Offering perhaps the biggest surprise, as well as holding true to the inevitable, the Atlantic Division has shown us that age is but a number, and Mike Babcock is good, but not above man, and a great, as in “League’s Best” start to the season cannot carry you all the way to the playoffs if you stumble toward the finish line.
· Florida Panthers
o 70 Points Overall
o 1st place in Atlantic Division
o 2nd place in Eastern Conference
o 4th place in NHL
o Goals For: 155
o Goals Against: 123
-He’s how old? : I don’t know if it is ever smart to presuppose against the ageless wonder of Jaromir Jagr. Through 51 games, the 43-year-old has 17 goals and 21 assists for a total of 38 points. He trails only young up-and-comer forward Reilly Smith, who leads the team in goals. Smith currently has 18. Jagr just never seems to slow down or show his advanced age.
-MILESTONE UPDATE: Jagr is bearing down on Brett Hull for third in all time goal scoring ranks. He is two goals away, and is currently standing at 739 career tallies.
-Defense wins championships: So they say at least. If this holds any sort of validity. The Panthers are in good hands. Featured in 42 games this season, goaltender Roberto Luongo has 24 wins. He has been the main clog on the backend boasting a .928 save percentage, trumping his career average of .920. His goals against average is 2.17.
-The winning formula: The enviable balance of youthful energy and exuberance along with veteran leadership with winning pedigrees. It all started with the hiring, and recent extension, of General Manager Dale Tallon. Tallon came over from the Stanley Cup winning Chicago Blackhawks. Tallon was soon able to bring over former Blackhawks such as Brian Campbell, Brandon Pirri, and a brief reunion with Kris Versteeg. The veteran leadership comes from guys like Jagr, who also scores once in a while. Shawn Thornton came from Boston with a ring on his finger. He is the personality guy that a teammate loves in the locker room. He will also stick up for guys and understands, and embraces, that he is a role player. Willie Mitchell wears the “C” on his chest, after only playing with the team for one season. He joined Florida in the 2014-15 campaign, after a stretch with the Los Angeles Kings. He also walked into that locker room with a shiny ring on. However, the youthful energy has come from within…the draft. Drafting studs like Johnathon Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov, Vincent Trocheck, Aaron Ekblad, and Nick Bjugstad definitely contributed to where the team sits today (top of the division). Throw in key acquisitions of Jussi Jokinen and Reilly Smith, and it really should be no surprise that the Panthers are sitting pretty in not only in the Atlantic Division, not only the Eastern Conference, but the entire NHL. If someone came up to you and said, “the Florida Panthers are going to win 12 games in a row at one point this season”, you would have called them crazy. That stretch did include wins against struggling teams like Edmonton, Carolina, Columbus, and Buffalo, they did knock off teams such as NYR, Minnesota, and Montreal (who at the time was unbeatable).
· Detroit Red Wings
o 64 Points Overall
o 2nd place in Atlantic Division
o 4th place in Eastern Conference
o 9th place in NHL
o Goals For: 137
o Goals Against: 135
-The Next Big Thing: His name is Dylan Larkin. He leads the Wings in goals and points, 18 and 38 respectively. Kids are no longer asking Santa for Datsyuk and Zetterberg jerseys for Christmas, but for #71. Oh yeah, he’s only 19 years old.
- No More Goalie Controversy: Petr Mrazek seems to be the guy. Jimmy Howard is still getting his opportunities but Mrazek’s numbers speak for themselves. He has 34 starts to Howard’s 20. He has the best Goals Against Average among starting goalies at 1.94. While the Wings are on the brink of home ice advantage in the playoffs, Mrazek’s play will heavily influence their spot in the standings. It won’t be easy with 5 different teams breathing down their neck, all of them within 3 points in the standings.
-Beginning of the End of an Era? : Being “next up” in line for Detroit is a tall task. Pavel Datsyuk has been injury riddled this season. Zetterberg is still contributing, leading the team in assists. But if you were to ask me, that era is beginning to decline. Good news? Larkin is the perfect guy you want to fill those shoes. This team has good pieces, like Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Tatar, and Justin Abdelkader. I am also personally interested in keeping an eye on Teemu Pulkkinen. He has an other worldly shot, and could become lethal on the Power Play in an Alex Ovechkin type one-timer position.
