NHL 2021-22 Atlantic Division preview: Can Lightning do it again?

Brendan-Gallagher

Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy (88) blocks a shot by Montreal Canadiens right wing Brendan Gallagher (11) during the second period in Game 1 of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup finals, Monday, June 28, 2021, in Tampa, Fla. (Gerry Broome / AP)

With the divisions back to how they used to be, this year’s Atlantic Division is an amalgam of last season’s North, East and Central.

That means Original Six rivalries like Boston-Montreal, Boston-Toronto, Boston-Detroit, Detroit-Montreal, and Toronto-Detroit are back.

With the defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning looking to do something no team has accomplished in 40 years, let’s take a closer look at the teams in the Atlantic Division.

(Teams are listed in the order in which we believe they’ll finish in the 2021 standings.)

FLORIDA PANTHERS


2021 season outcome: 37-14-5, second place in Central Division, lost to Lightning in first round of Stanley Cup Playoffs

Notable off-season additions: Sam Reinhart, Joe Thornton

Notable off-season subtractions: Keith Yandle, Alexander Wennberg, Brett Connolly, Chris Driedger, Anton Stralman

The good news: First and foremost it’s got to be the return of Aaron Ekblad. The 2014 first-overall pick’s season ended early when he sustained a broken leg on a nasty fall. Although the Panthers managed a 15-5-1 record down the stretch following the 25-year-old’s injury, they were matched with the Lightning in the opening round and couldn’t muster a series win.

The Panthers had middle-of-the-pack special teams, so Thornton’s addition could give the power-play another set of useful hands. Same goes for Reinhart who scored 10 of his 25 goals a season ago when he was on the man advantage.

Is this the year Spencer Knight supplants Sergei Bobrovsky as the team’s starter? Either way, Florida is in good shape between the pipes. Oh yes, and it’s rarely a good idea to underestimate a Joel Quenneville-coached team.

The bad news: They’re inevitably going to have to get past the Lightning and until it’s clear Tampa is no longer the team to beat in their division we’ll hold back on going all in on the Panthers.

Another thing to consider is how much longer will the Panthers’ window be open? It seems like this is a team ready to break through to that next level yet with Aleksander Barkov and Carter Verhaeghe’s contract extensions kicking in next season, salary cap management will become more difficult to navigate for GM Bill Zito.

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TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING


2021 season outcome: 36-17-3, third place in Central Division; defeated Panthers, Hurricanes, Islanders and Canadiens en route to second consecutive Stanley Cup.

Notable off-season additions: Corey Perry, Zach Bogosian, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Brian Elliott

Notable off-season subtractions: Tyler Johnson, Yanni Gourde, Blake Coleman, Barclay Goodrow, David Savard, Luke Schenn, Mitchell Stephens, Curtis McElhinney

The good news: The high-end talent at all three levels is still there. When you have a foundation of Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point and Steven Stamkos up front, plus perennial Norris and Vezina finalists Victor Hedman and Andrei Vasilevskiy manning the blue line and crease, respectively, you simply have an automatic head start on your competition most nights. One more positive sign: swap Bogosian back in for Schenn and the dominant back end remains intact.

The bad news: The most glaring obstacle this team faces is uncertainty over how the new-look bottom-six will perform. Specifically, Tampa’s entire third line is gone with Yanni Gourde selected in the Kraken’s expansion draft, Barclay Goodrow’s rights traded to the Rangers and Blake Coleman inking a deal with Calgary in free agency. The team dealt Tyler Johnson to Chicago to help fix the salary cap situation, which also ate at the team’s depth.

There could be some overall fatigue following two straight lengthy playoff runs. Add to that the fact no team has won three straight Stanley Cups since the Islanders dynasty of the early 1980s and another Tampa championship becomes all the more improbable – on paper at least.

TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS


2021 season outcome: 35-14-7, first place in North Division; lost to Canadiens in first round of Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Notable off-season additions: Petr Mrazek, Nick Ritchie, Ondrej Kase, Michael Bunting, David Kampf

Notable off-season subtractions: Zach Hyman, Joe Thornton, Nick Foligno, Zach Bogosian, Alex Galchenyuk

The good news: The Maple Leafs didn’t make a giant splash in free agency, however getting Ondrej Kase, Nick Ritchie and Michael Bunting at low cap hits could prove to be the kind of low-risk, high-reward moves GM Kyle Dubas was banking on.

Mrazek and Jack Campbell both posted strong numbers in limited playing time in 2020-21. If that tandem can improve slightly, or merely plateau, then the team should be in good shape.

Bonus good news: this marks the final season the team will be required to pay a portion of Phil Kessel’s contract ($1.2 million to be exact).

The bad news: Hyman had played an integral role in the top six. His production and puck retrieval ability is going to be tough to replace. With Morgan Rielly entering the final year of his contract, there’s plenty of questions surrounding the team’s defence. How much does Rasmus Sandin’s improvement impact what the team does with Rielly?

Is there enough forward depth to make any noise in the post-season if the big four of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares and William Nylander falters? Another year of playoff struggles, regardless of how well they might do in the regular season, could mean major off-season changes on and off the ice.

BOSTON BRUINS


2021 season outcome: 33-16-7, third place in East Division; eliminated the Capitals, lost to Islanders in second round

Notable off-season additions: Erik Haula, Nick Foligno, Derek Forbort, Tomas Nosek, Linus Ullmark

Notable off-season subtractions: David Krejci, Jaroslav Halak, Nick Ritchie, Ondrej Kase, Sean Kuraly, Jeremy Lauzon, Steven Kampfer, Tuukka Rask???

