NHL Atlantic Division Trends: Who’s Up & Who’s Down?

“The 2017-18 NHL season will commence in less than eleven weeks,” he repeated to himself while hyperventilating into a paper bag….

We’re officially in the “Hockey Dead Zone,” several weeks into free agency and still months away from training camp. Though that may seem like a lifetime away as the summertime thermometer continues to climb, the fact remains that NHL hockey (just like Christmastime) will be here before we know it.

The 2016-17 season featured some surprises within the Atlantic Division. The reigning division champion Florida Panthers missed the playoffs outright, as did the playoff-mainstay Tampa Bay Lightning. The Ottawa Senators rode Erik Karlsson, system play and a strong ensemble cast to within one win of the Stanley Cup Final. The Detroit Red Wings missed the playoffs for the first time in 25 years, while the Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs both ended multi-year droughts.

Though the lion’s share of notable unrestricted free agents have landed, several veterans of note remain unsigned. As such, their inclusion on most Atlantic Division teams between now and October 4 could very well tip the scales in their new team’s favor.

Jaromir Jagr and Thomas Vanek have lengthy histories in the division; either or both could land with a division club looking for secondary scoring. Andrei Markov has played all 990 games of his NHL career with Montreal and to this point remains unsigned. His reported contract demands may very well price him out of Montreal and could even land him in Toronto.

Will Jaromir Jagr sign within the division?(Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports)

The Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens have both been continuously mentioned as teams attempting to pry Matt Duchene from Colorado; perhaps one or the other could dislodge him from Joe Sakic’s kung-fu grip.

Though some roster uncertainty remains, it’s not entirely too early to peek at the new pecking order in the division.

So which teams are trending in the right direction? Who is treading water? Who is heading in the wrong direction?

In alphabetical order…..

Boston Bruins: Up/Even

Key Additions: Kenny Agostino, Paul Postma

Key Losses: Dominic Moore, Colin Miller, Drew Stafford, John-Michael Liles, Joe Morrow

To this point, the Boston Bruins have laid low in free agency. Kenny Agostino was signed with the hope of him being this year’s version of Jonathan Marchessault; a low-cost/high-reward middle six forward. After going 10 defensemen-deep in their first round loss to Ottawa, Paul Postma was brought over from Winnipeg as a quality depth option with NHL experience.

Kenny Agostino (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Speaking of depth defensemen, JM Liles and Joe Morrow are no longer with the club. Joining them at Logan Airport were fourth-line stalwart Dominic Moore and deadline acquisition Drew Stafford. Stafford has expressed keen interest in returning for next season, but the team is in a bit of a holding pattern with restricted free agents David Pastrnak and Ryan Spooner still unsigned.

The loss of Colin Miller to the Vegas Golden Knights via expansion draft was a bitter pill to swallow, and possibly the team’s most significant subtraction.

Colin Miller, Boston Bruins, Fantasy Hockey
Colin Miller loss a tough one for Bruins (Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports)

On the surface, it would seem that Boston has lost more than they’ve gained to this point. The team’s biggest gains, however, stem from players already in the system. The ascension and continued maturation of Boston’s enviable crop of young talent are the biggest reasons for optimism for the upcoming season.

Youth on Tap

Charlie McAvoy and Brandon Carlo are the future, as well as the present on defense. Still just 19 and 20 years old (respectively), the duo showed in the regular season (Carlo) as well as the playoffs (McAvoy) that they can already handle top-pairing duties and minutes; no small feat for defensemen who still can’t buy their own beer.

Big expectations on tap for Charlie McAvoy (Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports)

Anders Bjork, Jacob Forsbacka-Karlsson, Danton Heinen and Jake DeBrusk lead an impressive cadre of young forwards looking to seize several available roster spots.

Combine that young talent with elite players such as Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak. Mix in the criminally-underappreciated Tuukka Rask, two-way stud Torey Krug as well as still-steady veterans like Zdeno Chara, David Krejci and David Backes and you have the modern-NHL’s recipe for success.

Playoff Berth?

