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Will Lightning Strike Again? - NHL Atlantic Division Preview

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The puck drops for real when the NHL season gets underway on Wednesday, October 3. All 31 teams in the league will be chasing the holy grail of the NHL, the Stanley Cup, which the Washington Capitals hoisted for the first time in franchise history last season. More impressive was the fact that the team they beat in the Stanley Cup Finals was the Vegas Golden Knights, an expansion team in their first year of existence. The only other time an expansion team made the Stanley Cup Finals was in 1967-68 when the St. Louis Blues made the Finals before being swept aside by the Montreal Canadiens. Of course, that year, all six expansion teams were in the Western Conference as the league doubled in size.

Today, we’ll take a look at the Atlantic Division and see how things look on paper for the teams in the division. We’ll look at each team in relative detail and see how things stack up for this season. The order that we’ll break the teams down is based on last season’s standings. To get an idea of what we think of the division, read on. Will there be any new playoff teams in the division this season or will the top three teams from a year ago remain the same? Could the division sneak in a wild card team this season? Let’s take a look.

Tampa Bay Lightning

2017 Record: 54-23-5, 113 points, 1st in Atlantic Division

Playoff Status: Beat New Jersey 4-1 in the opening round of Eastern Conference playoffs, beat Boston 4-1 in conference semifinals, lost to Washington 4-3 in Eastern Conference Finals

Tampa Bay is considered to be a frontrunner to represent the Eastern Conference in the Stanley Cup Finals this season. The Lightning brings back all of the core that pushed the Capitals to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals last season. In that series, Tampa Bay led the series 3-2 but went frigid after that. The Lightning couldn’t light the lamp in either of the final two games of the series, which sent Washington on to the Stanley Cup Finals.

It was a terrific offseason for the most part for the Lightning. Tampa Bay re-signed winger Nikita Kucherov to an eight-year deal worth $76 million and inked defenseman Ryan McDonagh to a five-year extension as well. Victor Hedman earned the Norris Trophy as the league’s top defenseman. In addition, the team re-signed J.T. Miller, who came over from the Rangers in a deal with McDonagh, to a five-year contract. There were no massive defections that Tampa Bay has to deal with on the ice. Off the ice is another story: GM Steve Yzerman resigned on September 11 and will spend the final year of his contract as a senior adviser. Julian BriseBois, who has served under Yzerman, now takes over the reins: can he hold up to the pressure that comes with the job?

Tampa Bay has a ton of weapons at the forward spots and may be the deepest unit in the league. Kucherov led the team with 39 goals plus 61 assists for 100 points last season. Steven Stamkos (29 goals, 57 assists) along with unsung heroes Brayden Point (32 goals, 34 assists) and Yanni Gourde (25 goals, 39 assists) help provide weapons. Miller had ten goals and nine assists in 19 games after coming over from the Rangers before adding two goals plus six assists in 17 postseason games. Tyler Johnson (21 goals, 29 assists), Alex Killorn (15 goals, 32 assists) and the gritty Ryan Callahan (five goals, 13 assists) can all step up and contribute more offensively to help build on an offense that was 1st in the league at 3.61 goals per game in the regular season.

The defensive unit is led by Hedman, who logged 25:51 of ice time last season while posting 17 goals and 46 assists. Mikhail Sergachev (nine goals, 31 assists) and McDonagh (four goals, 25 assists total, two goals, assist in 13 games with Tampa Bay) can help provide offense from the blue line. Meanwhile, guys like Brayden Coburn (goal, 14 assists), Anton Stralman (four goals, 14 assists), Dan Girardi (six goals, 12 assists) and Jake Dotchin (three goals, eight assists) are more than capable of banging in the corners and delivering the big hit.

Goaltending is a strong suit for the Lightning as well. Andrei Vasilevskiy finished third in the Vezina voting in his first season as a starter. He finished tied for the league lead in wins (44) with Winnipeg’s Connor Hellebuyck and tied for first in shutouts (eight) with Nashville’s Pekka Rinne. Those two goalies were who finished ahead of Vasilevskiy in the Vezina voting. He was 44-17-3 with a 2.62 GAA, and a .923 save percentage. Louis Domingue (7-3-1, 2.89 GAA, .914 save percentage) came over late last season from Phoenix and signed a two-year deal in the offseason to be the backup.

