NHL Season Preview Part 1:Atlantic Division

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The Cover 4.com presents you with the NHL Season Preview Part 1:Atlantic Division! Don’t forget to follow us on Twitter at @thecover4 or facebook at theCo VerFour

The 2013-14 NHL season is going to look a little different, in terms of teams, divisions and players, all of which have undergone major change. For the upcoming season, the realignment of the NHL is in full effect and there are new divisional names and a new playoff system.  The biggest change in the realignment is the shift of the Columbus Blue Jackets and Detroit Red Wings to the Eastern Conference. There will be new rivalries that were never able to exist in the past. The playoffs will take 16 teams, eight from each conference, and seed them. Under the new alignment, Eastern Conference teams, now consisting of the Metropolitan and Atlantic divisions, will have 30 games against their division opponents and 24 games against conference opponents outside of their division as well as 28 interconference games. To start our season preview, lets take a look at the Atlantic Division.

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BOSTON BRUINS

The Bruins skated their way last year into the Stanley Cup Final facing off against the Chicago Blackhawks, but lost in six games. The Bruins had a bit of a wild offseason in terms of players coming and going. The Bruins traded young forward and former No. 2 overall pick Tyler Seguin to the Dallas Stars after a disappointing year on and off-the-ice. His return netted the Bruins a natural goal scorer in Loui Eriksson, who will likely be paired on a line with Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand. Eriksson has been a reliable source of offense, producing three consecutive 70-plus point seasons before a subpar shortened season last year. Gone are Jaromir Jagr and Nathan Horton, but Boston went out signed 36-year-old Jarome Iginla in place of Jagr. Iginla is on the downside of his career, but he should fit in nicely with Boston’s style of play. The Bruins also lost defenseman Andrew Ference to Edmonton, which is their only notable loss on defense. Zdeno Chara will continue to lead the Bruins blue line as veterans Johnny Boychuk and Dennis Seidenberg are dependable. Dougie Hamilton had an outstanding promising rookie year and could become a top pairing defenseman soon. Also in the mix are Torey Krug , who made a name for himself in the playoffs, Matt Bartkowski, Adam McQuaid  and Joe Morrow, who also came over in the Seguin trade. In goal Tuukka Rask looks to build off a career year and strong playoff appearance as he is now the long-term solution in net for the next eight years. If Rask goes down, Boston will be in trouble as backups Chad Johnson and Niklas Svedberg have little, to no NHL experience.  Boston should be the favorite for this division.

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BUFFALO SABRES

Buffalo is basically in a rebuilding mode as it has a very weak team and little depth on its roster. Thomas Vanek is the veteran and big name who is looking to lead and carry the team after having his most productive season last year. The forwards for Buffalo are less than ideal and more promise and future hope than what can you do for me now.  Cody Hodgson and Tyler Ennis are two of Buffalo’s most optimistic players as the youngsters combined for 65 points in 2013 and should be looking for a breakout year in a full season. Mikhail Grigorenko, who was looked at as a promising hope of offensive production last year as a rookie, struggled to find his game and managed just one goal in 25 games. He does have the size and skill to be productive if given a full season to play.  Other forwards include Ville Leino, who signed a $26 million contract two years ago, who needs to stay healthy and produce as he has been nothing but a bust thus far. Buffalo will also have the likes of Steve Ott, who is used to create space and open play for guys like Drew Stafford who had the one of the worst seasons of his career last year.  Once promising youngster Tyler Myers, a 6-foot-8 defenseman, saw his minutes drop as he became nothing but a problem every time he was on the ice. The Sabers need improved play from him moving forward to have any chance of success this year. In net, Ryan Miller who many thought would be dealt last year, is back. Miller has been in steady decline since 2010 and his backup, Jhonas Enroth, didn’t look very promising either last year. It looks like it is going to be along year for Buffalo and fans can expect trades to happen and wins hard to come by.

