Atlantic Division: An Early Analysis

By JD Lagrange – This may seem premature, and it likely is, but after a day where the Montreal Canadiens did nothing but to shore up their AHL team in Laval, it is warranted. As teams around them have, for the most part, improved, those who haven’t were already miles ahead of the Habs in the standings so by doing nothing to improve, you find yourself regressing.

So let’s have a look at what the teams in the Atlantic Division have done so far. We’ll go by last year’s standings.

1- Florida Panthers

The Panthers have added Nick Cousins, Marc Staal, Colin White, and invited Eric Staal on a PTO. They have lost Mason Marchment and playoffs’ rentals Claude Giroux and Ben Chiarot. The have also replaced head coach Andrew Brunette, who had led them to the President’s Trophy. Anthony Duclair had surgery to repair an Achilles tendon injury and is expected to return at around the mid-season point.

⬇️ Overall, I feel like the Panthers have taken a step back. But when you win the league and take a step back you’re still a formidable team. It is important to note that the Canadiens own the Panthers’ first round pick next summer, and that pick is not lottery protected. So if disaster strikes in South Florida and the Cats don’t make the playoffs, it could be a very good pick. That pick was obtained in the Ben Chiarot trade.

2- Toronto Maple Leafs

The Leafs traded for Matt Murray, signed Adam Gaudette and Ilya Samsonov. Jason Spezza is retiring and Ilya Lyubushkin is gone to Buffalo. I don’t know how their fans are still supporting Kyle Dubas. He signed Petr Mrazek a year ago for three years with a cap hit of $3.8 million. He then traded him and had to give up the Leafs’ first round pick to do so at this year’s draft. Then, he gave other assets to acquire a huge question mark in goal in Matt Murray. Even if Ottawa kept about $1.5 million, Toronto still has a $4.7 million cap hit for Murray. Then he signs UFA Ilya Samsonov $1.8 million. Both come with huge question marks.

⬇️ Because they have lost up front and haven’t fixed their goaltending issues, the Leafs have taken an ever slightly step backwards. But they’re still a good team with tons of offense. They will be contending for the Division’s title, particularly if one of Murray or Samsonov has a good season.

3- Tampa Bay Lightning

On the first day of free agency, the Lightning spent $160 million in about 10 minutes by re-signing Erik Cernak, Anthony Cirelli and Mikhail Sergachev. They also signed defensemen Ian Cole and Haydn Fleury, as well as forward Vladislav Namestnikov. But they made a big sacrifice, having to trade away Ryan McDonagh and having lost Ondrej Palat.

⬇️ With no room to add anything substantial, the Lightning also took a step back from last season. Like the Panthers and the Leafs, they are still good enough to fight for top spot in the Division. They are over the cap limit as we speak so cap gymnastic is still required.

4- Boston Bruins

The Bruins have been very quiet. Aside from a few minor signings, the have completed one substantial trade when they acquired Pavel Zacha from the New Jersey Devils, sending veteran center Erik Haula the other way. The Bruins also added some size and grit by signing AJ Greer. They are working on a contract with Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci.

🔁 Basically, as it stands, the Bruins have made lateral moves. In a stronger division as anticipated in the Atlantic, the Bruins will be fighting for a playoffs’ spot. But it might be more for a wild card spot than a top-3 in the Division.

5- Buffalo Sabres

The Sabres had a “meh” off-season so far. They drafted well and signed Ilya Lyubushkin, Kale Clague and former Winnipeg Jets goaltender Eric Comrie, while Colin Miller has left.

🔁 I hesitated between a slight regression or being stagnant. I was generous by picking the second option. The Sabres young guns should start taking a bigger role and the Sabres better hope that their veterans have a good season. They will most likely be on the outside looking in when the chips fall.

6- Detroit Red Wings

Perhaps the second most improved team in the Division, Steve Yzerman sure knows how to turn a franchise around. Out are older, ineffective veterans like Danny DeKeyser, Marc Staal, Sam Gagner. The Wings then signed David Perron, Dominik Kubalik, Olli Maatta, Andrew Copp, Ben Chiarot and goaltenter Ville Husso.

⬆️ That these additions to the young, maturing core already there and you have a team competing with the Bruins for a playoffs’ spot. They will be entertaining to watch too!

7- Ottawa Senators

Signed Claude Giroux. Traded G Filip Gustavsson for Cam Talbot, traded picks to get Alex DeBrincat

⬆️ The single most improved team not only in the Atlantic Division, the Senators are perhaps the team that took the biggest leap forward so far this off-season. They’ve added two high quality top-6 forwards and have improved their goaltending. They might have reached the level of the Maple Leafs and Lighting in points.

