Contenders and Pretenders: Atlantic Division

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Welcome to Last Word on Hockey’s mini-series that will be distinguishing the playoff contenders versus the pretenders of each division in the Eastern and Western Conferences. In a league full of parity, it seems like everyone is in the race for a playoff spot, but is it a product of the league, or is the team just that good that they could challenge for the Cup? Find out as we start with the Atlantic Division.

Contenders and Pretenders: Atlantic Division

Contender: Montreal Canadiens

The Season So Far:

Montreal got off to another sizzling start at 13-1-1 to open 2016-17 on the back of a healthy Carey Price. Despite their 17-15-7 record since, they still hold the top spot in the division by eight points and have been able to battle through some adversity recently. Alex Galchenyuk, David Desharnais, Andrew Shaw, Andrei Markov, and Brendan Gallagher have all missed significant amounts of time with injury and Gallagher is still at least a month from returning. Price, since the hot start, has not been himself, posting a .908 save percentage and 2.67 goals against average in 30 starts. It has been impressive how they’ve been able to stay afloat.

Why They’re Contenders:

Though Price has been below average lately, it is encouraging to see the amount of depth that the Habs have. Phillip Danault, in the absence of Galchenyuk, was promoted to a line with Max Pacioretty and newcomer Alexander Radulov and has totaled four goals and 13 points in 18 games. Pacioretty in that time scored 12 goals and 17 points and already has 25 goals after scoring 30 all of last season. Radulov has been one of the best free agent signees of the season placing second on the team in points with 41, carrying a cool 53.85% Corsi-for percentage. Paul Byron was a waiver pick-up last season and has set career highs in goals (14) and points (29). Shea Weber leads the NHL in power play goals for defensemen again (10) on the fourth-best power play in the league. Seven players have at least ten goals and another four have at least seven.

Second Half Outlook:

Things will only get better for the Habs once Brendan Gallagher comes back, as he’s only two seasons removed from a 24-goal, 47-point campaign. To shore up the defense, they made a trade to get the underrated Nikita Nesterov for depth and have him slotted next to Markov. They may look to make a deal for a top-six center to compete with any Metropolitan Division team they may face in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. They haven’t needed Price at his best, but his game will need to rise come spring time if they are to challeng for Lord Stanley’s Cup.

Contender: Ottawa Senators

The Season So Far:

The Senators are a hard team to figure out. They have had two four-game winning streaks as season highs and have gone 7-6-3 in their last 16 games, including 8-8-1 against the Atlantic for the year. Unlike last season when they won with their offense scoring 2.80 goals per game (9th), they have scored just 133 thus far to place 22nd in the league. They continue to struggle with shot generation, as they place 22nd (29.3/game) a theme of last season when they finished 27th. Their power play has improved modestly from last season (17.4%, 20th), but it still is nothing to write home about. So why are they doing better than last year and are still in this position? Well, under Guy Boucher, they have defended tremendously better than last season.

Why They’re Contenders:

This year Ottawa’s 30.1 shots allowed per game ranks 14th (up 16 spots from 2015-16), and their penalty kill has climbed 19 spots through the halfway point to 10th (83.1%). Seven forwards have at least 20 points with six having 10 or more goals, and the top three scorers (Mark Stone, Mike Hoffman, Kyle Turris) each have 18 goals. There is a major drop-off from there, as just two other forwards have more than 10 points. Of course, having consistent Norris Trophy contender Erik Karlsson helps the cause as the rover leads the team in points with 44, but the rest of the blueline has combined for 55 in total. The team has guys to rely on each and every night, the main one being Karlsson, but the lack of depth is concerning going up against Toronto and their young core in the first round, anyone in the Metro, or Montreal and their superior depth.

Second Half Outlook

Mike Condon has been quite solid as a fill-in for starter Craig Anderson, and a lot will hinge on how the latter does in his return to the ice whenever it happens. He has posted a .924 save percentage and 2.46 goals against in 19 starts this season. He has had a tremendous postseason career, posting a .933 save percentage and 2.35 goals against average in 27 starts in four different runs. That will go for naught if the Sens cannot score for him or Condon.

