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Canes Country’s 2018 Season Preview: Atlantic Division

Dominated by three teams last season, can anyone challenge Tampa, Boston and Toronto in the Atlantic?

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Washington Capitals at Tampa Bay Lightning Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Boston Bruins

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Boston Bruins at Tampa Bay Lightning Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Boston Bruins went all out last season with their massive trade to get Rick Nash, only to falter in a second round loss to their divisional rival Tampa Bay. Going into 2018-2019 it feels like the Bruins did little to improve themselves while watching another divisional rival, Toronto, land the biggest free agent in years.

Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak will continue to lead the way on offense while 41 year old Zdeno Chara continues to lead the B’s on the back end. Charlie McAvoy made a massive push to take over the number one defenseman spot in Boston last year and his continued growth is needed for the Bruins’ success. In goal the Bruins lost Anton Khudobin, who really helped them last year while Tuukka Rask was hurt, and added Jaroslav Halak to be the back up.

While it will be a dog fight among the three top teams in the Atlantic, the Bruins will likely still be playing hockey past the regular season in 2018-2019. But without a major trade or downfall from Toronto and/or Tampa, it could be very difficult for this year’s Bruins to get past the second round once again.

Buffalo Sabres

NHL: NHL Draft Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

If the Hurricanes aren’t the most disappointing team in the NHL the past few seasons, then the honor must go to the Buffalo Sabres. After years of high draft picks, the Sabres finally hit rock bottom last year, finishing dead last and winning the lottery to claim the 1st overall pick.

The Sabres had a very hectic off season from drafting Rasmus Dahlin number one overall, to signing Carter Hutton to be their starting goalie. The Ryan O’Reilly saga was one to follow, as he was finally shipped out to St. Louis at the very last second before a no-trade clause kicked in, then of course there’s the theft of Jeff Skinner from Carolina for pennies on the dollar.

The Sabres will need Hutton to step in and be good while hoping they can get reliable defense with Dahlin leading the way. On offense the combination of Skinner, Sam Reinhart, Casey Mittelstadt, and Jack Eichel will lead the way and if all goes well they could easily be one of the most dangerous offensive teams in the Atlantic.

Trying to predict how the 2018-19 season will go for Buffalo is a total crap shoot. If all goes right they could be dominant and compete for a playoff spot, but if all goes wrong once again, they could easily end up near the bottom of the league once more. Having not made the playoffs since 2011, and knowing how tough it will be to climb the ladder in their division, an educated guess puts Buffalo on the outside looking in right now.

Detroit Red Wings

NHL: New York Islanders at Detroit Red Wings Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

After so many years of winning, the Detroit Red Wings are struggling to find their way nowadays, and the recent news on Henrik Zetterberg not being medically cleared to play has only hurt the team even more. Many in Detroit had seen the writing on the wall with Zetterberg but they held out hoped that many he could somehow play again. Unfortunately for not just Wings fans, but all hockey fans, it appears Zetterberg is done on the ice.

When your General Manager is quoted in the off season as saying things like “the hope is that we can hang in” and “but ultimately, my focus as the manager is probably on this team a little bit down the road,” that kind of tells you where you are at as a franchise.

The departure of Zetterberg leaves the team with a massive hole to fill, but also opens the door for 6th overall draft choice Filip Zadina to come in and thrive. The team signed forward Thomas Vanek and goaltender Jonathan Bernier this summer. They will hope these additions, along with the likes of Dylan Larkin, Anthony Mantha, and Mike Green can helped them stay afloat for as long as possible. While the Red Wings will most likely be on the outside looking in again this year, there is hope down the road that one day they can start another long playoff streak.

Florida Panthers

NHL: Florida Panthers at Edmonton Oilers Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

Last season the Florida Panthers actually finished with more points in the standings than a playoff team. Unfortunately for them, that team was the Colorado Avalanche who play in the Western Conference. The Panthers started slow but came roaring back in the second half as the hottest team in the NHL, but they fell just one point shy of a playoff spot.

The Panthers traded for Mike Hoffman as their crown jewel from the summer and they hope the continued growth of their young stars will propel them in to the playoffs this year. Along with Hoffman, the offense will be headed up by new captain Aleksander Barkov, Vincent Trocheck, Evgenii Dadonov, and Jonathan Huberdeau. Meanwhile, Aaron Ekblad and Keith Yandle will continue to lead the defensive corp for Florida. Wily and ageless veteran Roberto Luongo is still the main man between the pipes.

