Monday, October 01, 2018

Washington Capitals 2018-2019 Previews -- Into the Unknown

“Prepare for the unknown by studying how others in the past have 
coped with the unforeseeable and the unpredictable.”
-- George S. Patton

“Washington Capitals, Stanley Cup Champions.”  

It will never get old.  But it is also a starting point for a journey into the unknown, a road on which this franchise has never traveled.  How do the first-time winners of a Stanley Cup navigate their way to a second championship?  That is what the next six months are about, how to manage being the prey and not the predator, being chased instead of doing the chasing.

If last season was an expression of how a team can put together by coming together in ways that previous editions of the club could not, even with superior talent, the 2018-2019 Capitals will be a study in how a club might use the same on-ice formula to achieve the same result.  These Capitals are, almost in every part, the same club that won last year.  But where they differ most might be most important, especially as they start the season.


Gone are head coach Barry Trotz, Assistant Coach Lane Lambert, and Director of Goaltending Mitch Korn, all off to assume similar duties with the New York Islanders.  Enter new head coach Todd Reirden (promoted from Associate Coach), and assistants Scott Arniel and Reid Cashman.  Reirden has previous head coaching experience (two seasons with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in the AHL), while Arniel spent a season and a half as head coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets.  The new group has several challenges in the short and the longer term. 

The first is shaking off any hangover effects (figuratively and literally, given the gusto with which the Caps celebrated their Stanley Cup win).  Why is that important?  As far back as 2013, slow starts and their impacts on making the postseason were a thing.  The point is that falling off the playoff pace, even by a few points, over the first month of the season can kill a team’s playoff dreams.

The second challenge is finding the right mix of not fixing what isn’t broken, this being a defending Stanley Cup champion, putting the coaches’ own imprint on the club in terms of style and philosophy, and being able to apply a critical eye to things that the club might not have done well last season in spite of the success they enjoyed.  One thing to look for.  It took a while for the Caps to settle on forward lines, Barry Trotz being something of a persistent mixologist in that regard at times.  But settle they did.  Will those lines remain intact through the early going?


The Caps are three-deep, three-across on their forward lines.  Washington has among the best top-nine forwards in the league with Evgeny Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom, and Lars Eller centering wingers Alex Ovechkin, Jakub Vrana, and Andre Burakovsky on the left side, and Tom Wilson, T.J. Oshie, and Brett Connolly on the right side.  It is not a group without questions, though. There is health.  Oshie missed eight games last season to a concussion and plainly felt the after effects in the weeks immediately following his return.  His susceptibility to that kind of injury will be a concern.

An entirely different health concern surrounds Tom Wilson, that being the degree to which he impacts the health of opponents with play outside the rules.  He is likely to face a season-opening suspension of some length after his open ice hit on St. Louis forward Oskar Sundqvist in the team’s last preseason game.  It would be Wilson’s fourth suspension in just over a year.  A top line right winger cannot be missing productive time to those sorts of antics over a season if the team is to succeed.  Vrana and Burakovsky have immense talent, but both have had episodes of inconsistency that have to be addressed.  Ovechkin turned 33 years old in September, and for those who think there is another 50-goal season in his sticks, only three players in NHL history have hit the 50-goal mark having reached their 33rd birthday. 

The new blood among the forwards will be on the fourth line, where a spot opened up when Jay Beagle signed as a free agent with the Vancouver Canucks.  Travis Boyd appeared to have a good shot at nailing down that slot, but he opens the season “week-to-week” with a lower body injury suffered against St. Louis in a preseason game.  That creates an opportunity for Nic Dowd, who came to the Caps over the summer with 131 games of NHL experience with two clubs.  The question here, whether it is Boyd (later) or Dowd (now) filling Beagle’s slot is whether they can be as effective killing penalties and/or winning faceoffs.

The remaining questions might qualify as “Stanley Cup Champ Problems,” but there is the matter of whether Chandler Stephenson continues his improvement and/or Devante Smith-Pelly shakes off whatever that mysterious reason was for his being held out for much of the preseason and provides some consistent, even if modest production.


Like the forwards, this is largely a set group on paper.  Matt Niskanen and Dmitry Orlov on the top pair, John Carlson and Michal Kempny on the second pa—oh, wait.  Kempny was flattened by St. Louis’ Robert Bortuzzo in a preseason game (suspended for two preseason games and one regular season game) and is uncertain to start the season.  How that might shake up the pairs is an early personnel challenge.  Will the Brooks Orpik/Christian Djoos third pair be broken up?  Will Jonas Siegenthaler (who had a fine training camp) or Madison Bowey get a sweater, either with Carlson or with one of Orpik or Djoos?  If you don’t want to suffer that slow start that puts you in a hole from which you are not likely to emerge, an early injury on the second pair is not the way to start the season.  But that aside, what was the most uncertain group among the Caps going into last season – the defense – might be the most stable as this season unfolds.


