NHL Atlantic Division

With the NHL season fast approaching, it’s time to hit some futures.

We’ve already taken a tour through the Metropolitan Division, now it’s time to finish up the Eastern Conference with the Atlantic, a division that’s produced the last two Stanley Cup champions in the form of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Is there a surprise coming in the Atlantic, or do the Lightning continue to rein supreme? Can the Habs show last year’s run to the Cup Final was no fluke? Can the Maple Leafs get over the hump?

All that and more as we break down the Atlantic Division before letting you know who to fade and who is the best value to take down the division this season.

Let’s go!

*Odds courtesy of BetUs

Tampa Bay Lightning (+125)

No team in hockey has been better over the last two seasons than the two-time reigning Cup champions, and no doubt they remain the team to beat in the division.

There is a cost of winning, however, as the Lightning used a cap loophole that allowed them to spend well over the cap and conveniently bring superstar Nikita Kucherov back for Game 1 of the postseason. Tyler Johnson (trade), Yanni Gourde (expansion draft), Barclay Goodrow (free agency) and Blake Coleman (free agency) are the most notably cap casualties that were unable to be retained from the back-to-back Cup era, leaving the club’s depth to be questioned by some this summer.

That said, plenty of the core remains. That would be Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point, Alex Killorn, Ondrej Palat and Anthony Cirelli up front, Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh, Mikhail Sergachev and Erik Cernak on the back end, and of course Andrei Vasilevskiy in goal. Despite the contributions from many others over the last couple of campaigns, this indeed remains the scariest core in hockey.

Stats
2020-21 NHL Ranks

Offense
T-8th

Defense
6th

PP
9th

PK
4th

Sv% (5v5)
10th

Newcomers include veterans Corey Perry and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare up front and Zach Bogosian — from the 2019-20 Cup champs before spending a year in Toronto — on the back end while Brian Elliott replaces Curtis McElhinney as the seldomly-used backup to the game’s best goaltender in Vasilevskiy. Mathieu Joseph up front and Cal Foote on the blueline will look to play increased roles on the 2021-22 Bolts.

I mean, it’s one of the best offense in the game as they’re tied with the Leafs for third in overall offense over the last two seasons, but they’ve been one of the few teams in hockey to be among the best at both ends of the ice as they’re seventh with 2.69 goals against per game over the last two seasons as well.

In all honesty, you can question whether the depth is still there up front, but as long as Vasilevskiy is tending the crease for this team, they’re a major threat. Since taking over as the undisputed No. 1 in the 2016-17 season, Vasilevskiy is tied for sixth with a 2.49 GAA (min. 100 games), but tied for first in the more individual goaltending stat with a .921 Sv% in that time. He’s the best goaltender in the world, plain and simple.

Big cat and his little cat. #StanleyCup pic.twitter.com/TpAfydtXow

— NHLPA (@NHLPA) September 16, 2021

A lethal offense, excellent special teams and the world’s best goaltender between the pipes should add up to more winning for the Bolts in their bid for a third straight Stanley Cup.

Boston Bruins (+300)

Is this the final season of the Patrice Bergeron era? The stud two-way pivot is playing out the final season of his contract in 2021-22 before deciding on his future, and considering the wear and tear on his body and lengthy injury history, there’s no guarantee he returns or plays at all following this season.

Nonetheless, the Bruins are seemingly watching their elite contending window dwindling. After all, long-time No. 2 center David Krejci moved back to his native Czech Republic this summer and there’s plenty of new faces aboard for this season. Most notably, those names include Nick Foligno, Erik Haula, Derek Forbort and Linus Ullmark.

The Bruins main offseason goal was to retain Taylor Hall after he excelled with the club following a trade deadline deal with the Sabres, and they did just that on a reasonable four-year, $24M pact. Perhaps more important, the team needed to figure out their goaltending situation as both Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak hit the open market this summer.

Stats
2020-21 NHL Ranks

Offense
14th

Defense
T-4th

PP
10th

PK
2nd

Sv% (5v5)
11th

Halak as moved on to the Vancouver Canucks, and the Bruins did extremely well to sign former Sabres netminder Linus Ullmark to at least give them one strong goaltending option at the moment. Still just 28, Ullmark has turned in some excellent work behind a weak Sabres defense over the last two seasons despite some injuries, posting a 2.67 GAA and .916 Sv% across 54 appearances over that time. He made just 20 appearances last season, but his +5.45 goals saved above average (GSAA) last season still ranked 16th among goaltenders with at least 20 games played, as per Hockey Reference.

The biggest question surrounding the club right now is the status of Rask and whether or not he’ll be brought back. He’s reportedly willing to return, but with just over $1M of current available cap space, they’ll have to get creative in doing so.

