Atlantic Division Preview: Florida Panthers and Toronto Maple Leafs ready to fight for top spot

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Some of the top Atlantic Division teams might still be licking their wounds after the way they performed during the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season.

The Florida Panthers won the Presidents’ Trophy with the best record in the NHL during the regular season, but were swept by division foe and in-state rival Tampa Bay Lightning in the second round.

The Toronto Maple Leafs produced the fourth-most points in the league during the regular season, but Tampa Bay eliminated them in the first round.

The Boston Bruins also wracked up 107 points during the regular season, but they didn’t make it out of the first round either.

Tampa Bay’s success against the Maple Leafs and Panthers was also tempered when it lost to the Colorado Avalanche in the Stanley Cup Finals after winning the title the previous two seasons.

But that was last season, and 2022-23 brings plenty of optimism that Atlantic Division teams will again challenge for both the Presidents’ Trophy and the Stanley Cup this season.

Atlantic Division Preview: Panthers will roar

1. Florida Panthers

The Panthers made one of the league’s most visible upgrades in the offseason when they acquired forward Matthew Tkachuk from the Calgary Flames in exchange for veterans Jonathan Huberdeau and MacKenzie Weegar.

Tkachuk is known for his abrasive style, but he also scored 42 goals for the Flames last season. The Panthers haven’t had a 40-goal scorer since Pavel Bure scored 59 during the 2000-01 season.

“I’m here to produce and help provide wins,” Tkachuk said. “That’s the most exciting part for me.”

Their biggest question remains in goal with Sergei Bobrovsky. Can he repeat his strong performance from last season going 39-7-3 with a 2.67 GAA and .913 SV%? Or will the 34 year-old regress leaving an opening for Spencer Knight to take over as the starter.

Regardless, they have enough firepower with Aleksander Barkov, Sam Reinhart and Anthony Duclair to compensate. Plus is Aaron Ekblad can stay healthy on defense, they should squeak out first place in the Atlantic.

Paul Maurice will be taking over behind the bench for Andrew Brunette, who was named interim head coach after Joel Quenneville resigned.

2. Toronto Maple Leafs

The Maple Leafs said goodbye to goaltender Jack Campbell and right wing Ilya Mikheyev and will try to replace them with Matt Murray and Calle Jarnkrok. 

Campbell finished in the the top 15 in the NHL in save percentage (.914) and goals-against average (2.64) last season. He posted a shutout in Game 1 of the opening-round series against the Lightning, but gave up 21 goals in the next six games (.883).

Toronto let Campbell depart via free agency to the Edmonton Oilers and now is hoping Murray can not only get the Maple Leafs back in the postseason, but perform the way he did when he helped the Pittsburgh Penguins to back-to-back Stanley Cup titles in 2016-17.

Mikheyev missed the first two months of last season with a broken thumb, but returned to score 21 goals in 53 games. He signed a free-agent deal with the Vancouver Canucks.

Jarnkrok hasn’t been spectacular, but he’s been consistent, scoring between 12 and 16 goals and 26 and 35 points each of the past seven seasons.

While the team is banged up on defense, they’ve come to terms with RFA Rasmus Sandin to help in that areas.

For the Maple Leafs, they are stacked up front with Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares, and William Nylander. Those guys thrive in the regular-season, it’s just the playoffs where they can’t seem to get it done.

3. Tampa Bay Lightning

atlantic division nhl playoffs
May 23, 2022; Tampa, Florida, USA; Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy (88) looks back at the puck as right wing Nikita Kucherov (86) and defenseman Victor Hedman (77) skate into him during the second period against the Florida Panthers at Amalie Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

When looking at the top teams from last year, Tampa Bay seems to have taken a step back.

Ryan McDonagh waived his no-trade clause and the veteran defenseman was dealt to the Nashville Predators on July 3. McDonagh had four seasons remaining on a seven-year, $47.25 million contract he signed four years ago, but he felt there were greener pastures in Nashville.

“You don’t replace a guy like that, that’s the bottom line,” Tampa Bay defenseman Victor Hedman said. “One of the biggest warriors on ice that I’ve seen, blocking shots for fun and making big-time plays, a good leader in the room.”

