Part Two of our 2016-17 season preview will finish up the Atlantic Division and include the top-two teams from the Central Division. You can check out Part One of the series here.
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2015-16 Finish: 38-38-6 record, 13th in Eastern Conference
Noteworthy Losses: P.K. Subban
Biggest Strength: The return of Carey Price from a knee injury will give Montreal an advantage over most teams in the NHL. Price is an elite netminder who possesses the ability to steal wins on a near gamely basis. He will increase Montreal’s margin for error and allow them to take more chances because of the confidence he instills in his teammates. Price will get to warm up before the start of the season when he plays at the World Cup of Hockey for Canada. His presence in the lineup will make a big difference.
Biggest Weakness: Price helps the Canadiens mask some serious shortcomings and their struggle on offense is a notable one. Montreal didn’t get much goal scoring outside of Max Pacioretty and Alex Galchenyuk, who netted 30 markers each. Brendan Gallagher finished a distant second on the team with 19 goals and he was limited to just 53 contests due to injury. The Canadiens signed KHL star Alexander Radulov in an attempt to give them some much-needed depth scoring. It’s a move that has some risk because of Radulov’s checkered past, but it has the potential to be a big success because of the offensive talent that he can bring to the table.
Player to Watch: It will be interesting to see how Radulov performs and where coach Michel Therrien will slot him into the lineup. If he keeps the Pacioretty-Galchenyuk-Gallagher trio intact then Radulov will play alongside Tomas Plekanec. Therrien could also decide to move Radulov up and drop Gallagher to the second unit. If Radulov doesn’t skate with the team’s top duo of Pacioretty and Galchenyuk at 5v5 then he should see top power-play minutes. The 30-year-old has 50-60 potential in his first season back in the NHL since 2011-12.
2015-16 Finish: 35-36-11 record, 14th in Eastern Conference
Noteworthy Losses: Chad Johnson
Biggest Strength: Buffalo added another piece to an improving top-six forward group when they brought in Kyle Okposo on a seven-year, $42 million contract. He will join a unit that includes Jack Eichel, Ryan O’Reilly, Evander Kane, Sam Reinhart and Tyler Ennis. Pending unrestricted free agent Jimmy Vesey could be a part of that as well if he agrees to terms with the Sabres. O’Reilly, Eichel and Reinhart impressed during their first seasons with the team in 2015-16, but Ennis and Kane disappointed for the most part while suffering from injuries. The combinations look great on paper and they will get to prove their worth in 2016-17. The team also possesses some good pieces on the back end, with Rasmus Ristolainen leading the fold as an emerging all-around talent.
Biggest Weakness: Buffalo ranked 25th in the league in goals for per game (2.43), so there is still plenty room for improvement. However, that should change when Eichel reaches another gear and the supporting cast starts to click around him. The trend that Buffalo has to end is their culture of losing. The Sabres had nowhere to go but up after last-place finishes in 2014-15 and 2013-14 and they made positive strides forward. They probably won’t turn into playoff contenders this year, but they appear to be going in the right direction and they are becoming much more fantasy relevant again from an individual player perspective.
Player to Watch: How Okposo fits into the lineup and adjusts to his team will be important topics to analyze during his first year with the Sabres, but I want to see how Tyler Ennis performs. If the Sabres are unsuccessful in their attempts to sign Vesey then Ennis will get another crack at a top-six forward spot. He played in only 23 games last season because of a concussion and struggled to produce when he was healthy, so his motivation will be high to get back on track. Ennis was a key offensive player for the Sabres when the team was awful and he has much more talent around him now. He is worth keeping an eye on.
Toronto Maple Leafs
2015-16 Finish: 29-42-11 record, 16th in Eastern Conference
Biggest Strength: The Maple Leafs were an absolute mess from January until the end of the season in 2014-15. The team was in need of a massive shake up and coach Mike Babcock brought some stability and structure in his first year with the organization despite Toronto’s 30th overall finish. The Leafs had a vastly improved work ethic and much better puck possession numbers, while moving from 27th overall in Corsi For percentage in 2014-15 to 13th last year. Babcock also has some talented prospects to teach in 2016-17 with Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander slated to start the year with the big club.
