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The wonderful world of the Atlantic Division Part 1: No Erik Karlsson or Max Pacioretty

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Who are contenders, who are pretenders, and who’s just there?

NHL: Preseason-Toronto Maple Leafs at Ottawa Senators Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports

The 2018-19 season is right around the corner as training camps around the league have already opened up. Obviously at PPP, the focus has been on what the Leafs have been doing down in Niagara Falls.

Who lines with who? Will John Tavares and Mitch Marner really kill penalties? Who is going to make up the blueline? And where the heck is William Nylander?! All questions that will be answered in due time, but another one that should be in the back of our heads is how good will the Leafs be? We can look at the personnel and stat projections endlessly, however, it comes down to how many times they can win against other teams.

The Leafs are lucky to be in one of the more interesting divisions this year. The last two weeks have been full of news from the Atlantic Division, and it makes sense to keep an eye on the rest of the teams within it. I think it’s fair to start from the bottom and work our way up.

Ottawa Senators (17-18 Record: 29-40-13 (71 points), Finished 6th)

Poor, inferior, not up to scratch — all words that can describe what the Sens are looking like heading into the new season. In a nutshell, they’re bad.

Notable Additions (bear with me on this one)

  • Brady Tkachuk
  • Mikkel Boedker
  • Josh Norris

Notable Subtractions

  • Erik Karlsson
  • Mike Hoffman

If you haven’t noticed or if you didn’t watch that lovely video the Senators put out where owner Eugene Melnyk and Mike Borowiecki, there’s a rebuild in their midst. Ottawa finished second last in the Atlantic last season struggling in every category they could, especially in goals against where their average was 3.46.

It doesn’t look as if there are any signs of a better finish. Matt Duchene is still around after being traded from the Colorado Avalanche, and Cody Ceci and Mark Stone both signed one-year extensions at $4.3 million and $7.35 million respectively.

Additionally, it seems the Sens are going to extend their opportunity to a bunch of their young players. Tkachuk is at the forefront of that and he’s looked like a fine addition in his short time within the organization. But they’ll also be banking on the progress of Colin White and Logan Brown.

Opportunity may also be given to centre Chris Tierney who was a part of the return they got back in the Karlsson trade. With Jean-Gabriel Pageau out for four to six months after tearing the Achilles tendon in his right leg, there’ll be plenty of room for Tierney as well as some of the other young guys to make an impact.

As for the blueline, besides Ceci, it’ll be another game of, “Who Wants to Step Up?”. 2015 first-round pick Thomas Chabot managed to make the most of his call-up last year after initially starting the season in the AHL with the Belleville Senators. Chabot suited up for 63 games adding nine goals and 16 assists. He’ll likely man the top pair with Ceci. Although the 21-year-old had a nice display of hockey IQ from the blueline and showed the ability to log big minutes when called upon, it’ll be a tough task if management is looking for him to be a dominating force in Year Two of his NHL career.

Craig Anderson and Mike Condon will man the nets again, and as much as you’d expect a rebound from last season, that defence may have something to say about it.

Montreal Canadiens (17 -18 Record: 29-40-13 (71 points), Finished 6th)

The Habs are a little bit of a mixed bag heading into the season. They lost some names, but gained others and of course, how well they do will depend on Carey Price.

Notable Additions

  • Max Domi
  • Tomas Tatar
  • Joel Armia
  • Jesperi Kotkaniemi
  • Nick Suzuki

Notable Subtractions

  • Max Pacioretty
  • Alex Galchenyuk

Montreal had one of those seasons you want to forget, but shouldn’t. Signs of scoring issues were present in the preseason and continued throughout the year, thanks to a combination of injuries and poor performances from their top players. Although GM Marc Bergevin doesn’t want to use the special ‘R’ word, it definitely seems like the Montreal Canadiens are at a point of transition and will focus on adding more youth, speed, and skill to the lineup.

The Habs had a very good draft last June in Dallas, starting with Jesperi Kotkaniemi who was taken third-overall. But it extends further, as second-round picks Jesse Ylönen, Alexander Romanov, and Jacob Olofsson have a decent amount of potential.

But there are three questions to ask:

  1. Where will the goals come from now that Pacioretty and Galchenyuk are gone?
  2. Will a lack of Shea Weber on the blueline affect them again?
  3. Can Carey Price be Carey Price?

Both Pacioretty and Galchenyuk had poor years offensively, but a lot of goals have come off those sticks. You’d think the mission would be for the rest of the team to produce by committee.