Tampa Bay’s special teams were polar opposites last season. The Lightning was an elite third in power play percentage as they converted on 23.9 percent of their chances with the man advantage. On the flip side, Tampa Bay was a dismal 27th in penalty killing as they successfully killed off only 76.1 percent of their shorthanded situations.

Boston Bruins

2017 Record: 50-20-12, 112 points, 2nd in Atlantic Division

Playoff Status: Beat Toronto 4-3 in the first round of Eastern Conference playoffs, lost 4-1 to Tampa Bay in Eastern Conference semifinals

Boston pushed the Lightning all season long only to fall one point short in the race for the Atlantic Division crown. For the second time in the last six seasons, the Bruins took a 3-1 lead in their first-round playoff series against Toronto only to see the Leafs storm back to force a Game 7. Once against, Boston found itself in a hole after 40 minutes in a winner take all scenario before rallying in the third period for the win. The series may well have sapped the Bruins’ of the stamina they needed against the Lightning as they were brushed aside in five games. Can the Bruins’ fast aging core push themselves for a deep postseason run or is it the last gasp of a fading unit?

The Bruins were a high-powered offensive unit last season as they finished sixth in the league with 3.29 goals per game last season. Boston has a dynamic top line with Patrice Bergeron (30 goals, 33 assists) centering wings Brad Marchand (34 goals, 51 assists) and David Pastrnak (35 goals, 45 assists) though there are questions. Bergeron is still recovering from offseason groin surgery, and he has been hampered by back spasms during training camp: he hopes to play in the season opener against Washington. The problem for the Bruins is the drop-off that the team has after the top line. Boston needs more from guys like David Krejci (17 goals, 27 assists) and David Backes (14 goals, 19 assists) while young guys Jake DeBrusk (16 goals, 27 assists) and Danton Heinen (16 goals, 31 assists) have to take another step forward. Otherwise, Bruce Cassidy may have to contemplate breaking up his vaunted top line to try and find more scoring balance.

The blue line continues to be anchored by the 41-year-old Czech mountain, Zdeno Chara. The 6’9, 250-pound battering ram isn’t a big offensive contributor as he finished with seven goals and 17 assists last season, but he logged a unit high 22:54 per game in ice time. Chara was fourth on the team with 141 hits on the year as he simply is reaching the point where his speed can be measured as glacial. Torey Krug (14 goals, 45 assists) is an outstanding offensive playmaker at the point while Charlie McAvoy (seven goals, 25 assists) was solid in his first season with the team. Kevan Miller (goal, 15 assists) is a physical presence while Brandon Carlo (six assists), second-year guy Matt Grzelcyk (three goals, 12 assists) and John Moore (seven goals, 11 assists with New Jersey) add some depth.

The goaltending situation is the same in one regard and different in another. Tuukka Rask is back as the starter between the pipes for the Bruins. He finished last season 34-14-5 with a 2.36 GAA; a .917 save percentage and three shutouts in 54 games. Rask finished tied for seventh in the league in wins and tied for ninth in GAA on the year. Instead of Anton Khudobin (16-6-7, 2.56 GAA, .913 save percentage, shutout in 31 games) as the backup, it will be Jaroslav Halak. Khudobin signed a deal with the Dallas Stars in the offseason. Halak was 20-26-6 with a 3.19 GAA, and a .908 save percentage and one shutout in 54 games for the Islanders last season. Boston was fourth in the league in goals against last season as they allowed 2.61 goals per game.

Boston was extremely effective in the special teams department last season. The Bruins were fourth in the league in power play percentage with a 23.6 percent success rate. Boston was good when it came to shutting down opponents with the man advantage as they were third with an 83.7 percent success rate on the penalty kill.

