NHL Report Card, Term 1: Atlantic Division

As the NHL heads into the month of December, it officially marks the time where most every team has played a third of the NHL schedule. With student’s report cards being sent home to the moms and dads of the world, it’s only fitting to give every NHL team a report card of their own. Every day, over the next week, Last Word On Sports will cover one division a day, and break down each team into five separate categories; Offense, Defense, Goaltending, Coaching, and Management. Just like a school report card, each section will receive a grade between A+ and F. Today, we take a look at the Atlantic Division.

Up until the end of the trimester, the Montreal Canadiens were on top of both the Atlantic Division and the Eastern Conference. Tied for the NHL-lead in points, they lost their grip after dropping a 5-0 decision to the New York Rangers, followed by earning just one point in two back-to-back games against the bottom-feeding Buffalo Sabres. The Tampa Bay Lightning, who have been red hot, have taken the division lead. After the Detroit Red Wings, who trail by just one point, leave a tight race between the Boston Bruins, Toronto Maple Leafs, Florida Panthers and Ottawa Senators, all of whom are in a four-way race, separated by just five points. Only the Buffalo Sabres are left out of the picture, having mustered up just 18 points after 24 games.

NHL Report Card, Term 1: Atlantic Division

Our Hockey Department’s Tyler Shea, Griffin Schroeder, Aivis Kalnins and Shawn Wilken all sat down and graded each team.

1. Tampa Bay Lightning – (16-6-2)

Offense: A+

It’s almost unfair how many weapons the Bolts have. Everyone knows the big guns, Steven Stamkos (15 goals, 28 points) and Ryan Callahan (11 goals, 21 points), but that just scratches the surface of the Lightning attack. Young guns like Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov,  Alex Kilhorn, and Ondrej Palat can all have an impact in their own ways, and that depth scoring is one of the main reasons why Tampa has the highest scoring team in the league in terms of goals per game.

Defense: B+

Credit General Manager Steve Yzerman for this category.  Bringing in Matt CarleJason Garrison, and Anton Stralman the past few offseasons have built around the bonafide number one man in Victor Hedman. Draftee Radko Gudas has added the edgy and pesky element in rounding out a D-core that, without Hedman, is in the middle of the pack at the quarter mark.

Goalies: B-

Man, did the Lightning miss Ben Bishop last spring. This season, he is 12th in GAA at a 2.27 clip and 19th in save percentage at a rate of .917. As the season goes along, Bishop just seems to grow in confidence, and he’s likely chomping at the bit to get a shot in the spring. As for the backup in veteran Evgeni Nabokov, he’s been the opposite of what Dwayne Roloson brought in 2011, off to a struggling start.

Coaching: A-

On such a young team with so much talent fighting for ice time, there has to be a solid bench boss. Head coach, and one of last year’s Jack Adams nominees, Jon Cooper and his crew have steadied the course in Tampa. This team is off to a sizzling start, and does not show signs of slowing down, with the calming influence of Cooper holding the fort down with a career winning percentage of .593 that will just keep rising.

Management: B+

Taking the reigns of the organization in Tampa bay in 2011, General Manager Steve Yzerman and his camp cultivated one of the best talent pools in hockey that has come to fruition over the last couple years. The management’s strength also has extended to the free agent and trade markets. Stealing Tyler Johnson when he went undrafted, bringing in veteran presence with signings of Anton Stralman, and Bryan Boyle, and the trade for Ryan Callahan have all signified the direction the team has gone in for the past few years.  The days of Vincent Lecavalier and Marty St. Louis have given way to the young Bolts that look to catch the NHL by storm for the next decade and more.

2. Montreal Canadiens – (16-7-2)

Offense: C

The Habs are struggling to score lately, despite standing strong in league standings. If they want to continue being on top, they will need to figure out a way to spark the offense.

Defense: B+

The defense has been on and off, with some good games and some blowouts. They need to be more consistent in order to move forward with being a contender.  Recent moves have made this defence a lot older and a lot slower.

Goaltending: B+

Carey Price is the sole reason for the Habs surge. But a goaltender can only carry a team for so long. Despite having some ugly losses, these can mainly be attributed to the Habs atrocious defense.

Coaching: C

Michel Therrien continues to both amaze, sometimes, and confuse, most times, with his coaching. Between scratching young players in favor of veterans and not switching up lines when needed, and much more in the middle, Therrien needs to be better with the team he has.

