Last season, the Atlantic Division was a three-team race between the Boston Bruins, Tampa Bay Lightning and Toronto Maple Leafs. The Florida Panthers gave a respectable push for the podium toward the end of the season but it was far from enough.
This offseason hasn’t necessarily put any new teams into power, but it certainly has seen some strengthen more than others.
The Toronto Maple Leafs are the obvious one.
With the signing of elite center-man John Tavares, the Leafs have the most established one-two-three punch down the middle with Auston Matthews, Nazem Kadri and now Tavares. Add on William Nylander, Zach Hyman, Patrick Marleau and Mitch Marner at the wings and the Maple Leafs could be the most offensively capable team in the league.
Do the Leafs have their holes? Yes, of course. They didn’t bolster their sub-par defensive core, as it’s only highlighted by Morgan Rielly and choking dog Jake Gardiner (cough, cough Game seven). But the Leafs are still a huge threat to the Bruins’ success. In the regular season, the Maple Leafs were 3-1 against the B’s and came back from a 3-1 deficit in their first round series against them last year to force a Game 7.
— Boston Bruins on CLNS (@BruinsCLNS) July 18, 2018
Had the Leafs not given up four goals in the third period in the final game, they would definitively be considered better than the Bruins. But the Maple Leafs are still the Maple Leafs. Alongside all of this is matchup-master Mike Babcock as head coach.
They are the obvious improvement in the Atlantic Division. Another obvious challenge for the Bruins is the Lightning.
The Lightning haven’t necessarily improved personnel-wise. But they have come close.
On the fourth of July while you were celebrating the US of A with hot dogs, fireworks and copious amounts of beer, the Lightning celebrated by almost making a trade with the Ottawa Senators for superstar defenseman Erik Karlsson. The deal could still happen but at the time of this being written, nothing has taken place.
The Lightning arguably boast the best all-around team in hockey.
With Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, J.T. Miller and Tyler Johnson up front, scoring will never be a problem. And if you didn’t already hear Pierre McGuire say it for you 100 different times in their playoff series against the Bruins last year, I’ll repeat it: they have four definitive, good lines.
Read here: https://t.co/I4Z5YAR8Yw
— Boston Bruins on CLNS (@BruinsCLNS) July 17, 2018
There are no holes on defense. With last year’s Norris trophy winner Victor Hedman and puck-moving geniuses Mikhail Sergachev and Ryan McDonagh, they’d turn into the Golden State Warriors if they traded for Karlsson.
You could even argue they compare to the Dubs as their roster stands now.
Going into their second round series with the Bolts last season, the one advantage that the Bruins had was how bad the Lightning were at TD Garden. Since becoming a franchise, the Lightning have only won six-of-46 games at the Garden. To add on to that, the Bruins were 3-1 against them in the 2017-18 regular season.
That all went out the back window when the second round rolled around. After a Game 1 loss, the Lightning blew the Bruins’ doors off in the final four games of the series while winning two in Boston.
As a roster, the Lightning are a year older and have that much more maturity. Add on the continued drive for a Stanley Cup and a successful spring and the Lightning have a team that will most likely win the Atlantic again.
— Boston Bruins on CLNS (@BruinsCLNS) June 30, 2018
Then there’s the rest of the division.
To start, let’s eliminate the Senators from the conversation. In simple terms, they are a dumpster-fire and will stay anchored to the floor of the Atlantic from October through April.
Then there’s the lowly Montreal Canadiens who’ve been in free-fall ever since Claude Julien took over as head coach. They don’t have much fire power up front. There was one change and that was bringing in the gritty Max Domi to replace the misfit toy of Alex Galchenyuk. Alongside Domi will be a forward core highlighted by the likes of Jonathan Drouin, Brendan Gallagher and if he doesn’t get traded, Max Pacioretty.
Not exactly enough to keep teams up at night.
— Boston Bruins on CLNS (@BruinsCLNS) June 26, 2018
Yes, the Habs still have Carey Price in net and yes, playing in Montreal is never easy. But the Bruins cleaned the ice with the Canadiens last season and the team has only gotten worse.
The Detroit Red Wings are a bowl of average. The Bruins won all four games against them last season and their core continues to age. They do have a solid young core on offense but it isn’t anywhere close to giving the Bruins, or the rest of the division for that matter, a run for their money.
The bad team from last season who looks to have a much better 2018-19 season is the Buffalo Sabres.
It’s very true that they were horrid last year; with 62 points and only 25 wins, they were the NHL’s worst team by a long shot. But with a really hopeful young core, there’s no reason why they can’t be a thorn in the Bruins side come next season.
— Evan Marinofsky (@EvanMarinofsky) June 27, 2018
Jack Eichel, Casey Mittelstadt, Sam Reinhart and Evan Rodrigues form a group up front with loads of potential. Add in first overall phenom Rasmus Dahlin and the Sabres could actually make some noise this season.
Historically, the Bruins don’t fare well in Buffalo and last year, the Sabres went 3-1 against them.
The dark horse team to watch out for in the Atlantic Division for this upcoming season is the Panthers. The Panthers gave a valiant effort to end the 2017-18 campaign but ultimately fell short of the final wild card spot by a point.
The Cats actually have a lot of firepower up front: Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau and Vincent Trocheck to name a few. On defense they have Aaron Ekblad and Keith Yandle. With that group, a solid supporting cast around them, and Roberto Luongo in net, the Panthers are a legitimate threat to the Bruins.
They also went out and traded for speedy winger Mike Hoffman to add to their plethora of young forwards.
Last season, the Panthers took three-of-four from the B’s including the last game of the season that cost the Bruins first place in the Atlantic. Had the Bruins won that game, they would’ve taken on the New Jersey Devils in the first round — a much easier series than the seven games it took to best the Leafs.
The main takeaway from this is that the Bruins are in a much tougher division than most people think. The biggest thing they’ve done this offseason is sign a 27-year old defenseman who’s a career minus-32 to a five-year deal. The Leafs and Panthers have gotten much stronger, the Sabres are quickly climbing and the Lightning are still the Lightning.
What a season this should be.