Part Two of our 2017-18 season preview will complete the remaining Atlantic Division teams and start with the top-two clubs from the Central Division, according to last year’s standings. You can review Part One of the series here.
2016-17 Finish: 35-36-11 record, 13th in the Eastern Conference
Biggest Strength: If goaltender Roberto Luongo, defenseman Aaron Ekblad, left winger Jonathan Huberdeau and center Aleksander Barkov are healthy this season then Florida has their best players at every position and a much better chance at competing for a playoff spot. They are key players who were missing for large portions of the 2016-17 campaign due to injury. With Barkov in the lineup, the Panthers have Vincent Trocheck on the second line and Nick Bjugstad available for the third line. That drastically improves their depth down the middle.
Biggest Weakness: Despite having strong centers there are serious questions about Florida’s depth up front going into the 2017-18 season. The team allowed Jaromir Jagr to walk as a free agent, bought out Jussi Jokinen, traded Reilly Smith and lost Jonathan Marchessault in the expansion draft. The Panthers will rely on newcomers Radim Vrbata, Evgeny Dadonov and possibly Henrik Haapala to help fill that offensive void on the wings. Dadonov and Haapala have been great point generators overseas, but it is risky to believe they can seamlessly transition that into success in the NHL. Florida struggled to score last year, finishing 23rd in the league with 2.50 goals for per game, and that could be an issue again this year. Huberdeau and Barkov will have to shoulder the load, but they will need help from the team’s secondary group.
Player to Watch: Evgeny Dadonov is the most intriguing member of Florida’s new cast of top-six forward entries. He amassed 30 goals and 66 points in 53 KHL matches last season. The 28-year-old forward has some NHL experience (55 games) and it did all come with the Panthers. Dadonov is also expected to skate on the top line with Barkov and Huberdeau, which gives him great sleeper value going into the year.
Detroit Red Wings
2016-17 Finish: 33-36-13 record, 14th in the Eastern Conference
Noteworthy Gains: Trevor Daley
Noteworthy Losses: None
Biggest Strength: Detroit could feature a superb goaltending duo if Petr Mrazek returns to form and Jimmy Howard continues to ride the wave of momentum he established last year when he was healthy. The Red Wings intend to have Howard start the season as the number one goalie, but Mrazek has plenty of motivation to get back on track after a poor 2016-17 season. Unfortunately, Detroit’s netminders may have to stand on their heads most nights if their teammates continue to struggle defensively and offensively. They probably won’t be given much room for error, which could hurt their ability to pick up winning records.
Biggest Weakness: Detroit’s offense was ineffective last season and it may not be much better in 2017-18. They averaged just 2.41 goals for per contest, which ranked 26th overall in the NHL. The team suffers from a lack of difference makers. Veteran Henrik Zetterberg led the charge last season, but the Red Wings captain will turn 37 shortly after the season begins. The scoring surge he had after the All-Star break (35 points in 33 games) could be difficult to duplicate. Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar benefited from Zetterberg’s hot play after struggling to produce for most of the year. Detroit desperately needs Dylan Larkin, Anthony Mantha and Andreas Athanasiou to make positive strides this campaign.
Player to Watch: Dylan Larkin earned 23 goals and 45 points in 80 games during his rookie campaign. The bulk of his production came in the first half of the season, as he posted just 12 points in 32 matches following the All-Star break. Larkin continued to struggle in 2016-17 with 17 goals and 32 points in 80 contests. However, he has the potential to be much better in 2017-18, especially if he logs time as a top-six center on the Red Wings. Larkin is only 21 years of age and he possesses the tools to be successful in today’s speedy NHL.
2016-17 Finish: 33-37-12 record, 15th in the Eastern Conference
Biggest Strength: The Sabres will go as far as Jack Eichel can carry them. He showed his importance to the team last year when their goals per game increased from 1.81 when he was out of the lineup to 2.64 when he was playing. The power play also improved to 26.4 percent from 20.0 percent once he returned from an early-season ankle injury. Buffalo finished the year with the most efficient power play in the league (24.5 percent) on the strength of 57 goals. Ryan O’Reilly is an excellent second-line pivot, but it’s Eichel who is the straw that stirs the drink for Buffalo offensively.