Florida has the offensive firepower to compete in the Atlantic, but they need to come out of the gate strong. Many teams in the division got better and it seems like Florida did not do a ton to improve themselves. They should be floating around that final wild card spot, but whether or not they can sneak in remains to be seen.

Montreal Canadiens

Winnipeg Jets v Montreal Canadiens Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

The most timely question for the Canadiens is what the offense will be like without departed captain Max Pacioretty on the team any longer. Tomas Tatar is sure to add 20 or so goals, but it will be interesting to see how the Habs will fill the leadership hole left by the captain.

It’s easy to turn to Carey Price as someone who will unify the new unit, but he’s the biggest storyline for the upcoming season thanks to an overwhelmingly lackluster past season. Price set a new high in goals against average (3.11) and a new low in save percentage (.900), starting in only 48 games (and somehow is still the top rated goaltender in NHL 19, for some reason).

The backup situation for him is up in the air, too. Antti Niemi and Charlie Lindgren are currently batting for that spot. Though Niemi showed great improvement in the net with Montreal after bouncing around the league last season, he only had 19 starts to show with the Habs. They’ve left the door open for Lindgren, but his .886 save percentage in the AHL last season will hurt his cause.

So if Price can’t bounce back, the only route for the Canadiens to have success is by scoring a ton of goals -- not welcome news for a bottom-tier goal-scoring team (2.52 goals per game last season) that just lost their best scoring threat in recent years.

Ottawa Senators

2018 NHL Draft - Round One Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

What season? Oh, they’re still going to play? OK … a little unexpected.

Long before the cringeworthy one-on-one video on the “future of the franchise” (i.e. a total rebuild), the Senators saw a season like 2018-19 coming imminently. The recent sendoff of Erik Karlsson was the last brick in the wall, so to speak. Now, it’s all about the young talent and how ready they are to handle the pressures of the NHL.

A player of note will be the team’s 2018 first-rounder Brady Tkachuk, who apparently has coaches and onlookers impressed through training camp with his shot, speed and poise. He and Mark Stone could form a vet-kid duo that could give Senators fans one reason to come out Canadian Tire Centre. In fact, the bulk of the preseason buzz from the Senators’ side has been trying to mesh the youth with veterans like Stone, Mark Borowiecki and Bobby Ryan.

Ottawa likely feels better than before about their youngsters after sweeping their rookie tournament, but obviously, in a season like this, even breaking their 67 points in the standings last year would be considered a success.

Tampa Bay Lightning

Washington Capitals v Tampa Bay Lightning - Game Seven Photo by Mike Carlson/Getty Images

Barring some injuries or other chaos, the Lightning almost feel like a lock for the Eastern Conference final.

They have all the same weapons, the same powerful defense and more of an impetus this year -- it’s the last season before a handful of meaningful contracts will have to be negotiated, including those of Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point and Ryan McDonagh.

Not to mention, shutouts in Game 6 and 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Capitals will likely motivate this group even more.

There’s no need to recap all the accolades of last season, which included Victor Hedman’s Norris Trophy, Kucherov breaking 100 points and the team setting a franchise record in wins. Steven Stamkos is still making his mark as one of the best players in the game, and Andrei Vasilevskiy, owner of eight shutout wins last year, hasn’t given any reason to doubt his readiness.

As folks say, this season, there’s nothing to it but to do it.

Toronto Maple Leafs

Boston Bruins v Toronto Maple Leafs - Game Three Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images

John Tavares is a Maple Leaf, and he probably won’t even be the 1C. Imagine having that issue.

Auston Matthews and Tavares will be anchor an offense that will likely challenge for the top points mark in the league. Matthews/William Nylander will probably be the deadly duo in the first line, while Tavares should find more consistency with winger Mitch Marner, Toronto’s top scorer last season, than he did with the Islanders.

They won’t have much to worry about in net either, though Frederik Andersen will try to find a little more consistency in net. He finished fourth in Vezina voting last season despite posting the worst GAA of any goalie in the top 10 at 2.81, the highest mark of his career. But with Curtis McElhinney’s stellar performance in the backup role last season, the Maple Leafs should feel sound enough between the pipes.

Toronto went seven strong against the Bruins in the playoffs last year before Boston knocked them out, and without anyone in the Atlantic appearing to challenge last year’s top three, the Maple Leafs will likely get a shot at redemption.