WINNIPEG — The Montreal Canadiens were an interesting team to follow last year. The Habs looked lost at many times during the season, especially on offense. Somehow, through all of this, they still managed to finish first in the Atlantic Division during the regular season.
Statistically, the Canadiens should have been nowhere near the top of the standings. Generally speaking, when a team struggles to score (which the Habs most certainly did) they finish well out of the playoff picture. To put this to numbers, the Canadiens looked something like this:
|Montreal Canadiens 2014-15 Season||NHL Rank|
|5V5 Scoring F/A||1.18||5|
|Goals Per Game||2.61||20|
We can see that the Canadiens were nowhere near an offensive juggernaut, finishing in the bottom third of the league in both Goals Per Game and Power Play Percentage. The two other categories are more directly influenced by a certain 5th overall pick that currently sits between the posts for the Habs.
A large part of the first place finish is thanks to Carey Price. While missing out on the ultimate prize at the end of the season, Price has put together a fantastic couple of seasons. He’s managed to grab an Olympic gold medal with Team Canada, and his personal trophy case now holds the Vezina, Jennings, Hart, and Lindsay awards, as well as nearly every Molson Cup given out by the Canadiens.
Many fans are dissatisfied with Michel Therrien, who seems to make a new and confusing lineup choice every game. No matter how fans feel, he will be the coach behind the bench again this season. The players seem to enjoy playing for him (possibly due to his 125-64-23 record during his current stint with the team), and it will fall to him to continue this success during the 2015-16 season.
The problem, in part, now becomes the rest of the division. Many teams in the Atlantic have made considerable signings this off-season, while Marc Bergevin has been relatively silent, with the only major signing being Alexander Semin on July 24th. With that in mind, let’s take a quick look at the other teams in the division, and try to figure out where the Canadiens fit for the upcoming season.
Boston Bruins have by all accounts had a poor off-season. The Milan Lucic trade was probably in their favour, as they replaced him with Matt Beleskey at a reduced rate. But, in one of the stranger moves this summer, they shipped Dougie Hamilton to Calgary, and re-signed Adam McQuaid instead. And signing Zac Rinaldo? It just doesn’t make sense, based on their current roster needs.
Matching that with three consecutive picks in the first round that managed to baffle analysts on draft day, and I have no idea what to make of the situation in Boston.
Buffalo Sabres decided that it was time to make a push, and they went BIG. Picking up Evander Kane at the deadline, and trading for Ryan O’Reilly in the off-season would immediately make just about any team better.
Couple these smart draft moves like last year’s first round pick Sam Reinhart, and this year’s second overall in Jack Eichel, and the Sabres seem to be on the cusp of contending for a playoff spot.
Detroit Red Wings had a fairly quiet summer. Signing Brad Richards and Mike Green in free agency were smart additions, though Detroit is now right up against the salary cap for the coming year.
It will be interesting to see if the Red Wings can yet again make a push for the playoffs for a 25th straight year. With new head coach Jeff Blashill at the helm, there will be some form of continuity on the bench as he has come through the Detroit organization.
Florida Panthers seem to be slowly building themselves into a contender, but then sign Dave Bolland for far too much and far too long that make you question their direction. Overall it was a quiet off-season, with their only move being acquiring Reilly Smith and Marc Savard’s contract from the Bruins for Jimmy Hayes.
Something that has not been in the news this summer has been the stalled contract talks with Jonathan Huberdeau. A similar player to Alex Galchenyuk, with similar NHL experience, he also sits as an unsigned RFA up to this point of the summer. It will be interesting to see how both of these negotiations end up playing out.
Ottawa Senators managed to lock up some of their young talent, and at contracts that are not terribly bad, should someone not develop as expected. It will be interesting to see how players like Mark Stone, Mika Zibanejad, and Jean-Gabriel Pageau continue to progress. The Andrew Hammond contract doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, as throughout his career (save for a 25 game stretch this past season) he has been “not good”.
All that said I believe that the Senators have a pretty good chance to challenge for the division, along with the next team in this feature.
Tampa Bay Lightning should yet again push for the division crown, as they have maintained status quo from a great team last season. The biggest question marks with this team have nothing to do with the coming year, but what will happen with team captain Steven Stamkos, as he has yet to sign an extension and is a UFA at the end of this season.
Toronto Maple Leafs were, along with the Sabres, the teams in the Atlantic with the busiest off-seasons. They started off by nabbing Mike Babcock to be their new head coach, as well as jettisoning Phil Kessel to the Penguins.
But with their roster for the upcoming season? Who even knows. The largest cap hit at forward is Nathan Horton. Who hasn’t played in nearly 2 years. They signed four or five forwards to “prove it” contracts, and are still waiting to sort out their goaltending situation, as Jonathan Bernier has still not signed a contract.
Based on management’s comments about a long, hard rebuild, this roster seems to back those words up. But, for the first time in years, there is legitimate hope in Toronto.
This also doesn’t address the Metropolitan Division, which saw certain teams getting significantly better. The race in the East will certainly tighten up this season, which should make this year an exciting one to watch.
In my opinion, I believe that Montreal and Tampa Bay are the front-runners for the top spot in the Atlantic, with Ottawa and Detroit fighting for the third spot. Florida and Buffalo would come in as my dark horses in the division, and I would not be surprised, if one of the teams at the top stumble, they sneak into the playoffs.
Let us know what you think. Within the division, who do you think did the best job of building for a playoff run this upcoming season?