From 2014-2015 through 2016-2017, Braden Holtby averaged 67 starts per season.  Last season he had 54 starts, Philipp Grubauer picking up the slack when Holtby suffered a curious late-season slump.  Whether Holtby can be productive at something closer to his three-season/67 start average, instead of a volume of starts in the mid-50’s could be the difference between making and missing the postseason. 

The reason is that Grubauer has moved on the Colorado Avalanche, and the Caps will start the season with a virtually untested backup in Pheonix Copley (two career NHL appearances, both with St. Louis).  Grubauer was among the best backup goalies in the game last season, and his play allowed the Caps to ease Holtby into the 2017-2018 schedule with a “two-on/one-off” over Washington’s first dozen games before going to a “three-on/one-off” over the next 16 games.  Something to look for here is just how much of a load that the new coaching staff places on Holtby and how they try to “shelter” Copley in terms of opponent and/or venue, if at all, to break him into the new role as goaltending backup.

Special Teams

Legend has it that Vince Lombardi, upon being named head coach of the Green Bay Packers of the NFL, installed his “power sweep” as the first play in his playbook.  Elegant in its simplicity, everyone knew what it was, who had what role, and when one could expect it to be unleashed, and yet few teams could stop it.  The secret was talent and execution.

So it is with the power play of the Capitals.  The fan in the last row of the stands knows the formation, the guy standing in line at the concession stand looks at the TV feed and knows that the puck is eventually going to make its way to either Alex Ovechkin (almost all the time) or to the middle of the 1-3-1 set, but no one can seem to stop it with any regularity.  Since Blaine Forsythe is returning as an assistant coach, and he had responsibility for the power play, one expects that the Caps will use talent and execution to dare opponents to stop what they know is coming.  When you ponder that Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov are among the most talented and creative passers in the league, that Ovechkin is as dependable as the sun rising in the east in shooting from his left wing faceoff circle “office,” that T.J. Oshie has a sneaky right-handed release that makes him the perfect trigger man in the middle, and that John Carlson has improved immensely in being able to tee-up Ovechkin for one-timers, it would seem folly to think that the Caps’ power play will be any less productive this season than in recent seasons past.

As for the penalty killers, this might be the single area in which improvement would be welcome.  Over the last five seasons the Caps have lingered in the low 80’s in penalty killing efficiency for the most part, finishing at 80.3 percent last season, 15th in the league.  Part of the problem is the sheer volume of shorthanded situations they have to kill.  They had the seventh-highest number of shorthanded situations faced last season, and over the last five seasons they are tied for third in the number of such situations faced (1,347; with Detroit).  Limiting those situations would provide some relief to what might be a somewhat different penalty killing look with Beagle gone, and it would provide some relief for Holtby and Copley as they sort out their respective workloads over the course of the season.

The Schedule

Every fan will find fault or bias with what the schedule maker does with his teams’ 82 games, but there are some thing to note about the Caps’ schedule.  First, they are tested early.  Their first five games are against playoff teams from last season (Boston, Pittsburgh, Vegas, New Jersey, and Toronto).  After getting a comparative breather against the Rangers and Florida at home, they then go off on their first long road trip, including the always treacherous three-game swing through western Canada (Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary) before wrapping up their trip in Montreal.  If there is a break there, the Caps do not have to go through western Canada on one of those three-games-in-four-nights runs.  They get three days between Vancouver and Calgary and then two days before facing Edmonton.  Four days after that they visit Montreal.

The Caps get 13 back-to-back sets of games, two of them coming right out of the gate to open the season, against Boston and at Pittsburgh to open the schedule, and then six days later they host Vegas before visiting New Jersey the following night.  After those two back-to-backs, the Caps have two such sets in November, two in December, three in January, three in February, and one in March.

February includes a critical part of the schedule.  The Caps will have their longest road trip of the season in that month, a six-game trip that will include the Caps’ annual west coast trip to San Jose, Anaheim,m and Los Angeles.  The games in Anaheim and Los Angeles will be one of the back-to-back sets.

Washington has only one schedule home-and-home series this season, that coming in late March against the Carolina Hurricanes.


As set as the Caps roster is, there will be instances in which depth will be tested.  Last season the Caps dressed 19 forwards and ten defensemen in the regular season.  It begs the question who among the Hershey Bears might be called upon to fill in the gaps when they (hopefully infrequently) occur?  If Jonas Siegenthaler does not make the parent roster out of training camp, or even if he is reassigned to Hershey upon the return of Michal Kempny, he appears to have played his way into being at the head of the line for a call-up if needed on the defense.  That he is waiver-exempt makes him perhaps a more attractive call-up option than, say, an Aaron Ness.