He’s been among the best goaltenders in the league during a lengthy Bruins tenure and still posted a 2.28 GAA and .913 Sv%, but that’s the lowest save percentage of his career and his +3.29 GSAA ranked 21st among goalies with at least 20 games played last season. Injuries are another concern as he made just 24 appearances in a 56-game season last year.

All that said, the Bruins have remained one of the best two-way teams in hockey. Their goal-scoring and power play dipped last season, but Boston is still among the game’s elite defensive clubs after finishing tied for fourth with 2.39 goals against per game last season. Over the last five seasons, the Bruins have been the best defensive team in hockey with 2.51 goals against per game during that span.

Whether or not the power play can bounce back (I believe they really missed Torey Krug in that department) remains to be seen, but the Bruins should remain competitive based on Bruce Cassidy’s defensive structure and the players’ execution.

They will need to figure out the Rask/goaltending situation as Ullmark has been injury prone himself over the last two seasons, but the pieces remain for the Bruins to compete for a division title.

Toronto Maple Leafs (+300)

According to BetUs, the Maple Leafs have the same chance as the Bruins at winning the Atlantic, but that’s an interesting debate for a team that hasn’t lived up to expectations.

They were in danger of falling out of a postseason spot before the 2019-20 season was put on hold, but they did win the North Division as expected a season ago. While this debate is obviously regular-season only, the club’s inability to win a playoff series in the Auston Matthews era has brought the club plenty of unwanted (and additional) attention, especially after blowing a 3-1 first-round lead to the rival Canadiens last spring.

Still, Matthews has supplanted Alex Ovechkin as the top goal-scorer in the game and despite undergoing surgery for a nagging wrist injury, he should be good to go for the season. Mitch Marner is under plenty of pressure to deliver this season on the heels of a weak postseason performance and John Tavares will be hungry to get back on the ice following a scary-looking concussion suffered early in the Canadiens series.

Stats
2020-21 NHL Ranks

Offense
6th

Defense
T-7th

PP
16th

PK
T-23rd

Sv% (5v5)
7th

As is often the case with teams against the cap, turnover was the name of the Leafs’ offseason game. The club’s notable additions include power forward Nick Ritchie, defensive forward David Kampf, for Coyotes winger Michael Bunting and tough guy Kurtis Gabriel up front. The Frederik Andersen era is over in Toronto as they allowed him to test free agency and eventually walk to the Hurricanes, but the Leafs signed former ‘Canes netminder Petr Mrazek to team up with Jack Campbell who enjoyed a career-year despite some injuries last season.

What remains complete unchanged is a Leafs blueline that surpassed expectations last season in helping the team tie the Dallas Stars with 2.64 goals against per game, a number supported by a ninth-place ranking in high-danger chances against/60.

The aforementioned Zach Bogosian did walk in free agency, but the team’s top six this season all saw notable time with the team last season. T.J. Brodie was an extremely valuable addition next to Morgan Rielly on the top pair while Jake Muzzin and Justin Holl formed one of the better shutdown duos in hockey. Twenty-one year old Rasmus Sandin will get his first full shot at a top-six role alongside Travis Dermott on the bottom pair.

While the defense and goaltending surprised to the upside, the club is also one of the most dangerous offenses in hockey. They finished last season as the league’s sixth-ranked offense last season, although a key ingredient this time around will be figuring out a power play that cratered in the season’s second half and in the postseason. Toronto wound up with the league’s 16th-ranked power play, an unacceptable results considering the fire power on those units.

Auston. Matthews. Magic. 🔮@AM34 | @MapleLeafs pic.twitter.com/UFa9PZtGz8

— NHL (@NHL) March 26, 2021

Toronto was just one of three teams — along with Vegas and Colorado — to rank in the league’s top seven on offense and defense last season, but they’re certainly under increased pressure to perform this season or the core could see some notable offseason changes.

Florida Panthers (+450)

I was one of many to write off the 2020-21 Florida Panthers as I didn’t see them scoring at the same rate as they had over the past couple of seasons while Sergei Bobrovsky endured a miserable start to his Panthers tenure in the season prior.

I was right on the Bobrovsky front (more on that in a minute), but was completely erroneous when it came to the club’s offense. There was little doubt that Sasha Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau were going to score goals, but I thought veteran Patric Hornqvist was on the decline before he tallied 14 goals (eight on the power play) and a healthy 32 points in 44 games.

