The Red Wings have made significant moves during the 2016 offseason to try to improve the organization, moving on from Pavel Datsyuk’s expensive cap hit, signing a high-end free agent center in Frans Nielsen as well as re-signing Darren Helm and extending Luke Glendening’s contract.
But the Wings weren’t the only active team in the Atlantic Division this summer. In fact, several of Detroit’s closest opponents have been highly active this offseason and should draw the attention of many as the Wings will have to face the following teams 22 times during the regular season.
Tony Wolak: Toronto Maple Leafs
Heading into the 2016-17 season, the Toronto Maple Leafs are primed for a breakout season thanks to the new players they’ve added to their roster. Toronto will certainly improve from the last place ranking and push for a playoff spot, given their additions of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, Matt Martin, Kerby Rychel, Nikita Zaitsev, and Frederik Andersen.
Year two of the Mike Babcock era will look a lot brighter on offense. If Toronto decides to keep Marner on their NHL roster (rather than send him back to the OHL), he’ll join a deep group that includes number one overall pick Auston Matthews, Nazem Kadri, James van Riemsdyk, William Nylander, and Leo Komarov, among others. If all remain healthy, Babcock will have a number of talented forwards of varying ages to play on a nightly basis. Adding Matt Martin to a fourth line of Brooks Laich and Byron Froese will give Toronto a strong checking line that will also have an impact on the locker room.
While Zaitsev and Roman Polak help to steady the defensive corps, perhaps the biggest acquisition of the offseason for the Maple Leafs was their trade for Andersen. In the Danish goaltender, the Leafs have acquired a goalie who is significantly better than anyone they rostered last season. Additionally, Andersen, when getting consistent playing time, can be one of the top ten goalies in the entire NHL. If the Leafs can find a veteran mentor to back him up, Andersen could make the Leafs a playoff contender sooner rather than later.
Jacob Messing: Montreal Canadiens
Up front, the Canadiens don’t appear a whole lot different, but they are. GM Marc Bergevin stated he wanted a culture like Chicago and traded for Andrew Shaw who helped Chicago claim the Stanley Cup in 2013 and 2015.
Shaw, 25, is known for his annoying game and physical play. He has 70 goals and 137 points in 322 career games. As a restricted free agent, Shaw became a victim of Chicago’s cap woes and chose to move him for a pair of second-round picks at this summer’s draft.
Shaw quickly signed a six-year, $23.4 million contract in Montreal and while he’s not a big offensive threat, he’ll be a thorn in the Red Wings side this upcoming season and knows what it takes to win.
The only other significant new face in Montreal’s forward group is Alexander Radulov, who was believed to be headed to Detroit a few months ago. Radulov, 30, has just 154 NHL games under his belt, in which he has scored 47 goals and 102 points.
It’s a relatively low-risk, high reward contract for the Canadiens at one-year and $5.75 million as Radulov has been a superstar overseas, posting 492 points in 391 KHL games.
He comes with a lot of questions due to multiple off-ice issues he had during his time with the Predators. However, if those days are in the past, Radulov could be a real offensive threat for Montreal this season.
Then there is the 22-year-old Alex Galchenyuk, who broke out for a 30-goal campaign last season. The third overall pick in the 2012 NHL Draft, Galchenyuk has increased his goal and point output in each of his four seasons and is guaranteed more ice time than his 16:16 average last season.
Meanwhile, on the backend, Montreal looks a whole lot different than they did last season. The franchise has seen some backlash for trading PK Subban, a 27-year-old star defenseman who has yet to hit his prime for Shea Weber, who is four years older and not nearly as mobile.
Both players have strong career numbers against the Red Wings and while Weber has played 39 more games against Detroit than Subban, Subban does have the better point-per-game percentage against Detroit.