Management: B+

Marc Bergevin has made a couple moves since the start of the season, getting rid of dead weight, but only to bring in more dead weight (though on shorter contracts). Sergei Gonchar is still his best addition. But sending down Nathan Beaulieu and Jarred Tinordi, while having Bryan Allen in the lineup definitely wasn’t good.

3. Detroit Red Wings – (14-5-5)

Offense: B+

The Wings are tied for fourth on goals per game with 3. They have also have the ninth most shots on net with 732 and are averaging 30.5 a game.

Defense: B+

The defense for the Wings are also doing a terrific job, allowing only 26.8 shots against per game, third in the league. This accounts for their low goals against too, with a sparkling 2.4 per game.

Goaltending: B+

Jimmy Howard and Petr Mzarek are splitting the crease right now, while Jonas Gustavsson is out. Howard is his usual self, posting numbers similar to past seasons, and Mzarek has struggled a bit, but should get better.

Coaching: A

Mike Babcock is one of the best coaches in the league, and he shows no signs of regressing as top coach. His future in Detroit may be uncertain, but if he continues leading this team like he always does, an extension is definitely a must.

Management: B+

Ken Holland has been with the Wings since 1997, and it is no mistake. He keeps on making great moves for the club, and keeps them competitive no matter what.

4. Boston Bruins – (14-9-1)

Offense: C

Being middle of the pack for powerplay goals this year, the Bruins have spread out their offensive scoring through three lines. Six players currently have five goals, while Carl Soderberg leads the team in points (17 points in 24 games). Where it falls is the lack of consistency. Sitting at 2.46 goals per game, the Bruins find themselves in the bottom-10 teams in 5-on-5 scoring as well as total goals scored. They’ll need to have David Krejci back to full health, and producing at normal rate, if the Bruins want to stand a chance at winning more hockey games.

Defense: C+

The defense has been sub-par in the first portion of the season, although through no fault of their own, as the team has struggled with several significant injuries to their blue-line. Zdeno Chara and Torey Krug have missed significant time, while the team is still suffering the aftermath of trading Johnny Boychuk. The Bruins have allowed 2.42 goals per game, which is almost identical to their goals for, and also sticks them in the top-10 for most allowed this year. Once the injured players get back into the line-up, expect the defense to tighten up.

Goaltending: B+

Breaking the 1,000+ mark for minutes played already, Tuukka Rask’s numbers may not indicate it, but he’s been one of the biggest reasons why the Bruins have been battling through hard times. His 2.31 goals against and .919 save percentage may not be the most attractive numbers out there, but his 11 wins in 18 starts is due to his will to pull the team together, and bail out a defense that is bruised and battered. Niklas Svedberg has played 8 games this season, and holds a 3-3-0 record, while his stats are a slight step below Rask.

Coaching: A

When Claude Julien got his contract extension, early into the season, it was met with a mixed reaction. Half of the fanbase applauded the decision to hold on to the coach that won a Stanley Cup, brought them to another Cup final, and won a President’s Trophy, while the other half criticized his lack of adapting to special situations.. Julien’s record with the club speaks for itself, a solid 324-172-66 record all-time with the Bruins. One knock against Julien is his inability to figure out their hated rivals, the Montreal Canadiens, who have been their kryptonite for the last couple of seasons. Despite this,with his credentials and winning record, Julien has been able to rally the team through hard times and stay in the hunt for a playoff spot.

Management: D+

Peter Chiarelli put a damper on his team before the season even started, trading away a top-4 defenseman to the New York Islanders. While it couldn’t have been known that his defense would crumble to injuries, and the move was made for cap reasons, it has affected his team greatly. Losing Jarome Iginla in the off-season was another blow, and the signing of Simon Gagne hasn’t helped much either, be it his lack of production (2 points in 19 games) or the third worst possession stats on the team (CF 47.8%;FF 44.1%). Chiarelli extended his head coach, which is about the only good thing he accomplished thus far, however, things may look a little different at the half-way point of this season.

5. Toronto Maple Leafs – (12-8-3)

Offense: A+

There is no lack of offense on the Maple Leafs, not when you have a sniper like Phil Kessel tearing it up. Both he and Tyler Bozak share the team lead in goals, with 11 a piece, while Kessel leads in points, with 25 after 23 games. Averaging 3.30 goals per game, the Leafs are a top-3 team in total goals scored and 5-on-5 scoring. Even David Clarkson is enjoying a better season than his campaign last year, as he has already surpassed his goal total in just a third of the season. Six of the 13 forwards dressed have already hit double digits in points, while the production from the back-end has been a nice compliment.