Toronto Maple Leafs

2017 Record: 49-26-7, 105 points, 3rd in Atlantic Division

Playoff Status: Lost 4-3 to Boston in the first round of Eastern Conference playoffs

Toronto made the playoffs for the second straight season as they put up their highest point total in franchise history, breaking the 103 point mark the team had in 2003-04. Once again, the Leafs rallied from a 3-1 series deficit to force a Game 7 and held the lead with 20 minutes to play before wilting. The Maple Leafs have a ton of young talent, especially at the forward positions, but they need to find a way to improve on the blue line to help take the pressure off. It’s a new GM for Toronto as Lou Lamoriello left to take over the job with the Islanders. In his stead is Kyle Dubas, who, at the age of 32, has to deal with the pressure cooker that hockey in Toronto can be. Mark Hunter, who was an assistant GM with Dubas last season, left the organization as well, returning to be the GM of the London Knights of the OHL.

The Leafs were third in the league in scoring offense last season as the team put up 3.37 goals per game. Toronto went out and picked up the most significant piece available on the free agent market as they plucked John Tavares from the Islanders on a seven-year deal worth $77 million. Tavares had 37 goals and 47 assists with the Islanders last season, and he’ll be surrounded with a ton of offensive talent. Toronto has a plethora of scoring options as Mitch Marner (22 goals, 47 assists), William Nylander (20 goals, 41 assists), Patrick Marleau (27 goals, 20 assists) and of course, Auston Matthews (34 goals, 29 assists) are all in the mix. Nazem Kadri (32 goals, 23 assists) is one of the highest scoring third line centers you’re going to find in the league. Toronto will need more from Connor Brown (14 goals, 14 assists), Zach Hyman (15 goals, 25 assists) and Kasperi Kapanen (seven goals, two assists) among others. The Leafs have to replace the production from James van Riemsdyk (36 goals, 18 assists), Leo Komarov (seven goals, 12 assists) and Tyler Bozak (11 goals, 32 assists), all of whom left in free agency. Nylander is one of two unsigned restricted free agents in the league as the player and the team continue to work on a potential long-term contract.

Defensively, the Leafs bring back pretty much the same group they had last season. Toronto was 12th in the league in goals against as they allowed 2.83 per contest. The Maple Leafs will be led on the blue line by Morgan Reilly (six goals, 46 assists) and Jake Gardiner (five goals, 47 assists) as the premier talented offensive-minded defensemen. Ron Hainsey (four goals, 19 assists), Travis Dermott (goal, 12 assists), Nikita Zaitsev (five goals, eight assists) and Connor Carrick (four goals, eight assists) are on the depth chart. It may only be a matter of time before Timothy Liljegren, who was part of the Toronto Marlies’ Calder Cup-winning unit of last season, and first-round pick Rasmus Sandin get a chance to see some time on the blue line.

Frederik Andersen was a rock in net last season, but he saw more rubber than Indianapolis Motor Speedway. In 66 games last season, he went 38-21-5 with a 2.81 GAA, five shutouts and a .918 save percentage. Andersen was fourth in wins, tied for fourth in shutouts and finished first in both shots faced in addition to saves. He was fourth in the Vezina voting at the conclusion of the season. Veteran Curtis McElhenny (11-5-1, 2.14 GAA, .934 save percentage, three shutouts) is the backup netminder to spell Andersen.

Toronto had a lethal power play last season, ranking second in the league with a 25 percent success rate. Adding Tavares to the mix could make that number even higher this season. The Maple Leafs were 11th in the league in penalty killing as they killed off 81.4 percent of their shorthanded situations.

Florida Panthers

2017 Record: 44-30-8, 96 points, 4th in Atlantic Division

Playoff Status: Did Not Qualify

Florida had a strong finishing kick to the season but ended up a point short of the postseason as Columbus, and New Jersey earned the wild card spots with 97 points. The Panthers won five straight games to close the season and was 18-5-2 over the final 25 games. Florida has expectations to be a playoff contender in 2018-19, but it will need to take another step or two forward to pull that off. Can coach Bob Boughner get enough out of this unit and its core group to push themselves to the postseason for the first time in three years?

