NHL Preview: Biggest questions looming over the Atlantic Division

The San Jose Sharks and Nashville Predators are ready to officially drop the puck on the 2022-23 NHL season in Prague on Friday, and regular season hockey is finally upon us.

But while we wait for things to start on this side of the pond, we turn our attention to perhaps the most intriguing division in the NHL: the Atlantic.

With some of the league's top teams duking it out for top spot and a deep playoff run, others poised to compete for a long-awaited postseason berth, and a team expected to figure in the tank for a generational talent, there's a bit of everything to look forward to in this group.

Here are the biggest looming questions over the Atlantic Division.

Can the Panthers replicate last season's offensive output?

The Florida Panthers are coming off a busy offseason that saw a number of its leaders leave the Sunshine State.

First, Jack Adams finalist Andrew Brunette was let go after guiding the Panthers to a Presidents' Trophy as interim head coach. Then came the biggest move of the summer, when Florida acquired Matthew Tkachuk from the Calgary Flames for a package including stars Jonathan Huberdeau and MacKenzie Weegar.

After a major facelift, the Panthers are focused on recreating the regular season magic they cooked up last year, and improving on a disappointing second-round playoff exit at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

With some new faces coming in and some teams ready to take a step to the next level, the NHL's Atlantic Division is as intriguing as any with the 2022-23 season looming. (Reuters)
Florida Panthers forward Matthew Tkachuk will have some big shoes to fill as he looks to replace Jonathan Huberdeau's 115-point output from last season. (Reuters)

The biggest challenge facing them might be replicating their league-best offense from 2021-22, which led the entire league in goals with 340, 25 more than the second-place Toronto Maple Leafs.

Huberdeau's career-high 115 points led the Panthers in scoring, while star center Aleksander Barkov's 42 goals topped the team's goal-scoring charts. Forwards Sam Reinhart (33), Anthony Duclair (31), Sam Bennett (28) and Carter Verhaeghe (24) all hit career-high goal tallies, and figure among the current squad heading into the new season, but to expect them all to replicate last year's output would be unrealistic.

With 42 goals in 2021-22, Tkachuk displayed an elite scoring touch that will replace most, if not all, of the goals left behind by Huberdeau and Weegar, and he should be a lock for at least 30-35 tallies this season.

Florida should still be one of the highest scoring teams in the league, and should once again figure significantly in the Presidents' Trophy race, but they may have to concede the top-scoring title after an extraordinary season in the offensive zone.

Are Murray and Samsonov the goalie tandem to take the Maple Leafs over the top?

It feels like an all-or-nothing season for the Maple Leafs, with changes abound in both the front office and dressing room if the team doesn't put together a nice playoff run.

After letting starting goaltender Jack Campbell walk in free agency, general manager Kyle Dubas has hedged his latest bet on the goaltending tandem of Matt Murray and Ilya Samsonov to take the Leafs over the hump and finally past the first round of the postseason.

Murray, 30, is ready to move on from a tough stint with the Ottawa Senators after he signed a four-year, $25-million deal with them in October 2020. After managing a 15-25-3 record, and registering a .899 save percentage and 3.23 goals-against average in two seasons with the Senators, Murray was traded to Toronto along with two picks for future considerations in July.

The two-time Stanley Cup champion will hope to rediscover his top form under his former GM and head coach — Dubas and Sheldon Keefe — from his days with the OHL's Soo Greyhounds.

Samsonov, 25, has spent all three of his seasons in the NHL with the Washington Capitals, going 52-22-8 while averaging a .902 save percentage and 2.81 GAA. Samsonov started no more than 39 games in a single season with Washington, notably splitting time between the pipes with Vitek Vanecek last year.

The Maple Leafs are one of the most complete teams in the NHL, and with some consistent and dependable goaltending down the stretch, we could finally see a breakthrough next spring.

Can the Lightning overcome big offseason departures?

The Tampa Bay Lightning came painfully close to a third consecutive Stanley Cup in June, and finally felt the pressure of their tight cap situation as they had to say goodbye to some key players in the offseason.

The Lightning traded veteran defenseman Ryan McDonagh to the Nashville Predators for Philippe Myers and Grant Mismash on July 3, then lost longtime forward Ondrej Palat to the New Jersey Devils in free agency.

Tampa Bay's depth helped them win two championships, and they'll have to call on that depth once again to fill the voids left by the pair of stars.

Defenseman Mikhail Sergachev is expected to fill McDonagh's shoes after signing a big eight-year, $68-million extension this summer. The 24-year-old registered 38 points in 78 regular season games in 2021-22, adding 10 points in 23 playoff games.

On offense, head coach Jon Cooper will turn to Brandon Hagel to make the jump into the Lightning's star-studded top six. Acquired at the trade deadline from the Chicago Blackhawks last season, Hagel scored four goals and registered three assists in 22 games with Tampa, after scoring 21 goals with the Blackhawks prior to the trade in March.

It would be unwise to count the Lightning out as a contender to win it all again this season, but they face a true test entering the new year after paying the price for success this summer.

How will the Bruins navigate an injury-riddled early season?

The Boston Bruins will be starting the season without some key names.

Star forward Brad Marchand is slated to return to play in December after getting surgery on both hips this offseason, while top defenseman Charlie McAvoy is out until November after undergoing a procedure on his right shoulder. Defenseman Matt Grezlcyk is also expected to be out until December with a shoulder injury of his own.