Among the forwards there is a lot of intriguing possibility – Axel Jonsson-Fjallby, Shane Gersich, Sergei Shumakov, Brian Pinho, and even “veteran” prospects Liam O’Brien and Riley Barber.  There does not appear to be a potential game-breaker in the bunch, but as a group they offer an interesting set of possibilities as role players.  It would seem that how Hershey gets out of the blocks in the AHL schedule could provide an indication who among this group would be suited to at least exposure to the NHL.  But for now, it is a group with many blanks to fill in.

Fearless’ Take… Sometimes, it is possible to overthink a thing.  One can pay too much attention to old sayings as “if you’re not moving forward, you’re moving backward.”  It is easy to forget just how good this club was to end the 2017-2018 season.  They went 12-3-0 to close the regular season, and then they went 16-8 in the postseason, a combined 28-11-0, a 118-point pace against some very stiff competition.  That team returns almost intact, with Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, T.J. Oshie, John Carlson, Matt Niskanen, and Braden Holtby in their competitive prime; and youngsters like Jakub Vrana, Andre Burakovsky, Dmitry Orlov, and Christian Djoos with more experience than they brought to battle last season.  Even among the coaches, Todd Reirden is familiar with the players, the systems, and the management.  Scott Arniel has head coaching experience.  This is a new coaching staff, but it is not one lacking in experience such as the Adam Oates staff of 2012-2013.  One might say that the Caps undertook a “stand pat” approach to this season, but that might be only a superficial way of looking at things.  Even with almost the same personnel, this is a team that might improve.

Cheerless’ Take… Yeah, hold on to that dream, cuz.  This was a team that nobody had getting out of the East last year, a team with inferior personnel to the teams that won consecutive Presidents Trophies.  Yeah, they got hot when it mattered, but is “hot” the same as “good?”  Caps fans don’t much care; last year’s Cup is won.  But Ovechkin and Backstrom are a year older, Oshie has that concussion thing, Wilson is Wilsonning all over the place again, and what’s Plan B if Holtby has another slump?  What if the light bulb doesn’t go on over Vrana’s or Burakovsky’s head?  What if Carlson had his best year last year and goes to seed after getting the big contract?  What if Todd Reirden is more Scott Gordon than Scotty Bowman?  What if the team took too many keg stands?  There is just so much that can go wrong.

In the end…

We have a suspicion that folks are going to have a really good idea of who the 2018-2019 Caps are in the first 20 games.  If there is a hangover, that hole is going to be mighty steep to dig out of.  And the early schedule is difficult.  If they can get through that first 20 games in a solid playoff position, it would be a reflection of the veteran, professional character of the club.  There would be every reason to believe that all other things equal (as we cross our fingers hoping there will be few injuries), the Caps will find the postseason once more. 

What the Caps did last spring was unconventional.  Every series was its own story; every series had its own unique adversity to be conquered. This year brings an entirely new set of challenges of a sort never faced by any club in franchise history. If the Caps are to take their place among the model franchises of the last 15 years, those that have won multiple Cups – Chicago, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh – they will have to cope with the unforeseen and unpredictable, knowing that was achieved once, as hard as it might have been, will be harder to achieve again.

Prediction: 48-25-9, 105 points, first Metropolitan Division

Photo: AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin

The Peerless Prognosticator Brings You: The Metropolitan Division Prognostos

The Peerless took a look at the Atlantic Division in his first prognosto, and now he focuses his attention on the Metropolitan Division.

1.  Washington Capitals

The whys and the wherefores we will deal with in its own scribbles.

2.  Pittsburgh Penguins

There has been a certain sameness to the regular season in the Metropolitan Division.  The Caps win, and the Penguins finish second.  This has been true in each of the last three seasons.  The 2018-2019 season will make it four in a row.  The usual suspects are still at The Confluence.  Sidney Crosby (29-60-89 last season) had his fifth straight season with 80 or more points.  He is the only player with more than two such seasons in those five campaigns.  Evgeni Malkin finished last season with 98 points, the most he had in any season since 2011-2012, when he finished 50-59-109 to earn him the Ross Trophy (top point producer), Lindsay Award (then the “Pearson,” as outstanding player), Hart Trophy (MVP), and a spot on the first all-star team.  Phil Kessel finished with 92 points, a career high.  Kris Letang dressed for 79 games, the first time he dressed for more than 75 games in a season since he appeared in all 82 games in 2010-2011.

Why they will go far… Crosby, Malkin, Kessel, and Letang are all past their 30th birthdays, but they are still in their productive prime.  There is little reason to expect a regression.  They have a rather solid pair of secondary scorers in Patric Hornqvist (97 goals in four years in Pittsburgh) and Jake Guentzel (38 goals in his first two seasons).  And this year, after spending two seasons as defending Stanley Cup champions, they have to be hungry after being disposed of by the Caps in the second round last spring.