I see the Bruins returning to the playoffs this upcoming season. The team can easily absorb their most recent personnel departures from within, and possess a terrific blend of youthful and veteran talent.

(Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports)

There are still several question marks which could put a dent in their playoff chances, however. Backup goaltending and an under-performing middle six haunted the club for long stretches last season. Should Anton Khudobin falter and their young guns prove not quite ready for primetime be prepared for last’s season’s narratives to carry over into the upcoming year, with Boston once again a team on the fringe of a playoff spot.

Buffalo Sabres: Up

Key Additions: Marco Scandella, Nathan Beaulieu, Jason Pominville, Benoit Pouliot, Chad Johnson

Key Losses: William Carrier, Tyler Ennis, Marcus Foligno, Dmitry Kulikov, Cody Franson(?), Brian Gionta(?)

After missing the playoffs for the sixth consecutive season, the Buffalo Sabres have undergone major reconstruction.

General Manager Terry Murray and coach Dan Bylsma have been replaced by Jason Botterill and Phil Housley, respectively. Longtime Sabres Tyler Ennis and Marcus Foligno were shipped to Minnesota for Marco Scandella and former Buffalo captain Jason Pominville.

Nathan Beaulieu was pilfered from Montreal to replace the disappointing Dmitry Kulikov. Benoit Pouliot was signed on the cheap to address forward depth, while former Sabres goaltender Chad Johnson was brought back into the fold.

Buffalo’s new bench boss Phil Housley (Bruce Fedyck-USA TODAY Sports)

Though either could ostensibly return to Buffalo, it is believed that Cody Franson and Brian Gionta are headed elsewhere.

I love what Buffalo has done this offseason. The additions of Scandella and Beaulieu will go a long way toward solidifying a blue line that had previously featured young-star Rasmus Ristolainen and not much else. Pominville may be on the back-nine of his career and at this point a touch overpaid. However, the guy can still play, as evidenced by his 47 points last season; he and Pouliot are upgrades from Ennis and Foligno.

Signing one of the league’s best backups in Chad Johnson to support the mercurial Robin Lehner is a solid move. Moreover, letting Kulikov sign his absurd deal in Winnipeg is addition by subtraction.

Support for the Core

Jack Eichel and Ryan O’Reilly give the Sabres an excellent one-two punch down the middle. Eichel is a star in the making, while O’Reilly can handle the more difficult assignments and matchups. Ristolainen, as previously mentioned, is a legitimate number-one defenseman and still just 22 years old. Finding consistent support for these players has, to this point, been an exercise in futility.

Jack Eichel, Kyle Okposo, Sam Reinhart and Matt Moulson (Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports)

When Kyle Okposo is on the ice he’s a difference-maker. Unfortunately, he has a propensity to spend time on injured reserve. He missed 17 games last season, and 22 games two seasons prior with the New York Islanders. Should he stay healthy (as he did during his 64-point performance in his contract year) he’ll represent a boon to Buffalo’s top six. Should Evander Kane stay out of trouble the same goes for him.

Sam Reinhart’s continued development is of massive importance. The second overall pick in the 2014 NHL Draft looked like a great fit down the stretch on Jack Eichel’s right wing, and the duo could give opponents nightmares for years to come.

The talent level in Buffalo drops off rather precipitously farther down the depth chart, however. As currently constructed, they have the look of a club able to match-up against another team’s best players, only to to be bested in bottom six battles.

Playoff Berth?

Jason Botterill
Buffalo Sabres General Manager Jason Botterill (Bill Wippert/Buffalo Sabres)

Not yet. The train is moving in the right direction, but there’s still a significant amount of ground to be covered.

A change at the top and behind the bench was sorely needed. However, Botterill is a first-time GM, while Housley is a first-time NHL head

coach. Promising though they may be, the jury is still very much out on their effectiveness and aptitude.

The team’s bottom six depth as well as the lack of stellar goaltending are still serious issues for the Sabres. The loss of goalie prospect Cal Petersen to the Los Angeles Kings also left a sizable dent in the team’s future stability at the position.

