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Pre-season position battles to watch: Atlantic Division

Matt Larkin
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Pre-season position battles to watch: Atlantic Division

Petr Mrazek and Jimmy Howard. Author: (Photo by Dave Reginek/NHLI via Getty Images)

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Pre-season position battles to watch: Atlantic Division

Matt Larkin
By:

Each team has players jockeying for important assignments as camps begin. How will each competition play out? We start with the Atlantic teams.

Rookie camps have begun, training camps are about to start, and the pre-season gets going in a few days. It’s an exciting time of year, especially because we’re about to get answers to pressing roster questions for all 31 teams. Virtually every franchise has a crucial positional battle to hammer out by month’s end. In a new series, I’ll highlight one to watch carefully for each team. We start with the Atlantic Division.

BOSTON BRUINS: Who will play on top pair with Zdeno Chara?

Rookie Brandon Carlo spent more time than anyone with the hulking Bruins captain last season. Per leftwinglock.com, Chara-Carlo was Boston’s most common defense tandem all season at 24.1 percent. Carlo acquitted himself well as a rookie, playing more than 20 minutes a game, showcasing shot-blocking acumen and chipping in a bit of offense. But an Alex Ovechkin hit in Boston’s final regular season game concussed Carlo and knocked him out of the playoffs. Enter rookie Charlie McAvoy, by far the Bruins’ top prospect and one of the best blue-chippers in all of hockey.

McAvoy parachuted into the playoffs and seamlessly played alongside Chara, picking up three assists in six games and logging more than 26 minutes per contest. McAvoy projects as Boston’s long-term No. 1 blueliner. He’s also still just 19. With Carlo healthy, who makes the most sense right now as Chara’s partner?

Bet on: McAvoy. He’s the more gifted puck-mover and can play a perfect lightning to Chara’s thunder. McAvoy is also the franchise’s most important long-term investment, so who better to learn from than a Norris Trophy winner, Stanley Cup-winning captain and future Hall of Famer?

BUFFALO SABRES: Who will play on top pair with Rasmus Ristolainen?

We know new GM Jason Botterill acquired Marco Scandella from the Minnesota Wild with the purpose of installing him in a key shutdown role against opposing teams’ top two lines. It’s just a matter of whether Scandella lands on the top pair or slides to the No. 2 tandem with Zach Bogosian. That would mean Jake McCabe remains on the No. 1 pair with Ristolainen. McCabe is a rising leader on the Sabres who plays a well-rounded game, but Scandella is the older, more experienced blueliner.

Bet on: Scandella. McCabe has become a promising piece on the Sabres blueline, but it’s well documented that Ristolainen, despite all his talent and puck-moving ability, has been a turnstile defensively so far in his career. The analytics are ugly. The Sabres want a sturdy partner who can help take some pressure off Ristolainen and perhaps mentor him a bit. Scandella is the logical choice for that role.

DETROIT RED WINGS: Who is the starting goaltender?

It wasn’t even a debate a year ago. Petr Mrazek had posted a 2.33 goals-against average and .921 save percentage in 2015-16, including a .946 SP in three playoff starts that spring. He was the goalie of the future and present. Mrazek, though, endured a disastrous 2016-17 season. In 50 appearances – not a puny sample size – he had a 3.04 GAA and .901 SP. Those numbers look ripped from a 1992 stat page in THN.

Veteran Jimmy Howard swooped in and somehow posted the best numbers of his career at 33 years old, with a 2.10 GAA and .927 SP. By season’s end, he was Detroit’s unquestioned starter. That doesn’t mean he’s a slam-dunk choice for coach Jeff Blashill this fall, though. In theory, a bottom-dwelling team like Detroit would be wise to play Mrazek, 25, in hopes his development gets back on track. It seems like a prudent decision for a team looking ahead.

Bet on: Howard. The Wings should be rebuilding but, as the Trevor Daley signing this off-season reminds us, they aren’t publicly accepting their status as a non-playoff team, even after missing the big dance for the first time in 25 years. They’re armed with a brand new arena and intend to compete for a playoff spot in it, even if that’s a foolish pursuit. They’re thus likely to open the season with the goalie who gives them the best chance to win right now. Don’t forget, the Red Wings exposed Mrazek to Vegas in the expansion draft and protected Howard.

FLORIDA PANTHERS: Who plays right wing on the first line with Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau?

The Florida Panthers (inexplicably) said goodbye to most of their top scoring wingers this off-season, including Reilly Smith, Jaromir Jagr and top-goal scorer Jonathan Marchessault. Needless to say, they had some major holes to plug. We’ll likely see Finnish import Henrik Haapala get a shot at a scoring-line role, and even 2017 first-rounder Owen Tippett will receive a long look, but it appears the coveted first-line right wing spot will go to Evgeny Dadonov or Radim Vrbata.