Defense: C+

The age-old argument of Dion Phaneuf has been that he is a #3/#4 defenseman playing as a #1 on a Toronto team. He indeed has had his moments where he was hung out to dry, and hasn’t looked like himself, but he’s currently leading the team in +/- with a plus-10. while averaging just over 23 minutes a game, and playing both the powerplay and the penalty kill. Roman Polak has been a good addition to the team as well, logging close to what Phaneuf logs, with 21 minutes per game, and also playing in every situation. Cody Franson leads all defensemen in goals, assists, and points (15 points in 21 games). The defense has had their momentary lapses in judgement, particularly their 6-2 loss to Buffalo, followed by the 9-2 destruction by Nashville.

Goaltending: C+

James Reimer or Jonathan Bernier? When one is on his game, the other isn’t, and the coaching staff has had to play a guessing game all season long on which goaltender to play next. To their argument, in the blow-out games, they did not receive much help from the defense, but they’ll both need to step up their game if either wants to take the starter position for the remainder of the season.  Bernier has favorable stats to Reimer, but it’s a wash at this point. Either one can step up their game at any given moment, all it takes is consistency and a better defensive structure in front of them.

Coaching: D

Randy Carlyle currently holds a record of four games over .500, but the cracks in his line-up are starting to show. So much so, that his team often looks unorganized on the ice. The lack of compete level has been seen on more than a few occasions this season, and his hesitation towards trying something new, such as pairing Kessel and Kadri together in times where they are down by a goal, has hurt the team. He’s fortunate to have an offensive-heavy team that can keep up with the pace, because if his forwards played on the same level as his defense, Leafs fans would be in for a long season.

Management: B-

After losing the likes of Nikolai Kulemin, Dave Bolland and Mason Raymond, Dave Nonis had the task of filling up his roster up front, and he did a swell job, bringing back Leo Komarov, who has looked fantastic in his return with the blue and white. Mike Santorelli and Daniel Winnik were good complimentary players as well, however, the additions of Stephane Robidas and Roman Polak have not made the team any better defensively (to be fair, both Robidas and Polak don’t make the defense any worse either). The management will need to look into improving the defensive core of the team, while hoping one of his two goaltenders catches fire in a bottle.

6. Florida Panthers – (9-6-6)

Offense:  D

The Panthers offense is abysmal, despite accumulating near 30 shots per game. Their 2.1 goals per game is third worst in league so far. They are noted as a rebuilding team, but with the youngsters they have, and some known point producers, their input should be higher.

Defense: B+

The Panthers will need to work on limiting shots, averaging 31.2 against right now. If they lowered that number, they might be able to cut their 2.4 goals against per game, and start winning some more.

Goaltending: B+

Roberto Luongo is back in the Sunshine State and is trying his best to keep the team afloat. He isn’t posting 2010-11 Luongo numbers, but isn’t far off with a 2.33 GAA and .927 SV%.

Coaching: B

Gerard Gallant is behind the bench for his first stint in Florida, and so far, it’s been up and down. He likes to get his team to be offensive, and he does have pieces to do so, but he needs to be a little tighter defensively to get those two points they desperately need if they want to get to the playoffs.

Management: B

Dale Tallon is in his fifth year with the Panthers as GM, and while he has only made the playoffs once so far, he has acquired some good young pieces, with Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov, and most recently, Aaron Ekblad, who is third in team scoring. The Panthers are in a better place right now then they were a year ago with 21 games played.

7. Ottawa Senators – (10-9-4)

Offense:  D

Clarke MacArthur, Kyle Turris, and Bobby Ryan have been carrying most of the load, in terms of production, while Alex Chiasson has been a solid addition to the club. A team who’s biggest offensive numbers come from the back end will always be struggling to win games, which is why the Senators find themselves in a tough spot in the Atlantic Division.

Defense: C+

What more can you say about Erik Karlsson. He’ll never be known for being great defensively, but every year, he is consistent at one thing – putting up points. The defense is quite young and inexperienced after Karlsson, which will lead the team through growing pains, but slowly, those youngsters will earn their stripes, and mistakes made will be few and far between.

Goaltending: B+

Both Robin Lehner and Craig Anderson’s record have been hindered by the team’s overall performance. In reality, both Anderson and Lehner have performed quite well, although Anderson is a clear cut #1 at this point. Anderson has been worked for an average of 36 shots per game, which is normally what he’s used to.

Coaching: C+

Paul MacLean has done everything possible in order for his team to succeed, and incorporates a never-give-up attitude that his team lives by. It’s hard to win games if your top line isn’t producing, and your defense is as average as it has been so far. Granted, his goaltending has been good, MacLean needs to keep his team focused on the long run.

