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Lightning favored to win Atlantic Division

Sabres should improve; Bruins defenseman McAvoy expected to compete for Calder Trophy

by David Satriano @davidsatriano / Staff Writer

The Tampa Bay Lightning are hoping the return of center Steven Stamkos along with the play of forward Nikita Kucherov and defenseman Victor Hedman can help them return to the Stanley Cup Playoffs and make a deep run like they did in 2015-16 (Eastern Conference Final) and 2014-15 (Stanley Cup Final).

However, it won't be easy. The Montreal Canadiens (Carey Price) and Boston Bruins (Tuukka Rask) can never be counted out because of their goaltending. The Ottawa Senators and Toronto Maple Leafs each are hoping to build on their success coming off a surprising postseason run.


[RELATED: Penguins remain team to beat in Metropolitan Division]


The Florida Panthers (Bob Boughner) and Buffalo Sabres (Phil Housley) each have a new coach, and the Detroit Red Wings look to start a new playoff streak at their new home (Little Caesars Arena) after missing out for the first time in 26 seasons.  

Here is a look at how the Atlantic Division could unfold in 2017-18:

Team to beat: The Lightning finished one point behind the Maple Leafs for the second wild card into the playoffs from the Eastern Conference. They played most of the season without Stamkos, who missed the final 65 games but had 20 points (nine goals, 11 assists) and was fourth in the League in scoring before tearing the lateral meniscus in his right knee Nov. 15. Kucherov tied for second in the NHL in goals (40) and fifth in points (85), and Hedman had 72 points, second in the League among defensemen. Tampa Bay also signed forward Chris Kunitz, a four-time Stanley Cup champion, to a one-year contract. Kunitz is among the depth players who can contribute and help make the Lightning Cup contenders again.

Dark horse: The Sabres haven't qualified for the playoffs since 2010-11, the longest stretch in the division. Housley should help the defense, which added Marco Scandella in a June 30 trade with the Minnesota Wild that also brought forward Jason Pominville back to Buffalo. The Sabres are counting on a healthy Jack Eichel (24 goals, 33 assists in 61 games last season; missed 21 games with an ankle injury) and forwards Evander Kane (28 goals), Ryan O'Reilly (20) and Kyle Okposo (19) to provide the bulk of the offense in front of goalie Robin Lehner (.920 save percentage). The playoffs may be a bit of a stretch, but Buffalo should see an improvement in the standings after finishing last in the division.

Video: Elliotte Friedman chats about the latest NHL news

Stock rising: Evgenii Dadonov, Panthers. After spending the past five seasons in the Kontinental Hockey League, Dadonov returned to Florida, where he played from 2009-12 (10 goals, 10 assists in 55 games). Dadonov agreed to a three-year contract reportedly worth $12 million July 1 and will start the season on the top line with Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov. Dadonov had 66 points (30 goals, 36 assists) in 53 games with SKA St. Petersburg last season.

Player to watch: Jonathan Drouin, Canadiens. Big things are expected this season after Drouin was traded from the Lightning on June 15 and signed a six-year contract reportedly worth $33 million ($5.5 million average annual value) with Montreal. The 22-year-old, who was the No. 3 pick in the 2013 NHL Draft, had an NHL career-high 53 points (21 goals, 32 assists), including 26 on the power play, last season. He will be expected to match or surpass those totals in Montreal. Drouin, who will move from wing to center, will play on the top line between Max Pacioretty and Brendan Gallagher. 

Video: TOR@MTL: Drouin nets break for first goal with Habs

Rookie to watch: Charlie McAvoy, Bruins. The 19-year-old has yet to play in an NHL regular-season game but had three assists in six playoff games last season. He was second on the Bruins in total ice time (157:09) and ice time per game (26:11), and could be a top-pair defenseman this season. McAvoy, the No. 14 pick in the 2014 NHL Draft, also is expected to compete for the Calder Trophy.

The new guy: Patrick Marleau, Maple Leafs. After spending the first 19 seasons of his NHL career with the San Jose Sharks, the 38-year-old signed a three-year, $18.75 million contract ($6.25 million average annual value) with Toronto on July 2. Marleau scored 27 goals last season and has more than 20 goals in seven of the past eight full NHL seasons. Expected to play on the third line, Marleau will provide veteran leadership and additional offense, and could have another strong season playing with some of the Maple Leafs' young core. 

Video: MTL@TOR: Marleau fights off defender, pots rebound

Who will make playoffs: The Lightning will win the division and return to the playoffs after a one-year absence. They will be joined by three teams that qualified last season: the Maple Leafs, Canadiens and Bruins, who get in as a wild card. The Senators, who came within one goal of the Stanley Cup Final in 2017, will miss out.

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