Hockey season is finally upon us as the first preseason games have been played. The next few columns will focus on previews for the newly realigned divisions. First up will be the new Atlantic Division, which features teams from the Northeast and Southeast Divisions. (I call it the Snowbird Division due to the mix of cold-weather teams and the Florida teams in that division.) I’ll break down the team’s information, player to watch, x-factor and expectations. If you miss a preview, I’ll post the divisions when I do the next preview. If you like (or don’t like) what I’ve got to say, leave comments below. You can also follow me on Twitter @DanMountSports.
1. Boston Bruins
Last year: 28-14-6 (2nd in Northeast; Finished runner-up to Chicago in the Stanley Cup.)
Player to watch: G, Tuukka Rask. The Finnish goalie really proved himself as a capable replacement to Tim Thomas. Rask was rewarded with an 8-year deal, but he says it won't change him. He played great in the playoffs and is looking to be the goalie that leads the B’s to the Cup.
X-Factor: LW, Loui Eriksson. It will be interesting to see how he does as he came over that sent young gun Tyler Seguin to Dallas. Eriksson was relied upon for offensive and defensive work in Dallas, but I think he’ll fit in with the Bruins.
Forecast: I like the way this team plays the game. They are physical, have a solid defense and get timely scoring. I think the addition of Erikkson helps the team. The only thing that worries me is the lack of a second faceoff specialist that is one due to Rich Peverley being shipped to Dallas as part of the Seguin trade. I expect the Bruins to make another deep playoff run.
2. Detroit Red Wings
Last year: 24-16-8 (3rd in Central Division, lost to Chicago in Western Conference Semifinals)
Player to watch: C, Pavel Datsyuk. The Red Wings got the ultimate bargain when they signed him to an extension that will keep him in the Motor City through the end of the 2016-17 season. He’s one of the most exciting players in the league, but plays defense just as good as he plays offense.
X-Factor: G, Jimmy Howard. Despite playing well in the playoffs against Anaheim and Chicago, there are still questions on whether he is an elite netminder. (Just go to the message board at LetsgoWings.com to see what I mean.) Howard has a penchant for letting in the occasional soft goal, but he’s made a lot of progress.
Forecast: I think the addition of Daniel Alfredsson gives the Wings a veteran presence and another top forward. Detroit is very good at playing whatever style is thrown at them from a fast-paced game to a grind-it-out type of matchup. The main concern is can the young defensive corps that collapsed against Chicago learn quickly. This team has a good mix of young and experienced and could give the Bruins a hard time in the second round. (The two could meet early due to the new playoff format.)
3. Montreal Canadiens
Last year: 29-14-5 (1st in Northeast Division, lost to Ottawa in first round)
Player to watch: D, PK Subban. The young defenseman shook off all the talk about his new contract in order to post 11 goals and 27 assists en route to the Norris Trophy for best defenseman. He is the perfect quarterback for the Habs up-tempo style.
X-Factor: C, Daniel Briere. The Gatineau native signed a 2-year deal to suit up for the team he followed growing up. He’s bucked the trend of a lot of French-Canadian stars by actually playing under the relentless pressure generated by the fans and the media. Will a bad start have people turning on him?
Forecast: I agonized over how to order these Canadian teams (Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto.) All are similar in some ways, but I think Montreal is built to win in the regular season. Les Habitantes are one of the more exciting teams in the NHL. The main question is can goalie Carey Price rebound from a shaky end of the season and an injury that forced him out of the playoff series against Ottawa. I see the three Canadian teams all bunched together fighting for a playoff spot.
4. Ottawa Senators
Last year: 25-17-6 (5th in Northeast Division, lost to Pittsburgh in conference semifinals)
Player to watch: G, Craig Anderson. The journeyman goalie has finally found a home in Canada’s capital. Anderson had a career-low 1.69 goals against average. The Sens weren’t the same team during that stretch when he got hurt by Rangers’ forward Chris Kreider. Luckily for Ottawa, he came back to guide it to a playoff spot and series win over Montreal.
X-Factor: RW, Bobby Ryan. The Senators franchise was rocked when longtime captain Daniel Alfredsson left for new division rival Detroit. General Manager Bryan Murray didn’t feel sorry for too long as the team traded for Ryan. He’ll go a long way to replacing the goals that were lost when Alfie left.
