We’re into the second week of July, and most of the major offseason chips have fallen, with one notable exception in Erik Karlsson. At this point, it seems he’ll make his way to the Lightning, if not now, then eventually, making the Atlantic Division a major arms race at the top. So while it’s obviously way too early to be confident in anything, here’s my guess as to how the division shakes out at the end of the season.
Tampa Bay Lightning
Even if they don’t get Karlsson, Tampa should contend for the division and the Cup this season. They haven’t experienced major losses, and the majority of their core is in their prime, meaning aging shouldn’t impact them badly. I’d expect Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, and Victor Hedman to remain at the height of their powers, and they form a three-player core that is very hard for any team to top. Beyond them Tampa has young players in key roles like Brayden Point, Anthony Cirelli, and Mikhail Sergachev, who would all be expected to improve next season. Even if they trade Sergachev for Karlsson... well, that means they got Erik Karlsson, which makes them even more terrifying. There are no absolutes in hockey, but the Lightning are one of the more stacked teams in the league, with one of the best coaches and front offices to boot. They may fall off in the future, when the cap forces them to make some hard decisions, but next year, it’s hard to forecast anything but Cup contention.
Toronto Maple Leafs
As many readers know, I’m a bit of a natural pessimist. We’re Leafs fans, so we kind of have to be. While I look at the Leafs roster and see a myriad of potential flaws and stumbling blocks, you can’t escape the fact that the Leafs have five(!!!) players that produce offense at first line levels, including two who go a step further and produce at nearly unparalleled rates league-wide.
Having John Tavares, Auston Matthews, and Nazem Kadri is a capital-P Problem for every team that the Leafs will face. There’s no respite against any of them; Kadri is easily the worst player of the three, and every Leafs fan would be fairly comfortable matching him up against just about anyone, especially if it means John Tavares and Auston Matthews get easier roles. Mitch Marner and William Nylander drive play and score, while both being young enough to project substantial year-to-year improvement. The forwards surrounding these five are capable and know their roles. The Leafs’ forward lineup is terrifying to any team in the league.
Sadly, the Leafs still do have major flaws. Despite getting Tavares, the Leafs have lost some value with the departure of James van Riemsdyk, as it is unlikely he can be entirely replaced internally. More worrisome is the Leafs defence as a whole (which is not limited to the defencemen). The Leafs were bad on that end last year. To fix it, they’re essentially relying on a combination of addition by subtraction (no Polak), internal growth from Travis Dermott (and Morgan Rielly as well, though he’s more of a finished product), more defensively responsible forwards, and Mike Babcock finding a way to tweak the tactics of the team. The Leafs struggled to exit the zone with control, often bombing stretch passes that were inconsistent at best. Until we see concrete change from the Leafs systemically, it’s likely these problems remain, and neuter the effectiveness of the forward group. That they’re still a division and Cup contender despite this is a testament to how scary that forward group is.
Boston is still a contender, and they still frighten me. I can definitely see a world where they win the division and have a better record than the Leafs. This may seem odd, given that their most notable offseason move was to sign John Moore to a long-term deal. They also lost both Nashes (Rick and Riley). However, they still have Marchand-Bergeron-Pastrnak, and that line is still the best in the league. They’ll get another year of growth from Charlie McAvoy, Danton Heinen, Jake DeBrusk, as well as more of Ryan Donato. Those young players are SO good, and Leafs fans may underrate them. McAvoy was 20 and played top pair minutes on one of the best teams in the league. Not only did he play them, he excelled in them. He is going to be a major problem for the next decade or so. Zdeno Chara is prehistoric, but until he actually becomes unplayable, I can only assume he’ll continue with the same level of effectiveness as last year, which is fine for the Bruins. Heinen and DeBrusk are both young top-six players who fill important secondary roles. A lot of depth Bruins ran hot last year, and while I don’t necessarily think that will continue, a team that runs at a 55% CF% has a lot of margin for error with percentages. Their coaching staff has done an amazing job at getting shot dominance out of a roster that most wouldn’t consider the best in the league. If that continues, they’re going to make it a three-way race at the top of the Atlantic.
Should Make the Playoffs
Simply because it hasn’t been said enough... Dale Tallon cost the Panthers a playoff spot with his bone-headed offseason moves last season. Giving up Jonathan Marchessault, Reilly Smith, and Jason Demers was an unforced error of mammoth proportions, and for a team with stars but no depth, it was a crippling loss.
And make no mistake, Florida has stars. Aleksander Barkov is a top-10 centre in the league. He is amazing. He eats up a huge amount of minutes per game against top competition and comes out ahead. On a team that struggles to get to the high-value areas of the ice offensively, Barkov and his linemates are some of the only players that do. He plays all situations, is stifling defensively, and is just an all-around beast... one of my favourite players in the league.
