One change that could alter each NHL division’s balance of power in 2023-24

Patrice Bergeron outlines all the factors that went into his very tough decision to retire from the NHL, after 20 seasons with the Boston Bruins, saying he just knew it was time to step away.

Two months out from the 2023-24 NHL campaign, the power dynamics across the league are beginning to come into focus.

The league’s elite, the perennial contenders, look ready to vie for hardware once again. A few basement dwellers have added young game-breakers and veteran skill, looking to climb back into post-season relevancy. And across all four divisions, the middle of the pack looks set to see movement when the dust settles on all the trades, signings and familiar faces returning from injury.

That being the case, let’s take a closer look at one change that could alter the balance of power in each division next season, given the off-season business already in the books.

ATLANTIC DIVISION: Bruins lose top two centres as veterans Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci retire

Plenty of ink has been spilled already on the Boston Bruins’ domination of the Atlantic in 2022-23. But 2023-24 figures to be a different animal given the wave of change that’s swept through the B’s roster.

Veteran pivots Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci have hung up their skates. Top-nine wingers Tyler Bertuzzi and Taylor Hall are gone, too, as is brief top-pairing standout Dmitry Orlov. The 2023 Presidents’ Trophy winners still have marquee talent dotted throughout the roster, and time to reload — with some intriguing candidates out there to potentially fill those top two roles down the middle — so another season among the Atlantic’s best still seems in the cards. But it’s tough to imagine Boston not taking some type of step back.

If they do, the Toronto Maple Leafs and Tampa Bay Lightning — the Atlantic’s Nos. 2 and 3 squads for the past two years — will be there again, ready to claim the division crown.

Both clubs figure to pick up where they left off last season. The Maple Leafs pivoted slightly after running it back for the past few years, moving on from Kyle Dubas and handing the reins to former Calgary Flames GM Brad Treliving. Still, for the time being, it appears all the core characters will be back in 2023-24, so another year of regular-season success and post-season tumult seems on the docket. But all eyes will be on how much the addition of Bertuzzi, a full season of Matthew Knies, and some other minor additions around the edges move the needle for the club. The Bolts, meanwhile, will be the same handful for the division that they have been, losing longtime depth characters Alex Killorn and Pat Maroon but keeping all of the pieces most vital to their success. And after a Round 1 exit that ended their streak of three straight Cup Final runs, they figure to be a motivated group.

And while the Bruins are at risk of being overtaken by Toronto or Tampa, or both, behind that top three lurk another cluster of clubs ready to make waves, too. 

The Florida Panthers will look to carry the form they showed late last season, and all through the post-season, into a full campaign in 2023-24. The increasingly dangerous Buffalo Sabres are hungry to build on a promising 2022-23 that put the league on notice, as are an Ottawa Senators squad that’s seen its young stars continue to grow into their potential, and added veteran sniper Vladimir Tarasenko to the mix, too. All told, the top six clubs in the Atlantic look set for a tighter battle this time around.

Whether the Detroit Red Wings and Montreal Canadiens — with the addition of Alex DeBrincat for the former, and a healthier campaign for the latter — can make any waves among the middle-of-the-pack remains to be seen, but they’ll have an uphill battle given the strength of the six teams above them.

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METROPOLITAN DIVISION: Erik Karlsson teams up with Sidney Crosby and Co. in Pittsburgh

The talk of the Metro this off-season might be Pittsburgh and its blockbuster blue-line acquisition, but make no mistake, the class of the division is still the Carolina Hurricanes. And the reigning division champs figure to remain in the mix for the crown in 2023-24, with better health and a few new additions to their offence in forward Michael Bunting and defender Dmitry Orlov.

Another strong year seems likely from the division’s Nos. 2 and 3 squads, too. The New Jersey Devils, who put together their best campaign in a decade last season, now get a full year of Timo Meier and have added another marquee scorer to the mix in veteran Tyler Toffoli, fresh off a career year. The New York Rangers have been among the Metro’s best for the past two seasons — there’s a sense of uncertainty hovering above them in terms of what they’ll look like under new head coach Peter Laviolette, but there’s too much talent on that roster for them to not remain among the division’s elite.

If there’s a potential shake-up in the Metro, it’s in the middle of the pack — and in the Eastern Conference wild-card race — that things will get interesting.

It was the New York Islanders who finished just outside the Metro’s top three and claimed a wild-card spot last year. Maybe a full season of Bo Horvat helps them stick in that position. But behind them, the Penguins seem a more dangerous group than the one that finished fifth and missed the playoffs last year. They’re far from flawless, but it’s worth remembering the Pens finished among their division’s top three for seven straight years until last season’s stumble, including No. 3 the season before last with largely the same group they have now. A resurgent 2022-23 from Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin — who combined for 176 points last season — showed their vets can still hang, and now the pair will have Karlsson, fresh off a 101-point effort, to work with, too.

How the division shakes out behind Carolina and Jersey could come down to how much of an impact Karlsson has on the Penguins’ offence, whether he and the other slew of new black-and-gold additions are enough to lift Pittsburgh past the Islanders and closer to that top three.

Aside from that top-five group, the rest of the Metro figures to have a familiar feel in 2023-24. The Washington Capitals and Philadelphia Flyers look set to bring back similar groups to the ones that finished sixth and seventh last year. If there is a club that could make things interesting among the lower half of the division, it might be the Columbus Blue Jackets, who are banking on progress from their young stars, and will have another talent — 2023 third-overall pick Adam Fantilli — joining the fray this time out.