Forecast: Every year people forecast the Sens to struggle, but they exceed expectations. They have one of the best coaches in the league in Paul MacLean and play a physical style. Jason Spezza is the new captain and will be trusted to lead the team. They will be in the logjam for the last couple playoff spots.
5. Toronto Maple Leafs
Last year: 26-17-5 (4th in Northeast Division, lost to Boston in first round)
Player to watch: C, Nazem Kadri. The much-maligned prospect finally had a breakthrough year for the Buds with 18 goals and 26 assists. After an offseason filled with drama, Kadri signed a 2-year deal with the team. Will he be able to replicate last year’s production or will he suffer a sophomore jinx?
X-Factors: G, James Reimer and Jonathan Bernier. The Leafs did get to the playoffs thanks to Reimer’s play, but they collapsed in the seventh game against the Bruins. GM Dave Nonis decided to get the backup of Jonathan Quick from Los Angeles. If the Leafs are on the fringes of the playoff race and Reimer struggles, they could ship him off for some help. (Toronto does have Drew MacIntyre… the goalie and not the wrestler in the farm system.) The competition should be interesting.
Forecast: This team is a playoff-caliber team, but there are questions like Kadri, the goalie situation and how David Clarkson can live up to his monster deal. This team will be in the mix, but it’s going to be tough in a loaded Eastern Conference.
6. Tampa Bay Lightning
Last year: 18-26-4 (Missed playoffs)
Player to watch: C, Steven Stamkos. One of the most dynamic players in the league. His statistics say it all.
X-Factor: G, Ben Bishop. The tallest goalie in NHL history to ever play in between the pipes at 6’7”, Bishop has a lot to prove. The Ning have Anders Lindback and young prospect Andrey Vasilevskiy waiting in the wings if the big guy falters. Tampa can score, but need some defense to make a run at the playoffs.
Forecast: Stamkos and first-round pick Jonathan Drouin will have to pick up the goals for the Ning Dynasty. They need to show up the defense and have the young players step up. If things click, they could be in the fight for the playoffs.
7. Buffalo Sabres
Last year: 21-21-6 (Missed playoffs)
Player to watch: G, Ryan Miller… (For as long as he’s there.) We all know the rumors surrounding him and forward Tomas Vanek. The Swords are trying to rebuild and they can get plenty of fresh young talent for these two. We all know Miller is a pro and will do the best he can.
X-Factor: GM, Darcy Regier. Normally I don’t use front office people as an x-factor, but I’ll make an exception in this case. He knows he has to do something to get this team that Terry Pegula paid a lot of money for going in the right direction. If the team gets nothing for Miller and Vanek and the kids struggle, then it could be curtains for him.
Forecast: This is going to be a rebuilding year for the Sabres. (That phrase is tossed around with the other Buffalo professional sports team.) It’s imperative that they get some young pieces and Cody Hodgson plays well to deserve that big contract. This city is a great hockey city that deserves a winner.
8. Florida Panthers
Last year: 15-27-6 (Missed playoffs)
Player to watch: C, Jonathan Huberdeau. He was the bright spot for the league-worst Panthers as Huberbeau scored 14 goals en route to winning the Calder Trophy for best rookie last season. He’s fun to watch and could be a 30-goal scorer for years to come.
X-Factor: C, Aleksander Barkov. Florida surprised a lot of people when it took him second overall in the 2013 Draft instead of stud defenseman Seth Jones. Experts have said his game is the most NHL-ready of all the picks from the last draft. He’ll need to be ready in order for Panthers to sniff any shot of the playoffs.
Forecast: Two words about this team. Dumpster fire. They lost Stephen weiss, Jay Bouwmeester and Nathan Horton to other teams. This year a young team gets thrown to the wolves of one of the toughest divisions I’ve seen in years. It’s going to be a long year in Miami.
That’s it for the Atlantic Division. I’ll have the Metropolitan Division up some time by the end of the week. Take care and enjoy the hockey.
Dan Mount is an NHL and college football columnist for TJRSports.com. He is based out of Watertown, NY.