The Panthers have a solid offensive group that fell in the middle of the pack last season. Florida was 14th in the league in goals for with an average of 2.99 goals per contest. The Panthers will be led by the impressive quartet of Aleksandr Barkov (27 goals, 51 assists), Vincent Trocheck (31 goals, 44 assists), Jonathan Huberdeau (27 goals, 42 assists) and Evgenii Dadonov (28 goals, 37 assists) to do their share of damage. Nick Bjugstad (19 goals, 30 assists), Jared McCann (nine goals, 19 assists) and Colton Sceviour (11 goals, 13 assists) are expected to step up and contribute more offensively this season. The Panthers hope that a change of scenery can jumpstart Mike Hoffman, who had 22 goals and 34 assists for Ottawa last season. If Troy Brouwer (six goals, 16 assists with Calgary) can contribute in the bottom six, the Panthers could be in good shape.

Defensively, Florida is hoping to build off last season’s finish where they were 18th in goals against as they gave up 2.96 goals per game. The blue line group is led by the talented two-way duo of Keith Yandle (eight goals, 48 assists) and Aaron Ekblad (16 goals, 22 assists) but the rest of the group has to step up and contribute. That means Mark Pysyk (three goals, 13 assists), Alex Petrovic (two goals, 11 assists), Michael Matheson (10 goals, 17 assists) and MacKenzie Weegar (two goals, six assists) have to be better on both ends of the ice in order for the team to take a step forward.

The Panthers have a trio of talented goaltenders to work with this season. James Reimer (22-14-6, 2.99 GAA, .913 save percentage, four shutouts in 44 games) is back again, as is the 39-year-old Roberto Luongo. Luongo was solid in his action last season, going 18-11-2 with a 2.47 GAA, a .929 save percentage and three shutouts in 35 games. In addition to that duo, the Panthers signed Michael Hutchinson from Winnipeg on a one year, $1.3 million deal. He has gone 43-39-11 with a 2.65 GAA; a .910 save percentage and three shutouts in 102 NHL games in his career.

Special teams have to improve for the Panthers as well. Florida was just 21st in power-play percentage last season as they cashed in on 18.9 percent of their opportunities. The Panthers were 16th in penalty killing as they successfully killed off 80.2 percent of their shorthanded situations last season.

Detroit Red Wings

2017 Record: 30-39-13, 73 points, 5th in Atlantic Division

Playoff Status: Did Not Qualify

Detroit struggled last season as their aging core finally crashed back to earth and in the process, missed the playoffs for a second straight season. The Red Wings have looked nothing like the team that went to the playoffs 25 consecutive years from 1990-91 through 2015-16 with four Stanley Cup titles in that span. Detroit now has to continue their rebuild and realize that the glory days chapter has officially closed after Henrik Zetterberg announced earlier this month that he was going to retire due to a degenerative condition in his back.

The Red Wings have work to do for fourth-year coach Jeff Blashill, who now has to cultivate a new group of stars from his young talent. Detroit sputtered offensively last season, ranking 28th in the league with an average of 2.65 goals per game. The team’s leading goal scorer last season was Anthony Mantha, who finished with 24 goals and 24 assists. Detroit’s leading point getter was Dylan Larkin, who topped the team with 63 points (16 goals, 47 assists): he signed a five-year extension worth $30.5 million in the offseason. Larkin now will be thrust in the spotlight as the #1 center for a team that has seen stalwarts like Pavel Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Steve Yzerman, Alex Delvecchio, and Ted Lindsay among others. Gustav Nyquist (21 goals, 19 assists), Andreas Athanasiou (16 goals, 17 assists), Frans Nielsen (16 goals, 17 assists), Martin Frk (11 goals, 14 assists) and Justin Abdelkader (13 goals, 22 assists) all have to step up offensively. Filip Zadina, the sixth overall pick in the 2018 draft, is an explosive winger but doesn’t seem to crack the top nine. He may start the season in the AHL.