Geoff Chiles: Tampa Bay Lightning
The Red Wings may be worrying the most about the team that has bounced them from the Stanley Cup Playoffs in two consecutive seasons: the Lightning. The Bolts spent time and money keeping homegrown players in Tampa, especially their centers and wings, re-signing 40-point center Alex Killorn for another seven seasons and acquiring 24-year-old left wing Michael Bournival via free agency. Tampa also bolstered themselves in goal by extending 2012 first round pick Andrei Vasilevsky for three years to back up Ben Bishop, and third-string goalie Kristers Gudlevskis to man the pipes in Syracuse.
Tampa’s biggest move came when they locked up defenseman Victor Hedman (a player I salivated over, hoping the Wings would sign him in the 2017 free agent class) for a whopping eight-year, $7.8 million a season contract. The 1st overall pick in the 2009 Draft possesses all of the metrics and statistics that the Wings and other clubs craved on the blue line. Hedman’s mere presence on ice affects games for Tampa: His plus-21 in the regular season was 17th in the NHL. For a 6-foot-6 d-man, Hedman skates fluidly moves the puck on the breakout and is a physically imposing force.
This year’s free agency worked out well for Steve Yzerman and Lightning brass. That’s putting it mildly. They have stabilized their goaltending, boast a stable of centers (oh, yeah, that Steven Stamkos fellow) the rest of the League envies, and can also shut down your offense with some of the biggest and meanest defenseman in the world (Hedman, Stralman, Nesterov, and Coburn). The other catch? The roster’s average age is 26.
Brandon Peleshok: Florida Panthers
If it was beginning to feel as if the Florida Panthers had the Detroit Red Wings’ number, it’s because they did – at the Joe Louis Arena, anyway. Going back to 2012, the Wings were 0-5 versus Florida at home, until they broke that trend with a 3-0 win in early February. Personal records aside, the Panthers won the Atlantic Division last season and look even more impressive heading into 2016-17.
Much like the Tampa Bay Lightning, the team locked up several members of their core this offseason, including Aaron Ekblad, Vincent Trocheck and Reilly Smith. While extending Ekblad for eight years carries the most weight, the aforementioned forwards are both capable of scoring 50-plus points and round out an already impressive top-six group.
Florida also added a more than capable backup goaltender, signing James Reimer to a five-year deal worth $3.4 million per season. Considering Roberto Luongo’s situation (37-years-old, with six years remaining on his contract), it’s entirely possible the Panthers are hoping Reimer can take over as the team’s starting goaltender in the future. He’ll certainly get the chance to prove his worth early in the season, as Luongo’s recovery from hip surgery has him targeting a return in early November.
The biggest changes for the Panthers occurred on their blue line. In addition to parting ways with veteran defensemen Brian Campbell and Willie Mitchell, Florida also decided to trade Erik Gudbranson and Dmitry Kulikov. Enter Keith Yandle, Jason Demers and Mark Pysyk. On paper, it’s an impressive defense corps, and it will be interesting to see how the group gels together this season.
Craig Peterson: Buffalo Sabres
The Buffalo Sabres are one team primed for the most significant improvement from on season to the next. After finishing seventh out of eight teams in the Atlantic, the Sabres have made strides and possess the potential to be a qualifier for the playoffs in 2017. Beyond that, they have added significant pieces during the offseason that should set the Sabres up as strong contenders for the division in the years that follow.
High-profile free agent forward Kyle Okposo took his talents to Buffalo, signing a seven-year, $42 million deal and his presence immediately makes this team better up front. Additionally, Dmitri Kulikov was acquired from Florida before the 2016 draft and should move into the team’s top pair of defensemen.
Consider some of the other pieces general manager Tim Murray already has in centers Ryan O’Reilly and Jack Eichel as well as defensemen Zach Bogosian and Rasmus Ristolainen and the Sabres future looks bright.
There is the issue of Evander Kane’s off-ice incidents as he faces criminal charges for the second time this year and the repercussions from his most recent charges may significantly affect this lineup. However, with an average age of 25-years-old — only three players are over the age of 30 — the youngest team in the NHL could prove to be a dangerous one.
After spending the 2014-15 NHL season reporting as an editorial assistant for the Detroit Red Wings, Craig now covers all Detroit sports as a member of CBS Sports Radio.