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The Leafs, the Atlantic and the question of relative movement

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You’ve got your hot draft picks; you’ve kept some good veterans; you’ve got new goalies; now you’re moving. But so is everyone else.

NHL: Buffalo Sabres at Toronto Maple Leafs John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

It's a Autumn, there's a hint of coolness to the air finally, and it's time for that age-old tradition: guessing how your team will do next year.

You can guess at some lines, guess at some goals scored, guess a lot harder at goals allowed and then guess at where that puts the team, but that tells you only how you're doing relative to yourself. Which is interesting and a worthwhile initiative, but not how a hockey league works.

To guess at where the Leafs will land in the standings, we have to guess how they will do relative to everyone else.

Before we begin, a cautionary tale from last year—the year of the mostly accidental tank. It's not so much that the Leafs tried to lose, as that they didn't try to win. A subtle difference but a meaningful one in the context of how much they can improve.

The Leafs got better last year and dropped in the standings. And they are not the only team that did. A quick look at who was circling the drain in 2014-2015, the year of the very intentional tank, and how they compare to last year shows that most of those teams got better in most underlying metrics, and the results, goals for percentage and movement in the standings, reflected that.

Obviously other teams dropped down to fill those spaces left by Dallas and Florida, but the key thing to see is that just having improved relative to yourself last year wasn't even enough to count as running to stand still. This year, where it seems like there's only a couple of unintentionally bad teams in a large group of teams trying to improve, the Leafs will need to run even harder to move forward at all.

While it's true that the real basement dwellers last year, other than the Leafs themselves, were mostly Western Conference teams, the first place you have to move is relative to your own division. The Leafs can start worrying about Vancouver and Edmonton once they can overtake Buffalo.

It's not clear what the Leafs' goal is for this year: win as many games as possible while developing the rookies or develop the rookies while winning as many games as possible. Another subtle difference. But it is fairly easy to see that everyone else in the Atlantic division is full steam ahead. Not every team has the same amount of power under the hood, however.

The fortunes of many teams in the division have risen and fallen over the years, but last year showed a very tight knot of results, mostly on or over the 50 percent mark. The Atlantic is not quite the joke or the weak link the tired old cliché tells you it is.

A deeper look at the off season activity of each team can hint at which direction the Leafs' division rivals will move this year.

Boston Bruins

We hate them. Let's just get that out there, so we can try to look at the team through something other than a red haze of loathing.

The Bruins are one of those teams that have an image, an identity, one so strong it swamps reality at times. They are rough and tough and dirty, aren't they? They grind out wins. There is a "Boston Way" that poor (lucky?) guys like Phil Kessel, Tyler Seguin and Dougie Hamilton just don't have in them.

The Bruins love this image so much they overpay marginal players, and can't find a fourth line good enough to suit them. Or so goes the book on the team anyway. Let's look at the real picture.

Last Few Years

The first thing you notice is that while in the last two years it has seemed like Boston has hit the skids, they aren't actually bad. Not quite. But was that a dip or the start of a slide?

They aren't getting any younger, not in any meaningful way, but if their old stars are healthy, they're still high-end players. If they're not, the team has some of the shallowest depth in the NHL. They are right now, only a couple of injuries away from Zac Rinaldo as a full-time NHLer again.

Off Season Moves

Boston's biggest move was letting Loui Eriksson walk and replacing him with David Backes at a nearly identical contract to the one Eriksson took in Vancouver. Whenever you can get a slightly older guy who has put up worse Corsi numbers over the last three years on a super-long mostly buyout-proof contract, you do it, right?

This seems like a style over substance choice, and a bad case of free agent mania, but it likely doesn't make the team much worse this season. If Backes fits into their system better than Eriksson did, it might make them slightly better.

Their other changes are largely being forced upon them. They have to put David Pastrnak in the lineup, they have no other choices. He looks past ready, exactly how Boston serves up all prospects. However, their other good choice, Frank Vatrano, is out for months on IR, and his most likely successor is Danton Heinen, Trevor Moore's old linemate. That's how fast they run out of prospects.

More Moves to Come?

With more cap space than most teams at somewhere around $5 million, the Bruins look like a team that will add some depth. They love to tinker with their depth. Fussing over the fourth line is excellent for keeping your mind off how old and bad your defensive corp is.

What they need is quality young players that don't cost a fortune, but that's not their way.

Better or Not?