Pretender: Boston Bruins

The Season So Far:

Another odd team, the Bruins have been guided by Brad Marchand, Torey Krug, and Claude Julien so far this season, but Julien was fired this morning as the team is looking at a third consecutive missed trip to the postseason. They have not won more than three games in a row, but are 14-6-1 against the division. They have won 25 games with Tuukka Rask in net and are 1-10-2 when anyone else starts. Though Boston ranks 22nd in goals-for/game (2.56) and 15th on the power play (19.2%), they are first in shot generation (33.2) and overall Corsi-for percentage at 55.87%, a testament to Julien’s system. Their penalty kill ranks second in the league at 86% and a key part of that is that they also place second in shots against (26.4/game).

Why They’re Pretenders

So why aren’t the Bruins better? Six forwards have 25+ points and five have ten goals or more with two 20+ goal scorers. Problem: outside of Marchand (23-55), David Pastrnak (22-44), David Krejci (13-34), Patrice Bergeron (13-29), David Backes (11-22), and Ryan Spooner (8-27), just five other forwards have at least 10 points with the range topping out at 16 and bottoming at 12. Krug is turning in another impressive campaign as a distributor, scoring five goals and adding 33 points. The rest of the defense has combined for 51 with Zdeno Chara being the only other D-man netting at least 15 points. Goaltending has become a major issue as Rask, since the new year, in 15 starts has been pulled four times posting an .867 save percentage and 3.15 goals against. Naturally the team is 6-7-2 since then. Zero depth and below-average goaltending will doom them, even if they get into the playoffs.

Second Half Outlook:

The B’s are in a tough spot, especially now with who was longest-tenured NHL head coach now biting the dust in Julien. Due to the inaugural bye week being implemented, they have played five more games than the Senators and Leafs, and that could be a problem considering they’re two points back from the former and just one point ahead of the latter. To avoid missing the playoffs for the third straight season (that would be the first time since ’64-67 as part of an eight-year drought), they will need more contributions from every area, especially between the pipes since their depth is lacking. Bruce Cassidy has a lot on his plate for the playoff push, but not many assets to help him out.

Contender: Toronto Maple Leafs

The Season so far:

Finishing last overall a season ago, the Leafs are flirting with playoff contention with under 30 games to play. Arguably the most exciting team to watch in the Atlantic outside of Montreal, they have shot up offensively from the league’s worst last season scoring 3.12 goals per game to rank 6th in the league. Naturally, head coach Mike Babcock‘s system has them shooting the puck a bunch, rattling 32.3 per game to rank third. However, the defense is still a work in progress as they give up the third-most shot attempts per 60 minutes at 60.54 per 60. This coincides with them allowing 2.92 goals per game, tied for 21st in the league. They have allowed the most goals since the new year. Special teams have been consistent and have allowed the leafs to stay in it in addition to their offense, with the power play clicking at 23.4% (2nd) and penalty kill right there as well at 83.8% (7th).

Why They’re Contenders:

The contributions the Leafs have gotten from their youngsters has been impressive and has masked an iffy back-end. They have seven double digit goal scorers, with four of them 23 and under and all 27 and under. Auston Matthews has taken his game to another level since November, pacing the leafs with 24 goals and notching 43 points. Mitch Marner has adapted quickly to the NHL level leading the Leafs with 45 points. Nazem Kadri has taken his game to another level netting 20 goals while playing a better defensive game. James van Riemsdyk continues to show why the Leafs missed him for most of last season looking like he will finish with 30 goals. William Nylander is adapting well. They have been able to cover up for many of their mistakes with the 2nd-best team in terms of shot attempts for per 60 firing 60.54 attempts at the net. Another team that masks their defensive inefficiencies with offense would be the Penguins, who rank below the Leafs in shots against (32.3, 25th) and right above them in goals against (2.86, 20th).

Second Half Outlook:

The difference between the Leafs missing the postseason and making it will be how their youth can handle the full 82-game schedule and the final push, avoiding a second-half swoon. They will need Frederik Andersen to step it up despite the thin defense that they have, as he’s posted an .888 save percentage and 3.53 goals against average in 14 starts since the new year. In a wide open Atlantic, if their run and gun offense stays hot, they will be able to make the postseason in a full 82-game schedule for the first time since 2003-04. They’ll need to learn on the fly how to protect leads, as they’ve scored 57 in the first period to place first, but have allowed 53 in the third period (23rd).