The most staggering offensive performance came from Carter Verhaeghe who bloomed late after being taken in the third round of the 2013 draft. He would go on to tally 18 goals and 36 points in 43 games while Anthony Duclair tallied 32 points in 43 games himself. The Panthers also found themselves on the right side of the Sam Bennett deal as he exploded for six goals land 15 points in 10 games with the Panthers while Frank Vatrano tied Verhaeghe with 18 goals on the campaign.

Even strength goal: ✅
Power Play goal: ✅
Shorthanded goal: ✅

Carter Verhaeghe did it all with this @Enterprise hat trick! pic.twitter.com/LmFIBf3NQe

— NHL (@NHL) March 28, 2021

Add it up and the Panthers tied the Capitals for fourth with 3.36 goals per game on the season, so my bad on the offensive front.

As for this year’s blueline, it isn’t without its question marks. Gone is Keith Yandle and Anton Stralman and in is Brandon Montour as part of the teardown in Buffalo. Aaron Ekblad will lead the group and Mackenzie Weegar is one of the more underrated two-way defenders in the league. Montour aside, it will be up to Markus Nutivaara, Gustav Forsling, Radko Gudas and Noah Juulsen to fight for bottom-three spots. It’s a fairly uninspiring group from a name-recognition standpoint, but many of these names contributed to the club ranking sixth in terms of high-danger chances against/60 a season ago.

Stats
2020-21 NHL Ranks

Offense
T-4th

Defense
9th

PP
15th

PK
T-17th

Sv% (5v5)
4th

The most fascinating area to watch unfold this season will be between the pipes. The main stabilizing force in goal for the Panthers last season was Chris Driedger with a 2.07 GAA and .927 SV% in 23 games for the club while his +11.96 goals saved above average ranked eighth in the league despite playing far fewer games than many of the names ahead of him. Among goaltenders that played at least 30 games over the last two seasons, Driedger’s 2.07 GAA and .931 Sv% in 35 games are both the best in the league by a significant margin.

The problem is Driedger was left unprotected and easily picked by the Seattle Kraken in their expansion draft. Bobrovsky owns an ugly .902 Sv% in 81 games over the last two seasons with Florida, tied with Jonathan Quick for the worst figure among goalies with at least 30 games played in that time. Now, the club does have Spencer Knight, a highly-regarded youngster who turned in an excellent 2.32 GAA/.919 Sv% in 4 games (three starts) last season and a 2.06 GAA/.933 Sv% in two postseason starts, but Knight doesn’t turn 21 until April and we’ve seen plenty of young goaltenders struggle in larger samples.

In other words, the Panthers are absolutely going to need Bobrovsky to be much better to have a shot at a division crown. Maybe Knight excels in a sizeable sample, but he’s not going to carry the load.

The Panthers’ goaltending situation is easily the biggest question mark on this team.

Montreal Canadiens (+4000)

It’s not often you see a club make a run to the Cup final and open as major longshots to win their division, but here we are with the 2021-22 Montreal Canadiens.

The team’s offseason wasn’t so much about who they added, but who they lost. It was reported shortly after the postseason ended that captain Shea Weber would not play the upcoming season due to a variety of injuries while his career appears to be in jeopardy as it certainly appears as if the long-time NHL defender will never play again.

That was the early-offseason headline, but a doozy would be upcoming. The Hurricanes made major headlines by extending an offer sheet to young Habs center Jesperi Kotkaniemi in what appeared to be a direct response to the Habs doing the same thing with ‘Canes pivot Sebastian Aho last summer. GM Marc Bergevin — handcuffed by little-to-no cap space — had no choice but to let Kotkaniemi join the Hurricanes and acquire their first and third-round draft picks in the 2022 draft.

As a result, the team’s depth down the middle took a hit, but shortly after announcing they would not match, they used their own first-rounder to acquire 25-year-old pivot Christian Dvorak from the Coyotes, a seemingly steep price to pay for a player with a career-high 38 points in five NHL seasons, although he did post a healthy 17 goals and 31 points in 56 games last season.

Stats
2020-21 NHL Ranks

Offense
17th

Defense
18th

PP
T-17th

PK
T-23rd

Sv% (5v5)
21st

The club did look to address their goal-scoring department by adding Mike Hoffman in free agency, and the club will get a full season of Cole Caufield who looked awfully dangerous in his small 2020-21 sample with eight goals and 17 points in 30 games, a healthy 22-goal, 46-point season across 82 games at the age of 20.

While the Weber loss is a factor, the club did well in bouncing back and signing David Savard, bringing the Quebec native home on the heels of contributing down the stretch to the Lightning’s Stanley Cup championship. An excellent defender and elite shot-blocker, he’ll fit in well within the team’s top four. Otherwise, Alexander Romanov will a long look in the top six after interestingly being healthy scratched throughout the postseason with Jeff Petry, Ben Chiarot and Joel Edmundson anchoring the Habs’ back end.

