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Breaking Down the Eastern Conference Part 2: Can the Leafs get home ice?

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The top of the Atlantic has a lot to prove.

Toronto Maple Leafs v Boston Bruins - Game Seven Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

This series started with a look at the bottom-feeders of the Atlantic Division and whether or not they had the potential of moving up and grabbing a playoff spot.

Part 2, on the other hand, has the teams that were really close to the show or who made it altogether. That, of course, includes the Leafs, and it’ll be interesting to see whether or not they can finish higher than second. But as always, it’s important to look at who their opponents are after another offseason of movement.

Montreal Canadiens: 44-30-8 (96 points) 4th in Division, 9th in Conference

The Habs had a frustrating final stretch of the 2018-19 season where a set of key wins were necessary for them to make the playoffs. Unfortunately, losses to both the Carolina Hurricanes and Columbus Blue Jackets sealed their fate and they finished outside of a spot for the second time in three years. The goal is to not make it three in a row and although Marc Bergevin tried to get the offer sheet narrative going through Sebastian Aho, the Canadiens are more or less the same team. Individual performances and personnel growth may change that.

Notable Additions

  • Keith Kinkaid
  • Ben Chiarot
  • Nick Cousins

Notable Subtractions

  • Andrew Shaw
  • Antti Niemi
  • Jordie Benn

Two names who the Montreal Canadiens are looking at the most for some spark are Ryan Poehling and Nick Suzuki. The former should still be fresh in the memory of Leafs fans as he scored a hat-trick on Andersen and got the shootout winner in the final game of the regular season. Poehling looks ready to make it to the NHL full time, obnoxiously standing out among his prospect peers at development and rookie camp.

The question, however, is whether the Habs feel it’s worth it to move things around in the lineup to accommodate Poehling’s promotion. Keeping him up in the NHL to play fourth-line minutes doesn’t make sense, but to slot him in the top-nine would likely mean Max Domi moves back on the wing. Poehling’s in a position now where he must force Claude Julien’s hand to make that decision as leaving him in the AHL seems the easier scenario, especially with Nate Thompson and Jordan Weal looking to be an ideal fourth line.

Suzuki, on the other hand, is coming off a strong junior season with the Guelph Storm and the Shaw trade leaves an available spot for a centre in the top-nine. His offensive skill is undeniable but his defensive game is still in question.

As far as free agent signings go, there will be more pressure on Kinkaid to perform than Chiarot. The defenceman is slotted in to be Jeff Petry’s partner on the second pairing, a role he saw at times last season with the Winnipeg Jets. As long as Victor Mete is steady on the top pair with Shea Weber, that shouldn’t change.

Kinkaid, on the other hand, was brought on to relieve Carey Price a bit. When the battle for the playoffs reached its peak, the Habs ran with Price every game, including back-to-backs. That obviously isn’t the most ideal option, especially if the Canadiens plan to do something in the playoffs if they make it.

Aside from the newcomers, the usual cast will be expected to take the next step. Can Jesperi Kotkaniemi, with a full year under his belt, show another gear as an NHL centreman? Can Max Domi, who set career-highs in goals (28), assists (44), and overall points (72), repeat what he did offensively heading into a contract year? Can Jonathan Drouin finally become the player the Montreal Canadiens thought he would after acquiring him from Tampa Bay?

All questions that need positive answers if Bergevin wants to keep the temperature of his seat tame.

Toronto Maple Leafs: 46-28-8 (100 points) 3rd in Division, 5th in Conference

The Leafs had a nice summer of musical chairs after losing to the Boston Bruins in Game Seven of the first round (again). What made last season’s elimination all the more frustrating was how close they were to exorcising their demons. They had the series lead heading into Game Six, but lost, and it also doesn’t help that Nazem Kadri got suspended (again). With a new team with highly paid stars, not only is the expectation to make the playoffs, but to go far. I don’t think a single round win will be enough this time around.

Notable Additions

  • Tyson Barrie
  • Alexander Kerfoot
  • Jason Spezza
  • Cody Ceci
  • Ilya Mikheyev

Notable Subtractions

  • Nazem Kadri
  • Ron Hainsey
  • Connor Brown
  • Patrick Marleau
  • Jake Gardiner
  • Tyler Ennis

There aren’t any holdouts or contract negotiations to talk about here. The Leafs have a mission to make a statement this season, but they won’t be at their full potential until November comes around.

Both Zach Hyman and Travis Dermott are still recovering from injuries, leaving ample opportunity for new combinations and new promotions. For now, the spot on the left of Tavares belongs to Kasperi Kapanen while the entire bottom pair is up for grabs.

Leafs optimists hope one of Rasmus Sandin or Timothy Liljegren can find their way on to the opening night roster while Babcockian realists foresee a future of Ben Harpur or Martin Marincin getting the nod. The fourth line is another area of the lineup that is still not set in stone.

Jason Spezza made the decision to come home on a league-minimum contract, but Frederik Gauthier may have something to say about who gets to centre the fourth line. There are also the buckets of depth forwards the Leafs signed over the summer including Pontus Åberg, Kenny Agostino, and Nick Shore to name a few. Do they get a look or can Trevor Moore crack the team out of camp after his performance on the team last season?

