No one is imagining that the competition in the Eastern Conference is going to be a cake walk for the Tampa Bay Lightning during the 2022-2023 season; it never has been easy and it certainly won’t be this season either. Opponents from the Atlantic Division play the Lightning tough.
Last season, four teams in the Atlantic Division finished the season with 100 or more points. The Florida Panthers won the Presidents’ Trophy, given to the team that amasses the most regular-season points. They went 58-18-6 for 122 points. The Toronto Maple Leafs ended the season with 115 points, Tampa was third in the division with 110 points and the Boston Bruins held on for 107, good for fourth place and a wild card spot. The Lightning faced both the Maple Leafs and Panthers during last season’s playoff run, beating both teams in dramatically different fashion.
The Panthers host the Lightning on Oct. 11 to kick off the season. The 82-game regular season finds the Bolts facing each of their divisional rivals four times — the Lightning will play Toronto and Ottawa only three times each.
An Overview of Atlantic Division’s Toughest Lightning Opponents
Toronto Maple Leafs
Last season’s seven-game, first-round playoff series against Toronto was nerve-racking for fans from both teams. The Lightning’s Nick Paul secured his future with the team with his two-goal effort that won Game 7 to send the Lightning downstate to square off against the Panthers. This year, with Mitch Marner and Michael Bunting likely occupying the top line again with Hart Trophy-winner Auston Matthews, their offensive prowess should remain intact. Defenseman Morgan Rielly, who played all 82 games for Toronto last season, helped keep the team near the top of the division with his effective play on the penalty kill and his veteran leadership. Retaining these key players proves that attrition may not be as deep for the Maple Leafs as other teams within their division.
However, with the departure of Toronto’s goalie Jack Campbell to Edmonton, the Leafs’ general manager Kyle Dubas traded for Ottawa Senators goalie Matt Murray, who was only 5-12 in 20 starts last season. With injuries plaguing Murray’s career, it was a smart move by Dubas to sign Washington Capitals goalie Ilya Samsonov. Murray and Samsonov will both compete for the starting job. We’ll see if either of them can replace Campbell’s reliability from last season when he posted a 2.64 goals-against average (GAA) and a .914 save percentage (SV%).
The Panthers won one of the biggest offseason trade prizes when they signed 24-year-old forward Matthew Tkachuk from the Calgary Flames. As the honeymoon period evaporates during the long regular season, we’ll see if losing assist-machine Jonathan Huberdeau and defenseman MacKenzie Weegar was worth the investment in Tkachuk. Either way, this just adds to the Battle of the Sunshine State that fans seem to desperately want. The Panthers have the majority of their core players returning this season, and with Aleksander Barkov still only 26 years old, Florida should be a pain for the Lightning to play against for years to come.
As long as the Bruins still have forward David Pastrnak, who scored 77 points in 72 games last year, they should be a contender within the division. The 26-year-old has solidified his dependability with the team by playing in 510 NHL games and scoring 504 points, mostly on the top line with Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand. However, the “Perfection Line” may look different next season. Marchand actually out-scored Pastrnak by posting 80 points in 70 games and is still an offensive threat.
If the Bruins have a weakness, it’s in net. Jeremy Swayman, the 23-year-old, 6-foot-3, 197-pound goalie, split starts last season with 28-year-old Linus Ullmark. Although Ullmark won 26 games for Boston during the regular season, he struggled in his two playoff starts, losing both games with an unimpressive 4.16 GAA and .860 SV%. Boston is one of those teams that the Lightning should dread playing, as the Bruins were 3-0-1 against the Bolts last season.
A surprising team next year could be the Senators, who beefed up their offense by signing the Chicago Blackhawks’ superstar forward Alex DeBrincat, along with veteran Claude Giroux and ex-Minnesota Wild goalie Cam Talbot. By signing forward Josh Norris to an eight-year, $63.6 million contract, the Senators are “all in” for the 2022-23 season. They have a deep team, which include emerging stars Brady Tkachuk and Tim Stützle.
Although by most accounts Ottawa underachieved last season, winning only 33 games to end the season with 72 points — 49 points out of first place. It’s hard to imagine that they will make a deep run in next year’s playoffs. However, with the talent they have gleaned from across the NHL, they can, and should be, at least a threat next year.
The Best of the Rest: Red Wings, Canadiens and Sabres
The Detroit Red Wings, who haven’t made the playoffs since 2016, were also busy during the offseason. The relationship between the Lightning and Red Wings has been adequately documented even before Detroit and Tampa switched coaches, sending Red Wings’ former head coach Jeff Blashill to Tampa and Steve Yzerman enticing Tampa’s assistant coach, Derick LaLonde, to become head coach of Detroit.
Continuing his offseason quest, Yzerman finally provided needed depth when he acquired Andrew Copp. Detroit’s star and captain, Dylan Larkin, should benefit from Copp’s dedicated two-way play. Traded during the season from the Winnipeg Jets to the New York Rangers, Copp had 18 points in just 16 games for New York. Although Detroit was only 1-3 vs. the Lightning last season, their sole win was at Tampa toward the end of the regular season (when it hurt the Lightning the most).
Even though the Montreal Canadiens made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final in 2020-21, losing to the Lightning in five games, not many truly expected them to return last year. They made good on that bet as they bounced around the cellar of the Atlantic Division all season. With their recent offseason trades of 34-year-old defenseman Jeff Petry and 23-year-old forward Ryan Poehling to the Pittsburgh Penguins, Montreal is in a rebuild.
However, Habs fans can take refuge in the fact that the Canadiens signed the first-overall pick in the 2022 NHL Draft, Juraj Slafkovsky. Among his early accomplishments, the 6-foot-3, 218-pound, 18-year-old forward was voted the Most Valuable Player of the 2022 Beijing Olympics, winning the bronze medal for Slovakia. Given a talented, young and hungry team, new head coach Martin St. Louis can put his mark on this version of the Canadiens for the next three seasons.
Just because the Buffalo Sabres are listed last on this list, doesn’t mean that the Lightning are going to stride into Western New York and pummel the home team — far from it. Lightning fans remember early last fall when they lost to Buffalo 5-1 at AMALIE. Their roster is filled with young talent such Tage Thompson who, as a 24-year-old, had a break-out season last year with 68 points; 21-year-old defenseman Dylan Cozens; and newly acquired goalie Eric Comrie, who just turned 27. Let’s not forget the first-overall pick in the 2021 NHL Draft, 6-foot-6, 213-pound defenseman Owen Power.
During their extensive rebuild, the Sabres continue to collect draft picks that should eventually elevate the team to at least playoff contention. They ended last season with a respectable record of 32-39-11, for fifth place in the division, ahead of Detroit, Ottawa and Montreal, respectively.
Who Are The Lightning’s Toughest Divisional Opponents?
After evaluating the seven opponents in Tampa’s division, the cream of the crop are Toronto and Florida, with their goalscoring at 5v5, power-play effectiveness and a rabid fanbase, they should play the Lightning tough this upcoming season. Either of these teams could compete with the Lightning for the top spot in the division. As previously mentioned, though, Ottawa, Buffalo and Montreal should be much improved. There are definitely no automatic wins in the Atlantic Division.
Lydia Szyjka is a freelance writer for The Hockey Writers. Growing up in Tampa, she graduated from H.B. Plant High School—never dreaming her Tampa Bay Lightning would win three Stanley Cups. She is director of communications for a Catholic university, where she is the editor of the alumni magazine. An avid hockey fan, she and her husband live in Delaware with their two cats.