Pretender: Florida Panthers

The Season So Far:

Despite making numerous moves and acquisitions in the off-season the Panthers have regressed mightily from last season. They just recently have seen Jonathan Huberdeau return for his first game of the season and they’ve played without Aleksander Barkov the past few weeks as well. Without them, they were unable to win more than two games in a row and did it for the first time this year last game when Huberdeau and Barkov each came back to play with Jaromir Jagr. They fired former head coach Gerard Gallant on November 28th in favor of General Manager Tom Rowe‘s more puck possession-oriented system and have gone 12-9-9 since the firing, with their team posting the ninth-best team Corsi-for percentage in those 30 games. Despite Florida allowing just 2.65 goals per game (11th), they have allowed 31.5 shots per game (24th) and have relied on their goaltending to stay in it without much offensive support.

Why They’re Pretenders:

Their offense and power play suffered mightily without Huberdeau and Barkov, ranking 26th and 27th respectively. They just have not been able to get much from up front. Five forwards have at least 20 points and they have three double digit goal scorers with two forwards sitting at nine. Vincent Trocheck has admirably been leading the way with 18 goals and 34 points and off-season bargain Johnathan Marchessault is having a career year with 15 goals and 32 points, but they need more from others. Jussi Jokinen and Reilly Smith have not been the same, with the former posting just 13 points through 42 games after a 60-point campaign, and the latter scoring just 10 goals after a career-high 25 last season. Jagr hasn’t been the same without Barkov and Huberdeau, scoring just nine goals and 27 points after 27 goals and 66 points a year ago. They have not proved that they can win without them, and there’s no guarantee that the returnees will be able to play at 100% anytime soon.

Second Half Outlook:

Roberto Luongo and James Reimer have combined for a .919 save percentage in their efforts to cover for a more active defense that has performed well offensively, with four players collecting at least 14 points and three scoring at least five goals. The good news is that their goaltending has kept them in it. But their inability to score has not rewarded them with wins. It appears that they are still adjusting to Rowe’s style. Huberdeau and Barkov will need to learn on the fly and the players around them will have to step up in their return if the Panthers want to seriously jump back into contention.

Pretender: Detroit Red Wings

The Season So Far:

The Red Wings have taken a sharp step back that feels like a long time coming. This year is arguably the worst since the 25-year playoff streak began, and the overall numbers don’t lie. They score 2.42 goals for per contest ranking 25th and what’s more concerning is the fact that they are not generating shots at the level of previous Detroit teams, coming in at 25th again (28.5). From 2010-2016, they averaged 30.9 per contest, which ranked fifth in the league.  Their defense is still lacking, and may be the most porous since Nicklas Lidstrom‘s retirement (2.92 goals against/game, 22nd), allowing 30.7 shots per contest (19th). The power play is historically bad, coming in at dead last at 10.9%, not too far from the worst of all-time in Tampa Bay (9.4%) set in the 1997-98 season. The penalty kill is not much better, tied for 17th best at 81.2%.

Why They’re Pretenders:

Goaltending saved the Red Wings aplenty last season. This campaign, however, it has not been there to cover up the defensive mistakes. Petr Mrazek has had ample opportunities to take over as the number one net minder, but has floundered with Jimmy Howard being injured multiple times, losing his job to Jared Coreau on a couple of occasions. His .899 save percentage and 3.09 goals against average are far-cries from his 2.33 average and .921 percentage last season, and ironically, Howard was off to arguably the best start of his career before his injuries. In 15 starts, he posted a .934 save percentage and 1.96 goals against average, but the anemic Wings offense garnered the worst goal support for him and it shows with his 5-7-3 record.

Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar have continued to regress, with the former netting seven goals and latter 12 through the first 52 contests. Dylan Larkin has also seen a major regression from his all-star rookie campaign scoring just 18 points in 50 games played. They are a team of wonderful complementary pieces, having eight double digit goal scorers, but there are currently no stars to rely on each and every night.

Second Half Outlook:

Barring a sudden surge from Nyquist or Tatar, and a possible hot streak from Mrazek, the 25-year playoff streak will almost certainly come to an end. Thomas Vanek has been their most consistent player with 12 goals and 32 points through 40 games, and he will certainly fetch a solid price at the trade deadline should the Wings decide to sell. Andreas Athanasiou (11 goals in 37 games) and Anthony Mantha (12 goals in 37 games) have shown to be promising young forwards to build with, and the focus should be to get them a bonafide playmaker with a high pick in the upcoming draft.