Specialty teams will be a focus as well given how much the powerplay fizzled last year and how middling the penalty kill was. New assistant coaches Paul McFarland (formerly of the Florida Panthers) and Dave Hakstol (formerly of the Philadelphia Flyers) will play their respective roles there, but not having Hainsey and Zaitsev around to play the full two minutes on the kill should make a difference. And as odd as it is to say, the Leafs man-advantage needs a little more creativity through enhanced puck movement which the Panthers were known for.

Considering the Leafs have three players making more than $10 million, expectations for significant growth are warranted. That said, no one has more to prove than Nylander, who is hoping to put last season behind him and be productive once again with Matthews as his centre.

Are the Leafs good enough to move up in the Atlantic Division? Maybe. A lot of things have to work in their favour aside from their on-ice performance, and it also depends on how the other two do.

Boston Bruins: 49-29-9 (107 points) 2nd in Division, 2nd in Conference

Fresh off a Stanley Cup Final appearance, the Bruins are looking forward to another season of doing what they know they can do. Zdeno Chara is back, Charlie McAvoy and Brandon Carlo are signed, Tuukka Rask is still angry, and the top line has no reason to regress. All signs are pointing to another solid year for the Bruins, but who knows what can happen.

Notable Additions

  • Par Lindholm

Notable Subtractions

  • Marcus Johansson
  • Noel Acciari

The Bruins for the most part are untouched, losing only depth forwards to free agency. One thing to pay attention to, however, are all the injuries they dealt with last playoffs and are continuing to deal with now.

Superman Patrice Bergeron needed treatment for a groin injury over the offseason, limiting his training time, while John Moore and Kevin Miller may not be ready for the season opener. It raises questions but it allows room for some prospects to break in and compete for a spot on the team, most notably 2017 first-round pick Urho Vaakanainen who made his NHL debut last season.

Aside from that, the mood in Boston is stick to the status quo. The tandem of Rask and Jaroslav Halak kept the Bruins in check all season by splitting the workload, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see the same strategy take place this season. Rask had an okay regular season putting up a .912 save percentage in 46 games, but it was his play in the playoffs that stood out the most. He willed the Bruins all the way to the final and if they had ended up winning it all, there’s no doubt he would’ve been the playoff MVP.

That top line is still going to be one to reckon with, with all three of Bergeron, Pastrnak, and Marchand hitting the 30-goal mark. Additionally, the Bruins will be getting a full season of Charlie Coyle, who performed well in the playoffs after a slow start post-trade deadline.

Teams don’t always have to make a big splash over the summer and the Bruins chose to leave things as they were. They’re still a top team in the Atlantic, but who knows whether they’ll still be good enough to keep the teams beneath them at bay. Speaking of bay…

Tampa Bay Lightning: 62-16-4 (128 points) 1st in Division, 1st in Conference

It’s not about how you start, but how you finish and no team knows that line better than the Lightning. Everything went well for them. They won at a ridiculous pace, scored a ridiculous amount of goals, had the Keanu Reeves of the NHL, Nikita Kucherov, win the Art Ross with 128 points, but when it was all said and done, they walked away from the playoffs at the hands of a Columbus Blue Jackets sweep. Tampa Bay will and should be prepared to right that wrong. They’ll be a devastating team in the Eastern Conference, but no one will care about that. Their goal is worlds bigger.

Notable Additions

  • Curtis McElhinney
  • Patrick Maroon
  • Kevin Shattenkirk

Notable Subtractions

  • Anton Stralman
  • Dan Girardi
  • Ryan Callahan

The regular season does not matter in the slightest for Tampa. They’ll get their wins and their points, but for them, the season starts in April.

As far as changes go, the right side of their blueline saw the biggest shake up. Giradi and Stralman left the team as UFAs, and they in turn capitalized off the Rangers buying out Shattenkirk by signing him to a one-year deal. He wasn’t the biggest impact player in New York but pairing him up with Victor Hedman or reuniting him with Ryan McDonagh should be a safe experiment.

However, you have to wonder when Mikhail Sergachev gets an opportunity to play in the top-four full time. Sergachev got some reps up there when Hedman was down with injury but it’s never been on a regular basis. Perhaps this is the season he earns the jump and the Lightning will want to take every measure to see what he Is as he’s an RFA at the end of the season.

Nothing has really changed up front. Steven Stamkos had his best raw scoring season in years with 45 goals while Kucherov will continue to make the rest of the NHL look foolish as his new eight-year deal kicks in. The third head of this monster (at the time of writing this) is still not signed and it could be even more complicated given Marner’s contract.

Brayden Point was the third Lightning forward to put up 90 points (41 goals and 51 assists) and is still without a contract. He’s continuously voiced his desire to remain a Tampa Bay Lightning and once that happens, the team can get back to preparing for another year.

Speaking of deals, Andrei Vasilevskiy won’t have to worry about that as he’ll have his extension kick in next year. Vasilevskiy finished the season with a .925 save percentage and took home his first Vezina at the 2019 NHL Awards. He did run into injuries and the Lightning had to outscore a few of those issues, but the team will hope McElhinney can do a good job in supporting him.

He had another steady NHL season, this time with the Carolina Hurricanes and Tampa is hoping the age factor holds off for another year. If the Lightning hopes to stay in the playoffs as long as they want, Vasilevskiy’s starts will have to be managed which could mean more for McElhinney.


Well that’s it for the Atlantic Division and the Leafs will have their work cut out for them. Parts 3 and 4 will focus on the Metropolitan Division, who have two of the most improved teams in the league (on paper). Will that affect the Leafs as well?