2015-16 NHL Predictions: Preview and Picks for Atlantic Division

Lyle Richardson@@SpectorsHockeyFeatured ColumnistOctober 3, 2015

2015-16 NHL Predictions: Preview and Picks for Atlantic Division

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    It's shaping up to be another interesting season in the NHL's Atlantic Division. In 2014-15, the Montreal Canadiens and Tampa Bay Lightning dueled for the top spot in the standings. The Detroit Red Wings made the playoffs for the 24th straight season, while the Ottawa Senators made a stunning late-season run to earn a playoff berth.

    Looking ahead to 2015-16, the Lightning and Canadiens should once again be the division's dominant teams. The transitioning Red Wings could find it challenging to maintain their postseason streak, while the rising Senators should once again challenge for a playoff spot.

    The once-mighty Boston Bruins could be jockeying for postseason contention with the hungry young Florida Panthers. The rebuilding Buffalo Sabres and Toronto Maple Leafs will likely bring up the rear. 

    The following slideshow previews the Atlantic Division for 2015-16 and predicts where the eight teams will finish in the standings. We'll examine the best old and new rivalries, as well as the division's best forward line, defense pairing and goaltender. Feel free to voice your opinions in the comments section below. 

The Favorite: Tampa Bay Lightning

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    The Tampa Bay Lightning emerged as a legitimate Stanley Cup contender in 2014-15. They finished second in the Atlantic Division during the regular season and then marched to the Stanley Cup Final before falling to the Chicago Blackhawks in six games.

    General manager Steve Yzerman and head coach Jon Cooper have turned the Lightning into one of the most talented rosters in the league. Led by captain Steven Stamkos, blossoming stars Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Nikita Kucherov and blue-line stalwart Victor Hedman, the Lightning are well-positioned this season for another shot at the Stanley Cup. 

    A potential distraction could be Stamkos' long-term future. He's an unrestricted free agent next summer and will be expensive to re-sign, which could create potential salary-cap headaches down the road. The goaltending depth could also be a concern. Ben Bishop has an injury history, and backup Andrei Vasilevskiy was recently sidelined by vascular surgery.

    Despite those issues, the Lightning are a young, hungry team whose championship appetite was whetted by last season's playoff run. They are the favorites to not only top the Atlantic Division but also the Eastern Conference. 

The Challenger: Montreal Canadiens

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    Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

    The Montreal Canadiens secured first place in the Atlantic Division in 2014-15, reaching the 50-win plateau for the first time since 1988-89. They lost in the second round of the playoffs in six games to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

    Led by award-winning goaltender Carey Price, superstar defenseman P.K. Subban and new captain Max Pacioretty, the Canadiens have a solid talent core. During the offseason, general manager Marc Bergevin ensured stability for his defense by re-signing Jeff Petry. He also signed right wing Alexander Semin for additional scoring depth and acquired winger Zack Kassian for size and toughness. 

    The Canadiens were among the bottom third in goals and power-play percentage last season while giving up the 10th-most shots against per game. They also struggled against fast-skating clubs such as the Lightning, relying too much on Price to bail them out. Meanwhile, promising forward Alex Galchenyuk has yet to emerge as a reliable offensive star. 

    With Price, Subban and Pacioretty leading the way, the Canadiens will remain a playoff club in 2015-16. If Semin, Kassian and Galchenyuk play up to expectations, they could provide the offensive boost the Habs need to challenge the Lightning for first place in the division.

The Bottom-Dweller: Toronto Maple Leafs

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    With a record of 30 wins, 44 losses and eight overtime losses for 68 points in 2014-15, the Toronto Maple Leafs missed the playoffs for the ninth time in 10 years. That prompted a long-overdue rebuild.

    During the offseason, team president Brendan Shanahan hired former New Jersey Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello as the new GM and former Detroit Red Wings coach Mike Babcock as the new bench boss. The Leafs also traded leading scorer Phil Kessel to the Pittsburgh Penguins for draft picks and prospects.

    The Kessel deal, however, was the only significant offseason roster move. Core players Tyler Bozak, James van Riemsdyk, Joffrey Lupul and captain Dion Phaneuf still remain. The Leafs have no one to sufficiently replace Kessel's offense this season. Promising young forwards Mitch Marner and William Nylander will get another year of seasoning at the junior and AHL levels.

    While the Leafs will be a harder-working team under Babcock this season, they're not a more talented one. More roster changes are likely over the course of this season as the long process of rebuilding continues. Expect the Leafs to finish last in the division. 

Best Old Rivalry: Boston Bruins-Montreal Canadiens

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    Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

    The rivalry between the Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens is arguably the best in NHL history. Few sports rivalries can match the Bruins and Canadiens for intensity. 

    Since 1928-29, the two clubs have squared off in 34 postseason series, with the Canadiens winning 25 of them. Since 2001-02, the Habs have taken four of the six playoff series against the Bruins. Even the regular-season games between the two clubs have a playoff atmosphere. 

    This season, the rivalry could have a different feel. After missing the playoffs last season, the Bruins shook up their front office and roster. Among the changes was trading power forward Milan Lucic, a longtime Habs antagonist, to the Los Angeles Kings. That could diffuse some of the heat between the two clubs. 

    Despite the Bruins' recent decline, they won't have any trouble getting hyped up for a match against their longtime rivals from Montreal. While the Canadiens are a stronger club this season, they won't take the rebuilding Bruins for granted. Hockey fans can still expect plenty of fireworks whenever these teams collide.

Best New Rivalry: Montreal Canadiens-Tampa Bay Lightning

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    The recent rivalry between the Montreal Canadiens and Tampa Bay Lightning began during the 2013-14 season, when only one point divided the two teams for second and third in the Atlantic Division standings. In the 2014 playoffs, the Canadiens swept the Lightning in the opening round.

