Rat Trick Predicts: Atlantic Division Preview


It seems like every website is doing a season preview these days, so we here at The Rat Trick might as well do one too.  Here is our Pacific Division and Central Division and Metropolitan Division preview if you need more crucial knowledge.  Working from west to east, let’s continue with the Atlantic Division preview:

Sep 25, 2015; Tampa, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven Stamkos (91) skates with the puck against the Florida Panthers during the first period at Amalie Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

1. TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING – Alright gang, it pains me to say it but the Tampa Bay Lightning look like the best team in hockey.  They won the Eastern Conference last year, scored almost at will in nearly every game they played, and have solid enough defense to boot.  There is seemingly no weak spot to this Lightning squad, and what they do they well, they do better than anybody else.

The Lightning offense is the real star of this show, and there are a ton of things to be excited about.  There is a healthy Steven Stamkos playing to earn a superstar contract.  There is the lamely-named Triplets line with Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, and Nikita Kucherov.  Ryan Callahan, Brian Boyle, and Valtteri Filppula are too good to be “depth” players, but this is no ordinary line-up.  Throw in emerging stars like Vladislav Namestnikov, Alex Killorn, and Jonathan Drouin, and there is no hole in this forward group.  Everyone is fast, can shoot and pass, and can play the body.  Be very afraid.

On defense, Victor Hedman looms large.  After struggling to truly find his legs in the NHL, the Swede has caught fire in the last couple seasons, and now plays both ways as good as anybody in the league.  He’s a Duncan Keith-East, and oughta be in the Norris Trophy discussion in Las Vegas next year.  There is some depth to this line-up as well: Jason Garrison, Anton Stralman, Matt Carle, Nikita Nesterov, and Braydon Coburn.  Like the forwards, these players can play both ways well.

Goaltending could be the scariest bit of all.  Ben Bishop is a huge goalie with a Vezina resume.  His backup, Andrei Vasilevskiy, is already one of the biggest young players in the NHL with one of the toughest names to spell.  The Lightning won’t be able to keep both in the upcoming years, you would think, but in the meantime they’ll be a premier goaltending battery.

It’s that good for the Lightning now: they have the offense, defense, and goaltending to win the Stanley Cup.  They’re the odds on favorite in all thinking men’s eyes.

Sep 26, 2015; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Montreal Canadiens forward Devante Smith-Pelly (21) goes after a puck against the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Air Canada Centre. Montreal defeated Toronto 1-0. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

2. MONTREAL CANADIENS – The Canadiens are once again the team carrying the torch for Canada in their extended odyssey to reclaim the Stanley Cup for the country that created her.  That might not be fair for the Canadiens or especially their coach, Michel Therrien, but that’s the way it is in la province du Quebec.

Of course, Carey Price is the man synonymous with the Canadiens these days.  The man is almost unquestionably the best goalie in hockey.  A Vezina trophy along with a 1.96 GAA and .933 SV% will earn you that title.  His backup, Mike Condon hasn’t registered an NHL minute to this point, so it’s safe to assume that the cage belongs to Price in possibly 70 games this season.

Offensively, Max Pacioretty will lead the Habs with a brand-new ‘C’ on his sweater, which is well-earned and impressive for an American in Montreal.  Alex Galchenyuk, Lars Eller, Brendan Gallagher, and Tomas Plekanec are the other big forwards in this Canadien lineup.  It gets thin after the top-six though.  Newcomers like Tomas Fleischmann and Alex Semin will need to produce more than they have in recent years if they want to earn scorer’s minutes.  Players like Dale Weise, David Desharnais, and Brian Flynn are better suited as third-line players, and the onus shouldn’t fall on them to score.

P.K. Subban is the big name on the Canadiens’ blue line corps, and his big slap shot will feature heavily on the Montreal power play.  There might not be a more creative player in the league at his position.  Subban’s biggest help on defense will come from Andrei Markov once again.  At 36 years old, he still has a great knack for moving the puck and creating chances.  Jeff Petry, Tom Gilbert, and Nathan Beaulieu are also defensemen with good offensive abilities.  Alexei Emelin is around if the Canadiens ever need a more stay-at-home kind of guy.

The Canadiens are well-equipped to kick a lot of ass this regular season.  Having Price as a backstop is a mistake-nullifier, and having Pacioretty and Subban around to create chances should lead to a boatload of goals.  They probably don’t have the juice to take down the Lightning, but we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.

Apr 29, 2015; Tampa, FL, USA; Detroit Red Wings center Pavel Datsyuk (13) skates with the puck against the Tampa Bay Lightning during the first period of the first round of the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Amalie Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

3. DETROIT RED WINGS – I’m still flummoxed by how they do it, but the Detroit Red Wings are sitting on an incredible run of 24 straight postseason appearances.  It’s enviably long, and probably the result of divine intervention, or perhaps more likely, a deal with the devil.  And despite a new coach and another year under the aged core’s belt, it would be foolish to bet that this supernatural streak could ever end.