Meh. They haven't done anything major, either bad or good. They are about the same all in all, so I'm giving them a grade of 0. We'll look at these grades when all the teams are done, and see how it all looks.

Keeping Pace or Improving?

Where they land in the standings is going to depend largely on luck and Tuukka Rask. He hasn't been spectacular lately, but he is capable of spectacular seasons. If he has one in him, the Bruins may keep pace in the Atlantic while other teams rise and fall around them.

Where that puts them is right back where they've been the last two years, on the playoff bubble. Maybe it won't burst under them this time.

Buffalo Sabres

Last Few Years

We all know what Buffalo's been up to. And that desperate, nearly completely successful two-year tank got them two of the best rookies in the NHL last year in Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart. Those two are the key to their future.

The rise Buffalo made from the depths of tanking for McDavid was astounding. But when you look at where they were last year relative to the rest of the league, they were not quite so impressive. With good goaltending they might have made bottom of the playoff bubble group, but they didn't and they drafted eighth overall.

Their goaltending woes largely disguised a generally poor to terrible performance by their defence, and it is there that they still need to see improvement. They enjoyed one of the worst shooting percentages in the league last year, so some bounce might come just from regression. Regression does not keep to a schedule, however.

Off Season Moves

Drafting Alex Nylander will bear fruit years down the road, but for now, their biggest move was signing Kyle Okposo. He is very much what they needed, but he wasn't the only thing they needed. Dmitry Kulikov is a start on a better backend, but not the final answer.

More Moves to Come?

With a lot of cap space, at least $7 million with a final roster in place, they can do whatever they want to improve that roster. They are still looking for a big improvement on defence, but they might have to wait longer for it. They are not a team afraid to just sit and wait for opportunities.

They also have a huge multi-faceted problem in Evander Kane. Credible reports state they aren't happy about his repeated violent offences against women; however, they haven't actually done anything substantial about it.

It's possible, probable, they simply cannot move him off the team in any way they're willing to do, and they may just be stuck with him. Choosing to be stuck with him, might be more accurate, since the sticking point is likely the price they'd pay to ditch him. He has yet to play a full injury-free season, which makes trading him much more difficult.

Better or Not?

This is one of several very difficult teams to judge. The personnel is better, but not in a way that mitigates their largest weaknesses. Dan Bylsma's inability to find line combinations that worked last season is one of their biggest problems. And as a team still very much under construction, that may continue.

If they get even average starting goaltender results and Bylsma finds some lines he can stick with, they should continue to improve, but until they solve the defence problems, either through Rasmus Ristolainen living up to his promise or through an addition of better talent, they are merely refining a low grade ore. I'm grading them at + 4, largely on the expected improvement of their two youngest players and some regression.

Keeping Pace or Improving?

Without other moves before the season begins, they look like they're running to stand still, or at best, moving ahead very slightly.

Detroit Red Wings

Last Few Years

Detroit has not been bad in a very long time. But like Boston, they seem to be sliding downhill. They heaved a huge and public sigh of relief at the departure of Mike Babcock, but their thank goodness he's gone party carried on a little too long. They barely made the playoffs last year; they rose to the occasion and gave Tampa a bit of a fight, but there's just not much left of the weak roster Babcock stitched together into the team that very nearly beat the Lightning the year before.

Off Season Moves

The move that got all the press made SKA St. Petersburg better, gave Arizona their cap floor clearing contract and shaved some expected goals off of Detroit's coming season.

The moves that really mattered are the ones they didn't make. They failed to move Jimmy Howard, so they are stuck scraping the cap ceiling even without Datsyuk's contract. They chose to keep their expensive aging roster largely intact, and they added 32 year old Thomas Vanek and 32 year old Frans Nielsen.

Like the Bruins, they will have to give ice time to younger players like Dylan Larkin, Teemu Pulkkinen and Tomas Jurco. They have few other choices.

More Moves to Come?

If they really want to, they can just live through this season using LTIR to make cap space. If they can move Howard, surely they will, but it seems unlikely.

The team seems stuck, like when you go wander the kitchen aimlessly because you're bored and hungry but you don't feel like cooking. They need to just buckle down and chop some onions, er, make some tough decisions, but they seem locked in as neither good nor bad and destined for an early playoff exit.

Better or Not?

The young players coming up are interesting but not very meaningful. There's no reason to expect that their defence will be better unless Jeff Blashill plays Niklas Kronwall a lot less.