Why they will come up short… The Crosby/Malkin duo is one of, if not the best center tandems in the league.  But the Penguins’ strength down the middle drops off considerably after that.  A question mark attaches to every defenseman they are likely to ice.  Can Letang remain healthy?  Can Olli Maatta put together consecutive healthy/productive seasons (he has alternated them over five seasons)?  Is Brian Dumoulin a top-four defender on a contender?  Can Jack Johnson flourish on a team with more talent around him than he had in Columbus?  Actually, Johnson inspires his own chapter of questions, not the least of which might be, “what did the Penguins really think they were adding?”  In 12 seasons he has one “plus” season and has the worst plus-minus of any player in the league in that span (minus-109, tied with Justin Faulk and Sam Gagner).  Whatever you think of plus-minus, that ain’t good.  And in goal, Matt Murray has to show that he can grab the number one spot by the throat and be an elite goalie.  He hasn’t dressed for as many as 50 games in any of his three regular seasons.  The Penguins are not that deep in the system behind him to afford the luxury of having to have another goalie appear in 30 or more games.

3.  Philadelphia Flyers

Last season the Flyers came within one win of a 100-point season, which would have been their first 100-point season since 2011-2012.  They closed with a rush, going 7-1-3 in their last 11 games.  It was a team that behaved in the particulars as it did generally.  Philadelphia finished tied with the Los Angeles Kings for 12th place in the league in standings points, while they were similarly ranked in scoring offense (12th/30.4 goals per game), scoring defense (tied for 14th/2.88 goals per game), and power play (15th/20.7 percent).  But their regular season success was followed up by going ‘splat’ against the Penguins in the first round of the playoffs, allowing 28 goals in a six-game series loss.  It is a team that will return ten of its 11 double-digit goal scorers from last season, losing only Valteri Filppula (gone to the New York Islanders).  They did replace that production by welcoming back former Flyer James van Riemsdyk, who had 36 goals for the Toronto Maple Leafs last season.  The Flyers should not lack for scoring.

Why they will go far… The Flyers will go three-deep in terms of solid forward lines.  And, it is not an especially old group, none of which is older than 30 (Claude Giroux).  The Flyers have two of the better young defensemen in the game in Shayne Gostisbehere and Ivan Provorov.  Travis Sanheim has a considerable upside about him and could build off his 49-game rookie season that featured some impressive underlying numbers. 

Why they will come up short… Goaltending.  The Flyers are Team Dysfunctional when it comes to this position and has been for years.  Since 2005-2006 only one goalie among the 10 to start at least 40 games had a goals against average under 2.50 and a save percentage over .910 (Steve Mason was 18-18-11, 2.25, .928 in 48 starts in 2014-2015).  This is a club that has had 40 goaltenders dress for them since 2005-2006.  Four dressed last season, including Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth, the latter having struggled with injuries the last few seasons (and is out with a groin injury now).  Carter Hart might be the answer, eventually, but not likely now.   Teams cannot be weak or uncertain at this position and go far.  Unfortunately, that’s where the Flyers are.

4.  New Jersey Devils

After missing the postseason for five straight seasons, their longest absence in 30 years, the New Jersey Devils returned to the playoffs last season off a 44-win season.  It was their biggest winning season since 2011-2012, when 48 wins were a prelude to an appearance in the Stanley Cup final.  They did it largely playing on the right side of the margin.  Their 25-8-9 record in one-goal games was seventh-best in the league.  And they did it navigating some continuity issues in the roster.  Rookie Nico Hischier was the only player to dress for all 82 games last season for New Jersey.  In all, the Devils dressed 30 skaters over the course of the season.  Their shortcomings finally came back to haunt them when they lost to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round of last spring’s postseason, scoring only 12 goals in the process.

Why they will go far… The Devils return the Hart Trophy winner in Taylor Hall, who put up career bests in goals (39), assists (54), points (93), plus-minus (plus-14), power play goals (13, tying a career high), and game-winning goals (seven, also tying a career high).  They got a fine rookie season from 2017 top overall draft pick Nico Hischier (20-32-52, plus-10).  They got 44 points from rookie defenseman Will Butcher, tops among rookie defensemen.  This is a club that got 25 or more points from four rookies last season.  No club had more.  There is a bright future here.

Why they will come up short… Once upon a time, Cory Schneider was among the best puck-stoppers in the game.  In his first three full seasons in the league – three with the Vancouver Canucks and three with the Devils – he was 122-92-34, 2.13, .926.  He was the only goalie in that six-season span to appear in 50 games and post a GAA under 2.20 and a save percentage over .925.  He added 21 shutouts for good measure.  However, the last two seasons he is 37-43-17, 2.86, .908 and three shutouts.  One wonders if, at the age 02 32, this has become the new normal for Schneider.  If so, that level of performance plus the lack of depth on this squad will hinder its progress.

