The NHL Atlantic: Tight at the Top
It could well be that the Atlantic Division becomes the NHL's the most competitive in 2016.
All off-season signs indicate its bottom squads will improve and its top teams will be legitimate Stanley Cup contenders.
By its lofty standards, Montréal is in a drought. Believe it or not, they haven't won the Cup since 1993 and, lately, have lost two straight playoff series while having home ice advantage.
Le Club du hockey Canadien has the league's best player in goaltender Carey Price, a great defenseman and convenient villain in PK Subban, and a high-scoring winger in Max Pacioretty. Summer hasn't gone well for Pacioretty, however, as he injured his knee in workouts and may not be ready for the season opener. And that could serve to underscore the point that the Habs still lack the depth to mount a late-spring Cup charge.
Tampa Bay reached the Stanley Cup Finals this past spring, defeating Montréal and the Rangers along the way.
No one will be surprised if they could be ready to take the next step next spring. The Lightning are young and will return their entire team and would prefer that goalie Ben Bishop stays healthy all season and into the playoffs. However, young Andrei Vasilevskiy may be more talented; he just needs more experience. Brian Boyle and Anton Stralman have made the finals for two straight seasons, once with the Rangers and this past spring with the Bolts. They were on the losing side twice and are now figuring their third time must be the charm.
Detroit and Ottawa made the playoffs last season and figure to return next spring.
The Red Wings love to collect vets and this time have added Mike Green and two-time Stanley Cup winner Brad Richards. They haven't won the Cup since 2008 and hope a rookie coach, Jeff Blashill, can have the success he did with their AHL affiliate in Grand Rapids. Ottawa has two good goaltenders in Craig Anderson and Andrew Hammond, the latter being labeled the Hamburgular after his spectacular 20-1-3 start, leading the Senators into the playoffs.
The Boston Bruins missed the playoffs last year after coming into the season as one of the conference favorites. They'll go into 2015-2016 with a new GM in Don Sweeney and without two stars who were traded, Dougie Hamilton and Milan Lucic. The Bruins are a long way from where they were when they won the Cup in 2011 but still have the talent to be competitive.
Buffalo, with new coach Dan Bylsma and new draft pick Jack Eichel, should actually be competitive this time around, while Florida expects to join the playoff hunt full time with Jaromír Jágr there for the whole season -- dude's gotta be related to Dorian Gray -- and goalie Roberto Luongo getting settled in as a Panther.
The one team that everyone questions is Toronto, and why not? They've been a continental punchline for five decades.
As usual, the Maple Leafs will try for the first Stanley Cup since 1967, which is the Canadian equivalent of an eternity. Will coaching god Mike Babcock be the one to bring it to TO? Maybe, if the right butterfly in China flaps its wings.
With Phil Kessel gone, players like Joffrey Lupul, James van Riemsdyk, and Nathan Horton will have to step up or Toronto will not only find themselves out of the playoffs next season, they could even be passed by Buffalo.
But the Leafs will still sell out every home game and make themselves well known across the lake.