    Last season, the two clubs jockeyed for the top spot in the division, with the Canadiens finishing two points ahead of the Lightning. The Bolts avenged that finish and their previous playoff humiliation by bouncing the Habs from the second round of the 2015 playoffs in six games.

    It quickly became apparent last season that the Canadiens had difficulty containing the Lightning's speed. The Bolts dominated the season series, and while the Habs were more competitive in their playoff matchup, their inability to slow the Lightning proved their undoing.

    With the Canadiens and Lightning considered among this season's Stanley Cup contenders, their battles for dominance in the Atlantic Division should add even more ferocity to this new rivalry.

Best Line: Ondrej Palat-Tyler Johnson-Nikita Kucherov

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    In the span of just one season, the Tampa Bay Lightning's "Triplets" of left wing Ondrej Palat, center Tyler Johnson and right wing Nikita Kucherov became one of the NHL's best lines.

    Palat and Johnson were Calder Memorial Trophy finalists in 2014. Kucherov also debuted that season and showed some scoring potential. Playing together full time last season, the trio quickly became the Lightning's most proficient scoring line. Johnson tied superstar Steven Stamkos for the team's points lead, while Kucherov and Palat finished third and fourth, respectively.

    Palat, a skilled two-way winger, and Johnson, a dynamic offensive center, have played together since their AHL days. Kucherov, an explosive scorer, quickly developed a strong chemistry with the pair. As a result, they've become key factors in the Lightning's emergence as a dominant force in the Eastern Conference.

    Few lines in the NHL can match the speed and offensive skills of the Triplets. More worrisome for opponents is the trio has yet to reach its playing prime. Expect them to be the Atlantic Division's most dominant line this season.

Best Defense Pairing: Victor Hedman-Anton Stralman

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    Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

    The Tampa Bay Lightning possess considerable offensive punch, but they also have one of the NHL's best defense pairings in Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman.

    Since being selected second overall in the 2009 NHL draft, Hedman has steadily blossomed into a superb first-pairing blueliner. Though injuries last season limited him to 59 games, he still tallied 38 points. The 24-year-old was outstanding during the 2015 playoffs, netting 14 points in 26 games while leading the Bolts in blocked shots and ice time.

    Signed in 2014 as an unrestricted free agent, Stralman meshed well with Hedman. The 29-year-old Swede is a skilled two-way defenseman whose experience and calm demeanor are valuable additions to the blue line. In the 2015 playoffs, he finished second to Hedman in blocked shots and ice time.

    With Hedman poised to become an All-Star and the steady Stralman as his defense partner, the Lightning have a top defense pairing that provides them an edge in their quest for the Stanley Cup this season.

Best Goalie: Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    There are four reasons why Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price is the best goaltender in the Atlantic Division. They are the Hart Memorial Trophy, the Vezina Trophy, the Ted Lindsay Award and the William M. Jennings Award, which he won for his outstanding play in 2014-15. 

    Price's performance last season ranks among the most dominant in NHL history. He led all goaltenders in wins (44), goals-against average (1.96) and save percentage (.933) and was second with nine shutouts. Thank to Price's efforts, a low-scoring Canadiens team that was frequently outshot last season topped the Atlantic Division and finished second in the Eastern Conference.

    Entering 2015-16, Price is unquestionably among the NHL's elite goaltenders. However, it could be asking too much of the 28-year-old to repeat last season's MVP performance. His teammates must do a better job at both ends of the rink this season or risk burning out their superstar netminder.

    Regardless of the Canadiens' performance as a team this season, they can count on Price to give them a chance to win every time he starts. While there are several superb goaltenders in the Atlantic Division, none holds a candle to Price.

Projected 2015-16 Standings

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    Joel Auerbach/Associated Press

    Tampa Bay Lightning: The offense of Steven Stamkos and the Triplets Line plus the solid defense of Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman will carry the Lightning to the top of the division standings. They stand an excellent chance of returning to the Stanley Cup Final.

    Montreal Canadiens: Carey Price, P.K. Subban and Max Pacioretty will once again lead the Canadiens into the playoffs. However, the Habs must generate more offense while improving their defensive game if they're to challenge for the division title.

    Ottawa Senators: Led by two-time Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson, and with emerging stars such as Mark Stone, Kyle Turris and Mika Zibanejad, the Senators will build upon last season's strong finish and clinch third place in the division.

    Florida Panthers: After narrowly missing the cut last season, the Panthers are ready to pounce on a playoff berth. With rising talent such as 2015 Calder Trophy winner Aaron Ekblad and forwards Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov, they should be serious playoff contenders.

    Detroit Red Wings: The Wings are rebuilding on the fly and have several promising young players on the roster and in their system. However, they still rely too much on aging stars such as Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk. It will catch up with them this season.

    Boston Bruins: The once-mighty Bruins shook up their front office and roster, but they have more work to do. The defense is wafer-thin, and the offensive depth is concerning. They'll have their work cut out for them to make the playoffs.

    Buffalo Sabres: After bottoming out last season, the Sabres bolstered their depth by acquiring center Ryan O'Reilly via trade and selecting promising center Jack Eichel with the second overall pick in the draft. However, questions remain about their goaltending and defensive depth.

    Toronto Maple Leafs: The expectations are low in Leafs Nation in the first season of a significant rebuild. The coaching and management have improved, but there have been no major roster upgrades yet. Expect the Maple Leafs to miss the playoffs again. 

    Team and player stats via NHL.com. Salary information via General Fanager. NHL award info via Hockey-Reference.com.