5. Columbus Blue Jackets

It was all there for the taking.  Overtime wins in Games 1 and 2 on enemy ice in the opening round of the postseason.  They scored in the third period to force a third straight overtime in Game 3.  And then, the hockey gods decided it was time to make their presence felt.  An odd multi-ricochet goal in the second overtime, and instead of taking a commanding 3-0 lead in the first round, the Columbus Blue Jackets were back in a series against the Washington Capitals.  The Jackets would hold a lead for only 3:14 over the next three games and see their season end.  The Caps went on to win the Stanley Cup.  In a sense, it was a season of progress for the Blue Jackets, who reached the playoffs for a second consecutive season, the first time in franchise history they did that.  On the other hand, it is a franchise still searching for its first postseason series win.

Why they will go far… Columbus has players who are among the top few at their respective positions in the NHL.  Winger Artemi Panarin, defenseman Seth Jones, and goalie Sergei Bobrovsky are all of elite status.  Bobrovsky is the only one to have reached his 30th birthday.  Columbus also has one of the best young defensemen in the game in Zach Werenski, and they have fine young forwards in Pierre-Luc Dubois and Alexander Wennberg.  Cam Atkinson and Nick Foligno are players squarely in their respective primes who are solid contributors.  This is a team with talent, balance, and a good mix of age and youth to sustain a push for a playoff spot.

Why they will come up short… Let’s face it.  After winning the first two games on the road in the opening round last year, they should have put away the Caps.  To go as quickly and quietly as they did, failing to get or hold leads in Games 4-6, one wonders if there will be a lingering effect.  Then there is the matter of Sergei Bobrovsky in goal.  There is no questioning his ability from October to April, but it’s what happens from April onward that needs to be addressed.  In six years with the Blue Jackets, Bobrovsky has a regular season goals against average of 2.37 and a save percentage of .923 with 24 shutouts.  Over the same span, he is 5-12, 3.37, .898 without a shutout in the postseason.  If he doesn’t turn it around in the spring, it is going to be another early exit from the playoffs.

6.  Carolina Hurricanes

Since the Carolina Hurricanes won the Stanley Cup in 2006, they have fallen on hard times.  They have one postseason appearance since then, reaching the conference final in 2009.  They have not had a 40-win season since 2010-2011, which is the last season they reached the 90-point level in the standings (91 points).  They shook things up in the off-season, bringing on team legend Rod Brind’Amour as the head coach.  They traded defenseman Noah Hanafin and forward Elias Lindholm to Calgary for Dougie Hamilton, Micheal Ferlan, and Adam Fox.  They traded Jeff Skinner to Buffalo for Cliff Pu and three draft picks. They signed free agent defenseman Calvin de Haan away from the New York Islanders.

Why they will go far… Carolina does not have a lot in the way of top-end talent, but they have a fair number of nice pieces that might fit together nicely.  Sebastien Aho, Teuvo Terevainen, Victor Rask, Haydn Fleury, Jaccob Slavin, and Dougie Hamilton might all be pieces of a group that grows together and could be much better as season’s end than at its beginning.

Why they will come up short… The bad part about being in a position of having something to prove means you are probably coming off a forgettable season.  That is true for both goaltenders.  Scott Darling, seen as the successor to the now departed Cam Ward, had a dismal year last year (13-21-7, 3.18, .888) in his first turn as a number one goalie.  Worse, he is injured, having suffered a lower-body injury Sunday against Nashville.  Petr Mrazek, who made noise a couple of seasons ago as a potential number one goalie in Detroit, was neither good last season with the Red Wings (8-7-3, 2.89, .910), nor with the Philadelphia Flyers, to whom he was traded late (6-6-3, 3.22, .891).  A young squad of skaters and iffy goaltending?  Not a recipe for success.

7.  New York Rangers

Last season was as bad as it gets.  For the first time in their history, the New York Rangers finished eighth in their division.  They finished 22nd in scoring offense (2.78 goals per game), 28th in scoring defense (3.21 goals per game), lost 29 games by multi-goal margins, and they had the worst shot attempts-for percentage at 5-on-5 in the league (45.93).  The odd thing for them was that no team had a better record when leading after two periods (22-0-1/.957).  They just didn’t have enough leads to hold.  It was a team that provided little support in front of goalie Henrik Lundqvist, whose goals against average went up by almost a quarter goal per game (2.74 to 2.98) despite his save percentage improving by five points form 2016-2017 (from .910 to .915).

Why they will go far… This is a team that will have to get worse, or at least sell off some more parts, before they can turn back toward the sun and become competitive once more. 