However,  the prospect pool is well-stocked elsewhere. Alexander Nylander, Rasmus Asplund and Nick Baptiste will look to transform and elevate Buffalo’s bottom six. Casey Middlestadt and Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen are still a few years away, but have the look of future impact NHLers.

The future is bright in Buffalo, but that light at the end of the tunnel is still very much in the distance.

Detroit Red Wings: Down

Key Additions: Trevor Daley, Luke Witkowski

Key Losses: Tomas Nosek, Drew Miller(?)

The good news is that the Detroit Red Wings don’t stand to lose much talent from last year’s squad.

The bad news? Not much has been done to augment a team that finished 2016-17 with the third-worst record in the Eastern Conference.

Trevor Daley and Luke Witkowski were signed to supplement an underwhelming crop of defensemen. Daley will be 34 years old during the season’s first week of games, and his three-year, $9.5 million contract is a gross overpay considering the trajectory of the franchise. He slots into the lineup alongside Mike Green, Niklas Kronwall, Danny DeKeyser, Xavier Ouellet and Jonathan Ericsson; one of the weaker corps of blue-liners in the NHL.

Trevor Daley
Trevor Daley? Now? Why?(Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

Even more concerning for the Red Wings is the revolving door between the pipes. None of Jimmy Howard, Petr Mrazek or Jared Coreau were able to firmly seize starting duties in net. Howard came the closest of the three, but his $5.3 million cap hit for two more seasons is both exorbitant and virtually unmovable.

What’s The Plan in Motown?

It’s hard to tell exactly what the plan is for this and subsequent seasons in Detroit. They don’t have the look of a playoff team but GM Ken Holland appears reticent to go into a full rebuild.

Dylan Larkin, Anthony Mantha and current RFA Andreas Athanasiou all look to have promising careers as impactful NHL forwards; Evgeny Svechnikov and Tyler Bertuzzi will look to join them in that category this season. Michael Rasmussen, Dennis Cholowski, Filip Hronek and Keith Petruzelli form a solid core of prospects, but are still a year or more away.

Dylan Larkin
Dylan Larkin, a rare bright spot in Detroit(Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The main issues lie with Detroit’s age and the dollars allotted to past-their-prime or middle-of-the-road talent. A team with as many holes and question marks as Detroit should not be this close to the salary cap. In fact, until Johan Franzen is placed on LTIR the team is actually OVER the cap, with Andreas Athanasiou still unsigned.

Justin Abdelkader, Darren Helm, Luke Glendening and Riley Sheahan combined for nearly $12 million toward Detroit’s cap; the four forwards combined for just 20 goals last season. What’s worse is that Abdelkader, Helm and Glendening are all locked into their current deals for at least the next four seasons. Detroit’s aforementioned, underwhelming blue-liners? The top six are set to earn more than $25 million.

Justin Abdelkader (Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports)

Frans Nielsen’s 41-point campaign was not what Detroit had in mind when inking him to a six-year, $31.5 million deal. Stephen Weiss, the player Nielsen was effectively signed to replace, is out of hockey. His contract, however, is not. The buyout of Weiss’s contract will account for more than $2.5 million toward the cap this season, and an additional $1.667 million for three subsequent years.

Playoff Berth?

Not a chance. As currently constructed, I believe Detroit finishes the 2017-18 season at the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings.

Ken Holland has had an incredible 20-year run as General Manager, and as such deserves the opportunity to finagle his team out of purgatory. Doing so, however, will be much more easily said than done.

Michael Rasmussen
Michael Rasmussen (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Mike Green and Riley Sheahan represent the best players on expiring deals that Holland can try to flip at the deadline. Players like Abdelkader, Helm, Ericsson and Kronwall are virtually unmovable with their price-to-performance ratios.

After 25 consecutive playoff appearances, the new best thing for the organization would be a string of playoff absences. Young talent and lots of it are the only path through which Detroit escapes their current situation. Sell, tank, draft, repeat.

