Out of the Blue(line): Dispatches on an NHL Season—The Atlantic Division

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Editor’s note: The NHL’s regular season is done and the teams that made the playoffs are one game into their quest for Lord Stanley’s Cup. Travis Hall finishes up his season-long consideration of the NHL’s four divisions with one last look at the Atlantic: who are the unexpected key players to figure in this post-season push, and who are the players we’ll look to in the 2017-2018 season?

Boston Bruins: Dominic Moore

The depth center the Bruins need to compete for a Cup.

As I’ve stated before, there’s no success at this time of year unless a team has depth. Coverages get tighter and scoring opportunities come few and far between; teams need players who can chip in offense while being conscious of potential defensive zone breakdowns. The Bruins have added this to their repertoire with the acquisition of two-way forward Dominic Moore.

Though he contributed a respectable 11 goals, 14 assists, and 25 points through all 82 games this year, the journeyman center is most valuable for his penalty killing expertise. Among forwards, Moore was second only to Patrice Bergeron in average PK time on ice; his discipline and attention to details such as stick positioning make him one of the best depth centermen with a man in the box. This reputation also comes largely from his ability to win puck possession in the faceoff circle—his 54.6% at the dot trails only Bergeron. Nobody on the Bruins takes a higher percentage of defensive zone draws, and the team has the highest combined shooting and save percentage with Moore on the ice.

The former Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy winner is defined by his resilience--his composure in crucial situations is contagious and makes him the ideal teammate to have on the ice after losing a lead or falling behind. The Bruins have a difficult first-round matchup against a confident Senators team, so they’ll need every minute of shutdown hockey from number 28 if they hope to move further.

Buffalo Sabres: Robin Lehner/Anders Nilsson

A pair of goalies must lead the herd.

The conclusion of this uninspired season for the Buffalo Sabres makes it four straight at or below a seventh-place finish in the Atlantic Division. Management has made attempts to speed up the rebuilding process, but this team cannot escape the purgatory they’ve found themselves in. Yet, the frightening element is that this all could’ve been much worse if it weren’t for the heroic efforts of starting goaltender Robin Lehner and backup Anders Nilsson.

Playing behind a leaky team defense that stood dead last in shots against per game, Lehner and Nilsson kept the club out of the bottom ten in both total goals and goals against per game. In the 59 appearances throughout his first year as a bona fide number one, Lehner mustered 23 wins and two shutouts. But the 25-year-old made a forceful statement with his 2.68 GAA and .920 SV%—eighth best of any goalie with a minimum of 30 starts. To keep those kinds of numbers through a full season while facing a barrage of shots each night is a testament to Lehner’s endurance and inner drive. It’s not easy to stay motivated when your team is scraping the bottom of the standings, but Lehner possessed the mental strength—and actual skills—to do so. His incredible instinct and never-quit attitude didn’t hurt either.

Lehner might have stolen the show, but Nilsson was good enough to earn his 23 starts, in which he posted a .500 record despite the Sabres’ foibles. He set career highs in both goals against average and save percentage in a season that saw him face 112 more shots in the same number of games as the previous year.

With both netminders in their mid-twenties and entering free agency on July 1st, the duo’s career-boosting campaigns have further complicated a situation in Buffalo that seemed dizzying to begin with. The Sabres should have the space to pay both, but the time of the tandem’s 40+ save efforts going unnoticed is over. The Sabres have plenty going right for them with the youth in their organization, which is what makes it so frustrating to see them flop yet again. Re-signing Lehner and Nilsson needs to be GM Tim Murray’s first priority this offseason because it is the only area of the ice where the Sabres looked like a team ready to compete at the next stage.

Detroit Red Wings: Anthony Mantha

The light at the end of the tunnel.

It was a poetically tragic year for the Detroit Red Wings. Though bleak, it felt appropriate that the franchise missed the postseason for the first time in a quarter century after suffering the loss of highly respected owner Mike Ilitch. On top of that, the city waves farewell to the building that played host to the club’s decades of memories. However, amidst all the sadness, Anthony Mantha managed to pull the focus back to the future of Red Wings hockey.

