With the Boston Bruins returning to the Atlantic Division for the 2021-22 season, they will look to win their 27th division championship in team history and their 3rd Atlantic Division crown. Returning to the Atlantic Division are the reigning back to back Stanley Cup champions Tampa Bay Lightning, Stanley Cup finalists Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs, Florida Panthers, Detroit Red Wings, Buffalo Sabres, and the Ottawa Senators. The Bruins are sandwiched between 3 rebuilding teams, a forever-darkhorse in Montreal, and 3 more teams with Cup aspirations.
The Bruins found themselves in a similar situation last year when they were playing with the Metropolitan Division teams (plus Buffalo) and still managed to finish third in the division. They went through a slew of injuries, postponed games, and a bout of Covid-19, but they found their stride near the end of the season. What is to be expected now that they’re back in the Atlantic and have the other teams gotten better or worse?
The Buffalo Sabres finished last place in the NHL last year and earned themselves the number one overall pick. They traded Sam Reinhart to the Florida Panthers and Rasmus Ristolainen to the Philadelphia Flyers, but have kept the disgruntled Jack Eichel in the hopes of receiving a king’s ransom. One of the reasons for the holdup is that the Sabres want Eichel to forego the experimental surgery that he wants to undergo. One trade they made that netted them a player was with New Jersey, as they acquired Will Butcher for future considerations.
Their off-season was more focused around the trades than anything else because their free agency activity was limited. They did lose Linus Ullmark to Boston and Carter Hutton to Arizona. In return the Sabres replaced them with Craig Anderson and Aaron Dell; a sign that maybe they’ll be tanking once again.
The Sabres have 28.6 million in cap space with RFAs: Rasmus Dahlin, Henri Jokiharju, and Casey Middlestadt still requiring contracts. Overall, it should be another lowly year for the Sabres as their rebuild is still taking shape. The Eichel saga will continue to drag, as rumours and trade talks have quieted down. Regardless of the situation, they shouldn’t pose a threat for the Bruins moving forward.
Detroit Red Wings
The Detroit Red Wings had a busy off-season with Steve Yzerman eyeing a quicker rebuild than anticipated. The Red Wings finished 7th in the Central Division and 5th last in the NHL as they represent another rebuilding team in the Atlantic Division. They acquired Alex Nedeljkovic from the Carolina Hurricanes, traded Richard Panik to the New York Islanders for Nick Leddy, and signed Pius Suter and Jordan Oesterle.
They extended Nedeljkovic right after the trade to a 2 year deal worth 3 million a season, they extended Jakub Vrana to a 3 year deal worth 5.2 million a season, and they sit with 18 million in cap space with only Filip Hronek needing a contract.
The Wings don’t pose a threat to the top teams in the Atlantic Division but they should fare a little better this season, which should give their 5 year rebuild some validation. They’re a young team with a great farm system but for the time being shouldn’t threaten the Bruins, especially this year.
The Florida Panthers have been an up-and-coming team for a few years now and they finally have a deep nucleus to potentially pose a threat to the best of the rest. They were able to extend contracts to Anthony Duclair, Carter Verhaeghe, and Sam Bennett, signed Joe Thornton, and swung for a big trade in Sam Reinhart from the Buffalo Sabres.
The Panthers have a deep forward group that already consisted of Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Anthony Duclair, Sam Bennett, Carter Verhaeghe, and Partick Hornqvist, Acquiring Sam Reinhart only adds more potency and they were able to sign him to an extension as well (3 yers 6.5 million per season).
The Panthers had the fourth best record in the league and came within one point from taking the Central Division crown last year. Their only notable losses in the off-season were Chris Driedger who was selected by the Seattle Kraken, Keith Yandle who signed with the Philadelphia Flyers, and Alex Wennberg who ended up signing with the Kraken as well.
They are strapped for cash at the moment with only 1.3 million to spare but the nucleus of the team is signed through next year as well (except Aleksander Barkov). Their goaltending is still questionable only because of Sergei Bobrovsky’s rocky tenure as a Panther. He’s signed for another 5 years at 10 million and his contract is almost untradeable. Spencer Knight should have his fair share of chances this year as the backup goalie as he really shone last year and into the playoffs.
A surprise run to the Stanley Cup Finals have revitalized the fan base and city alike. Not much was expected from them other than a playoff appearance heading into the 2020-21 season but they pulled off upsets over the Toronto Maple Leafs, Winnipeg Jets, and Vegas Golden Knights before being ousted by the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Their off-season has been a little dour to say the least with the news of Shea Weber suffering a potentially career threatening injury. He was placed on the LTIR, as was Paul Byron. Carey Price’s injury situation is also being kept quiet as he was dealing with some knee issues before the expansion draft.
The Canadiens lost Philip Danault to the Los Angeles Kings, Tomas Tatar to the New Jersey Devils, and Jon Merill to the Minnesota Wild. They have been replaced by Mike Hoffman, Cedric Paquette, Mathieu Perreault, and David Savard.
The Canadiens currently sit 2 million over the cap but that doesn’t include the LTIR just yet. They need to re-sign RFA Jesperi Kotkaniemi, who should get a sizeable contract, especially with the way the team and fans talk about his value and impact.
