Over the next few days we will be previewing each of the NHL’s four divisions in preparation for the October 2 start of the new season. Today: the Atlantic Division is still top heavy, but has the team that weights it the most changed?
Key Question: Will anyone challenge Tampa Bay in the Atlantic Division?
The Tampa Bay Lightning made history last year. Let’s start with the positive.
They finished the regular season with 62 wins in 82 games. That ties the ‘95-96 Red Wings for the all-time record for regular-season wins.
Yet, the playoffs were a different story entirely. The Lightning were swept from the first round by the Columbus Blue Jackets. For all the regular-season flair, the Lightning were duds in the playoffs.
The Lightning’a only question mark going into the season is Brayden Point. As of this writing, Point is a training camp holdout. He’s one of the offseason RFAs, and he’s been unable to come to terms with the Lightning front office on an extension. Assuming a deal gets done, the Lightning return all of the key players from last year’s squad. Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Victor Hedman and Andrei Vasilevsky are all back and should once again be in the conversation for various individual awards.
In terms of turnover, J.T. Miller, Anton Stralman, Adam Erne, Ryan Callahan, and Dan Girardi were lost to either trade, free agency, or retirement.
Notable additions include Curtis McElhinney, Kevin Shattenkirk, and Luke Schenn.
Answer: No. Overall, Tampa Bay has the best roster in the Atlantic division, if not the entire NHL. They should win the division going away.
Key Question: Can the vets do it again?
The Boston Bruins had an excellent 2018-2019 season. They finished the regular season with 107 points, good for second place in the Atlantic division. They advanced to the Stanley Cup Final, and lost game 7 at home to the St. Louis Blues.
In terms of offseason moves, the Bruin’s roster is virtually unchanged from last season. Marcus Johansson and Noel Acciari have moved on; Brett Ritchie and Par Lindholm are the newcomers.
As was the case last year, Boston will be led by a core group of veterans. The nucleus of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, Zdeno Chara, and Tuukka Rask are far from spring chickens. Yet, they continue to find a way to make the playoffs every year -- and subsequently beat the Maple Leafs in the first round.
Answer: Sorta — the Bruins earn a wild card spot in the playoffs.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Key Question: Will the Maple Leafs ever get past the first round of the playoffs?
The Toronto Maple Leafs have some of the best offensive talents in the NHL. Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner and William Nylander all return for another season in Toronto.
However, that offensive firepower has yet to propel the Maple Leafs past the first round of the playoffs. In fact, the franchise hasn’t won a playoff series since 2003-2004.
The defensive unit underwent an overhaul during the offseason. Ron Hainsey, Nikita Zaitsev, and (as we all know) Jake Gardiner are gone. Tyson Barrie, Cody Ceci, and Ben Harpur enter. The forwards saw some turnover as well; Tyler Ennis, Nazem Kadri, Connor Brown, and Patrick Marleau all depart. Jason Spezza and Alex Kerfoot join the mix.
There’s no doubt that the Leafs can and will score goals this year. Whether or not their defense and goaltending will be enough is an open question though.
Answer: Yes. The Maple Leafs finish second in the division, then win their first-round series.
Key Question: Is there an offensive star on the roster?
The Atlantic division is loaded with past All-Stars and future Hall of Fame Centers like Patrice Bergeron, John Tavares, Auston Matthews and Steven Stamkos. If you’re going to compete for a playoff spot against these players, you need to bring some offensive firepower of your own.
This is why the Canadiens swung for the fences over the summer. Their attempt to pry Sebastian Aho away from the Canes didn’t work. Now, they’re back at square one when it comes to their most significant deficiency from last year: Who is their star forward?
Philip Danault, Max Domi and Jesperi Kotkaniemi are all serviceable NHL centers, but it remains to be seen if any of them is capable of carrying a team. Until Montreal finds a real star, their lack of scoring will hold them back.