Biggest Weakness: Whether or not Eichel is the lineup, Buffalo will need to improve defensively. They permitted the most shots against per game at 34.3 and finished 28th overall with a minus-3.9 shot differential per match. Marco Scandella, Nathan Beaulieu and Viktor Antipin were brought in during the off-season to try to help shore up the back end. The Sabres will also have to be better at scoring when they don’t have the man advantage in 2017-18. Last year, they placed last overall with an even strength goal percentage of 69.9 percent.
Player to Watch: Sam Reinhart notched 17 goals and 47 points in 79 games last season after he had 23 markers and 42 points in 79 games in 2015-16. That isn’t the kind of progress the Sabres were hoping for from the second overall pick in the 2014 NHL Draft. Much more will be expected of Reinhart this season and a start on the same line as Eichel would go a long way to helping him break out offensively.
2016-17 Finish: 50-23-9 record, first round loss to Nashville (4-0)
Biggest Strength: Despite all the roster changes Chicago goes through from season to season the team’s impressive core remains intact. The contracts of Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews don’t give the team much wiggle room on the salary cap, but they are tremendous talents and they continue to lead the club offensively. Dealing Artemi Panarin to Columbus and losing Marian Hossa to a skin disorder are blows to the Blackhawks’ offense, but the team can recover. Brandon Saad, who was brought back from the Blue Jackets in the Panarin trade, and free agent addition Patrick Sharp, who is another returnee to the team, can fill in on the top-two lines.
Biggest Weakness: Chicago has big holes on defense going into the 2017-18 season. Reliable defender Niklas Hjalmarsson was traded to Arizona, with Connor Murphy coming back in exchange, and Trevor van Riemsdyk was snatched up in the expansion draft. Johnny Oduya signed with Ottawa via free agency and Brian Campbell retired. The Blackhawks will be very different on the back end this season. Duncan Keith will be leaned on heavily and Brent Seabrook will be tasked with helping him. Frequent healthy scratch Michal Rozsival may see more regular playing time, while Michal Kempny and Gustav Forsling will be counted on to take larger roles. The Blackhawks' weakened defense corps may put more pressure on number one goalie Corey Crawford.
Player to Watch: Brandon Saad was arguably under-utilized by Columbus. He didn’t see much in the way of power-play action and appeared to be at odds with former coach John Tortorella at times. Saad should be much more comfortable with Chicago and his teammates are excited to have him back. He is projected to be reunited with Toews and could inch his way closer to the 30-goal plateau again.
2016-17 Finish: 49-25-8 record, first round loss to St. Louis (4-1)
Biggest Strength: Minnesota has a deep roster that set team records with 49 wins and 106 points in 2016-17. They finished second overall with 263 goals for (3.21 goals for per game) and ranked seventh in the league with 2.51 goals against per match. A resurgent Eric Staal made up for the struggles of Zach Parise, while Mikael Granlund, Nino Niederreiter, Jason Zucker and Charlie Coyle had career years up front. Ryan Suter, Jared Spurgeon and Matt Dumba were productive from the blueline and Devan Dubnyk had superb numbers despite some struggles late in the year.
Biggest Weakness: Dubnyk had his issues from February until the end of the regular season, but he bounced back in the playoffs. Unfortunately, the Wild’s offense was silenced by red-hot St. Louis goalie Jake Allen and they were dispatched in five games in Round 1 of the postseason. Minnesota hasn’t advanced past the second round for five straight years. A group that is largely unchanged from finishing fifth overall in the league will look to change their playoff shortcomings in 2017-18.
Player to Watch: Several Wild players had big years in 2016-17, so it will be interesting to see if that is the new norm for them or if they take some steps backwards. Joel Eriksson Ek gets the nod though because he was shuffled between different leagues and teams last year and managed to contribute points everywhere he went. The 20-year-old played in the NHL, AHL, SHL, World Juniors and World Championship, but he will probably finally have some stability this year as a full-time member of the Wild. Eriksson Ek is a candidate to play on the third line, which could put him alongside Charlie Coyle and Tyler Ennis.