This is the second post in my series previewing each of the NHL's new divisions. The first one, published this morning, looked at the Metropolitan, and I'll move on to the Western Conference tomorrow. But before we got to that, it's time to look at the other division in the Eastern Conference, the Atlantic. Overall, I think it's the best division in the league (it has the best combined goal differential), but that's not because it has eight strong teams.
The statistical information used below generally comes from Behind the Net. Most of it is pretty straightforward, but one that I'll allude to with some frequency is "Fenwick Close" percentage, a term that refers to the percentage of shots and missed shots for relative to all shots and missed shots taken by both teams while the game is played five-on-five and the score is tied or within two in the first or second period. If I mention something else below that's unclear, please feel free to ask about it in the comments!
#8 - Tampa Bay Lightning (16th in the Eastern Conference, 27th Overall) - The Lightning had a terrible goal differential last season, but as Derek pointed out earlier this month, they actually had pretty good record in games decided by two or more and the worst record in the league in games decided by one goal. That's usually a pretty strong indicator of a team that's had some bad luck, one that you might expect to rebound the following season. That is not what I'm expecting. In fact, I'm expecting this team to be significantly worse than they were a year ago. The problems begin in goal where the club is counting on Ben Bishop and/or Anders Lindback to carry the load. Neither goaltender has been capable over a long stretch of games (Bishop has a .921 even strength save percentage over the last four seasons, but has faced just 910 shots), and I'm just not comfortable counting on them to provide the team with average goaltending. The defense looks poor once you get past Matt Carle and Victor Hedman, and the offense has a similarly strong top two followed by decidedly less impressive depth. Last season, that resulted in a "Fenwick Close" percentage of just 45.0%, which is terrible. It's also the second consecutive year the team was less than break-even. There are some great individual players here, but the team isn't very good. Goal Differential Prediction: -34 (Change from 2013: -31)
#7 - Buffalo Sabres (15th in the Eastern Conference, 26th Overall) - If this placing is controversial, it'll be because I haven't been hard enough on a team that's clearly beginning a long-term rebuilding phase. They began the rebuilding at the 2013 deadline by dumping veterans Jason Pominville, Jordan Leopold, and Robyn Regehr for picks and prospects. The trend continued at the 2013 draft when the Sabres sent Andrej Sekera to Carolina for an inferior but younger defenseman and yet second round draft pick. So they've bled a lot of talent, and a quick look at their depth chart suggests that the team might move Thomas Vanek, Drew Stafford, Steve Ott, Henrik Tallinder, and maybe even Ryan Miller before the deadline in 2014. Even with those players, the Sabres had a league-worst "Fenwick Close" percentage of 43.7% in 2013. So why don't I have them dead last? Well... mostly because they've got solid goaltending, and their possession numbers were signifcantly better in 2011-12 than they were in 2013. If the possession numbers rebound a little and the goaltending holds, they should be able to avoid the basement. What a depressing goal. Goal Differential Prediction: -31 (Change from 2013: No Change)
#6 - Toronto Maple Leafs (12th in the Eastern Conference, 20th Overall) - The Maple Leafs made the playoffs last season despite a "Fenwick Close" percentage of just 44.0%. They had some outstanding shooting luck to compensate and a solid performance from goaltender James Reimer. Their response? Pay one of their stronger players, Mikhail Grabovski, to go away; spend oodles of money for eleventy billion years on David Clarkson to replace Clarke MacArthur, a more affordable who might also end up being better; and bring in a new goalie to compete with Reimer. In conclusion, this will either be a really fun year for people who believe that possession metrics are predictive of future success, or an enormously frustrating one. Goal Differential Prediction: -16 (Change from 2013: -37)
