O’Donnell: Atlantic Division Preview

Finally, after an agonizingly long four-month wait, the NHL is back. October is upon us, and along with Halloween and candy comes the official start of the NHL regular season.

In order to prepare you for the upcoming season, Hockey Prospectus is previewing each division in the NHL. Let’s dive into the Atlantic Division.

Boston Bruins

Key Stats (2014-15)

Goals For: 209

Goals Against: 200

Powerplay: 17.8% (18th)

Penalty Kill: 82.0 (12th)

Even Strength Stats

Shots For Percentage: 50.3% (19th)

Save Percentage: .930 (6th)

Corsi For Percentage: 51.7 (12th)

Strengths – The Boston Bruins have one of the best forward groups in the NHL, as there is top six potential littered throughout the lineup. Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand will form an elite first line, while David Krejci, David Pastrnak, Loui Eriksson, Jimmy Hayes, Brett Connolly, and Matt Beleskey can cycle within the second and third lines.  There are also prospects such as Ryan Spooner, Seth Griffith, and Alexander Khoklachev who are ready to make the jump. In goal, Boston also has one of the best goaltenders in the league in Tuukka Rask.

Weaknesses – Defensive depth is going to be a major issue for the Bruins, as they have a wealth of players who are either old and declining (Zdeno Chara, Dennis Seidenberg, Adam McQuaid), and a wealth of players who have solid NHL potential, but not high end potential (Torey Krug, Colin Miller, Matt Irwin, Zach Trotman).

Biggest question – Is the defense enough to get this team into the playoffs? The forwards and goaltending are certainly talented enough, but if the defense can’t get the puck up to the forwards often, then the team is in trouble.

Predicted Division finish: 4th

VUKOTA Projection: 94 points

Buffalo Sabres

Key Stats (2014-15)

Goals For: 153

Goals Against: 269 

Powerplay: 13.4% (30th)

Penalty Kill: 75.1% (30th)

Even Strength Stats

Shots For Percentage: 40.0% (30th)

Save Percentage: .924 (15th)

Corsi For Percentage: 37.5% (30th) 

Strengths – The Buffalo Sabres also have a strong forward group, though it isn’t on the same level as Boston’s. Ryan O’Reilly and Evander Kane are ready to prove themselves after being brought into Buffalo via trade, and young prospects Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart are ready to showcase their star potential.

Weaknesses – The defensive depth on Buffalo is also spotty, as there just isn’t much behind Cody Franson and Rasmus Ristolainen to suggest that Buffalo will be able to make the playoffs. Robin Lehner is also an unproven netminder, and though he’s shown flashes of potential, it’s possible that he can’t handle a starting role just yet.

Biggest question – Just how good is Jack Eichel? The Sabres most likely won’t be making the playoffs this season, so the focus should be on the future. Eichel is a big part of that future, and he can provide the team with a lot of hope if he dominates the NHL in his rookie season.

Predicted Division finish: 8th

VUKOTA Projection: 79 points

Detroit Red Wings

Key Stats (2014-15)

Goals For: 231

Goals Against: 211 

Powerplay: 23.8% (2nd)

Penalty Kill: 80.9% (17th) 

Even Strength Stats

Shots For Percentage: 51.4% (12th)

Save Percentage: .927 (10th)

Corsi For Percentage: 53.5% (3rd)

Strengths – The Red Wings are returning the majority of their roster from last season, and they finished 3rd in the Atlantic with 100 points last year. The team’s young forwards should also benefit from another year of development, and the additions of Mike Green and Brad Richards should only help the team.

Weaknesses – The defense of the team is on the weaker end of the spectrum, as there isn’t really a high-end player on the roster. Niklas Kronwall is a solid NHL defenseman, but he isn’t really top pairing material at this point in his career, and there isn’t much behind him on the depth chart.

Biggest question – How will the team fare without Mike Babcock behind the bench? Babcock is a good NHL coach, and there’s no denying that his systems helped the Red Wings dominate possession over the past decade or so. Whether or not the team will be able to continue that without him as the coach, has yet to be seen.

Predicted Division finish: 2nd

VUKOTA Projection: 93 points

Florida Panthers

Key Stats (2014-15)

Goals For: 198

Goals Against: 213 

Powerplay: 16.3% (24th)

Penalty Kill: 80.0% (26th)

Even Strength Stats

Shots For Percentage: 51.7% (11th)

Save Percentage: .924 (16th)

Corsi For Percentage: 51.4% (15th)

Strengths – There is a mass of young wealth in South Florida that could propel the Cats into the playoffs for the second time in the past 15 seasons. Aleksander Barkov, Nick Bjugstad, Jonathan Huberdeau, Brandon Pirri, Reilly Smith, Vincent Trocheck, Dmitry Kulikov, Erik Gudbranson, and Aaron Ekblad are all under the age of 25, and will likely play a significant role in the team’s success this season.