I give them a grade - 2 because Datsyuk to Vanek and Nielsen is a steep drop, even with the way Datsyuk played last year.

Keeping Pace or Improving?

They aren't keeping pace, but they are still a team full of good fundamentals. Last season's flirtation with getting outshot notwithstanding, they can play good systems, so they aren't sinking like a stone. They are ripe to be overtaken by teams on the up though.

Florida Panthers

Last Few Years

Beware the line that says last year was all PDO for the Panthers, it will lead you astray. They did have great goaltending, and some other forms of luck, but a lot of their improvement from basement dweller to division leader was real.

Their greatest achievement last year was integrating a very talented set of young forwards into a team that was set up to best utilize Jaromir Jagr's and Jussi Jokinen's fading skills.

Their biggest weakness was their defence, and they were forced to play a much different defensive system to account for the lack of talent in the latter half of the season. They solved their shots against problem, but stopped finding enough shots for.

Off Season Moves

The move that got all the attention was the Erik Gudbranson trade, but saying goodbye to Kulikov and recognizing that Willie Mitchell is done playing hockey paved the way for a total overhaul of their defensive corps.

The Panthers achieved that by signing Keith Yandle, Jason Demers and taking Mark Pysyk in the Kulikov trade.

Their biggest weakness last year is now totally erased, and Aaron Ekblad has a much higher class of fellow defenders whose strengths are offensive production.

The other major move was the signing of the highest class of backup goaltender in the league in James Reimer. If, as reported, Roberto Luongo will miss some of the regular season, this was a bold and smart move to make.

More Moves to Come?

The Panthers are still a budget team with low revenues and one of the worst TV contracts in hockey. They have cap space, but that doesn't mean they'll use it. If Luongo comes out of camp ready to go, they have the option of moving Reimer or Reto Berra now rather than at the deadline. Otherwise, they look like they're standing pat.

Better or Not?

They are dramatically better on defence. Their forwards are mostly young enough and good enough that there will likely be improvement through normal growth. Even without Jagr producing at the incredible rate he did last year at the beginning of the season, this team is very much better than they were. I give them a +5.

Keeping Pace or Improving?

Apply some regression, then allow for their improved roster, and they are likely to keep up the division leading ways they enjoyed last year.

Montréal Canadiens

Last Few Years

That is a weird chart. But the most notable aspect is that yes, indeed, Montréal were better last year in basic five-on-five performance.

They were also terrible at producing goals, not just stopping them once Carey Price was injured.

Off Season Moves

Well. They made some, that's for sure.

First, before we talk the big one, let's look at the two smaller moves. They moved out Lars Eller, and added Andrew Shaw. This is a net negative in all markers of success. And looking back at that Corsi chart, it pays to remember that the most effective line the Habs had at keeping the puck going the right way was Alex Galchenyuk, Eller and Alex Semin. The character of the Eller for Shaw exchange foreshadowed the other moves.

Alexander Radulov was signed for a lot of money. This is a high-risk move, in that if he fails, the Canadiens have no great way of replacing him. If he succeeds, well, he needs to at least make up for the loss on the Eller for Shaw deal before his additions count for anything.

And now the big one that is almost totally irrelevant in the short term. Shea Weber is a capable player, one who generates more offence than anything else, and considering P.K. Subban's not very good year last year, he might look superficially better. If the Canadiens take the opportunity to move Andrei Markov off the top pair, Weber might look better just by default.

The rest of the Habs defence is now, and was last year, their big unsolved problem. The moves they didn't make to improve them is what will hold them back.

More Moves to Come?

They'll likely dump one of their backup goalies, but other than that, they seem smugly satisfied with their tougher, rougher, grittier team.

Better or Not?

That largely depends on Radulov and Weber. It's hard to guess how they'll slot in, but they may be able to produce under Michel Therrien's system in a way Subban and Eller were not. I give this a + 2 just because Radulov has the capability to get pucks in the net. So does Shea Weber.

Keeping Pace or Improving?

Their expected regression is multi-layered. They had luck last year of all kinds that was often hard to see with their goaltending woes covering it up. They need top level Carey Price all year to just keep a playoff spot. But then, that's always been how the team is structured.

If they get that and get best case scenario out of Weber, Radulov and most crucially, if Galchenyuk is the top centre all season, they should be back in the playoffs. To get back on top of the division they need all the luck they had two years ago and then some.