Once again, the Red Wings’ hopes lie in the capable hands of Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, who are 37 and 34 respectively.  Datsyuk is starting the season on the IR with an ankle injury, but he ought to be ready to go by November.  Zetterberg has also gone through injury issues in recent years, but looks as healthy and handsome as ever heading into 2015.  But outside of that power duo, Detroit will absolutely need good seasons from Tomas Tatar, Justin Abdelkader, Gustav Nyquist, and newcomer Brad Richards.  Datsyuk and Zetterberg can only carry the team for so long — it’s time for the youngsters to graduate into the stars on the Red Wings squad.

The defense for Detroit is not what it used to be.  Niklas Kronwall is of course the main man on the blue line, but it’s slim pickings outside of him.  Jonathan Ericsson probably should not be considered a top-pairing defenseman, but Jakub Kindl, Danny DeKeyser, and Brendan Smith are not quite good enough to unseat him.  Mike Green is a fresh face who will be good at controlling the power play, but even he hasn’t been the same player as he was with those Capital powerhouses.   There might be some discussions around the trade deadline about how GM Ken Holland can upgrade this position.

In goal, Detroit is encountering a problem as well.  Jimmy Howard is on the wrong side of 30 and has looked average the last couple seasons.  The young Petr Mrazek might have overtaken him as the starter, but he still hasn’t gone through the grinder of a full regular season.  Likely, new coach Jeff Blashill will switch back and forth between the two, but many other good teams in the East already have their goaltending situation all figured out.

The Red Wings have a good offense, but their defense and goaltending appears suspect.  But I can’t predict against The Streak, so it looks like they’ll miraculously make it to 100 points.  How about that.

Oct 3, 2015; Sunrise, FL, USA; Florida Panthers left wing Jussi Jokinen (36) checks Tampa Bay Lightning left wing Ondrej Palat into the boards in the third period at BB&T Center. The Lightning won 3-2. Mandatory Credit: Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

4. FLORIDA PANTHERS – And so here opens the window of opportunity.  The Panthers are no longer fringe candidates for the postseason, and are now expected to be right in the thick of the race for one of the spots to get in.  It’s about time the Panthers graduate from “watch out for next season” to “this is the season”.  Because to be honest, there are some excellent pieces to work with on this roster.

The Panthers gameplan revolves around their biggest Twitter celebrity and their best goalie, Roberto Luongo.  He is honestly the only trustworthy goalie on this roster, and the Panthers will find themselves in quite a bind if A) Luongo gets injured, or B) Luongo’s age (36) finally catches up to him.  Backup Al Montoya had brief moments of glory last season, but quite simply must be better when he’s called on.  Luongo is still one of the best goalies in the NHL, and many of his spectacular sequences show his skills.  But those sequences will have to come quite often this season.

Defensively, Florida has the best young defenseman around, Aaron Ekblad.  His hockey IQ and feel for the game astounded fans and press alike last season, and he was awarded a truly-deserved Calder Memorial Trophy.  The Panthers will have to strike the balance between continuing his development and loading up his ice time.  Gerard Gallant doesn’t want to overwork Ekblad before he’s even 20 years old.  Dmitry Kulikov is still in town despite some occasional fan derision, and he has made tremendous strides recently to improve his defensive game.  Kulikov will always be slightly more offensively-minded, but he is as balanced as ever at this point.  Willie Mitchell and Erik Gudbranson are the shutdown defensive pair, while Steven Kampfer and Brian Campbell will focus more on moving the puck up the ice.  Alex Petrovic will wait in the wings as a 7th defenseman, and is perfectly capable of starting himself.

The offense for Florida is going to be the biggest question mark, and the biggest indicator of the team’s success.  After finishing 25th in goals scored for last year, the Panthers organization is counting on nearly every player to increase his production from the year before.  Jonathan Huberdeau, Nick Bjugstad, and Aleksander Barkov are the three young forwards from whom much of the production will be expected.  Hopefully veterans like Reilly Smith, Jussi Jokinen, and Dave Bolland will put up about 15 goals apiece, and depth players like Vincent Trocheck and Quinton Howden can assert themselves offensively as well.  And need I remind anybody of the mulleted elephant in the room — Jaromir Jagr.  It’d be wise to bet on him to continue to produce.

Dale Tallon is taking a massive risk by standing pat over the offseason, as Reilly Smith is the only major addition to this group.  The Panthers’ GM is hoping that his players, his coaches, and his administration have been the right moves all along.  This is the first year where we’ll really get to find out.

