Tampa Bay Lightning (1st Place – 39-22-4, 82 Points)
PRO – Offense, offense, offense. The NHL’s President’s Trophy leaders are the highest-scoring team in the league, averaging 3.83 goals per game, with a power play operating at 28.98%, tops in the league and almost 2% higher than second-place Florida, at 27.07%. Offensive success was no surprise in Tampa given their talented roster, and the team has enjoyed outstanding seasons from captain Steven Stamkos (61 points in 54 games played) and MVP-candidate Nikita Kucherov (59 assists, 81 points in 54 GP). The breakout star of the season in Tampa (and maybe the NHL) has been Brayden Point, who at 22 years old and in his third pro season, has now equalled his 66 point season of last year with 31 goals and 35 assists in 53 games played. Last season, he managed 66 points total, while playing all 82 games. Outside these top three point producers, depth scoring has also been potent this season, as Tampa’s top 10 point scorers all average at least 0.5 points per game, with the following four players on the roster averaging at least 0.4 points per game.
Toronto Maple Leafs (2nd Place – 33-17-3, 69 Points)
CON – Distractions. Between Nylander’s continued struggle to produce goals since ending his contract holdout (two goals in 25 games), and the consensus love/hate relationship fans have with defenseman Jake Gardiner, this team will have to ignore the tough Toronto media and the highest of expectations in order to improve on their recent playoff campaigns. Before the Muzzin deal, Toronto’s defensive struggles were heavily scrutinized, but Muzzin’s arrival has provided a balance and stability to the three defensive pairings (thus far in a small sample size). Matthews, Marner, Rielly, and even Tavares (who has played just 24 career playoff games in 10 NHL seasons), will have to learn quick how to push through the pressure that comes with playoff hockey in the Toronto media market. If the firepower wears thin, goaltender Frederik Andersen(2.55 GAA,.923 SV%) certainly can be relied upon to keep the Leafs in games. He is ranked 6th in the NHL amongst goaltenders in save percentage.
Montreal Canadiens (3rd Place – 31-18-6, 68 Points)
PRO – Injection of fresh faces and well-timed growth spurts are making GM Marc Bergevin and head coach Claude Julien look really good. The Habs aren’t nearly as bad as many experts thought they would be when the season started, and after years of fans calling for change, Bergevin may have figured out how to build a team after all. After trading away captain Max Pacioretty and the ever-so-loved Alex Galchenyuk (this kids, is an example of sarcasm), the Canadiens did away with last year’s distractions and got back to playing hockey. Max Domi (acquired from Arizona in the Galchenyuk trade) leads the Canadiens in scoring with 47 points, Jonathan Drouin (acquired two summers ago from Tampa Bay) has settled in with 46 points, and Tomas Tatar (acquired from Vegas in the Pacioretty trade) is fourth on the team in scoring with 39 points. 2018 first-round pick Jesper Kotkaniemi proved in training camp he was ready to be a full-time NHLer, and 25-year old Phillip Danault, in his fourth full NHL season and third with Montreal, has matched his career-high points total with 40 in 55 games after posting the same number of points in 82 games two seasons ago. Then of course, there’s Carey Price (23-13-4, 2.52 GAA, .916 SV%), who is always seemingly the key to Montreal’s success or failures, having a stellar (and injury-free) season between the pipes. Combine all of the above happening at once, and Montreal are a team in a playoff race. Take away one or two of those things from happening, and last season’s disappointment may have continued. Timing is everything.
CON – Average defense doing just enough in front of Price. Montreal is currently chasing Toronto for second in the division, and notably, the team’s 2.87 goals against average is ranked 9th in the NHL, but considering Price’s GAA listed above, the team struggles to keep pucks out of the net without him. If Montreal plans to win a playoff series, this is an area needing some improvement. Statistically, the Habs are average or below the league average in many defensive categories. The team’s penalty kill sits 20th in the league at 78.98%, and are 8th-worst in the league in power play chances allowed per game (3.20). Entering the playoffs with this defense unit may be trouble, especially if they have the misfortune of playing a high-powered offensive team in the first round. While Montreal and Tampa Bay share the same “Can the offense outscore the defensive issues”-type of problem, Tampa’s superstars and role players are producing at high volume, while Montreal don’t have a single player on the roster averaging at least one point per game.
Boston Bruins (4th Place, 1st Wild Card – 29-17-8, 66 Points)
PRO – Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak are still one of, if not the best, forward lines in the league. Offensively, the three have combined for 69 of Boston’s 154 goals this season, or 44% of the total offensive production. The Bruins have the NHL’s 3rd-best power play at 27.06%, and sophomore defenseman Charlie McAvoy is back from injury, which is an even bigger boost to the power play units. In goal, Tuuka Rask and Jaroslav Halak have combined for the NHL’s 4th-lowest goals against average (2.59), which will be important going forward, because…
CON – Boston is an aging, one-line team with underperforming youth and a ton of injury problems. Zdeno Chara is going to be 42 years old by the end of the season and has missed 19 games thus far. The 6’9″ defender has played in at least 73 regular season games in all but two seasons since the year 2000 (one of those two seasons was the 48-game lockout-shortened 2012-13 season). Does Chara still have the legs to make a run for one last Stanley Cup ring? The core of the Boston Bruins in Stanley Cup-winning years past are now in their early to mid-30’s, and despite their success, will have to rely on the help of the team’s young legs to find success in April. This, however, can be a problem. Aside from Pastrnak leading the team in points at 22 years of age, the 21-year old McAvoy has only played in 27 games this season due to injury, and Jake DeBrusk (the other sophomore who made headlines as a Bruins rookie last season) has 14 goals, but only 5 assists in 45 games played. Aside from the team’s overall top-5 point producers, no other Bruins player has reached the 20-point mark yet, so depth scoring may be something to address prior to the trade deadline.
