In with the old: How Tampa Bay will fair in the re-aligned Atlantic Division

Jun 30, 2021; Tampa, Florida, USA; Tampa Bay Lightning center Blake Coleman (20) celebrates after scoring a goal against the Montreal Canadiens during the second period in game two of the 2021 Stanley Cup Final at Amalie Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Jun 30, 2021; Tampa, Florida, USA; Tampa Bay Lightning center Blake Coleman (20) celebrates after scoring a goal against the Montreal Canadiens during the second period in game two of the 2021 Stanley Cup Final at Amalie Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /

It feels like the champagne is not quite dry in the bottom of the Stanley Cup, and here we are knee-deep in preseason hockey.  Finally, fans will get a hockey season that is somewhat back to normal. With a “normal” hockey season, the Tampa Bay Lightning will find themselves back in the Atlantic Division. The division appears to be extremely top-heavy, and even with some rebuilding clubs, it may arguably be the toughest division in the league.  Last year’s abbreviated season led to the Lightning seeing teams less often than normal, so we will dig into what fans can expect from the re-formed Atlantic and who the biggest threat to the Lightning is.

Boston Bruins

2021 Record: 33-16-7

Looking at the roster, the Boston Bruins look like the part of a contender. They are headlined by arguably one of the best top lines in hockey, comprised of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and David Pastrnak.  They trot out a second line that is not too shabby that includes Taylor Hall.  David Krejci leaving for the Czech Republic is a definite blow to the Bruins. That said, even with the departure of Krejci, the forwards are the strength of this team.  After getting past the forwards, the Bruins appear to weaken the further you go. They do have some very respectable players on defense in Charlie McAvoy and Matt Grzelcyk, but this team’s success will flow through their forwards. This is further evidenced by the lack of experience at the goaltending position.  Tuuka Rask may not be ready until early 2022, and the most games Linus Ullmark has played in a season is 37. This team will be a thorn in the side of the Lightning but is not as well-rounded.

Threat Level: 6/10

Buffalo Sabres

2021 Record: 15-34-7

Let’s keep in mind that these teams are not being presented by how formidable they are.  We are just going to go in simple alphabetical order here. Stated, the Buffalo Sabres are in what seems like year 15 of a rebuild. Before announcing, they stripped the captaincy away from superstar Jack Eichel and placed him on IR. It is no secret that the team and Eichel have had some bad blood over the past season. The relationship has gotten so bad that it would not surprise to see the talented Eichel moved. Although the team does have some talent outside of Eichel, most notably in defenseman Rasmus Dahlin, it is tough to see a scenario where this team is not in the cellar again this season.

Threat level: zero

Detroit Red Wings

2021 Record: 19-27-10

The Detroit Red Wings are trending upwards under General Manager Steve Yzerman, but even so, they have a long way to go before being relevant. Despite Detroit’s record last season, they are expected to be improved due to offseason acquisitions. The Red Wings acquired a Calder candidate goalie in Alex Nedeljkovic for essentially a third-round pick. They added second-year player Pius Suter and defenseman Nick Leddy through free agency. The much-heralded rookie Mo Seider is expected to be on the opening night roster as well. Although he has dominated at multiple levels since being drafted, rookie defensemen typically take time to make their presence felt at the NHL level. The threat level of this team will not be due to the potential to be out-skilled by them in the matchups of these two clubs. This Red Wings team will not be fun to play against night in and night out, potentially leading to some frustration.

Threat level: 5/10

Florida Panthers

2021 Record: 37-14-5

The Florida Panthers met the Lightning in the first round of the playoffs last season and beat them as they went to six games. The Panthers are a team that is led by Sergei Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, and Aaron Ekblad. Barkov is an extremely underrated two-way center that is one of the best in the game. They have a chance to improve over last year’s finish if they can get the goaltending that Sergei Bobrovsky exhibited while in Columbus. His tandem-mate, Spencer Knight, is an up-and-coming star but will most likely not be at his peak this early in his young career. This team is a big, gritty, deep team that is tough to play against but does not lack skill. Florida could easily give the Lightning a run for their money to finish atop of the Atlantic. The rivalry between the two teams in Florida will be one to keep an eye on, as it will most likely be one of these teams that brings home the division title.

Threat level: 9/10

Montreal Canadiens

2021 Record: 24-21-11

Regardless of the record above, we all remember the magical run the Canadiens went on last season. This team has talent up and down the lineup but would have to overachieve tremendously to recreate the last season’s success. Much of that is due to the turnover experienced. This team lost quite a few forwards, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, by offer sheet to the Carolina Hurricanes. At the same time, Phillip Danault, Tomas Tatar, and Corey Perry all left via free agency. They did bring in some talent via free agency in forwards Mike Hoffman, Christian Dvorak, and Mathieu Perreault while also adding David Savard on the back-end. The additions and losses in this offseason do not change that this team flows through goaltender Carey Price. There was some worry that Montreal could lose him to the Seattle Kraken as he went unprotected, but to the delight of Canadiens’ fans, he will suit up in the Le Bleu-Blanc-Rouge this upcoming season.

Threat level: 7/10

Ottawa Senators

2021 Record: 23-28-5

The Ottawa Senators are a team that seems to take a step forward and two steps back. They show glimpses of taking the next step, only to fall back to the team that has glaring holes in their lineup. Goalie Matt Murray shows glimpses of his old form that led to Pittsburgh choosing him over Marc Andre-Fleury. Unfortunately, those times are just glimpses, and the team around Murray is not good enough to make up for any inconsistencies. Ottawa was below the league average in goals while allowing close to 20% more goals than the rest. They have a star in Brady Tkachuk and an up-and-coming star in Tim Stutzle. But as it stands inside the Atlantic Division, this team will not pose a threat to compete but may prove to be a team that is annoying to play against.

Threat level: 4/10

Toronto Maple Leafs

2021 Record: 35-14-7

The Maple Leafs’ faithful saw their team turn over a good chunk of the roster this offseason. The most notable departures are Zach Hyman, Nick Foligno, defenseman Zach Bogosian, and goaltender Frederik Andersen’s forwards. The team brought in forwards Ondrej Kase and Nick Ritchie to combat the losses while adding Petr Mrazek to patrol the crease. Toronto fans experienced yet another season of this team not making it out of the first round of the playoffs, a streak that extends back to 2004. The re-alignment of the Atlantic does not bode well for the Leafs. With only the top three teams in each division being granted a no-questions-asked pass to the playoffs, Toronto fans will have to hope that they get the best from Mrazek in between the pipes. After all, there is no question that this team can score. But due to their lack of defense and goaltending as of late, they find themselves being the Kansas City Chiefs of the NHL. There is no doubt the Leafs can compete offensively; however, they pale in comparison to other teams in the Atlantic Division when it comes to the defensive zone.

Threat level: 6/10

The Lightning and the Panthers are the clear front-runners for the Atlantic Division due to their tremendous mix of skill and depth. Andrei Vasilevskiy will be the key to the Lightnings’ success. If he can stay healthy and free from fatigue, this team has a real opportunity to win the Atlantic. If Vasilevskiy is shelved for any time in this upcoming season, there should be a real concern that the Panthers could kick down the door. However, if the Panthers cannot live up to the hype, it may just be another post-season celebration in The Bay.