Montreal Canadiens' Biggest Advantage Over Each Atlantic Division Opponent

Ryan SzporerContributor IIIAugust 3, 2013

Montreal Canadiens' Biggest Advantage Over Each Atlantic Division Opponent

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    Despite winning the Northeast Division last season, the Montreal Canadiens will be hard-pressed to repeat in 2013-14—mainly because it no longer exists and they are now in the new Atlantic Division.

    Nevertheless, with the same heated rivalries intact and new ones set to ignite in what is now an eight-team division, the Habs will be in tough against the likes of: the Boston Bruins, Buffalo Sabres, Detroit Red Wings, Florida Panthers, Ottawa Senators, Tampa Bay Lightning and Toronto Maple Leafs.

    Here are the advantages the Habs will likely hold over each team in the coming season, proving they still have a chance to come out on top:

Ottawa Senators (Offense)

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    Up until last season, Ottawa was never really considered all that much of a rival of the Habs. Despite Ottawa being the closest fellow NHL city to Montreal, the two teams had never met in the playoffs. But, boy, did all that change in a big way last spring.

    Considered heavy favorites, the second-seeded Habs simply couldn’t match the Senators’ physicality and were essentially beat into submission with a decisive 6-1 Game 5 loss. It got so bad that the Habs couldn’t even beat apparently scurvy-ridden goalie Craig Anderson with any kind of regularity, scoring just nine times in the series.

    Even if the Senators dispatched the Habs to the golf course in just five games, outscoring them quite handily in the process, the series overall was pretty intense. Tempers boiled over quickly with the Eric Gryba hit on the concussed-as-a-result Lars Eller in Game 1, in part leading to a massive brawl in Game 3 (which the Habs also lost).

    Essentially, due to injuries sustained over the course of the series and just before (Eller, Max Pacioretty, Ryan White, Brandon Prust, Brian Gionta, Alexei Emelin and Carey Price), the Habs got outplayed in most every facet of the game by the very end. It’s ironic, because their biggest advantage heading in, depth, ended up being their downfall.

    That won’t necessarily be the case next season, though. Time heals all wounds, but it doesn’t quench a thirst for payback. Assuming Montreal stays healthy next season, their depth up front should lead to more victories than losses against the Sens, who may be regaining Jason Spezza, but also lost Daniel Alfredsson to free agency.

    Bobby Ryan does give the Sens another weapon, but giving up Jakob Silfverberg (and other assets) in exchange could potentially backfire in the long run. Montreal meanwhile will have as many as nine players capable of filling a top-six role up front.

    However way you look at it, Montreal remains the more offensively dynamic team…even if it isn’t as clear-cut of an advantage as it was prior to last spring.

Florida Panthers (Scott Gomez)

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    Scott Gomez is the Florida Panthers’ problem now, albeit for much less of a headache-inducing salary than he was earning with the Habs when he was bought out last January.

    Still, while Gomez signing with Florida is not technically an advantage (at least not uniquely to the Habs anyway), it is symptomatic of an actual one.

    Assuming the team’s second-overall pick this past summer, center Aleksander Barkov, is brought along slowly and not automatically baptized by fire with a top-six position, Gomez realistically slots in as the team’s second-line center.

    That’s right. A guy who once went a full calendar year between goals (February 5, 2011—February 9, 2012) when he should have still been in his prime, is now two years older, coming off two straight two-goal seasons…and is among the cream of Florida’s crop in terms of offensive talent.

    Looking at Florida’s roster, the Panthers actually have no more than one hypothetical decent line comprising left-winger Tomas Fleischmann, center Jonathan Huberdeau and right-winger Kris Versteeg. And, all due respect to those three, with Huberdeau just 20, that’s a second line on an average NHL team.

    It’s a similar story on defense. Captain Ed Jovanovski may be a sentimental favorite, being the team’s last remnant of its first and only run to the Stanley Cup Final and all, but that’s just a nice way of saying he’s 37 years old…and how bad the team has become.

    Really, when your only defenseman currently in their prime is Matt Gilroy, who is on his fifth team in the last five years (New York Rangers twice), it’s a bad sign.