Buffalo Sabres (5th Place, 26-20-7, 59 Points)
PRO – Along with selecting Rasmus Dahlin with the first overall pick this past summer, GM Jason Botterill made a number of trades this past off-season that have clearly benefited the team’s progression, namely the acquisition of winger Jeff Skinner. Captain and young superstar Jack Eichel has benefited the most from playing with Skinner. The Sabres are exciting to watch now, and fans in Buffalo have waited a long time to have a playoff contending team.
Florida Panthers (6th Place – 22-22-8, 52 Points)
PRO – The talent on this team is scary, and should have been better this season. GM Dale Tallon has built a highly skilled team that has unfortunately and unexpectedly, underperformed, but things shouldn’t stay this way for long. The Panthers team of this season is no indication of the direction Florida is going, as losing goaltender Roberto Luongo and star center Vincent Trocheck (5 G, 13 A, 18 P in 25 GP) to injury earlier this season showed just how important they are to the overall leadership group of the team. The team’s offense is led by 23-year old first-year captain Aleksander Barkov, one of the league’s most underrated players, with 52 points. Jonathan Huberdeau (51 points), summer acquisition Mike Hoffman (44 points, team-leading 24 goals), Evgenii Dadonov (42 points) and veteran defenseman Keith Yandle (40 points) round out the top offensive producers. Meanwhile, 24-year old Frank Vatrano is having a career year with 28 points, and 21-year old prospect Henrik Borgstrom has played in his first 22 NHL games this season, posting a respectable eight points. The Panthers also boast the NHL’s 2nd-best power play (27.07%), only behind Tampa Bay. Statistics like this are usually worthy of playoff consideration, especially in today’s goal-heavy NHL.
CON – Bob Boughner’s second season behind the bench has been underwhelming until recently. Last season, Florida made a late push for the playoffs, and their 96 point total was only one point behind New Jersey and Columbus for the two Eastern Conference wild card spots. This season, the Panthers’ defense has been their downfall, allowing 3.46 goals per game. Only Chicago and Ottawa have allowed more. With 39-year old future Hall of Famer Roberto Luongo and 30 year old James Reimer combining for just under a .900 SV%, the goaltending situation in Florida is also cause for concern, mostly because Luongo, a fan favorite, may not have much left in the tank. However, this “con” may turn out to be a “pro” if recent rumors are true. If the Panthers’ recent acquisitions of pending unrestricted free agents Derrick Brassard and Riley Sheahan from Pittsburgh result in a trade with Columbus involving Sergei Bobrovsky and/or Artemi Panarin coming to Florida… look out Atlantic Division rivals…
Detroit Red Wings (7th Place – 21-26-7, 49 Points)
PRO – Young offensive talent. Prospects such as Filip Zadina and Joe Veleno are two exciting prospects to watch for in the very near future. Meanwhile, in the NHL, 19-year old Michael Rasmussen is being eased into NHL action. The rookie averages over 12 minutes per night while posting a modest 13 points in 41 NHL games. Offensively, the Red Wings have discovered they may have more weapons than anyone gives them credit for. However, head coach Jeff Blashill has some work to do on building chemistry and finding the right line combinations. Players like Tyler Bertuzzi, Martin Frk, Anthony Mantha, and captain Dylan Larkin are not only young but have a few NHL years under their belts to help the even younger kids along.
CON – Old defensive unit needs to re-tooled. Quite oppositely, Detroit’s backline carries one of the league’s oldest average ages (30.5 average age). In fact, their 8 rostered defensemen are only saved by 20-year old rookie Dennis Cholowski. He is having an overall good rookie season and has shown flashes of the offensive talent that helped earn him the 20th overall selection by the Wings in 2016. 21-year old Filip Hronek is playing his trade with Detroit’s AHL affiliate in Grand Rapids. The 2016 second-round pick may take a full-time roster spot next season, if not after the upcoming deadline. Still, the veteran defense entered the month of February 7th-worst in the NHL in goals against per game (3.37 GAPG) and the league’s 9th-worst penalty kill percentage (77.4%).
Ottawa Senators (8th Place – 20-29-5, 45 Points)
PRO – Well, as GM Pierre Dorion said (unconvincingly) when asked before training camp this fall, “We’re a Team.” Yes, Pierre. Yes, you have a team. In all honesty, though, the young core of this franchise is something to be excited about. Between Brady Tkachuk, Colin White, Drake Batherson, Thomas Chabot and the surprise rookie standout on defense, Maxime Lajoie, Senators fans have received an early preview of what the future holds. Ottawa’s minor league club in Belleville features a number of prospects who could fight for roster spots with the big club next season, including forwards Logan Brown (20 years old), Rudolfs Balcers (21), Filip Chlapik (21), defenseman Christian Wolanin (23), and goaltender Filip Gustavsson (20). Meanwhile, 2017 second-round pick Alex Formenton (19) is enjoying a solid season with the London Knights (OHL) and 2018 late first-round pick Jacob Bernard-Docker (18) is finding success in his first NCAA season with the University of North Dakota.
CON – Still a dumpster fire of an organization. Lost faith in management by fans, and the viral video released by an Uber driver a few months ago of several Senators players sharing their honest opinions of the coaching staff have exemplified the numerous issues within the organization. Top center Matt Duchene and star right wing Mark Stone don’t appear to be signing extended contracts before the deadline, so Dorion absolutely has to trade the two stars in order to acquire assets for the team’s future. Otherwise, fans in Ottawa are due for another long off-season. Unfortunately, it would be one that could have seen the Senators winning the draft lottery and picking highly-touted center Jack Hughes. Instead, that pick belongs to Colorado thanks to last season’s acquisition of… Matt Duchene…