Florida Panthers: Down/Even

Key Additions: Radim Vrbata, Evgeny Dadonov, Michael Haley

Key Losses: Jaromir Jagr, Jonathan Marchessault, Reilly Smith, Jussi Jokinen, Shawn Thornton

If you can figure out Florida’s plan moving forward than you’re officially smarter than I am.

The franchise’s second-ever division title gave way to a surprising overhaul heading into the 2016-17 season. The results were severely lacking.

(Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports)

A slow start and philosophical differences with management spelled doom for head coach Gerard Gallant, who was replaced by former GM Tom Rowe in late November; the team never fully rebounded.

Injuries to Alexander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau and Nick Bjugstad certainly played a large role in last year’s regression. However, the team played .500 hockey even when the three were in the lineup.

Now, the team finds itself minus considerable scoring power. Jagr, Marchessault, Smith and Jokinen combined for 72 goals and 162 points last season; all are gone. The same goes for Thomas Vanek, acquired at last year’s trade deadline.

Jonathan Marchessault (Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports)

Vrbata and Dadonov will help the Panthers absorb some of the departed scoring. First-round pick Owen Tippett will also be given a chance to make the leap into Florida’s top nine. However, the club has lost far more than they’ve been able to replace.

Leadership Void?

Bob Boughner will assume head coaching duties for the first time in his career, following an assistant coaching gig with the San Jose Sharks. When the puck drops on opening night he will be Florida’s third head coach in a span of 83 games.

He is a former CHL Coach of the Year award winner, and led the Windsor Spitfires to a Memorial Cup title in 2009. Whether or not the former NHL-tough guy can replicate that success in the NHL remains to be seen.

New bench boss Bob Boughner (Aaron Bell/CHL Images)

The revolving-door of executive roles and titles in South Beach is morbidly fascinating. Tom Rowe and Dale Tallon have a “Tag, you’re it” relationship, with each taking turns as General Manager and special advisor to the team. In one year, Rowe went from assistant GM to supplanting Tallon as GM, to firing and personally replacing the team’s coach to then being demoted back to “special advisor.” That is completely nuts and is absolutely no way to run a professional sports franchise.

There’s even likely to be a void in the locker room amongst the players. Between Jagr, Jokinen and Shawn Thornton there’s a whole bunch of leadership and experience no longer with the club. Who steps up to fill the void on a young team?

Playoff Berth?


Any team that employs Alexander Barkov, Aaron Ekblad, Jonathan Huberdeau, Nick Bjugstad, Keith Yandle and Vincent Trochek are a threat to win every night. That’s a ton of talent, and better yet it’s young talent.

However, this is still an organization that has just five playoff appearances in their 25-year history. With so many moving parts both on and above the ice it’s difficult to tell which direction the organization intends on traveling, and more importantly, who is on board.

There’s enough talent here to clinch a playoff spot. My gut tells me it won’t happen.

Montreal Canadiens: Down

Key Additions: Jonathan Drouin, Karl Alzner, David Schlemko, Ales Hemsky

Key Losses: Alexander Radulov, Andrei Markov(?), Nathan Beaulieu, Alexei Emelin, Mikhail Sergachev

We’ve seen quite a bit of turnover in Montreal in the last year or so. First there was the Subban-Weber blockbuster. Then, Michel Therrien was replaced midseason by former Bruins (and Canadiens) coach Claude Julien.

A division title was quickly erased by a first round playoff exit at the hands of the New York Rangers. And to this point in the offseason there’s been considerable roster turnover.

Francophone-star Jonathan Drouin was added for the cost of Montreal’s top prospect to provide scoring punch to a listless lineup. The unit was bolstered for mere days before second-leading scorer Alex Radulov took his talents to Dallas.

Nathan Beaulieu and Alexei Emelin are adequately replaced by Karl Alzner and David Schlemko, but it now appears that Andrei Markov and his roughly 1,000 games in the “Bleu, Blanc et Rouge” may be moving on as well.

Jonathan Drouin
Jonathan Drouin (Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

The Canadiens are seemingly taking as many steps backward as forward.

