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2017 Atlantic Division preview

Who is up and who is down?

NHL: Preseason-Montreal Canadiens at Toronto Maple Leafs Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Last year, I looked at the Atlantic division about this time of the year, and I tried to measure where the teams were in relationship to each other, not just their own pasts. I did not, of course, correctly foresee the Florida malaise and the Tampa injury bug. But I did have Boston on the bubble, and I said Ottawa was an enigma wrapped in a mystery.

Making this even more complex this year is two things: The end of tanking and the rise of mediocrity.

Because Buffalo didn't bounce very high from their depths of despair, even with two second-overall picks in hand, GMs will now question the worth of tanking for a top pick. The random chance of two teams, who were nowhere near the bottom of the league, winning the draft lottery last year will convince those who don't know how probabilities work (nearly everyone) that that's what will always happen.

The end of tanking is a contributor to the rise of mediocrity, but it's not the only thing driving parity in the league. A slowly rising salary cap is also helping to keep a growing number of teams sitting in the middle of the league. They aren't bad, but they aren't good either.

More games featuring evenly matched teams means more luck-infused events like one-goal games and shootouts determine standings places. This is not new. The Ottawa Senators have been equivalently mediocre to bad for years, and they have bounced around from either side of the playoff bubble to nearly winning the division in the last few years.

However, if you think that means Corsi is dead, long live the shootout, and that teams should totally get a shootout specialist. Well. No. Travis Yost shows that CF% is still heavily correlated with success. He also shows that teams had more parity in CF% as well as points.

The end result of all of this parity is that the old saw about being in a playoff spot on American Thanksgiving is less true now than it ever was. It also could mean there will be more than one team squeaking in the playoffs in the last week of the season, so it makes predicting hard. If it was easy, everyone would do it! (Okay, yes, everyone does do it.)

Boston Bruins

The Bruins are the hipsters of the Atlantic — they were mediocre before it was cool. After winning the division in 2014 with a massive number of points, before bowing out in the second round of the playoffs, they've put up a consistently okay 95 or so points every year.

Last Year

Last year their excellent CF% and lacklustre win record got them in the playoffs and they lasted long enough to reveal their biggest weakness as a team: If you successfully check their top line, you have them beat.

Off Season Moves

They did nothing. They made no trades, signed no one of note but their own UFAs and RFAs, and they let Dominic Moore wander off to Toronto. They drafted at #18, and got a good defenceman who won't play in the NHL for years yet.

Cap Space

They have just over 2 million in space on a roster missing a couple of forwards. They will have to promote someone to fill those forward slots, so maybe that 2015 draft trio who are now all 20 and coming off unimpressive seasons will have to get thrown in the deep end.

Better or Not?

They have two major plusses in Brandon Carlo and Charlie MacAvoy on the blueline, and nothing much going on up front that hasn't been there for years. After David Pastrnak, they have five players making more than six million, and the youngest is 29. Maybe Pastrnak can start a support group with Vladimir Tarasenko.

Best case scenario is that some youth they have no choice but to promote and some gentle decline of the aging core of the team will keep them about as mediocre as they have been.

Keeping Pace or Improving?

There's no way that this team isn't losing ground overall. They are doing such a good job of turning into the Detroit Red Wings, they threaten to outpace their decline.

My score for this team, relative to the overall pace of improvement around them, is a -2.

Buffalo Sabres

The Buffalo Sabres are the biggest cautionary tale against tanking ever put on the ice. Not only is Jack Eichel a mere mortal and only very, very good, the rest of their draft picks generated by tearing down hasn't amounted to much to rebuild on.

Last Year

I don't think last year was exactly what the Sabres had in mind when they pictured emerging from the cocoon of badness like a fully formed butterfly. To the ownership's credit, they decided to retool from the top down, not frantically tinker with the fourth line like a lot of teams do.

Off Season Moves

The new guys in charge sure look smart, and they are working on improving their prospect development as well as just the NHL club. That's all good, and very familiar. Colorado did almost all of that last summer.

The Sabres got Nate Beaulieu from the Habs where he never flourished, and they traded Tyler Ennis and Marcus Foligno for Marco Scandella and Jason Pominville.

They also signed a host of depth players, most of them good, as well as defender Victor Antipin from the KHL. Excellent backup goalie Chad Johnson and Benoit Pouliot stand out as good free agent signings.

They didn't make a change to the starting goaltending, instead re-signing Robin Lehner. And after rumours filled the spring and summer, they did not deal Evander Kane when his value was at least higher than last year. One or both of those choices might come back to haunt them.

Cap Space

They have about seven million in space. The door is open to make some deals or add some players.

Better or Not?

Both Scandella and Beauleau are improvements to one of the worst defence groups in the NHL. Chad Johnson is excellent insurance against the injury-prone Lehner. Their forward lines are still Ryan O'Reilly, Eichel, Kane and Kyle Okposo.

But this is a better lineup.

Keeping Pace or Improving?

Now that they aren't a case study in tanking gone wrong, they are a case study in how good decisions around the edges don't matter if your core is weak.

