We've talked to all our SB Nation friends, over the last few days, to learn about each individual team in the new Atlantic Division. Just like we did for the Metro Division, I have asked a special guest to come in and preview the entire Atlantic. I am very happy to have Frank Rekas from Panther Parkway give us his take on how the division will shake down this season.
When I received the message from Greg Boysen to prepare a post about the Atlantic Division, I jumped at the chance. After moving to South Florida from Chicago in 1993, I have never really embraced the Eastern Conference style of play, and after living here since then, I still haven't. Therefore I feel that I can be fairly objective about it. If you're looking for a warm and fuzzy get to know the Atlantic division, this may not be the place. Enjoy the honesty, which could also be labeled as snark.
Predicted order of finish: Predictions being what they are can be worthless. No one is ever right about the ultimate winner, and even less are right about the actual order of finish. That said this is how I see the teams ending up the season in the Atlantic Division. Boston, Detroit, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Buffalo, Tampa and Florida. (Yikes, am I forgetting someone?) I see the division broken down into three parts. With Boston as the defending Eastern conference champs, they are the team to beat in this division, yet the Red Wings will give them a run for their money. Detroit will certainly make things interesting as they begin their first season in the Eastern conference thanks to re-alignment, by bringing some original six class to a division with three other original six teams. The Canadien teams can simply be described as middle of the pack, with my guess only one of them qualifying for the playoffs. Buffalo, Tampa and Florida bring up the rear for a number of reasons. Not being very good is the main one, and the competition within the division being too much for them to actually do any damage. Someone mentioned to me that a lot has to go right for the Florida Panthers to make the playoffs. Actually I disagree. A lot would have to go wrong for the Panthers to make the playoffs.
Which teams could start new rivalries: The Florida Panthers already have built a competitive feud with cross state rival Tampa Bay, and the Montreal Canadiens along with the Toronto Maple Leafs usually fill the BB & T Center. As for new rivalries, I can see one matchup that I see as being the most heated. Ottawa and Detroit are my choice as the most likely pair of teams to grow hate for each other. It's very easy to do. Detroit is a storied franchise and a team that is a perennial playoff contender, and Ottawa has a passionate fan base and is team that appears to be on the rise. Both teams can easily be hated. Plus, how can you like a team that tosses an octopus onto the ice?
Which teams are helped/hindered by the new playoff format? Before I answer that, here is how it's going to work: The first 12 teams that qualify for the playoffs will consist of the top-3 teams from all 4 divisions. The other 4 teams that will qualify for the playoffs will be the next 2 highest finishing teams, from each conference, regardless of their respective divisions. Huh? Sort of like MLB's Wild card race for those teams that aren't top three in the division. While I don't view Florida or even Tampa as a playoff team this year, teams like Montreal and Buffalo who might normally be able to sneak into the top eight based on points in the conference, will be challenged the most, while a team like Toronto or even Ottawa could benefit from having to play both Florida teams to rack up some wins.
Most hated players in the division: First off, anyone playing for the Detroit Red Wings is on my list. As a lifelong Chicago Blackhawk fan, it's part of the culture. And from there it's most of the Boston Bruins, especially after last season's Stanley Cup Final. However that would make the list too long, so I'll just go with Zdeno Chara. As for others, I find Patrick Kaleta from Buffalo to be a fairly useless and a waste of a roster spot. Buffalo already has tough guy John Scott, who is much more intimidating. B.J. Crombeen from Tampa Bay is another player that's on my list. He's a former St. Louis Blue, so that's part of the reason why he's on this list. He feisty, is willing to drop the gloves with almost anyone, and tries to catch you off guard. He's often the one that starts the scrum, but you're the one getting the minor penalty for retaliating.
Worst/Best contracts in the division: Worst contracts, and there are a few according to me are as follows: Tuukka Rask at $7 million a season for eight years seems grotesque. He'll have a lot to live up to, and may the hockey gods help him if he doesn't. The fans in Boston won't be easy on him. Ville Leino. Just look it up and see why. His contract makes the Panthers seem like geniuses. Erik Karlsson also gets added to this list. 7 years for a total of $45 million for a 23 year old offensive defenceman seems to be too much too soon. But it's not my money. The same with Matt Carle from Tampa Bay. 6 years at a total of $33 million. I thought it was too much when he signed it, and it's still too much a year later. Finally Henrik Zetterberg's deal is another one of those crazy contracts that make you wonder if he'll still be playing by the end. 12 years for $73 million with the last two years paying him $ 1 million per season. Why bother at that point. He'll be 40 with still one more year to go at the end.
Best contracts in the division: I think that the very best one belongs to Patrice Bergeron of Boston. 8 years for $52 million which seems to be just right for one of the better two way players in the game. It's a bit front end loaded, but tapers off in the last 3 years. Bergeron is a very good player on many levels, and certainly plays with more tenacity and edge than you may think. He showed some real guts in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Max Pacioretty of Montreal has what is almost a perfect deal. Six years for $27 million for a player who works hard, has talent, and is an overall good guy. With a sometime nickname like Mad Max, how can you not like him?
Best coach in the division: This is a hands down decision for me. Despite the fact the he coaches the Detroit Red Wings, Mike Babcock is easily the best coach in this group . You might say that he's coached teams with some very talented rosters, and that they've made him look good, but I disagree. It's takes a smart bench boss to get a group of highly skilled players to mesh with each other. While having so much talent it's not always easy to push the right buttons, and deal with the personalities. He has proven however that no matter where he's coaching, he's the right man for the job. I would describe him as a good motivator who is an even better communicator. And of course he has great hair.
What would I have named the division: The Atlantic Division seems a bit flawed. As well as boring. First of all the name of the division doesn't pass the geographic test. Detroit, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, and Buffalo have absolutely nothing to do with the Atlantic. Now as someone who now lives in South Florida I would have easily named the division the "Snowbird" division. Yet that's almost too easy. Therefore I would have called it The Displacements. Except for the Florida Panthers and Boston Bruins who are the only true Atlantic coast teams, the rest of the bunch have nothing in common with the Atlantic. Also, moving the Detroit Red Wings into the conference really fouls things up, including that great rivalry with the Blackhawks will never be the same.
A big thank you to Frank for taking the time out from writing about the Panthers and listening to Bruce Springsteen to help us out with our season previews. Be sure to follow him on Twitter @FrankRekas.