While you should always be worried about every team in the league regardless of division or conference, inner-division rivalries are always the most significant. After all, you not only play these teams the most, but you are also competing with them for the playoff spots, or at least in the top three. For the Leafs, it’s no different. While their division is considered to be the weakest of the four, they still need to compete with these teams for the playoffs, so let’s take a look at their biggest competition this season (so, everyone but Buffalo and Detroit).
5. Ottawa Senators
Results: 44-28-10 (2nd in Atlantic), eliminated in Eastern Conference Finals
Key Additions: Johnny Oduya, Nate Thompson
Key Subtractions: Marc Methot, Viktor Stalberg, Chris Neil, Chris Kelly, Tommy Wingels
Biggest X-Factor: Craig Anderson
Don’t let this team’s results fool you. While they represented the Atlantic division in the conference finals, they did so with a relatively easy path, beating an injury-riddled Boston Bruins team in the first round, and the New York Rangers in the second round, who was probably the one team just as bad as them last year. They were a team that came and went as Erik Karlsson did – when he was on the ice, they were dominant, when he wasn’t, they played like a lottery team.
While the team didn’t exactly lose anyone significant (Methot is quite bad without Karlsson FWI), they didn’t gain anyone either. This is pretty much going to be the same team as last year, except one of the biggest cogs in the system is a year older in Craig Anderson, who had an excellent season that really helped an otherwise average Sens team. He’s 36 this season, so you start to wonder when his age begins to show, and if it does, it will be a huge blow to the team. If he falters, Mike Condon is the backup, whose career .908 save percentage leaves a lot to be desired.
If the Sens were a house, then they’d be Aunt Josephine’s house from A Series of Unfortunate Events. Not bad, but if one of those slim pieces of wood breaks, the whole house plummets into the river.
Prediction: The team sees a bit of a regression and misses the playoffs, despite being close for three quarters of the season.
4. Florida Panthers
Results: 35-36-11 (6th in Atlantic), missed playoffs
Key Additions: Evgenii Dadonov, Radim Vrbata
Key Subtractions: Jaromir Jagr, Thomas Vanek, Shawn Thornton, Jakub Kindl, Reilly Smith, Jonathan Marchessault
Biggest X-Factor: Aaron Ekblad
After embracing the analytics movement, the Florida Panthers had a less than successful season, mostly due to losing some of their best players to injury for good chunks of the season. So, what does one do after a season like that? Why, scorch Earth, of course? They fired Tom Rowe, gave Dave Tallon his old job back, decided to not re-sign Jaromir Jagr, decided to not only let Marchessault go for nothing, but also traded Smith to make sure that they picked Marchessault, hired a bunch of former players in management roles, and even tried to trade Jason Demers to Vancouver for Erik Gudbranson, but luckily for the Panthers, Demer’s no trade clause nixed it (not like Jim Benning would’ve given up their precious defenseman anyway).
It’s safe to say that the Panthers are a bit of a gong show. However, luckily for them, their team is still solid with some elite players. So, while the team seems to be heading back to the era of one playoff appearance in 15 years, they might be good enough to save themselves from… well, themselves. The Panthers have a good enough team where they’ll probably compete for most of the season, but not enough to make it. The difference will be whether or not Aaron Ekblad can take that next step to becoming an elite defenseman WITHOUT the help of Brian Campbell.
With Jagr and Vanek gone, and Dadonov and Vrbata in, they won’t lose too much scoring wise, and as long as the team is healthy, they’ll be good, it’ll just be a matter of how good. After this season, depending on where the team goes from here, we’ll have to see if they take the right steps or not.
Prediction: The team has a healthier season, and is competitive throughout, at least enough to be better than the Senators.
3. Boston Bruins
Results: 44-31-7 (3rd in Atlantic), eliminated in Eastern Conference Quarterfinals
Key Additions: Paul Postma
Key Subtractions: John-Michael Liles, Drew Stafford, Dominic Moore, Colin Miller
X-Factor: Zdeno Chara
After a year of being one of the league’s best possession teams, and making the playoffs for the first time in three years, the Bruins once again leave us wondering what they’re doing. First off, Don Sweeney seemed to have gotten his Miller’s confused at the expansion draft, because he protected Kevan and exposed Colin. They let several depth pieces go, while also not really replacing them. They’re only attempt was Paul Postma, who’s okay, but not better than Colin Miller. They also haven’t re-signed David Pastrnak, one of their best players, despite over $10 million in cap space.