The Sabres need at least one genuinely high-quality top-four defender. But as Lou Lamoriello can tell you, those are expensive to get. The Sabres have now spent two summers not getting one and have gotten older in the process

The score for the Sabres is a big old zero. They should draft about tenth again unless Phil Housley is a genius behind the bench.

Detroit Red Wings

The Red Wings have been a permanent playoff team that had been third or fourth in the division the last few years.

Last Year

That all changed last season when they put up a nearly identical record to the Sabres. The goaltending was often bad; their defensive play was highly suspect, and they had the dullest offence after only the New Jersey Devils.

Off Season Moves

They signed Trevor Daley to a three-year deal. It has a no-trade clause. He's 33. Oh, and they got into a contract fight with one of their few decently capable young players in Andreas Athanasiou and haven't signed him.

Cap Space

They have none! They have to use LTIR just to fit that amazing Daley contract in under the cap. What they have instead of cap space is more money going out to aging Swedes than the entire pension plan of Sweden (values are approximate).

Better or Not?

They are better at racing to the basement than the Bruins, but just by a hair.

Keeping Pace or Improving?

The one bright spot in the future outlook for the Sabres is even they can't be worse than this team again.

Detroit, mired in a hopeless mess of long-term trade-proof contracts, made it worse, not better, and get a score of -3. (Chances of them drafting Rasmus Dahlin? Really high.)

Florida Panthers

More soap opera than hockey team lately, the Panthers need to regroup in a big way by October if they hope to compete. They currently have only 40 players signed to SPCs, less than the Vegas Golden Knights.

Off Season Moves

They put their old GM back in charge, hired a new coach and dumped most of last year's scoring on purpose in cost-saving moves. They added Radim Vrbata and Evgeni Dadonov.

They traded Jason Demers for a very good grinder in Jamie McGinn in what was possibly the dumbest move I've ever seen a team make that didn’t involve David Clarkson.

Cap Space

Tonnes of it which they won't spend.

Better or Not?

At time of writing, they aren't actually a full hockey team. They have a lovely defensive corps and nothing else. This is impressive, however, considering how bad their D were only two years ago.

They have 11 experienced forwards, and that includes Denis Malgin who spent part of last season in the minors. They could rush Owen Tippett right to the NHL, try to use some of their older prospects, or they have a couple of depth guys on PTOs.

Even at best case for all of the above, they are drastically lacking in forward depth and will be worse.

Keeping Pace or Improving?

Dadonov would need to score like Crosby to make up for what the Panthers cut from the team. They seem to be wilfully moving away from any attempt to compete and right back into the basement of the division again. They might be waiting for the new coach to settle in before they pick a direction, but right now it looks like they are sinking fast. Their score is a -4.

Montréal Canadiens

The bitterest rival of the Leafs for all of time, the Habs are confusing right now. They have revamped so much of the team, they're hard to compare to the Canadiens of the recent past.

Last Year

Montréal started out fast, crashed hard, changed their coach, and then really fizzled in the playoffs. They wasted some low-level picks at the deadline on foolish "character" trades, and didn't do much else.

Off Season Moves

The Canadiens let Alexander Radulov and Andrei Markov walk to the Dallas Stars and the KHL. In return they signed Ales Hemsky, who is a lovely depth player who can score a little.

They traded their only really top-notch prospect in Mikhail Sergachev for Jonathan Drouin, who they believe is a top line centre in the making. They signed Karl Alzner to a contract that is absolutely absurd.

They signed some depth players like Peter Holland, Byron Froese and Matt Taormina, and they took a low-risk chance on 39-year-old Mark Streit. They let Alexei Emelin go to Vegas, got David Schlemko, and they traded Nate Beaulieu to Buffalo.

Cap Space

They have a massive amount for a playoff team, over $8 million. Bergevin is publicly saying he'll take a bad contract for a price, which is a move a rebuilding team makes, not one with a roster of ageing players on long-term deals. Montréal seems to be trying to be a hybrid team that rebuilds without tearing down.

Better or Not?

The necessary overhaul of the defence threw two babies out with the bathwater in Markov and P.K. Subban. They were replaced with men of a certain type that cost a lot of cap space.

The forwards are a highly questionable crew lacking in some goal scoring with the loss of Radulov, but Drouin brings some youth and some promise, and a hefty cap hit, so he needs to work out for them.

The defence is better than their old one, but isn't great. They can't score goals, and they have no youth in development to speak of. Their biggest asset is still their goal-eating goalie who lets them have a poor defence and a tepid offence.

Keeping Pace or Improving?

To improve over last year, where they won a division by default as other teams nosedived, they need to fill that big cap space hole with more than one goal scorer. Where they'll find them, is a difficult question.

This team is reaping the reward of bad drafting, bad draft position (which is what you get for not ever being totally horrible), bad development and pick wasting trades. The hybrid rebuild/contender model is interesting as an intellectual exercise, but they've skipped the step of selling off players for assets and they have nothing to buy with.

