Maple Leafs Commentary: Atlantic Division, Stronger Than Ever

The Toronto Maple Leafs will play the coming season in a stronger Atlantic Division. The Division has become even stronger as a result of the 2022 NHL Entry Draft and the variety of signings and trades that have happened since the beginning of free agency.

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While the action seems far from over and the training camps have not yet begun, it seems certain that the top teams are being pulled closer to the middle teams. And, the bottom teams are pulling themselves up closer to the rest of the Division. All in all, the pathway has become tougher than ever.

Related: Maple Leafs Look to Have a Tough 2021-22 Atlantic Division Season

In part, that’s the way it’s supposed to work. However, if you’re a Maple Leafs’ fan, you hope your own team will be strong enough to stay atop the rest of the teams in their fight for the playoffs. In this post, I’ll comment on what’s happened in the Atlantic Division to both the top teams and the teams further down in the standings.

Item One: Maple Leafs Not Alone in Losing Good Players to Cap

In the aftermath of the 2022 NHL Entry Draft and the first days of the free agency, one thing looks certain. The Atlantic Division is improving from top to bottom. What space there was between the Division’s top teams and its bottom teams is narrowing. 

Auston Matthews Toronto Maple Leafs
Auston Matthews led the Toronto Maple Leafs to a great season in 2021-22.
(Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Some Maple Leafs’ fans seem to think that their team is the only NHL team that’s suffering from the static (more or less) salary cap. But that isn’t accurate. The top Atlantic Division teams have all had significant losses in free agency. 

Logically, that’s the plight of a strong team. Strong teams get that way because their players perform well. Every highly-successful team has stars and then – just under these stars – a group of really good players who rise their level of play. Many start off being paid poorly but raise their games so much that they price themselves out of their team’s ability to re-sign them. They move on.

Related: Walt Poddubny: Rangers’ Brief and Tragic Star

Last year with the Maple Leafs, it was Zach Hyman. This year it was Ilya Mikheyev and Jack Campbell. When each of these players originally came to the team, their stock was much lower than it ended up being. Each player performed well and was then paid in measure. However, given the static nature of the salary cap, their market value was higher than their team could compensate. 

Jack Campbell Toronto Maple Leafs
Jack Campbell played himself out of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ pay scale.
(Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

For example, the Florida Panthers traded away Jonathan Huberdeau and defenseman MacKenzie Weegar to Calgary for Matthew Tkachuk. However, before that trade, they also lost two strong forwards in Claude Giroux and Mason Marchment. Forward Ondrej Palat moved on from the Tampa Bay Lightning. And, who knows what will happen with the Boston Bruins? Something has to give with that team’s aging stars.

Item Two: Atlantic Division Lower Teams on the Rise

At the same time that the Atlantic Division’s top teams are losing good players, the bottom teams are beginning to add better players to their rosters. As is the plan through the NHL Entry Draft, many of these players are young and were high draft picks. However, some of these players are veterans the lower teams can afford because they have salary-cap space provided because their good young players are signed to ELC (entry-level contracts).

Related: Senators Could Be Cup Contenders in 3 Seasons

One team that really seems to be rising is the Ottawa Senators. The Senators pulled a coup by signing Claude Giroux. For Giroux, it’s like going home. He grew up in the Ottawa area. But the Senators also added the diminutive goal-scorer Alex DeBrincat from the Chicago Blackhawks. DeBrincat scored 41 goals with the Blackhawks on a less-than-great team. He’ll help.

The Senators moved out goalie Matt Murray (to the Maple Leafs of course) and brought in Cam Talbot who was last with the Minnesota Wild. These new players will be added to a strong core of young stars like Brady Tkachuk, Josh Norris, and Tim Stützle.

Brady Tkachuk Ottawa Senators
Brady Tkachuk, Ottawa Senators (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Buffalo Sabres will have a stronger defense with first-overall 2021 draft pick Owen Power playing. The Sabres also have 6-foot-7 Tage Thompson, who scored 38 goals last season. As well, they recently added ex-Maple Leaf defenseman Ilya Lyubushkin.

The Detriot Red Wings have Calder Trophy winner Moritz Seider on defence and youngster Lucas Raymond (with 23 goals last season). But they’ve also added two veterans as well in Andrew Copp (21 goals last year) and David Perron (27 goals) in free agency. In addition, defenseman Ben Chiarot also signed on for the season. Finally, the Red Wings bet on young goalie Ville Husso, whose rights they got in a trade from the St. Louis Blues.

The Montreal Canadiens might be at least one season away from being really competitive, However, they did choose first in the NHL Entry draft and picked up Juraj Slafkovský with their number-one pick. He’ll join youngsters Nick Suzuki, Cole Caufield, the tough-as-nails Josh Anderson, and the newly-acquired Kirby Dach from the Blackhawks. 

What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?

The Maple Leafs have to play in this Division. The task promises to be even more challenging than it was last season. How will the team do?

Related: Maple Leafs Re-Signing Giordano Sends Messages to Team & League

As Maple Leafs’ defenseman Mark Giordano noted, “I think you’ve got to wait to see how it all plays out, through camp and through the start of the season, but you know it’s going to be super-competitive.” However, from Giordano’s perspective, “There are no easy games, ever.” (from “For the Maple Leafs, a deeper Atlantic raises the stakes,” Kevin McGran, Toronto Star, 23/07/2022).