If your favorite NHL team is in the Atlantic Division, buckle up.
Amidst a chaotic offseason yet to draw to a close, it’s apparent the division with the least amount of parity in recent seasons will have a broader range of reasonable outcomes in 2023-24.
The Boston Bruins, Tampa Bay Lightning and Toronto Maple Leafs have made up three of the top four teams in the division every season since 2017-18, save for the 2020-21 campaign, which saw a temporary divisional realignment due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the past few years, the Florida Panthers added their name to the titans of the division, often drawing a vast chasm between the top four and bottom four teams.
Buffalo, Detroit, Ottawa, and Montreal have been left to slog it out through a quartet of aggressive rebuilds since the start of the decade.
After most of those teams took significant steps forward last season, more forward progress is expected to shake up the results we’ve gotten used to seeing.
While the Canadiens still seem a few seasons away from playoff contention, the other three outsiders are primed to make a run at postseason play.
Buffalo finished just one point out of a playoff spot last season, and Detroit’s made perhaps the largest trade acquisition of the offseason in Alex DeBrincat.
Ottawa may have lost some important secondary scoring by trading DeBrincat to a divisional rival, but they’re hoping a full season of Jakob Chychrun on the back end and some improved (and healthy) goaltending can get them closer to playoff contention.
Many teams are on the rise, so it begs the question: who falls out of the playoff picture?
Despite an offseason still filled with many question marks, namely the contract extension statuses of Auston Matthews and William Nylander, the Toronto Maple Leafs might be the easiest team to project out of the Atlantic’s Big Four.
They may have lost a lot of moving parts and depth pieces to the free agent market, but adding Max Domi, Tyler Bertuzzi, and John Klingberg have the team at comparable strength to last season’s squad, at least prior to their flurry of trade deadline additions.
That is to say – their ceiling (nor floor) is much different than 12 months ago, and that roster finished 2nd in the division before winning their first playoff series in nearly two decades.
There’s also the Tampa Bay Lightning, who’ve undergone a minimal amount of roster turnover, at least compared to the rest of the division.
They’re running it back with the exact same defense corps as last year’s team, and they’ve made some eye-for-an-eye swaps in their bottom six, but they will be without a key piece of top-six scoring depth after Alex Killorn departed for the West Coast in free agency.
Their biggest wild card is undoubtedly the ability of a player like Conor Sheary or Tanner Jeannot to step up and replace his production. If you’re looking at teams to fall and give way to fresh faces, however, their roster is likely still formidable enough to stay in the race.
The more uncertain teams in terms of next year’s projection matched up against each other in a first-round series for the ages just a few months ago: the record-setting Boston Bruins and the bracket-busting Florida Panthers.
Likely out are Boston’s top two centers and a pair of franchise legends – Patrice Bergeron and David Krejčí. Replacing them in the top six will be elevated minutes for Pavel Zacha and Charlie Coyle, and while they’re capable NHLers, there’s no question it’s a significant downgrade from a pair of likely future Hall-of-Famers.
The question for Boston is whether their defense and goaltending, which is returning mostly unchanged, can bolster them enough to stay in the upper echelon of teams.
Few would pick them to miss the playoffs entirely, especially after the season they just had, but with an aging James van Riemsdyk now positioned as one of their best secondary scorers, you have to ask the question.
The Panthers do have a lot of returning parts from last season’s Eastern Conference-winning team, but a slow start could very well doom them out of the gate in a highly competitive division.
Their two bonafide top-flight defenders, Aaron Ekblad and Brandon Montour, could both be out until the Christmas break – leaving Gustav Forsling to handle number-one minutes and requiring UFA signings like Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Dmitry Kulikov to play well above their pay grade.
It’s worth noting, though, that similar concerns surrounded the Bruins last year when Brad Marchand and Charlie McAvoy missed the first few weeks of their campaign. Obviously, it didn’t matter.
If Boston or Florida do struggle, who can push them out? Even if they don’t, are other teams strong enough to surpass them anyways?
Some would say the Buffalo Sabres have reached that point.
They weren’t a merchant of big offseason splashes, simply fortifying their defense with depth adds like Connor Clifton and Erik Johnson, but with their entire core poised to take a step forward in each of their individual development paths next season, you have to think this could be the year they end their decade-plus playoff drought.
No catalyst will be greater than the development of Owen Power in his sophomore season.
The 2021 first-overall pick showed flashes of elite play during his rookie season, posting solid two-way numbers and elevated confidence with a strong first year under his belt could give Buffalo two true aces on defense along with Rasmus Dahlin – on different pairings to boot.
Detroit’s made the biggest trade splash in the division by acquiring Alex DeBrincat from Ottawa, a move necessary after shipping out a key top-six piece at last year’s trade deadline in Tyler Bertuzzi.
But questions remain about their depth scoring, and free agent signings of players like J.T. Compher, Justin Holl, and Shayne Gostisbehere left many wondering about how much Detroit’s roster construction has actually improved from this time last season.
Without Bertuzzi and Filip Hronek, it’s fair to say Detroit has simply tread water from year to year – and while a DeBrincat breakout and rejuvenated offense from players like Lucas Raymond could help elevate them to the playoff conversation, few would have them in the mix ahead of the Sabres, and it’ll likely take a significant misstep from a Boston or Florida team to pave the way for the Wings to reach the postseason.
A healthy Josh Norris could also change things for the Senators, but they find themselves in the Red Wings tier of a “maybe, but not probable” team to make the playoffs.
Losing DeBrincat does leave a rather glaring hole in their top six, and while Dominík Kubalík could provide solid secondary scoring, they haven’t done very much to address their depth, and it’s not realistic to assume any major leaps forward – although a full season of Jakob Chychrun should help them keep the puck out of their net with more proficiency.
Main image mandatory Credit: Jamie Sabau-USA TODAY Sports