2023-24 NHL Season Preview: Atlantic Division

The NHL Atlantic Division is perhaps the most intriguing division in the league. Seven teams in this division have at least some semblance of a case for the playoffs. Montreal is also in the Atlantic. Featuring the defending Eastern Conference champions and President’s Trophy winners, this division will tear itself apart and it will be glorious.

Boston Bruins

There is no reason to take this team seriously anymore. A team that shattered the records set by the 2018-19 Tampa Bay Lightning had an exit about as humiliating. The lasting legacy of Patrice Bergeron, discussed here, will be this video of him being devastated that the team he gave his life to let him down one last time.

What does Boston do now? The solution they enacted in free agency was to sign older players to one-year deals. Though the Bruins could not lure Blake Wheeler back to town, they brought back fan favorite Milan Lucic, as well as James van Riemsdyk and Kevin Shattenkirk.

While the Bruins have a stout blue line and goalie tandem, the bottom six is horrifying to look at. No playoff contender– much less Stanley Cup contender– plays Morgan Geekie as the third-line center. Sure, Fabian Lysell looks promising, but he is a pure winger. The Bruins need a third-line center that played at least a little more than 10.5 minutes a night. It is entirely possible, especially if this issue is not addressed, the Bruins go from making history to missing the playoffs.

Potential Boston opening night lineup

Marchand – Coyle – Pastrnak / van Riemsdyk – Zacha – Debrusk / Frederic – Geekie – Lysell / Lucic – Boqvist – Brown

Lindholm – McAvoy / Grzelcyk – Carlo / Forbort – Shattenkirk

Ullmark / Swayman

Projected Atlantic Division finish: 6th of 8.

Buffalo Sabres

For the first time in more than a decade, the Buffalo Sabres have playoff expectations. One of the most fun teams to watch last year was just a point out of a playoff spot. The forward core is loaded with talent. Even though Jack Quinn suffered a freak injury that will keep him out until December, guys such as Jiri Kulich, Isak Rosen, and Lukas Rousek can fill in roster spots easily. Rasmus Dahlin has grown into a top-tier two-way defenseman, leading a young group of defensemen that just brought in an influx of veteran influence in Erik Johnson and Connor Clifton.

The goalie situation is what makes or breaks Buffalo, as was made apparent last season. If Devon Levi continues his strong, albeit brief, form from last season, this team possibly wins the division. Three goalies will compete for two available slots on the roster and it is highly likely Levi gets one of them. The second will be either Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen or Eric Comrie, both out to prove last season was a fluke for them.

With the Bills still well into their playoff window, it is about time their hockey counterparts give Buffalo sports fans something to do in April– and perhaps further into the spring.

Potential Buffalo opening night lineup

Skinner – Thompson – Tuch / Mittelstadt – Cozens – Peterka / Kulich – Krebs – Olofsson / Greenway – Girgensons – Okposo

Dahlin – Samuelsson / Power – Jokiharju / Clifton – Johnson

Levi / Luukkonen

Projected Atlantic Division finish: 2nd of 8.

Detroit Red Wings

Now with the addition of an elite winger in Alex Debrincat, the expectations for Detroit are the playoffs. The Red Wings’ edition of the “Yzerplan” has not panned out the way Red Wings fans had hoped thus far. As it was in Tampa Bay, Steve Yzerman’s tenure has been a very mixed bag.

Yzerman and his group’s gamble on reaching for Moritz Seider at sixth overall in 2019 has paid off. The 2022 Calder Trophy winner has quickly become the next face of the defense that had not had a true leader since Niklas Kronwall. Conversely, Yzerman signed Ben Chiarot to a four-year contract that has “buyout” written all over it. On one hand, Steve Yzerman turned a past-his-prime Nick Leddy into Jake Walman, who has become Seider’s partner in crime. On the other, he gave the Blues Jakub Vrana practically for free.