The Lightning also lost forward Ondrej Palat, who had 11 goals in 23 playoff games last season, including seven in the third period. He had a chance to make more money with the New Jersey Devils and departed Tampa Bay after 10 seasons.

Luckily for them, they still have Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, and Brayden Point up front. Victor Hedman is also a perennial Norris Trophy candidate on the blue-line and Andrei Vasilevskiy is one of the best goalies in the world.

They’ll be back in the playoffs despite getting older and losing key players. Keep an eye Anthony Cirelli and Mikahil Sergachev to take on bigger roles this season.

4. Boston Bruins

The Bruins mostly stood pat in the offseason with the exception of luring veteran forward David Krejci back after a year in Europe. That wasn’t the case for the Detroit Red Wings and Ottawa Senators, both of whom made big strides towards becoming competitive again.

Fortunately for Boston, they were able to get their captain Patrice Bergeron to re-sign for one more year instead of retiring.

Boston also made a coaching change by firing Bruce Cassidy and turning to Jim Montgomery in the offseason. That puts a big question mark on whether or not the Bruin are a playoff team this season.

Montgomery, 53, made a splash as the head coach of the Dallas Stars in 2018 helping them back to the playoffs. He was fired one season later for “unprofessional conduct” by GM Jim Nill.

“That firing was deserved. I wasn’t doing the right things,” Montgomery said. “I was asking my players to do the right thing and yet I wasn’t. I think it’s important to know that as I did before I went through all of this undertaking, of understanding science and what alcohol does to you.”

Another concern for the Bruins is they will start the season with Brad Marchand, who is recovering from hip surgery. He’s expected back around November.

Marchand, 34, registered 80 points in 70 games for Boston this season. The feisty winger added 11 points in 7 playoff contests. He has 795 points in in 874 career games.

Ottawa Senators could be a dark horse this season

5. Ottawa Senators

claude giroux
Sep 24, 2022; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Ottawa Senators right wing Claude Giroux (28) skates during the warmup against the Toronto Maple Leafs at Scotiabank Arena. Mandatory Credit: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

The Senators made one of the biggest eye-opening trades in the offseason when they acquired Alex DeBrincat, a 40-goal scorer with the Chicago Blackhawks last season. That happened right before the draft but they were far from done.

They also traded for goalie Cam Talbot and then signed prized free agent Calude Giroux for three-years with an AAV at $6.5 million and a full no-move clause on July 13.

“When the idea was to come back home and play for the Sens, I didn’t look back after that,” Giroux said. “It’s a young group that’s very exciting. A lot of talent, guys that like to work hard and compete. I just like the character of the team and I think I’m going to fit right in with them.”

Adding these players to a young core that has Brady Tkachuk, Tim Stutzle, and Thomas Chabot makes them my dark horse of the Atlantic Division. If they find early chemistry, overtaking the Bruins won’t be a problem.

Could they sneak in as a wild card? That’s what Sens fans are hoping for this season.

6. Detroit Red Wings

Detroit brought in forwards David Perron, Andrew Copp, and Dominik Kubalik, as well as goalie Ville Husso.

These veteran additions will help improve upon their 32 win campaign in 2021-22, but it won’t be enough to compete with the top teams in the division.

GM Steve Yzerman still has work to do in turning this franchise back into a playoff team.

7. Buffalo Sabres

The Buffalo Sabres are a team on the rise, but they aren’t ready to compete with the top dogs in the Atlantic.

Owen Power, the first overall pick in 2021, will be playing in his first full season and should contend for the Calder Trophy. In goal, Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen from Finland has the potential to be a future #1 goalie in the league. To help guide him along will be 41 year-old veteran Craig Anderson.

Sabres fans will also be closely watching Rasmus Dahlin to see if he can find another gear on the blue-line. Tage Thompson, who just signed a huge extension will be the top focus among forwards.

8. Montreal Canadiens

The Montreal Canadiens continue on their rebuilding path and did not make any major changes to their rosters in the offseason.

Martin St. Louis will coach his first full season and is focused on making Cole Caufield into an elite NHL player. Additionally, he will work with first overall pick Juraj Slafkovsky on his development.

The Habs know everything they do this season is with sights set on the future. That’s why they chose Nick Suzuki to be their captain, the youngest ever in franchise history at age 23.

–Field Level Media and The Daily Goal Horn