The Atlantic was the most top-heavy division in hockey one season ago. Tampa, Boston and Toronto are again among the odds-on favourites to win it all in 2019-20, however with Florida and Buffalo on the rise there should be more parity this time around.
With that in mind, here’s a look at best- and worst-case scenarios for each team in the Atlantic Division. (Teams are listed in the order in which we believe they’ll finish in the 2019 standings.)
Tampa Bay Lightning
2018 finish: 62-16-4, won Presidents’ Trophy, swept in first round
Major additions: Kevin Shattenkirk, Pat Maroon, Curtis McElhinney, Luke Witkowski
Major subtractions: J.T. Miller, Anton Stralman, Ryan Callahan, Adam Erne
Best-case scenario: They finish the season with fans and pundits debating where this year’s Lightning ranks among the greatest single-season squads in NHL history…sound familiar? Except instead of getting swept by an eight seed in the opening round of the playoffs, they live up to their insane potential, win it all and sweep the trophy case as well. Another “Hart/Ross” for Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos takes his third Rocket Richard, Andrei Vasilevskiy wins his second straight Vezina, Victor Hedman his second Norris, Brayden Point his first Selke, John Cooper earns the Jack Adams and they hoist the Cup.
Worst-case scenario: A repeat of a monstrous regular season followed by an early playoff exit would be a nightmare scenario. So would this group not being able to recapture the magic they had during that remarkable 82-game slate. The East is theirs to lose and really anything besides an appearance in the Stanley Cup Final with this roster will be considered a disappointment.
2018-19 finish: 36-32-14, missed playoffs
Major additions: Sergei Bobrovsky, Anton Stralman, Brett Connolly, Noel Acciari, head coach Joel Quenneville
Major subtractions: Roberto Luongo, James Reimier, Troy Brouwer
Best-case scenario: Quenneville and Bobrovsky help them get over the hump as expected. They maintain their second-ranked power play and Quenneville tightens up the team’s already strong penalty killing (81.3 per cent efficiency last season) as well as their five-on-five discipline. Bobrovsky joins Patrick Roy, Ed Belfour and Glen Hall in the triple Vezina club, breaking some of Luongo’s individual single-season franchise records along the way. This is the year they finally get out of the first round…for just the second time in their history.
Worst-case scenario: The off-season moves don’t take, they have a negative goal differential for the third time in the past four years and a few of their star players start asking to be moved. The money committed to an under-performing defence becomes a concern, the losing ways continue, poor ticket sales persist and more people begin to wonder why there are two NHL teams in the Sunshine State.
Toronto Maple Leafs
2018-19 finish: 46-28-8, lost to Bruins in opening round
Major additions: Tyson Barrie, Alex Kerfoot, Cody Ceci, Jason Spezza, rookies Rasmus Sandin, Ilya Mikheyev, Dmytro Timashov
Major subtractions: Nazem Kadri, Jake Gardiner, Patrick Marleau, Ron Hainsey, Nikita Zaitsev, Connor Brown, Tyler Ennis
Best-case scenario: The Maple Leafs channel their MLSE sibling Toronto Raptors and go on a miracle playoff run that takes over a city. We heard Mike Babcock in training camp praise the leadership Kawhi Leonard brought to the 2019 NBA champions, so he sees his team perform with a similar vibe. John Tavares in particular embraces the stoic leader role best and he become a Hart finalist for the second time in his career. Brisk puck movement and Toronto’s sheer offensive upside overwhelms teams as the Leafs play with confidence each night because Frederik Andersen makes the big save when it counts.
Worst-case scenario: All the off-season drama with Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, captaincy etc… becomes a distraction as soon as the team hits a rough patch. The high-paid top-six under perform and the bottom-six simply isn’t good enough despite improved play from the revamped blue line. Frustration and tension surrounding the team and its relationship with the media becomes palpable and a “Is Babcock the right fit for this group?” narrative gains steam. The fan base also loses patience with GM Kyle Dubas after it becomes clear the huge contracts he has handed out are going to handcuff his group moving forward. The season ends at the hands of the Bruins yet again adding salt to the wound.
2018-19 finish: 49-24-9, lost to Blues in Stanley Cup Final
Major additions: Par Lindholm, Brett Ritchie, Kevan Miller (returning from injury)
Major subtractions: Marcus Johansson, Noel Acciari
Best-case scenario: They finally get over the hump and win their first Cup since 2011. The trio of Bergeron/Marchand/Pastrnak wreaks havoc at even strength once again and Tuukka Rask plays out of his mind like he did in the post-season with fans continuing to go crazy with the brick wall memes. The role players like Sean Kuraly, Danton Heinen and Chris Wagner channel David Backes’s veteran energy and become the heart of the team, while Karson Kuhlman has a breakout campaign. Zdeno skates off into the sunset as a two-time champ and future Hall of Famer.
