NHL 2022-23 Atlantic Division Preview: Can anyone challenge the top four?

Shawn McKenzie and Luke Fox discuss the ripple effect from John Tavares' surprising oblique injury, how plans have changed, how it's exposed their centre depth, and which players will benefit most from Tavares' absence?

Is there a stronger division in hockey? Probably not, sports fans.

No team had more regular season wins last year than the Florida Panthers, while the second- and third-seeded teams in the Atlantic, the Toronto Maple Leafs and the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning, went toe-to-toe in Round 1 of the 2022 playoffs, and seven games later, the Maple Leafs — owners of the fourth-best record in hockey — were out, while the Lightning went on to the Final.

Looking ahead to this season, on top of the front-runners who are set up to contend again, teams who found themselves lower in the Atlantic standings last season made moves this summer to improve their stock, only making this tough division even tougher.

Let’s take a look at all eight teams, in alphabetical order.   

BOSTON BRUINS

2021-22 season outcome: 51-26-5, fourth in the division; lost to Carolina in first round of the playoffs.

Notable off-season roster additions: Pavel Zacha, A.J. Greer, David Krejci

Notable off-season subtractions: Erik Haula

The good news: In the off-season, the Bruins re-signed captain Patrice Bergeron, one of the best two-way players in the game, who at age 37 was mulling retirement. His return is huge. They’ll also see the return of David Krejci, who went home to the Czech Republic last season to be closer to his family. It means the core of this dynamic group is still in tact, along with David Pastrnak, Brad Marchand and Taylor Hall up front, and one of the best defenders in the game in Charlie McAvoy on the blue line.

Boston also boasts a solid one-two punch in net with Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman, a pair of 20-somethings who last season combined for the fourth-best GAA across the league (2.66) and who now have playoff experience. Many of these Bruins have been together a long time, and in what is likely their last chance at a run together, they have the talent and plenty of incentive to make it happen.

The bad news: The Bruins are set up for a rough start, because they’ll be without two of their biggest stars to open the season. Marchand (both hips) and McAvoy (shoulder) had off-season surgery, and neither player is expected back in the lineup until November or December. Defenceman Matt Grzelcyk also starts the season on the shelf after off-season shoulder surgery.

That’s certainly not how you want to open the year, so it’ll be up to the Bruins to weather an early storm, and they’ll also have to do so under a new coach in Jim Montgomery. Most recently an assistant in St. Louis, Montgomery was hired in the summer after the Bruins fired Bruce Cassidy, who’d been the coach in Boston for seven seasons.  

BUFFALO SABRES

2021-22 season outcome: 32-39-11, fifth in the division; missed playoffs.

Notable off-season roster additions: Ilya Lyubushkin, Eric Comrie, Riley Sheahan

Notable off-season subtractions: Cody Eakin, Dustin Tokarski, Drake Caggiula, Colin Miller, Aaron Dell, Mark Pysyk, John Hayden, Will Butcher

The good news: This is a young team, and there have been encouraging results from some of the older core players, while a crop of youngsters in the system continue to develop.

Last season, the Sabres over-achieved, because many put them at the very bottom of this division. Jeff Skinner had 33 goals — his most in three seasons — and fellow forward Tage Thompson, who paced the Sabres with 38 goals, hit a career-high there, and also in assists and total points, with 68. Thompson is just 24 years old, so there’s plenty of upside there. On the blue line, 21-year-old Rasmus Dahlin also had offensive career-highs, with 53 points in all. Encouraging signs, to be sure.

On top of that, the Sabres have some developing young draft picks like defenceman Owen Power, who’s 19, and 20-year-old forward Jack Quinn. There’s a lot to like about this team’s future, and coach Don Granato, who took over in June of last year, has been getting a lot out of this team.

The bad news: The Sabres have missed out on the post-season for 11 straight seasons, and with a focus on building slowly, while there’s much to like about what this team could look like down the road, the playoffs don’t look to be in reach this season yet again.

The Sabres didn’t make any big splashes in the off-season, so short of all the prospects developing ahead of schedule, this is shaping up to be another season with more losses than wins.  

DETROIT RED WINGS

2021-22 season outcome: 32-40-10, sixth in the division; missed playoffs.

Notable off-season roster additions: Andrew Copp, Ben Chiarot, Olli Maatta, Ville Husso, David Perron, Dominik Kubalik

Notable off-season subtractions: Sam Gagner, Danny DeKeyser, Thomas Griess, Marc Staal, Calvin Pickard, Thomas Greiss, Mitchell Stephens, Riley Barber

The good news: Detroit finished out of the playoff picture and below .500 for the sixth straight season, but GM Steve Yzerman and the front office went to work over the off-season, giving the team the new look it needed. That includes behind the bench with new head coach Derek Lalonde, who spent the last four years winning back-to-back Cups in Tampa Bay as an assistant.  

