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Division Primer: The Atlantic

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NHL: New York Rangers at Tampa Bay Lightning Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

If you missed it, you can read Alex’s preview of the Metro now. Also, stay tuned for the Pacific and the Central later this week and into next!

For now, it’s finally September. Skates are hitting ice this month. The season is almost here. It’s time to catch up on the Atlantic division’s work to stay relevant while sharing a conference with the new powerhouse Metro.

Best Off-Season Acquisition

Jonathan Drouin, Canadiens

In a somewhat baffling trade, Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin sent his only good young defensive prospect to Tampa Bay in exchange for playmaking winger Jonathan Drouin. Drouin will replace Alex Radulov, who at least waited until free agency to leave Montréal, but this trade solves neither the Canadiens’ needs on defense nor their self-inflicted need for a proven NHL center.

Playing styles for Drouin and Radulov, both Playmaker types, overlaid.
Charts made by Ryan Stimson (@RK_Stimp) using data from his passing project and Corey Sznajder (@ShutdownLine)’s microstats work.

Drouin and Radulov also have somewhat different areas of strength, despite sharing the rarest and most valuable playing style among forwards (Playmakers, like our own Ryan Johansen, tend to bring out the best from everyone around them). Drouin’s excellent zone entries will help the Canadiens generate more offense. His involvement in plays around the net, where Radulov excels, is only average, but some of that may have been coaching—the Lightning as a team have also only been average at generating those plays, while the Canadiens have been very good.

In spite of any questions about his fit, Drouin is an electric talent.

He’s had a rough few seasons in Tampa Bay, missing most of his sophomore year and requesting a trade out. His production hasn’t lived up to expectations, but almost nobody other than Nikita Kucherov produced on the oft-injured 2016-17 Lightning. Drouin was still one of their better players and probably would have been one of the Canadiens’ best players as well.

Game Score by Dom Luszczyszyn (@DomLuszczyszyn), from gamescorecharts.wordpress.com.

Dom Luszczyszyn’s Game Score, which factors a variety of player contributions into a single number scaled to look like points per game, has Drouin’s overall 2016-17 season as top-line caliber. Only Max Pacioretty had a better season for the Canadiens, who also lost some of their other top-caliber players in Radulov and Andrei Markov this offseason.

Player card by Micah Blake McCurdy (@IneffectiveMath) via hockeyviz.com.

With middling scoring rates and only slight positive effects on shot differential, some people question whether Drouin will become the star that he was expected to. I suspect he may be a little undervalued—as a player who does a lot of set-up work—by people only looking at primary points. But even if they’re right, it’s possible that a change of scene will help, and he’s still a good player who’s young enough that it’s too early to give up hope that he’ll become a great one. More than just that, though, he’s a player who’s incredibly fun to watch. Having him in Montréal should be great entertainment for the fans, and that’s a good thing.

What makes Drouin the best off-season acquisition in the division? He’s good and fun, he’s a proven NHL player, and he’s still got a few years until he can be expected to peak. In the 2017 Atlantic, that made him a runaway favorite for the title.

Worst Off-Season Acquisition

Dan Girardi, Lightning

In the offseason of this year 2017, the Tampa Bay Lightning—apparently on purpose—signed Dan Girardi.

…I got nothin’.

Girardi is defensively awful and doesn’t make up for it on offense at all. He contributes nothing of value to an NHL game, though his presence is great for the opponent team.

He was bought out by the Rangers in a massive case of addition through subtraction.

Life is too short to spend time explaining the many ways in which Girardi is bad at the sport of professional ice hockey, especially since it’s already been done. Often. Repeatedly.

In April of 2016, Blueshirt Banter ran a memorable piece pleading with management to remove Girardi before his decline ruined all of Rangers' fans good memories of him. When a player has fallen so far that people who used to celebrate him just want to be able to stop watching him, it’s a good time to trade him away or buy him out, and a bad time to trade for him or sign him.

Lightning fans, my condolences.