Defensively, the Red Wings have to make up some ground if they hope to get back in the mix. Detroit finished 21st in the league in goals against as they allowed an average of 3.11 goals per game. The Red Wings bring back most of last season’s unit, but there has to be improvement for the team to make any kind of move in the standings. Mike Green (eight goals, 25 assists) is back, but he’s expected to miss the opener with a viral infection. That puts more pressure on guys like Niklas Kronwall (four goals, 23 assists), Trevor Daley (nine goals, seven assists), Danny DeKeyser (six goals, six assists), Nick Jensen (15 assists) and Jonathan Ericsson (three goals, 10 assists) to step up in the short term. In the long term, Detroit is going to have to find a way to cut down on the prime opportunities that they gave up on a regular basis last season.

Jimmy Howard is expected to be back between the pipes as the starter this season after a rough outing last year. He finished 22-27-9 with a 2.85 GAA, a .910 save percentage and one shutout in 60 games last season. Howard was tied for the league lead in OT/shootout losses last season. Detroit added Jonathan Bernier as the backup with a three-year deal. He is playing for his fourth team in as many seasons: last year, he was 19-13-3 with a 2.85 GAA, a .913 save percentage and two shutouts in 37 games for the Avalanche last season.

Detroit had major issues on special teams last season, which was one of many problems the team has to work through. The Red Wings were 24th in the NHL on the power play last season, at 17.5 percent. When it came to the penalty kill, Detroit was just 23rd as they successfully killed off 77.5 percent of their shorthanded situations.

Montreal Canadiens

2017 Record: 29-40-13, 71 points, 6th in Atlantic Division

Playoff Status: Did Not Qualify

Last season was a train wreck for Montreal as they posted their lowest point total in a non-strike season since the 2000-01 team finished with 70 points. It’s the second-worst point total a Canadiens team put up over the course of a season that had more than 70 games. There have been changes in the franchise as Max Pacioretty was dealt to Vegas earlier this month. Alex Galchenyuk was shipped off to Phoenix while Ales Hemsky wasn’t re-signed. There is a lack of proven commodities in the scoring department, and the health of Carey Price is still to be determined. It could be another long year for les bleu; blanc et rouge this season.

Montreal was just 29th in the league in scoring offense last season as they averaged only 2.55 goals per game. Brendan Gallagher (31 goals, 23 assists) led the team in goals and points last season, but there is a distinct drop-off from there. Paul Byron tallied 20 goals last season while adding 15 assists. The Canadiens hope that Jonathan Drouin (13 goals, 33 assists) can build off a strong finish last season as he had 14 points in his last 19 games. Montreal brought back Tomas Plekanec (six goals, 18 assists) but he’s not better than a third-line guy at this point if that. The team is going to have to get production from Matthew Peca (two goals, three assists), Tomas Tatar (20 goals, 14 assists), Max Domi (nine goals, 36 assists) and Joel Armia (12 goals, 17 assists), all of whom didn’t play for Montreal last season, in order to make any improvement over last season’s dismal numbers.

There was a ton of issues in the defensive zone for Les Habitants last season. When all was said and done, Montreal finished 26th in the league in scoring defense by allowing 3.22 goals per contest. Things aren’t looking all that promising on the blue line at this point either. Shea Weber (six goals, ten assists) is out until at least December after offseason knee surgery. David Schlemko is expected to miss up to six weeks with a knee injury of his own, further thinning an uninspiring group. Jeff Petry (12 goals, 30 assists, -30 plus/minus) is the top returning defenseman to the unit who’s healthy to play right now. Karl Alzner (goal, 11 assists), Jordie Benn (four goals, 11 assists), Victor Mete (seven assists) and company are going to be hard-pressed to keep opposing teams out of their end of the rink. After all, Montreal gave up 2638 shots on goal last season, an average of 32.17 per contest.