Marchand, 34, put together a great 2021-22 campaign, scoring 32 goals and registering 48 assists in 70 games. McAvoy, 24, solidified himself as one of the best all-around defensemen in the NHL with a career-high 56 points in 78 games, while also maintaining a plus-31 rating.

The 2022-23 season is shaping up to be a "Last Dance" kind of year in Boston, with longtime Bruins Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci returning on one-year deals for one last shot at the Stanley Cup. With superstar David Pastrnak slated for free agency next summer and uncertainty lingering, the B's will have to weather the early storm if they want any chance at one last run with this group.

What can the Sabres expect from rookie Owen Power?

The Buffalo Sabres are trending in the right direction, with an impressive young core of players coming into their own and slowly pulling the team out of the NHL doldrums.

At the heart of that young core is 19-year-old defenseman Owen Power.

The No. 1 overall pick of the 2021 NHL Draft, Power is set for his first full season in the show after appearing in eight games at the tail end of last year. The 6-foot-6, 213-pound defenseman has performed on the big stage before, notably impressing with Team Canada at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics.

The Mississauga, Ontario, native starred for the University of Michigan Wolverines last season, registering 32 points in 33 games on the way to winning the Big 10 championship.

General manager Kevyn Adams has said that Power will get plenty of opportunity to develop into a top D-man for the Sabres, and will get minutes on both the power play and penalty kill this season.

Power will also ride the coattails of fellow top pick Rasmus Dahlin, who knows what it's like to step into the NHL with huge expectations on his shoulders.

Will the Red Wings' offense be more potent this season?

The Detroit Red Wings, like others in the Atlantic Division, are ready to move out of their rebuild and begin their return to the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time since 2015-16.

With a promising crop of youngsters, some veteran additions in the offseason and a new head coach in Derek Lalonde, Steve Yzerman's Red Wings will be a team to watch this season.

But one of the biggest things they'll have to improve is their scoring, after finishing with the eighth-worst goals-for total (230) last season.

The good news is Detroit now boasts some serious offensive talent. Leading the way is captain Dylan Larkin, who is coming off a team-best 69-point campaign, followed by 30-goal scorer Tyler Bertuzzi and 2021-22 rookie standout Lucas Raymond's 57 points. The secondary scoring is expected to come from the likes of Jakub Vrana and a trio of free agent additions in Andrew Copp, David Perron and Dominik Kubalik.

The Red Wings forward group also includes some high picks that have yet to make a significant impact in the league like Joe Veleno, Filip Zadina and Michael Rasmussen, so look for them to finally break out and fulfill some of that potential.

Don't be surprised if Detroit goes from a below-average scoring team to one of the most underrated offenses in the NHL.

Are the Senators ready to compete for a playoff spot?

The Ottawa Senators are going to be good again. How good, though, remains to be seen.

General manager Pierre Dorion and the front office have done an impressive job in building the Senators back up from the depths of the league with the steady development of talented prospects. The proverbial cherry on top came with a big offseason in which Ottawa acquired Claude Giroux, Alex DeBrincat and Cam Talbot to propel this team into playoff contention.

These big names are joining a team run by an exciting group of future stars in Brady Tkachuk, Tim Stützle, Josh Norris and Thomas Chabot, all of whom have already been secured to long-term deals to remain in the Canadian capital for the better part of the next decade.

The Sens have gotten better in virtually every aspect of the game, filling every need with an up-and-coming stud or a smart free agent acquisition.

Head coach D.J. Smith can also count on some surprises from rookies and young, skilled skaters like Shane Pinto, Erik Brannstrom and Jake Sanderson, who could raise the ceiling of this promising team even higher with some breakout performances.

But are they good enough to snag one of those coveted tickets to the postseason?

The competition above is tough, and having missed out on the final wild card spot by 27 points last season, there is a lot of work ahead if they want to close that gap.

For now, the Senators are shaping up to be one of the most exciting teams to follow as we near the start of the new year.

Are the Canadiens too talented to Suck Hard for Bedard?

Yes, you read that right. The Montreal Canadiens may be too talented to finish last in the NHL and get the best shot at landing the first overall pick of next year's draft.

The question applies more specifically to the forward group, which boasts a solid top nine considering the low expectations on the team heading into the second year of a rebuild.

With names like Brendan Gallagher, Josh Anderson, Jonathan Drouin, Christian Dvorak and Mike Hoffman, as well as offseason additions Sean Monahan and Evgeni Dadonov, Montreal looks more like a mid-table squad than one doing its best to finish dead last in the league.

Throw in a promising young nucleus including Nick Suzuki, Cole Caufield, Kirby Dach and 2022 first overall pick Juraj Slafkovsky, and you really have some talent to go around.

Montreal scored a league-worst 2.22 goals per game before Martin St-Louis took over as head coach in February. Under the Hall of Famer's watchful eye, the team upped their production to 3.27 goals per game, turning the Canadiens into an above-average scoring outfit.

The Habs may not have a problem lighting the lamp, but they are sure to struggle in keeping the puck out of their own net.

With a young, inexperienced defensive corps guarding a Carey Price-less goalie tandem that'll see Jake Allen and Sam Montembeault take turns in the crease, Montreal is likely to figure among the NHL's worst defenses once again after allowing a league-worst 319 goals last season.

If the Canadiens figure to be in the Connor Bedard sweepstakes as the season progresses, expect to see a number of the names listed above to be moved for draft picks and future assets as the rebuild continues in La Belle Province.

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