They are, at best, level with where they really were last year, and they would need the same amount of bad fortune to befall others to not finish much lower in the standings. They get a 0 which might be too optimistic.

Ottawa Senators

With one very successful year with their new, system-oriented coach, the Senators are much easier to judge.

Last Year

Ottawa took to structure very well, and they won enough to make a spot in the playoffs at the end of the season. They made the best out of their playoff draw, and not all of that was due to the goalie.

Off Season Moves

The only move of note was signing Johnny Oduya to a modest one-year deal. It's virtually risk-free, doesn't help them much, and will give them a hometown favourite when they play a game in Stockholm in November.

They are paralyzed by financial constraints into inaction, but they seem to have put the days of bad contract signings in the past. For now.

Cap Space

They have a small amount, enough to add one decent player or a couple of depth options, and they confirmed depth is their likely direction by signing Chris VandeVelde to a PTO

Better or Not?

They aren't any worse, unless ageing has caught up with the goalies. The improvement will come from players like Thomas Chabot and Colin White (eventually) joining the team.

Their biggest problem is that Erik Karlsson isn't starting the season on time, and has only just put on skates. As Karlsson goes, so go the Senators.

Keeping Pace or Improving?

Their youth makes them better. But that won't matter until Karlsson is back. Once he's back to full health, they are a plus 1.

Tampa Bay Lightning

One of the best teams last year, on paper, needs to be better on the ice or the belief that they're good might fade forever.

Last Year

If you can peel away the effect of all the injuries, and that's tough, there was still a gap between expected and achieved results. That has to change.

Off Season Moves

The big move was the trade of Jonathan Drouin for defensive prospect Mikhail Sergachev.

The small move was getting Vegas to take overpaid depth defender Jason Garrison, who they replaced with the only slightly less too-well-paid Dan Girardi.

The move no one remembers is that they signed Chris Kunitz.

Cap Space

The various trades and Nikita Kucherov's contract last year have solved a cap crunch, and the Lightning have over $2 million in space.

Better or Not?

No one can claim with a straight face that Kunitz + Girardi > Drouin + Garrisson. The question has to be is Sergachev ready to contribute or not? If not, then they're worse, but not by enough to matter a great deal.

Keeping Pace or Improving?

Improvement in the standings has to come from the randomness of luck, not the roster. So if no one breaks a leg, the players gel in ways they haven't for a couple of years, and Andrei Vasilevskiy is really ready to be an NHL starter, then they are not sliding much from their peak of a couple years back.

Assuming normal injury luck the score is -1.

Toronto Maple Leafs

This is the hardest team to gauge. The changes over last year are largely temporal — players getting older in good and bad ways.

Last Year

The Leafs had incredible injury luck and some shooting percentage fortune here and there. They benefited from others' misfortunes, and won the epic battle of the muddy middle to take the last playoff spot in the east.

Off Season Moves

Patrick Marleau, Ron Hainsey and Dominic Moore are the only likely NHLers out of a long list of signings. There might be a change of depth defenders coming, but that's small potatoes. Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner had birthdays. That was the big thing that happened.

Cap Space

Ask the independent doctor looking over Joffrey Lupul. They know more than me about that. The answer is anywhere from a million to over five million. And just like last year, the Leafs might not know until after the season starts.

Better or Not?

Yes. Definitely. The depth improvement is mildly significant, the rebalancing of the forward lines more so, and an end to the Morgan Rielly - Nikita Zaitsev pairing on defence might make compromise-signing Ron Hainsey worth it.

Real growth has to come from overall execution defensively. It's not up to Hainsey to save the Leafs from themselves, it's up to the team, starting with Mike Babcock. If they grow in terms of execution in all 23 roster spots, not just the three big rookies, then they are perhaps much, much better and will lower their goals against.

Keeping Pace or Improving?

Against the division, the Leafs are improving relative to almost every team. In the eastern conference, they are floating along at least at the top of the muddy middle. They might need some help in terms of bad luck from teams in the Metro to get a better playoff spot this year, however.

I give them a +2.

Adding up these scores

First, I'll order the teams by how I think they ranked at the end of last season, not by the standings, but by the overall strength of the team, without injuries. There isn't a lot separating them, and I'm setting Toronto at 0 since they were just barely capable of squeaking into the playoffs.

Montréal/Tampa Bay: 3
Ottawa/Boston: 1
Toronto: 0
Florida: -1
Detroit/Buffalo: -3

Add the scores for the off-season:

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

Which ranks the division as:

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

Okay, I'll buy that. I might be overstating how bad Detroit will be. Systems can hide a lot of roster horrors, but the Red Wings aren't a factor in a playoff hunt, not without an amazing goalie run. Montréal might be worse if they never score goals, and Ottawa will flounder until Karlsson is back at full strength, so their score needs to be mentally adjusted for that reality.

I think the Leafs are in a playoff spot, possibly second in the division, and they'll look really great in intra-divisional games. The real world that has Metro teams in it is a march harsher place, but that’s a problem for the spring, not the start of the season.