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Division Preview: Defense

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In the second installment of our divisional preview, we take a look at the defense corps for each of the teams in the Atlantic Division

Dmitry Kulikov is one of the reasons Florida may very well have a much improved defense this year
Dmitry Kulikov is one of the reasons Florida may very well have a much improved defense this year
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

You can tell the start of an NHL season is fast approaching when you start to see things like "Division Preview: Defense" popping up on Twitter, Facebook, Google+(O.K, maybe that's a stretch) or however you consume social media and hockey content. It's a bit of a silly season; there'll be every kind of list imaginable and no one's really going to remember that you called the Senators to win the President's Trophy by year end, are they? They totally are? Oh.

With the caveat in mind that there's a very good chance I will look foolish by the end of the season, let's pick up where Amelia left off yesterday with her preview of the goalies in the Alantic Division. In this second installment, we'll hone in on the blueline for each team in the division. Unlike goalies, however, the defensive play from these eight teams last year ranged from very good to abysmal. I've summarized in a table below some key metrics pertaining to defensive performance that I will be referencing throughout the article. For the purpose of this piece, I am using Score Close 5v5 data because I believe it to be the most representative of a team's defensive performance. All data is courtesy of War on Ice (which is a fantastic resource, by the way):

D_scores_medium


Key Number: 2.4 Goals Against/60 (1st in NHL)

What to expect this year:

Simply put: the Boston Bruins don't give up a lot of goals, and as long as they have Zdeno Chara playing 25+ effective minute per night, that won't change any time soon. That said, the lumbering Slovak is not ageless and some sort of decline is inevitable. With Dennis Seidenberg's performance this year something of a question mark given the severity of the knee injury he suffered last year, as well as his advanced age, the B's will need even more out of their youngsters like Dougie Hamilton and Torey Krug. The signs are promising in both instances, so there's no reason to believe we won't see Boston near the top of the defensive leaderboard again this season.

Key Player: Zdeno Chara

It's a gimme, but Chara's the fuel that stokes this fire. He plays against the opponent's top line every night, all while handling the most punishing defensive zone starts. That Chara can help the B's outplay the opposition despite this burden is what enables the team to give sheltered ice to the likes of Krug. He's a freak, and he hasn't declined yet; as go Chara, so go the Bruins.

Key Number: 50.46 Shots Against/60 (30th in the NHL)

What to expect this year:

Last year the Buffalo Sabres were bad in their own end. In fact, they were very, very bad and they've lost their best defenseman in Christian Ehrhoff.  But they've also upgraded their depth with the additions of Josh Gorges and former Ottawa Senator Andre Benoit. Altogether though, a top 6 headlined by Tyler Myers, Andrej Meszaros, Benoit, Gorges and Mike Weberdoesn't inspire much confidence. They'll be better simply by virtue of having real NHL defensemen this year, but don't expect a return to the Dominik Hasek-era defensive glory days any time soon.

Key Player: Tyler Myers

Myers hasn't had the game-changing impact the Sabres hoped he would when they used their 12th overall pick on the American behemoth. He may never turn out to be Chara, but the Sabres were better with him on the ice than off it last year. That may not be saying much but after a couple of extremely disappointing years, last season was a needed glimmer of hope. The Sabres are all in on Myers, and he's the only defenseman slated to be in the NHL this year with any potential upside. If Buffalo is going to surprise, Myers will need to be a big piece of the puzzle.

Key Number: 72.25 Corsi Against / 60 (4th)

What to expect this year:

Detroit is the team with the least turnover in the division, as they return everyone from last season. The group is steady at the top, led by the criminally underrated Niklas Kronwall and the promising, young Brendan Smith, but it starts to get thin after that. Kyle Quincey struggled  last season and the team's on-going stalemate with Danny Dekeyser is indicative of a disappointing under-performance on his part. Jakub Kindl and Jonathan Ericsson round out a top six that won't blow anyone away but was quietly effective last season. I'd expect a middle of the pack defensive performance.

Key Player: Brendan Smith.

Kronwall's going to have to carry the biggest burden of any Wings defender but Brendan Smith's the one that has the potential to push the Red Wings up a notch. He's got the puck skills and the skating of an elite prospect and after a very promising first full season, there's big upside for this former first round pick.

Key Number: 4.54 Goals Against / 60 (30th in the NHL)

What to expect this year:

Florida gave up goals at an absolutely torrential rate last year  but a lot of that had to do with the play of their goalies, who posted a combined .899 SV% at 5v5 when the score was close. Ouch. Defensively, they actually weren't that terrible but they've lost probably their second best defenseman last year in Tom Gilbert. This  year they're projected to roll out a mix of youth and experience: Brian Campbell and the newly signed Willie Mitchell are 35 and 37 respectively, but no one else with a realistic shot to make the team is older than 25. The team is thin enough at the bottom that 18 year old whiz kid Aaron Ekblad has a decent shot to make the squad. So what to expect? The talent is there, but there are bound to be some rough patches with all this youth. They won't be as terrible as last year but are probably at least a year away from charging up the defensive rankings.