The good news: The top trio of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak should be dominant once again, however the forward depth is what gives them an advantage over many teams in this division. Adding Haula, Foligno and Nosek means Boston can roll four lines comfortably, while Taylor Hall showed signs in the spring he could return to being a 30-goal threat.

The bad news: The makeup of this team has changed quite drastically over the past few years. With Tuukka Rask not re-signed (at least for the time being), uncertainty in net could also prove worrisome. Jeremy Swayman was impressive in his 10 appearances last season but how will that translate over an 82-game season? Can Ullmark pull a Robin Lehner and become a Vezina contender after leaving a messy situation in Buffalo? Bruins fans are sure hoping so.

MONTREAL CANADIENS

2021 season outcome: 24-21-11, fourth place in North Division; eliminated the Maple Leafs, Jets, Golden Knights, lost to Lightning in Stanley Cup Final

Notable off-season additions: Mike Hoffman, David Savard, Christian Dvorak, Mathieu Perreault, Cedric Paquette, Chris Wideman, Sami Niku

Notable off-season subtractions: Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Phillip Danault, Corey Perry, Eric Staal, Erik Gustafsson, Charles Hudon, Shea Weber (LTIR)

The good news: Young forwards like Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield, plus new additions Christian Dvorak and Mike Hoffman, can energize what should be an already-motivated group after a truly tumultuous off-season for the franchise. The return of Jonathan Drouin from a personal leave of absence can certainly aid in this. This skilled 26-year-old only has nine total goals since 2019 and hopes to return to 20-goal form.

The bad news: Key off-season losses like Danault, Perry and Staal were the cost of doing business in the NHL. The unexpected offer-sheet signing of Kotkaniemi, Shea Weber’s potentially career-ending injury and now Carey Price’s personal leave were all unexpected. Paul Byron is also not available at the start of the season after undergoing off-season hip surgery. That’s a lot for any team to overcome.

The health and personal wellbeing of Weber and Price is most important, clearly, yet from an Xs and Os standpoint it significantly lowers Montreal’s ceiling. That blue line doesn’t look all too intimidating without Weber and there’s tons of pressure on Jake Allen and Sam Montembeault’s shoulders for as long as Price is away from the team.

OTTAWA SENATORS

2021 season outcome: 23-28-5, sixth place in North Division, missed playoffs.

Notable off-season additions: Zach Sanford, Nick Holden, Michael Del Zotto

Notable off-season subtractions: Logan Brown, Evgenii Dadonov, Ryan Dzingel, Artem Anisimov, Derek Stepan

The good news: There isn’t pressure to win now, necessarily, and that should allow head coach D.J. Smith and his youthful group to play a relaxed yet intense brand of hockey that’ll frustrate teams that boast more star power.

It’s a pivotal year for the likes of Josh Norris, Shane Pinto, Erik Brannstrom and Tim Stutzle, none of whom have celebrated their 23rd birthday. That can be an exciting time for a fan base just as long as there are clear signs of progress.

The bad news: Only four teams allowed more goals than Ottawa last season and they didn’t upgrade their goalies. Matt Murray is coming off his worst season as a pro. If he doesn’t rebound, how much confidence does the team have in Anton Forsberg? They were also among the worst teams in the faceoff circle and on the power play and there’s nothing to indicate that will be much different in 2021-22.

DETROIT RED WINGS


2021 season outcome: 19-27-10, seventh place in Central Division, missed playoffs.

Notable off-season additions: Pius Suter, Mitchell Stephens, Alex Nedeljkovic, Nick Leddy, Jordan Oesterle, Luke Witkowski

Notable off-season subtractions: Jonathan Bernier, Valtteri Filppula, Frans Nielsen, Luke Glendening, Richard Panik

The good news: Overall, just knowing that Steve Yzerman is the one making decisions and building this roster is reason enough for optimism. In terms of the offence, there’s really nowhere to go but up after the team scored just one more goal than the lowly Ducks last season.

It was a slightly under-the-radar move but trading for Nedeljkovic from Carolina could help jumpstart a turnaround. The young netminder posted a .932 save percentage and 1.90 goals-against average which were league bests among goalies with more than 10 starts.

The bad news: There remains a dearth of elite talent. Detroit lost seven games in regulation by just one goal plus another 10 in overtime or a shootout. Their .227 winning percentage in one-goal games was worst in the NHL and a lack of proven scorers could mean similar results. If minor improvements result in winning more of these close games, though, then we’ll begin seeing Detroit climb up from the league’s lower tiers.

BUFFALO SABRES

2021 season outcome: 15-34-7, eighth place in East Division, missed playoffs.

Notable off-season additions: Will Butcher, Robert Hagg, Aaron Dell, Craig Anderson, Vinnie Hinostroza, Mark Pysyk, John Hayden

Notable off-season subtractions: Jack Eichel??? Sam Reinhart, Rasmus Ristolainen, Riley Sheahan, Jake McCabe, Linus Ullmark, Matt Irwin, Carter Hutton,

The good news: Maybe, finally, once and for all, THIS is the season the Sabres truly start to turn things around? Or, at least can they show us the latest stage of a seemingly never-ending rebuild is heading in the right direction. That’s really all there is to look forward to this season in Buffalo. What kind of progression can Rasmus Dahlin, Dylan Cozens and other youngsters make? Enough for fans to forget about all the Jack Eichel drama yet to be resolved?

The bad news: In the short-term it’s likely going to be more misery. The Sabres are probably going to get lit up on a regular basis with Craig Anderson and Dustin Tokarski manning the crease. The reality of the situation with Eichel will continue to set in and the failed nature of the Eichel era in general doesn’t result in much optimism going forward.

Owen Power is returning to the University of Michigan, so fans will have to wait to see the 2021 first-overall pick make his NHL debut.

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