Finishing last season with an average of 87.6 points per team, the Atlantic/Flortheast Division was the worst in the NHL. I see that gap widening, not narrowing, in 2014-15.
The battle at the top of the division will, in my eyes, come down to two teams: the Boston Bruins and the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Bruins have placed either first or second in their division (the Atlantic or the former Northeast) in each of the past four seasons. The 2nd place Lightning finished a full 16 points behind the Bruins in 2013-14, but a strong off-season combined with a full season of Steven Stamkos and rookie Jonathan Drouin potentially making an impact has them near even money with the Bruins.
Last season: 54-19-9, Atlantic Division Finals
Subtractions: Jarome Iginla, Johnny Boychuk, Shawn Thornton
Why they might take a step forward: They’ve ditched Shawn Thornton, now Gregory Campbell is the only paper weight dragging down their fourth line. Dougie Hamilton could be poised for a breakout in 2014-15.
Why they might take a step back: They Bruins’ defense relies a lot on Zdeno Chara. If the 37 year old starts to show his age in 2014-15, it would be an incredible hit to their club, especially with Boychuk shipped out of town.
Tampa Bay Lightning
Last season: 46-27-9, Eastern Conference Quarter-Finals
Additions: Anton Stralman, Brian Boyle, Jason Garrison, Evgeni Nabokov, Brenden Morrow
Subtractions: Teddy Purcell, Anders Lindback, Sami Salo
Why they might take a step forward: They finished 2nd in the division last season with Stamkos missing more than half the season. They’ve added possession-driving defenseman Anton Stralman to an already strong possession club.
Why they might take a step back: It will be their first full season without Martin St. Louis. St. Louis was a big part of their offense and his offensive presence hasn’t been fully replaced.
Last season: 46-28-8, Eastern Conference Finals
Additions: P.A. Parenteau, Manny Malhotra
Subtractions: Brian Gionta, Daniel Briere, Douglas Murray, George Parros
Why they might take a step forward: Shedding Murray and Parros while adding Parenteau should improve their shot differentials from last season (which were troubling).
Why they might take a step back: Carey Price played to 0.927 SV% last season. He’s a 0.917 goalie over his career. A goaltender well playing above his talent level can go a long way towards helping a team overperform. If Price falls back to earth and the Habs are still heavily out-shot, things could get ugly.
Detroit Red Wings
Last season: 39-28-15, Eastern Conference Quarter-Finals
Subtractions: David Legwand, Todd Bertuzzi
Why they might take a step forward: The Wings made the playoffs last season with Datsyuk, Zetterberg and Franzen combining for 144 games played. Jimmy Howard had a down season, posting a 0.910 SV% — well below his career mark of 0.917.
Why they might take a step back: The Red Wings’ core is a bit on the old side, so improved health isn’t a given. They will start the season without Pavel Datsyuk, and Daniel Alfredsson’s back makes him a question mark for the season.
Last season: 37-31-14, Missed playoffs
Additions: David Legwand, Alex Chiasson
Subtractions: Jason Spezza
Why they might take a step forward: The Sens were a positive possession team last season, but were in the bottom third in shooting percentage. With a little shooting luck, their goal differential could follow suit.
Why they might take a step back: They lost Jason Spezza, their captain and a big part of their offense, with no reasonable replacement.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Last season: 38-36-8, Missed playoffs
Additions: Stephane Robidas, David Booth, Daniel Winnik, Roman Polak, Leo Komarov, Mike Santorelli
Subtractions: Carl Gunnarsson, Tim Gleason
Why they might take a step forward: They’ve greatly improved their forward depth, so their bottom-two lines might not get hammered in possession to the extent they did last season. They should get more offense out of Dion Phaneuf. Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly should continue to improve.
Why they might take a step back: Randy Carlyle is still their coach so there’s little reason to think the more deep-rooted issues of their possession deficiencies will be corrected. If their shooting percentage doesn’t continue to significantly exceed their opponents’, they could be out of the playoff picture much earlier than last season.
Last season: 29-45-8, Missed playoffs
Additions: David Bolland, Jussi Jokinen, Willie Mitchell, Shawn Thornton, Al Montoya, Derek MacKenzie, Aaron Ekblad
Subtractions: Scott Clemmensen, Tom Gilbert, Scott Gomez
Why they might take a step forward: The Panthers’ shot differentials were passable last season, but they had the lowest SV% in 5-on-5 close situations in 2013-14 at 0.899. Getting a legitimate NHL starter in Roberto Luongo will go a long way.
Why they might take a step back: Contrary to popular belief, goalies don’t last forever, and Roberto Luongo will turn 36 this season. In the past three seasons, he has made 14 saves above league average, down from 48 the three years previous to that. He should be an improvement on last season’s goaltending, but by how much?
Last season: 21-51-10, Missed playoffs
Additions: Brian Gionta, Matt Moulson, Andrej Meszaros, Josh Gorges, Sam Reinhart
Subtractions: Christian Ehrhoff, Ville Leino, Jamie McBain, John Scott, Zenon Konopka
Why they might take a step forward: What other direction could they go? The Sabres do have a wealth of youth in the organization that will make an impact eventually, if not this season.
Why they might take a step back: Connor McDavid is going to be drafted after this season, so they may be motivated.
2. Tampa Bay
– Neither wildcard team comes from the Atlantic.
– Less than 10 points separates spots 4 through 7.
– The division produces two out of three Norris candidates in P.K. Subban and Erik Karlsson.
– Steve Simmons will embrace performance metrics.
– Jonathan Drouin will win the Calder Trophy.