8- Montreal Canadiens

The Habs traded away Alexander Romanov and Shea Weber’s contract, and received Kirby Dach and Evgeni Dadonov. Perhaps the biggest news is the signing of Juraj Slafkovsky and Filip Mesar. Rem Pitlick is a UFA and has yet to sign anywhere at the time of writing this, and they still have Jeff Petry and are tight against the salary cap. Lots of uncertainty about the health of both Carey Price and Paul Byron. Kent Hughes is very methodical in his approach. He stole the first day at the Draft by going against the fan base by picking Slafkovsky and that, at the Bell Centre, then completed two big trades to get Dach.

🔁 The last few days are a lost of opportunity to shed some cap for the Canadiens. There is still time and as long as John Klingberg isn’t signed, it might be difficult to move Petry. Is Hughes still trying to acquire Pierre-Luc Dubois? Without that, the Canadiens have NOT improved… from a last place team. When everyone around you improves, you regressed.

More reading…

A Look at the Atlantic Division

By Bob Trask – The Atlantic Division is down to one representative in the race for the Stanley Cup and that the team will be the Tampa Bay Lightning. The other seven teams will all be in next year country very shortly and all the teams, including the Lightning, have question marks going into next season. A quick look will reveal some of these challenges.

Florida Panthers

The division champs have been eliminated after mortgaging the future with bets on Ben Chiarot and Claude Giroux. They only have 16 players signed for next season with $3.9M in cap room to fill out 7 spots. Even if all 7 were signed to the NHL minimum, the math doesn’t work and salary will need to be shed.

Patrick Hornqvist and Gustav Forsling may be two contracts the Panthers would like to shed but the elephant in the room is Sergei Bobrovsky. Chiarot and Giroux are unlikely to be back.

Outlook: Florida will fall well short of the 122 point season they had this season and may try to offload a couple of veterans this summer.

Toronto Maple Leafs

The second best team in the division last year, the Leafs again failed to make it out of the first round. Like the Panthers the Leafs have mortgaged the future and are now faced with limited draft picks and have free agents they may not be able to re-sign.

The Leafs have 18 players signed and need 5 more to fill out their roster and $7.0M they have more cap space than the Panthers. The challenge is that some of their unsung heroes like Pierre Engvall and Ilya Mikheyev need new contracts. Their two best defense prospects, Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Lilegren, also need new contract. In addition, the team’s starting goaltending situation needs to be resolved, either through an acquisiton or by re-signing Jack Campbell.

Optimists believe that Engvall and Mikheyev could easily be replaced and that Campbell, Lilegren and Sandin will sign team-friendly contracts.

Outlook: Toronto will be strong again next season but there will be significant roster changes from this year’s edition.

Tampa Bay Lightning

The Lightning are in a win now mode. GM Julien Brisebois recognized that he had a solid core and has been rotating players around that core as 2nd tier players become to expensive. But Brisebois doesn’t just bring in replacements, he brings in replacements that complement the rest of the team.

But the Lightning may be nearing the end of their dominance. They are currently over next year’s cap limit without having Ondrej Palat’s name on a new contract but putting Brent Seabrook on the LTIR gives them some breathing room. And other than Palat there are no critical UFAs or RFAs to re-sign.

Over the next couple of years the Lightning have very few low round draft picks but their focus will remain on the present.

Outlook: With not a lot of roster turnover necessary, Tampa Bay will be in a position to make a long playoff run again next year.

Boston Bruins

The Bruins are ripe for a fall in the standings; I expected in this year but they surprised me. With 22 player under contract for next year and $2 million in cap room they seem to be in good shape from a contract point of view.

But the elephant in the room is Patrice Bergeron, who may be contemplating retirement. If he does return, moving a contract would be necessary to create cap space. If he doesn’t return, the Bruins have a huge hole to fill.

The team has way too much tied up in defensemen and Jake DeBrusk still seems to want a trade but their goaltending situation is fine.

Outlook: Look for the Bruins to trade one defenseman and DeBrusk while trying to convince Bergeron to return for one more year. In the end, the Bruins could suffer the biggest point drop of any team in the division.

Buffalo Sabres

The Sabres were the best of the also-rans in the Atlantic Division, something we haven’t been able to say for a long time. Times are changing in Buffalo and Sabre fans are hoping this upward trend can continue.

