Aaron Powers previews the NHL season. He starts in the newly realigned Atlantic Division.
The NHL regular season gets underway next week. With a new divisional alignment and a few teams changing conferences, the first full hockey season since 2011-12 looks to be a promising one. Diehard fans should be excited about the puck dropping, especially with every team playing every other team at least twice, regardless of conference or division. We’ll take a look at each division throughout this four-part series, starting in the eight-team Atlantic. The teams are ranked in order of their predicted finish.
1. Boston Bruins
Boston fell just short of becoming the first team to win the Stanley Cup twice in the cap era, letting that honor fall to the Chicago Blackhawks in June. The Bruins said farewell to a number of players this offseason, including the talented, but sometimes struggling, Tyler Seguin and top-line winger Nathan Horton. Boston quickly replaced both players by acquiring Loui Erikkson from Dallas in the Seguin trade and signing free agent Jarome Iginla. Postseason heroes Patrice Bergeron and Gregory Campbell are both healthy and the offense looks well-balanced. The questions fall on the defensive side, where youngsters Torey Krug and Matt Bartkowski will be asked to play larger roles, especially with the departure of veteran Andrew Ference to Edmonton. Goaltending shouldn’t be an issue, with Tuukka Rask signing an eight-year extension over the summer. Look for Boston to have a strong season and be well-positioned come playoff time.
2. Detroit Red Wings
Detroit jumps from West to East for the ’13-’14 season and nobody expects them to slow down with the move. They signed veteran right wing Daniel Alfredsson over the summer, adding more Swedish firepower alongside Henrik Zetterberg and Johan Franzen. The Red Wings have plenty of offensive prowess, with Pavel Datsyuk, who had 49 points (15G/34A) in 2012-2013, leading the way with his speed and stick-handling. Detroit is also strong on defense, with hard-hitter Niklas Kronwall, experienced d-man Kyle Quincey, and youngster Brendan Smith. Jimmy Howard, as he most often is, will be solid in goal. Expect Detroit’s postseason streak to continue following a strong season in their new conference.
3. Tampa Bay Lightning
Tampa Bay is another team, like Ottawa, that said goodbye to a very familiar face this offseason. Former first-round pick Vincent Lecavalier said farewell and signed with the Flyers this summer. But, for Lightning fans, two out of three ain’t bad. Martin St. Louis and Steven Stamkos are still around, and can still be counted on to score goals. Stamkos put up 57 pts (29G/28A) in the shortened 2012-13 season, and will most assuredly produce outstanding numbers once again this year. Their defensive core is good, with veterans Sami Salo and Mattias Ohlund minding the blue line. Youngsters Victor Hedman and Keith Aulie will also have to prove their mettle on the back end, especially if injuries strike the older players. Tampa gained a strong goalie in Ben Bishop, who has nothing but upside. The Bolts are in a tougher division than they were a year ago, but they’re too good to count out of the competition.
4. Montreal Canadiens
The fans in Montreal have one goal every season: win the Stanley Cup. The Habs got hot at the right time last year and won the Northeast Division, but they faltered in the quarterfinals against the Senators and went home much earlier than they would’ve liked. Montreal added some size on the blue line by signing former Shark Douglas Murray over the summer. They also have 2013 Norris Trophy recipient (top defenseman) P.K. Subban on the back end. They signed veteran center Danny Briere and hope that he can bolster their offense, especially on the power play. Carey Price should have a good start to his year, with not only the NHL season to play, but the Sochi Olympics on the horizon. He’ll definitely want to give it his best to secure the No. 1 spot for Team Canada. Look for Montreal to be competitive and a bit tougher, particularly in divisional play.
5. Ottawa Senators
For the first time since 1995, the Senators will begin their season without Daniel Alfredsson in the line-up. Standout center Jason Spezza takes over the captaincy and will provide strong leadership. By signing talented right wing Bobby Ryan over the summer, the Sens have added to their offensive power. Look for youngster Cory Conacher to have a good season, following 29 pts (11G/18A) over 47 games split between Tampa Bay and Ottawa in his first NHL season last year. Ottawa isn’t weak on the blue line either, with Erik Karlsson and Chris Phillips anchoring a good defensive core. Coach Paul MacLean doesn’t have to worry about goaltending, with two strong net-minders in Craig Anderson and Robin Lehner. Ottawa may surprise some people with how well they play this season.
6. Toronto Maple Leafs
If there’s a team with something to prove, it very well could be the Maple Leafs. They thrilled their fans last season by making the playoffs for the first time since 2004, and then sent them home crying by utterly collapsing in the third period of Game 7 in the quarterfinals against Boston. Toronto has outstanding offensive skill in Phil Kessel, Nazim Kadri, and James van Riemsdyk, and they signed former Blackhawk Dave Bolland (who just happened to score the Stanley Cup-winning goal against the Bruins) and former Devil David Clarkson over the summer. Dion Phaneuf continues to anchor the blue line and is joined by rising talents Cody Franson and Mark Fraser. The Leafs have two strong goaltenders in James Reimer and Jonathan Bernier, and it will be interesting to see how the number of games is split between them. Look for Toronto to build off of last year’s successes (and move past last year’s failures) and compete strongly within the Atlantic.
7. Buffalo Sabres
Buffalo’s poor start to last season led to the firing of long-time coach Lindy Ruff, who is now at the helm in Dallas. The Sabres finished last season under replacement Ron Rolston in the bottom spot of the now-defunct Northeast division. It will be interesting to see how Rolston’s first full season behind the bench goes, especially with talented players such as Thomas Vanek, Drew Stafford, and Tyler Ennis. Buffalo has one of the best goaltenders in Ryan Miller, but he’s entering the final year of a five-year contract and if he doesn’t get the offensive support he needs to win games, he may be ready to move on by the trade deadline. Look for rookie standout d-man Rasmus Ristolainen to make the roster early in the season. Buffalo will need a strong autumn and perhaps a medium to lengthy winning streak to build their confidence in order to be a contender. Otherwise, distractions off the ice and team chemistry could cause problems.
8. Florida Panthers
Since reaching the Stanley Cup Finals in 1995-96 (and losing to the Avalanche), the Panthers have never made it past the quarterfinals. In fact, in the team’s 20-year existence, they’ve only made the playoffs four times. They have talent in 2013 Calder Trophy (awarded to the top rookie) winner Jonathan Huberdeau and great leadership in veterans Kris Versteeg and Ed Jovanovski. They have a few questions in goal, with Jacob Markstrom (3.22 GAA/.901 SV%) competing for the No. 1 job with currently-injured Scott Clemmensen and former Bruins star Tim Thomas, who tried out with the team on September 17th. The Panthers will need to have an outstanding season in order to make it to the playoffs out of the Atlantic Division. With the level of competition in the new Atlantic, it’s very unlikely they’ll play past April.
Photo: AP/Bruce Bennett