Alex Galchenyuk is back in the fold for another three seasons, but theirs is a marriage that has been on the rocks for some time. Galchenyuk has yet to prove himself capable of centering a team’s top line, and the team’s displeasure has become public, as it often does in Montreal.

Had Radulov signed in Montreal it’s likely Galchenyuk would already be elsewhere. However, there is still plenty of time for another roster shakeup in Quebec, as the Matt Duchene rumors just will not go away.

Scoring by Committee

If Montreal has any hope of retaining their division crown they will need bounce back campaigns from several key veterans as well as continued development from multiple promising depth pieces.

Both Tomas Plekanec and Brendan Gallagher fell well-short of expectations last season. Plekanec and his turtlenecks looked every day of their 35 years, as his scoring totals dropped from 54 points to just 28 last season. The diminutive-yet-feisty Gallagher missed significant time for the second-consecutive year, and registered just 29 points over 64 games.

The hope in Montreal is that age (Plekanec) and size/style (Gallagher) will not prevent the duo from a more impactful 2017-18 campaign.

Tomas Plekanec (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Paul Byron, Arturri Lehkonen and Phillipe Danault all met or exceeded expectations last season, and will be counted on to keep the ball rolling. Byron eclipsed 20 goals for the first time in his career, Lehkonen potted 18 goals as a 21-year old rookie and Danault recorded 40 points in his first full NHL season.

With just one player on the roster coming within 15 goals of Max Pacioretty’s team-leading 35, it’s clear more scoring punch is needed moving forward. Drouin will go a long way toward making that a reality. However, it’s the aforementioned forwards as well as Andrew Shaw and Ales Hemsky who must provide regular supplementary scoring to help this team reach its potential.

Playoff Berth?

Barring another significant injury to Carey Price I have a hard time seeing Les Habitants missing the playoffs. I think that Carey Price could probably take a QMJHL team into the postseason. I do, however, have a hard time seeing them finish atop the division for a second-consecutive year.

Carey Price (Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports)

The wild card in all of this is Andrei Markov:

Markov is not your average 38-year-old, as anyone who watched him shirtless in the Twitter videos can attest. Last season, Markov ranked third on the Canadiens in average ice time per game at 21:50, while posting 6-30-36 totals and a plus-18 rating in 62 games.

-Stu Cowan, (Montreal Gazette,) July 14, 2017

He registered 44 points the previous year, and 50 the year before that, proving the Russian still possesses plenty of game in his advancing age.

Will Markov return? (Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports)

Markov has made it clear that staying in Montreal is his ideal scenario. Despite having roughly $9 million in cap space, GM Marc Bergevin appears hesitant to spend the lion’s share of available funds on the rearguard. Should he depart, a blue line with questionable depth (especially in the wake of Sergachev’s trade) will get even thinner.


Ottawa Senators: Down

Key Additions: Nate Thompson

Key Losses: Marc Methot, Chris Neil, Chris Kelly, Jyrki Jokipakka, Viktor Stalberg

Ottawa’s downward trajectory is easily explained: It’s pretty much the only direction in which they can go.

After a magical run which saw the Senators come within one goal of a Stanley Cup Finals berth, the team seems primed for a bit of a regression. They’ve missed the playoffs in four of the past nine seasons, and have only clinched consecutive berths once in that span (2011-12, 2012-13).

That’s not to say the franchise isn’t in good shape: Erik Karlsson is the best defenseman in the league; a legitimate game changer. Guy Boucher’s one-three-one trap and counter-attacking system is perfect for Ottawa’s ensemble cast of players.

Norris Finalists, Ottawa Senators, Erik Karlsson
Erik Karlsson (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Ottawa is bereft of much elite talent outside of Karlsson, but will return 10 players who recorded 25 points or more last season. Depth, particularly at forward, is the name of the game in Ottawa.

On defense, the absence of Marc Methot will be felt immediately, and consistently.

Though he might not be considered a top pairing defenseman on his own volition, he was a perfect sidekick to Karlsson. The grizzled, stay-at-home veteran served as an excellent safety net during the shifts when Karlsson was tasked with….doing Erik Karlsson things.