What does this mean for next season? Odds are, they’ll probably slip down a bit. After all, they made the playoffs by one point, and are a worse team than last year. And since their defense still relies heavily on Zdeno Chara, he’s going to be a big factor on their blueline, depending on how he ages. The team will probably make the playoffs based more on the teams around them than themselves.
Prediction: The Bruins compete with the Hurricanes, Islanders, Rangers, and Flyers for the two wild card spots.
2. Montreal Canadiens
Results: 47-26-9 (1st in Atlantic), eliminated in Eastern Conference Quarterfinals
Key Additions: Jonathan Drouin, David Schlemko, Karl Alzner, Ales Hemsky, Mark Streit
Key Subtractions: Alexander Radulov, Andrei Markov, Alexei Emelin, Nathan Beaulieu Dwight King, Steve Ott
X-Factor: Carey Price
After a disappointing playoff performance (and seeing the guy who they traded so that they could “win now” go to the Finals), the Canadiens have revamped their team. Not only have they added more scoring with Drouin but at the expense of Radulov, they also completely changed up their defense (for better or worse), with Weber and Petry being the only blueliners on the roster to start last season. While they made some smart grabs, like Schlemko and Streit, they also made a bad grab in Karl Alzner. They also made these changes at the expense of Markov, Emelin, and Beaulieu, so they didn’t really make changes, they just shuffled the chairs around.
Oh, and they signed their goalie with an injury-riddled history and only one year of “best in the league” calibre goaltending to a $10.5 million contract for eight years. Yes, I know they HAD to, it doesn’t make the decision any less worse.
So, we’re basically looking at the same team, just replace some players with similar players. While they were a dominant team for most of the season, they also had a goalie who was dominant for most of the season. They continue to live and die by Carey Price, which so far hasn’t worked, so I don’t know what they’re hoping out of this.
Prediction: They probably are the team that are closest to the Leafs, the two teams will probably duke it out for second and third, with it probably hinging on Price’s health.
1. Tampa Bay Lightning
Results: 42-30-10 (5th in Atlantic), missed playoffs
Key Additions: Mikhail Sergachev, Chris Kunitz, Dan Girardi, Jamie McBain
Key Subtractions: Jonathan Drouin, Jason Garrison
Steve Yzerman had yet another offseason that most GMs could dream of. Not only did he get rid of one bad contract via the expansion draft, he also solved another expansion draft problem (too many forwards), while also getting a young defenseman who could help out the team either now, or in a year or two. He then shored up his depth with Kunitz and McBain, and also locked up Johnson and Palat to cheap, long term deals.
He also signed Dan Girardi, so maybe not a “dream” offseason.
This is on a team that missed the playoffs by one point in an injury riddled season. So, basically, they were a playoff team, but they lost all of their players for some time during the season. I’m not exaggerating either, they literally had no one with 82 games played last year. Most important of them was Stamkos, who only played 17 games last year. I bet if he plays even 10 more, Tampa probably makes the playoffs. Whether or not the team can remain healthy will be the biggest factor to their season, but this team seems to be a lot closer to the Cup finals/conference finals teams from 2015 and 2016 than last season’s team.
Prediction: Barring health, Tampa runs away with the division title. The combination of the team’s skill and their determination to make the playoffs will probably drive them to a dominant regular season.
In the end, I think this is how the Atlantic division lines up:
1. Tampa Bay
While many are still concerned about the fact that the Leafs only made the playoffs by one point, and did so with few injuries, I think we see an improvement, at least from a standings perspective. I think the combination of upgrading their depth, and other teams in the division losing their minds, will lead to the Leafs moving up to at least third in the division, if not second (maybe first). Them, Tampa, and Montreal will be in the first tier, competing for the division title. Although, they still won’t come anywhere close to the Metropolitan division, so the Leafs still have a bit to go before becoming the class of the East.