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NHL Division Primer: The Atlantic

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As the summer begins to wind-down, your TV is probably full of awful NFL preseason games, meaningless August baseball games, and, even worse, NASCAR races. So let's pretend that all those things aren't happening right now and look ahead to the upcoming NHL season. We will start by previewing the divisions as a whole, looking for potential breakout players, rating the off-season acquisitions, and making educated assessments about each division that will likely be moot in a week's time. We will start with the east coast: the Atlantic Division.

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The Atlantic Division has been filled with your usual slew of free agent signings, RFA commitments, trades and other headline worthy moves. Detroit attempted to address their depth and injury concerns, while Toronto made the biggest move in trading Phil Kessel to Pittsburgh on July 1. Boston certainly "made some moves" and are apparently "not re-building." Ok, sure.

While the Montreal Canadiens held off the Tampa Bay Lightning for the division crown last year, it took Vezina-winner Carey Price to do so. If they can get a similar performance from Price in 2015-16, they will certainly contend for the crown again. And if Tampa Bay can continue their offensive blitz (even with a slumping Steven Stamkos at times), they will likely be there at the top of the division as well. But there are wild cards everywhere else. Did Detroit get better or just older? Did Florida do enough to take the next step? Is Ottawa still a dark-horse? Do Buffalo or Toronto make a run? The Atlantic division is top-heavy, but don't be surprised to see those 2nd and 3rd tier teams make runs for the top 3 playoff spots

Best Off-Season Acquisition

Jack Eichel, Buffalo Sabres. He not only makes the Sabres watchable again, he changes their lineup dramatically. None of the other teams made a move that change the make-up of their team quite as much as Buffalo adding Eichel. Honorable mention to Detroit for signing Mike Green. Green should shore up their somewhat leaky defense and heal their depth woes from last year.

Worst Off-Season Acquisition

Daniel Winnik, Toronto Maple Leafs. Signing (or rather, re-signing) a 30 year-old defensive winger "fan-favorite" is such a Maple Leafs move. The contract isn't outrageous or anything (2 yrs, $4,5 million) but how exactly does this improve their team? A guy that would thrive better as a bottom six forward, will likely be forced into a 2nd or even 1st line role on a team that just lost their top offensive threat in Phil Kessel. Honorable mention to Toronto for signing P.A. Parenteau, for pretty much the exact same reasons.

Other Notable Additions

  • Alexander Semin, Canadiens: Like Nashville with Mike Ribeiro last year, the Habs are hoping a $1 million, 30 something skilled forward reclamation project will pay off in the short run.
  • Reilly Smith, Panthers: Moving to Florida in the trade for Hayes, not long after being a major part of the deal that sent Tyler Seguin to Dallas, he's probably hoping to stick somewhere and he should do well there on the 2nd line with Nick Bjugstad.
  • Brad Richards, Red Wings: Tomas Tatar is already turning heads as a dangerous winger (29 goals last year) and now he has a veteran linemate in Richards to help him progress even further. Very smart move by Ken Holland.

Breakout Player for 2015-16

Jimmy Hayes, Boston Bruins. Hayes nearly put in a 20 goal campaign in 72 games with the Panthers last year (19g, 16a) and should be ready to prove why he was a 2nd round pick in 2008. Hayes sports a solid 12.3 SH % in 168 career games, scoring 36 career goals in relatively little usage. Getting mostly 3rd and 4th line minutes with Florida last year (15:09 TOI), he will probably see top line minutes in Boston, with the Bruins needing someone to replace Milan Lucic, who was traded to the Kings in June. Can Hayes replace Lucic? The Bruins certainly hope so, as they recently signed Hayes to a 3 year, $6.9 million deal. The comparison is not unrealistic.

Despite the lack of minutes, Hayes has shown he has the goal-scoring skills to be a top 6 forward. Can he replace Milan Lucic entirely? Probably not. Lucic is more well-rounded, a better possession player, and certainly helps generate more goal production on a true top line. But Hayes is a comparable scoring replacement, especially if he gets the top line minutes he deserves. Also consider that Lucic has had the benefit of having better linemates throughout his career, and will likely see some regression in the next year or two. He has benefited from a hefty 5v5 PDO over the last three years, one of the top "luckiest" players in the league in that regard:

By comparison, Hayes's PDO  in that same 3 year span is right around the mean, 100.97.

If indeed Boston puts Hayes on the top line with Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand, he could easily reach the 30 goal mark (a mark which, by the way, Lucic only reached once in his time with Boston, back in 2010-11) . And even if he is on the 2nd line with newcomer Matt Belesky and David Krejci, Hayes is bound to break out as a top 6 forward this season.

Fans Should Most Look Forward To

Watching the Maple Leafs realize that Phil Kessel wasn't the problem after all. I was just kidding earlier about Toronto making a run. That team will be a joke.

Coach or GM in The Hot Seat

Mike Babcock has only had the Maple Leafs job for 3 months and no games have been played yet, so I suppose we can't put him on the hot seat yet (though it is tempting). So let's go with Claude Julien of the Boston Bruins. Not making the playoffs last year for the first time in his long career in Boston was a surprising and damaging mark on his career. And new Boston GM Don Sweeney showed up guns blazin' in May, promptly shipping off top prospects and prized commodities barely a month into his tenure at the front office.

So Julien better hope that he has the new look Bruins ready to compete in a tough division when the first puck drops in October. While Boston will probably rebound from missing the playoffs last year, they may only contend for a wild card spot, with teams like Florida and Ottawa on the rise.