Why they will fall short… Last season the Rangers had ten double-digit goal scorers.  Three of them are gone (Michael Grabner, Rick Nash, and J.T. Miller). Their defense is aging and not of the sort on which to build successfully.  Henrik Lundqvist will be 37 years old before year-end, and backup Alexandar Georgiev has only ten games of NHL experience.  Not that it matters, because the Rangers allowed the second highest shots on goal per game last season (35.3), and it could be higher this season.  There will be a lot of hockey played in the Rangers’ end of the ice this season.

8.  New York Islanders

For 60 games last season, the New York Islanders would not inspire thoughts of a Stanley Cup, but neither did they look all that bad, posting a record of 29-25-6.  Then, as the burden of being a team thin on talent and bearing the ever heavier crush of what would happen to free-agent-in-waiting John Tavares, the Islanders finished the season 6-12-4, and they had to win their last three regular season games to finish that well.  Oh, they could score.  Tavares (37-47-84), who has since taken his show to Toronto, and rookie phenom Mathew Barzal (22-63-85) saw to that.  But they spent too much time fishing pucks out of their own net, last in the league in scoring defense (3.57 goals per game).

Why they will go far… Barzal looks like the real deal.  They still have talent on the good side of 30 years old in Jordan Eberle, Anders Lee, Brock Nelson, and Josh Bailey.  They are some years away from contending, but they have something on which to build.

Why they will come up short… It was not a very good defenseman squad last season, and the Islanders lost Calvin de Haan to Carolina.  What is left is either on the young side (Ryan Pulock, who had a good rookie season last year, and perhaps Devon Toews) or a group that looks like a lot of 4/5/6 defensemen.  In goal they swap out Jaroslav Halak (now in Boston) for Robin Lehner (in from Buffalo), but Lehner struggled under a heavy shot volume workload last year (.908 save percentage while facing 32.8 shots per 60 minutes.  He’s not going to get much of a break in that regard with the Islanders.  Perhaps the new brain trust of Barry Trotz as head coach and Mitch Korn as Director of Goaltending can work some magic.

The Peerless Prognosticator Brings You: The Atlantic Division Prognostos

It’s time for the Peerless to proffer his prodigious prognotos for the 2018-2019 season, and we start with the Atlantic Division...

1.  Tampa Bay Lightning

The Bolts will be the early season favorites to “WIN IT ALL!”  Then again, they were an early season favorite last season, too.  They did set a franchise record for wins (54) and points (113) last season.  But they limped into the postseason with a 6-6-1 record in their last 13 games of the regular season.  They looked impressive in the first two rounds of the playoffs, dispatching the New Jersey Devils and Boston Bruins with five-game series wins against both.  They had the Eastern Conference Final on their racket in Game 6 against the Washington Capitals, but then they failed to record a single goal in Games 6 and 7 to bow out to the eventual Stanley Cup champs.  Bummer.

Why they will go far… Tampa Bay has arguably the best and deepest forward group in the league.   They have the defending Norris Trophy winner (top defenseman) in Victor Hedman.  They have a still improving goaltender in Andrei Vasilevskiy.  To the extent the Lightning have issues, they are of the sort that top-shelf contenders have – who plays on the bottom defensive pair, how the bottom six forwards sort out.  If any team in the league resembles the Caps in terms of year-to-year stability, it’s this one.

Why they will come up short… How the Lightning ultimately lost last season was confounding.  This was a team that was shut out only once in the regular season (a 3-0 loss to Boston in March, for those of you scoring at home), and in the playoffs they were not shutout in any of their first 15 games until they were blanked twice by the Caps in Games 6 and 7 of the Eastern final.  In each of the Caps’ four wins in that series they held Tampa Bay to two or fewer goals.  Will this late swoon have a hangover effect?  Will teams scour films of that game to find ways to stop the deep Lightning offense?  And Vasilevskiy, who allowed 23 goals in the seven games to the Caps, needs to demonstrate he has the stamina to finish what he starts in terms of a solid season.  There is also the matter of the front office, where Steve Yzerman stepped away from his position as general manager in September to become a “senior adviser” in the organization.  Assistant GM Julien Brisebois steps into that position, and he has long been thought of as a GM in waiting, but there is that uncertainty with a new manager and how his in-season moves will work out.

2.   Toronto Maple Leafs

If Tampa Bay is the “old school” choice as the top team in the Atlantic, if not the East (or even the league), the Toronto Maple Leafs are the “young guns” favorite.  And they are still young.  The trio of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander combined for 76 goals last season, and of the group Nylander was the oldest at 21 (although he is in the midst of a contract dispute).  And it’s not as if Nazem Kadri, who added 32 goals, is a graybeard; he was just 27.  They looked a bit discombobulated early in their first round series against Boston last spring, falling into a 3-1 hole, largely because they couldn’t score (they couldn’t stop pucks, either, but that is another matter).  They scratched their way back to tie the series, and they took a lead into the third period of Game 7.  However, Boston scored early in the last frame to tie the game, and then they added three more goals to win going away.  Youth, apparently, is not always served.

