2013-2014 NHL Season Preview – Atlantic Division Predictions ]]> include($base_url . “/includes/header.htm”); ?>
By Mike Ivcic and Alex Rajaniemi
Welcome to the Ultimate Capper’s 2013-14 NHL season preview. I am pleased to be joined once again by Alex Rajaniemi, who will contribute all season long to a new weekly NHL column for this site. You may have (hopefully) enjoyed our playoff previews last postseason, so we have decided to team up in a new feature we’re calling “Double Overtime.” Look for it every Tuesday, beginning with our Stanley Cup playoff predictions on October 1. But now we’re just getting ahead of ourselves. First up, a look at each division, with a predicted order of finish and complete analysis from each of us. For those that missed the offseason, we’re now down to four divisions instead of six, and the playoffs will now feature the three best teams from each division in a conference, plus the next two best teams, meaning no more than five teams can ever get make the playoffs from one division. I’ll take the lead here, beginning with the most geographically challenged collection of teams that the new alignment created – the Atlantic Division.
Over/under on season points in parentheses.
Why not start off with a bang and make bold pick? I loved the way the Maple Leafs developed throughout the course of the shortened season, and I really think the talent is there to make a big move in 2013-14. Yes, they lost in heartbreaking fashion in game seven in Boston, but that series also proved that James Reimer is capable of being a big-time starting goaltender in the NHL. They have a ton of young talent on offense with the likes of Phil Kessel, Joffrey Lupul, and James van Riemsdyk, and they added some key pieces in Dave Bolland, David Clarkson, and Mason Raymond who all have had extensive postseason experience. They have defensive standouts like Dion Phaneuf and Carl Gunnersson, and on paper every team in the division seemed to get weaker, so there’s absolutely no reason this team can’t capture the top seed in the Atlantic.
The rest of the division is significantly more fluid – I ultimately think every team could, in theory, make the playoffs, especially teams 2-6. I think Ottawa is likely to take a step backwards this season, as much of their success was due to performance from Craig Anderson in net that likely cannot be duplicated over the course of a full season. Combine that with the loss of Daniel Alfredsson and there’s a definite leadership void that Eric Karlsson probably isn’t ready to fill just yet. I’m also not a fan of the defending Eastern Conference champions, as the Bruins lost a great deal of talent by trading away Tyler Seguin and losing Nathan Horton to Columbus in free agency. Yes they still have David Krejci and Milan Lucic up front, and adding Jerome Iginla and Loui Eriksson should help offset the losses, but this team definitely seems like a good bet for the “under” on the overall points wager.
One fascinating storyline in this division is Detroit. The Red Wings have to adjust to a different style of play, one that tends to focus more on the broad dichotomy of free-wheeling offense and brutal physicality – it’s definitely a broad spectrum from a team’s first line to fourth line, as opposed to the West that tends to feature significantly less discrepancy between lines and a much higher emphasis on systems and styles of play. I’m almost positive there will be a learning curve for this team in the early portion of the season before they hit their stride, probably right after the Olympics, and become a team no one wants to meet in the playoffs.
Speaking of the Olympics, my final point is this – don’t count out Ryan Miller and the Buffalo Sabres. Four years ago, Miller backstopped an average Buffalo team to 104 points and a Northeast Division title, but I’m guessing that’s not why American hockey fans associated the name “Ryan Miller” with the year “2010.” Instead, they remember the way a locked-in Miller stole the show at the Vancouver Olympics, leading the U.S. team to a win over Canada in the prelim round and the top overall seed for the playoff round before ultimately falling to Sidney Crosby and the Canadians in overtime in the gold medal game. He’s not even a lock to make this year’s Olympic team bound for Sochi (which I find incredible) but don’t bet against this guy to put together one more season for the ages and lead the U.S. to another surreal Olympic performance – and maybe even the undermanned Sabres to the playoffs. Alex, would you want to bet against this guy?
I’ll stay away from the bold picks to start off my year – especially if that means having the Detroit Red Wings run away with the crown in the first year of this new Atlantic Division. Detroit makes the long-awaited move from west to east this year and not only boasts one of the best goaltenders in the league, not to mention the world, with Jimmy Howard, but also picked up veteran Daniel Alfredsson from new division rival Ottawa. Detroit makes change look simple and makes winning look even easier with their veteran poise. Mike Babcock is behind the bench once again with a formidable, yet aging lineup that will contend for a cup – but don’t count the Wings out based on age, they’ve proven the critics wrong on that front far too many times. There’s too much star power and too many vets foaming at the mouth for another shot at a ring on this team, and that’s why they’re winning this division outright.