Other Notable Additions

  • Patrick Marleau, Maple Leafs: Marleau was drafted in 1997 by the Sharks, and played just barely under 1500 games for them over the past 19 seasons. He hasn’t missed a regular-season game since 2008-09. He was more than just a player in San Jose, he was an institution. Walking away from that to sign with the Maple Leafs says a lot about the Leafs’ rebuild. As for the signing itself? Meh. He produces like a good third-liner at even strength now and will likely slow down further once he’s not sharing regular icetime with the best pure playmaker in the league. Mike Babcock will need to work carefully to make sure that Marleau isn’t blocking a younger player who can bring more talent right now.
  • Karl Alzner, Canadiens: Alzner was the second highest-profile UFA defenseman this summer, though he’s seriously overrated at this point in his career and looks as bad to the eye as his stats suggest. He’s been declining for the past few years. The Canadiens yielded to temptation and signed him to a hefty five-year deal at a little over $4.5M/year. Alzner has said he’s excited at the prospect of playoff success with the Canadiens.
  • Johnny Oduya, Senators, and Trevor Daley, Red Wings: They’ve both played for the Blackhawks, they’ve both played for the Stars, they’ve both won a couple of Stanley Cups, and now they’re both showing their age. The Senators and Red Wings added some veteran experience, and the Senators also got key boosts to Swedishness/60 and Handsome/60 on the blueline, but neither one of these looks like a good hockey signing.
  • Chris Kunitz, Lightning: Was Kunitz just a product of being Sidney Crosby’s winger? Steve Yzerman had answered “no” in 2014 while serving as Hockey Canada’s GM, but seeing him give Kunitz another shot—three and a half years after Sochi and this time without Crosby—is still a surprise. Kunitz is entering his age-38 season, and his production has been dropping over the last few years.
  • Radim Vrbata, Panthers: The Panthers got a decent, consistent second-line winger at an affordable price. But why did they sign Vrbata instead of re-signing Jaromír Jágr?
  • Mark Streit, Canadiens: Streit did a respectable job with the Flyers last year in his age-39 season, though he was playing most often with rookie phenomenon Ivan Provorov. He also played a key role in Team Europe’s Cinderella run at the World Cup of Hockey a year ago and managed not to be too much of a liability to the Penguins after the trade deadline. If the Canadiens had any young defensemen for him to mentor, this might have been a solid pickup for them.
  • Marco Scandella and Nathan Beaulieu, Sabres: Phil Housley had to have wanted a better defense corps than the Sabres had. Getting Scandella and Beaulieu is a good start. Neither one of them was a standout on their former teams, but both should be some help for Buffalo.
  • Jason Pominville, Sabres: As our colleagues at Hockey Wilderness pointed out, Pominville alone scored more last year than the two forwards traded for him and Scandella did combined, while controlling play better. I’d add that his passing profile backs up his stats; he’s a very good, very well-rounded offensive player. I’m not sure how long Pominville can continue at this level, but Marcus Foligno isn’t known for his skill and Tyler Ennis seems to have had his production derailed by injuries. For now, this definitely looks like a trade the Sabres won.
  • Mikhail Sergachev, Lightning: The other half of the Drouin trade, Sergachev was seen as the Canadiens’ best prospect, with his defense being the thing he most needed to continue improving. He showed signs of having done that right before the trade, and might see regular icetime in Tampa this year.
  • Aleš Hemský, Canadiens: Hemský missed almost all of 2016-17 with a hip injury. Before that, and for the few games late last season he played, he still looked good. Either the Canadiens got a player who scores at the top-line rates his passing profile suggests he should for a bargain price, or Hemský will spend most of his age-34 season on IR again.

Player To Watch

Charlie McAvoy, Bruins

I wavered between McAvoy and Red Wings winger Anthony Mantha for a while—Mantha has been excellent in NHL play even on an awful team, while McAvoy’s excellence has mostly been at the NCAA level and he has yet to play a regular-season NHL game. Ultimately, though, McAvoy is the young player in the best place to make an impact on a contending team.

McAvoy has been a very productive defenseman at lower levels. He was one of the highest-scoring blueliners while in the USDP and finished a solid top-thirty among defensemen in points per game with the NCAA last year. Most of his production at all levels has come through assists, not goals; he lets the forwards do the work, which is good news for his talented young teammates like David Pastrnak and Frank Vatrano.

Called up to join the Bruins in their playoff run, the 19-year-old McAvoy averaged over 26 minutes TOI per game, playing with Zdeno Chára mostly against the Senators’ top line. According to NaturalStatTrick.com, he managed a 52.1% CF in 5v5 play, which is very respectable. More impressive, though, was his defense—McAvoy’s 49.1 CA/60 was third-best on the team, behind only Patrice Bergeron and Pastrnak. With all that, he also managed three assists in the six-game series.

If he can keep up that kind of defensive responsibility, regardless of what he can contribute offensively McAvoy will make a big difference to the Bruins’ aging blueline. If he can continue contributing on offense, it will be an even bigger help to them.

(Also keep an eye on Canadiens winger Artturi Lehkonen, as well as on Lightning center Brayden Point and new full-time starter Andrei Vasilevskiy.)

Coach or GM On The Hot Seat

In a just world, the Florida Panthers’ front office would be getting another shakeup after their baffling decisions this offseason, but you could fry an egg on every seat in there as it is. Picking the Panthers to make a sudden change in coaching or management doesn’t even count as analysis. Which leaves...

Ken Holland, Red Wings GM

The Detroit Red Wings are in a bad spot and even all his past success won’t protect Holland for much longer. He can’t be blamed for age catching up to his core (even, eventually, to Nicklas Lidström), or for Babcock’s seeing the writing on the wall and getting out to a team on the rise. Unfortunately for him, there are plenty of things that are his fault.

His prospect pipeline and his NHL roster are both too empty for a team that's had as little recent success as the Red Wings have, and he has way too many awful contracts on the books. That incredible 26-year playoff streak might have hurt the Red Wings recently more than anything else—towards the end, it looked like Holland was trying to force a shallow and struggling team in for a one-and-done deal, making signings and giving up futures just to keep the streak alive, instead of sending out rentals, stockpiling futures, and hoping to win the draft lottery. Holland has had incredible success during his tenure in Detroit, and it’s time to start asking whether he knows what to do with failure.

When the Red Wings stumble again, look for Holland’s seat to start warming up as ownership either tries to stave off the rebuild, or decides to get a guy who knows what to do with a top-ten draft pick in to steer it.

Marc Bergevin, Canadiens GM

The Canadiens are also in a bad spot. Bergevin has spent years acquiring players for their physicality and/or intangibles, which has left him with a few good players on a mediocre roster, carried by a great goalie who just got a huge raise. He also chose a bad coach over a franchise player, only to relieve the coach of his duties a few months after trading the player. In addition, Bergevin has struggled to identify and develop talent not just at the NHL level, but also for the future.

I’m not sure whether the Canadiens have a solution to their current woes that doesn’t involve a full rebuild. Too many key roles are filled by players in or entering their thirties. They’re too shallow on defense and at center to trade a player from either position to get depth at the other. Refusing to re-sign Markov and trading their best defensive prospect for a winger narrowed their options even further, unless Drouin can—or Alex Galchenyuk will—play center. And rumor has it that the hyper-critical fishbowl that is Montréal hockey media keeps a lot of free agents, as well as players with trade protection, away.

If Carey Price struggles, Bergevin's house of cards might collapse.