Why they will go far… How many teams in the league have a second line center as good as John Tavares?  Well, now the Leafs do, having signed Tavares to a seven-year/$77 million deal with the Leafs this past summer.  If you subscribe to the idea that teams need to be strong down the middle to succeed, this more than offsets the loss of winger James van Riemsdyk, who moved on to the Philadelphia Flyers over the summer.  Toronto tied for third in scoring offense last season.  They will be better this season.

Why they will come up short… Part of being “strong down the middle” is having a stout defense and an impenetrable goaltender.  Toronto has neither.  Not that their defense is awful or their goaltender is a sieve, but neither their defense nor their goalie are better than Tampa Bay or among the top echelon in the East.  And, this was not a great possession team last season (17th in shot attempts-for percentage at 5-on-5/49.81 percent).  Hey, the Caps weren’t, either, but their defense and goaltending was better than what Toronto will ice this season.  As for the latter, Frederik Andersen doesn’t have to be Patrick Roy in front of this offense, but he did rank just 16th among 45 goalies with at least 1,500 minutes in save percentage (.918) and was 28th in goals against average (2.81).  If that is the level of play at which he tops out, Toronto will win a lot of games and be very entertaining doing it, but they will likely come up short in the postseason.

3.  Boston Bruins

For a franchise that has the outward image of a solid Original Six club, this bunch has been all over the map over the last five seasons.  In 2013-2014 they won 54 games, and then they missed the playoffs the next two seasons.  Then, they clawed back into the postseason in 2017 after a 44-win campaign, following that up with another 50-win season last year.  What they haven’t done in the last five years is get past the second round (in three tries) in the playoffs after reaching the Cup final in 2013.  Their success last year was forged by being strong on both sides of the puck, finishing sixth in scoring offense (3.26 goals per game) and fourth in scoring defense (2.47 goals per game), fourth on the power play (23.5 percent) and third in penalty killing (83.7 percent).

Why they will go far… It really is their balance.  Teams that can be effective on both sides of the puck and in different situations can deal with hiccups or slumps if one part of their game goes to rot for a spell.  And if last season is an indicator, that balance does prevent slumps.  The Bruins were a club that did not lose more than three consecutive games after November 15th and did not lose as many as three consecutive games in regulation all season.  Pencil in Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak for at least 30 goals.

Why they will come up short… Call it talking out of both sides of our mouth, but it is the “balance” here, too.  A team with the balance of the Bruins might be a better fit for the grueling six month slog that is the regular season than the eight week postseason.  Perhaps the Bruins do not have the extra gear or the top-end talented individual to push them deeper in the playoffs.  And, they are not getting any younger.  Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, David Backes.  All 32 or older, and they missed a combined 61 games last season.  Zdeno Chara is still on the back end, but he is 41 years old and has missed 35 games over the last five seasons.  And heaven help the Bruins if they have to face the Caps.  Goalie Tuukka Rask has a career record of 1-10-5, 3.07, .889 against them.

4.  Florida Panthers

The first time this franchise went to the postseason they went all the way to the Stanley Cup final.  That was in 1996.  Since then, the Panthers have been in the postseason four times in 21 seasons and have not won so much as a playoff round.  They finished one point out of the dance last season, though, which did provide some measure of hope for Panther fans that better days were coming.  When one considers that three of their four 20-plus goal scorers were 24 or younger last season and that they have a foundational defenseman in Aaron Ekblad, Florida might have it in them to make another push upward in the standings.

Why they will go far… They probably won’t.  But they do have young talent, including Aleksander Barkov and Ekblad, who are becoming among the best at their positions in the league.  That is nice to build on, and it could be enough to make the playoffs, but advancing?  It might take a special set of circumstances (read: “the right matchup”).

Why they will come up short… Their top goalie has a lot of mileage.  Roberto Luongo will turn 39 before season’s end and has appeared in 1,001 career games, one of only three goalies in NHL history to hit the 1,000 game mark (Martin Brodeur and Patrick Roy are the others).  And, he has appeared in only 75 games over the last two seasons combined.  James Reimer is the backup at the moment, but he has had declining save percentages and rising goals against averages in each of the last three seasons.

5.  Buffalo Sabres

This could be the most improved team of the 2018-2019 season.  Heaven knows, Sabres fans would be appreciative.  Only once in the last six seasons have they topped 80 standings points, they haven’t reached the postseason since 2011, and they have gone through five coaches in the last six seasons.  Phil Housley gets a second season in charge after a difficult first season in which the team started poorly (0-4-1 to start the season), struggled after that, and ended the season playing for a first-overall draft pick (3-10-1 in their last 14 games).  They got that pick, defenseman Rasmus Dahlin.