· Tampa Bay Lightning
o 62 Points Overall
o 3rd place in Atlantic Division
o 7th place in Eastern Conference
o 11th place in NHL
o Goals For: 142
o Goals Against: 130
-A salute to you, Steve Yzerman: The Lightning GM and former Red Wing great, Steve Yzerman, has had to put up with quite a bit this season. The poor guy has had to listen to Jonathan Drouin trade requests and demands. It must sting when the guy you wasted a third overall pick on in the draft doesn’t want to play for you. He has yet to move Drouin, who is a candidate for one of the biggest flops in draft history. While the potential and skill are of no means in question, he just has not panned out in the NHL. On top of that, Steven Stamkos has a rumor mill the size of a Ferris wheel. The young captain and superstar forward has stated before that he wants to stay in Tampa Bay. And why not? They reached the finals last season. They have a good team and a beautiful geographic advantage. The market for hockey in Florida is on the rise, especially with roaring success of the fellow Florida club.
-Reason for concern with Stamkos: The Tampa Bay Lightning might be in a little trouble. With estimates of about $10.5 million on the new contract of Steven Stamkos, should one be signed, the Lightning could very well keep their star player. However, key players such as Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Victor Hedman, Alex Killorn, J.T. Brown, Jonathan Drouin, Vladislav Namestnikov, Nikita Kucherov, Cedric Paquette, Ben Bishop, Andrei Vasilevskiy, and Andrej Sustrwill all be hitting the end of their contracts in the next two years. That’s a lot of good players who were instrumental in getting the Bolts to the finals last season. Yzerman and company might have to choose who is expendable and who is not. And let’s be realistic, Stamkos would bring in an incredible haul of players in a trade.
-Spreading the wealth: The Lightning have a total of 8 players, including 2 defensemen, who have at least 20 points this season. In surprising fashion, Nikita Kucherov is currently leading the team in points: 45. He is also leading the team in goals, tied with Stamkos, with 21. Cedric Paquette had shown some promise last season with a good showing in 64 games in the regular season, scoring 12 goals in his rookie campaign. He has not lived up to the hopeful billing, with only 2 goals and 2 assists this season.
· Boston Bruins
o 62 Points Overall
o 4th place in Atlantic Division
o 7th place in Eastern Conference
o 11th place in NHL
o Goals For: 157
o Goals Against: 147
-Feeling the loss of Lucic? : Not necessarily. Of course, Milan Lucic is a clog in any offense you put him in. He is one of the prime Power Forwards in the game. However, the Bruins do not seem to be feeling the loss offensively. Matt Beleskey has been a pleasant acquisition, garnering in 26 points on the year. His offensive prowess at the end of his stint in Anaheim lead Boston to believe he would have a bigger impact than he has been, but he is by no means a misfire. No surprise, Patrice Bergeron has paced the offense, with Loui Eriksson, David Krejci, and Brad Marchand close behind. Ryan Spooner has really lived up to his second round draft pick status with a career year, currently with 38 points.
-Fountain of Youth: A necessity when a team needs to reload, rather than rebuild. David Pastrnak had a 22 game tryout with the Bruins, scoring an impressive 12 points. It was decided that his time had not come, and was loaned to the Czech Republic World Junior Roster. Frank Vatrano will also get his chance in due time. He had a 30 game stint with the pro club, scoring 6 goals and notching 1 assist.
-Still Tuukka Time? : Tuukka Rask has been the workhorse ever since Tim Thomas took his year off from hockey (from which he never really returned). Rask has been in the upper echelon of netminders ever since. However, he has not appeared to be in familiar form this season. He is only three games above .500, with 19 wins and 16 losses. Jonas Gustavsson has been a nice backup with a 9-3-1 record. However, he has not carried the same responsibilities as Rask. Rask needs a much better end to the season than beginning, because as stated above, 7th place in the Eastern Conference is not a very comfortable place to be in the playoff race.
· Montreal Canadiens
o 58 Points Overall
o 5rd place in Atlantic Division
o 10th place in Eastern Conference
o 18th place in NHL
o Goals For: 151
o Goals Against: 146
-Time can be cruel: At one point this season, the Montreal Canadiens were #1 in the league. By a considerable margin at that. Michel Therrien has led the Habs to the playoffs during the entire three years of his most previous tenure at the helm, dating back to 2012-13. However, he now finds his team giving up a record start of the season. Dating back to November 28th, Montreal has lost 22 of their 31 games.
