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Gauging the NHL’s Atlantic Division: Can the up-and-comers unseat the established powerhouses?


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Has the NHL’s Atlantic Division ever looked this interesting?

Maybe! But not in recent years, not like this.

Each team is intriguing heading into the 2023-24 season in its own way. You’ve got hopeful up-and-comers with dazzling young talent in Ottawa, Detroit, Montreal and Buffalo. At least one of those squads could make a jump into the playoffs. Tim Stützle and Brady TkachukLucas Raymond and Moritz SeiderCole Caufield and Nick SuzukiOwen PowerRasmus Dahlin and Tage Thompson.

Then you’ve got the usual contenders and likely division leaders in Toronto, Tampa, Florida and Boston. And yes, we’re still including the Bruins in that bunch until proven otherwise. Will they take a step back after the retirements of Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci? Yes. They had 135 (!!!) points last season. A step back is inevitable, especially with a talent drain that also includes Taylor Hall. But they’re still the Bruins. I can’t bet against that infrastructure. The Panthers, meanwhile, are coming off a trip to the Stanley Cup Final, the Lightning look weaker on paper, but they’re still the Lightning with the usual stars up top, and the Leafs, well, the pressure is higher than ever.

It’s going to be a fun year in the Atlantic.

To set the stage, The Athletic put together a roundtable of Atlantic Division writers, asking them to catch us up on each team: who’s new, who’s gone and what the reasons are for optimism and concern.

We also asked each to make a bold prediction and pick the order of finish, from 1 to 8, with the first-place team receiving eight points, second place (seven), third place (six) and so on.

Here are the results of that poll, including each team’s total number of points and first-place votes:

We have a unanimous pick at the top — and bottom — and a whole lot of uncertainty in between. Following is our team-by-team analysis, in order of predicted finish.

Toronto Maple Leafs

Who’s new: GM Brad Treliving, F Tyler Bertuzzi, F Max Domi, F Dylan Gambrell, G Martin Jones, D John Klingberg, F Ryan Reaves

Who’s gone: GM Kyle Dubas, F Noel Acciari, F Zach Aston-Reese, F Michael Bunting, D Erik Gustafsson, D Justin Holl, G Erik Källgren, F Alex Kerfoot, G Matt Murray, F Ryan O’Reilly, D Luke Schenn, F Wayne Simmonds

Reason for optimism: The Leafs are coming off the two best regular seasons in franchise history, and the core of those teams — namely, Auston MatthewsMitch MarnerWilliam NylanderMorgan Rielly, and John Tavares — is still here, along with head coach Sheldon Keefe. And because of it, the Leafs should again rank as one of the NHL’s top teams in the regular season. The offense figures to be as dangerous as ever. After an injury-plagued season that still saw him score 40 goals, Matthews in particular seems poised for a “bounceback” season. Bertuzzi and Domi should only strengthen the offense, which already boasted four 30-goal scorers last season.

Reason for concern: A little secret that most Leaf fans knew but the wider hockey world largely overlooked in recent seasons: The Leafs were one of the better defensive teams around. There’s reason to think that may change this season. The team’s defensemen, in particular, are aging — TJ Brodie is 33, Jake McCabe is turning 30, John Klingberg is 31 and Mark Giordano is turning 40 — and looks vulnerable. Offseason additions like Bertuzzi, Domi and Klingberg may help on offense but could also hurt at the other end. And that could put even more pressure on the relatively untested combo of Ilya Samsonov and Joseph Woll.

Bold prediction: Bertuzzi sets a career high in goals. His previous best was 30 in 68 games two seasons ago. He’ll eclipse that riding shotgun with Matthews and one of Nylander or Marner.

— Jonas Siegel

Tampa Bay Lightning

Who’s new: F Josh Archibald, F Logan Brown, D Calvin de Haan, F Luke Glendening, G Jonas Johansson, F Conor Sheary

Who’s gone: F Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, D Ian Cole, F Ross Colton, G Brian Elliott, F Alex Killorn, F Pat Maroon, F Corey Perry

Reason for optimism: For one, we are talking about the Lightning. The core is still intact. And the core is now properly rested after an incredible stretch of success almost entirely under pandemic conditions, making the scheduling wonkier and rest more sporadic. From the day the bubble playoffs began for them on Aug. 3, 2020, to the moment the Lightning were eliminated in the first round against the Maple Leafs on April 29, 2023, the Lightning had played 297 games in 999 days, or just under once every three days including offseasons. The star power remains; there are multiple potential Hall of Famers at forward, one on defense and one in goal. And after a long summer, that group will be hungry for more.

