Previewing the top-heavy, contender-filled Atlantic Division

(Ciaran Breen/Yahoo Sports Canada)
(Ciaran Breen/Yahoo Sports Canada)

The thing with the Atlantic Division is that there’s little to no mystery about what happens with its playoff spots. Barring catastrophe, the teams coming out of the division will be Tampa, Boston, and Toronto in some order.

Sure, maybe this will be the year the Lightning take a slight step back, or the Leafs finally overtake Boston. But otherwise, these look like they will be three of the five or six best teams in the league again this year with little competition afforded by the other five squads in the division.

So maybe not so much intrigue there, but plenty elsewhere in the bottom five, after a series of, shall we say, interesting offseasons.

Let’s have a look:

Highest Ceiling

The Tampa Bay Lightning, obviously.

Not only do the Bolts return almost everyone that made their team an all-timer in the regular season, they bolstered the roster. Doesn’t mean there wasn’t turnover, though.

Anton Stralman, coming off a down year, signed as a free agent with the cross-peninsula rival Panthers. JT Miller, Adam Erne, and Ryan Callahan were traded, mostly for cap space. Dan Girardi, who was a solid depth option but became a UFA, retired.

All those guys were positive players last year, but the only one who isn’t immediately replaceable is Miller. To fill in some of those gaps, Julien BriseBois brought in two solid veterans in Patrick Maroon and Kevin Shattenkirk on super-discounted contracts. The rest of that lost production will probably come from younger guys who the Lightning hope can step up their games a bit.

The odds these guys come close to matching their point total from last year are fairly low. After all, they came within two wins of an all-time record. But the odds these guys clear 110 points with ease do feel pretty good. Even if they’d suffered nine more regulation losses than they did last season (a 56-percent increase from the 16 they actually took) they still win the Presidents’ Trophy. That’s how good they were.

They might be close to that again. Despite being in the same division as Boston and Toronto. It’s crazy.

Lowest Floor

The Ottawa Senators, also obviously.

It’s going to be a long season in Ottawa. Potentially even worse than last year’s 64-point campaign. The reason why is simple: They had Mark Stone (one of the five best forwards in the league), Matt Duchene (a very good center who had a career-best year), and Ryan Dzingel (who’s decent but overperformed) for a big chunk of the year. Combined, they added more than 12 points to the Senators’ total, and now they’re gone.

There is clearly some promising young talent on this roster — hard to avoid it when you’re this bad for this long, y’know? — but not enough to even come close to replacing what was lost. And again, that’s from a team that finished with 64 points.

Adding a few salary-cap castoffs from some of the best teams in the league may pull you get over the cap floor comfortably, but it does nothing to ensure you’re competitive. Which shouldn’t be the point when you’re this bad anyway.

The guys I’d be worried about most are Colin White and Brady Tkachuk, who lose their security blanket in Stone. Instead, they’re being thrown to the wolves, and are likely to find that lining up across from Bergeron or Krejci, Matthews or Tavares, Stamkos or Point, Barkov, Eichel, and even Dylan Larkin is suddenly not as fun as it used to be.

No one is under any illusions as to what this team is, but the fact that it might be worse than even those low, low, low expectations is a huge bummer.

X-Factor

The Boston Bruins.

On the one hand, this is a Bruins team that brings almost everyone back from a campaign where they once again finished second in the division, and once again beat the Leafs in the first round before walking carefree to the Cup Final where they just ran into a buzzsaw and still forced a Game 7.

The only losses of any consequence here are Marcus Johansson, a deadline acquisition, and maybe Noel Acciari if you don’t think there’s a guy in Providence who can provide the same output, which there almost certainly is.

However: That includes last year’s middling offense, which will have Charlie Coyle instead of Ryan Donato for the bulk of the season, but otherwise hasn’t upgraded much. The first line speaks for itself and should be bulletproof once again, but after that? David Krejci was good last season but punched well above his weight. The idea of Jake DeBrusk scoring at a 33-goal pace again (through a shooting efficiency of 17.3 percent) is a bit far-fetched. Coyle can probably contribute 15 goals or so, but after that, the offense is a good-sized question mark.

On the other hand, the defense. This group was one of the best in the league last season, and you love to see as much continuity as you can, but is it possible? Charlie McAvoy and Brandon Carlo are back in the fold, but Zdeno Chara is 42; Torey Krug, Kevan Miller, and Matt Grzelcyk are on expiring contracts; and the only other locked-in defenders are John Moore (scratched of late), Steven Kampfer, and Connor Clifton. It’s likely that some changes are coming.

They got well-above-average goaltending last year, but everyone knows the overblown controversy around Tuukka Rask, who’s now 32 and just logged a lot of (extremely high-quality) minutes in the postseason. Is there more of that Rask available? If not, what’s Jaro Halak got left to give at 34?

This should still be a very good team, but there are a lot more what-ifs with them than the other top teams in the Atlantic.

Most Important Newcomer

The Florida Panthers’ $10-million man, Sergei Bobrovsky. Or, if you prefer, the Florida Panthers’ new coach, Joel Quenneville.

Point is, Florida made multiple big additions this summer — bigger than probably anyone outside the Avalanche, Rangers, and Devils — and have a good enough roster overall that they really hope they can take the next step. The problem is obviously that Florida finished 12 points out of the playoffs last season, and while a handful of teams in front of them have largely treaded water or taken a step back, you gotta wonder about what the Panthers added.

On the one hand, the Panthers had the second-worst team save percentage in the league last season from Roberto Luongo and James Reimer, and even if Bobrovsky and Sam Montembeault aren’t great, they can’t be that bad, either.