Key Player: Dmitry Kulikov.

The young Russian was quietly very good last season, and his pedigree would suggest it might not have been a fluke. Ekblad will get the headlines, but expect Kulikov to quietly drive the bus again this year.

Key Number: 2.81 Goals Against/ 60 (3rd in the NHL) - 88.02 Corsi Against / 60 (26th in the NHL)

What to expect this year:

The dirty little secret of last year's Montreal Canadiens is that they weren't especially good defensively. Their low goals against totals was largely owing to Carey Price's outstanding work; how else to explain a team that finished 26th in shot attempts against (Corsi) while the score was close finishing 3rd in goals against? The good news for Habs fans is that the defense has been upgraded with the swapping of Josh Gorges for Tom Gilbert and the banishment of Douglas Murray. Those two moves alone should shore up the back end. With P.K Subban and Andrei Markov joining Gilbert, the Habs possess a formidable top 3 D. It gets a bit hairy after that but those three are all big minute eaters. Montreal should be better than last year.

Key Player: P.K Subban.

It's simple: when P.K is on the ice, MTL is a very good team. When he's not on the ice, the Habs have historically not been a very good team. Gilbert may make things a little easier for Subban but he'll still need to be superlative for the Habs to keep their goals against total down.

Ottawa SEnaTors

Key Number: 48.48 Shots Against/ 60 (28th in the NHL).

What to expect this year:

Hopefully less of this:

Key Player: Jared Cowen

I'm not especially hopeful about this one, but if Ottawa is going to improve defensively they desperately need Jared Cowen to be a serviceable 4th or 5th defenseman. He's going to get minutes because of his contract and where he was drafted, so let's hope last year was a blip caused by a slow recovery from a serious injury. Fingers crossed.

Key Number: N/A

What to expect this year:

Tampa Bay is the team that has probably done the most to improve their defense corps this season versus last (which is why I used N/A in the Key Number section above). Victor Hedman remains the stalwart of the backend, and boy was he good last year. It's not crazy to call him one of the best ten or so defenseman in the NHL at this point; he's that good. With the additions of the fancy stat darling Anton Stralman and the solid Jason Garrison from Vancouver, the top two pairings in Tampa Bay project to be as good as any out there. Tampa Bay should be strong defensively this year, but the devil's always in the details.

Key Player: Anton Stralman

It's somewhat unclear if the Lightning intend to play Hedman together with Stralman on a super duty first pairing but, assuming they do decide to split them up, Stralman represents the best chance at making the second pairing productive. Last year it was Hedman and then everyone else to some degree; a strong season from Stralman would be invaluable.

Key Number: 97.41 Corsi Against / 60 (30th in the NHL)

What to expect this year:

It took real effort to finish at the bottom of the heap defensively of this sad group, but you could make a decent case the Leafs did just that last year. They allowed an almost unfathomable 97 shot attempts against per 60 minutes of even strength, score close play last year. That's the bad news. The good news is that they signed an aging veteran with lingering injury issues and traded a skilled, pucking moving D for a big oaf who got regularly worked over on his former team. Oh wait, that's bad news too. But seriously, the Leafs have a promising young tandem in Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly, and if he's healthy Stephan Robidas should be an upgrade on the departed Tim Gleason. The real wildcard here is Randy Carlyle. As long as Carlyle is coach of the Leafs, and calling the shots from a tactical perspective, they'll have an uphill struggle to compete defensively. They should be imrpoved this year, they almost have to be, but there's a good chance they'll still need another superstar perfformance from Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer to remain competitive

Key Player: Dion Phaneuf

The captain's been routinely pilloried by both fans and the media, and last year some of it was deserved. He's making the big bucks and he's going to play the big minutes. If Phaneuf is better, the Leafs have a hope. If he's the same or worse, or handcuffed by Carlyle's system, there will be a lot of pucks being fished out of the back of the Leafs' net this season.

Atlantic Division Rankings 

Best: Tampa Bay Lightning. On paper, the Lightning look like the team with the blueline to beat, but I barely gave them the edge over the incumbent Bruins. I'm betting on a little bit of Chara decline and everyone on Tampa Bay gelling, but the rankings could have easily been reversed. These two teams are clearly a cut above the rest of the division.

2. Boston Bruins

3. Montreal Canadiens

4. Detroit Red Wings

5. Florida Panthers

6. Ottawa Senators

7. Buffalo Sabres

Worst: Toronto Maple Leafs. I like Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly a lot, but I'm not a fan of Roman Polak and Dion Phaneuf got absolutely caved in last year. Randy Carlyle's coaching is the biggest wild card here, so if he's fired mid-stream the Leafs could very well jump up these rankings. For now, Buffalo's improvements leaves them a touch ahead in this sad race.