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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- Toronto Maple Leafs
- Tampa Bay Lightning
- Florida Panthers
- Buffalo Sabres
- Ottawa Senators
- Boston Bruins
- Detroit Red Wings
- Montreal Canadiens.