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DETROIT RED WINGS

The Original Six team joins the Eastern Conference this year and enters as an already formidable opponent. Detroit has wanted this switch for years and it finally has it now, as it has a time schedule that is much more suitable for the team.  Detroit will have a much easier conference than years past, but still play top division teams like Pittsburgh, Boston and Montreal. Detroit was expected to have a down year last year, but went beyond expectations. Detroit has an abundance of forwards but is $2.5 million over the cap, which it will need to get down to before October 2. They added long time Ottawa  Senator, Daniel Alfredsson, as their top free agent signing as well as Stephen Weiss who will be replacing Valtteri Filppula. Alfredsson should be motivated to win a Cup as Detroit is a legitimate contender and practically quit on Ottawa last year after going down in its series to Pittsburgh. Weiss escapes a bad Florida team and can finally just be the play maker he is, and not the go-to guy he was expected to be.  Having Pavel Datysuk and Henrik Zetterberg should help him finally be himself on the ice and see his creativity go to work. Darren Helm will start the season on the IR and has had trouble staying healthy. Johan Franzen, Niklas Kronwall, Jonathan Ericsson and Mikael Samuelsson can all be depended upon and know what their roles are on the team. Their defense was a question mark heading into last season but this year, it should be a sound defensive unit. The defense is young, a change from years past and features Danny DeKeyser and Alexei Marchenko as players to watch. Ericsson, Kyle Quincey and Kronwall are the veteran leaders on defense.  Jimmy Howard has a chance to be a top goaltender in this league and his playoff success from last year shows he can carry them deep into the playoffs. Detroit will be fighting with the Bruins at the top of the Atlantic this year.

NHL: Buffalo Sabres at Florida Panthers

FLORIDA PANTHERS

There is not much to say about this team other than they are going to need a miracle to even sniff the playoffs this year. They have lots of high ceiling guys, but all offered minimal production. In 2012 they were the best team in their division, but are nothing more than basement dwellers now. They have the 2013 Calder winner Jonathan Huberdeau, who is their top young forward trying to lead Florida back into hockey relevancy. They signed veteran Scott Gomez, who is nothing more than a wasted paycheck anymore, during the offseason and have invited goaltender Tim Thomas to camp for a tryout. Thomas took all of last year off and even if he does make the team, he is nothing more than a backup and mentor.  Florida is led by forwards Tomas Fleischmann and Kris Versteeg on the first line. As I said before, hope is bleak in the SunshineState. A few other notable forwards will be Sean Bergenheim, Scottie Upshall and Marcel Goc as bottom-tier players.  Jacob Markstrom is expected to be the team’s go-to goalie and Florida needs him to be its future goalie. It’s going to be a long year in Florida, not that many will notice, as the Panthers have one of the lowest attendance figures in the league. Count on them to finish last.

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MONTREAL CANADIENS

The Habs didn’t really do much in the offseason in terms of getting better, as they only signed Danny Briere, George Parros and Douglas Murray. None of those three are expected to be game changers for this team. Montreal is banking off its late season surge last year, and feels it already has the necessary pieces in place to compete. Its division gets a little tougher this year but it has the skill and speed to keep up. It needs size and toughness which is what Murray and Parros are for. David Desharnais, Max Pacioretty and Rene Bourque are expected to be the point producers while the bottom two lines expect to wear you down. Lars Eller, Brian Gionta and Brandon Prust are very tough bottom-six names who can give you problems and chip in on the score sheet.  Montreal has a lot of depth on its team and remains solid overall. PK Subban will be his usual self on defense scoring goals and creating problems for other teams, as he is one of the best agitators in the league. Alexei Emelin will also be a name to look for as a key on Montreal’s blue line. Carry Price is signed for another five years and he has become a reliable goalie after showing signs early in his career that he couldn’t handle pressure. Expect Montreal to be a top 3-4 contender in this division.