Management: B

Bryan Murray’s biggest move came in the off-season, when his hand was forced, and he had to find a suitor for disgruntled forward Jason Spezza. He dealt the point-per-game player to the Dallas Stars, and got a return that, while not significant, can turn out to be decent in the long run. Alex Chiasson is already fitting in, and Nick Paul is an interesting prospect. David Legwand signed with the team, and has played a good role as well. All acquisitions made thus far have been positive, but more need to come later in the season.

8. Buffalo Sabres – (8-14-2)

Offense: D

The Buffalo Sabres started off with having a terrible offense, with their top guns struggling to put up points on the score board. The Sabres have 14 points in 22 games played. Almost half of them came during their last winning streak, which started off by winning against the Leafs 6-2, and improving to 16-1-0 at home against San Jose, with a 4:1 win over Sharks. The team carried on, and beat the Capitals. A huge part of the credit on letting the team reach a three-game winning streak should be given to the Moulson GirgensonsEnnis line. Both Ennis and Girgensons are leading the team in goals, with six. If it wouldn’t have been for those games, the Sabres offense would be graded an F, as they couldn’t score more than two goals per game. To upgrade their offense, Buffalo really needs big guns like Marcus Foligno, Cody Hodgson, and Chris Stewart to start shooting the puck, as they have put out only five goals in 22 games combined.

Defense: D

 The Sabres defense has been a huge let down, with only one defensmen, Nikita Zadorov, being positive in the +/- category, having plus five, makes me everyone question, what on the earth is going on? Of course, none would expect them to be a huge power house, but Josh Gorges at -8, Andrej Meszaros -6, and Tyler Myers -7, really shows how much their ”meant-to-be” defensmen are struggling. Rasmus Ristolainen seems to be okay, ever since he was put on pair with Zadorov, playing top minutes on the team, but as soon as people like Andrej Meszaros and Andre Beniot appear on ice, things usually get ugly, not to mention Beniot’s incredibly low -13, making him the worst player on the team, no questions asked. What should happen to improve the situation? Either sit Meszaros and Beniot, or get rid of them as soon as possible, as Sabres have enough prospects to replace those two.

Goaltending: B

 Goaltending really is the best thing the team has going for it. Grading Michael Neuvirth and Jonas Enroth with a B really shows how much effort they have put at those times when defensmen and fowards are nowhere near to help, so those two guys have had multiple chances to pull the team out of a hole with amazing perfomances. Neuvirth is currently the Sabres number one, as his stats are better, and he has seen a bit more success, averaging 2.85 goals per game, with a .920 save percentage. Enroth isn’t as bad as his stats appear to be, 3.30 and .909, but has been struggling when there is no one to help. Obviously, Jonas isn’t one to blame, as both goalies have won 3 games each, but he could step up his game a little.

Coaching: C

 Coaching is something hockey experts would usually laugh about when it comes to the Buffalo Sabres, but head coach Ted Nolan has his own style. The ”C” grade would fit, as the coach hasn’t achieved what has been expected from him so far. People would usually ask why the organization bothers to keep him. The answer is, Nolan hired a completely new coaching staff during off-season, bringing in Bryan Trottier, Tom Coolen, and goalie coach Arturs Irbe, to help him rebuild this team on ice, and it has worked out a little, but only when it comes to goaltending. It’s unanimous that the  Sabres won’t climb higher than their current position in the standings – last in the league, but that doesn’t mean that they’re supposed to lose every game they play. Nolan is a perfect motivator, and punishes players for making mistakes. Although, if you make one, he won’t you throw off the ice straight away, he will throw you out at deciding moments to fix your mistakes.

Management: D

When it comes to drafting prospects, GM Tim Murray would get an A+, but the players he brought in to the team during this off season seem like a massive lapse in judgement. Josh Georges and Brian Gionta were huge part of the Montreal Canadiens organization, but have been a failure with Sabres. Meszaros is nowhere near being himself. Murray allowed Sam Reinhart to stay around with the team, thinking he would be the piece to help Sabres, while Nikita Zadorov was sitting down in press box enjoying popcorn during the games. The tables were turned, and Reinhart was sent to juniors to improve his skills, while Zadorov got his oppurtunity. He will stay with the team for the rest of the season, and is playing big minutes. Murray realized that not using Zadorov would be a huge mistake. Johan Larsson has been moved up and down – down is the place he should stay for now.

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