As it has many times in the past, their fate likely depends on the performance of career-long Canadien Carey Price. Price enduring another uneven regular season for the third time in four years, posting a .901 Sv%, ranking 26th of 32 goaltenders who appeared in at least 25 games last season while his -4.29 GSAA ranked 50th among goaltenders who played at least 10 games.

While Jake Allen gives the Habs a solid, veteran goaltender behind Price and a former No. 1 from his days in St. Louis, he posted an unspectacular .907 Sv% himself, 20th of 32 netminders with 25-plus games played while his -0.73 GSAA ranked 36th among goalies with 10-plus games played.

The Montreal goaltending was quite poor, obviously, but even more glaring is they put in this subpar work despite the Canadiens ranking 11th in terms of high-danger chances against/60.

To have any shot at the top of this division, the Habs’ goaltending needs to be much better in support of a team that was once again one of the top advanced metrics clubs at both ends of the ice.

Ottawa Senators (+10000)

Senators GM Pierre Dorion has declared that the rebuild is over in Ottawa and the team will now focus on winning moving forward. Obviously, it’s difficult to see them winning with consistency at this point.

That’s not to say that there aren’t a number of young, valuable pieces on board. Brady Tkachuk could be the next captain of the team and is the leader up front while Thomas Chabot, already one of the top two-way defensemen in the league at just 24 years old is the clear-cut anchor of a blueline that should struggle again this season.

Otherwise, Drake Batherson, Tim Stutzle and Josh Norris put forth quality rookie seasons despite a low-octane Senators overall offense. Connor Brown, 27, enjoyed a career-year while Colin White will be an interesting player to watch as he’s already signed long-term for four more years at a rather sizeable $4.75M, given his production.

Don’t expect this offense to light the world on fire yet, but it’s the least of the team’s worries given the state of the back end.

Stats
2020-21 NHL Ranks

Offense
T-19th

Defense
T-27th

PP
26th

PK
T-20th

Sv% (5v5)
29th

Chabot aside, the club will give plenty of minutes to Nikita Zaitsev, Josh Brown and Artem Zub on that back end while a couple of veterans were brought on board in Michael Del Zotto and Nick Holden. Add in 2021 waiver claim Victor Mete and 22-year-old Erik Brannstrom and you have your Senators blueline this season. It’s certainly an uninspiring group on the whole, but Chabot, Zub, Brown, Mete and Brannstrom is a decent start to the Senators’ blueline of the future.

Thomas Chabot turns the defensive stop at one end of the ice into a goal at the other. 🚨 pic.twitter.com/Yd5H1an5Ag

— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) January 17, 2019

The Senators’ goaltending situation was a revolving door a season ago due to a plethora of injuries, but there’s no doubt Matt Murray needs to be much better in his second campaign with the club. It was understandable that they traded for the two-time Cup champ, but they also handed him a four-year deal at more than $6M a season coming off a couple of down years with the Pens. The Sens have plenty of cap space at the moment, but also plenty of RFA deals on the horizon that will eat into their cap room.

Murray worked to an ugly 3.38 GAA and .893 Sv% in 27 games, bottom-three numbers among the 32 goalies that appeared in at least 25 games last season. Otherwise, the club has Anton Forsberg as the backup after a whirlwind season from a waiver-wire standpoint.

Led by head coach D.J. Smith, they compete hard and are no easy out, but are not Atlantic Division contenders.

Detroit Red Wings (+12500)

The Red Wings’ rebuild probably isn’t over as per the Sens, but they’ve managed to add some young, NHL talent to the roster of late.

The most notable offseason addition easily goes to goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic, who was surprisingly dealt by the Carolina Hurricanes on the heels of a rookie season that saw him work to a 1.90 GAA and .932 Sv% in 23 games, otherwise known as the best numbers in the league while he posted a +15.70 GSAA mark that ranked fifth in the league despite far fewer games played than the four names ahead of him. Certainly an interesting move on the Hurricanes’ part.

Stats
2020-21 NHL Ranks

Offense
30th

Defense
20th

PP
30th

PK
22nd

Sv% (5v5)
8th

The club also added an advanced data’s dream in former Blackhawks center Pius Suter who was not qualified by the ‘Hawks despite a quality two-way rookie season. Add Suter to a young Red Wings offense that includes Dylan Larkin, Jakub Vrana, Tyler Bertuzzi, Robby Fabbri and Filip Zadina, all of whom are 25-and-under.