Reason for concern: If you compare the “who’s new” and “who’s gone” lists, one of them is far stronger than the other. And it’s not the right one for the Lightning. This happens every offseason, when general manager Julien BriseBois is forced to jettison important players for salary cap reasons, and though he always seems to manage to fill those holes masterfully, there is only so much talent you can watch walk out the door before it starts catching up to you. The core, as great as those players are, is aging and the depth of this team will be challenged if injuries to key players hit. To be fair, the “who’s new” list doesn’t include deadline acquisitions Tanner Jeannot and Michael Eyssimont, who should help in this department. But this is probably the least depth the Lightning have had over this run.

Bold prediction: On Feb. 14, the Lightning beat the Avalanche in Denver in a shootout, their third win in a row. From that point on, Tampa Bay had an 11-14-4 record over its final 29 regular-season games and then bowed out in six games to the Leafs. Perhaps it wasn’t just a blip. In a vicious division, I say the Lightning miss the playoffs for the first time since 2017.

— Arpon Basu

Boston Bruins

Who’s new: F Jesper Boqvist, F Patrick Brown, F Morgan Geekie, F Milan Lucic, F Jayson Megna, D Kevin Shattenkirk, F James van Riemsdyk

Who’s gone: F Patrice Bergeron, F Tyler Bertuzzi, D Connor Clifton, F Nick Foligno, F Taylor Hall, F Garnet Hathaway, F David Krejci, F Tomas Nosek, D Dmitry Orlov, D Mike Reilly

Reason for optimism: The Bruins have five players among the best in the world at their respective positions: Hampus LindholmBrad MarchandCharlie McAvoyDavid Pastrnak and Linus Ullmark. They are good enough to pull the sled. Jeremy Swayman should be in a better position to support Ullmark or perhaps even grab the No. 1 job. Five of the top six defensemen are returning. “With who our goalies are and our D corps, we’re clearly in the top of the league in those departments,” coach Jim Montgomery said. “It’s probably going to rely a lot more on our D-men as far as how we play and our team identity of them having more of an impact at all 200 feet of the ice.”

Reason for concern: Losing Bergeron and Krejci in the same offseason leaves the Bruins wiped out at center on their top two lines. Bergeron touched every part of the game. Krejci was a critical second-line offensive pivot who had chemistry with Pastrnak and was reliable defensively. Neither Pavel Zacha nor Charlie Coyle, who will take over Bergeron’s and Krejci’s spots, has been a top-two center. Zacha played mostly No. 2 left wing last year. Coyle has always been best at No. 3 center. The center shuffle, compounded by other offseason exits, leaves the Bruins’ depth compromised. No longer can they roll Hall as the No. 3 left wing or Clifton on the third defensive pairing.

Bold prediction: The Bruins’ difference-makers are good enough to make up for the summer departures. Ullmark, in particular, is stronger mentally after last year’s playoff whimper. The Bruins do not come close to their historical 135-point achievement, but they win at least one playoff round.

— Fluto Shinzawa

Florida Panthers

Who’s new: D Oliver Ekman-Larsson, D Dmitri Kulikov, F Steven Lorentz, D Niko Mikkola, D Mike Reilly, F Evan Rodrigues, G Anthony Stolarz, C Kevin Stenlund

Who’s gone: F Anthony Duclair, D Radko Gudas, F Aleksi Heponiemi, F Patric Hornqvist, F Givani Smith, F Eric Staal, D Marc Staal, F Colin White

Reason for optimism: This team just went to the Stanley Cup Final and kept the vast majority of its core. How much more do you need? Losing Duclair, Gudas and Marc Staal hurts, but as long as the Panthers’ core is intact, they’re a dangerous team. Matthew Tkachuk, of course, is the deserved headliner after somehow topping his 2021-22 star turn by finishing third in Hart Trophy voting. He’s a superstar squarely in his prime — perhaps the most unique player in the league. Having him and Barkov at the top of the lineup gives Florida the horses to match up with anyone, and that’s before getting to Carter Verhaeghe, who actually led the team with 42 goals last season. As long as the Panthers are healthy, they’re a tough out for anyone.

