NHL Atlantic Division Preview: Panthers and Lightning are the teams to beat

The Atlantic Division boasts the reigning two-time Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning and the surprise runners-up in the Montreal Canadiens. This summer, the Atlantic has undoubtedly been the most intriguing of the NHL’s four divisions.

While the Lightning managed to shed salary and still contend for a three-peat, the other seven teams have had significant changes, and many amidst a tumultuous off-season.

Here is a glance at what the eight Atlantic clubs have done so far and a prediction where their moves will take them by order of finish.

Atlantic Division: Sunshine State rules

1. Florida Panthers: You were expecting the Lightning here, but it’s the other Sunshine State squad that will finish atop the division … at least in the regular season. The playoffs may be a different story, but that discussion is down the road.

After the Panthers — who finished ahead of the Lightning in the regular season — were eliminated in the playoffs, the up-and-coming squad made some excellent decisions. Re-signing Sam Bennett, Carter Verhaeghe, Anthony Duclair and Brandon Montour were no-brainers, but acquiring Sam Reinhart from the dysfunctional Buffalo Sabres (more on them later) gives them even more offensive punch. Adding Joe Thornton adds veteran savvy to go with the overflowing collection of in-their-prime players.

2. Tampa Bay Lightning: The two-time champs re-signed Brayden Point, after shedding salary by letting Blake Coleman, Barclay Goodrow and David Savard leave via free-agency, losing Yanni Gourde to the expansion Seattle Kraken and trading Tyler Johnson to Chicago.

The Lightning remain contenders having added forwards Corey Perry and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and backup goalie Brian Elliott.

Atlantic Division: Teams with something to prove

3. Toronto Maple Leafs: After being unceremoniously upset by the Canadiens in the opening round of the playoffs, the Maple Leafs have extra motivation, but will be a weaker team. Zach Hyman’s departure via free-agency is a big hit, and replacing him with Nick Ritchie and Ondrej Kase won’t measure up.

More importantly, even the most ardent detractors of goalie Frederik Andersen — who departed via free-agency — can’t be sure Petr Mrazek is the answer.

4. Boston Bruins: First, the good news; Taylor Hall, who was excellent for them after being acquired from the Buffalo Sabres, signed a long-term contract. Now the bad news for Boston. David Krejci left to return to Czech after 15 seasons and it’s uncertain whether goalie Tuukka Rask will re-sign once he recovers from hip surgery.

taylor hall signs with bruins
May 21, 2021; Boston, Massachusetts, USA; Boston Bruins left wing Taylor Hall (71) skates during warmups prior to game four of the first round of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs against the Washington Capitals at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

The Bruins also lost goalie Jaroslav Halak, which means newly acquired Linus Ullmark is the de-facto starter. Adding Nick Foligno, Derek Forbort, Erik Haula and Tomas Nosek adds up to nearing non-playoff status.

5. Montreal Canadiens: Since their surprise run to the Final, the Canadiens have had a tough go. Captain Shea Weber is expected to miss the season and his illustrious career may be over.

They’ve already seen Tomas Tatar, Phillip Danault and Corey Perry leave via free agency, with Eric Staal likely to follow, and the additions of Mathieu Perreault, Mike Hoffman, Cedric Paquette and David Savard don’t inspire images of another Cup run.

Atlantic Division: Sabres destined for the cellar

6. Ottawa Senators: The Senators have plenty of young talent, but were not a playoff team before losing Derek Stepan and Ryan Dzingel via free agency. So far, they’ve only added depth defensemen Nick Holden and Michael Del Zotto, and the key off-season move would be re-signing restricted free-agent Brady Tkachuk.

7. Detroit Red Wings: When the Red Wings were the envy of the league is a distant memory and better days aren’t coming soon. Their best move may be acquiring goalie Alex Nedeljkovic. The Wings have re-signed the likes of Tyler Bertuzzi, Jakub Vrana and Adam Erne and added Pius Suter and Jordan Oesterle, but lost Darren Helm and Luke Glendening via free agency.

jack Eichel injury
Feb 26, 2020; Denver, Colorado, USA; Buffalo Sabres center Jack Eichel (9) before the game against the Colorado Avalanche at the Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

8. Buffalo Sabres: The Sabres have missed the playoffs 10 straight seasons, finished dead last in 2020-21 and have become worse. The Reinhart trade netted an excellent goaltender prospect in Devon Levi and a first-round pick, while dealing away Rasmus Ristolainen to Philadelphia netted depth defenseman Robert Hagg along with a first- and second-round draft pick.

Then, Owen Power — the top pick in this year’s draft — has opted to return to Michigan for his sophomore year instead of turning pro.

And the worst is yet to come. Star captain Jack Eichel is in a bitter battle regarding how his injured neck should be dealt with surgically and wants to be traded. It will be a long, cold winter in Buffalo, again