Oct 1, 2015; Montreal, Quebec, CAN; Ottawa Senators forward Clarke MacArthur (16) reacts with teammate Mark Stone (61) after scoring a goal against the Montreal Canadiens during the third period at the Bell Centre. Mandatory Credit: Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

5. OTTAWA SENATORS – Much like the Florida Panthers, the Ottawa Senators did not do much to reach outside of the organization this offseason, and are prepared to ride the Hamburglar Wave for as long as it will take them.  There’s still talent to be found on this team, but there could be some questions raised about how they will repeat the success they found last season.

The Senators will rely heavily on their offense to keep them competitive in an Atlantic Division that seems logjammed in the wild card area.  Erik Karlsson is still the most dangerous and productive offensive-defenseman in the game, and his passes and vision are crucial for the Senators when he is on the ice.  What he can do simply can’t be replicated, so it’s paramount to keep Karlsson healthy and in an attacking mindset.  Mark Stone and Mike Hoffman are the two most promising youngsters in Ottawa, with Mike Zibanejad and Kyle Turris creating the offense up the middle.  The Senators will need their veterans to contribute as well: Bobby Ryan, Milan Michalek, and Clarke MacArthur have to continue to play at a high level to support the younger forwards.

Defensively, the Senators are thin.  Karlsson is still the big name, but he isn’t always known for his stellar defensive play.  His pairing, Marc Methot, will have to play a heavily defensive role as Karlsson sneaks up the ice.  Lifetime Senator Chris Phillips has a cracked vertebra and isn’t ready to start his 18th NHL season.  It looks like Cody Ceci and Patrick Wiercioch will get plenty of ice time as well, with Jared Cowen and Mark Borowiecki rounding out the roster.  Chris Wideman is another possibility, but he is 25 and still hasn’t played an NHL minute.  The Senators are not very deep on this side of the puck, quite frankly.

The goaltending is also not rock-solid.  Chris Anderson will likely split starts with last season’s burger-munching Canadian hero, Andrew Hammond.  Both had fine seasons last year — especially the red-hot Hammond — but perhaps the magic could be fading.  Hammond went into the playoffs as the starter, but lost the job after two games.  Anderson had an incredible .972 SV% in the four playoff games against the Canadiens, but that wasn’t enough to move past Hammond’s “slow” start.  If Anderson is back to being the guy in Ottawa, he’ll have to be the guy at 34 years old, with a history of up-and-down seasons, and with his backup breathing down his neck for the job.

The Senators will have to hope they can keep the momentum up from last season.  If the goaltending isn’t there, or if the forwards aren’t scoring as much, the Senators could be taking a big step back this season.

Sep 30, 2015; New York, NY, USA; Boston Bruins celebrate scoring during the third period against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden. New York Rangers won 3-2. Mandatory Credit: Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

6. BOSTON BRUINS – The offseason in New England was punctuated by anger, frustration, and bad decisions.  New GM Don Sweeney turned plenty of heads trading away Dougie Hamilton, Milan Lucic, and Reilly Smith, who were important factors in a line-up that barely missed the playoffs.  At least the Bruins were able to retain Claude Julien, who is still a great coach and deserves the benefit of the doubt after one lousy season.

Where the Bruins will go south, however, is on their blue line, which sucks.  Zdeno Chara, Dennis Seidenberg, and Adam McQuaid have been great in past years, but all have really lost a step from age and/or injuries.  Torey Krug is still a fun little player, but he’s a tiny guy who won’t be able to body up most of his opponents.  Nobody else on the squad really seems like an inspired choice on defense, either because they also have injury histories or they lack very much experience.  You have to wonder why the Bruins traded away Dougie Hamilton if they didn’t have the depth to fill his skates.

But it gets better from here for Boston.  The offense has a chance to be excellent this season, with Patrice Bergeron, Loui Eriksson, Brad Marchand, and David Krejčí all returning.  Jimmy Hayes and Matt Beleskey are known to score, and if guys like Brett Connelly and Ryan Spooner start to find their offensive footing, then the Bruins could have a multitude of good scoring options on at least three different lines.  But I must indicate how bad the trade was to acquire Zac Rinaldo.  Don Sweeney traded a third-round pick for a goon, and I won’t let him get away with it.

Goaltending is another bright spot.  Tuukka Rask is an elite goaltender, and he is going to get worked this season like a cheap mule.  He played in 70 games last year, the 3rd-most in the league, and he will be needed to carry this team once again.  Jonas Gustavsson isn’t a particularly great goalie, so Claude Julien will be giving Rask the starts when possible.  But with the Bruins’ defense in the shape it is now, expect Rask to get pelted.

The Bruins are a little too proud and maybe a little too good to go into a full rebuild mode.  Their veterans are still good players if they stay healthy.  That appears to be the big key to this season, and I don’t expect the Bruins to move away from the injury bug so easily.  Perhaps a second step backwards in two years will change the franchise’s mentality.