After eight goals in his first ten AHL games and a share of the league lead in that category, the 22-year-old rookie was recalled and would never return to Grand Rapids. In the 60 games Mantha took part in this season he collected 36 points—good for sixth on the team. But where he proved most valuable was in the goal column. Mantha is a powerful skater housed inside of a walloping 6’5”, 220-pound frame which he used to stomp his way to the team’s third-best 17 goals.

The real fear for opponents is that he’s still maturing into his body but already possesses the finesse to put up points. Statistically speaking, Mantha was the most efficient Red Wings forward this season: the team held the highest puck possession rate as well as the highest ratio of goals for to goals against while the rookie was on the ice at even strength. This reliability led to a +10 rating that trailed only Henrik Zetterberg’s +13 on a team with a goal differential of -37.

Anthony Mantha was exactly the ray of light that the Detroit Red Wings needed both symbolically and competitively. There is plenty of room to improve for both the organization and for Mantha, but the entrance to a new building and the continued development of youth in the organization may be enough to escape the ghosts of this season. It’s rare for the Wings to be down—even rarer for them to be down for long—and Anthony Mantha will have lots to do with how quickly the franchise returns to its former status.

Florida Panthers: Nick Bjugstad

The player who personified the team’s drop from 1st to 6th.

It’s hard to believe this Florida Panthers team is the same one that brought home a division title a year ago. An underachieving cast cost the club a year to capitalize on their growth, and nobody echoed this slump louder than Nick Bjugstad.

The 6’6,” 218-pound center looked ready to explode as one of the premier power forwards in the league, but what we were left with was a head-scratching season. Bjugstad had a combined 39 goals and 38 assists for 77 points in 139 games over the past two seasons, which he followed up with a deflating seven goals, seven assists, and 14 points in 54 games. His previous .55 points per game plummeted to a .26, and the -8 rating from last year dropped to an ugly -19, even with nearly three minutes less ice time per game. It’s been the worst season of his career by far, but why now?

The obvious explanation would be to point to his multiple injuries this year; a fractured hand delayed his season debut until November, and a groin injury sidelined him for most January. Hand and groin injuries can be tough to hurdle mentally for hockey players since they’re so frequently used, so it can be assumed that Bjugstad isn’t yet at one hundred percent. He hasn’t been hitting or blocking shots at his normal rate either, which feeds that suspicion.

Healthy or not, though, it’s hard to look beyond some glaringly bad statistics. Bjugstad places third worst on the Panthers in both team possession and team shooting percentage while he is on the ice—in his company are bottom-six forwards Shawn Thornton, Derek MacKenzie, and Denis Malgin. He stands second-worst in team goals for per 60 minutes of even strength ice time and dead last in the ratio of team goals for to goals against per 60 minutes of even strength ice time. The Panthers have been bad this year, but somehow even worse with Bjugstad on the ice.

Nick Bjugstad possesses a skill set that every NHL team envies: he has a big frame with a nose for the net, and an innate finishing ability when he’s on his game. He’s tenacious on the forecheck, yet has the touch to be a threat from anywhere on the ice. The Panthers desperately need him to get healthy and find his game so they can get moving in the right direction again.

Montreal Canadiens: Paul Byron

The source of secondary production that had been missing in Montreal.

It was quite a turbulent season for the Montreal Canadiens, but they’ve made their deserved return to the postseason thanks to their ability to score by committee. They have Galchenyuk, Radulov, and Pacioretty, but none of those three possess the game-breaking ability of a Crosby, Ovechkin, or McDavid, so scoring needs to be found deeper in their lineup. The Canadiens were fortunate enough to find this depth in and profit from the breakout season of Paul Byron.