I’m in love with the Ottawa Senators. I love their coach, I love their captain (Jason Spezza, who’s got a big chip on his shoulder from being left off the Canadian Olympic tryout roster), I love their goaltender, and I love their offseason acquisitions. This front office got it right; GM Bryan Murray let his long-time captain and fan favorite walk to chase a cup, but he’s right behind those pesky Wings. Picking up American star Bobby Ryan is going to mean more goals from the power forward role, and placing him on a line with Spezza and Michalek is going to spell trouble for everyone in the NHL. They picked up scoring and the Sens also did one thing that not too many people are talking about – they got healthy. Look for a monster impact from the last player to win a full-season Norris trophy, Erik Karlsson, and look for Craig Anderson to stay healthy and rebound to his prolific form. They’re number two.
Boston, when all is said and done, could be the pick that comes to bite me here – but I’m going with the B’s at number three. This is a spectacular team with tons of playoff experience and the roster, even with the offseason losses of Tyler Seguin and Nathan Horton, to go deep into the playoffs once more. They added speedster Loui Eriksson and future first-ballot Hall of Famer Jarome Iginla (who should’ve been there last year) to the roster to complement stars like Patrice Bergeron and playoff master David Krejci. On the blueline they’ve got youth and skill (i.e. Krug, Hamilton) to go along with the giant Zdeno Chara. Once again, the Bruins’ success will come down to the play of Olympic-hopeful Tukka Rask, who is one of the most polarizing goaltenders in the league. If Tukka plays like we know he can, those Red Wings at the top of my list will be in for a tough ride, but if he falters, Chad Johnson is a weak backup and we’ve all seen how Tukka can loose his head from time to time.
This brings me to the two Canadian teams most have placed at the top of this division: Toronto and Montreal. Don’t get me wrong, I like these teams, but I’m a firm believer in the thought that many experts put too much weight on the Canadian teams in this league, especially when those teams have the country’s namesake and national emblem. The Habs have Carey Price, Brian Gionta, and PK Subban, but who else? I don’t see enough depth in this lineup to get it done in the long run. Montreal is still quasi-rebuilding, and until Alex Galchenyuk and Lars Eller come of age and becomes (which they will), I don’t see Montreal truly exceeding expectations. I think they make the playoffs as the one-and-only wild card from this division in one of the bottom three spots. As for the Maple Leafs, whom everyone seems to be drunk on lately (including Mike), they still have some glaring holes to fill. James Reimer is nothing spectacular, which is why if Toronto is smart, they look to an ultra-skilled guy who got buried by Jonathan Quick at Los Angeles in Bernier. I love their forwards. JVR, Kadri, Denver Pioneer Bozak, and Lupul are all formidable – but what wins championships in this league is defense. All we have to do is look to last year’s monumental third period collapse against Boston to show that Dion Phaneuf is no longer what he used to be (a perennial Norris candidate) and that Toronto’s blueline is very subpar. I’m sorry, but I just don’t see what all the hype is about.
Finally, I’ll pair our final three teams together. Tampa has scoring prowess, and anytime you have a 50-goal-a-year scorer leading your team, something special could happen. The fact of the matter is that with Jonathan Drouin, the first rounder from Halifax, on the top line, we can see that Tampa is still a couple of years from contending again. Plus Ben Bishop in net isn’t groomed quite yet. Soon, but not yet. Buffalo could surprise and make a run, but with all of the offseason talk about moving Ryan Miller and then not moving Ryan Miller and unloading their roster for future scares me. This organization is coming off a fresh front office and management overhaul who wants to build for years to come. Jonas Enroth is the bright future in net, Finnish blueliner Rasmus Ristolainen and Tyler Myers will be an excellent pairing (if Myers can return to form) two years from now – but I’m sorry, the ‘bres don’t have the roster to seriously challenge for a playoff spot. Finally we get the Cats. Meow. I’d challenge you to name three forwards and two defensemen on this team right now. The Panthers know they’re rebuilding, their fans (all five of them that showed up to their preseason games) know it, and we know it. Soon enough they’ll be back to playoff contention with the likes of Jacob Markstrom in net and highly skilled forwards up front like Jonathan Huberdeau and Drew Shore. Those draft picks need to pan out, however, as passing on Seth Jones may come back to bite the Kitties in the butt if Aleksander Barkov proves to be another Russian lottery bust.