Brendan Gallagher scored 31 last year and Paul Byron put up another 20. Artturi Lehkonen who is a shot-generating machine, was held to only 12 with a not-so-nice 7.3 S% to go along with it. Tatar is a player known to be a consistent scorer, and perhaps Nikita Scherbak finds a way to chip in as he’s expected to make the team out of camp. Despite being a playmaker, Max Domi could move the needle in the offensive department for the Habs, especially if he and Jonathan Drouin can build some rapport on the ice.

The backend is tough to gauge. Jeff Petry stepped up for the Habs once Weber went down, seeing increases in goals and assists that came off his increased usage at 5v5 and on the power play. Karl Alzner had a bad debut with the team after receiving his five-year deal on July 1st in 2017. However, reinforcements of youth will be there to help in Victor Mete and Noah Juulsen. Both showed signs of value in their first years in the NHL, and could take their games to a higher level.

Finally, the Price factor. Blaming Price for last season’s blunders came off as an excuse at first, but there are two stats that shed light on it. The first being his delta save percentage (dSv%) - which takes into account a goaltender’s Sv% in comparison to an average goaltender - and Goals Saved Above Average (GSAA) - a physical number of goals saved by the player in net. GSAA is a nice way to see how much a team relies on their goaltender or how badly the goaltender is hurting the overall system.

Price had a dSv% of -1.55 and a GSAA of -17.77 at 5v5. The Sens’ Anderson was the only goaltender to have a worse dSv% (-1.7). But what does the GSAA mean? Well, if an average goalie was in net instead of Price, the Habs would’ve given up about 18 fewer goals.

For the Montreal Canadiens to improve, it’ll have to start with Price and move onto the rest of personnel on the team. Welcome to the ‘Not a rebuild that’s a rebuild’.

Buffalo Sabres (17-18 Record: 25-45-12 (62 points), Finished 8th)

The Sabres organization had a number of end-of-season player interviews filled to the brim with frustration. Their rebuild hasn’t been seeing much progress on a grander scale (playoffs) and with that, change was in store.

Notable Additions

  • Jeff Skinner
  • Rasmus Dahlin
  • Conor Sheary
  • Carter Hutton
  • Patrick Berglund

Notable Subtractions

  • Ryan O’Reilly
  • Robin Lehner

Jason Botterill did what poor Tim Murray and all his internal screaming could not, he brought a lottery victory to Buffalo. Dahlin has been on the map before his name was called in Dallas and is advertised as a generational talent on the backend. Even so, expecting him to go Bobby Orr in his first season is a mistake. He could prove us all wrong, but he’ll need time to adjust and hopefully the Sabres give him that.

The offence in Buffalo has question marks around it. Jack Eichel is at the top of that list. The Sabres are 100% Eichel’s team with O’Reilly now in St. Louis, and he’ll look to be the spark for the majority of the team’s offence. There were signs of that last season as his PPG increased from 0.934 to 0.955.

What will be important for Eichel is to keep his health in check. Injuries have held him to play 128 of a possible 164 games in the last two seasons. A full 82-game campaign will be a good way to maximize his stamp on the Sabres as they look to, in Alexander Ovechkin’s words, not be suck.

But it won’t only be up to Eichel to score. Skinner and Sheary are the new left-wingers in town and should chip in as well. The Carolina Hurricanes felt prospect Cliff Pu and some draft picks were enough to part with the Toronto native Skinner after several years of being the team’s best goal-scorer.

Skinner’s resume speaks for itself as he’s currently sporting a 1.93 points/60 between 2010 and 2018 in 540 games. He had a down year last season, in most categories, after scoring 37 the season before, and playing with Eichel could be an easy way to get back on form.

Also, I touched on this four paragraphs ago, but ROR isn’t there anymore. The 27-year-old was a good two-way option for the Sabres and established himself as a top faceoff guy in the NHL after passing Rod Brind’Amour’s record for faceoff wins in a single season. His departure makes way for Casey Mittelstadt to take a step forward after fitting in nicely at the end of the season.

Similarly to the first two teams, goaltending is going to be a mystery box. Buffalo went to the Carolina playbook of finding goalies (ironically) in signing Carter Hutton to a three-year deal worth $2.75 million annually. He set a career high for himself posting a .931 Sv% with the St. Louis Blues in 32 games. Not a bad number at all, but he can do that with 30 more games added to his plate? Or is he Scott Darling the second.

There are still four other teams to cover, but I’ll leave that for tomorrow. Look out for Part Two of the Wonderful World of the Atlantic Division coming to a computer/phone/tablet screen near you.