Pavel Datsyuk and the Red Wings are moving to the Eastern Conference
We're still months away from the 2013-14 NHL season, but that doesn't mean it's too early to take a look at the Atlantic Division's top contenders. Thanks to the league's realignment, the former Northeast Division teams are joined by the Detroit Red Wings, Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers under the new moniker.
Five of these eight teams made the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs, but only three are guaranteed to return in 2014. Everyone else will battle it out for the Eastern Conference's final two wild-card playoff spots with the members of the Metropolitan Division.
In determining which of these teams is the best of the bunch, I'll approach my ranking in a matter-of-fact manner. I'll take a look at last year's performances, significant roster changes and internal development of younger players.
They may not have been members of the division—or the conference, for that matter—but expect the Red Wings to give the Boston Bruins a run for their money.
Steven Stamkos and the Lightning may have a tough time this year.
Sadly, the Sabres are entering Year 1 of the rebuilding phase.
Not only did they ship out Jason Pominville, Robyn Regehr and Jordan Leopold, they also may soon cut ties with Ryan Miller and Thomas Vanek. The youth movement will soon be in full swing.
Though the Sabres could be a competitive team this year, especially with increased production from Cody Hodgson and Mikhail Grigorenko, I don't think that will be enough. While some important pieces are in place, this team doesn't have the necessary experience to beat out the elite teams. It would have to do that just to make the playoffs in this deep division.
After making the playoffs in 2012 by virtue of 18 loser points, the Panthers finished with the worst record in the league in 2013. They were 29th in goals scored and 30th in goals allowed.
Where do we start?
Well, the good news for the Panthers is that they have an immense amount of young talent. Between Jonathan Huberdeau (20), Aleksander Barkov (17), Nick Bjugstad (21), Erik Gudbranson (21), Jacob Markstrom (23) and more, they have a bright future. But for now, this team may continue to stink.
The Panthers might have been in better shape if they remained in the weak Southeast Division, so realignment did them no favors. Behind Boston, Detroit and the three Canadian teams, this team doesn't appear to have a shot in 2013-14.
Tampa Bay Lightning
The Lightning are the one team out of these three that could surprise everyone. Last year, they finished third in the league in goals per game and 26th in goals against. To make the playoffs, they have to improve big time on the latter.
GM Steve Yzerman hopes that Ben Bishop and Anders Lindback can both take a step forward in the upcoming season. Both young goalies are big, athletic and loaded with potential. If Tampa Bay can strike gold with just one of these two, it may find itself in contention.
Though the Lightning bought out Vincent Lecavalier, they signed Valtteri Filppula away from the Red Wings and drafted the dynamic Jonathan Drouin. These moves should more than make up for Lecavalier's production and ultimately will make the Lightning a more balanced team.
Still, the uncertain production from their defensemen and goaltending keep them from challenging the real contenders of the Atlantic Division.
Will James Reimer beat out Jonathan Bernier for the starting job?
Before we begin, I do remember that this team had the Bruins on the brink of elimination before the debacle that can be seen at this link (start the video at around 3:00). I also remember that the Leafs have had an active offseason, bringing in Jonathan Bernier and David Clarkson to bolster a strong roster.
Bernier might just become a star in the NHL. But the trade comes at a puzzling time. Not only were Matt Frattin and Ben Scrivens solid pieces who came inexpensively, but the Leafs just got a stellar season out of starting goalie James Reimer.
Then the team gave Bernier a deal for two years at a shade under $3 million per season, which is not backup money. Two-goalie systems almost never work out well.
I'm looking at you, GM Dave Nonis.
I also think the Leafs overpaid David Clarkson, a forward who has only produced more than 40 points in a season once. His contract is for seven years, which I think they will regret in the near future.
Call me a hater, but I'm not impressed. In fact, I expect the Leafs to finish fifth in the division, making it a distinct possibility that they miss the playoffs.
Erik Karlsson is healthy and ready to go for the upcoming season.
Ottawa enters the 2013-14 season missing a familiar face. Daniel Alfredsson, the longtime captain of the Senators, has moved to the Red Wings in hopes of winning a Stanley Cup before retirement. Still, the team has a lot to look forward to in the coming years.