    It's even worse with the much-hyped Jacob Markstrom poised to serve as the team’s No. 1 goalie. As great as he’s projected to be, the Panthers are not doing him any favors putting him behind this current lineup and may even be doing themselves a huge disservice in the long run.

    In the here and now, the Habs have too many advantages over the Panthers to count, much like their projected goal total whenever they meet during the regular season, as the playoffs aren’t even a possibility for Florida.

Buffalo Sabres (Defense)

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    The Habs let Yannick Weber pursue free agency. They did so because they had a glut of defensemen and just no room for the Swiss who had fallen out of favor with head coach Michel Therrien.

    The Sabres conversely are still hanging on to their depth defenseman of the same surname because they don’t have the luxury of letting their spare defensive parts go. In fact, they just re-signed Mike Weber to a three-year deal.

    While they play different games (Mike’s involves actual defense), it might come as a shock to many, and serve as a reflection of the defensive strength of both teams, that each player has scored 32 points in their NHL careers.

    What’s probably more shocking is Yannick, now a Vancouver Canuck, has done so in over 50 fewer games (115 versus 174). Granted, Yannick was a defensive liability, but Tyler Myers has become even more of one, and in a much bigger role, playing for his team.

    Now, kudos to the Sabres for acquiring the struggling Jamie McBain and reacquiring Henrik Tallinder. However, they had to give up a defenseman who was actually performing up to standards to get the former (Andrej Sekera), while the latter couldn’t even earn a positive plus/minus rating in any one of three seasons playing for the New Jersey Devils of all teams.

    The bottom line is, as Ryan Miller gets older and more ineffective (and counterpart Carey Price is just 26), he’s less likely to be able to cover up for all the holes in Buffalo’s defense. When Myers is as big as he is at 6’8” and 227 pounds, it might not even be all that possible.

Tampa Bay Lightning (Overall Depth)

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    It might be hard for anyone, Tampa Bay fan (all 17 of them) or not, to name everyone on the Lightning. And that’s not even taking into account hard-to-pronounce names like Radko Gudas, who, believe it or not, is probably one of the team’s better defensemen.

    The Lightning have undeniably great players on its roster like Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis, but there’s a sharp drop-off in talent from that point onward.

    Case in point? Teddy Purcell, Valtteri Filppula, Ryan Malone, Tyler Johnson and Jonathan Drouin are probably in the mix to fill out an as-of-yet undetermined top six.

    Drouin was just drafted. Malone is over the hill. Filppula was a third-liner on an actually good team and I really don’t think anyone outside of St. Louis, Missouri has even heard of Tyler Johnson…and that would be the Tyler Johnson who had a cup of tea with the Cardinals a half-decade ago.

    Chances are good it’s not even the right Tyler Johnson is what I’m saying.

    About the only Lightning position with which casual hockey fans are probably familiar is goaltending, and that’s only because of the well-documented quagmire in net general manager Steve Yzerman has failed to solve during his three-plus years on the job. Of course, there being just two names to remember also helps.

    He has essentially assembled a goaltending tandem based on potential alone in Ben Bishop and Anders Lindback. Both players previously enjoyed success on defensive-minded teams and started to struggle upon joining the Lightning.

    When Mike Smith is allowed to pursue free agency after failing to record a single winning season in Tampa and immediately posts a 38-18-10 record and .930 save percentage with the Phoenix Coyotes, it shouldn’t take a genius to figure out that one of two things is needed:

     

    a)   An established star goalie who can actually deal with the Lightning’s lax defensive system or

    b)   A better defensive system

     

    That’s just simple logic, along with the Lightning not being very good this coming season.

Toronto Maple Leafs (Management)

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    Speaking of Yzerman’s mistakes as Tampa Bay’s general manager, Toronto Maple Leaf general manager Dave Nonis has arguably messed up more, and in just one (48-game) season of work no less.

    Even if one decides to forgive a team for picking the offensively challenged Tyler Bozak (or Greg Pateryn) over the clearly superior Grabovski, there is little excuse for giving the former a nonsensical five-year, $21-million deal, especially when you have little cap space to spare.