His linemates are also worth a mention. Evgeny Dadonov and Jonathan Huberdeau are both excellent first line wingers. Dadonov has not gotten enough credit as one of the more successful KHL imports we’ve seen in recent years. With guys like Nick Bjugstad and Vincent Trocheck behind them, the Panthers top-six was truly excellent last season. Now they’ve added Mike Hoffman to that group, and despite the horrifying allegations that have come out against his partner, Hoffman himself is undoubtedly a top-line talent on the ice.
My concern about the Panthers is still in their depth, but that’s a much smaller problem to have than the alternative. Their defence also isn’t spectacular to my eye, but it’s not eye-poppingly awful either. Roberto Luongo is at the tail end of his career, but between he and James Reimer, their goaltending is as inured to variance as possible. I’d be surprised if they didn’t make the playoffs this season, especially with how hard their coaching staff tends to ride their stars throughout the regular season; they’re the opposite of the Leafs in that regard.
No Man’s Land
You know, credit to Marc Bergevin... he hasn’t done anything obscenely stupid this offseason. I think they lost a bit of value in the Domi/Galchenyuk swap, but they got cheaper and it’s not like there’s a huge drop-off there. The problem is that Montreal is constructed as a win-now team while not being remotely good enough to win now. Shea Weber (when healthy), Jeff Petry, Max Pacioretty, and Carey Price can obviously play important roles on a contender. But Weber is out for half the year. Price is coming off a poor season and about to start a contract that pays him eight figures for eight years. They’re probably trading Pacioretty off the back of his worst season, and not getting a whole lot for him. Petry is excellent but out of place on this roster if they’re not good enough to contend. Half the players are the spine of a team that’s trying to remain competitive, while the other half are generally low-cost forwards who wouldn’t be out of place on a cellar-dweller. In a sense, they’re caught between two extremes, and it’s hard to see a cohesive vision from the front office.
If they’re trying to make the playoffs, their forwards need a huge upgrade, potentially down the middle. If they’re trying to tank, they have a bunch of contracts that run counter to that idea (you forgot about Karl Alzner, didn’t you). I could see them making the playoffs if Price reverts to his prime form, but otherwise, he, Petry, Gallagher, and Pacioretty might be just good enough to prevent the Habs from truly bottoming out. They have some guys who are young and interesting as players, and with a strong 2018 draft class, I don’t think they’re hopeless for the foreseeable future like some other teams we’ll get to. So chin up, Habs fans, it’s not as bad as it could be.
Detroit Red Wings
Detroit’s front office is confusing to me. Look at their Cap Friendly page. Why did they sign Jonathan Bernier for 3 years? Why did they sign Mike Green for 2 years? They have so many bad contracts on the books that it sort of behooves them to bottom out while they wait for the term on them to expire, but they’re getting guys who will keep them on the treadmill of mediocrity for a while longer. I don’t understand them.
The Sabres got Rasmus Dahlin, which finally gave them a decent defenceman named Rasmus. To celebrate, they traded their second best player because he was upset with losing, or something.
In all seriousness, I don’t hate what the Sabres have done outside the Ryan O’Reilly trade, but they’re starting from such a low point that it will take time to move up for them. They have more actual NHL players now, which is a good start, but their defence group is still really weak, and without O’Reilly, Jack Eichel will have to do even more now. Sam Reinhart looks like a good player, albeit not one you’d want with the 2nd overall pick. Carter Hutton is there to give them a decent low-cost goaltending option. Eichel is a beast, and when he’s not raging that his team is terrible, he’s a damn good player. Buffalo will be good eventually, maybe even the season after next. This season, I can see them pushing 80 points if things break well. They’re just starting from absolute rock bottom.
The facts for the Senators are more bleak than any picture I can paint.
- The fans hate the owner
- An assistant GM is facing possible sexual harassment charges
- They traded their second best forward for a crappy contract outside the division, only to see him end up in their division anyways
- Their arena situation is still awful
- They’re about to trade the best player who has ever played for them after offering him a terrible excuse for a contract extension while crying poor the whole time about how small market teams can’t afford these players
- They’re likely going to trade him to Tampa Bay, a small market team
- Their best forward filed for arbitration, and if he reaches it, will be an UFA after this season, potentially leaving them for nothing
- They don’t have their first round pick in a draft class that seemingly features a can’t-miss superstar at the top/
The Sens are an absolute embarrassment of an organization right now, and it starts because their owner is Disney movie villain. I legitimately feel bad for their fans.
Who wins the division?
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