Reason for concern: Well, that’s just it, isn’t it? Health? That long playoff run took a toll on the Panthers, and their two top defensemen, Aaron Ekblad and Brandon Montour, required offseason shoulder surgery. Ekblad is one of the most well-rounded blueliners in the league when he’s in the lineup, and Montour earned Norris votes last season after a dazzling 73-point campaign. If they can get back early in the season and stay there, it’s hard to pick against this Panthers team making the playoffs. But that’s a big if, and the potential for a big drop-off is serious without them. Especially after losing Gudas and Staal. Ekman-Larsson was a strong add that gives some buffer, but Florida can’t afford to be without its two defensive pillars for any extended time.

Bold prediction: Barkov wins his second Selke Trophy in 2024. He’s been one of the sport’s best defensive centers for a while now, and with Bergeron retired, the path to getting the hardware to match is much clearer. With a banged-up blue line to start the year, look for Florida’s captain to take it upon himself to pick up the slack — and get rewarded for it.

— Jonas Siegel

Buffalo Sabres

Who’s new: D Connor Clifton, D Erik Johnson, G Devon Levi

Who’s gone: G Craig Anderson, D Ilya Lyubushkin

Reason for optimism: The Sabres missed the playoffs by just one point last season despite having the youngest roster in the NHL both in terms of age and games of experience. The roster will still be young by age but will have a valuable season of experience upon which to draw. The Sabres have a stronger defensive core with the additions of Clifton and Johnson. They think Levi is the type of goalie who can be an instant upgrade even in his first full NHL season. They are already one of the best offensive teams in hockey. They only need to be an average team in terms of preventing goals in order to make another jump in the standings.

Reason for concern: Levi looked outstanding in the seven NHL games he played last season, but he’s still an unproven first-year goalie and the Sabres don’t have another proven option on the roster. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen just completed his first full season in the NHL and struggled with consistency. Eric Comrie has mostly been a backup in his career and had two separate injuries that prevented him from proving he could be a starter last season. The main reason the Sabres missed the playoffs in 2022-23 was their inability to keep the puck out of the net. That was due to a combination of a lack of attention to detail on defense and inconsistent goaltending. The Sabres are taking a risk on a few unproven options in net.

Bold prediction: Levi handles the bulk of the starts. He might be inexperienced, but the Sabres believe he’s up to the task of being a starter in the NHL. They had him skip rookie camp to focus on competing for a job in the NHL, which shows me they’re ready to give him the biggest workload of the bunch. Their success this season could ride on how well he handles it.

— Matthew Fairburn

Ottawa Senators

Who’s new: G Joonas Korpisalo, F Dominik Kubalik, F Zack MacEwen, F Vladimir Tarasenko

Who’s gone: F Derick Brassard, F Alex DeBrincat, F Dylan Gambrell, D Nick Holden, G Cam Talbot, F Austin Watson

Reason for optimism: The Senators are definitely trending upward after six consecutive seasons of missing the playoffs. They were only six points shy of qualifying for the postseason in 2022-23, showing how they’ve closed the gap in the Eastern Conference. With an array of talented forwards and a top four on defense featuring Thomas ChabotJakob ChychrunJake Sanderson and Artem Zub, it finally feels like Ottawa has enough high-end skaters to achieve success. With incoming owner Michael Andlauer set to put his stamp on this team, there is plenty of optimism swirling around Ottawa these days.

Reason for concern: Injuries have decimated Ottawa over the past couple of seasons, so that’s always a lingering concern on the mind of Senators fans. And because the goaltending position has been plagued by instability in recent years, there will be a lot of skepticism toward Korpisalo and Anton Forsberg until they prove they can carry the load.

Bold prediction: The Senators make the playoffs and flirt with the 100-point barrier.

