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Breaking Down the Eastern Conference Part 1: Starting from the Bottom

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Who is the most likely to break out of the basement?

Toronto Maple Leafs v Buffalo Sabres Photo by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images

It’s getting closer to the point in the NHL year where we can stop talking about RFAs and CBA negotiations and just get down to the good ol’ hockey.

Every summer sees changes amongst several teams in the league, some for good and some for bad. However, the changes that have come to the Eastern Conference specifically do take precedence. Why? Because the Leafs play in the Eastern Conference and if they want home-ice against the Boston Bruins in the first round, who they gain points against will make all the difference.

There is a wide expectation that the Big Three in the Atlantic Division will remain the same with the Leafs, Bruins and, Tampa Bay Lightning. However, other teams in the Atlantic have added to their rosters in hope of increasing their stock for the 2019-20 season.

The same thing has taken place in the Metropolitan Division while some teams who were good could take a cliff dive out of playoff contention.

Who are those teams and how will they effect the Leafs are on their journey to their first second-round playoff appearance since 2004? As with most things, it’s best to look from the ground up starting with the Atlantic Division.

Ottawa Senators: 29-47-6 (64 points) 8th in Division, 16th in Conference

The Toronto Maple Senators won’t be in the same scary draft lottery scenario as they were last year. If you don’t remember, the Senators gave up their 2019 first-round pick to the Colorado Avalanche in the trade that saw them acquire Matt Duchene. Things went south quickly and the Sens chose to use their 2018 first-round pick to draft Brady Tkachuk running the risk of handing the Avalanche a lottery win.

Granted, you can argue management didn’t really worry too much about the risks of handing over the first-overall pick during the season as they still had the tanker’s mentality, trading away roster players for picks and prospects.

There won’t be any of that this season, but Ottawa is still bad and will likely be in the same bubble to end the year.

Notable Additions

  • Artem Anisimov
  • Nikita Zaitsev
  • Ron Hainsey
  • Connor Brown
  • D.J. Smith (head coach)

Notable Subtractions

  • Cody Ceci
  • Ben Harpur
  • Zach Smith
  • Guy Boucher (head coach)

The Maple Senators label is not an exaggeration. The Sens helped the Leafs clear some cap space with the Zaitsev trade and later signed Hainsey and Tyler Ennis to one-year deals in free agency. But similar to last season, the focus will be on the kids.

Thomas Chabot was right there with Morgan Rielly in defensive scoring when the Senators found ways to put up points and ended with 14 goals and 41 assists in 51 games. The 22-year-old is entering the final year of his entry-level contract and could make Ottawa sweat with another productive season.

Brady Tkachuk had a decent debut putting up 22 goals and 23 assists and will be relied on to generate more with Matt Duchene and Mark Stone out of the picture. There’s always Bobby Ryan, who had his highest point total since the 2015-16 season with 42 (15 goals and 27 assists), but we’ve seen how that story has gone over the last six years.

The likes of Logan Brown and Drake Batherson are hopefuls to be full time NHLers this year, while Erik Brannstrom could very well grab a spot out of camp.

Another thing to pay attention to is Craig Anderson who is entering the final year of his deal. The 38-year-old has been a member of the Sens for nearly nine years and this could be the end of his run in the organization. Whether or not he’s dealt at the deadline will depend on how he performs, but playing in front of this team may not do much for his stat line.

Detroit Red Wings: 32-40-10 (74 points) 7th in Division, 14th in Conference

Steve Yzerman to the Red Wings was something many thought was in the works and it finally happened this summer. Consequently, former general manager Ken Holland went off to do something about the Edmonton Oilers, so there’s truly a new vision in Detroit. But as far as quiet summers go, the Red Wings won the gold medal.

Notable Additions

  • Adam Erne
  • Valtteri Filppula
  • Calvin Pickard
  • Steve Yzerman (GM)

Notable Subtractions

  • Thomas Vanek
  • Niklas Kronwall
  • Ken Holland (GM)

The team will be banking on the continued growth from Dylan Larkin who is the next likely captain of the Red Wings. Larkin hit the 30-goal mark for the first time in his career (32) and set a new high in overall points (73) as the team’s number one centre. Also in the 30-goal club was Andreas Athanasiou who could give the Yzerman some headaches next summer (Darren Ferris is his agent).

Besides those two, the Red Wings may have a number of other players pitching in a decent amount. Anthony Mantha and Tyler Bertuzzi scored 25 and 21 goals respectively and there’s no guarantee that’s their ceiling.