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CENTRAL DIVISION: The Connor Bedard Era begins in Chicago

Much like the Metro, the top of the Central doesn’t figure to shift much in 2023-24. The 2022 Cup champs, and 2023 division champs, have all they need to reclaim the crown, the Colorado Avalanche heading into the new campaign after another off-season of rotating pieces around their world-class core. Their best remain among the game’s best, and with a few interesting adds around the edges — Ross Colton, Ryan Johansen, Jonathan Drouin, Miles Wood — there’s no reason to assume they’ll be overtaken.

After a banner year of their own, ended only by the eventual champions in the Western Conference Final, the Dallas Stars look likely to remain among the Central’s elite, too, getting another year of growth from their young stars and some depth scoring from recently-added vet Matt Duchene. The same goes for the Minnesota Wild, who are similarly banking on progress from their youth movement, and returning largely the same group that took a step up in the West the past few years, minus defender Matt Dumba.

After that top three, though, the rest of the Central seems ripe with uncertainty.

Much of how the rest of the division will shake out seems to hinge on what happens in Winnipeg. After an up-and-down few years for the club’s core, change has already begun to come for the Jets. Gone are Blake Wheeler and Pierre-Luc Dubois. Mark Scheifele and Connor Hellebuyck head into the final season of their deals, their names spinning through the rumour mill. Still, the Jets managed to bring in talented scorers Gabe Vilardi and Alex Iafallo in that Dubois swap — should their roster remain as it is right now, Winnipeg seems to have what they need to stick where they are, or even challenge for a top-three spot. But if more change comes, how far back does it set the Jets?

Behind them, Nashville and St. Louis wait patiently, the 2023 fifth- and sixth-ranked Central squads making few waves this off-season — the former swapping a couple departing veterans for new ones, the latter essentially standing pat — content to operate from the middle of the pack. But behind them, things get interesting.

In Chicago, the Connor Bedard Era begins. After years of hype tabbing the Regina Pats standout as a generational, franchise-altering talent, he’ll get his first chance to show just how impactful he can be. Chicago has brought in some veteran help to ease that transition, with Taylor Hall, Nick Foligno and Corey Perry now dotted among the roster, too. How much noise his club can make in Bedard’s rookie season remains to be seen, but the middle of the Central pack seems there for the taking. And Arizona could be due for a step forward, too. They’ll see the debut of one of their own top young talents, 2022 No. 3 pick Logan Cooley, and with a wave of further additions — Jason Zucker, Alex Kerfoot, Matt Dumba — and the progress their young stars came up with last season, a climb could be within reach.

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PACIFIC DIVISION: Kings shake up roster with Pierre-Luc Dubois blockbuster

The story of the Pacific might be just how much the Los Angeles Kings’ bold roster turnover moves the needle for the club in 2023-24.

After seeing their resurgent return to the Pacific’s top three over the past couple years end with two straight post-seasons of being ousted by Connor McDavid, the Kings opted for major surgery this off-season. Leading that roster shakeup was the club’s hefty investment in Pierre-Luc Dubois, the team parting ways with some talented forwards and shelling out $68 million to land the young centreman. Now, they’ll find out just how far he can take them. 

But they’ll have their hands full with the two teams who led the division last year. The reigning Stanley Cup champions seem at no risk of falling off, with Vegas bringing back largely the same Golden Knights squad that won it all a few months ago, their eyes on going again. In Edmonton, the Oilers still boast the most prolific pure scorer in the game — little has changed for the roster around him, aside from the addition of depth scorer Connor Brown, but the Oil have all they need to stick among their division’s best for the fifth straight year.

The Kings will have to worry about the Seattle Kraken nipping at their heels, too. A year of progress in 2022-23 left the Kraken just four points off L.A.’s 104, just a handful off Vegas’s 111. The Pacific was the only division to feature four 100-point clubs last season, and after the Kraken finished off the campaign by dispensing with the defending-champion Avalanche and nearly outlasting Dallas, too, they’ll have eyes on climbing even higher in 2023-24.

And then there’s the bottom half of the division, once again full of question marks.

The Calgary Flames have lost their 2022-23 leading scorer, Toffoli, and have been plagued by rumours of other key names wanting out. On the other hand, the long-awaited coaching change has been made, Darryl Sutter is gone, and a new voice has taken over to potentially help Jonathan Huberdeau and Nazem Kadri reach the level that was expected of them when they were brought to town a year ago. Calgary has the pieces to put together a better year and make some noise in the division, but at this point they’re still mired in uncertainty.

The Vancouver Canucks, meanwhile, opted for only subtle changes this off-season, reshaping their blue line but largely returning a similar group in 2023-24. That group left much to be desired last time out, even with young leaders Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes blossoming with dominant, career years. They seem on track for a better campaign in 2023-24, and the middle of the division appears up for grabs, but moving past any of the clubs in the top four seems a difficult ask.

As for 2022-23’s basement pair, the San Jose Sharks and Anaheim Ducks — the former moving into a full rebuild, the latter coming off a season as the league’s worst, still waiting on their young talent to show their full potential at the top level — the coming year doesn’t look like the one that’ll see either return to glory in the Pacific. 

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