Pretender: Buffalo Sabres

The Season So Far:

The Sabres were projected to be deeper this season up front with the addition of Kyle Okposo and return of Tyler Ennis to the top six. An injury to Jack Eichel at the beginning of the season that put him out until November 29th really derailed any chance of chemistry forming, and Ennis ended up missing almost two months until his return in mid-January. The team has really struggled with consistency, winning just three in a row twice with the first streak happening in October and other happening just recently from January 20th-24th. Their 25th ranked offense (2.40 goals/game), 29th ranked penalty kill (73.8%), and inability to defend has them at the bottom in terms of shots against (33.7/game is last) may speak to the inconsistency.

Why They’re Pretenders:

The Sabres can light it up on the power play, ranking fifth at a cool 22.1%, and four players have at least five 5-on-4 goals. However, they struggle to generate offense at 5-on-5, ranking 26th with 81 even strength markers despite having seven double digit goal scorers. Though their defense, in terms of goals allowed, is 15th at 2.69 goals against, their top pairing of Rasmus Ristolainen and Josh Gorges combine for a 43.23% Corsi-for percentage, not setting an ideal precedent for the 25th ranked team in terms of shot attempts against per 60 minutes (58.5). There aren’t any puck movers from the back end outside of Ristolainen either, as outside of his 29 points, the rest of the defense combines for 45 with one other at 15 points. The defense as a whole has a grand total of six goals, among the worst in the NHL. It is a shame that their offense cannot get it done, as Robin Lehner and Anders Nilsson have turned in some solid campaigns combining for a .923 save percentage and 2.57 goals against between them.

Second Half Outlook:

The Sabres are just six points out of third place, but their overall inconsistency will not get them past even the weakest divisional foes. They should be focused on getting a competent defender in the first round that can develop as they build around Ristolainen.

Pretender: Tampa Bay Lightning

The Season So Far:

How exactly did we get here, again? A personal Stanley Cup pick, the Lightning just have not been the same team that won the East in 2015 and took the defending Champions to seven without their starter, Ben Bishop. They currently sit in a four-way tie for third worst in the NHL, really falling from grace since the new year, posting a 4-9-2 record since January 1st. The offense that ranked third in the NHL from 2014-16 (2.95 goals/game) has really taken a step back to a below-average 2.66 mark. However, their power play is miles better than a 28th ranked unit last season, coming in at 21.6% (8th). After ranking 5th in goals against per game last season, the team has fallen to 21st (2.92/game). Still, they rank sixth best in terms of shot attempts against per 60 minutes giving up just 53.38. What’s up with the team’s decline?

Why They’re Pretenders:

A seemingly obvious answer to the Lightning’s fall from grace is the absence of Steven Stamkos, who has been out since November 15th. He had nine goals and 20 points in the first 17 games with the blood clots seemingly behind him. But knee surgery has kept him out the last three months and he may not return in time to save the team. Without him last year, however, the Lightning nearly returned to the Stanley Cup Final. This season, they are  13-18-5 since, 28th in the league. Before Stamkos’s injury, they were sixth in the league in goals, but 19th in goals against, and a big reason for their extended decline has been goaltending. Bishop did not play from December 21st to January 11th and has an .891 save percentage in six starts since contributing to his regressive .904 mark and 2.79 goals against average in 27 total starts. Andrei Vasilevskiy did not grab the starters’ job in Bishop’s absence, faltering as well posting an .876 save percentage and 3.78 goals against average in nine starts as the number one.

Second Half Outlook:

General Manager Steve Yzerman decided to trade Nesterov a few days ago, so that may be an indication of how the Lightning may go about finishing the season. However, their top pieces have been relatively consistent. Victor Hedman is threatening his career high in points (55) with 41 already. Nikita Kucherov, again, is a point-per-game player with 19 goals and 47 points in 46 contests. Tyler Johnson already has two more goals than last season with 16 in addition to 33 points. Jonathan Drouin is continuing his impressive run from his 2016 postseason with 15 goals and 32 points. If Stamkos can return and Bishop can regain his form, they could dangerous, but fatigue from two long runs seems to be taking its toll.

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