-The Price is Wrong: In my mind, the Canadiens have the best goaltender in the world in Carey Price. They just don’t have Carey Price, for the time being that is. He has only appeared in 12 games and has been cursed with a plague of injuries this season. Mike Condon has carried the load ever since, with occasional help from Ben Scrivens, but as their record shows, Montreal is reeling with Price in net.
-Offensive Defense: I don’t really know if it’s a good thing that the leading scorer is a defenseman. Being that it’s PK Subban, it’s not all that surprising, it’s just a little off-putting for Therrien and the Habs fans. Of his 43 points, 5 of them are goals. Part of the problem with the recent decline of the Canadiens is their scoring. Their leading scorer has 20 goals (Max Pacioretty), and the next closest is Brendan Gallagher, who has 14 goals. Need I remind you, due to injury, Gallagher has only played 38 of Montreal’s 55 games? If they have any intentions of getting back within playoff position, they need to get more offensive production from David Desharnais, Tomas Fleischmann, and Lars Eller.
· Ottawa Senators
o 56 Points Overall
o 6th place in Atlantic Division
o 13th place in Eastern Conference
o 23rd place in NHL
o Goals For: 161
o Goals Against: 177
-Was it really necessary? : Reeling in Dion Phaneuf definitely put the Senators in the national spotlight. In my mind, I don’t think it was the best move to make. They are well within range of a wildcard playoff spot at this point in the season, trailing by 5 points in the standings. However, they do have a number of teams to compete against for the position. I understand it in the sense of bringing in a seasoned veteran, and former captain, being able to mentor a budding (or perhaps already budded) current captain Erik Karlsson. But there is no viable reason for bringing in a past-his-prime Phaneuf in order to help the team reach a playoff spot. There is a reason that Maple Leaf fans celebrated when news of the trade broke. I just see that the Sens gave up much more than they’re getting.
-More Offensive Defensemen: The aforementioned Subban is not alone in the category of offensive defensemen. Erik Karlsson is more than capable of putting points on the board. He is well ahead of the pack in the lead for most assists in the league at 51 total. It is probably why both the Canadiens and Senators are currently out of the playoff picture: their leading scorers are defensemen.
-Clean Bill of Health: The top 10 points leaders for the Ottawa Senators have all played in more than 50 games, with the exception of Cody Ceci, who sits at 49 games played. Andrew Hammond has not been able to live up to last years all star status. He has only appeared in 13 games with a 3-6-2 record. Craig Anderson is going to have to haul a big load to get the Senators back into having realistic playoff hopes.
· Buffalo Sabres
o 48 Points Overall
o 7th place in Atlantic Division
o 15th place in Eastern Conference
o 29th place in NHL
o Goals For: 126
o Goals Against: 155
-Disappointing to say the least: With Dan Bylsma at the helm, the Sabres were excited to bring in a coach with a winning past. It has yet to translate to on ice success for the Sabres, with a painful record of 21-28-6.
-Plenty of Reason for Optimism: They have plenty of tools to be competitive in the league for years to come. Jack Eichel will be the centerpiece undoubtedly. They have an enviable young defensive core with Rasmus Ristolainen, Cody Franson, Jake McCabe, and Zach Bogosian. They will be set for the foreseeable future once things get started for them.
-Obvious Problem: They need to figure out the goalie situation. Chad Johnson and Linus Ullmark have been a 1A and 1B of sorts. However, I can’t see either of them being the answer for the Sabres. They need to consistency that Ryan Miller provided years ago.
· Toronto Maple Leafs
o 47 Points Overall
o 8th place in Atlantic Division
o 16th place in Eastern Conference
o 30th place in NHL
o Goals For: 127
o Goals Against: 154
-Right Coach, Wrong Players: Mike Babcock is a great coach. What made his great in Detroit? Guys like Datsyuk, Zetterberg, and Lidstrom. No big deal. You can say what you want about Babcock, but Toronto doesn’t have a Datsyuk, Zetterberg, or Lidstrom. He doesn’t have the pieces of the puzzle as his dispense.
-To Insult from Injury: The Leafs lost perhaps their best player in James Van Riemsdyk to a longtime injury. They recently had players like Tyler Bozak, Joffrey Lupul, and Shawn Matthias.
-The One Thing they are Winning? :The Dion Phaneuf trade. Why? It gives the Leafs a chance to go after Steven Stamkos in the offseason. As Leafs GM Lou Lamoriello stated, the Phaneuf trade “certainly wasn’t for today” which means there are things to come for the Leafs in the future.