Worst-case scenario: The team’s lack of off-season roster tweaks hurts them. They’re still a playoff-calibre team yet the others in the Atlantic Division make up ground and give them more problems than they faced last year. The veteran group loses a half-step and are left lamenting how close they were to winning it all this past June.
2018-19 finish: 33-39-10, missed playoffs
Major additions: Colin Miller, Marcus Johansson, Jimmy Vesey, Henri Jokiharju, head coach Ralph Krueger
Major subtractions: Alex Nylander
Best-case scenario: Buffalo’s first post-season berth since 2011 is never in doubt. Krueger completely changes the culture and galvanizes this burgeoning roster similar to when he led a Team Europe with low expectations to the final at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey. Victor Olofsson earns a spot on the top line and is a surprise producer for a team that is a buyer at the trade deadline, not a seller like usual. Captain Jack Eichel cements himself as a superstar with his first 30-goal/100-point effort and Rasmus Dahlin wonders what’s this sophomore slump people speak of as he reminds everyone that, just like Connor McDavid, he is a generational talent that opposing teams have to specifically plan for. They’re still a year and a franchise goalie away from being a Cup contender, but they win their first playoff series since 2007.
Worst-case scenario: It’s same old, same old in Western New York. Eichel is frequently heard venting his frustration during post-game scrums as his teammates don’t perform up to his standards. Rasmus Ristolainen puts GM Jason Botterill in a tough spot by demanding a trade mid-season. Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark are nothing more than a Swiss cheese goalie tandem and by the time the Christmas break rolls around half the roster looks like nothing more than rental players.
2018-19 finish: 44-30-8, missed playoffs
Sebastian Aho, Ben Chiarot, rookies Nick Suzuki, Cale Fleury
Major subtractions: Andrew Shaw, Jordie Benn
Best-case scenario: Despite a dearth of off-season moves, the core group at forward both individually and collectively shows noticeable progress. The Habs were the best non-playoff team in 2018-19 so subtle improvements could be all it takes to get back to the post-season. Their power play goes from 30th-ranked to a middle-of-the-pack unit, while maintaining a strong penalty kill. Pending RFA Max Domi becomes Montreal’s first 80-point man since 2008 Alexei Kovalev setting the table for some interesting off-season contract negotiations.
Worst-case scenario: The team moves on from and doesn’t get much in return for a struggling Jonathan Drouin while Mikhail Sergachev takes a step and becomes a star in Tampa. Size, physicality, and a lack of high-end talent down the middle makes it difficult for Montreal to match up with the Eastern Conference’s best. Another year with no playoffs costs Claude Julien and Marc Bergevin their jobs.
2018-19 finish: 29-47-6, worst record in NHL
Major additions: Ron Hainsey, Nikita Zaitsev, Connor Brown, Tyler Ennis, Scott Sabourin, head coach D.J. Smith
Major subtractions: Zach Smith, Cody Ceci, Ben Harpur
Best-case scenario: Erik Brannstrom is a revelation and Sens fans forget about that other Swedish blueliner named Erik, while Thomas Chabot’s contract immediately looks like a steal and rookie Drake Batherson exceeds expectations. They’ve got an extra 2020 first-round pick from the Erik Karlsson trade plus three extra second-round selections to work with over the next two drafts. Trading from a position of strength and using some of those bonus picks to supplement the talent currently in their system could fast-rack the ongoing rebuild in the nation’s capital. Finding a team to take Bobby Ryan’s contract wouldn’t hurt either.
An alternate best-case scenario sees the Sens finish with a respectable record yet still luck into the No. 1 pick at the draft lottery so fans can begin dreaming about what the Alexis Lafreniere era could look like.
Worst-case scenario: New coach D.J. Smith is unable to inspire and gain the respect of a team that showed plenty of heart and fight last year in spite of all the struggles. That Chabot contract starts to look troublesome, puzzling comments and decisions from ownership continue, the fan base gets progressively more frustrated, the team finishes at the bottom of the standings and sees unlucky results yet again at the draft lottery.
Detroit Red Wings
2018-19 finish: 32-40-10, missed playoffs
Major additions: Adam Erne, Patrik Nemeth, Calvin Pickard, general manger Steve Yzerman
Major subtractions: Thomas Vanek, Niklas Kronwall, GM Ken Holland
Best-case scenario: Similar to recent rebuilds we’ve seen, the Red Wings’ on-ice product might not be easy to look at in the short term but the youthful core unveils to Yzerman its potential. It’s a prove it year from top to bottom throughout the organization. Diminutive winger Taro Hirose becomes a surprise Calder contender, Filip Hronek is breakout star, and they gain useful future assets when they part ways with some veterans ahead of the trade deadline.
Worst-case scenario: Subpar goaltending and questionable defensive depth has this young team playing from behind far too often, which skews how Yzerman assesses his roster. Frequent losses hurt the team’s collective confidence as the development of Dylan Larkin, Anthony Mantha, Andreas Athanasiou and Tyler Bertuzzi stagnates.