Bet on: Dadonov. It’s all in the money. That the Panthers handed Dadonov, 28, a $4-million AAV on a three-year deal tells us they’re committed to giving him a chance on the big line. Not every KHL import slides into the NHL and succeeds with ease, so Dadonov won’t necessarily have a long leash. That’s Florida has Vrbata, 36, signed on a one-year, $2.5-milion pact. He’s the insurance policy. He’s a seasoned vet who can easily slide onto any scoring line. The good news is there’s no bad result in this competition, as the “loser” likely ends up playing with Vincent Trocheck on the second line. The sleeper who could turn the battle on its head is Tippett, who had his draft-day detractors but who is a natural goal scorer. A true triggerman is the most logical complement to playmaker Huberdeau and do-it-all Barkov.

MONTREAL CANADIENS: Who the heck centers the first line?

General manager Marc Bergevin couldn’t have been clearer in his vote of non-confidence toward Alex Galchenyuk this week:

“I’ve seen Alex every day, and at this time, centerman is a tough position, demanding, and I’m sure as we speak today, Alex is not able to play that position every day,” Bergevin told NHL.com. “And I don’t need 10 more tries. I know he’s not.”

Ouch. Well, then, it appears Jonathan Drouin gets the job by default despite not playing center since major junior. That’s not a knock on Drouin, though. He’s immensely talented and might end up flourishing down the middle. We’ll see.

Bet on: Drouin, obviously. He’s been announced as a center to open camp. That said, he hasn’t been announced as the first-line center yet. We’ll see how he performs in the weeks to come. We can’t rule out Phillip Danault, who held that job for much of last season.

OTTAWA SENATORS: Who replaces Marc Methot in the top four on ‘D’?

Methot was one of the Senators’ emotional leaders and, more importantly, Erik Karlsson’s regular partner on the top pair for many years. Ottawa lost Methot in the expansion draft. It had a pretty secure top four on defense, with Dion Phaneuf and Cody Ceci established as the second pair. What happens now? Phaneuf, a left shot, could move up to join Karlsson. The dream scenario would see elite prospect Thomas Chabot make the team out of camp this year and take one of the two left-defense spots in that top four. It seems very likely Chabot starts the year in the NHL with Karlsson expected to miss most games in October as he recovers from foot surgery.

Bet on: Phaneuf. Since Chabot’s strength is his mobility, it would be a bit redundant to pair him with Karlsson. Phaneuf at this stage of his career plays a simpler game than he used to and makes more sense to fill the Methot role. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see coach Guy Boucher try Chabot with Karlsson eventually, though, just to see if the two make pure magic together. Also keep an eye on Fredrik Claesson, who didn’t look out of place with Karlsson when Methot was hurt last year.

TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS: Who plays left wing on the first line?

Is it a given Patrick Marleau gets the plum assignment alongside Auston Matthews and William Nylander? Marleau has the speed, even at 37, to hang with those kids and would be a significant offensive upgrade over Zach Hyman. The Leafs are also paying Marleau $6.25 million. He’s obviously going to play a major role with big minutes.

But the Leafs and coach Mike Babcock play favorites. They are one of the few teams in the league whose lines are easily recited, because they were intact for so long last year: Hyman-Matthews-Nylander, van Riemsdyk-Bozak-Marner and Komarov-Kadri-Brown solidified themselves as the top nine for the stretch run into the playoffs last spring. As The Athletic’s Jonas Siegel points out, Babcock loves Hyman.

Bet on: Hyman. The Leafs regime has an old-schoolness to it under GM Lou Lamoriello, which includes rewarding hard workers like Hyman and trotting out fourth-line bangers like Matt Martin over upside guys like Josh Leivo. Even if Marleau doesn’t play on the top line, he’ll at worst end up with Kadri and will earn plenty of power play time. Marleau can play a major role even if he isn’t on the big line to start the year. That said, if the top unit slumps, it feels inevitable that Marleau will get a try with Matthews and Nylander. Hyman might stick to start the year, though.

TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING: Do Tyler Johnson and Brayden Point both play in the top six?

The Lightning didn’t have to make a decision on Johnson or Point last year with Steven Stamkos out from November onward with a torn meniscus. Johnson and Point, two remarkably similar players in stature and style, each ended up centering a prominent scoring line. When Johnson got banged up late in the year, too, Point even got extended looks with Johnson’s usual linemates, Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov.

Now the Bolts enter 2017-18 with their key forwards healthy. Theoretically, that pushes Johnson or Point down to the third line. Tampa just displayed clear commitment to Johnson by signing him to a seven-year, $35-million extension. But Point’s blossoming talent arguably gives him a higher ceiling. Who plays in the top six, then?

Bet on: Both, with Point shifting to the right wing. These guys are too good not to both garner scoring-line assignments. The Bolts would have a terrifying top six if, say, Johnson stays with The Triplets and Point joins Stamkos and Alex Killorn.

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Pre-season position battles to watch: Atlantic Division