I remember whenever it was (it was 2013) that the NHL underwent a minor realignment and created the scary Atlantic Division which included such Eastern seaboard cities as Detroit. I recall some slight dread about this. Not only was Ottawa still in a division with all the teams I hated from the Northeast (I’m talking about you, Boston, Buffalo, Montreal, and Toronto) but Detroit joined and the Florida teams. So an 8 team division with three very three recent conference/cup finalists/winners and the Wings? Cool. Thank god for Buffalo, I guess.
Fast forward three years and we’re in the same division with a team that traded Tyler Seguin and lost to the Sens 6-1 in an elimination game to end the 15-16 season, a team that traded P.K. Subban for a dog lover with a very terrible contract (how many seasons will it take for Weber to be bought out?), and the worst team in the league in 2015-16 that somehow also has cap trouble. Sure, Tampa is good and re-signed Stamkos and co. to decent deals, but they still have a “Rotten in the State of Denmark” vibe (hint: Stevie Y is the head of lettuce liquefying in the bottom of Tampa’s fridge). Hats off to the Panthers who seem poised to contend for the division title for a while after re-signing their RFAs to decent deals and adding James Reimer and Keith Yandle to offset the inevitable decline of the great Roberto Luongo (sadly this might be as soon as this season with Lu’s age and offseason hip surgery). But as much as we like to denigrate Ottawa’s commitment to the Department of Statistical and Mathematical Dominance In Sport, Boston, Montreal, and even The Team Who Has Done Everything Right The Last 2 Years have made some questionable decisions this summer. This isn’t exactly a division filled with the best and brightest in management (with possible exceptions in Florida). And while the Florida teams are good, they haven’t hit the great standard of teams like Pittsburgh etc.
So sure, Carey Price can be great, and probably will be, but for the Habs to be good two years ago, Carey Price needed to win significant individual hardware and have a career year (Fearless Leader Max Pacioretty probably had his career year then too). They are worse now than they were two seasons ago, Carey and Max probably won’t be quite as good, Subban is gone, and Andrei Markov is now two years older (so am I). Boston has a defense worse than the Senators (hey! Anything’s possible). Detroit has been running on fumes since Lidstrom retired and now that franchise’s most pressing question is, which contract is worse: Justin Abdelkader’s or Danny Dekeyser’s (it’s Abdelkader’s, but wow, Ken Holland is making some questionable decisions)? Don’t worry, the Detroit Method of wasting players’ prime years in Grand Rapids will most definitely keep the Wings irrelevant for years to come.
So where are the Sens going to finish? Look, Ottawa is hardly a model franchise, but there is some talent here. I see Ottawa competing for third in the division if this is an average year. If it’s a year with injuries to key players like last season then it’s fighting for a wild card spot/slightly missing the playoffs. Is it possible Ottawa players have had their career years and the team will mimic the downward spiral Montreal is destined to act out in front of our ravenous eyes? Sure.
I’m not expecting much from Craig Anderson this season and at 35 he’s probably played his best hockey (even if he was lightly used in his 20s). Regardless, I think Andrew Hammond might just be a decent goalie? I think it’s likely he’s Ottawa’s starter by season’s end and that’s not a bad thing? This Andrew is on Team Andrew not Team Andy.
Bobby Ryan probably won’t duplicate his Anaheim numbers (I’d be ok with it if he did though) but that’s fine? Yeah, Ryan makes too much, but dudes in their UFA years always make too much. His production is fine even if it leaves you wanting more (I worry more about his health). Maybe Brassard is the left-handed playmaker with the keys to the Bobby Ryan 30 Goal Season.
What if Marc Methot isn’t good? Well, he wasn’t last year, so we’ll be prepared. That’s where I’m at with the defense. Yes, they were bad. Yes, they haven’t made any changes. Yes, it’s possible they’re that bad again. But they haven’t had a good defense for several years now? Turris and MacArthur healthy this year should help and if Ottawa’s goaltending can be slightly above average (not great, just a tad better) I think they probably make the playoffs in the third spot. I mean, an improved defense would be preferable, but the only real change that might come would be Thomas Chabot (I don’t care about the “don’t rush prospects method,” I still kinda want to see this kid work in the NHL).
Is it possible EK already had his career year?
Here’s the thing, I think Karlsson is getting 30 goals this season and pushing 100 points. Why? Because he’s low key pissed about the Great Omission of 2015-2016, because holy hell did that dude pass up a zillion opportunities to get a shot on goal last season (opting for passes and tips down low, plus he had more trouble getting his shot through bodies, but I expect him to improve on this in 16-17 because it really is one of his strengths). I also think EK improves on his goal and point totals because the Sens re-signed Mike Hoffman and because Guy Boucher seems much more determined to use the power play as an actual advantage for his team. Plus, I choose to be optimistic about EK. I also think Karlsson is going to have one of those long primes like Lidstrom, so mostly I’m just enjoying watching the majesty unfold in Sens colours.
Mike Hoffman and Mark Stone will be better too. I don’t really think Hoffman has another gear, I think he’s already the player we can realistically expect him to be, and he’ll just be used better by a new coaching regime. Mark Stone had a sophomore slump and still managed 20+ goals and 60+ points and I think he has like four more gears? Good things are happening on the wings.
Ultimately, I’m not worried about the other bubble teams in the division. Detroit, Boston, and Montreal either don’t have a superstar (Boston, Detroit until Larkin fully matures) or have a weaker supporting cast (Detroit, Boston, and Montreal). Ottawa lacks bottom six depth and depth on the blueline but so do those other teams. I’d take Ottawa’s top six over the top six forward group from any of those teams and I’d take EK over any defender in the league.
You might worry about how Ottawa’s new GM and coaching staff are going to perform but it’s not like those other bubble teams have front offices that are the envy of the league. Claude Julien has almost been fired two years in a row and Don Sweeney probably won’t get another job as a GM in the NHL once he’s inevitably fired from his current gig. Michel Therrien is fairly conclusively a terrible coach but won’t be fired until Former Genius Marc Bergevin feels the rising water around his own neck, then he’ll fire his friend and use him as a floatation device (yes, Marc is Rose in this scenario and Michel is Jack). Jeff Blashill is not Mike Babcock (overrated in his own right) and will therefore be more fallible in Detroit but hey, Ken Holland managed to trade Pavel Datsyuk’s bloated remains of a cap hit to the Arizona Coyotes who are always willing to do everyone else’s dirty work. There’s nothing to be envious of here.
But what if one of these teams gets off to a hot start? Here’s the thing about Montreal starting the season 10-0 last year: it made me really happy. You know why, because if you start a season 10-0 you’re likely playing your best hockey of the year when people are eating turkey and watching football and playoff baseball. A bad start would be rough for any of Boston, Detroit, Montreal, or Ottawa, but it would be worst for Montreal. There’s a scenario in which Montreal loses its season opener, and then puts up a few more losses. Montreal sports media would gleefully continue to talk about P.K. Subban and the pressure would mount on Bergevin and Therrien. One can only hope.
It’s extremely difficult to win the Stanley Cup. It’s still hard to make the playoffs. But this is the Atlantic division and the bar isn’t set high. Sens finish third in the Atlantic.