Drafted by Buffalo in the sixth round, Byron took three seasons and several organization jumps to make a name for himself in Calgary. Still a bubble player who hadn’t played more than 57 games in a season, Byron signed with the Canadiens for a mere $1.167 million prior to the ’15-’16 season. He immediately rewarded the organization by posting career highs in games played (62) and goals (11). It appeared Byron was hitting his stride in Montreal, and his follow-up season squashed the thought that the former Sabre and Flame was nothing more than a bottom-six forward.

After setting his career-high 11 goals last season, Byron responded by doubling that number this year and finishing second on the Canadiens in that statistic. He also added personal bests of 81 games played, 21 assists, and 43 points. What really stands out, though, is that all 22 of Byron’s goals and 39 of his 43 points came at even strength, which will go a long way in the postseason; special teams make a difference but finding the open ice in tight five-on-five checking and being able to capitalize on those opportunities can be the difference between winning and losing a series.

The reason Byron excites me is because he’s excelling in multiple areas of the game. Sure, the goals and points are flashy, but he made an astonishing jump from a -9 last season to a team-leading +21. And you’d be wrong to assume that this is only a result of his increase in offense; this season, Byron was only on the ice for three more goals against through 19 more games. His commitment to defense led to 40 takeaways, which he frequently turned into offense of his own. The team’s ratio of goals for to goals against was highest when number 41 was on the ice.

Montreal has what it takes to exact revenge on the Rangers and move closer to their first Cup since 1993, but it is going to take continued offensive production and defensive awareness from Byron. He is the help that can supplement the Canadiens’ lack of a consistent offensive threat—without his help, summer will come quickly in Montreal.

Ottawa Senators: Cody Ceci

The Senators’ future lies in these capable, yet underperforming hands.

Cody Ceci’s jump to double digit goals in ’15-‘16 led to an inevitable heightening of expectations for the ’16-’17 season. The former 15th overall pick landed a two-year, $5.6 million contract from the Senators after the 10 goal, 26-point sophomore season, and he looked poised to explode heading into the new year. But following a year that saw him set personal bests in goals and points came one of the emptiest campaigns Ottawa has ever seen from a prospect with such untapped potential.

The anticipated sequel to Ceci’s career year saw a disheartening two goals and 15 assists for a total of 17 points—his lowest totals in all three categories through three full NHL seasons. For a young defenseman growing in the league, a temporary hiatus from the score sheet isn’t unprecedented; the issue is when that lack of offense is coupled with a sudden plummet in play on the other side of the puck. After going +9 last year, Ceci now holds the second worst +/- on the roster at -11. It’d be one thing if the Senators were sacrificing more goals as a team, but the club rose from 28th in goals against to 11th this season while Ceci moved in the opposite direction. His career-worst 74 giveaways are likely a contributing factor, but there is no explanation for this dip in performance.

Despite his struggles, Ceci has been rewarded with a four-minute increase in average time on ice, making him the Senators’ second-highest minute-eater. He certainly has a promising upside, but the Senators have the third-worst combined shooting and save percentage when he is on the ice. And, with an abysmal 1.4% shooting efficiency over the course of this season, it doesn’t seem as though more ice is the solution.

Several blossoming depth forwards have pushed the Senators into the postseason after the team missed the mark last year. Going up against a grinding Bruins team, however, the Sens are going to need all three defense pairs operating at the top of their game. Cody Ceci hasn’t been at that level since the end of the ’15-’16 season, and the Senators won’t go far unless he can get there.

Tampa Bay Lightning: Brayden Point

The year of the rookie makes a stop in Tampa Bay.

The eyes of the hockey world were watching Nikita Kucherov during the last six weeks of the season, but it was his unexpected rookie centerman who helped sustain his torrent scoring pace. Subbing in as the understudy to an injured Tyler Johnson, Brayden Point created instant chemistry with the red-hot Kucherov and Ondrej Palat.

