Previewing the Field: Atlantic Division edition

The Bruins remain the favorite in the Atlantic, but Tampa Bay and Montreal should be in the mix for the division title.

(As part of our season preview here at Second City Hockey, we are going to briefly break down the 29 other NHL teams and the challenges they could pose to the Blackhawks in 2014-15. For more detailed previews on these franchises, check out their respective SBN team blogs and the big, fancy SB Nation NHL preview. Today, we continue with the Atlantic Division.)

Projected Standings

1. Boston Bruins
2. Tampa Bay Lightning
3. Montreal Canadiens
4. Detroit Red Wings
5. Toronto Maple Leafs
6. Ottawa Senators
7. Florida Panthers
8. Buffalo Sabres

What changed over the summer?

The Atlantic Division didn't see as many of the big splashes we saw elsewhere in the NHL, but the upper half of the group remains highly intriguing. It starts at the top with Boston, which lost Jarome Iginla and Shawn Thornton to free agency, and enters the season with legitimate questions about its fourth line. The Bruins remain the favorite, but their hold on the division seems to be softening.

The Lightning could be especially dangerous next season with a healthy Steven Stamkos, the arrival of Jonathan Drouin and some improvements on defense. Assuming goaltender Ben Bishop can repeat his impressive performance in his second full year as starter, Tampa Bay should be one of the top teams in the East. Montreal doesn't have quite as many additions on paper, but P.K. Subban, Max Pacioretty and Carey Price remain awesome, and that should keep the Habs in the thick of things.

The division notably falls off from there, unless the Red Wings can miraculously put together a season without any injuries. They're part of a second tier along with Toronto and Ottawa, which lost Jason Spezza and Ales Hemsky over the summer while only adding David Legwand. The team did get Bobby Ryan to sign a big deal this week, but otherwise the Sens aren't rolling into the season with much momentum.

The Panthers and Sabres won't be very good, but at least Florida should be interesting to watch with guys like Aleksander Barkov, Aaron Ekblad and Roberto Luongo.

3 Questions

1. How much have the cap limitations affected Boston?

The Blackhawks weren't the only team this summer riding up against the salary cap. The Bruins have been in a bit of a cap crunch themselves, and it's part of why they're likely to enter the season with some pretty underwhelming depth. The core of the team remains impressive with guys like Tuukka Rask, Patrice Bergeron and Zdeno Chara, but Boston won't be able to boast a fourth line as strong as some other contenders, including the Hawks. Come playoff time, that might cause some problems for an otherwise great team.

2. Can Detroit avoid the injuries?

We all know that the Red Wings have some great players, and a great coach. One thing the franchise hasn't had over the past few years is luck. Injuries were especially rough on Detroit last season, and now that the franchise is transitioning to a younger group, it can ill afford more lengthy absences. A team featuring Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Niklas Kronwall should at least be gunning for the postseason, but it's up to those guys to stay healthy and carry the load.

3. Should Buffalo prioritize the 2015 draft over winning this season?

The Sabres may be the least hopeful team in the NHL entering next season. Not only do they have practically zero chance of making the playoffs, let alone doing damage once there, but they're lacking the kind of high-level young talent that usually populates bad teams. The Oilers have Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. The Panthers have Ekblad, Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau. Buffalo, on the other hand, has Sam Reinhardt but not much else. With a stacked 2015 draft looming and the desperate need for elite young players, Buffalo might be best served by settling into its losing ways and angling for the top pick next summer. That could allow the Sabres to pair Reinhardt with Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel, and establish a pair of cornerstones for the team.