The most curious part of the Methot saga was GM Pierre Dorion’s admission that, despite having offers on the table for the rearguard, he couldn’t bring himself to trade the affable Ottawa native:

On the one hand, every player in the NHL should be so lucky to play for a GM like Dorion. On the other, it’s his job to ice the best team possible, and to maximize returns on all players. In this instance, he likely missed out on a second-round draft pick because he liked Methot too much; that’s not good asset management.

Who Steps Up?

The loss of Methot stings the Senators in several ways. For starters, there’s his talent and effectiveness as Karlsson’s sidekick; no team can absorb the loss of a top four defenseman without breaking stride.

Marc Methot  (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

It also throws Ottawa’s pairings a bit out of whack, and will likely push a young defender into the fire a bit earlier than the team would prefer. Fredrik Claesson has 49 games of NHL experience, plus 14 playoff games last spring. It’s likely too early to count on him to play in a top four role.

The same goes for 2015 first-round pick Thomas Chabot. He certainly has the look of a future top four or even top pairing defender, but making that jump this year is a lot to ask of a 20 year old with one game of NHL experience.

As such, Dion Phaneuf and Mark Borowiecki are the likeliest candidates to replace Methot alongside Karlsson. Phaneuf is vastly more talented than Borowiecki, but he and Cody Ceci were so solid on the team’s second-pairing that Guy Boucher may be hesitant to break up the duo.

NOTE: Johnny Oduya has been signed to a one-year, $1 million deal, bolstering the unit.

Playoff Berth?

I certainly expect Ottawa to be in the thick of it come next season’s playoff push. Whether or not they clinch a spot is dependent on several factors.

How do they handle the letdown of coming so close to playing for the Stanley Cup? The “hangover” one hears about has just as much to do with the psychological side of things as it does the physical rigors of playing more games than the vast majority of the league.

Craig Anderson and Erik Karlsson (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

Since 2007, four of the Eastern Conference runner-ups have missed the playoffs entirely the following season. Between Nicole Anderson’s courageous battle with cancer galvanizing her husband, Erik Karlsson’s dominance, Bobby Ryan and Jean-Gabriel Pageau alternating turns as hero and the plucky, never-say-die Senators refusing to bow to any “superior” opponents…..last season’s squad had the feel of a “team of destiny.” And then they were eliminated in Game Seven of the ECF.

Can the 2017-18 squad shake off their heartbreak and start anew? Can someone fill Marc Methot’s role alongside Karlsson? Will Thomas Chabot or Fredrik Claesson be able to fill the void created by Phaneuf or Borowiecki’s promotion? Will the NHL solve Guy Boucher’s trap?

One thing is for certain: No team that employs Erik Karlsson can be counted out.

Tampa Bay Lightning: Up

Key Additions: Chris Kunitz, Dan Girardi, Mikhail Sergachev

Key Losses: Jonathan Drouin, Jason Garrison, Luke Witkowski

Facing yet another cap crunch, GM Steve Yzerman once again became “Stevie Wonder,” in flipping Jonathan Drouin for promising defenseman Mikhail Sergachev. With an ailing blue line and a surplus of talented young forwards, Yzerman dipped into a strength to find a long-term solution at a perceived weakness.

Should Sergachev require more seasoning and fail to play 40 games this upcoming season the Lightning will receive a second-round pick from Montreal as well; Yzerman seems to pull off something of this magnitude every season.

Mikhail Sergachev (Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports)

The biggest reason for Tampa Bay’s upward trajectory? They’re finally healthy, and too good to not rebound.

Remember Steven Stamkos? Well, he’s back after playing just 17 games last season. The same goes for two-way stalwart Ryan Callahan, who played in just 18 games last year.

The 2016-17 Lightning missed the playoffs by just one point. Both Stamkos and Callahan were on the shelf, and the team had unloaded Ben Bishop, Valtteri Filppula, Brian Boyle and Nikita Nesterov at the trade deadline six weeks prior. When all is said and done I wouldn’t be surprised if Tampa Bay finishes the regular season as the Eastern Conference’s most improved team.

