The NHL has returned to its previous divisional alignment, meaning that the Montreal Canadiens return to the Atlantic Division and renews their former rivalries, as well as returns to the previous playoff format of three teams per division and two “wild card” teams per conference, make the playoffs.
The Canadiens will have no easy nights in their efforts to earn their third straight playoff berth due to the fact that in the Atlantic Division, there are no less than five teams that will compete for the division’s three playoff spots. There will also be a tight battle for the two conference Wild Card positions.
The Eastern Conference
The Eastern Conference should have an imbalance of power between divisions.
The Metropolitan Division has strong teams in the New York Islanders and Washington Capitals. The Carolina Hurricanes may have won the Central Division last season, but they will need to have their blue line and goaltending provide quality seasons as a unit to compete in a more competitive Metropolitan Division.
The Pittsburgh Penguins will have to deal with early injury concerns, headlined by Sidney Crosby, that could cause serious damage to their playoff hopes. The remainder of the division has teams that could compete for the playoffs, but all have serious question marks.
Matt Grazel, who covers the Metropolitan Division for The Hockey Writers, joined the Habs Unfiltered podcast to talk about the issues that the division will face and mentions that both Wild Card positions will likely go to Atlantic Division teams.
Neither the Detroit Red Wings nor the Buffalo Sabres is likely to be in the playoff race, as both teams are in a rebuilding phase. However, Detroit could be a difficult team to play against, as general manager Steve Yzerman has added some grit and talent to their lineup to provide fans competitive hockey to cheer for.
The remaining Atlantic Division teams will be in a tight race; each one has had its own offseason turnover of personnel and injury concerns that could impact how the season unfolds.
Battle of the Atlantic
Tampa Bay Lightning
The defending back-to-back Stanley Cup Champions cannot be taken lightly despite losing their entire third line and bottom defence pair to salary cap issues. This is a proud organization that will begin the hunt for a three-peat this season. They are also likely to be in a battle for the top playoff berth in the division.
The strength of this organization is that they retained all their top talent. Andrei Vasilevskiy, Victor Hedman and Nikita Kucherov are all returning and begin the season healthy. All three bring star power, game-breaking abilities and possibly could sweep individual awards.
There are few weaknesses with this lineup, but one that could become an issue is the bottom-six forward group. They will be relied on to provide temporary scoring punch when the top six falls into short slumps, also, they’ll be relied on to remain defensive weapons and not give up more goals thab they can produce. Another weakness is the goaltending tandem. Vasilevskiy is arguable the best goaltender in the NHL, but his backup, Brian Elliot, hasn’t been able to provide a save percentage above .889 in the last two seasons. He won’t be relied on as often, but the number of points lost in the standings if he can’t improve on those numbers could cause them to drop slightly.
The Florida Panthers are coming off of their first playoff berth in six seasons. They have had several years of poor luck and outcomes, causing them to pick in the middle of the pack in that time. However, after last season’s positive outcomes and additions, they are expected to be legitimate playoff contenders.
Florida has a strong offensively gifted top-six forward group, who could improve on their NHL 15th ranked power play, something they’ll need to do to overcome their weaknesses. Their defence, despite having Aaron Ekblad, isn’t very strong. In net, they will have to rely on rookie Spencer Knight as Sergei Bobrovsky hasn’t been able to live up to his contract, let alone provide consistent goaltending.
If Florida suffers injuries to their top players, such as Ekblad or Aleksander Barkov, or has any problems with their goaltending, then they could slide out of a tight playoff race.
The Boston Bruins are a perennial playoff team in the Atlantic. This season, they are expected to compete for a position yet again. Last season’s second-round playoff loss to the New York Islanders will only fuel their desire to return to the playoffs, especially now as their team leaders Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron are aging.
The Bruins boast the best line in hockey, the “perfection line,” centered by one of the best two-way centers the NHL has had in the last decade in Bergeron. While he may be 37 years old, there are no expectations that this line, nor his performance, will dip this season, especially not when flanked by a star sniper in David Pastrnak. Depth for the Bruins at forward will be an issue if Taylor Hall can’t regain his star form, as the remainder of the forward group contains typical Bruins grit, but it lacks the scoring depth they had when they last won the Cup in 2011. Defensively, they are a team in transition anchored by Charlie McAvoy, but they lack depth there as well.