The turnover from last year is negligible. Andrew Shaw, Antti Niemi, Jordie Benn and Nicolas Deslauriers depart; while Nick Cousins, Ben Chiarot and Keith Kinkaid arrive.
Answer: No — at least not yet. Montreal misses the playoffs for the fourth time in the last five years.
Key Question: Do the offseason changes make the Panthers a playoff team?
The Florida Panthers did not hesitate this offseason. After missing the playoffs for the third straight year, they overhauled the organization starting with the coach. Joel Quenneville replaces Bob Boughner and brings his 890 NHL coaching wins and three Stanley Cups to South Florida.
The Panthers also went big when it comes to free-agent signings. Sergei Bobrovsky, Anton Stralman, Brett Connolly and Noel Acciari signed with the team. Each one of them brings playoff experience from last year to a franchise that has only made the playoffs twice in the previous 18 years.
The Panthers problem last year was their defense, and more specifically, their goaltending. Roberto Luongo and James Reimer are gone. If Bobrovsky can play to the level he is capable of, the Panthers can be this year’s surprise team.
Answer: Yes. The Panthers now have the pieces to compete for a top-three finish in the division.
Key Question: Is this the year Jack Eichel leads the Sabres to the playoffs?
It’s been eight years since the Buffalo Sabres went to the playoffs. Long gone are the days when Dominik Hasek and Ryan Miller led this team on extended playoff runs. The current squad is now led by a new head coach, Ralph Krueger. Joining him are Marcus Johansson, Colin Miller, Jimmy Vesey, and Henri Jokiharju. The only notable departure is Jason Pominville.
The expectations have always been high for Jack Eichel. As he enters his fifth year in the league, the pressure is starting to build. He has 259 points in 286 career games, but his career plus-minus rating of -65 is troubling. Eichel is coming off his best year, but he must be even better if the Sabres are going to make the playoffs.
While the offseason moves help the Sabres, they still are a team that lacks depth and consistency.
Answer: No. The Sabres will challenge for a playoff spot but fall short in the end.
Detroit Red Wings
Key Question: Can the Red Wings both rebuild and make the playoffs at the same time?
Steve Yzerman is back in Detroit, replacing Ken Holland as general manager. Considering what Yzerman did in Tampa, that is fantastic news for Red Wings fans. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean the Red Wings will get better right away.
After building his juggernaut in Tampa, Yzerman will get to work in Detroit. There’s plenty to do, and a decent core of young talent to work with. Nevertheless, that doesn’t necessarily mean things will improve right away. In fact, there’s every reason to believe there will be a step backward as Yzerman begins putting his own stamp on things.
Niklas Kronwall, Thomas Vanek, and Martin Frk departed over the summer; while Valtteri Filppula returned. Patrik Nemeth and Calvin Pickard were added.
The mix of old and new on this year’s team is unlikely to catch fire, but there’s a chance. Yzerman back in Detroit is scary for the rest of the league, but it should take a few years to get this ship turned around.
Answer: No. Yzerman will focus on the long-term, and the Red Wings finish near the bottom of the division.
Key Question: They have to be better than last year, don’t they?
Ok, let’s get it out of the way. The Ottawa Senators were bad last year. Really bad. They won only 29 games and secured just 64 points, good for dead last in the NHL.
The good news is this is a new year. Gone are interim head coach Marc Crawford, Cody Ceci, Ben Harpur, and Zack Smith. The reinforcements include Artem Anisimov, Nikita Zaitsev, Connor Brown, Ron Hainsey and Tyler Ennis. Former Leafs assistant D.J. Smith takes over as head coach.
Even with the additions of Anisimov, Zaitsev and Hainsey, Ottawa will be on the younger side. They have talented players like Brady Tkachuk, Erik Brannstrom and Thomas Chabot. Whether they will be able to compete in this top-heavy division is another matter.
Answer: Yes — but not by that much. The Senators are eliminated from playoff contention by mid-March.