Biggest Weakness: Babcock did well to make the Leafs a more competitive team, but he wasn’t able to miraculously lift the team up the standings. Despite ranking sixth in the NHL in shots for per game (30.7), Toronto placed 28th overall in goals for per match (2.34). Their collective lack of finish contributed to a minus-48 goal differential, which placed them 29th in the league The hope is that Matthews, Marner and Nylander as well as a returning James van Riemsdyk can inject some skill and offense into the lineup. The Leafs also acquired Frederik Andersen from Anaheim to serve as the club’s new number one goalie. He should be an improvement after Jonathan Bernier struggled mightily in 2015-16.
Player to Watch: Auston Matthews is an obvious choice here. He was the first overall pick in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft and is a future number one center for a team desperately in need of talent down the middle. However, I want to highlight Morgan Rielly. His role with the team increased last year in a shutdown capacity and he got more power-play time after Dion Phaneuf was traded. He has the offensive instincts to top 40 points in 2016-17.
2015-16 Finish: 50-23-9 record, second round loss to St. Louis (4-3)
Biggest Strength: The Stars have two of the best offensive players in the league in Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin. The talented duo both averaged over a point per game in 2015-16, with Benn playing in all 82 contests and Seguin missing 10 matches at the end of the year due to an Achilles injury. Dallas’ potent offense was augmented with Jason Spezza’s arrival and John Klingberg’s materialization as an elite source of production from the blueline. Patrick Sharp also proved to be a solid addition to the lineup. The Stars led the league in goals for with 265 and they owned the NHL’s fourth best power play.
Biggest Weakness: Dallas rode their offensive success to the Central Division title despite the lackluster performances of their goalies. The Stars thought they were addressing their goaltending concerns by bringing in Antti Niemi to share the crease with Kari Lehtonen, but neither of them stood out. Dallas posted a disappointing .904 team save percentage, which placed them 25th in the league, even though they surrendered just 28.9 shots against per contest. The Stars have been linked to trade rumors for Tampa Bay’s Ben Bishop during the off-season, but for now it looks like Niemi and Lehtonen will tend to the cage at the beginning of the 2016-17 campaign.
Player to Watch: Valeri Nichushkin has been pegged as a potential breakout player for the last two years and in both seasons he left fantasy owners feeling crestfallen. Injuries limited him to eight appearances in 2014-15 and in 79 games last campaign he posted just nine goals and 29 points. Can he at least get to 45 points in 2016-17? Another season alongside Jason Spezza should help him achieve that mark with the hope that he can get more. Don't give up on the 21-year-old yet.
St. Louis Blues
2015-16 Finish: 49-24-9 record, Western Conference Final loss to San Jose (4-2)
Biggest Strength: The Blues have a deep defense corp. Even if Kevin Shattenkirk, who can become an unrestricted free agent next summer, is traded then St. Louis may not miss a beat because it would elevate Colton Parayko, who was sensational in his rookie campaign in 2015-16. Alex Pietrangelo, who logs heavy ice time in all situations, will probably become the team’s next captain following the departure of David Backes. The Blues permitted just 2.40 goals against per game, which ranked them fourth in the league.
Biggest Weakness: As good as they were defensively, the Blues need more from their players offensively. Vladimir Tarasenko led the team with 40 goals and 74 points in 80 contests. David Backes (21) and Troy Brouwer (18) were second and third on the club, respectively in goal scoring and they are both no longer on the roster. St. Louis will be looking for key contributions from Paul Stastny and Jaden Schwartz, who dealt with injuries last year, as well as Robby Fabbri. Returning to the club will be David Perron and likely Vladimir Sobotka*, whose transfer hasn’t been confirmed by the Blues yet. They could help out the offense too, but their contributions probably won’t be as noteworthy. Alexander Steen’s off-season shoulder surgery could test the Blues’ depth at forward further if he isn’t ready for the start of the year.
Player to Watch: Robby Fabbri displayed plenty of potential during his rookie campaign and he was great in the Blues’ playoff run to the Western Conference Final. Coach Ken Hitchcock plans to play him with Jori Lehtera, but he believes that the 20-year-old winger can play with anyone. Steen’s availability for the start of the season could give Fabbri additional responsibilities early on, but he should get more opportunities throughout 2016-17 as his profile with the team increases.