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2019-2020 Division Preview: The Atlantic

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Home to the most traditional hockey markets—and some of the least traditional. What does the Atlantic (probably) have in store for us this year?

Tampa Bay Lightning v Montreal Canadiens Photo by Francois Lacasse/NHLI via Getty Images

Ah, the Atlantic Division. Frozen ponds and sunlit beaches; four of the Original Six and two teams in Florida. The Atlantic is a fascinating study in contrasts, and lends itself to weird rivalries as a result.

The Fast Money Round

Boston Bruins

Having made it to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final in 2019 before losing on home ice, an experience a Boston sportswriter described as “dystopian,” the Bruins will look to make it back there again. With their aging core, the wear and tear of back-to-back deep runs might not be possible, but I’m sure they’d love to get beloved icons Zdeno Chára and Patrice Bergeron a Cup before they retire.

[checks notes]

Uh, a second Cup. Well, Chára and Bergeron would surely like to bring some honor to the city of Boston before they retire.

[checks notes again]

Ah.

Buffalo Sabres

The Sabres blew up their entire team to get Connor McDavid, lost the lottery, lost more lotteries, finally managed to get Rasmus Dahlin in last year’s draft, and finished third-last in a division that also included some, uh, some very bad teams (more on those later). Jack Eichel is a better player than he gets credit for—not being McDavid will probably dog his steps for his entire career or until he wins the Cup—and they have a pretty good forward group. Their defense is weaker across the board and they might want to find a #1 goalie before the season starts.

Detroit Red Wings

After a long, long streak of postseason dominance, and an even longer one of postseason relevance, the Detroit Red Wings are finally paying the piper. Their prospect pool was thinned out after years of late picks and deadline trades, and their cap situation was miserable thanks to leftover contracts, though they’ve managed to assemble a promising young forward core at the NHL level and cleared up some cap space.

Plus, they got Steve Yzerman back from Tampa Bay, now in the role of general manager instead of franchise star, so the odds are excellent that those shiny new forwards are suddenly going to find themselves inked to deals well below market value.

Florida Panthers

The Panthers have added Joel Quenneville, who’s a pretty good coach as well as a pretty successful one, and two-time Vezina winner Sergei Bobrovsky, who had a rocky start to last season but improved again to excellence. Bobrovsky almost certainly won’t be worth his contract for the duration, but with luck the Panthers will get a few good years out of him.

As for the rest of the team, they’re slowly clawing their way back from their self-inflicted damage in the Vegas expansion draft. With good shooting—which they have—and good goaltending, they have the potential to make some noise.

Montreal Canadiens

Shea Weber and Carey Price are going into the season healthy—and yes, I knocked wood—which is a massive plus for the Habs. They also have quite a few forwards who are good at both ends of the ice, including young phenom Jesperi Kotkaniemi. Tomáš Tatar was a very solid addition last year and should be good again this year.

GM Marc Bergevin’s weirdest move of the summer had to have been offer-sheeting the HurricanesSebastian Aho to an easily-matched bridge deal. Did he owe Canes GM Don Waddell a favor? Whether Bergevin’s decision to enable the Blackhawks’ nostalgia by flipping Andrew Shaw for picks will work out is up in the air; Shaw is a more skilled player than he gets credit for and was fourth on the team in goalscoring last year despite missing 19 games.

Ottawa Senators

Brady Tkachuk—taken by the Senators with their lottery-losing first-round pick in 2018—has been excellent in his first NHL season, and there’s no reason he won’t continue to be so. The Senators’ 2019 pick, sent to the Colorado Avalanche as part of the Matt Duchene trade when they picked Tkachuk, also missed all three lottery spots, and this year they have their own first-rounder back. Thomas Chabot is an offensively-capable young defender.

Look, I’m not going to say this season is going to be good for the Senators, but, honestly, it would be hard for it not to be better.

Tampa Bay Lightning

After an absolutely dominant regular season, the Lightning were swept in the first round by the Columbus Blue Jackets, who had never previously won a playoff series. That’s the kind of thing that’s going to sting. They lost GM Steve Yzerman to Detroit, but new GM Julien BriseBois appears to have inherited Yzerman’s old blackmail stash and/or hypnosis ray, as the Lightning were able to extend extremely talented young center Brayden Point on a bridge deal well below market value, in spite of the deal Mitch Marner had just gotten with the Leafs.

The Lightning’s players still very clearly believe that this is the team to be on. They have an incredible amount of raw talent; they just need a little more luck, and maybe a little less reliance on their power play—on the other hand, who among us wouldn’t rely on that power play.

Toronto Maple Leafs

After a long and dramatic standoff with RFA Mitch Marner, the Leafs finally extended him on a five-year, eight-figure deal. They now have over $33.5M tied up in Marner, Auston Matthews, and John Tavares, and over $40M in those three and William Nylander, who struggled this season after missing 28 games last season to a contentious contract debate. The Leafs probably would have been better-served by taking a harder line with Matthews and Marner, but it’s understandable that GM Kyle Dubas didn’t want to get that reputation.

The Leafs made a big multi-player trade with the Avalanche on Free Agency Day, losing Nazem Kadri and Calle Rosen in order to gain Tyson Barrie and Alexander Kerfoot. Barrie doesn’t move the needle, though he can score; Kerfoot is pretty good, though so is Kadri.

For some bizarre reason, the Leafs also acquired Cody Ceci from the Senators this summer, and then didn’t immediately get rid of him. Ceci doesn’t improve a rough defense, and the team as a whole really needs to either beat or avoid the Bruins in the playoffs.

Best/Worst

Best Addition:

I’m tentatively going to say it’s the Red Wings landing Yzerman as GM, which is an off-the-board choice that I still feel is the right one.

In terms of immediate impact, I’m going to give it to the Panthers for either Quenneville or Bobrovsky.

Worst Addition:

Cody Ceci, really? Dubas, you’re supposed to be a Computer Boy™.

Best Subtraction:

I really want to say Dan Girardi’s retirement is brilliant for the Lightning, but he had a surprisingly good last couple of years in the league once he left the Rangers.

Worst Subtraction:

I have to be forgetting someone, but there’s nothing that really jumps out as a catastrophic loss (either through a bad trade or through unrestricted free agency or an offer sheet) for any of these teams.

The Predictions

I think the Lightning probably take the division again, barring another year like 2016-17 where everyone gets hurt, because why wouldn’t they? That’s the tricky thing about the Lightning—you know betting the field is smarter in hockey, but then you look at them, and you look at the field, and you just shrug.

The Senators will probably finish at the bottom of the division again, but their new young core will be getting NHL experience. What the team, and specifically its players, really need is for the media not to blame them when they struggle—nobody wants to become the next Edmonton Oilers, slowly running all their young stars out of town in a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure and “losing attitude.”

I think the Red Wings are also still some way out of contending, but any of the other five teams could probably make it into one of the other playoff spots. The Bruins are honestly pretty good; the Leafs have too much forward talent not to contend; and the Canadiens and Panthers both have really good goaltending to go with the talent their skaters bring. And the Sabres...man, at some point something has to go right for the Sabres, doesn’t it?


Team summations referenced from hockey-viz.com, with special thanks to the Team Breakdown tool accessible to Patreon supporters.