Copp gives the offence a boost, and he’ll slot in as the second-line centre — the Michigan native had 53 points last season (with the Jets and the Rangers), and his production will be a welcome addition up front for the Red Wings, who were paced offensively by No. 1 centreman Dylan Larkin (69 points) and Tyler Bertuzzi (62). This team fared poorly when it came to goals against last year, and Husso — one of the best goalies available in free agency— along with Chiarot and Maatta, should help improve those numbers.

Second-year players Moritz Seider on defence (50 points as a Calder-winning rookie), and Lucas Raymond (57 points) will also be key contributors as they continue to develop. Detroit’s sixth overall pick last season, defender Simon Edvinsson, is also expected to contend for a job out of training camp.

The bad news: Building takes time. And while the Red Wings certainly addressed some needs after a season spent near the bottom of the league in many key categories (like goals for and goals against), there’s no telling whether Yzerman’s moves will be enough to see this team crack the playoffs. Looking at the rest of this strong division, it’s going to be tough for the Red Wings to be playing beyond the regular season.

Everyone involved understands the Red Wings are in the midst of rebuilding, so again, patience will be the key. It’s just that being patient isn’t usually fun.   

FLORIDA PANTHERS

2021-22 season outcome: 58-18-6, first in the division; lost in the second round to Tampa Bay.

Notable off-season roster additions: Matthew Tkachuk, Nick Cousins, Chris Tierney, Marc Staal, Michael Del Zotto, Colin White, Rudolfs Balcers

Notable off-season subtractions: Jonathan Huberdeau, Claude Giroux, Ben Chiarot, Mason Marchment, Mackenzie Weegar, Joe Thornton, Markus Nutivaara

The good news: This team won the Presidents’ Trophy last year, and they were no doubt the best in this incredibly stacked division, with a solid netminder in Sergei Bobrovsky. Now the Panthers have a new head coach in Paul Maurice, and they added the grit they felt they were lacking, with the addition of Tkachuk.

Those two moves look like good ones for a team that hasn’t had the playoff success they’ve been expecting after regular season dominance. Maurice led the Jets to the Stanley Cup Western Conference Final back in 2018, and that change behind the bench could pay off in the post-season. Tkachuk, too, is one of the more visible and plucky players in the league, which are good assets in the post-season. There’s a lot to like about the roster that also includes Aaron Ekblad on the point and Aleksander Barkov as the team’s first-line centre.

The bad news: Did the Panthers get better? It’s hard to say. This team gave up a lot to get Tkachuk, and if you look at the deal statistically, they said goodbye to a guy who produced more offensively last season (Huberdeau had 115 points) than Tkachuk did (104 points.)

Forward Anthony Duclair, who was fourth on the team with 58 points, also won’t be available to the Panthers for a few months. He’s recovering from surgery on his left Achilles tendon back in July.

While change can be a good thing for a team that had a quick and early second-round exit in the post-season, you also have to wonder: Why so many shake-ups for the best team in hockey during the last regular season? And will the moves pay off? Only time (in the post-season) will tell.

MONTREAL CANADIENS

2021-22 season outcome: 22-49-22, last in the Atlantic; missed the playoffs.

Notable off-season roster additions: Sean Monahan, Kirby Dach, Evgenii Dadonov, Mike Matheson, Mitchell Stephens

Notable off-season subtractions: Shea Weber, Jeff Petry, Alexander Romanov, Jeff Petry, Cedric Paquette, Mathieu Perreault, Tyler Pitlick

The good news: Montreal named 23-year-old Nick Suzuki captain this summer, and he’s the youngest to wear the ‘C’ in this franchise’s history, and on a team that’s in a rebuilding phase and full of youth.

The Canadiens will also see their No. 1 pick from earlier this year, Juraj Slafkovsky, fighting for a roster spot and hoping to join other young talents up front, like Suzuki, who led the team with 61 points last season, and 21-year-old Cole Caulfield, who was second overall with 43.

Dach, the newly-acquired centreman, is also just 21, and the Canadiens got a veteran presence on their blue line with the addition of the smooth-skating, Quebec-born Matheson, who spent the past couple of seasons in Pittsburgh.

Change is good for the team that finished dead last in the division last year. General Manager Marc Bergevin is gone, replaced by Kent Hughes, while Martin St. Louis will continue coaching after taking over the role in an interim fashion in February of last season, when the Canadiens were floundering. Players responded to St. Louis during a tough season, and he was rewarded with a three-year contract extension this summer.

The bad news: This storied franchise is yet again in no position to contend for the playoffs, and last season was a real fall from grace for a team that went from cracking the Stanley Cup Final in 2021 (nobody saw that coming; they had the worst record among teams to make the playoffs) to the absolute worst team in hockey in 2021-22 (two points worse than Arizona, even).

And it doesn’t look too much better for the Canadiens this season. Goalie Carey Price is on long-term injured reserve, after complications from right knee surgery he had in July of 2021. While there are some good young players on this team, Montreal is still very much in rebuilding mode.  

