We’re in the very early stages of the regular season, but we’re starting to get a glimpse at how teams are shaping up across the board. The start to the season has been infected with the injury bug and has provided some interesting twists to the script that was written before the season.
With a news-heavy start to the regular season and a very small sample size to judge from, it’s tough to get a great read on every team’s chances for the season. I’m going to give it a shot anyway and here’s how the Atlantic Division is shaping up so far.
1. Tampa Bay Lightning
Tampa Bay takes the top spot in the Atlantic Division power rankings as a team that’s shaping up to be one of the strongest and deepest in all of the National Hockey League. After being kicked out of the playoffs by the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins, Tampa Bay was able to retain their core (most notably Steven Stamkos, who signed an eight-year deal this summer), and lock in their place as a force to be reckoned within the East.
Tampa’s offense is led by the solid group of Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov and Tyler Johnson, with a boost of youth in Jonathan Drouin, who transitioned from a trade request headache to a postseason star with the Lightning last season. Defensively, the Lightning are pretty deep and boast a solid top duo in Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman. And of course, in net, Ben Bishop has already proven to be one of the league’s strongest netminders when healthy.
Ultimately, Tampa Bay has the star-power and the depth to make another deep run in the playoffs, and their 3-0 start is just the beginning of the 2016-17 campaign that the Lightning were looking for.
2. Florida Panthers
The Florida Panthers sit ever-so-slightly behind the Lightning as another team that could shape up to be a powerhouse in the Eastern Conference. Florida’s breakout season last year earned them a respectable reputation throughout the NHL, despite their early exit from the playoffs.
Perhaps last year’s elimination will provide the motivation that can boost a young Panthers team deep into the postseason. Florida was a deep team last season, and added to that depth this offseason, particularly on defense. The signings of Jason Demers and Keith Yandle, to aid Aaron Ekblad at the point, should play out quite nicely for the Panthers. So far, it’s looked good for Florida defensively, as they’ve given up just six goals in their first three games, and are perfect after seven penalty-killing opportunities.
Of course, a lot of this can be attributed to one of the best goaltending duos in the NHL in Roberto Luongo and Jason Reimer.
Florida has a young core that they’re going to rely on this season, and they’re shaping up to be a team that could be a major threat in the Atlantic Division for some time.
3. Montreal Canadiens
The Montreal Canadiens are coming off of a nightmare season, and are looking to bounce back and regain their status as a top Eastern Conference franchise. The offseason was highlighted by the controversial P.K. Subban – Shea Weber trade, but there are other changes to Montreal’s roster that will impact their 2016-17 campaign.
Of course, their biggest change coming into this season wasn’t a roster move at all, but the return of former MVP goaltender Carey Price. The return of one of the best netminders in the league will certainly boost a Canadiens team that added the likes of Weber, Alexander Radulov, and Andrew Shaw to an already talented core of Max Pacioretty, Alex Galchenyuk, Brendan Gallagher and company.
— Canadiens Montréal (@CanadiensMTL) October 19, 2016
The Canadiens have had an impressive start to the season, sitting at 2-0-1 despite the fact that Price has been sidelined with the flu. Tuesday’s 4-0 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins was particularly impressive. On top of that, their plus-six goal differential looks promising.
4. Boston Bruins
Sitting just behind their historic rivals in the power rankings are the Boston Bruins, a team that many struggled to get a read on prior to the season. The Bruins entered the season with defensive questions, which were multiplied due to injuries. Boston has had to rely on quite a bit of youth – including rookies Rob O’Gara, Brandon Carlo, Danton Heinen, and Austin Czarnik.
Despite falling behind in every game so far this season, the Bruins have pulled out a 2-1-0 record. All things considered, it’s been a pretty decent start for the Bruins given the fact that so many rookies were thrown into the swing of things very early.
Offensively, the top line has impressed, despite the fact that they’re missing their centerpiece in Patrice Bergeron. Ultimately, this Bruins roster should settle in once the rookies get a little more time under their belt and Bergeron returns to action, which should be very soon.
5. Detroit Red Wings
The Red Wings may have kicked off the season with the worst record in the Atlantic Division, but they do possess the pieces to climb back into the mix of things. For starters, their two losses came against the two best teams in the Atlantic Division in Tampa Bay and Florida. Their 5-1 win against Ottawa on Monday looked much more convincing.
Detroit lost the magic man Pavel Datsyuk this offseason but gained two solid players in Frans Nielsen and Thomas Vanek. These players are joining an established core of Tomas Tatar, Gustav Nyquist, Henrik Zetterberg, and Niklas Kronwall. And don’t forget about Dylan Larkin, who is coming off of a fantastic rookie season.
Detroit’s biggest question sits in net with Peter Mrazek and Jimmy Howard, a tandem that will dictate much of the team’s success this season.
6. Ottawa Senators
The Ottawa Senators entered the season with a last-chance mentality. Ultimately, their success this season will probably play a large role in where Ottawa turns for the future. The Sens are working through a variety of organizational changes, while their roster has remained pretty similar to last season.
The Senator’s 3-1 start may not be quite as impressive as it looks at first glance. While their victory over Montreal was nice, their other two victories came against Arizona and Toronto, the latter a game in which the Senators allowed four goals to rookie sensation Auston Matthews.
Ottawa has a couple of bright spots, most notably Erik Karlsson, who is easily one of the league’s elite offensive-defensemen. However, they seem to have too many holes in their roster to be a real contender.
7. Toronto Maple Leafs
All of the talk in Toronto has been about Auston Matthews (understandably), and the way things are looking, his success will be the biggest storyline for the Maple Leafs this season. The Leafs, while holding what looks to be a promising future, are a young team that will likely struggle as the 82-game season progresses.
Their 4-1 win over the Bruins on Saturday was impressive, and the Leafs have been able to collect three out of four possible points to kick off the season, however, in the long run, Toronto doesn’t have the strength or experience to make a run at the playoffs.
8. Buffalo Sabres
The Buffalo Sabres have been rebuilding over the past few seasons. While the playoffs may have been a bit of a stretch for this season, it did look as though the Sabres were going to show some serious signs of improvement in the Atlantic Division.
And then we started playing hockey, and the nightmare began. The Sabres have had the worst luck to kick off the season, with Dmitry Kulikov, Kyle Okposo, Jack Eichel, and Evander Kane all sustaining injuries before three games had even been played.
Coach Bylsma: Injuries are part of our game. No excuse for how we need to play, how we can play. Need to fight through it. pic.twitter.com/XfIThd4WrB
— Buffalo Sabres (@BuffaloSabres) October 14, 2016
Despite this, the Sabres have jumped out to a 1-1-1 record — not bad considering the circumstances. However, that success is unlikely to hold up. While the Sabres’ future still looks bright, it seems as though they’ll have to wait to begin their trek back into the skirmish of the playoff bubble.
Cam is a Broadcast Journalism student at the University of Maryland. He’s the Boston Bruins Beat Writer at The Hockey Writers, and is an avid college hockey fan. Find him on Twitter @CamHasbrouck!