Veterans Chris Kunitz and Dan Girardi were brought in to provide depth and big-game experience. Kunitz has three Cups while Girardi has played in 122 playoff games.

Photo: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

While one could certainly grumble or raise their eyebrows at Girardi’s price tag, the hope is that he can bring a steady presence to Tampa Bay’s bottom pairing and penalty kill. Essentially, to replace Jason Garrison and nothing more.

Defending the Defense

Tampa Bay is loaded up front; there’s no denying that. They’re solid in net as well, with Andrei Vasilevsky and Peter Budaj forming a reliable one-two punch. If there’s an area that could sink this team or at least hold them back it’s their blue line.

Victor Hedman is a bona fide stud. The mammoth Swede excels at both ends of the ice, as evidenced by his 72 points and Norris Trophy nomination last season. Beyond Hedman, there are question marks.

Both Anton Stralman and Andrej Sustr regressed a bit during the 2016-17 campaign. Sustr is still 26 years old, and will likely rebound on a resurgent Lightning squad. Stralman has been a major boon to Tampa’s blue line since coming over from the Rangers, and it would be easy to write off last year’s numbers and play as a mere aberration.

Evgeni Malkin
Anton Stralman (Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

However, he will be 31 years old when the regular season commences. He’s still the team’s best option to play alongside Hedman on the top pairing, but should his play continue to slide with age even more responsibility will fall on Hedman’s shoulders.

Slater Koekkoek, Jake Dotchin and Mikhail Sergachev are all promising, yet largely untested options; the trio have just 80 games of NHL experience between them. All we be counted on to take the next step in their developments and play regular minutes at the NHL level.

Braydon Coburn and Dan Girardi are bottom pairing defensemen at this stage of their careers; asking either to play higher in the lineup would be unwise.

Tampa Bay does not have a “bad” defense, per se. It’s just merely not on par with the team’s other position groups. If the team has a weakness (other than Stamkos’ right leg) it’s here.

Playoff Berth?

Absolutely. As I mentioned earlier, despite injuries to key players and hosting a fire sale at the deadline this team finished just one point out of a playoff spot last season. Having Stamkos rejoin newly-minted 40-goal scorer Nikita Kucherov, Ondej Palat and Tyler Johnson in the top six is scary. Callahan joins Brayden Point, Alex Killorn and the newly-signed Chirs Kunitz in the middle of an exceptionally deep corps of forwards.

Steven Stamkos
Steven Stamos (Photo By: Andy Martin Jr)

In net, Andrei Vasilevski is good enough to have wrestled starting duties away from the departed Ben Bishop. Backing him up is Peter Budaj, who singlehandedly kept the Kings in the playoff hunt last season during Jon Quick’s 60 game absence.

Question marks surround the team’s second-pairing on defense, but the rest of the lineup is dangerous enough to keep Tampa Bay well within the playoff picture. With over $3 million in space toward the cap going into next season, it’s an area Steve Yzerman can address at the trade deadline with his usual magic.

Should Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman stay healthy, Tampa Bay will win the Atlantic Division. Mark it down.

Toronto Maple Leafs: Up

Key Additions: Patrick Marleau, Ron Hainsey, Dominic Moore

Key Losses: Matt Hunwick, Roman Polak, Brian Boyle, Brendan Leipsic

Sophomore jinx? Not a chance.

Typically, I wouldn’t be quite so bullish on a team this young that “arrived” earlier than expected. Recently, we’ve seen similarly constructed teams fall flat on their faces one year after a surprising playoff berth. Last year it was the Florida Panthers. The year before it was the Calgary Flames. The Colorado Avalanche held the dubious distinction the year before that.

This year’s Maple Leafs? They’re simply too talented to buckle under the lofty expectations. And they’ve added even more talent in the form of reliable greybeards.

Patrick Marleau brings his age-defying skating and 500-plus career goals to Toronto, where he’ll seemingly gel beautifully with Toronto’s stable of electric young forwards.

