Corey Abbott

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2017-18 Preview: Part 1

Wednesday, July 26, 2017


It has been a busy off-season with the expansion draft, the entry draft and free agency, but now that the dust has settled it is a good time to examine how teams look following the changes that have taken place so far. There are still some intriguing names who are available on the open market and more roster moves could be coming before or after training camp, but this series will provide a snapshot of where each team currently stands as the 2017-18 campaign approaches.

 

We will begin with the top five clubs in the Atlantic Division based on the standings from the 2016-17 season.

 

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Montreal Canadiens

 

2016-17 Finish: 47-26-9 record, first round loss to the New York Rangers (4-2)

 

Noteworthy Gains: Jonathan Drouin, Ales Hemsky, Karl Alzner, Mark Streit

 

Noteworthy Losses: Alexander Radulov, Andrei Markov, Mikhail Sergachev, Nathan Beaulieu, Alexei Emelin

 

Biggest Strength: Montreal locked up Carey Price to a lucrative eight-year, $84 million contract extension on July 2. It’s the type of contract that could put the team in some trouble down the road, but it was a deal that the Canadiens had to make to keep their star player in the fold for as long as possible. Price will turn 30 years of age in August and he is coming off an excellent bounce-back performance after an injury-shortened 2015-16 season. His efforts helped the team finish fourth overall with a goals against per game at 2.41. Price will need to be at his best again in 2017-18. Montreal’s defense has undergone some changes and they aren’t a particularly strong group, especially when it comes to puck movers. The Canadiens also may not be much better than the middle of the pack on offense, so Price will be leaned on to steal games.

 

Biggest Weakness: The Canadiens are thin down the middle. Phillip Danault spent most of the 2016-17 campaign as the team’s top center and he contributed 40 points in 82 games. Tomas Plekanec can still play a defensive role, but he isn’t suited to be a second-line pivot anymore. Montreal does not see Alex Galchenyuk as a solution down the middle and that complicates the line combinations. It’s possible that Galchenyuk or newcomer Jonathan Drouin will get a chance to play center in 2017-18, but the lack of depth is a glaring issue that will need to be addressed.

 

Player to Watch: Galchenyuk gets the nod over Drouin here because the Canadiens need him to have a rebound year. The 23-year-old forward has surrounded by trade rumors since Montreal was eliminated from the playoffs, but he is still a member of the team and received a three-year, $14.7 million contract on July 5. Galchenyuk’s usage will be key this campaign. If he isn’t playing center then he needs to at least be on one of the top-two lines on the wing. He logged time as a third- and four-line player last year after he was changed to a left winger.

 

Ottawa Senators

 

2016-17 Finish: 44-28-10 record, Eastern Conference Final loss to Pittsburgh (4-3)

 

Noteworthy Gains: Johnny Oduya

 

Noteworthy Losses: Marc Methot

 

Biggest Strength: Ottawa plays a suffocating defensive style that nearly got them to the Stanley Cup Final in 2017. The Senators lost in double overtime in Game 7 to the eventual Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins. They permitted just 2.56 goals against per game during the regular season, which ranked them in the top 10 of the league. Ottawa was led by a Norris Trophy runner-up Erik Karlsson as well as strong goaltending from Craig Anderson and Mike Condon. The Senators rewarded Condon with a three-year deal worth $7.2 million to prevent him from walking away as an unrestricted free agent.

 

Biggest Weakness: Ottawa had their share of struggles offensively in 2016-17. They placed 22nd in the league with 2.51 goals for per match and the power play ranked 23rd overall. Karlsson led the team in points, while Mike Hoffman, Mark Stone and Kyle Turris attempted to carry the load up front. However, the team suffered from inconsistent scoring and had to wait until the playoffs for Bobby Ryan and Derick Brassard to elevate their games. Ottawa will need to get more from them during the regular season in 2017-18 to remain near the top of the Atlantic Division.

 

Player to Watch: Brassard struggled in his first season with the Senators. He picked up just 14 goals and 39 points in 81 games after he generated 27 goals in 2015-16 and racked up 60 points in 2014-15. Brassard piled up power-play points with the Rangers, but he earned just seven points on the man advantage last year. He looked much better in the playoffs, but off-season shoulder surgery may keep out for the start of the 2017-18 campaign. Keep an eye on his status because his absence could open the door for someone like Colin White to shine in his place.

 

Boston Bruins

 

2016-17 Finish: 44-31-7 record, first round loss to Ottawa (4-2)

 

Noteworthy Gains: None

 

Noteworthy Losses: None

 

Biggest Strength: Boston’s defense made positive strides in 2016-17 and they have a turned an area that was lacking into a promising aspect for the team. The group entered the year as an area of concern, but Torey Krug, Brandon Carlo and Charlie McAvoy, who made his debut in the playoffs, have changed that outlook. It helped that the Bruins got a bounce-back performance from Tuukka Rask in 2016-17 and the team allowed the second-fewest shots against per game (26.8) in the league. Zdeno Chara is still the leader on the back end for the Bruins, but the 40-year-old defender isn’t the intimidating force he once was and he has one more season left on his contract. It’s encouraging for the team to see young blueliners playing integral roles as Chara prepares to pass the torch.

