With all due apologies to the legendary Bob Dylan, times, they are a-changing in the National Hockey League’s Atlantic Division. Championship windows may be closing for longtime powers Boston and Tampa Bay. Buffalo and Detroit and Ottawa are in the embryonic stage; perhaps not yet ready to compete for division championships and playoff berths, but not an automatic two points for opponents either. After yet another frustrating playoff ouster, the Toronto Maple Leafs are returning with its top-heavy core intact. And in Montreal, the hope is for a brighter future.
THE ATLANTIC DIVISION:
NO. 1: TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING:
OVERVIEW: Their championship window hasn’t closed, but it’s slowly being pushed down due to age and the COVID-caused flat cap. Still, with the core of Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point, Nikita Kucherov, Victor Hedman, Mikhail Sergachev, and Andrei Vasilevskiy still intact, Tampa Bay could make another deep run come the spring.
FORWARDS: Head coach Jon Cooper’s top line of Stamkos-Point-Kucherov is as good as any in the NHL, combining for 115 goals and 177 assists for 292 points. Second line left wing Brandon Hagel had a 30-goal, 64-point campaign. So, offense shouldn’t be much of an issue. Can the bottom-six provide up-tempo, physical forechecking?
DEFENSEMEN: Just like it is a luxury for Cooper to ice the top line of Stamkos-Point-Kucherov, it certainly doesn’t hurt him that he has one of the league’s five best defensemen in Hedman, as well as the talented Sergachev.
GOALTENDING: Vasilevskiy is among the 10 best goalies in the league, and arguably resides in the top five. The question is whether the Lightning have a quality reserve.
KEY TO THE SEASON: After back-to-back-to-back runs to the Cup Final, being eliminated in the first round was disappointing for the Lightning. But did a long summer allow the veteran-laden team to rest, recuperate, and re-charge for another run?
NO. 2: TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS:
OVERVIEW: The good news is that the Leafs won a playoff series for the first time since 2004. The bad news is that the Leafs followed their series win over Tampa Bay by being swept by Florida. And it led to some changes, the most significant of which being the dismissal of general manager Kyle Dubas, who was subsequently replaced by Brad Treliving. Still, there is some public frustration that the Leafs’ Core Four–Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander–remain intact.
FORWARDS: The foursome of Matthews, Tavares, Marner, and Nylander carried the offensive load for a team that finished ninth in the NHL in goals per game (3.39). As talented as the quartet is, none is what one would describe as a physical, forechecking force. Team President Brendan Shanahan and Treliving brought in top-six power forwards Tyler Bertuzzi and Max Domi to square that circle.
DEFENSEMEN: The NHL is a hard salary cap league, and if an organization devotes 69.1% of its space to forwards, there aren’t too many options to improve other aspects of its team. Enter the Leafs, whose back end isn’t their strength.
GOALTENDING: The chances are pretty good that Ilya Samsonov (27-10-5 with a 2.33 goals-against average and .919 save percentage in 42 games played) and Joseph Woll (16-4-1 with 2.37 goals against average and .927 save percentage in 21 games) will split time in goal.
KEY TO THE SEASON: Will Shanahan and Treliving improve the defense corps between the start of the season and the trade deadline? If so, are the Leafs deep enough to go deep in the playoffs?
NO. 3: BOSTON BRUINS:
OVERVIEW: The greatest regular season team in NHL history endured a long summer after their seven-game, first-round series loss to eventual Eastern Conference champion Florida. Many of the key components to 2022-23 Bruins will not wear the black and gold this season due to salary cap constraints, as well as the retirements of franchise legends Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci.
FORWARDS: The biggest question about the 2023-24 Bruins is who will center the first and second lines, now that Bergeron and Krejci are no longer active NHL players. Pavel Zacha and Charlie Coyle will get the first shot at the jobs.
DEFENSEMEN: One of the NHL’s preeminent corps. Charlie McAvoy is a top-five defenseman in the league, and he, Hampus Lindholm, and Kevin Shattenkirk give the Bruins the ability to skate the puck out of the defensive end. All three will contribute points at even strength and the power play.
GOALTENDING: Just how good were Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman last season? Ullmark won the Vezina and the tandem walked away with the Jennings Trophy for fewest goals allowed. So, yes, the Bruins are set in net.
KEY TO THE SEASON: See: centers, first and seconds lines.
NO. 4: FLORIDA PANTHERS:
OVERVIEW: The 2022-23 season was wild in South Florida. The Panthers struggled to find consistency for the entirety of the regular season, qualifying for the Stanley Cup Playoffs as the second–and final–wild card in the Eastern Conference but then went on a run that culminated with the franchise’s second Cup Final appearance. Even though the Panthers lost, an identity was forged.
FORWARDS: The top line of Carter Verhaeghe (42-31-73), Aleksander Barkov (23-55-78), and newly-minted NHL superstar Matthew Tkachuk (40-69-109) is as good as any in the league. Sam Bennett (40 points) and Sam Reinhart (67 points) provide depth scoring and in Bennett’s case, a physical presence that opponents dread.
DEFENSEMEN: One of the truisms about the Stanley Cup Playoffs is that it takes a physical toll on the players. Especially those on teams that go deep. Enter Aaron Ekblad and Brandon Montour, who merely comprise Florida’s top defense pair. In an interview with Florida Hockey Now, general manager Bill Zito estimated Ekblad and Montour would return from off-season shoulder surgeries between “November and January.” Which is why Zito added Niko Mikkola, Dmitry Kulikov, and Oliver-Ekman Larsson in the offseason to help bolster a defense corps that will start the campaign with Gustav Forsling and Josh Mahura as the defacto top-pair.