Another name to pay attention to is Filip Zadina. You’ll know him as the prospect who threatened to fill the Sens and Habs nets with pucks at the 2018 NHL Draft. Zadina started the season in the AHL and found his way into the Red Wings lineup putting up a goal and two assists in nine games. His minor-league production was at 35 points in 59 games which isn’t bad for a rookie pro year, but doesn’t scream, “It’s time for the big leagues”.

No spot is locked up on this roster which could leave an opening for Zadina. Erne and Filppula are depth additions within the forward corps, but the defence hasn’t gotten any better.

You wonder whether 2019 first-round pick Moritz Seider challenges for a spot at camp. He’s caught the attention of several in the organization, especially after his performance at the Traverse City Tournament.

All in all, it’ll be another transitional year for Detroit. They’ll have the same goaltending tandem in Jimmy Howard and Jonathan Bernier who finished with respective .909 and .904 save percentages. There’s not much to convince me the Red Wings will be any better, but we’ll see. Perhaps Stevey Y works some Tampa Bay type of magic here.

Buffalo Sabres: 33-39-10 (76 points) 6th in Division, 13th in Conference

Setting aside the rivalry for a second, Leafs fans should be able to empathize with what happened to the Sabres last season. They started out all right, despite losing their season opener, but kicked it up to a higher gear after going on that 10-game winning streak. Unfortunately, they followed it up with losing their next five and the rest is history.

The story in Buffalo is the same that it’s been for years: Get Jack Eichel into the playoffs!

Notable Additions

  • Colin Miller
  • Jimmy Vesey
  • Marcus Johansson
  • Henri Jokiharju
  • Ralph Krueger (head coach)

Notable Subtractions

  • Alexander Nylander

As you can see, the Sabres did a whole lot of adding and maintaining this summer starting with Jeff Skinner. Skinner was a big part of that initial streak and finished the season with 40 goals. The downside of it all was other than him, Eichel (28 goals and 54 assists), and Sam Reinhart (22 goals and 43 assists), the Sabres didn’t have much else at forward.

Victor Olofsson may be one of the answers to strengthen their core after an impressive AHL season of 30 goals and 63 points. He also saw six games with Buffalo scoring two goals and two assists. Vesey could also be of assistance. He’s yet to hit 20 goals in the NHL but perhaps he hits a new stride wearing a new uniform.

Rasmus Dahlin quickly made his way up to the top pair last season and will be the guy this year and the years to come. Rasmus Ristolainen has yet to be dealt, but once he is, the Sabres will need to explore the possibility of Brandon Montour, Miller or Jokiharju (acquired from the Chicago Blackhawks for Nylander) taking his spot.

At this moment, the Sabres are an easy pick to be out of the playoffs again despite what they’ve done this summer. The powerhouses of the Atlantic Division haven’t gone anywhere and challenging for a wild-card spot will be tricky. The Metropolitan teams aren’t the only ones who could get in the way of that as the...

Florida Panthers: 36-32-14 (86 points) 5th in Division, 10th in Conference

are also on the hunt for a playoff appearance.

The Florida Panthers plucked a highly coveted coach off the market, grabbed the best goaltender available on July 1st, and will have Luongo’s number hang from the rafters. Many believe they are going to fight until the end to play into the spring, but isn’t that the Panthers every year?

Notable Additions

  • Sergei Bobrovsky
  • Anton Stralman
  • Brett Connolly
  • Joel Quenneville (head coach)

Notable Subtractions

  • Roberto Luongo
  • Riley Sheahan

Connolly doesn’t move the needle too much as scoring goals wasn’t one of the team’s weak points last year. However, he is one of those character guys and is responsible in his own end which could hopefully help the team be more reliable in front of Bobrovsky.

Like most teams, whether Florida contends for a spot or not directly ties into the play of the Bob Father. He has two Vezina trophies under his belt and was a big part of the first-round exit in April that saw the Tampa Bay Lightning lose all four games to Columbus.

Optimistically, Quenneville’s system is the answer and he’ll be happy to have a veteran in Stralman who he can rely on. But there are still a lot of things that need to right for the Panthers, especially Aaron Ekblad.

Can Aleksander Barkov and Johnathan Huberdeau put up 90 points again? Can Mike Hoffman stay within that 30-goal range? Can youngsters Henrik Borgstrom and Owen Tippet be part of the solution?

I doubt it comes together quickly and there will be a lot of nights where Bobrovsky will need to steal a win. However, they do have the best chance of the four bottom-feeders to do something special this season.