Patrick Marleau, San Jose Sharks, NHL
(Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports)

Ron Hainsey, fresh off a Stanley Cup Championship helps to solidify the blue line and make up for the losses of Matt Hunwick and Roman Polak. Dominic Moore brings veteran savvy and stellar defensive play to Toronto’s fourth line and penalty kill. All three can be counted on to bring invaluable leadership to one of the league’s youngest teams.

As for the kids, they were all 100% as good as advertised. Auston Matthews recorded 40 goals as an 18-year old rookie. William Nylander and Mitch Marner each eclipsed 60 points in their first full NHL seasons; the duo are just 20 and 19 years old, respectively. Even 22-year old Connor Brown scored 20 goals as a rookie.

Auston Matthews, NHL, Toronto Maple Leafs
(Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)

Their ascension has allowed Nazem Kadri and James van Riemsdyk to slot into more complimentary roles, and the two responded with career years.

Losing Brendan Leipsic to the expansion draft was less than ideal, but with so much young talent at forward it’s unlikely anyone will remember in six months.

A Legend at the Helm

The biggest reason why this squad will avoid the sophomore slump is the man behind the bench. Teams coached by Mike Babcock take precisely zero for granted.

Over 14 seasons as an NHL head coach, Babcock has accumulated a record of 596-354-164. That averages out to 99.8 points over an 82-game season. His teams have qualified for the playoffs 12 times in those 14 seasons. Perhaps most impressive is the fact that those numbers span three different franchises; the man wins everywhere he goes.

Mike Babcock, NHL, Toronto Maple Leafs
(Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Speaking of winning, there isn’t a level of play in which a Mike Babcock team hasn’t reached the summit. Internationally, he coached Team Canada to wins in the 1997 World Junior Championships, the 2004 IIHF World Championships, the 2010 and 2014 Olympics and the 2016 World Cup of Hockey.

In the NHL, he coached the Detroit Red Wings to the 2008 Stanley Cup Championship and has taken two other squads (the 2008-09 Red Wings and 2002-03 Ducks) to Game Seven of the Finals.

No other coach in the history of the sport is a member of the “Triple Gold Club.”

Last year’s Leafs made a 26-point jump in the standings from the previous year, and it’s reasonable to expect another uptick in points. Mike Babcock’s teams are always disciplined, fast, skilled and seem to spend the entire game with the puck. In addition to being supremely talented, this Leafs team is built completely in his image. It’s a perfect marriage.

Playoff Berth?

The Toronto Maple Leafs will absolutely qualify for the playoffs this season, and could very well makes waves once they get there.

There’s always optimism regarding “next season” in Toronto; it’s one of the many things that makes the city such an incredible and unflinching hockey town.

Toronto Maple Leafs, NHL, Hockey
(Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports)

This season, there’s just-cause for the unbridled excitement. The team is loaded, virtually top to bottom. Look at the projected lines, particularly at forward.

“Virtually” is the key word in the sentence above, however. The projected bottom pairing of Connor Carrick and Martin Marincin looks susceptible to first-change matchups and a capable bottom six. Marincin was an adventure every time he took the ice last season, and not the good kind. With minimal wiggle room toward the cap, Toronto’s chances of finding an upgrade through free agency are slim, at best. It’s likely the team takes a wait-and-see approach, allowing the duo a chance to prove themselves.

Playoff Picture

Things are setting up to be especially tight in the Atlantic Division throughout the 2017-18 season. Unlike within the league’s other divisions, there’s no real clear-cut pecking order as of yet. Boston, Montreal, Ottawa, Tampa Bay and Toronto all look like playoff teams.

(Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports)

Perhaps all five have postseason hockey in store for them. Perhaps an ultra-competitive division cannibalizes itself, and only three of the aforementioned teams clinch a spot. It’s well within the realm of possibility that the Florida Panthers rebound and supersede a division foe as well.

As of now, Tampa Bay and Toronto seem safe bets, with Boston, Montreal and Ottawa slugging it out for one or two spots.

Buckle up.