Goaltending was an issue for the Canadiens last season as Carey Price failed to come anywhere near the investment the team made in him last offseason. He signed an eight-year deal worth $84 million last July, but he was dreadful last season. In 49 games, he was 16-26-7 with a 3.11 GAA; a .900 save percentage and one shutout. He missed time with fatigue issues, a lower-body injury, and a concussion. As a result, he posted the highest GAA and lowest save percentage of his career. Antti Niemi (7-5-4, 2.46 GAA, .929 save percentage, one shutout in 19 games with Montreal) and Charlie Lindgren (4-8-2, 3.03 GAA, .908 save percentage, two shutouts in 14 games) are in the mix for the backup job.

Special teams, as was everything else seemingly last season, was a problem for the Canadiens last season. Montreal was a decent 13th on the power play as they converted 21.2 percent of their chances with the man advantage. Of course, they shipped their leading PP scorer in Galchenyuk out of town. The penalty kill was a massive issue for the Canadiens as they were second last in the league by killing just 74.1 percent of their shorthanded situations. Price was awful when the Habs were down a man last season, posting a dismal .849 save percentage in those situations.

Ottawa Senators

2017 Record: 28-43-11, 67 points, 7th in Atlantic Division

Playoff Status: Did Not Qualify

Ottawa had a miserable season in 2017-18, and the team likely is embarking on a lengthy rebuilding process. The Senators posted their worst point total in a non-strike season since the 1995-96 team put up only 41 points. That team was in its fourth year of existence after being an expansion team. This team doesn’t have that excuse. Instead, they shipped out talent as Mike Hoffmann was sent to San Jose and then Florida after an off ice issue involving Hoffmann’s fiancé and Erik Karlsson’s wife. Of course, Karlsson himself was dealt recently as he was moved to San Jose. Owner Eugene Melnyk has said that there is still a chance for turnover on the roster so who’s next to be moved out of the nation’s capital?

The Senators were just 25th in the league in scoring last season as they averaged 2.7 goals per game last season. With the moves that were made, the cupboard is more barren than it was last season. Matt Duchene, who was picked up in a big deal early in the year, led the team with 23 goals and was fourth on the team with 49 points. Mikkel Boedker (15 goals, 22 assists with San Jose), Bobby Ryan (11 goals, 22 assists), Mark Dzingel (23 goals, 18 assists), Mark Stone (20 goals, 42 assists) and Chris Tierney (17 goals, 23 assists with San Jose) are going to have to really pick up their respective games in order to help improve the offense. It seems more likely that Duchene and Stone, who are both pending unrestricted free agents, are dealt by the time we roll around to the trade deadline. Ottawa will miss Jean-Gabriel Pageau (14 goals, 15 assists), who is out for at least six months with a torn Achilles. Alex Formenton, Brady Tkachuk and Colin White (two goals, four assists) give some talented youth to a team that needs help.

Defensively, Ottawa was a sieve last season as they finished the season second worst in the league by allowing 3.55 goals per game. With Karlsson gone, as well as Dion Phaneuf, there is a gaping hole on the blue line. Thomas Chabot (nine goals, 16 assists) becomes the likely de facto #1 defenseman for the Senators this season. Cody Ceci (five goals, 14 assists) likely slots in next to him in the top pairing. There isn’t much to write home about beyond that duo. Dylan DeMelo (20 assists, 75 hits, 70 blocked shots with San Jose) will see his fair share of ice time, as will Mark Borowiecki (three goals, eight assists), Chris Wideman (three goals, five assists), Ben Harpur (one assist in 41 games) for the Senators. Suffice it to say that there isn’t much to be impressed with here.

In the nets, the Senators hope that Craig Anderson can get back to the form that led Ottawa to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals in 2016-17. The problem is, Father Time is catching up to the 37-year-old. He was 23-25-6 with a 3.32 GAA; a .898 save percentage and two shutouts in 58 games last season. Mike Condon is expected to be the backup once again. He struggled last season, going 5-17-5 with a 3.25 ERA and a .902 save percentage in 31 games last season. If the goaltending doesn’t improve dramatically, nothing else will matter for Ottawa.

The Senators struggled in both facets of special teams play last season. Ottawa finished just 27th in power play success as they converted only 16.6 percent of their chances with the man advantage last season. On the penalty kill, the Senators fell one rung below that as they were 28th in shorthanded situations. Ottawa successfully navigated just 76.1 percent of their chances when they were down a man last season.