— Ian Mendes

Detroit Red Wings

Who’s new: F J.T. Compher, F Alex DeBrincat, F Christian Fischer, D Shayne Gostisbehere, D Justin Holl, F Klim Kostin, G Alex Lyon, D Jeff Petry, G James Reimer, F Daniel Sprong

Who’s gone: F Adam Erne, D Robert Hagg, G Magnus Hellberg, F Dominik Kubalik, D Gustav Lindstrom, G Alex Nedeljkovic, D Jordan Oesterle, F Pius Suter, F Filip Zadina

Reason for optimism: Did you see all those new names? The Red Wings turned over nearly 40 percent of their roster and addressed some huge needs in the process. The most glaring need entering the summer was for a scorer, and they got one of the league’s most dangerous in DeBrincat, plus a 2022-23 breakout story in Daniel Sprong. They needed to improve their blue line, and they made a significant investment there as well, trading for Petry and signing a bona fide power-play QB in Gostisbehere and a minute-eater in Holl. Compher gives them a deep center group and a much-needed right-handed option on draws, and he, Kostin and Fischer should make them tougher to play against. DeBrincat is the big one, and he’ll naturally grab the headlines, but the real story of Detroit’s offseason is how much deeper the team could be.

Reason for concern: There are a few. First, while the Red Wings got deeper, they still may not have the top-end stars to really threaten in a division teeming with them. To stack up, they’ll need continued steps forward from young standouts Moritz Seider and Lucas Raymond plus likely a surprise or two. Second — and relatedly — DeBrincat (and Sprong) alone likely won’t be a total cure for Detroit’s scoring shortage. This was a bottom-10 scoring team in the league last season, which leaves a lot of ground to make up. And then there’s the goaltending: Ville Husso was very good for long stretches of last season, but his final line — an .896 save percentage and a 3.11 goals-against average — left a lot to be desired. The best explanation is fatigue, as Husso’s play noticeably dropped as a heavy 56-game workload piled up, but the Red Wings will likely count on him for at least 50 starts again, and they’ll need him to hold up better this time around.

Bold prediction: Raymond breaks out for 30 goals and 70 points. After Raymond’s dazzling rookie season, when he had 23 goals and 57 points, predicting this kind of output in Year 3 hardly would have seemed bold. But that was before a classic “sophomore slump” last season, when he finished with 17 goals and 45 points. The bet here, though, is Raymond bounces back in a big way, putting it all together and becoming the top-line threat the Red Wings so badly need him to be.

— Max Bultman

Montreal Canadiens

Who’s new: G Casey DeSmith, F Alex Newhook

Who’s gone: F Alex Belzile, F Jonathan Drouin, D Joel Edmundson, F Denis Gurianov, F Mike Hoffman, F Rem Pitlick

Reason for optimism: Long-term, there are several reasons for optimism, as the Canadiens have a flood of prospects knocking on the door. Short-term, however, there’s only really one, and that’s health. If they can have just average health, rather than being last in the NHL in man-games lost to injury, the Canadiens should be more competitive. It will not be enough to make up much ground in this beast of a division, but there should be more wins, and when they lose, they should do so in a more competitive fashion. The addition of Newhook (No. 16) gives the Canadiens three players chosen in the first half of the first round of the 2019 draft, along with Kirby Dach (No. 3) and Cole Caufield (No. 15). The core forwards are young, the defense is extremely young, and if all that youth takes a big step forward, maybe this team can surprise some people.

Reason for concern: OK, no one actually believed that, right? The Canadiens will be overmatched at every position on most nights and will have difficulty stringing together wins at this stage of the team’s development. Will there be more than last year? Probably, yes. Will there be enough to climb out of the basement of the division? Probably not. The Canadiens lack the depth of offensive firepower up front to compete with just about every other team in the Atlantic, except maybe the Red Wings. The power play was a disaster last season, and the penalty killing wasn’t much better. Plus, we still don’t know if some of the miracles Sam Montembeault performed in goal were a mirage. Things will improve, but it’s going to be another long season in Montreal.

Bold prediction: Caufield was on pace for 46 goals when his season was halted due to a shoulder injury. Doing it over 82 games is definitely not the same as doing it over 46, but we have to be bold, so let’s be bold: Cole Caufield will score 50 goals this season.

“There he goes. One of God's own prototypes.

A high-powered mutant of some kind, never even considered for mass production.

Too weird to live, and too rare to die.”

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