#5 - Florida Panthers (11th in the Eastern Conference, 19th Overall) - This is the first team in the division that I think has a reasonable chance at the playoffs. They had the worst on-ice shooting percentage in the league during five-on-five play in 2013 (6.5%), so some improvement was bound to happen, but "a reasonable chance at the playoffs" isn't something I would've said even three weeks ago. Then training camps got going and the Panthers improved more during camp than most teams did through all of free agency. Tom Gilbert is a respectable top-four defender, Brad Boyes is a respectable top-nine winger, and Tim Thomas might still be one of the five best goaltenders in the game. If he is, this team makes the playoffs, and I've way underestimated their performance. If he's not (and also doesn't completely implode), then I think this is about where the Panthers will finish... which is actually kind of odd. I mean, I commend Dale Tallon for trying to put the best possible team on the ice, but I've got to think that 19th overall is close to the worst possible outcome for him: no playoffs and no star-level draft pick come June. I know that their prospect pool is very, very deep, but this kind of late off-season charge for respectability makes Florida's September the most interesting of any team in the NHL. Goal Differential Prediction: -12 (Change from 2013: +89)
#4 - Ottawa Senators (6th in the Eastern Conference, 10th Overall) - Last year's Ottawa Senators were ravaged by injuries to key players: Erik Karlsson, Milan Michalek, and Jared Cowen all missed significant time. And yet the Senators persevered, putting together a "Fenwick Close" percentage of 52.0% despite the missing pieces. The fact that they had one of the worst on-ice shooting percentages during five-on-five play (6.6%) was made up for by incredible goaltending, especially from returning starter Craig Anderson. I believe that Anderson will continue to deliver strong play in net, and that his probable step back this year will only be a small one, and that it will be more than offset by a rise in the team's shooting percentage. I'm not sure how they'll respond to the loss of Daniel Alfredsson--Bobby Ryan is a very good player, but he doesn't have the history of possession dominance that Alfredsson does--but I nevertheless see this team making the playoffs quite comfortably. Goal Differential Prediction: +19 (Change from 2013: -2)
#3 - Montreal Canadiens (4th in the Eastern Conference, 8th Overall) - There have been very few substantive changes in Montreal from last season. Michael Ryder is out and Daniel Briere is in, but that change is pretty close to a wash. Other than that, the players are all a year older. For most of the club, that means probable improvement, but for players like Brian Gionta and Andrei Markov, a decline is eventually coming. Can they continue to be effective this season, and if not, are Montreal's young players ready to take on a larger role? I'm leaning toward "yes" on tha and my ranking of this team reflects that. My biggest hesitation in possibly putting them higher is their awful "Fenwick Close" percentage (46.8%) from 2011-12. Most Montreal fans will tell you that was on the coach, and that may be, but I'm hedging a bit here and have the Canadiens bleeding a little bit of last season's goal differential. It's a testament to the strength of the team that I can do that and still have them eighth overall. Goal Differential Prediction: +24 (Change from 2013: -15)
#2 - Detroit Red Wings (2nd in the Eastern Conference, 4th Overall) - The Red Wings have some absolutely filthy forward depth this year. Which I mean as a compliment. Yes, they lost Valtteri Filppula, but they replaced him with a better version in Stephen Weiss, and have brought in Daniel Alfredsson to replace the contributions of Damien Brunner. Both Alfredsson and Weiss are strong at both ends of the ice, and come to a team that has played a strong possession game since forever. Last year's team was among the league leaders in "Fenwick Close" percentage (53.9%), and if anything, I expect this team to be a little bit better. When Nicklas Lidstrom retired, I thought we might be seeing the beginning of the end for the Wings, but it didn't happen last year, and I don't think it happens this year either. Maybe when Datsyuk calls it quits. Or maybe Zetterberg. Or maybe Holland. Goal Differential Prediction: +35 (Change from 2013: +20)
#1 - Boston Bruins (1st in the Eastern Conference, 3rd Overall) - This team's prospect depth is absolutely atrocious, so when this club falls from elite status, it's probably going to be fast and hard. That fall isn't really going to happen this year. The departures of Rich Peverley and Nathan Horton make them less deep than they have been in the past, but much of the team that had the second best "Fenwick Close" percentage in the Eastern Conference last year (54.4%) is going to be back. Zdeno Chara, Patrice Bergeron, and David Krejci are all still playing at a very high level, and while I don't think Loui Eriksson represents upgrade on Tyler Seguin (especially long-term), he's not going to hurt them either. That core group should be able to carry a still strong supporting cast to another very good regular season record and possibly another division title. The three teams immediately below them are all very good, so it's not like the Bruins winning is a guarantee, but if I'm handicapping the race, I'll give the Bruins the edge because of their lengthy track record of excellent goaltending and strong possession numbers. Goal Differential Prediction: +35 (Change from 2013: -3)