Like Buffalo, the defense and goaltending need straightening out, but the whole team needs to find some kind of consistently good play. It seemed like in a given stretch, Detroit would win 5-1, then lose three in a row allowing a combined 16 goals, then win two straight in shutout fashion, then lose 8-4. If Derek Lalonde can steady the ship, Detroit has a chance at being a wild-card team. This is likely the case with or without Daniel Sprong.

Potential Detroit opening night lineup

Debrincat – Larkin – Raymond / Fabbri – Compher – Perron / Soderblom – Copp – Berggren / Kostin – Rasmussen – Fischer

Walman – Seider / Gostisbehere – Holl / Maatta – Chiarot

Husso / Reimer

Projected Atlantic Division finish: 5th of 8.

Florida Panthers

The clock struck midnight on the Panthers after all those injuries and one-goal games caught up to them. They just ran out of gas once they started playing Vegas. Now, South Florida has a hockey team to look up to and expect great things from. In other words, the Panthers’ expectations have hit a new level.

This team made it to the Stanley Cup. They even won a game in the Stanley Cup Final. Now, as their in-state rival can attest, expectations are to keep up the deep playoff runs. How did the Panthers reload for next season? Lots of buy-low candidates.

Oliver Ekman-Larsson, whose buyout was chronicled here, figures to slot in nicely on the third pair. He was one of several left-handed defensemen Florida signed, along with Niko Mikkola, Mike Reilly, and Dmitry Kulikov (welcome home). They also traded Anthony Duclair and signed Evan Rodrigues to a four-year contract with the same cap hit Duclair has.

Overall, the Panthers put in some solid work to shore up the depth, one of their downfalls throughout last season. The lingering question is whether goaltending can finally get it together.

Potential Florida opening night lineup

Verhaeghe – Barkov – Tkachuk / Lundell – Bennett – Reinhart / Cousins – Luostarinen – Rodriguez / Lomberg – Lorentz – Denisenko

Forsling – Montour / Mikkola – Ekblad / Ekman-Larsson – Kulikov

Bobrovsky / Knight

Projected Atlantic Division finish: 3rd of 8.

Montreal Candiens

The Montreal dumpster fire rolls on into year three. After reaching unprecedented heights in the pandemic years, the Canadiens have hit rock bottom. Carey Price’s playing days are most likely over. There are only a few players worth getting excited over anymore.

Cole Caufield had what looked to be a 40-goal season stripped from him due to injury. Nick Suzuki kept up the good work by slightly improving on his career-high in points. Sean Monahan also had a good season cut well short by injury. Even the bright spots in Montreal have caveats. The less said about this team, the better.

Projected Montreal opening night lineup

Caufield – Suzuki – Gallagher / Newhook – Dach – Anderson / Monahan – Dvorak – Armia / Harvey-Pinnard – Evans – Ylonen

Matheson – Savard / Guhle – Petry / Harris – Kovacevic

Allen / DeSmith

Projected Atlantic Division finish: 8th of 8.

Ottawa Senators

The Ottawa Senators may be the best of the four seventh-place teams in the league. They also need to trade a player or two to be compliant with the salary cap. This team is going on year six of a rebuild, but perhaps new ownership will begin a true turnaround.

What will truly get the turnaround started is if Ottawa bothers to get quality depth, particularly in the forward core. The top six is filled with scoring weapons: Tim Stutzle, Brady Tkachuk, Claude Giroux, Vladimir Tarasenko, Drake Batherson, and Josh Norris. Their bottom six, however, leaves something to be desired. Dominik Kubalik, acquired in the Alex Debrincat trade, and Shane Pinto had decent years, but they are the only two outside of the top six to score at least 20 points. Kubalik was not even on the Senators last season. Pinto may be the odd man out, as he remains unsigned.

Their defense is not the problem. It has a lot of quality players, both young guns like Jake Sanderson and Erik Brannstrom and established players like Thomas Chabot, Jacob Chychrun, and Artem Zub. They will provide a lot of support for whoever is in net, and that will be of high importance. Can Anton Forsberg stay strong after surgery? Can Joonas Korpisalo finally bounce back? Will both of them falter?