Ottawa Senators

Last Few Years

Ottawa's usual routine is to play well enough with an under-powered roster while never spending enough money to get better. They are a budget team that has historically paid big money to players for their past performance, but hasn't ever been bad enough to draft a future star.

They were terrible last year. They disguised their descent into Avalanche level lopsided play with a lot of luck in close games and the often resulting shootouts. They also had heroic goaltending at times, despite the massive amounts of shots they allowed in some games. While the assumption that Andrew Hammond would be bad because of regression was wrong, Craig Anderson also had a very good season.

How Ottawa went from a generally good five-on-five team to the pits of despair is almost irrelevant now that the team has a new general manager and a plethora of coaches replacing the unsuccessful Dave Cameron.

Off Season Moves

Aside from the total front office revamp, they redid the coaching staff in the AHL, plan to move that team closer to home, and also made a very few personnel moves.

The only big one was swapping soon to be too expensive Mika Zibanejad for Derick Brassard. In the short term, and taking into account that Zibanejad never seemed to click in Ottawa, this might be an improvement, albeit slight.

The meaningful trade they made was last year, and Leafs fans know all about that one. From Ottawa's point of view, they were swallowing the poison pill of the Dion Phaneuf contract to get rid of a host of other over payments for very poorly performing players. It remains to be seen if the cure was worse than the disease. But the Senators cleared a lot of cap space in the deal—in the short term.

More Moves to Come?

It seems almost inevitable that the new coaching staff will find someone they don't like in camp. That ritual cleansing of the guy the new guy hates is tradition for a franchise trying to strike out in a new direction.

Better or Not?

This is really hard to call. I'm going to say impossible with any level of confidence. Is Guy Boucher a good coach or not? His team in Switzerland won the championships--after he was fired. He's got former NHL coach Marc Crawford as an associate, whose team in Switzerland flamed out in the playoffs, and how is that going to work? Is this a brilliant coaching team, or too many voices just confusing some already confused players?

To succeed, they need to build around Erik Karlsson's strengths, but they have a very weak set of forwards to do it with. They need impeccable systems to make that underwhelming roster play over their heads and get some points from more than three-on-three success and shootout luck.

I'm grading them at a very modest + 1 mostly on the assumption that Mike Hoffman won't play on the fourth line anymore.

Keeping Pace or Improving?

Unless that amazing amount of luck holds, they will drop in the standings just from losing a few more coin flips. But their new coach might well reverse the bad direction their five-on-five play had been trending, which could put them right back where they were last year.

This team has to be the toughest in the Atlantic division to forecast. They might be the spoiler of a lot of hopes, they might be battling with the Canucks for the league cellar. It seems really hard to believe they'll be within a sniff of the playoffs though, just on the strength of other teams' improvements in the division.

Tampa Bay Lightning

Last Few Years

Well they just are on a roll aren't they? The window is wide open, the roster is stacked, and it's just a question of how high they can ultimately go. Was the Stanley Cup Final it? Or is this year theirs?

Off Season Moves

Steve Yzerman collected autographs. That was pretty much it. He got Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman, Andrei Vasilevskiy, Alex Killorn and this or that prospect, and then he sat and put his feet up, secure in the knowledge that he is the single most annoying general manager in hockey.

He has nerves of whatever is way tougher than steel. Jonathan Drouin has nerves of steel for standing up to him; Yzerman is made of harder stuff.

He chipped off some cap space by buying out his biggest mistake in Hobey Baker award winner Matt Carle and then went back to resting.

He shifted himself enough to sign Nikita Nesterov when everyone wanted a different Nikita locked down.

More Moves to Come?

The supremely annoying Yzerman has one more autograph to get from Nikita Kucherov. Yzerman will perhaps need some cap space to sign him, but he is annoying enough he may choose to wait and put Ryan Callahan on LTIR and just let Tampa fans learn to like their white-knuckle grip on the paper bag they breathe into most of the time.

He may choose to move the slowly declining Valteri Filppula and free up some space, but he's not a man who wants to trade from a position of weakness, so stock up on bags.

If he is forced to move Ben Bishop to clear cap space he has failed. Because as adorable as Andrei Vasilevskiy is, he's not a starter on a cup team.

Better or Not?

That depends on Tampa's other, very annoying man, Jon Cooper. If he utilizes his forwards well, they'll be neck and neck with their cross-state rivals all season. If he doesn't, if he leashes Drouin too much and can't find a way to make Tyler Johnson play to his peak, then they may just be the second best team in the division.