Let’s put it this way: Florida’s expected-goals against total was 225.7, 11th-worst in the league last season under Bob Boughner. The horrid goaltending meant they underperformed that by more than 47 goals. That’s worth about 15 points in the standings all on its own.

At the same time, the offense overperformed its 15th-best expected-goals number by 44, finishing ninth in scoring. So maybe you say that comes out in the wash.

And that’s where Quenneville — maybe the best coach on the planet — comes into the equation. If he can harness the offensive talent and make the system work a little more efficiently, then tighten things up on the back end, this suddenly looks like a playoff contender, at minimum.

Worst Outlook

The Detroit Red Wings.

Obviously the Senators have a grim outlook, but they expect to have a grim outlook and at least they’re playing the kids. Not so much Detroit.

No one thinks they’ll be any good, clearly, but while their farm system is pretty good, they have so many dead-end contracts on the books that they can’t go the Senators route and pack kids onto the big club’s roster. Filip Zadina and Taro Hirose will probably get long looks up front, and Filip Hronek and Moritz Seider will do the same on the back end. But for each one of those U-23 guys on the roster, there are at least two Frans Nielsens, Darren Helms, Justin Adelkaders, Luke Glendenings, Val Filppulas, Danny DeKeysers, Trevor Daleys, and so on.

They’re going to be really bad, and not in the fun way that all-kids teams can sometimes be fun. My advice? Record the games for like half an hour before you start watching, then fast forward through every shift that doesn’t feature Dylan Larkin.

Gamecenter Pick (Most Watchable)

The Toronto Maple Leafs.

This is another very obvious answer, but it’s still the answer. Even as the Leafs tightened up the D this summer, they’re still not great defensively. And they obviously have that offense. Just like last year, they’re going to score a ton of goals (fourth in the league in actual goals, second in expected). They also gave up the ninth-most expected and 12th-most actual.

Even if those defensive results improve, Maple Leafs games are still going to feature a ton of goals and almost as much talent on almost every shift.

Does that mean a lot of 80-shot, nine-goal games again? It just might.

Team With The Most Pressure

The Montreal Canadiens.

The Habs missed the postseason by just two points last season, but they mostly treaded water this summer. They’re a well-coached team with solid NHLers throughout the roster, but hardly any high-end talent outside of the goal crease. The guys who come closest to qualifying there are Brendan Gallagher, who’s perpetually underrated, and Jesperi Kotkaniemi, who’s still developing.

Max Domi had a nice debut season and would need to take a step forward to follow it up (he outperformed his expected-goal total by 40 percent). Jonathan Drouin hasn’t shown what everyone thought he could be when the Habs acquired him for Mikhail Sergachev. Tomas Tatar? Paul Byron? They’re fine middle-six guys but that’s about it.

On the blue line, they actually lost one of their most reliable defenders in Jordie Benn, and that should tell you plenty about the quality of that group. Shea Weber will still contribute to the offense because that’s what he does, but there’s more to being a No. 1 defenseman than scoring a lot unless you’re Erik-Karlsson-level scoring a lot. There are some solid players in this group and some very not-solid ones, but that’s it.

In net, everything obviously hinges on Carey Price. If he has another season like he did last year, hey, they’ll probably be in the mix again. If not…

This is a team that always seems like it’s saying, “Well, we’ll get ‘em next year.” But “next year” isn’t likely to be bright for too many years after this one. Weber’s 34 and has a ton of heavy miles on him. Price is 32 and, well, same. They cost more than $18 million combined and they’re not going anywhere.

You have to think that if this team misses the postseason for the fourth time in five years, after giving up so many talented players away for lesser contributors, major changes are coming. And in a division in which they miiiiight be the fourth-best team, that’s a tough reality to live with.

The Pressing Question

Danny asks: “How long realistically until the Sabres are a borderline playoff team and how long until they are a contender?”

Yeah, so this is the thing, right? The Sabres are one team that clearly improved this summer. And they might still have some moves to make on that crowded blue line.

But improving from being a 76-point team in this division doesn’t get you very far. And remember, that’s 76 points including a lengthy winning streak that made them look way better than they really were.

They got a new coach, they packed some actual talent onto that blue line, and it’s not enough to get them anywhere. Which sucks because they’ve finished outside the playoffs eight years straight, in 10 of the last 12 years, and 13 of the last 17. And yeah, barring a miracle there’s no end to this misery until Rasmus Dahlin and Eichel are both in their peak scoring years.

They also don’t have a farm system you’d put in the top 15 in the league, so the help on the way is limited at best. The only glimmer of hope, then, is that they have a lot of middling-at-best talent coming off the books next summer: 15 free agents, of which all but five are unrestricted. They’re currently committed to just nine players for $46 million in 2020-21, and if they want to splash some cash around, there could be some talent available (Taylor Hall, Torey Krug, Chris Kreider, Roman Josi, Jake Muzzin, et al). They’ll have options.

What they could really use is another lottery win, or to at least end up in the top three, in the 2020 draft. Then you can really start making some fun decisions. But otherwise, yeah, hunker down for at least two or three more brutal years.

Predicted Finish

1) Tampa Bay Lightning – 110 points

2) Boston Bruins – 104 points

3) Toronto Maple Leafs – 102 points

4) Florida Panthers – 92 points (first wild card spot)

5) Montreal Canadiens – 88 points

6) Buffalo Sabres – 80 points

7) Detroit Red Wings – 75 points

8) Ottawa Senators – 58 points

Ryan Lambert is a Yahoo! Sports hockey columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

All stats/salary info via Natural Stat Trick, Evolving Hockey, Hockey Reference, CapFriendly and Corsica unless noted.

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