Post-free agency Atlantic Division outlook
Editor’s note: This is a piece that was published on July 5th, 2017 at Kukla’s Korner.
Now that the major portion of free agency season has come and gone, let’s take a look at how the Atlantic Division, as of today, is stacking up for 2017-18 (listed by predicted order of finish):
1) Toronto Maple Leafs: It’s easy to criticize going three years for Patrick Marleau, but TSN’s Scott Cullen may have summed it up best when he said, “…if the Maple Leafs end up going further in the playoffs with Marleau in the lineup, criticism will be muted”. Truth be told, the surging Leafs were already on the verge of breaking through the stratosphere to elite contender status, and adding Marleau certainly shouldn’t change that. The group that was third in the NHL in 5-on-5 shot attempts, and took a lot of mojo out of the Washington Capitals in the first round of the playoffs, remains pretty much intact, less rental Brian Boyle. The Leafs are primed for really big things this season.
2) Tampa Bay Lightning: Whether you think of Jonathan Drouin as a potential superstar or an often moody, sometimes selfish, occasionally petulant, one-dimensional, streaky player, his offense will certainly be missed in Tampa. The good news is Steven Stamkos should be back at full strength, and would it surprise anyone if he had a huge bounce-back season? Adding a still serviceable Chris Kunitz should help, while the Dan Girardi signing will work out best if they don’t ask him to do too much.
3) Montreal Canadiens: The loss of Alexander Radulov to Dallas will hurt, but his numbers should be replaced, if not surpassed, by Drouin (and at a $750K lower drag on the cap per season). The problem is the Habs are weak on the right side with Brendan Gallagher, Andrew Shaw and newly signed Ales Hemsky (who hasn’t topped 14 goals in 8 years) as the best they have. The blue line lost Alexei Emelin, Nathan Beaulieu and Andrei Markov, but Karl Alzner and David Schlemko will fill out what should still be a pretty good defense around future $10.5M per season goaltender Carey Price.
4) Boston Bruins: The Bruins had the best shot attempt for/against ratio in the NHL, and mostly the same group will be back minus expansion draft casualty defenseman Colin Miller, rental forward Drew Stafford and the recently bought out Jimmy Hayes. While the team is aging, the veterans are collectively still very good — notably, Brad Marchand is coming off a career 85-point season — and the B’s should have enough in the tank to earn a playoff spot.
5) Ottawa Senators: Ottawa’s biggest loss this offseason was Marc Methot, who served as Erik Karlsson’s defense partner. The Sens are high on blue line lefty youngsters Thomas Chabot and Fredrik Claesson, but it’s not likely either of them are ready for big time minutes just yet. While Methot’s loss could have a negative impact, Karlsson is still considered the best in the league. But that might not be good enough to get this team, even with some talented forwards and a deft coach in Guy Boucher, back to the playoffs.
6) Buffalo Sabres: New GM Jason Botterill hasn’t wasted much time putting his stamp on the organization. The number of new Sabres expected to be in the opening night lineup is 7 and counting. The defense needed the biggest facelift and added Marco Scandella, Nathan Beaulieu and Viktor Antipin, while Benoit Pouliot and Jason Pominville (in his second Buffalo go-round) were brought in to the forward ranks. Botterill won’t subtract Evander Kane from last season’s 26th-ranked offense without a good return. New head coach Phil Housley’s system should gradually help turn things around, but a playoff push will likely be delayed a year due to the management and roster transition.
7) Detroit Red Wings: A beautiful, shiny new building awaits the Wings for 2017-18, but a return to the playoffs is not likely in the cards. Trevor Daley is a good acquisition for the defense, but there’s no logical reason to think an offense with only a single 20-goal scorer (Tomas Tatar netted 25), and without any upgrades, will be that much better.
8) Florida Panthers: Allowing yourself to be put in a position where you have to leave your leading goal scorer unprotected in an expansion draft is not a good look, but that’s what happened to the Panthers when 30-goal man Jonathan Marchessault was selected by the Vegas Golden Knights. Florida was gutted of 3 of its top 6 forwards this offseason, but they justified the loss of Jaromir Jagr by getting a replacement in Radim Vrbata who is 9 years younger and was 9 points better last season. Vincent Trocheck is one of the most underrated players in the league, and Aaron Ekblad is an anchor on defense, but there isn’t enough roster depth to keep this season’s ship from sinking towards the bottom of the Atlantic.