Photo Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Which Atlantic teams are worth worrying about next season?

This season, the Atlantic Division has been split into the have and have nots. Tampa, Boston and Toronto are three of the best sides in the NHL and have all sat comfortably in a playoff spot pretty much since puck drop in October. Florida and Detroit are in this murky middle ground of being average at best. Ottawa, Montreal and Buffalo have been hilariously bad.

But what about next season? Can we expect the teams that are well out of the playoff picture to be challenging the three most dominant teams in the division? Let’s have a look.

Florida Panthers

The Panthers currently sit fourth in the Atlantic Division – 19 points behind the Leafs. However they are only six points behind the Hurricanes who occupy the final wild card spot in the East and they have played the fewest games in the whole conference. They could make the playoffs this season.

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Florida have some really nice pieces and a fairly decent cap situation – apart from Roberto Luongo and Keith Yandle being signed forever. But on paper they are a pretty good team – a team that should be on the bubble of the playoffs like they are currently.

Are they likely to get any better next season? Well they have a roster full of young players who have good NHL talent. Huberdeau, Barkov, Trocheck and Ekblad are all young players that give you a solid core to build around.

Unfortunately for the Panthers their prospect pool looks rather weak. Owen Tippett looks like he could be a big player for them next season – he was drafted 10th at the 2017 draft. He has played seven games with the big club this season and has 54 points in the OHL for Mississauga Steelheads. He could easily make the team from camp next season.

Overall the Panthers are good. I like their team and I think they have the potential to be good provided they can sort out their management situation and add a couple more scoring options – they only have 166 goals this season. Maybe they could do with another goaltender – Luongo has only played 16 games this season due to injury and will be 39 in April.

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Are the Panthers going to be a threat anytime soon? They can be, but they are a good few pieces away from challenging the big three in the division.

Detroit Red Wings

Gone are the days of the Wings dominating the NHL. Now they are a bunch of old guys earning a lot of money for very little production. To put it simply – the Wings are probably the furthest team away from a Stanley Cup in the whole league. Worst thing for them is they are not quite bad enough to be a bottom five team to help boost their lottery odds.

Let’s look at their cap situation:

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  • 37 year old Zetterberg signed until 2021 at over $6 million
  • 33 year old Frans Nielsen signed until 2022 at over $5 million
  • 30 year old Justin Abdelkader signed until 2023 at over $4 million
  • 31 year old Darren Helm signed until 2021 at over $3.8 million
  • Fourth line center Luke Glendening signed until 2021 at £1.8 million
  • 37 year old Niklas Kronwall signed until the end of next season just under $5 million
  • 33 year old Jonathan Erickson signed until 2020 at over $4 million
  • 34 year old Trevor Daley signed until 2020 at just over $3 million

Yeah – that is not good reading.

Worse yet they have just $12 million in cap space to sign Dylan Larkin, Andreas Athanasiou, Anthony Mantha, Tyler Bertuzzi and Martin Fyk. Plus any other players they will need to fill roster holes.

The Wings have some nice prospects though including: Axel Holmstrom, Evgeny Svechnikov, Joe Hicketts, Vili Saarijarvi, Keith Petruzzelli, Dylan McIlrath,  Dennis Cholowski, Givani Smith, Filip Hronek, Michael Rasmussen and Gustav Lindstrom.

It is not all bad. But man – they need to shed some contracts somehow or they will not be able to sign anyone.

For my money the Wings are not legitimate contenders for a playoff spot for another three or four years because they simply have so many bad contracts on their books. Their summer business could be interesting since they have so many players to sign with such little cap space.

Montreal Canadiens

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This team have went from Stanley Cup contender to lottery team in the space of a season. But the Canadiens are probably just a few moves away from being a legitimate contender again.

Firstly they have Carey Price – anytime with an inform Price will be up there with the big boys come playoff time. They also have some pretty good players too: Shea Weber, Max Pacioretty, Jonathan Drouin, Brendan Gallagher, Alex Galchenyuk, Jeff Petry and a few others. They are not a lottery team.