Sep 29, 2015; Buffalo, NY, USA; Buffalo Sabres center Jack Eichel (41) during the game against the Toronto Maple Leafs at First Niagara Center. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

7. BUFFALO SABRES – The Sabres made so many moves this offseason that it is impossible to get a good handle on this team.  The Sabres are essentially a thought experiment until they hit the ice, because this new squad has almost nothing in common with the last year’s hellaciously bad team.  And not only are the ingredients different, so is the chef — Dan Bylsma is the new head coach, and fans are expecting him to work the same magic with super-stud Jack Eichel as he did with Sidney Crosby.

And yes, Jack Eichel is the man with the plan in Buffalo.  Some are expecting him to have an even better season than Connor McDavid, and that’s a serious possibility if he fits into his role well.  The Sabres will put him in a more relaxed, second-line slot while he develops, and they’ll put most of the heavy lifting on another young, promising American in Ryan O’Reilly.  His two-way game is fantastic, and he might have a legitimate chance to be one of the best forwards in the Eastern Conference.  Also relatively new in town is Evander Kane, and he’ll most likely line up to the left of O’Reilly.  On the right will be Tyler Ennis, one of the Sabres’ few bright spots last season.  The man is tiny, but he has great hands and ought to make a big impact not as “the guy” but rather as “one of the many guys”.  Also, the pride of Latvia is still around: Zemgus Girgensons.  He could have a breakout year as well.

Defensively, there are still a lot of kinks to work out.  Zach Bogosian, Cody Franson, Mike Weber, and Mark Pysyk would be nice depth options for a good team’s blue line.  However, they can’t be the team’s blue line.  Rasmus Ristolainen is the very interesting player on this squad, however.  After a promising rookie season, the 20-year old will have to take some big steps to reach his way to top-pairing status.  In the meantime, it looks like Bylsma will most likely spread the minutes around among his three pairings.

Goaltending is another area where the Sabres lack strength.  Robin Lehner will be the man in Buffalo and he will be given time to cement himself as a franchise player, considering they unloaded a first-round pick to pry him from Ottawa.  He hasn’t been given the lion’s share of starts in a season to this point, so it’ll be interesting to see if he can adjust to that workload.  His backup is journeyman Chad Johnson, who had a rough season last year as Jaroslav Halak’s backup in Long Island.  He’ll be looking for a bounce-back season and will certainly get a fair share of starts to spell Lehner.

The future is bright in Buffalo, but the future isn’t here quite yet.  But give it time, sunshine, and water and the Sabres will be one of the best teams in the East once again.

Oct 7, 2015; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Scott Harrington (36) during the pre game warm up before the game against the Montreal Canadiens at the Air Canada Centre. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

8. TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS – This is technically cheating because I saw the Maple Leafs lose last night, so I’m going to extrapolate their season based on that data point and pick them to finish last in the Atlantic Division.  However, I’m not so sure that’s a problem for the men upstairs in Toronto, Brendan Shanahan and Lou Lamoriello.  They have their coach to build around in Mike Babcock, but I’m not sure they have their team yet.

The best way to view the Leafs is from the net out.  Jonathan Bernier has been quite fine as a starter in Toronto these last few seasons, and will most likely be the guy if he can hold a steady save percentage.  Behind him is James Reimer, who has had the starting job and lost it more times than he can remember, I’m sure.  It’s doubtful either of those guys will put together huge seasons, but they’re at least known commodities.

Mike Babcock will find the offense to be more challenging than it was in Detroit.  No longer does he have Datsyuks and Zetterbergs and Lidstroms to lean on.  In their stead will be Nazem Kadri, James van Riemsdyk, and Tyler Bozak, who are much worse.  But at least there is a modicum of depth on this roster, with newcomers like Mark Arcobello, P.A. Parenteau, and Shawn Matthias capable of scoring some goals in deeper-line roles.  There isn’t much elite offensive talent on this team, but it’ll be up to Babcock to squeeze out whatever is there.

The Maple Leafs’ defense is also lacking the kind of firepower that could keep them in better shape in this division.  Dion Phaneuf is the captain and the leader of this squad, but he has played massive minutes without very much by the way of offensive production.  He has racked up over 100 penalty minutes in each of the last two years, though.  Toronto will have to count on Jake Gardiner and Morgan Reilly to grow into top-flight defensemen to decrease Phaneuf’s workload.  Other defensemen on the Leafs like Stephane Robidas, Roman Polak, and Martin Marincin can’t fill that kind of role either.

It’s plain to see the Leafs are taking stock and thinking about their future.  You can’t imagine that Lamoriello and Shanahan envision this Leafs roster as the one they want to move forward with.

Next: Rat Trick Predicts: Metropolitan Division Preview

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