While only three teams last season represented the Atlantic Division in the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, expect that to change entering 2018-19.
The Atlantic plays homage to Stanley Cup favorites such as the Tampa Bay Lightning, Toronto Maple Leafs and even the Boston Bruins can be mentioned in the same conversation. Yet, let’s not forget about two other teams on the rise with the Florida Panthers and Buffalo Sabres.
HOHM predicts the NHL’s Atlantic Division standings for 2018-19.
8.) Ottawa Senators
The basement of the Atlantic Division shouldn’t come as a surprise, especially considering that the Ottawa Senators finished in second to last in 2018 for the division, and are on the verge of trading a superstar defenseman in Erik Karlsson.
The Senators roster doesn’t entail the necessary depth, or goaltending, to compete not only with the Atlantic, but the rest of the Eastern Conference for that matter. It would appear that Ottawa is on the cusp of a rebuilding stage, and the team should consider selling off other assets such as forwards Matt Duchene, Bobby Ryan and Mark Stone.
It’s a dark time for the Senators, but rebuilding and dropping in the standings now could pay off in the long run for a Cup-less organization.
7.) Detroit Red Wings
Times have changed in Hockeytown, but the Detroit Red Wings fan base is going to have to find a way to remain patient, and enjoy the city’s new arena while the Wings’ play struggles again in 2018-19.
On paper, Detroit’s roster would appear to be an average NHL squad with some promising youthful assets such as Dylan Larkin, Anthony Mantha and Andreas Athanasiou.
Still, the team’s defense is a weakness and considering that the Red Wings don’t have a true No. 1 starting goaltender (Jonathan Bernier and Jimmy Howard), Detroit will find a way to lose more games than win.
It’s still a work in progress for head coach Jeff Blashill and company, and perhaps the Wings are better off trading away players such as Justin Abdelkader, Frans Nielson and maybe even Henrik Zetterberg.
Detroit struggled last season against divisional opponents (8-16-4), which was the fewest amount of in-division wins for any Eastern Conference team; that will play a key factor again in 2019 and drag the Wings down the seventh seed for the Atlantic.
Yes, the hope is that Larkin, Mantha and Athasasious, plus Tyler Bertuzzi’s, play on the ice will mature and blossom into a reliable source of offense on a consistent basis, but that’s still probably one year away; especially since the team doesn’t have the support from the team’s blue line.
Make it three years in a row that the Red Wings miss out on the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
6.) Montreal Canadiens
Yes, the Montreal Canadiens were busy during the 2018 offseason, and the club finally traded away forward Max Pacioretty (Vegas Golden Knights) in exchange for Tomas Tatar, Nick Suzuki and a second-round draft pick in 2019.
Let’s not forget that the team also acquired forward Max Domi this offseason in exchange for Alex Galchenyuk. While the Canadiens appear to be cleansing their locker room and team chemistry, it’s going to take at least one season for Montreal to take that big step forward in again becoming a Stanley Cup Playoff contender.
Goaltender Carey Price should be healthy and ready to go to start the season, and the former Vezina Trophy (2014-15) will gladly steal a handful of games for the Canadiens over the course of the upcoming campaign.
Special teams will be a key factor for Montreal entering 2019. The Canadiens finished last season with an above-average power play (13th, 21.2 percent), but the team’s penalty Kill was second to worst in the league (74.1 percent).
Keep in mind that the Habs had the worst road record in the league last season (11-26-4), and it’s hard to imagine that will change drastically even with the transactions executed this past summer.
Still, the probable team captain in Shea Weber and the Canadiens won’t brew enough chemistry until later in the season and will finish 2019 in sixth place for the Atlantic.
5.) Buffalo Sabres
Last season, the Colorado Avalanche and New Jersey Devils were the feel-good stories of the year, and this season don’t be surprised to see the Buffalo Sabres take full control of that headline for 2019.
While forwards Ryan O’Reilly and Evander Kane were offensive threats for Buffalo in 2018, parting ways with both of those skaters was key to begin a clean slate and new and exciting era for the Sabres.
Young skaters such as Casey Mittelstadt and Rasmus Dahlin should feel comfortable and blossom into some of the team’s top skaters from puck drop in October. Yes, adjusting and excelling at the NHL level is always tougher and more of a grind for young defensemen instead of forwards, but Dahlin’s maturity level and composure has been impressive leading up to his rookie campaign.
It’s an exciting time for the Sabres and there’s a change of atmosphere for the better entering 2019. Jack Eichel should have a breakout campaign entering his fourth NHL season, and the competitive competition between the pipes with Carter Hutton, Scott Wedgewood and Linus Ullmark has been a characteristic that’s been missing in recent past for the team.
There’s room for opportunity and in a positive culture led by head coach Phil Housley. Keep in mind that the Sabres appeared to have turned a corner towards the end of 2018, and the turn should take an extra step forward in 2019.
The Sabres just from last to fifth in the Atlantic.
4.) Florida Panthers
It’s for real.
The Florida Panthers are legitimate Stanley Cup Playoff contenders and are poised to make a run at Lord Stanley for the first time since 1996.
After the 2018 NHL All-Star Break, the Panthers only lost 10 games and were statistically the best team in the league since that time. However, the Cats missed out on the playoffs by one point.
Still, it’s apparent that the Sunshine State is set to host two playoff contenders and in large thanks to an entertaining Panthers squad.