The Wings acquired veteran defenseman Nick Leddy in a deal with the New York Islanders to give them a solid, top-four presence and also added former Coyote Jordan Oesterle as well. While stay-at-home veterans Danny DeKeyser and Marc Staal and Troy Stecher will get minutes, the team’s most fascinating defender is Filip Hronek who — despite just 26 points — led the team in scoring last season. His 24 assists tied Yandle and Justin Schultz for 24th among defenseman despite the anemic Red Wings offense.

Like with the Senators, the Red Wings have some pieces aboard that are going to help the team get back to winning at some point. Also like the Sens, that winning is not coming this season, but with Nedeljkovic in goal, perhaps they stay in far more games this season.

Buffalo Sabres (+15000)

Oh man, where do we start?

The Sabres were a full-scale dumpster fire last season, and just about anyone who is anyone has been traded save for superstar Jack Eichel who remains in a dispute with the team doctors regarding the treatment of a herniated disc in his neck.

Taylor Hall was traded at the deadline, but Sam Reinhart and Montour now play for the Panthers, Rasmus Ristolainen was traded to the Flyers and Linus Ullmark walked to the Bruins in free agency. Obviously, it’s only a matter of time before Eichel is moved out of Buffalo to complete the tear down, or at least the bulk of it.

Stats
2020-21 NHL Ranks

Offense
T-28th

Defense
T-29th

PP
12th

PK
26th

Sv% (5v5)
T-26th

There’s a decent chance the Sabres could post historically poor defensive numbers this season. Why? Well, it comes down to the goaltending as the club appears to be rolling with Craig Anderson and Aaron Dell as their league-minimum goaltending tandem. Anderson actually posted a 2.13 GAA/.915 Sv% in four appearances with the Capitals last season, but his game has been in serious decline for several years and he’s going to struggle behind this Sabres defense. For his part, Dell posted a gross 4.14 GAA and .857 Sv% in seven appearances with the Devils last season and now a 3.18 GAA and .895 Sv% over the last three seasons and 65 appearances.

Rasmus Dahlin and Dylan Cozens are essentially the lone two Sabres to keep an eye on at this point, at least in terms of development while Victor Olofsson could be a trade target at the deadline as a pending RFA on a team that isn’t going to contend for many, many years.

Rasmus Dahlin is about to do damage this year pic.twitter.com/UuSP2TM3HP

— Spittin’ Chiclets (@spittinchiclets) October 4, 2019

It’s going to be another ugly season in Buffalo, only this time for a full 82 games.

Best Fade

Florida Panthers (+450)

I don’t a beef with how the Panthers are lined up on offense, and while I’m not thrilled with the blueline, it’s the goaltending I’m fading here.

Obviously, there’s nothing against Knight here, but is the 20-year-old going to carry the Panthers to the promised land? Twenty-year-old netminders don’t exactly have a lengthy track record of doing so, and as we saw with another young goaltender in Carter Hart last season, things can fall apart in a hurry regardless of talent, past results or prospect hype.

I’m not declaring Bobrovsky washed, but the two-time Vezina winner just has not gelled in Florida, obviously. They’re more or less stuck with him for the next five season at $10M, and he’s going to get his reps regardless of how Knight fares. He just needs to be far better and back to Vezina form if these Panthers are going to win the Atlantic.

Despite a quality offense and sound defense, the Panthers’ goaltending situation deserves a fade in this debate.

Best Value Bet

Tampa Bay Lightning (+125)

There’s plenty of miles on these Bolts bodies as two lengthy playoff runs will do that, especially in a season where they just played about every other night followed by a shortened offseason. That said, at plus money, it’s awfully hard not to take the Bolts to win the Atlantic this season.

Hey, maybe they’re more beatable given the losses of Johnson, Gourde, Goodrow and Coleman. I’ll admit they aren’t as deep up front, but the talent is full-blown elite at the top and Anthony Cirelli is working his way into the conversation one of the league’s premier two-way pivots.

As good as that offense will be in the top six, I’m actually betting on the back end here. Few teams in the league will boast a superior top four to the Lightning with Hedman, McDonagh, Sergachev and Cernak in that group. Bogosian is an underrated stay-at-home defender in the bottom pair and Cal Foote will be given his reps as a highly-touted prospect.

And then there’s the best goaltender in the world to cap it all off. I don’t care who you are, if you aren’t taking Vasilevskiy as the best goaltender in the sport, you’re wrong. Period. Guy has been an absolute beast since taking over as the team’s starting netminder and the Lighting are always going to be extremely tough to beat as long as he’s between the pipes.

To me, we have a three-team conversation here between the Lighting, Bruins and Maple Leafs, but at this point there’s no point in look anywhere but Tampa to take down the Atlantic this season.