The Sam Reinhart trade last summer was the first indication that the Sabres were not averse to making significant changes and the Jack Eichel trade simply confirmed that. In those trades, the Sabres picked up a top goaltending prospect in Devon Levi, a proven performer in Alex Tuch, a top prospect in Peyton Krebs and a couple of first round picks.

Owen Power is going to improve their defense and several other young players are knocking on the door. This list includes Jack Quinn, JJ Peterka, Dylan Cozens and Krebs.

While the Sabres only have 12 players signed for next year, they have a ton of cap room to fill out their roster and no big names needing contracts.

Outlook: The Sabres might be a year or two away from being serious contenders but they have a good core of young players, a solid pipeline of prospects and eight picks in the first two rounds of the entry draft over the next couple of years. Keep an eye on the goaltending situation – an improvement there could lead to a big improvement in the win/loss column.

Detroit Red Wings

The Red Wings are another that has been patiently trying to build out their roster and their organizational but success has been limited. First round picks Filip Zadina and Joe Veleno haven’t lived up to their hype and their most recent 1st round picks, Simon Edvinsson and Sebastian Cossa don’t appear to be ready to be significant contributors at the NHL level.

The big question for the team is goaltending/defense. Only the Montreal Canadiens and the Arizona Coyotes allowed more goals and even then it was close. Until that is resolved, Detroit will remain on a treadmill.

The good news for GM Steve Yzerman is that he has lots of cap space and no big names needing new contracts.

Outlook: The Detroit Red Wings will be active in the free agent market to try to fill their needs on LD (Ben Chiarot anyone?) and for a replacement for Thomas Greiss in goal. They won’t trade for Jeff Petry because RD is one place where they have a couple of capable players in Moritz Seider and Filip Hronek. In the end, the Red Wings will struggle to improve their place in the standings next season.

Ottawa Senators

Like the Buffalo Sabres, the Senators seem poised to make a big move in the standings. They are a young, exciting hockey team but they need to tie up Josh Norris, Alex Formenton and Erik Branstrom for next season.

Victor Mete

Brady Tkachuk, Tim Stutzle, Drake Batherson and Norris lead a promising group of forwards with Ridly Greig knocking on the door. Jake Sanderson will probably step in on defense and become an immediate contributor while Lassi Thomson had a strong offensive year in the AHL. For those wondering, former Hab Victor Mete will not be qualified by the team.

For the Senators to be successful they need a healthy and consistent Matt Murray in goal or they need to find someone who can fill that role.

Outlook: The Senators could be one of the quieter teams over the summer, choosing to work around the edges of their roster rather than the core. Look for them to add a 2nd tier free agent who would complement their existing roster. Ottawa fans are hoping for a big jump in the standings and they might not have to wait long.

Montreal Canadiens

No team in the division finished the season with more question marks than the Montreal Canadiens. Will Carey Price return, will Jeff Petry and Shea Weber be traded, are there buyouts in the offing, do Jonathan Drouin and Mike Hoffman have future with the team, what will the defense look like and are any prospects ready to make the jump?

And since winning the draft lottery, the dominatinig question being asked is, will Shane Wright be the 1st overall pick and will he make the team?

Kent Hughes has been slowly picking away at these issues but some of the circumstances, like Price’s health, are out of his control. Others, like who will be the 1st overall pick, are entirely in his control. The Habs were last in offense and last in defense in the Atlantic Division. They had the worst power play and the second worst penalty kill.

Clearly there is work to be done and even if all the pieces fall into place moving up in the standings won’t be easy to accomplish

Outlook: Look for Kent Hughes to be active in the trade market and the secondary free agent market. The Canadiens will also be very active at the draft table whether it is making all of their 14 picks or trading some of them. The Canadiens will not challenge for the Stanely Cup next year and may not even challenge for a playoff spot but they should significantly increase their points total. Look for one or two surprises on the roster next year – perhaps Kaiden Guhle could be one of them.

Projected Standings

Some teams are in a better position to address their needs than others because of salary cap limitations. Additionally, some teams are poised to benefit internally as top prospects are added to the roster while other teams may lose some top talent because of salary capconstraints with little talent in the pipeline ready to step in.

  1. Toronto Maple Leafs
  2. Tampa Bay Lightning
  3. Florida Panthers
  4. Buffalo Sabres
  5. Ottawa Senators
  6. Boston Bruins
  7. Detroit Red Wings
  8. Montreal Canadiens.

More reading…