They didn't really get much better, but they did tinker at the edges, so a + 1 is all they get.

Keeping Pace or Improving?

It's extraordinarily difficult to stay at the top. And while they were, in real terms, the best team in the Atlantic last year, they need full health from Ben Bishop, Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman, not to mention Steven Stamkos, to stay there.

None of that matters, however, because this is a serious playoff team. The regular season is just practice.

Toronto Maple Leafs

Last Few Years

Last year was okay!

Other than that, what matters? Toronto is not that other team from prior years; they don't even have the same logo. Hey! You don't suppose that's why they changed it?

Last year had okay five-on-five play with shots against that were too high. The goaltending was often horrific, and the shooting percentage was so small, people started calling it diminutive. But as a first look at Mike Babcock's systems, it wasn't half bad. James van Riemsdyk certainly looked like a new man and so did Nazem Kadri.

Off Season Moves

You may have heard that the Leafs added famous fourth line grinder Matt Martin? They also brought back Roman Polack and traded both goalies for Frederik Andersen.

More pixels have been spat onto screens over the moves they didn't make—signing Steven Stamkos and Jimmy Vesey—than about what they did do. But of course, the real moves that matter will be who gets promoted from the Marlies, and how soon.

Oh, they drafted that guy, what is his name? He might factor in.

More Moves to Come?

Absolutely. Lou's office door is always open, operators are standing by to take your calls. The question is just when and who. The uncertainty around the Cowen buyout could have delayed some moves, but also, the Leafs will not want to trade from a position of weakness anymore than Steve Yzerman does.

They are not likely to make any moves until other teams discover their needs in their own training camps. They might stand pat well into the season, or even right up to the trade deadline.

Better or Not?

It would be hard not to be better than last year, wouldn't it? So obviously yes. But, how much can the shots against come down with a team frothing over with rookies? Maybe a lot given the rookies. How much will the goals go up? Well, Arizona rocked the PDO hot air balloon all the way up to the stratosphere last year, largely on the strength of rookie scoring spikes. The Leafs might get some of that.

What to grade them? + 1 million might be too high. But they have improved significantly, at least at five on five. I'm not convinced their power play won't be a bit shaky, however.

I'm going to use a very conservative + 5 mostly to account for stability in net and some actual goal scorers getting regular shifts.

Keeping Pace or Improving?

That's the big question isn't it? They got better last year and ended up worse. And to rise in your own division, you often need someone to fall. Let's add it all up.

Report Card

Last year the Atlantic looked like this:

  • Florida
  • Tampa
  • Detroit
  • Boston
  • Ottawa
  • Montréal
  • Buffalo
  • Toronto

Detroit and Boston had the same number of points, but only Detroit made the playoffs. Only Tampa made it out of the first round. I'm going to apply some luck corrections to that list and say that the real order of best to worst is:

  • Tampa: 5
  • Florida: 3
  • Detroit/Boston: 0
  • Montréal: -1
  • Ottawa: -3
  • Buffalo/Toronto: -4

I've ranked Detroit and Boston at zero, since they were not really playoff calibre teams. The Red Wings only got in because of the division structure.

So add the grades I gave and you get:

  • Tampa: 5 + 1 = 6
  • Florida: 3 + 5 = 8
  • Detroit: 0 - 2 = -2
  • Boston: 0 + 0 = 0
  • Montréal: -1 + 2 = 1
  • Ottawa: -3 + 1 = -2
  • Buffalo: -4 +4 = 0
  • Toronto: -4 +5 = 1

If that looks like two super hot teams in the state of Florida and a whole load of mediocrity everywhere else, well, it is. It could very well be that there are six teams knotted up in the standings a very few points apart. Luck might give or take away from someone too; we can't predict that.

If the enigmatic Senators bomb with Boucher, then everyone else goes up. But no one has a tanking team to get easy wins off of. Tuukka Rask might implode, or he might be amazing. And then, the rest of the league comes into play as well, and things are tough all over this year.

It's a truism that not every team can get better in the same year, but the truth is, a lot of them will this year, but just improving isn't enough. Last year the point spread in the bottom of the league was very small with no intentional tanking. With even less of it this coming year, there's no reason not to expect that to tighten up even more.

For the Leafs to have a playoff spot chance, they need to bounce higher than I'm guessing, or they need some harder falls from some of their closest friends. But anything can happen in 82 games. And I know who has the most depth in this division. That might be the key to success.