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OTTAWA SENATORS

Daniel Alfredsson shocked a lot of people in the NHL by leaving Ottawa. It was a true blow to the fans to see the sides only $1 million off and not get a deal done. Maybe he didn’t really want to come back? Either way, it can be argued the Senators made the biggest offseason trade, going out and getting high-scoring winger Bobby Ryan from Anaheim for Jakob Silfverberg and Stefan Noesen. Ryan had been dealing with trade rumors the past few years and he can finally just relax and know it is over.  Ryan will be playing top-three minutes every night and has play-making ability to open space and make his linemates better. Ottawa fans should be excited about this trade because Ryan brings a wealth of talent to an already highly-skilled team.  He should be on a line with (who I assume to be the new captain) Jason Spezza. Spezza is a great passer and there should be a lot of chemistry between the two. Rounding out that line will be Milan Michalek. Kyle Turris will play with newly signed Clarke MacArthur and possibly Cory Conacher or Mika Zibanejad. Erik Karlsson is looking for another nomination for the Norris Trophy this year after being injured for most the year on a play by Matt Cooke last year. The Sens also went out and signed Joe Corvo to play with guys like Eric Gryba and Chris Phillips on the backend. If Craig Anderson can stay healthy, he is a Vezina-type goalie who should be able to backstop this team into a playoff spot. Look for them to be fighting for one of the last playoff spots in the division.

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TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING

Longtime face of the franchise Vincent Lecavalier is gone. His offensive production won’t be missed, but his leadership will. This team is looking to rebound from being one of the worse teams in the league last year, something no one in the NHL saw coming. Valtteri Filppula was their notable free agent signing and was given a lot of money after a disappointing season in Detroit. General Manager Steve Yzerman believes he will have a bounceback year centering the second line with either Teddy Purcell, Alexander Killorn, 2013 No. 2 overall pick Jonathan Drouin or veteran power forward Ryan Malone. My guess would have to be Drouin because he seems more like a natural fit for that line, However, if Drouin struggles early, could he be returned to junior after nine games? I could see Killorn on the top line after he was one of Tampa’s most productive scorers in the AHL. Head coach John Cooper, who took over late last year, should have had more time to establish a system that uses a combination of speed and skill. It could lead to a tougher time for the defense, but their strength is going to be on offense.  Tampa needs to be more consistent this year, after starting last year hot and then resembling a team that forgot how to play. It could score goals, but it could not hold onto leads. In goal, the completion between Ben Bishop and Anders Lindback provides no clear cut favorite for now. Both are big goalies and have the skill set to be number ones, but Tampa is usually a revolving door of goalies. I expect Tampa to struggle this year defensively, and be a brink playoff team thanks to its offense.

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TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS

The Leafs have what might be their best team in more than 10 years, and they are deep with talent. Their top two lines will be Tyler Bozak, Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk as line one and Joffrey Lupul, Nazem Kadri and newly-signed David Clarkson on the second. I love the addition of Clarkson to this team because he gives them another big body on the top two lines and has proven he knows how to use his size around the net. Kessel is playing for a new contract and as the old adage goes, guys in contract years are motivated and should produce. The bottom six brings new addition Dave Bolland, fresh off a Stanley Cup with Chicago, and talented Russian Nikolai Kulemin. Dion Phaneuf is the team’s best defenseman and had an up and down year last year, but was still a reason for Toronto making the playoffs. He was top 10 defenseman scoring and was often paired against teams’ best players. He may not be a true shutdown defenseman, but he knows how create problems for setting up plays. Jake Gardiner is also a defenseman who will be the Leafs go-to offensive defenseman. Toronto’s biggest concern is its overall defense, as it are often facing a barrage of shots each game. Shots lead to scoring chances and this is something it needs to improve upon. In net, James Reimer is the starter while Jonathan Bernier will push for starting duties. Bernier was the Leafs trade acquisition from the Kings in June and is considered a future No. 1 if Reimer is not capable of fulfilling his duties. I expect Toronto to be a playoff tean this team year, somewhere in the 5-7 seed range.

The Atlantic Division will see the return of some of the sport’s best rivalries with Detroit joining the division again, and it will be a fun division to watch. We are only getting started here at the Cover 4 with our NHL season preview, and tomorrow we shift our focus out West to the Central Division. Today, we will leave you with our three choices to secure the divisional playoff bids:

Boston

Detroit

Montreal

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