Potential Ottawa opening night lineup

Tkachuk – Stutzle – Batherson / Giroux – Norris – Tarasenko / Kubalik – Greig – Joseph / Sokolov – Kelly – MacEwen

Chabot – Chychrun / Sanderson – Zub / Brannstrom – Bernard-Docker

Forsberg / Korpisalo

Projected Atlantic Division finish: 7th of 8.

Tampa Bay Lightning

This team is still losing significant players due to the salary cap. This year, it was Alex Killorn, who went to the Anaheim Ducks, talked about in-depth here. The beat goes on in Tampa, though, and this Lightning team still has its strong points.

The big three of Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point, and Nikita Kucherov have hardly shown any signs of decline. Andrei Vasilevskiy had an incredible regular season. Mikhail Sergachev is poised to take the mantle of number one defenseman from Victor Hedman. Brandon Hagel put up his first-ever 30-goal season.

This team looked like a shell of itself heading into the postseason. They lost a series against Toronto in which, shockingly, they outshot the Maple Leafs in five of the six games. The team’s foundation gave out from underneath them after playing 71 playoff games over the three seasons prior. Whether last year was truly “it” remains to be seen, but lowkey additions such as Conor Sheary, Calvin de Haan, Luke Glendening, and Josh Archibald fill the bottom six and third pair up for the time being.

This team probably makes the playoffs, but does it have what it takes to put together another deep run? What happens if Vasilevskiy’s body irreversibly gives out on him? Given Tampa’s backup options are Jonas Johansson and Hugo Alnefelt, there is little to be excited about.

Potential Tampa Bay opening night lineup

Stamkos – Point – Kucherov / Hagel – Cirelli – Sheary / Jeannot – Paul – Eyssimont / Brown – Glendening – Archibald

Sergachev – Cernak / Hedman – Perbix / de Haan – Raddysh

Vasilevskiy / Alnefelt

Projected Atlantic Division finish: 4th of 8.

Toronto Maple Leafs

It only took 19 years, but the Toronto Maple Leafs finally won another playoff series. All their failures to win four games in the playoffs would be forgotten. They had finally done it. It was after their overtime loss in game three to Florida they finally remembered the Stanley Cup Playoffs do not conclude after the first round. Despite barely hanging on in game four and playing their hearts out in game five, it was not enough. A fully healthy, beefed-up Leafs team could only muster five playoff wins.

The question for hockey’s Dallas Cowboys remains the same: now what? Kyle Dubas left for steelier pastures in what felt like a pseudo-soap opera episode. Trade deadline acquisitions Ryan O’Reilly, Noel Acciari, Erik Gustafsson, and Luke Schenn all walked. Despite Matt Murray and Jake Muzzin’s impending trips to Robidas Island, the Leafs will still have almost $3 million in cap space to clear up. One more trade has to be made.

Who will it be? Will it be a couple of depth pieces such as Calle Jarnkrok and Sam Lafferty? Will TJ Brodie have to pack his bags as the Leafs look toward the prospects? Could William Nylander be on the way out as general manager Brad Treliving realizes Nylander has priced himself out of The Six?

Those are questions for down the line but right now it is apparent Treliving believes this team still has Stanley Cup aspirations. He signed Tyler Bertuzzi, Max Domi, and John Klingberg to prove-it deals. Bafflingly, though, he extended David Kampf for four years and signed Ryan Reaves to a three-year deal that expires when he is 39 years old. This team wins the division, but the dark clouds of Auston Matthews’ and William Nylander’s pending free agencies loom.

Potential Toronto opening night lineup

Knies – Matthews – Marner / Bertuzzi – Tavares – Nylander / Robertson – Domi – Jarnkrok / Lafferty – Kampf – Reaves

Rielly – Timmins / McCabe – Klingberg / Giordano – Liljegren

Samsonov / Woll

Projected Atlantic Division finish: 1st of 8.

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