Weaknesses – Special teams could down the Panthers this season, as they’ve been among the worst in the league the past two seasons, and haven’t exactly added players to change this fact. More development from young players could result in improved results, but even then, it’s unlikely that the power play and penalty kill units end up above league average.

Biggest question – Will the young guns make the next step? There’s plenty of potential in Florida, but if it goes untapped, it’s going to be a rough season for the Panthers.

Predicted Division finish: 6th

VUKOTA Projection: 88 points

Montreal Canadiens

Key Stats (2014-15)

Goals For: 214

Goals Against: 184 

Powerplay: 16.5% (23rd)

Penalty Kill: 83.7% (9th)

Even Strength Stats

Shots For Percentage: 48.8% (20th)

Save Percentage: .937 (1st)

Corsi For Percentage: 48.5% (23rd)

Strengths – The biggest strength of the Montreal Canadiens headed into the 2015-2016 is Carey Price, and goaltending. This is a team that won the Atlantic Division last season on the back of one of the best goaltending performances in recent memory.

Weaknesses – There are question marks surrounding Montreal’s depth. On defense, there isn’t much behind P.K. Subban and Andrei Markov, while the third and fourth forward lines are lacking.

Biggest question – Is Michel Therrien going to be able to get this team’s puck possession metrics up? On paper, the Canadiens have enough talent to eget a favorable share of the shot attempts. Whether that actually happens is up to the controversial French-Canadian coach.

Predicted Division finish: 3rd

VUKOTA Projection: 92 points

Ottawa Senators

Key Stats (2014-15)

Goals For: 232

Goals Against: 208 

Powerplay: 16.8% (22nd)

Penalty Kill: 82.9% (11th)

Even Strength Stats

Shots For Percentage: 48.1% (22nd)

Save Percentage: .930 (7th)

Corsi For Percentage: 50.2% (18th)

Strengths – The Ottawa Senators have a solid roster, and have one of the best defenseman in the league on the back end. Erik Karlsson has a shot at another Norris Trophy in 2015-2016, and the team will need him to be that good if they want to make the playoffs again.

Weaknesses – After Karlsson, there really isn’t anyone with high end talent on Ottawa’s roster. Mark Stone is a solid NHL forward, and there are other pieces present, but none of them are at the elite level necessary for the team to comfortably move into the postseason.

Biggest question – Can Andrew Hammond replicate his amazing 2014-2015 season? The Hamburglar went on an incredible run last season, and carried the team to the playoffs. If he can come close to that level of play in 2015-2016, the playoffs will be an attainable goal.

Predicted Division finish: 5th

VUKOTA Projection: 93 points

Tampa Bay Lightning

Key Stats (2014-15)

Goals For: 259

Goals Against: 206 

Powerplay: 18.8% (14th)

Penalty Kill: 83.7% (8th)

Even Strength Stats

Shots For Percentage:  53.9% (3rd)

Save Percentage: .920 (19th)

Corsi For Percentage: 53.0% (4th) 

Strengths – Everything? The Bolts have some of the best forwards in the league, a bonafide top defensive pairing, and a high end NHL goaltender. There’s not much they don’t have.

Weaknesses – Defensive depth could be considered an issue, as Matt Carle and Jason Garrison aren’t an ideal second pairing. Braydon Coburn also struggled strongly during the team’s postseason run. Even then, there are prospects such as Nikita Nesterov ready to take over.

Biggest question – Are the Bolts good enough to win the Cup? After losing Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals, the team has to be thinking Stanley Cup or bust. If the goal is winning the Cup, the biggest question going into the season has to be whether or not the team is good enough to win.

Predicted Division finish: 1st

VUKOTA Projection: 99 points

Toronto Maple Leafs

Key Stats (2014-15)

Goals For: 206

Goals Against: 257 

Powerplay:  15.9% 

Penalty Kill: 80.5%

Even Strength Stats

Shots For Percentage: 46.4% (26th)

Save Percentage:  .918 (24th)

Corsi For Percentage: 46.4 (27th)

Strengths – The Maple Leafs have one of the best coaches in the league in Mike Babcock, but their roster is lacking. Jake Gardiner and Morgan Reilly have promising potential on the back end, and Nazem Kadri is one of the league’s better centers, but there isn’t much beyond that.

Weaknesses – The Leafs are really lacking in high end players on the NHL roster, as they have a number of solid depth players, but not many of those fit into the “high-end” category. On the bright side, most of them will eventually become mid round draft picks for the rebuilding Leafs.

Biggest question – When does management blow it up? The Leafs are likely going to be sellers at the trade deadline, though they may start the firesale early if teams are in need of help. There are a number of AHL forwards (Nylander, Brown, Leipsic) who will likely be ready to make the jump to the NHL around that time, so watch for the Leafs to blow it up and bring up the young guys.

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