The Senators are one of the youngest teams in the NHL and boast talent in all areas. Though the team ranked 27th in goals scored last year, they had to deal with an insane amount of injuries to their top producers.
If being healthy isn't enough, they added sniper Bobby Ryan to help solve some of those problems. With him, a healthy Erik Karlsson and the development of youngsters like Mika Zibanejad (20), the offense should find a spark.
In net, the Senators can't expect the same kind of dominant performance from Craig Anderson, who posted a 1.69 GAA. Regardless, he and Robin Lehner make for a strong duo that should frustrate opposing offenses throughout the season.
Because I consider Ottawa to be a deep, balanced team, I give it the nod over Toronto and fully expect the Senators to be around come playoff time.
Can P.K. Subban repeat his Norris caliber season?
The Montreal Canadiens experienced a heck of a turn-around last year. They went from last in the East in 2011-12 to second in 2013. This team is here to stay.
Montreal benefits from having a balanced team. On offense, there are no true superstars—though Alex Galchenyuk will eventually be one—but the Canadiens get production from three different lines and their defense.
The rearguards are led by Norris Trophy winner P.K. Subban, Andrei Markov and Alexei Emelin. They may not all be high-profile names, but they are effective. They help life easier for Carey Price, who managed a solid 2.59 GAA in 2013 under the brightest spotlight in hockey.
In the offseason, the Habs have been quiet. Their biggest move was signing Daniel Briere, a Quebec native who is a prolific playoff performer. On top of that, he is a class act who will serve as an excellent mentor to youngsters like Galchenyuk (19) and Brendan Gallagher (21).
Montreal may not have done much in the offseason, but it didn't need to. The Habs are young, talented and one dominant season from Price away from being mentioned among the league's elite.
In my book, the distinction between the Habs and Sens is a small one, but I'll give Montreal the edge thanks to its more proven offense.
Tuukka Rask has a new, big contract to live up to.
The Boston Bruins have made a lot of offseason changes for a team that made it to Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final. But for anyone who thinks that means they'll falter in the upcoming season, you're going to be disappointed.
While guys like Jaromir Jagr and Andrew Ference left in free agency, the Bruins have plenty of organizational talent to make up for them. In free agency, the team added veteran Jarome Iginla, a funny move considering that he famously chose to go to Pittsburgh instead of Boston at the trade deadline.
The biggest move, though, was the trade of Tyler Seguin. He was shipped to Dallas along with Rich Peverley for Loui Eriksson, Joe Morrow and some prospects. Eriksson is one of the most criminally underrated players in the league and should be an immediate fit in Boston's talented, hard-working top six.
Other than that, the Bruins locked up playoff stars Tuukka Rask and Patrice Bergeron to long-term extensions, solidifying the core of the team for years to come.
All in all, Boston still remains gritty and talented, a recipe that always works. Expect this team to make the playoffs with ease and use its patented style of play to its advantage once it gets there.
Overall, the Bruins are more complete and experienced than Montreal, giving them the edge in my book.
The Red Wings will continue their playoff streak in the East.
The Red Wings, newcomers to the Eastern Conference, have some serious competition in this division. If any team knows how to succeed, though, it's Detroit. The Wings have a 22-season playoff streak that doesn't appear to be ending anytime soon.
This offseason, Mike Babcock's squad lost Valtteri Filppula and presumably Damien Brunner but added two talented veterans in Daniel Alfredsson and Stephen Weiss. When healthy, both of the new acquisitions are strong top-six players who will make a big difference in Detroit.
Though much has been made about the decline of the Wings in recent years, fans are forgetting that this team reloads year after year in the NHL draft. This year's team should have bigger contributions from Brendan Smith (24), Tomas Jurco (20) and Gustav Nyquist (23), three youngsters with a lot of talent.
Detroit only finished seventh in the Western Conference last year, so some might wonder why I'm so optimistic about its chances. Put simply, the Red Wings played better teams than the East can offer. The Wings showed how good they are when they gained a 3-1 series lead on Chicago.
It may be sad for Detroit to leave the West and its traditional rivalries with teams like the Blackhawks and Blues, but it can take solace in the fact that life may get a little easier on the other side of the league.