Two days ago, I looked towards next season’s Toronto Maple Leafs’ match-ups to consider the schedule the team would face as it returned to a pre-COVID-19 division play. I couldn’t help but think that the Atlantic Division was likely to be a strong test for the Maple Leafs as a team.
In this post, I’m collaborating with THW reader and long-time Maple Leafs’ fan Stan Smith to preview next season’s Atlantic Division teams. Our preview suggests the difficult path the Maple Leafs’ might have to the 2021-22 postseason playoffs. But that’s also true for any of the Atlantic Division teams. Making the playoffs might be tough.
Thinking about the current 2020-21 season, the Maple Leafs and the Montreal Canadiens made the playoffs. Among US-based teams, the Boston Bruins, Tampa Bay Lightning, and Florida Panthers also made the playoffs. Next season, based upon 2020-21, the Ottawa Senators should also be a rising team. In short, the Maple Leafs’ goal of a Stanley Cup will again be difficult.
An Atlantic Division Overview
From our perspective, the Atlantic Division can be broken into four tiers of teams.
The top tier includes the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Florida Panthers, and the Maple Leafs. Both these Florida-based teams are talented, well-coached, and well-managed. Also, in a league where the great equalizer is the salary cap, the Florida teams have a $13 million after-tax advantage over the rest of the teams in the divisions.
That is, the unique tax situation in Florida gives those teams an advantage when they are signing players. Specifically, using the Gavin Group NHL Tax calculator, Steven Stamkos $8.5 million contract in Florida nets him more after-tax money than John Tavares $11 million contract in Toronto. It means the Florida teams can sign more and better players with less of a salary-cap hit. Barring unforeseen serious injuries, these two teams should have no trouble making the Stanley Cup playoffs.
We also placed the Maple Leafs into the top tier of the Atlantic Division. It’s tough for any hockey fan not to appreciate the firepower the team has in strong young players like Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander. Tavares remains productive as well.
The second tier includes the Boston Bruins and the Montreal Canadiens. The Bruins have a strong but aging team. Two players on the Perfection Line are in their mid-thirties. Plus, second-line center David Krejci is 35 years old and an unrestricted free agent. The Bruins have made personnel changes and will make more. They’re likely a team that will slip in the standings. As this season’s playoffs have shown, the Canadiens have a strong group of young players who are likely on the way up. This young group should develop further next season.
The third tier includes the Senators and the Detroit Red Wings. The Senators play hard and finished the season well. They have great young talent and a good coach in D.J. Smith. They’re rebuilding but rising. The Red Wings are also rebuilding; as well, they’re guided by Steve Yzerman, who’s a sharp hockey thinker. Yzerman was a main architect of Tampa Bay’s emergence and he’s at it again.
In the fourth tier at the bottom of the division are the Buffalo Sabres. The Sabres seem to be in trouble, and it would be a shock to see them succeed during the 2021-22 season.
A Team-by-Team Prediction for the Atlantic Division
First Place: Tampa Bay Lightning
The Lightning are a powerhouse. The team has multi-talented forwards who have learned by experience how to win; they have perhaps the best defenseman in the NHL in Victor Hedman; and, they might also have the NHL’s best goalie in Andrei Vasilevski. However, the Lightning – similar to the Maple Leafs – have salary-cap issues. Currently, Capfriendly lists the team at $5 million over the cap for next season. Players will be leaving.
Second Place: Florida Panthers
The Panthers are on the way up. Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov are getting better and the team has $8 million in salary-cap space. They have holes to fill but seem to make good signings – such as Anthony Duclair and Sam Bennett played well at the end of the season.
Third Place: Toronto Maple Leafs
Again, a team with the maturing Maple Leafs’ firepower can’t be counted out. Can goalie Jack Campbell continue his solid play? Can the overall team defense continue to improve? There are questions, but there might also be answers.
Fourth Place: Boston Bruins
The Bruins are a team in transition. They have good but aging players, and the team also has $27 million in salary-cap space. That will allow them to sign a high-priced player or two. However, the Tuukka Rask era is likely over. He’s on an expiring contract and at 34-years-old it’s difficult to know what might happen to him.
Fifth Place: Montreal Canadiens
The Canadiens are set in net with the great Carey Price and Jake Allen. They have a strong defense, led by Shea Weber. Plus the team has $12 million in salary-cap space. The Canadiens have a nice mix of experienced and young talent returning on the forward lines. Brendan Gallagher simply has a will to win, and I once heard him described once as built like a VW Beetle who plays like a Humvee.
Sixth Place: Ottawa Senators
The Senators have over $28 million in salary-cap space remaining, but will Eugene Melnyk spend it? The team has a young core of talented players such as Brady Tkachuk and Connor Brown who are emerging as solid players. The biggest Senators’ question mark is in goal. Matt Murray didn’t play well this season and then was injured. A parade of young goalies played their NHL debuts last season; and, if one of those goalies could emerge as a strong starter, the team could move even more quickly up the Atlantic Division ladder.
Seventh Place: Detroit Red Wings
General manager Yzerman just keeps adding draft capital and likely will continue to be busy at the NHL draft. The Red Wings only have 10 players currently signed and almost $50 million in salary-cap space. Yzerman is – except for adding key young players like Robby Fabbri and Adam Erne – working to create a blank canvas. He has a plan and will likely work it to perfection.
Eighth Place: Buffalo Sabres
Right now, the Sabres seem to be a bit of a mess. They have the first-overall draft pick and will probably choose the University of Michigan’s defenseman Owen Power from nearby Mississauga, Ontario, which is not much further away from Buffalo as it is from Toronto. The Sabres also need to solve the Jack Eichel issue. During the mid-1970s I rooted for the Sabres’ French Connection line of center Gilbert Perreault, Rick Martin, and Rene Robert, so it’s sad for me to see the Sabres not play well.
Our Final Assessment
Our final assessment is that the Maple Leafs will likely battle both Florida teams for top spot in the Atlantic Division. However, they’ll likely settle into third place just in front of the Bruins and the Canadiens.
Although one never knows, we don’t see the Senators or the Red Wings quite ready to challenge for a playoff spot. As for the Sabres, it will be good to play in front of fans in the stands again.