From March 12th on, Point chipped in nine goals and seven assists for a total of 16 points in 15 games. He surely would’ve seen more recognition if he weren’t enveloped in his linemates’ shadows. In total, the trio compiled 21 goals, 31 assists, and 52 points during the span which averages just over a point per each player per game—spectacular. Many suspected the loss of Johnson would halt Kucherov and Palat’s success, so Point deserves kudos for meeting the challenge and performing in a way that allowed the Bolts to claw their way back into the playoff picture.

It could be argued that Point only performed this way because of his linemates’ success, but he finished with the second highest shooting percentage on the team this season behind only Kucherov (and excluding Stamkos for his lack of games played). His production may have increased after joining the top line, but he proved himself a proficient goal-scorer all year long. He also demonstrated defensive responsibility, limiting his turnovers to only 19. Point thus contributed to a line lethal at both ends of the ice: quick in transition and defensively invested.

Just one year removed from a conference final finish and two years removed from a Stanley Cup final appearance, the sting of missing the postseason is a little sharper in Tampa Bay, especially given the fact that this was the last year before the team suffers a shake-up: Palat, Johnson, and Jonathan Drouin will all be requiring raises, and skilled forward Vladislav Namestnikov is at risk to be snatched in the Vegas expansion draft. Luckily, Brayden Point is secure as he is only exiting the first year of an inexpensive entry-level contract. He needs to address his unappealing 44.7% in the faceoff circle, but Lightning fans can take refuge in the fact that Point is here to smooth the transition to the new look in Tampa Bay next fall.

Toronto Maple Leafs: Jake Gardiner

That young difference-maker not named Matthews, Nylander, or Marner.

Before I begin, I must start by saying how utterly difficult it is to not focus on Auston Matthews here, but my goal has been to expand knowledge beyond the obvious candidate. So instead of reflecting on the historical, mastodonic season that Matthews displayed, I am going to turn your attention to someone else to whom Leafs Nation owes a debt of gratitude: Jake Gardiner.

Gardiner, like most players who endured the grueling past three seasons since the Maple Leafs made the playoffs, was a victim of circumstance. He produced decent enough numbers but couldn’t be on the ice without sacrificing a goal. It wasn’t until the formulation of head coach Mike Babcock’s new culture that Gardiner’s true potential could shine. With the help of a better supporting cast, Gardiner took charge on the back end and led all Leafs defensemen in goals (9), assists (33), and points (42)—the latter two being career highs. He began playing with a confidence that enabled him to be a difference-maker each night.

If you watch this video, you’ll notice a subtle hesitation play made by Gardiner at the point; he drags the puck to his right and gives a quick pump-fake to allow time for the screen to move into place. The patience not to shoot the puck into the high forward and let Kadri skate in front of Cam Ward displays the heads-up nature of Gardiner’s play this year.

Gardiner has developed more poise this year, but that hasn’t only come in the offensive zone. The former first-rounder finished the year with a +25, which is amazingly 2.5 times higher than the next best +/- on the team at +10. Gardiner’s presence on the ice has been gold for the Maple Leafs, who have the highest collective shooting percentage and save percentage when he’s in play.

Additionally, the mark of a good player is the impact he has on his teammates’ individual success as well as overall team success. There’s no doubt that Gardiner has played a key role in the Maple Leafs’ return to the postseason, but it’s the steady hand he’s provided his defense partner Nikita Zaitsev that will prove most helpful in the long run. In his first season since coming over from the KHL, Zaitsev has been able to produce at the same pace as he was in Russia, which is not something many players that come to the NHL can do. Zaitsev was already a good player, but Gardiner’s influence enabled him to have an immediate impact.

The Maple Leafs have a first-round date with the Washington Capitals, and their road won’t get any easier from there if they can upset the President’s Trophy winners. The Leafs’ youth gives them a chance to try and engage the Capitals in a scoring match, but whatever their strategy, they are going to need Jake Gardiner (and everyone else) at the top of his game in order to have a shot at the second round.

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