Why they will go far… Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  The first order of business is to become competitive, although there could be times this season when this club looks like a possible playoff team.  They will have some high-end young talent in Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart, Rasmus Ristolainen, and Dahlin. They just won’t have enough to make a sustained push to the postseason.  That’s a year or two away.

Why they will come up short… Here is where we scratch our heads and ask ourselves, “when was the last time a defenseman taken first overall was a high-impact player befitting that selection?”  We have little doubt that Rasmus Dahlin will be a fine player, a superb player, even perhaps a great player someday.  But looking at defensemen taken as first-overall picks, one might have to go back to Denis Potvin (1973) as a player who genuinely fulfilled the promise normally attributed to a first overall pick.  A top defenseman, even a “generational” one, might be a necessary element to a winner, but it might also be an “insufficient” element.  There are still too many missing pieces here.

6.  Montreal Canadiens

The Canadiens have been an interesting team of late, largely for the wrong reasons.  In their most recent drama, Max Pacioretty was traded to the Vegas Golden Knights for forward Tomas Tatar, forward prospect Nick Suzuki, and a second-round pick in the 2019 Entry Draft.  In ten years with the club, Pacioretty scored 226 goals, 18th in that storied franchise’s history.  They did welcome back Tomas Plekanec as a free agent, who after spending his first 14 seasons with the Canadiens was traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs at last spring’s trading deadline.  That probably is not an upgrade.  But this is a team that won only 29 games last season.  They haven’t won fewer in a full season since 2000-2001 (28).  Montreal is not a town that suffers that kind of misfortune gladly.

Why they will go far… Carey Price.  When he is healthy, he is among the best goalies in the game.  Five times in 10 full seasons (not counting the abbreviated 2012-2013 season) he appeared in more than 55 games.  In four of them he had a save percentage north of .920, and four times his goals against average was 2.35 or lower.  However, he has appeared in fewer than 50 games in two of the last three seasons.

Why they will come up short… Last year they couldn’t score (2.52 goals per game/29th in the league in scoring offense), and two of their top four goal scorers are gone (Pacioretty to Vegas and Alex Galchenyuk to Arizona).  They couldn’t much stop anyone from scoring, either (3.15 goals per game allowed/25th).  They have some young potential in Max Domi and Jonathan Drouin, but that is as yet unfulfilled.  Brendan Gallagher’s ability to annoy teams into submission only goes so far.

7.  Detroit Red Wings

The Detroit Red Wings missed the postseason for a second consecutive year in 2017-2018.  The last time that happened, Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” was the number one hit on the Billboard charts (1983, a fifth consecutive year missing the playoffs).  They won 30 games last season, a number that was last lower in a full season in 1989-1990 (28).

Why they will go far… If this team wins more than 35 games it will be a moral victory.  They do have young talent such as Dylan Larkin, Anthony Mantha, Tyler Bertuzzi, or Andreas Athanasiou.  But it isn’t clear that these are “core” players for the future.  Forwards Filip Zadina and Michael Rasmussen – both top-ten draft picks in the last two drafts – can’t come along fast enough.

Why they will fall short… While the Red Wings might be in a rebuild mindset, they remain too old at too many positions.  Seven players who appeared in at least 65 games last season were 31 years old or older.  Of that group, Henrik Zetterberg has hung up his skates due to injuries, but the other six are still on the roster.  And, both goalies – Jimmy Howard and Jonathan Bernier have reached or passed their 30th birthdays. They haven’t yet ripped things down to the studs to make way for the next generation.  This is going to take a while.

8.  Ottawa Senators

Finish seventh in the division a year after going to the conference final, and lose your best player in the off-season?  Yeah, good luck with that.  It was inevitable, but when the Senators traded defenseman Erik Karlsson to the San Jose Sharks (with forward Francis Perron) for a first-round pick in 2020, a second-round pick in 2019, Chris Tierney, Dylan DeMelo, Josh Norris and Rudolfs Balcers, it was not just turning the page, it was throwing out the book and starting another story.

Why they will go far… Yeah, right.  It is not as if the Senators are barren of talent or skill; they still have Matt Duchene, Marian Gaborik (back injury from which he might not return this season), Mark Stone, and Bobby Ryan on the roster.  But it is a team of odd-fitting parts with the talent it has having more value as trade assets at some point.

Why they will fall short… Because they’re not very good.  Ottawa managed only ten wins and 24 standings points in 84 games in their inaugural season in 1992-1993.  That level of futility is safe from threat by this team.  But this team is not going to be a lot better.  The highlight of their season might be what they get at the trading deadline.