Buffalo Sabres

2017 Record: 25-45-12, 62 points, 7th in Atlantic Division

Playoff Status: Did Not Qualify

Buffalo had another dismal season last year as they finished in the basement not only of the Atlantic Division but the entire league. On the bright side, that gave the Sabres the first overall pick as they won the draft lottery. Buffalo picked up defenseman Rasmus Dahlin, and he’ll likely slot into a spot from day one. The Sabres made some changes in the offseason as the team dealt away Ryan O’Reilly to St. Louis while bringing in Jeff Skinner from Carolina and Conor Sheary from Pittsburgh. It will be interesting to see if Buffalo can at least make a step forward to get out of the league basement this season.

The Sabres finished last season ranked dead last in the league in scoring as they averaged 2.43 goals per contest. Buffalo will lean heavily on Jack Eichel (25 goals, 39 assists) and Sam Reinhart (25 goals, 25 assists) offensively again this season. Skinner (24 goals, 25 assists), Patrik Berglund (17 goals, nine assists with St. Louis), Sheary (18 goals, 12 assists) and Vladimir Sobotka (11 goals, 20 assists) will look to bolster the scoring punch. Kyle Okposo (15 goals, 29 assists) and Jason Pominville (16 goals, 18 assists) along with guys like Zemgus Girgensons (seven goals, eight assists) and Evan Rodrigues (seven goals, 18 assists) also have to step up and contribute offensively in order to help bolster Buffalo’s chances at improving their numbers. Casey Mittelstadt is one of the young guns that the Sabres hope can provide a jolt.

On the defensive side of things, the Sabres were 29th in the league in scoring defense as they allowed 3.42 goals per game on the year. The blue line looks to get a boost from Dahlin right out of the gate, but he’ll be groomed by veterans in Buffalo’s defensive group. Rasmus Ristolainen (six goals, 35 assists, 206 hits, 111 blocked shots) is the anchor on the blue line. Buffalo will hope Marco Scandella (five goals, 17 assists), Jake McCabe (three goals, nine assists), Nathan Beaulieu (goal, eight assists) and Matt Hunwick (four goals, six assists in 42 games with Pittsburgh) can help stabilize the Sabres. The health of Zach Bogosian (one assist in 18 games) is a major concern for the team: he’s dealing with a lower-body injury that isn’t related to the hip injury that ended his season last year.

It’s an overhaul of the goaltending situation in Buffalo as Robin Lehner signed a deal with the Islanders while Chad Johnson inked a contract with the Blues. The Sabres will turn the starting job over to Carter Hutton, who was 17-7-3 with a 2.09 GAA, a .931 save percentage and three shutouts in 32 games for the Blues last season. He’ll be backed up by Linus Ullmark, who was 1-2-0 with a 2.00 GAA and a .935 save percentage in five games last season. Ullmark has only 26 games of NHL experience under his belt, so the team has to hope that Hutton stays healthy.

When it comes to special teams, Buffalo was anything but special. The Sabres finished the year 20th on the power play as they cashed in on 19.1 percent of their chances with the man advantage. Reinhart led the team with 21 points on the power play. In the penalty killing department, the Sabres were just 22nd as they successfully killed off only 77.9 percent of their shorthanded situations. On the plus side, Buffalo did manage to tally nine goals while shorthanded last season.

Outlook

There’s a pretty clear delineation between the haves and the have-nots in the division, much like last season. In the 2017-18 season, the top four teams in the division each finished with at least 96 points. Meanwhile, the bottom four teams in the division all failed to crack even the 75 point barrier. There’s not much reason to think that things will change all that much his season. Tampa Bay, Boston, and Toronto are likely to lock down the top three spots in the division and as such, the guaranteed playoff spots. Florida should build off their hot finish to last season and will contend for a wild-card spot. The Panthers could push one of the top three teams if things break right for them and poorly for one of that trio.

