Last year’s Atlantic Division was something rare, in that there were eight legitimate contenders. Not for the Stanley Cup, of course, but for at least one of the season’s two biggest prizes: the aforementioned grail, or the first overall draft pick. It was a clean line, with four teams being very good (Florida, Toronto, Tampa Bay, Boston), and the other four being decidedly un-good (Montreal, Ottawa, Detroit, Buffalo).
What that meant was, when there were divisional games, the predators could be counted on to consume the prey (barring hockey doling out its intermittent serving of randomness), which only furthered the divide between the haves and the have-nots. On the season the Bruins had the lowest point total of the top tier with 107, while the Sabres had the most points of the bottom tier at 76. Spot ‘em 30 more and they’d have still finished fifth in the division.
The point here, is mild improvement from the division’s bottom half isn’t going to be enough for any of them to make the playoffs. They need to make a colossal leap to get there, as the cut off to make the 2022 playoffs in the east was Washington’s 100 points. So yeah, I’m not here to predict the bottom half suddenly becoming equal with the top.
The bottom half of the Atlantic looks to be better, and considerably so. It’s possible that the free points handed from the bottom to the top of the division are over (which somewhat incredibly, may not be terrible for the team I cover on the radio each day, the Toronto Maple Leafs. I say “may not be terrible,” as I’m sure they’d prefer to see the teams around them struggle, too).
Here are the records of the Atlantic’s top tier against the bottom four teams in 2021-22:
Tampa Bay: 10-3-1
Toronto: 10-6-0 (Buffalo beat them three times alone)
Florida swallowed those points like a whale inhaling krill, barely pausing as they pushed on to their next destination.
The Leafs winning percentage of .625 against those teams was below their .701 winning percentage on the season that saw them finish fourth in the NHL with 115 points. Their immediate rivals fared better against the divisional dregs than they did rest of the league.
So let’s take a look at that bottom half, and why it’s unlikely that the top half will replicate its combined record of 47-14-1 against them this season. Let’s start with the teams most aggressively pursuing improvement and work our way back.
The Sens can count on internal improvement based solely on age and experience. They’ve got four core pieces that are 24-or-under in captain Brady Tkachuk, Tim Stutzle, Josh Norris and Drake Batherson. There’s also the excitement of those guys having been paid, as the Sens commit to what they’re building there (the fans thank them, I’m sure). They then added a 40-goal scorer in Alex DeBrincat, and an aging star with some shine left in Claude Giroux, a still-competitive player who put up 65 points last year. Those are huge additions for a team that struggled to score and had a power play in the league’s bottom third.
They then added Cam Talbot, fresh off a season with a .911 save percentage, and suddenly their goaltending duo with Anton Forsberg seems pretty formidable for a team that started a half-dozen guys in 2021-22, most of whom couldn’t give them nearly enough saves.
They’ve had a massive uptick in season ticket interest, so energy should be better generally. If nothing else, they’re a young and excited group that’s actually trying to win and going to hand out far fewer free passes. DJ Smith wouldn’t want it any other way.
You only get to try to lose for so long before people say “OK enough,” and after six straight years of missing the playoffs, the Wings have finally gone in. This will be Steve Yzerman’s fourth season as GM, and he’s seen enough. Now, will they be really good? I’m doubtful. But they have plenty of good young players. Moritz Seider and Lucas Raymond got people excited last year in particular, and look who’s coming to join them:
They’ve added coach Derek Lalonde, goalie Ville Husso, defencemen Ben Chiarot, Olli Maatta and Mark Pysyk, and up front they tacked on Andrew Copp, Dominik Kubalik and David Perron. That’s seven established NHL players just plugged into the NHL lineup around their growing internal talent. The names listed there are big and competitive and capable, exactly the support you need to nurture talent at the sport’s highest level.
From Steve Yzerman: “So Chiarot's a big body (6-foot-3, 234 pounds). Maatta's a big body (6-foot-2, 210). Even Kubalik's an offensive player, but he's a big, strong guy (6-foot-2, 179). So we want to be harder to play against because we're better defensively, we're more competitive and even we have more depth up front that we can match up better, whether it's strong offensive teams or strong defensive teams."
Again, I don’t think they’re suddenly better than any team in the top-four, but I’m certain they’re going to be harder to take points off. Particularly if Husso gives them the quality goalkeeping of which he’s shown himself capable.
There are limits to the strides a team can take when the plan is “internal improvement,” but the Sabres should test those limits given all their young talent and recent draft picks. This team went 14-7-3 in their final 24 games last season, some of which featured the now-permanent fixture that is Owen Power on the back-end to complement Rasmus Dahlin, who’s come into his own.
The team will carry just three players in their 30s (Craig Anderson, Kyle Okposo and Jeff Skinner). On top of the re-signed Victor Olofsson (age 27) and Tage Thompson (24), they’ve got a ton of young forwards ready to improve: Jack Quinn, 20, Dylan Cozens, 21, Peyton Krebs, 21, Casey Mittelstadt, 23, Rasmus Asplund, 24, Alex Tuch, 26, and perhaps J.J. Peterka, 20.
The addition of Ilya Lyubushkin should make their back-end harder to play against, and they hope Eric Comrie can give them some more saves in the crease.
It’s hard to see the Sabres as being anything but better than they were in 2021-22 assuming they’re reasonably healthy. There’s just too many guys capable of taking meaningful strides. They don’t seem like a playoff team yet, but they’ve got the talent to surprise sleepy teams, and the size to hang with anyone.
The Habs may not quite be committing to “winning” as the primary goal just yet, but I’ll be honest: I don’t think their roster looks to be nearly as bad as their 2021-22 record, and would not be surprised if the team is better than most expect.
They add the number one pick in Juraj Slafkofsky, and even with keeping expectations low, he’s a nice infusion of size and skill. Cole Caufield found himself in the second half last year, and Nick Suzuki is another year older and better. Speaking of size and talent, they added Kirby Dach, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a bounceback season from Sean Monahan. Evgenii Dadonov is a 20-plus goal guy they’re going to plug into what was an offence-starved lineup.
Their holdover forwards may come with question marks, but there’s at least upside in guys like Josh Anderson, Jonathan Drouin, Brendan Gallagher and Mike Hoffman. And while they aren’t elite names, they’ve got competitive defenders in guys like Joel Edmundson, Mike Matheson, and David Savard. Jake Allen put up a .905 save percentage on an awful team. A full season and a proper training camp with Martin St. Louis should help, too.
I am by no means making the case that the Habs will be good. They just don’t seem like the 32nd-best team in hockey to me anymore.
In the near future I’ll be taking a look at the directions of the last year’s top-four teams in the Atlantic, which is obviously relevant here too. But if you’re any of them heading into next season, it would be hard to miss that the complexion of the division around you has changed.
Hockey brings about all kinds of randomness, things that are impossible to predict in the summer. We don’t know who will be healthy, or which team may have that right mix of personalities, jell easily, and start the season on fire. But it’s safe to assume that from the top-to-bottom in the Atlantic – a division which already had four very good teams – we’re going to see better competition in 2022-23.