What they lack is a top center. If John Tavares makes it onto the open market come July 1st you can bet your bottom dollar that the Canadiens will offer him the moon to sign for the team. If they can pull that off then they are a contender – a legitimate one.

The cap situation at the Canadiens is decent enough. They have plenty of room to maneuver and do not have any ridiculous albatross contracts anchoring them down.

Their prospect pool though is lacking depth:  Charlie Lindgren, Ryan Poehling, Nikita Scherbak, Charles Hudon, Mike McCarron, Will Bitten, Jacob De La Rose, Noah Juulsen and Daniel Audette.

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Victor Mete made the jump to the big club this season and he does look like an NHL defenseman so at least that is a positive on what is a weak farm.

The Canadiens are probably the most direct threat to the Atlantic big three as they are underachieving this season and are probably only one or two pieces away from being good again. Maybe a GM change would help…

Ottawa Senators

The Sens were so close to getting to the Stanley Cup final last season – this time around they have been closer to the basement since around November. The club has seen a calamity of errors – from ownership troubles to their star player talking about leaving and arena attendance. This season has been a disaster from almost the start.

But are the Sens really this bad? Or will they bounce back?

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Well firstly there is the looming impending doom of Erik Karlsson leaving because his contract is up after next season. Do they trade him? Can they afford to resign him? Does he want to stay at a team that seems so far away from winning?

If Karlsson leaves then the Sens need to make sure they get a huge return – like two first round picks, two elite prospects and another sweetener. If Karlsson stays and signs a huge eight year $10 million per season deal then the club will be constrained by their internal cap and some bad contracts like Bobby Ryan and Marian Gaborik. They also need to sign Mark Stone to a new deal which will not come cheap.

So the Sens are stuck in a difficult position whereby they probably can’t afford to keep their star player – but if they trade him then they will annoy their fans and probably lower their attendance even further.

The prospect pool looks thin. So do not expect much help from the farm. Here are their main players: Marcus Hogberg, Francis Perron, Logan Brown, Colin White, Nick Paul, Thomas Chabot, Andreas Englund, Filip Chlapik, Max McCormick and Shane Bowers.

Really it is difficult to envisage the Sens getting better anytime soon. They might not be as bad as they have showed this season but they overperformed the year before. Really they are probably a bubble playoff team. But this summer will be huge for them and will shape the franchise for years to come – Peter Dorion needs to get his summer decisions right or this club could be feeling the damages for years to come.

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Buffalo Sabres

The Sabres are 32 points behind the Leafs. That is 16 wins. Quite unbelievable really considering most people felt they would be in and around the playoffs.

Jack Eichel is their franchise cornerstone and he is signed up long term – with him they should be able to build a contender sooner rather than later.

In general though it seems the Sabres lack good NHL scoring depth and their defense is poor. Not a good combination.

Rasmus Ristolainen has really struggled to do the defensive side of the game well and he has been relied upon to play the big minutes for the club. Their other defensemen are okay but not exceptional and they have gotten poor goaltending with Robin Lehner posting a .910% in net.

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For me the Sabres are not as bad as they have shown this season. But the beauty of a bad season is the fact that they could pick up Rasmus Dahlin in the draft – which would help to rectify their poor defense which is conceding at a rate of more than three per game.

Their prospect pool is okay – but without any real standout names other than Alex Nylander – who they will hope is half as good as his brother William. Here are the main prospects in the farm: Alex Nylander,  Hudson Fasching, Justin Bailey,  Brendan Guhle, Nick Baptiste, Linus Ullmark, Rasmus Asplund, Jason Kasdorf and Casey Mittelstadt.

The Sabres could bounce back next season and challenge for a wildcard spot – but do not expect Tampa, Boston and Toronto to lose any sleep at the prospect of facing them.

To summarise – The Canadiens, Panthers and Sabres should get better. Ottawa and Detroit will continue to be bad.

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