As for the rest of the division, there’s no reason to think that things are going to improve dramatically. Detroit has to rebuild and find capable young talent, which is going to be a challenge for Ken Holland. Montreal could improve somewhat provided that Price can stay healthy and return to his previous form. Buffalo should take a couple steps forward with the addition of talent they picked up in trades and the addition of Dahlin. If Hutton can step up and be a decent #1 goaltender, the Sabres could move up a couple of slots in the overall standings. As for Ottawa, it would surprise no one at this point to see the team implode, deal away its remaining high priced players and end up in the basement.

What’s your take on how things shake out in the Atlantic this season?

Chris Kubala

Christopher Kubala has been crunching stats and following sports for over 30 years. His in depth analysis and passion for sports have led him to writing books about sports, regularly being featured on sports talk radio and as the go-to person for any obscure trivia. He keeps an eye on transactions and statistics like a hawk, especially when it comes to football, both the NFL and college, the NHL, the NBA and college basketball and MLB.

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#681 Campbell 142
#682 UNC Greensboro -10.5
7:00pm
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#705 IUPUI 163.5
#706 Marshall -6.5
7:00pm
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#893 Wright State
#894 Clemson
7:00pm
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#685 San Diego 148
#686 Memphis -5.5
8:00pm
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#675 South Dakota State 152
#676 Texas -7
9:00pm
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#687 Arkansas 140
#688 Providence -5.5
9:00pm
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#689 Loyola - Chicago 134
#690 Creighton -10
9:00pm
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#693 Cal State Northridge 156
#694 Utah Valley -13
9:00pm
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#671 Belmont -3.5
#672 Temple 154.5
9:10pm
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#691 Dayton 135
#692 Colorado -3.5
11:00pm
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NHL
#9 Washington -230
#10 New Jersey 6
7:38pm
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#13 Edmonton 5.5
#14 St. Louis -205
8:08pm
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#17 Florida 5.5
#18 Dallas -155
8:38pm
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Thursday, Mar 21
NCAAB
#773 Minnesota 134
#774 Louisville -5
12:15pm
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#767 Yale 160.5
#768 LSU -8
12:40pm
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#781 New Mexico State 143
#782 Auburn -6.5
1:30pm
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#763 Vermont 133
#764 Florida State -10.5
2:00pm
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#775 Bradley
#776 Michigan State
2:45pm
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#783 Northeastern 144
#784 Kansas -7
4:00pm
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#761 Murray State 148
#762 Marquette -4.5
4:30pm
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#777 Florida 132.5
#778 Nevada -2
6:50pm
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#771 Abilene Christian
#772 Kentucky
7:10pm
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#757 Saint Mary's 129
#758 Villanova -5.5
7:20pm
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#779 Montana
#780 Michigan
9:20pm
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#769 Seton Hall 142.5
#770 Wofford -3
9:40pm
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#759 ODU 129
#760 Purdue -13
9:50pm
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#787 Baylor 135
#788 Syracuse -2.5
9:57pm
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Friday, Mar 22
NCAAB
#805 Iowa 139
#806 Cincinnati -3.5
12:15pm
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#803 Oklahoma 142
#804 Ole Miss -2
12:40pm
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#819 Northern Kentucky
#820 Texas Tech
1:30pm
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#827 Cal Irvine 118
#828 Kansas State -5
2:00pm
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#807 Colgate
#808 Tennessee
2:45pm
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#801 Gardner-Webb
#802 Virginia
3:10pm
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#825 Oregon 116
#826 Wisconsin -1
4:30pm
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#811 Washington 134
#812 Utah State -2.5
6:50pm
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#815 Georgia State 142
#816 Houston -12
7:20pm
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#821 Liberty 135
#822 Mississippi St -7
7:27pm
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#809 Iona
#810 North Carolina (UNC)
9:20pm
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#799 UCF -1.5
#800 VCU 124.5
9:40pm
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#813 Ohio State 140
#814 Iowa State -5.5
9:50pm
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#823 St. Louis 126
#824 Virginia Tech -10.5
9:57pm
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