The Atlantic Division was inferior to the powerhouse Metropolitan division in the Eastern Conference in the 16’/17 campaign, but change could very well be afoot this time around. The Atlantic Division will very likely be a closely contested division throughout the season, and in all honesty there are a few teams I could see taking this division down. Before I get into predictions, let’s take a look at each team’s odds of taking this division down, courtesy of bodog.
Toronto Maple Leafs – +224
Tampa Bay Lightning – +225
Montreal Canadians – +500
Boston Bruins – +700
Ottawa Senators – +700
Buffalo Sabres – +1000
Florida Panthers – +1000
Detroit Red Wings – +2500
Division Winner – Toronto Maple Leafs (+224)
The Maple Leafs opened at +350 to win the Atlantic Division which ranked behind both the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Montreal Canadiens, so apparently some folks have agreed with what I have seen from both Toronto and other clubs from this division in the preseason. Auston Matthews has looked flat-out dominant this preseason, and his connection with William Nylander could form the most lethal duo in all of hockey this season. The Leafs have depth to spare up front, something that did not seem possible just a few short years ago. Frederik Andersen showed up to camp in the self-proclaimed and often used “best shape of his life” (more on that here) and after an up-and-down season at times last year, appears ready to take the next step and become an elite NHL netminder. The question all season will be if Toronto’s defense can improve on last year’s 2.85 goals against per game (22nd). This season’s version of Toronto’s defensive corps will largely resemble last year’s group, with the exception of veterans Matt Hunwick and Ron Hainsey switching clubs between Toronto and Pittsburgh, and perhaps the Leafs’ sixth defenseman which remains an open competition. That said, there isn’t a team in this league without question marks. Toronto is skilled, fast, hard-working, and has arguably the best coach in the sport behind the bench in Mike Babcock. Last season they scored with the best of em’ (3.05 goals per game, 5th) and for the first time in a long time were excellent on both sides of their special teams (23.8% PP – 2nd, 82.5% PK – 10th). They will be absolutely lethal offensively again this season, their special teams will hover in top 10 territory again (especially the power play) and their work ethic will remain thanks to Babcock and his staff as well as the organizational depth acquired by GM Lou Lamoriello and his staff. The Maple Leafs are inching their way towards becoming a complete team and thus a Stanley Cup contender, and will take down the Atlantic Division in a closely contested race along with Tampa Bay and perhaps one of Montreal, Boston or Ottawa.
Value Pick – Ottawa Senators (+700)
Every season the often overlooked Ottawa Senators end up right where they want to be: the Stanley Cup playoffs. No one gave the eventual cup-winning Pittsburgh Penguins a better run for their money in the postseason than Ottawa. In fact, they took them as far as they possibly could without beating them as Pittsburgh survived the Senators with a Game 7 double overtime winner courtesy of Chris Kunitz. The Senators have a solid group of forwards up front with the likes of Kyle Turris, Mike Hoffman, Mark Stone and playoff hero Bobby Ryan likely to do the heavy lifting offensively. The Senators could benefit from more goal scoring this season after coming in at 22nd with 2.51 goals per game last season, and their 23rd ranked power play (17%) from a season ago needs to be improved upon. However, the calling card for this team last season was their ability to keep the puck out of their own net. Last season Ottawa ranked 10th with 2.56 goals against per game, and that was with their number one goaltender Craig Anderson starting just 40 games as he spent chunks of the season dealing with a family matter. Anderson was stellar when present as he posted a 2.28 GAA and a .926 save percentage while winning 25 of those 40 starts and getting at least one point in 29 of the 40. These numbers helped earn Anderson a shiny new two-year contract extension, and if there is one thing Ottawa can rely on next season it is very likely their veteran netminder. That said, injuries are already hurting the Senators before the season begins. Second year Senator Derick Brassard and annual team MVP Erik Karlsson are both questionable to be ready for the start of the regular season thanks to offseason surgeries, but their returns aren’t expected to be far away. With a fully healthy lineup, and most importantly a fully healthy Karlsson, the Senators are a team that could certainly continue to surprise their way to the postseason picture once again, and possibly take down a division that is without a clear front runner entering the season.
Avoid – Montreal Canadiens (+500)
The Montreal Canadiens opened with the second best odds for winning the Atlantic Division, however they have already moved to third and I believe the odds continue to fall throughout the season. Montreal had a busy offseason, seeing the likes of Alexander Radulov and Andrei Markov bolt for the Dallas Stars and KHL, respectively, while they traded young blueliner Nathan Beaulieu to Buffalo. On the incoming side, a blockbuster trade brought young Quebec native Jonathan Drouin to Montreal before they inked veteran defenseman Karl Alzner to a lucrative (and questionable) five-year contract. It would be reasonable to think that Montreal could see it’s offensive productivity pick up with the addition of Drouin, a fast and skilled player with a bright future ahead of him, but I don’t see it. Drouin is the type of player who is best when the puck is on his stick, just like his likely left winger Max Pacioretty is. Pacioretty is coming off of a season where he scored 35 goals on 268 shots. Drouin had 183 shots last season, but in only 73 games and would have easily eclipsed the 200 mark in a full 82-game season. There may not be enough pucks on the ice to allow Drouin and Pacioretty to work in sync, which could lead to some early line shuffling from Claude Julien. Behind the top line, Montreal has very little scoring depth, with Alex Galchenyuk and Andrew Shaw the likeliest of candidates to provide the secondary scoring. However, Montreal still doesn’t know if Galchenyuk is a center or a winger, and Shaw is a grinder by trade. Behind them, third line center Tomas Plekanec is in full regress mode after a career low in points last season. On the blueline, Shea Weber is the clear number one guy, but after that it’s dicey. Alzner will likely be his normal, solid, stay-at-home defensive self, but Montreal is set to ask a lot from the likes of Jeff Petry and Jordie Benn. Montreal could have a nice player in rookie Victor Mete on the blueline, but he is a rookie, and rookie defensemen are in tough in this league. When it’s all said and done, Montreal’s season will boil down to what it always does: Carey Price. Carey Price won the Hart Trophy as the league’s MVP for the 2014/2015 season, however it is very little coincidence that the Canadiens finished 13th in the Eastern Conference when an injured Price played just 12 games the next season and returned to prominence last season when he played 62. Simply put, Price is going to have to provide another MVP-caliber season for the Canadiens to repeat as Atlantic Division winners. Even if he does, there is a real question whether this team will score enough to contend. I certainly would not be surprised to see Montreal back in the playoffs this season, but I do not see any value on a regressing team to take down the Atlantic Division for the second consecutive season.