OTTAWA SENATORS

2021-22 season outcome: 33-42-7, seventh in the Atlantic; missed the playoffs.

Notable off-season roster additions: Claude Giroux, Alex DeBrincat, Cam Talbot

Notable off-season subtractions: Matt Murray, Filip Gustavsson, Connor Brown, Colin White, Victor Mete, Michael Del Zotto, Chris Tierney, Tyler Annis, Adam Gudette.

The good news: The Senators made some huge moves this off-season to signal they’re looking to contend, acquiring DeBrincat from Chicago and signing Giroux to a three-year deal, while trading for Talbot, who should bring some consistency between the pipes. It all signals hope for a franchise that hasn’t made the playoffs since an Eastern Conference Final appearance back in 2017.

Giroux is a proven leader and point-getter, and he’ll be be a key presence alongside a young group of forwards that includes captain Brady Tkachuk, who paced the team with 67 points last season. Tkachuk is 23 years old, and the next three top point-getters on this roster from last season -- Tim Stutzle (58 points), and Tkachuk’s linemates in Josh Norris (55 points) and Drake Batherson (44 points) -- are all 24 years old and younger.

Joining that impressive young group is DeBrincat, who’s 24, and who had a nearly point-per-game season in Chicago last year. GM Pierre Dorion deserves a pat on the back for these off-season moves.

The bad news: Talented defender Thomas Chabot doesn’t have a whole lot of help on the blue line, and that’s where the Senators remain weak. It could be what stops this young and offensively gifted lineup from cracking the playoffs.

There’s also a lot riding on the youth in this lineup, and the young 20-somethings will all have to be firing at capacity if this team is going to contend in this super strong division. 

TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING

2021-22 season outcome: 51-23-8, third in the Atlantic; lost in the Stanley Cup Final to Colorado.

Notable off-season roster additions: Vladislav Namestnikov, Ian Cole, Haydn Fleury, Philippe Myers

Notable off-season subtractions: Ondrej Palat, Ryan McDonagh, Riley Nash, Jan Rutta

The good news: This team came a couple wins shy of a third straight Stanley Cup last season, and though they did lose a couple of veteran players, the core of a stacked perennially contending (and often winning group) is still in tact, led up front by Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point and Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman on the point, and Andrei Vasilevskiy between the pipes.

The Lightning are still very much built to win, and since they’re so used to winning, they’re no doubt extra-motivated to get back to the Final and do it again, after a six-game loss earlier this year to Colorado.  

The bad news: On account of the salary cap, the Lightning had to trade McDonagh, and they couldn’t re-sign Palat. Both were long-time members of the team, and major factors when it came to providing depth up front (Palat) and on the blue line (McDonagh).

The loss of McDonagh means Mikhail Sergachev will have to step up and play more minutes than ever, which clearly the Lightning are counting on the 24-year-old to do. Sergachev signed an eight-year extension this summer. Palat, too, leaves a big hole: He tied for the team lead in goals scored during the last playoffs, with 11.

The Lightning will also open the season without Anthony Cirelli up front and Zach Bogosian on the back end, as they’re both recovering from off-season shoulder surgery and are both expected to be on the shelf for a few months. That’s one of the negatives when your team makes a deep run: There’s less time to recover from what ails you.  

TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS

2021-22 season outcome: 54-21, second in the Atlantic; lost in Round 1 of the playoffs to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Notable off-season roster additions: Matt Murray, Ilya Samsonov, Victor Mete, Nicolas Aube-Kubel, Calle Jarnkrok, Jordie Benn, Zach Aston-Reese, Adam Gaudette

Notable off-season subtractions: Jack Campbell, Ilya Mikheyev, Ondrej Kase, Colin Blackwell, Ilya Lyubushkin

The good news: This team is stacked with talent, led by last year’s Hart Trophy winner, Auston Matthews. Toronto set franchise records in wins and points last season, and this team is largely the same, save for changes between the pipes that’ll see Murray and Samsonov battle for that No. 1 spot previously held by Campbell.

If you’re to believe GM Kyle Dubas, there’s legitimate belief that this group can go on a deep run for the Stanley Cup, and that’s why Toronto is standing by the core of Matthews, Marner, William Nylander, veteran captain John Tavares, and blueliner Morgan Reilly.

The bad news: Last season was proof that the best regular season news can mean exactly … zilch. The Leafs won more than they ever have, nobody scored more than Matthews’ 60 goals, and yet, Toronto once again didn’t get out of the first round of the playoffs.

The Leafs haven’t won a playoff series since 2004. If this team doesn’t progress this season when it matters, major change will be the only acceptable answer to their fanbase.

A big question is in net. Murray has had trouble staying healthy of late, while Samsonov has had trouble with consistency. The Maple Leafs are betting on either one or both of those problems being a thing of the past this season, and their hopes of a deep run no doubt also rest on that bet. 

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