He was carried by Alex Killorn in that regard last season. Don’t believe me? Here’s Corey Sznajder’s micro stat comparison tool to illustrate it.

A3Z Comparison Tool 2018-2019 Killorn/Cirelli
Corey Sznajder @ShutdownLine/ CJ Turtoro @CJTDevil https://public.tableau.com/profile/christopher.turtoro#!/vizhome/2-yearA3ZPlayerComps/ComparisonDashboard

This isn’t to disparage Cirelli, but we need to be fair in our assessment of Tampa’s players. Cirelli is fantastic defensively and at driving play, but when it comes to transitioning up the ice he grades out poorly. Augmenting him into the top-six isn’t a bad idea given how good he is in other metrics, but he isn’t as huge a line carrier as we believed him to be. He’s still the best third-line center in the league, and it’s somewhere he should stay once Point returns to the lineup.

Which leads to Stamkos being moved to the wing. We’ve been through this dog-and-pony show before. Stamkos is a center, and is more effective there at 5v5. I’m well aware that the coaching staff wants to have Johnson play a bit more center, but we know what Johnson is at this point in his career. He’s an effective player who isn’t going to drive a line, he needs his wingers to do that for him. He isn’t strong defensively and is more of a niche player on the roster. He was fine on the wing with Point and Kucherov last season. Let Stamkos carry his own line, he’s more than capable. Allow Cirelli and Killorn to anchor the third line. Find spots for Palat, Gourde, and Joseph. See how Maroon, Smith, and Verhaeghe bolster the bottom six. There’s a lot of flexibility with Tampa Bay’s forward corps, but center is the last thing this team should be messing with—they’re fine with it being 91-21-71 down the middle once Point returns.

Defensively, this unit might be better than last year’s. I’m an advocate of giving Victor Hedman Mikhail Sergachev as a partner, keeping Ryan McDonagh and Erik Cernak together, and pairing Braydon Coburn with Kevin Shattenkirk. Jan Rutta is fine as a seventh option. However, I’m not opposed to swapping Shattenkirk and Sergachev. The Coburn-Sergachev pairing was great last year, and here’s to hoping it can be great again this year. Regardless, the talent and options on the back end are better than last year. If anything, the coaching staff needs to figure out why their system bleeds high-danger chances. If it’s the players not buying in then there’s a fundamental issue between the two and it needs to be ironed out.

Interestingly, Tampa Bay made it known that they were planning on shipping Louis Domingue out of town this offseason after the signing of Curtis McElhinney. The cost certainty for an extra year with a better backup is a safe bet to make, but it does clog up the goaltending pipeline with Domingue in the AHL. Now, I know Domingue is a fan favorite, and he has the consecutive wins record (which is irrelevant in gauging a goaltender), but he really wasn’t that special last year. He was an average backup and he had the most prolific scoring offense in the NHL last year to bail him out of sticky situations. Given how some back-up situations in some NHL markets aren’t that great (looking at you Toronto), I’m surprised no one has picked up Domingue.

Regardless, the net belongs to Andrei Vasilevskiy. Personally, I don’t think he’s the best goaltender in the league, I’d rank him third or fourth, honestly. Hell, I didn’t even think he should’ve won the Vezina last season. With the signing of McElhinney, there’s hope that Tampa Bay is leaning more toward the load management trend of teams like Boston to ease the wear on Vasilevskiy. Even with missing a month last year, he still played 53 games and Domingue didn’t even sniff a start for the last month of the season. McElhinney has a more consistent track record in the backup role, so, here’s to hoping we keep Vasilevskiy in the low 50’s again.

Folks that think Tampa Bay will run over the league like last year are going to be disappointed. A regular season like that doesn’t happen every year. Last year was one for the record books and is likely the peak of what this team will accomplish in the regular season. They’re rightly the favorite again, but they had a string of good luck last season. My bet is they still take the division over Toronto and Boston; it just won’t be by 19 points again. That said, this team will be judged by what they do in the post-season. Additionally, their refusal to adapt to Columbus’s forechecking switch in the series cannot happen again. A team with this much talent on the ice and within the coaching staff can’t afford to be stubborn. Similar to Toronto, it’s put up or shut up for Tampa Bay.

Personal Opinion: Win the damn thing already.

Of course I put the Lightning in 1st.