Goaltending, however, will become the one main turning point in their season. After losing both Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak, they will need to rely heavily on Linus Ullmark, who has not been able to prove himself as an NHL starting goaltender yet in his six NHL seasons. The Bruins will need an injury-free season, a complete team effort, including a career season from Ullmark to compete for a top-three playoff position.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Like most teams in the division, the Toronto Maple Leafs will enter the season with a few changes. Despite the changes, their main group remains, and Toronto is expected to remain a strong regular-season team, one that may be able to compete for the top of the division if everything goes well for them this season.
They have focused on adding some grit to their lineup in anticipation for the playoffs, as the regular season is no longer their only focus. This may be the last season for this core group headlined by Auston Matthews built under the Shanaplan to try and make a run. This is a team that does very well in the regular season, but in the last decade, it has folded in the playoffs every time they face adversity.
This team hasn’t won a playoff or play-in series in 18 years, and for six of those years, this core group has been suffering this lack of playoff success. It culminated in embarrassing fashion last season — losing to the rival Montreal Canadiens after leading the series three games to one — while filming a docuseries that will air soon. If they can’t find a way to win a playoff series, there will likely be major offseason changes.
Toronto is a team that can earn a playoff berth even if two of its four major stars up front are injured for long periods. But they will need the goaltending tandem of Petr Mrazek and Jack Campbell to provide very strong numbers to help defend a team that still plays an open brand of hockey.
This is a Canadiens team that looks as though it will take a step back from last season’s Cup Final appearance. As in past seasons, they will be in a serious battle to earn a playoff berth.
This season, this is a team that seems to need the underdog role to help motivate its roster. They had one of the most drama-filled offseasons in recent memory, and that is saying quite a lot for a team as scrutinized as the Canadiens. They have lost their team captain Shea Weber for the season, possibly forever. There are questions at center as well as on defence without enough proven puck-moving players to help in transition or to quarterback the power play.
A major strength will be the depth at forward along the wing, as there could be as many as six 20 goal scorers on the wing this season. Another strength they must have in abundance is resiliency. They’ve shown that resiliency in the past, as demonstrated when they found a way to make the playoffs while missing seven key players during a stretch that they played an unprecedented 25 games in 43 days.
The lack of puck-moving defencemen may be a serious weakness for a team built to score in transition, so they will rely heavily on that defence and their goaltending tandem of Carey Price and Jake Allen to keep the goals against as low as possible. Even if they can, the Habs’ core is still very young and lacks a true star skater, though Cole Caufield and Nick Suzuki could both become game-breakers in the future. But for now, they haven’t reached that potential.
Playoffs? Playoffs? Are We Talking About Playoffs?
For the Canadiens, they need the stars to align if they are to earn a top-three playoff berth in the Atlantic Division. They’ll need Boston or Toronto to have difficulties this season, and they’ll also need to hope Florida continues to have issues in net to open a path into that top three.
The Habs’ best hope at the playoffs will be to earn one of the three Atlantic Division berths. It is highly likely that they will be in a Battle Royale for one of the two wild-card berths with more than a handful of teams in both divisions who have taken steps forward this season. Despite the Canadiens’ recent success and additions this summer, they are still a playoff bubble team, at best. If they remain healthy all season and Price returns to replicate his playoff performance, this is a team that can earn a playoff spot, and they could possibly make another unexpected postseason run.
Blain is a regular contributor as a THW Writer. For over 7 years he has been a part time journalist and podcaster covering the NHL, the Montreal Canadiens and its affiliates. He has made appearances on various television and radio stations as well as podcasts to discuss the Canadiens, and the NHL. Blain has taken the lessons on integrity, ethics, values and honesty that he has learned as a 28 year veteran of the Canadian Armed Forces and applied them to his work as a journalist to guide him in informing his readers and his goal of being a trusted source of information and entertainment.