Florida was an impressive 27-11-3 on home ice last season and were a commendable 17-8-3 against the Atlantic, overall. Though, the team’s power play will need to improve considering that the Panthers finished in 21st for the league last season (18.9 percent). Still, it was a great stepping-stone-type season for head coach Bob Boughner and company.
If one goes up and down the Panthers’ lineup for next season, Florida is deep in all areas on the ice and a majority of the skaters are on the right side of 30 years of age. Aleksander Barkov, Vincent Trochek, Jonathan Huberdeau and Evegeni Dadonov all took the necessary steps in the right direction of offense in 2018 and will only improve in 2019.
Let’s not forget about the potential Norris Trophy winner in Aaron Ekblad. The former first-overall selection has proven that he can produce offensively while still performing as a top tier blue liner; and entering his fourth season Ekblad’s 2019 campaign should be a breakout season that turns heads around the league.
The big question mark in 2019 for the Panthers is between the pipes. Can Roberto Luongo stay healthy and did former teammate Jaromir Jagr share the “fountain of youth” with the 39-year-old masked man; is James Reimer and Michael Hutchinson the right combination if Luongo is unable to perform for a long stretch of time?
The Panthers are a good team in all areas on the ice, but goaltending will be the deciding factor for how far Florida advances in the playoffs.
3.) Boston Bruins
Don’t worry Boston…the Bruins finishing in third place for the Atlantic Division could be a blessing in disguise in relation to their chances at hoisting the franchise’s seventh Stanley Cup.
While Boston finished in second place for the division last season and defeated the Toronto Maple Leafs in seven games during the first round of the playoffs, playing against Toronto in round one for 2019 may not be ideal for the B’s. It would be tough to imagine a revamped Maple Leafs’ team losing back-to-back years in the playoffs to Boston, and vice-versa if the Bruins ended up playing the Tampa Bay Lightning in the postseason (lost in five games to Tampa in 2018 second round).
The Bruins are deep in all areas on the ice and have that uncanny mix of youthful and veteran assets. While fans are quick to blame goaltender Tuukka Rask for any playoff “failures” the B’s have encountered over the years, the Finnish native and Vezina Trophy winner (2013-14) is still a top-tier NHL goaltender.
What’s scary is the fact that a number of Bruins are going to improve on the ice as 2019 progresses; just look no further than everyone’s favorite player in Brad Marchand; then the likes of David Pastrnak, Tory Krug and Jake Debrusk.
One of the team’s weaknesses may have been the team’s inability to produce offensively and questionable defensive effort down the stretch, but a key depth signing with defenseman John Moore can’t hurt Boston’s roster.
Boston finishes in third place, but don’t be surprised to the Bruins represent the Atlantic in the 2019 Eastern Conference Final.
2.) Tampa Bay Lightning
The reality is that the Tampa Bay Lightning are stacked and similar to the Bruins, Tampa is deep and has a commendable mix of young and veteran skaters that have the potential makeup of a Stanley Cup championship squad.
But, there’s a keyword…”potential.”
Tampa has had a ton of success over the past handful of seasons, but no rings to show for it. Yes, the Bolts and Steven Stamkos are going to have another 90-plus point season to finish second in the Atlantic Division for 2019, but it won’t matter unless Tampa can get over the hump and finally win a Stanley Cup likes its expected to.
It appeared last season that the Lightning could defeat teams in numerous ways with their uncanny depth on offense, but the team’s overall defensive play hurt Tampa Bay down the stretch, and then Nikita Kucherov and company forgot how to suddenly score when it mattered most – Game 6 and 7 in the 2018 Eastern Conference Final.
A youngster and all-star in Brayden Point is another year wiser and experienced, as in 2018 Vezina Trophy nominee Andrei Vasilevskiy. However, while the Bolts had a tremendous year statistically in the standings, it was more than apparent that Vasilevskiy stole a number of games for the Bolts’ which also included contests in the playoffs.
The Lightning will good and score plenty of highlight-reel goals, but it’s a matter of how well the entire team plays in the postseason.
Second place it is.
1.) Toronto Maple Leafs
Don’t get your hopes too high, yet.
Forward John Tavares will make a smooth transition into the Toronto Maple Leafs’ lineup and don’t be surprised if he leads the team in scoring, either.
The former New York Islanders’ captain is in his prime and is hungry to succeed, while the former first-overall selection (2009) has plenty of support with the likes of Auston Matthews, William Nylander, Mitch Marner, Nazem Kadri and goaltender Frederik Andersen.
Speaking of Andersen, the three-time 30-game winner will play out to be the biggest reason why the Leafs win the division for the first time since 1999-00. Yes, it’s been that long.
Sure, the Maple Leafs lost some key depth skaters such as center Tyler Bozak and Leo Komarov, but the addition of Tavares really opens up options, plus time and space for the skaters that skate on a daily nightly basis with No. 91. Let’s not forget that Toronto finished last season with the league’s second-best power play (25 percent) and adding Tavares into the fold won’t complicate the Maple Leafs’ special teams, either.
Keep in mind that skaters such as Jake Gardiner and Morgan Reilly will show signs of major improvements for Toronto, and act as some of the best defensemen in the league.
Congrats Toronto, the Maple Leafs will add another banner to the Air Canada Center after 2019. It just won’t be a Stanley Cup championship banner – that’s a story for another time.
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