With them re-entering the Atlantic Division and the old playoff format coming into play, I don’t see the Canadiens making the playoffs this year or posing too big a threat to the Bruins. Unless the Metropolitan Division completely implodes and they don’t produce a wild card team, then I don’t see the Canadiens making it. It’s too tall a task to go ahead of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Florida Panthers, Toronto Maple Leafs, and Boston Bruins during the regular season, especially if Carey Price isn’t 100% healthy.
The third rebuilding team of the division, had a surprisingly decent season last year for their current standards. They finished second last in their division but 23rd in the league, which is a lot better than their 30th place finish a year prior.
The Senators had a fairly quiet off-season as expected but they do hold over 28 million in cap space. They traded Evgeni Dadonov to the Vegas Golden Knights for Nick Holden, Ryan Dzingel went to Arizona, Derek Stepan went to Carolina, and the only notable free agent name to sign with the Senators was Micheal Del Zotto.
Their biggest concern of the off-season are their two RFAs, most notably Brady Tkachuk. Money isn’t going to be an issue with Tkachuk or Drake Batherson, but if they want a long term deal done, the Senators have to show Tkachuk that they’re willing to make moves and provide him a team worth signing for.
Not much is going to be expected from the Senators this year, just like the Red Wings, they’ll be looking for small moral victories in their rebuild.
Tampa Bay Lightning
The defending and reigning Stanley Cup champions had a very busy off-season of unloading contracts and key players because of their cap situation. No one will let them forget that they were 18 million over the cap, even though it was legal by NHL standards.
The Lightning lost Yanni Gourde to the Seattle Kraken, traded Barclay Goodrow to the New York Rangers, traded Tyler Johnson to the Chicago Blackhawks for Brent Seabrook, traded Mitchell Stephens to the Red Wings, let Blake Coleman walk and sign with the Calgary Flames, had to let David Savard walk and sign with the Canadiens, and lost Luke Schenn to the Vancouver Canucks.
With limited cap space the Lightning dipped into the free agency pool and signed Corey Perry, Pierre Edouard Bellemare, Zach Bogosian, and Brian Elliott. They also extended Brayden Point to a monstrous 8 year 76 million dollar deal. The core of the team remains the same and with Nikita Kucherov back in the fold, the Lightning are still the team to beat in 2021-22.
Toronto Maple Leafs
After an embarrassing playoff collapse at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens, a lot was being speculated about big moves coming out of Toronto. The core 4 is making too much money for no playoff success. They’ve tried fidgeting with the depth year after year and because that hasn’t worked, people expected one of the core 4 to be moved.
To their credit, the front office stood firm and by their players, and reiterated time after time that they won’t be moving any one of them. So with limited cap space, they had an off-season similar to that of the Tampa Bay Lightning. They lost Zach Hyman, Nick Foligno, Frederik Andersen, David Rittich, Joe Thornton, and Jared McCann (acquired right before the expansion draft).
In return they’re being replaced by Nick Ritchie, Ondrej Kase, Petr Mrazek, Michael Bunting, and David Kampf. Depth for depth was on the docket for their off-season plans as they intend to move forward with their expensive core 4. Losing Hyman is going to hurt but they knew they couldn’t keep him considering how much money he was being offered on the open market.
Their goaltending situation is different this year with Andersen going to Carolina and Mrazek ironically finding himself in Toronto. Jack Campbell and Mrazek will be the new tandem and the Leafs are really hoping for more of the same from Campbell this year, after he went 17-3 in the season and then 3-4 in the playoffs but with a 1.81 G.A.A and a .934 save percentage.
Analyzing and comparing everyone’s off-season with the Bruins, not much has changed in terms of potential standings for next year. The top 4 is going to be a battle between the Tampa Bay Lightning, Florida Panthers, Toronto Maple Leafs, and Boston Bruins, while Buffalo Sabres, Ottawa Senators, and Detroit Red Wings languish in bottom but try to gain moral victories during the rebuild.
The Montreal Canadiens are the wild card of the division because they can surprise anyone on any given day. No one knows what to expect from them and they relish in that underdog role. In saying that, it’s going to be tough sledding back in the Atlantic Division with a lot tougher opponents than last year’s North Division.
The Boston Bruins were busy themselves this off-season with the retirement of David Krejci, the injury to Tuukka Rask, losing Sean Kuraly to the Columbus Blue Jackets, and then also losing Kase and Ritchie to the Maple Leafs. The Bruins brought in Nick Foligno, Linus Ullmark, Derek Forbort, Erik Haula, Tomas Nosek, and signed Taylor Hall to a 4 year extension.
The Lightning for the time being, are still the team to beat since they were able to keep most of their nucleus intact. After that it’s going to be a dog fight between the Panthers, Leafs, and Bruins. They all have top end scoring options and good to decent top 4 defensemen, which will make the deciding factor their depth and goaltending.
The Bruins have experience and chemistry riding on their coat tails and should push for the second spot in the division, if not the top spot. Dethroning the Lightning will be tough but the Bruins have shown time and time again that they can’t be counted out. They have some gaping holes in their lineup, especially their second line centre, but lucky for them every other team in the division has some deep rooted issue as well. The Panthers have a goaltending conundrum, the Leafs have depth and defense to worry about, and maybe the losses in the off-season might actually affect the Lightning.
All that is certain is that the top 4 teams in the Atlantic Division are going to put on an entertaining show, especially when facing off against each other. The Bruins have their work cut out for them but they still possess the talent, skill, and experience to go head-to-head with the best and claim that 27th division crown in franchise history.