 

Biggest Weakness: Boston could certainly use some more depth scoring, but they have the talent up front to be dangerous in the attacking zone. That holds true especially if David Krejci and Patrice Bergeron rebound in 2017-18. Boston benefited from tremendous efforts from Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak, but they need better results from their supporting cast. However, a much more conspicuous need for the Bruins is a reliable backup netminder. Rask made 67 starts in 2014-15, 62 starts in 2015-16 and 64 starts last season. Boston had issues with Rask’s understudies for most of the season, especially in the first half when they struggled to post victories. Anton Khudobin played better down the stretch to help the Bruins qualify for the playoffs, but GM Don Sweeney didn’t give the team’s number two options a glowing review after the season. The Bruins want to give Rask more games off, but Khudobin, Zane McIntyre and Malcolm Subban didn’t inspire much confidence. It’s still possible that the team will look elsewhere for help in the crease to take some pressure away from Rask, but for now it seems as though Khudobin will be the backup. That could spell trouble for the Bruins, especially if Rask, who had groin surgery after the playoffs, gets injured.

 

Player to Watch: Charlie McAvoy was impressive in the postseason. Boston had injury issues on the back end and McAvoy stepped up in a big way, while averaging 26:11 of ice time per match. The 19-year-old rearguard has 30-40 point potential in his rookie season despite playing behind Krug. Still, McAvoy should get opportunities on the second power-play unit and is an intriguing all-around talent.

 

Toronto Maple Leafs

 

2016-17 Finish: 40-27-15 record, first round loss to Washington (4-2)

 

Noteworthy Gains: Patrick Marleau, Ron Hainsey, Dominic Moore

 

Noteworthy Losses: Matt Hunwick, Brian Boyle

 

Biggest Strength: The Maple Leafs’ youth movement produced better results than anyone anticipated last season. Auston Matthews proved to be deserving of the hype following his first overall selection, while William Nylander, Mitch Marner and Nikita Zaitsev were impressive in their rookie seasons as well. They were leaders not just among a star-studded first-year class, but also took on key roles with the Leafs to get the team to the playoffs. Toronto also got superb performances from James van Riemsdyk, Nazem Kadri and Jake Gardiner to rank them fifth in the league in goals for per game (3.05). The Leafs high-powered offense added Patrick Marleau, who has reached the 25-goal mark in each of the last two years, in the summer to a group already brimming with talent up front.

 

Biggest Weakness: Toronto struggled to defend leads and were often outplayed in their own zone in 2016-17. The Leafs permitted 32.6 shots against per game, which was the third-most in the league behind only Arizona and Buffalo. The 234 goals they surrendered was less than just eight teams and none of them qualified for the postseason. Frederik Andersen did all he could most nights to hold it together, while facing the second-most shots against in the league (2,052), but his teammates must do a better job in front of him this season.  The Leafs signed Ron Hainsey to replace Matt Hunwick, but their search for a defender who can log heavy minutes against the best of the opposition is ongoing. 

 

Player to Watch: The Leafs’ sophomore group will be watched closely because the second year is often more difficult, but they all possess the skills to be successful again. Marleau will be the one worth monitoring. The length and price of his contract raised eyebrows, but his veteran presence should help his young teammates and there’s a good chance that he will benefit from them as well. Marleau still has the speed and the hands to be a scoring threat. Whether he plays with Kadri, Bozak or Matthews, which would give him the biggest boost, he should be a factor offensively in 2017-18.

 

Tampa Bay Lightning

 

2016-17 Finish: 42-30-10 record, 10th in the Eastern Conference

 

Noteworthy Gains: Chris Kunitz, Mikhail Sergachev, Dan Girardi

 

Noteworthy Losses: Jonathan Drouin, Jason Garrison

 

Biggest Strength: Tampa Bay will get a key player back in 2017-18 when Steven Stamkos returns to the fold. He missed the last 65 games of the year due to a knee injury. Stamkos was playing great before he was hurt and teamed with Nikita Kucherov the Lightning have two elite-level scorers. The loss of Jonathan Drouin in an off-season trade with Montreal cuts into their depth, but Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Brayden Point are capable of picking up the slack. Victor Hedman also reached new heights offensively in 2016-17 and he is poised to be an important part of the team’s attack moving forward.

 

Biggest Weakness: The defense corps of the Lightning is a work in progress. Jake Dotchin is expected to be a full-time NHLer in 2017-18 after he impressed during his time with the big club last year. The acquisition of Sergachev in the Drouin trade and more opportunities for Slater Koekkoek could yield positive results in the near future. They are mobile, puck-moving blueliners who can chip in offensively, but they are not guaranteed to have roster spots for the start of the season. Dan Girardi won’t help Tampa Bay push the pace, so they will probably have to continue to lean heavily on Hedman and Anton Stralman.

 

Player to Watch: Andrei Vasilevskiy will be Tampa Bay’s starting goalie going into the season. He was inconsistent in 2016-17 and he doesn’t have a safety net now that Ben Bishop is gone. The 23-year-old puck stopper has shown flashes in the past that he has ability to handle the number one role, but he still has to prove he is ready to shoulder the load. Petr Mrazek’s struggles last year should serve as a cautionary tale. However, Vasilevskiy has a stronger team and should benefit from a better margin for error. He should be able to rise to the challenge even if there are some growing pains along the way.



Corey Abbott is an Associate Editor for Hockey on Rotoworld. Feel free to follow him Twitter @CoreAbbott.
Email :Corey Abbott



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