GOALTENDING: Sergei Bobrovksy was not great in the 2022-23 regular season, compiling a 24-20-3 record with a 3.07 goals-against average and .903 save percentage. Sergei Bobrovsky was great in the 2022-23 playoffs, going 12-6 with a .915 save percentage and 2.78 goals against. As such, he will be the No. 1 going into the regular season.
KEY TO THE SEASON: Can the Panthers maneuver the first few months of the season without Ekblad and Montour? If they can, the Panthers would be in good position to make another playoff push.
NO. 5: BUFFALO SABRES:
OVERVIEW: This just in: Western New York is no longer the National Hockey League’s Siberia. That is due to finally having competent adult supervision in the form of general manager Kevyn Adams and head coach Don Granato and captain Kyle Okposo.
FORWARDS: As offensively lethal as any unit in the NHL. Tage Thompson had a breakout season with 47 goals and 94 points, and his wingers Jeff Skinner (35-47-82) and Alex Tuch (36-43-79) are more than able linemates. Second- and third-line centers Dylan Cozens and Casey Mittelstadt finished with 68 and 59 points, respectively as Granato has the Sabres playing an up-tempo, attacking brand of hockey.
DEFENSEMEN: Historically, Stanley Cup Championship-winning teams are deep down the middle and have a franchise defenseman. Having Thompson, Cozens, and Mittelstadt checks off the first box. Rasmus Dahlin, the first overall pick in the 2018 draft, and Owen Power, the first overall pick in the 2021 draft, checks off the other. The Lidkoping, Sweden, native had an offensively monstrous year, finishing with a slash line of 15 goals and 58 assists for 73 points. And it only seemed that Power, who recorded 35 points in 79 games, never left the ice last season.
GOALTENDING: The expectation is that Devon Levi will be Buffalo’s No.1 goalie entering the 2023-24 season. Levi, after finishing his collegiate season with Northeastern, played seven games with the Sabres and went 5-2-0 with a .905 save percentage. So he’ll get the first crack to win the starting job. If he falters, Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen and Eric Comrie are waiting in the wings.
KEY TO THE SEASON: The goaltending.
NO. 6: DETROIT RED WINGS:
OVERVIEW: Growth is not linear. Just ask the Red Wings. Detroit took a small step forward in 2022-23, finishing with 35-37-10 record, but a deeper delve into the statistics revealed the Red Wings ranked 24th in the NHL in goals scored, 22nd in goals allowed (3.35), 30th in Corsi For (49.55 percent) and 20th in Corsi Against (58.1 percent). So,there’s still significant room for growth.
FORWARDS: These are not the Red Wings of Steve Yzerman and Brendan Shanahan and Sergei Fedorov. Instead, this is a group whose better offensive days are in the future. As far as today, having Dylan Larkin (32-47-79 in 80 games) and Alex DeBrincat (27-39-66 in 82 games with Ottawa) comprising two-thirds of Detroit’s top line is a good place to start.
DEFENSEMEN: An interesting unit. Moritz Seider, the sixth overall pick in the 2019 draft, is growing into an all-situations No. 1 defenseman. Veterans Olli Maatta and Ben Chiarot are steadying on-and-off-ice presences. Free agent signee Shayne Gostisbehere should provide offense at five-on-five and on the power play.
KEY TO THE SEASON: Adding DeBrincat should help Detroit’s goals per game department, but will it be enough to help the Red Wings qualify for the playoffs? The likelihood is that they are still at least a year away.
NO. 7: OTTAWA SENATORS:
OVERVIEW: The unquestioned 2022-23 off-season champions found themselves on the outside looking in when the regular campaign ended and the playoffs began. And now, with a new owner coming in, the question is whether or not GM Pierre Dorion and head coach D.J. Smith has to make the playoffs in order to keep their jobs.
FORWARDS: A potent unit led by the top line of Tim Stutzle (39-51-90), Brady Tkachuk–the younger brother of Panthers star Matthew Tkachuk–(35-48-83), and Claude Giroux (35-44-79). Drake Batherson (22-40-62) and Vladimir Tarsenko (18-32-50) are snipers. Losing Alex DeBrincat to Detroit in a trade hurts, but at least Dorion was able to wrangle a draft pick and Dominik Kubalik from Yzerman.
DEFENSEMEN: Ottawa should be set for the foreseeable future with Jakob Chychrun, Thomas Chabot, and Jake Sanderson as the 1-2-3 defensemen. Artem Zub, Erik Brannstrom, and Travis Hamonic round out the back end, and the trio should be able to complement the foundational pieces.
GOALTENDING: This position will determine whether the Stanley Cup Playoffs return to the Canadian capital. Former Columbus No.1 Joonas Korpisalo was more than capable last season, compiling a 2.87 goals against average and .915 save percentage. The question is whether Anton Forsberg, who is coming off MCL surgeries in his left and right knees, is physically ready to handle the workload.
KEY TO THE SEASON: See: Goaltending.
NO. 8: MONTREAL CANADIENS:
OVERVIEW: The painstaking rebuild continues with results which will be painful in the immediate future.
FORWARDS: Montreal is building its forward group around the preposterously young and talented foursome of Cole Caufield (22), Nick Suzuki (24), Kirby Dach (22), and Juraj Slafkovsky (19). Much of head coach Martin St. Louis’ job will be to continue their development.
DEFENSEMEN: It will be another season of Mike Matheson and David Savard mentoring the kiddie corps of Kaiden Guhle, Jordan Harris, Arber Xhekaj, and Johnathan Kovacevic. President of Hockey Operations Jeff Gorton and GM Kent Hughes used the fifth overall pick in last June’s draft on David Reinbacher, who the organization hopes will become a franchise cornerstone.