    Add in a crazier deal to David Clarkson (who has never scored more points than Bozak in any one season, by the way) and one has to wonder if Nonis wasn’t just guilty of wanting to share the wealth stemming from his brand-new five-year contract extension.

    Well, at least one would be wondering that if he hadn’t have been given his extension as a stamp of approval for a job well done after he signed Clarkson and Bozak, proving Toronto’s mismanagement extends to the ownership level.

    The Leafs admittedly have other problems besides Nonis, including an unsustainable average of 32.3 shots allowed per game last year. It’s that much more of an issue with just $5 million of cap space left to sign arguably their most-complete defenseman, Cody Franson and second-leading scorer Nazem Kadri.

    Say what you want about the moves made by Habs general manager Marc Bergevin this past summer, but at least he hasn’t potentially set his team back a decade…oh, and just when the Leafs had made the playoffs for the first time in nine years too.

Detroit Red Wings (Youth)

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    It’s hard to argue against the almost-guaranteed fact that the Detroit Red Wings will make the playoffs again this year. They have done just that for the past 22 seasons, after all.

    However, it’s very much up for debate that they’ll end up as one of the Atlantic Division’s top three seeds instead of just making it as a wild-card team.

    Last year, for example, they just barely held off the Minnesota Wild and Columbus Blue Jackets for the seventh seed in the Western Conference (yes, you read that once-unlikely-to-ever-be-written sentence right).

    Finding themselves in the weaker Eastern Conference a year later, it’s logical to assume making the playoffs wouldn’t be an issue for the Wings. However, the key part of that sentence is not “Eastern Conference”, but rather “a year later.”

    The members of Detroit’s core aren’t getting any younger. Pavel Datsyuk is 35, Todd Bertuzzi is 38, Johan Franzen is 33, Mikael Samuelsson is 36, Henrik Zetterberg is 33 and Niklas Kronwall is 32.

    It’s sad when signing freshly minted unrestricted free agents actually has a chance to make your core younger, but that’s just what happened when the Wings agreed to terms with 30-year-old Stephen Weiss…before signing 40-year-old Daniel Alfredsson, of course.

    Players like Brendan Smith (24), Gustav Nyquist (23), Tomas Tatar (22) and Tomas Jurco (21) are developing and constitute the team’s future. Still, it just doesn’t look like the Wings’ farm system will be able to churn out top-end players fast enough to replace all their veterans who are entering the end of their primes.

    The Red Wings will no doubt be a force to be reckoned with this coming season. However, when your players’ pre-game meals late in the afternoon are around the time they’d normally be eating dinner anyway, it certainly doesn’t bode well for the team’s long-term future.

Boston Bruins (Hate)

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    The Bruins are bigger and tougher than the Montreal Canadiens. That’s just a fact. They’ve got a deeper defense, about as much depth on offense and better goaltending.

    Additionally, while they just signed 36-year-old Jarome Iginla, the longest-serving member of the team is actually just 28 years old in Patrice Bergeron. So, it would seem anyway, youth is still being (well) served in Boston.

    Needless to say, it’s hard coming up with an advantage the Habs have over the Bruins. When a team comes within two wins of the Stanley Cup and just nearly missed forcing a seventh and deciding game, that’s probably how it should be.

    Still, we’re talking about a team against whom, despite all apparent odds, the Habs won three games of four games against last year. Since the last lockout, the Habs even hold a decisive 42-28 edge in matchups against the Bruins.

    While there shouldn’t be that much of a discrepancy in victories between the Habs and an on-paper better team, Montreal has consistently matched up well against the Bruins (and, admittedly not so well against inferior teams like the Lightning and Panthers).

    Barring a repeat of 2009, when the Habs were 1-9 against them, that trend should continue for the simple reason that the Habs hate them.

    That isn’t to say the Bruins don’t hate the Habs to the same degree. It just means, when there’s added emotional incentive to beat a team, anything can happen. And, somehow, using their size and skill, the Habs have been able to make do just fine against their longtime rivals.

    Seeing as the Bruins are by all accounts the team to beat in the Atlantic Division, look for the Habs to at least be in the running as well.