Atlantic Division review: Lightning ‘three-peat’ chances, top teams slip?

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Throughout this week, PHT will review each of the NHL’s (restored) four divisions. Who’s the favorite, who’s rising, and who’s in decline? How did the offseason affect the outlook? Today, PHT reviews the Atlantic Division. Read about the Central Division here, and the Metropolitan in this post.

Current Atlantic Division Favorite: Lightning

Look, this isn’t a no-brainer like the Avalanche as Central Division favorites.

Yes, the Lightning are reigning repeat Stanley Cup champions. At the same time, they didn’t even win their division last season. And, while that modified Central Division was a one-time thing, Atlantic foe Florida finished ahead of the Bolts. Combine that fact with the up-top strength of the Atlantic Division, and it’s a tough call.

Consider this a tricky tiebreaker rule-of-thumb, then. When in doubt, choose the team whose best players are simply better — even if it’s close. Simply put, the Lightning’s core (Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, Andrei Vasilevskiy, Victor Hedman) can stand toe-to-toe with any other in the NHL. They’ve earned that trust by delivering game after game, and year after year.

But, yes, there are reasons for pause.

To start, the Lightning suffered some painful offseason losses. Yanni Gourde and Blake Coleman rank as the headliners, but there were multiple gut-punches.

The sheer fatigue of being repeat Stanley Cup champions (and making five conference final appearances in seven seasons) could easily catch up to the Lightning. Truly, they might make in-season decisions that undermine their Atlantic Division title chances, in the name of chasing that “three-peat.”

Plenty of other Atlantic Division contenders carry “Yeah, but …” statements along with their strengths.

We’ll get to offseason losses in a moment. Let’s just say the Lightning aren’t alone in wondering if they can withstand substantial subtractions. Wear-and-tear is at least a valid concern for the Bruins, arguably the most obvious threat to the Lightning. And who knows if the Panthers end up a flash-in-the-pan?

So, we’re left making scary, hopefully-educated guesses. With that in mind, the safest bet is to name the Lightning as vulnerable (but formidable) favorites for the Atlantic Division title.

As difficult as the feat might be, plenty will pencil the Lightning in as Stanley Cup favorites, too.

Biggest Offseason Move: Painful losses for top teams

Usually, when you see a few powerhouses form in the top of a division like the Atlantic, you expect an arms race. Who loaded up the most via trades and 2021 NHL Free Agency?

Instead, the decisive question for the Atlantic Division may be: “Which team can handle significant subtractions without losing too much ground?”

It’s difficult to pin down a single top offseason move for the Atlantic Division. At least without a big question answered (more on that in the last section of this post).

Consider, though:

  • The Lightning experiencing losses that mix quality (Gourde, Coleman) with quantity (Barclay Goodrow, etc.).
  • The Bruins will find out just how much they might have taken David Krejci for granted. They’ll also experience some life without Tuukka Rask, although he expects to return mid-season.
  • Taylor Hall stands as the rare “rental” who decided to stick with his team. Most didn’t though. The Maple Leafs spent a lot for rentals, but Nick Foligno and others are gone. It’s likely most painful for Toronto to say goodbye to Zach Hyman.
  • We’ll expand on the Canadiens’ losses. Short version: could be dicey.
  • Overall, the Panthers maintained much from their breakthrough. Chris Driedger‘s departure could leave them doomed by goaltending again, however.

That’s … a lot for Atantic Division teams to deal with. The minuses generally outweigh the pluses. Even so, the top teams still look very formidable. Especially if one team cements its place among the upper-crust …

Atlantic Division team on the rise: Panthers

Yes, the Red Wings and Senators want to be on the rise. It wouldn’t be surprising to see them make some steps up the ladder. Alex Nedeljkovic could bring big rewards on a low-risk trial. The Senators finished last season strong (for whatever that’s worth).

But it’s not their time yet.

Don’t be shocked if this is the season where more hockey people realize that the Panthers might be putting something special together.

By losing to the Lightning to open the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Panthers ended a promising season with some disappointment. There were plenty of flashes of brilliance, however, and they remained a dynamic and dangerous team even when Aaron Ekblad suffered an awful injury.

They kept the most important members of the band together this offseason, and even added Sam Reinhart. You could argue Reinhart is the Panthers of offseason additions. He’s been building up momentum, and is likely a lot better than most realize.

Granted, the Panthers aren’t bulletproof. They might end up missing Chris Driedger more than expected. It’s also possible that players like Anthony Duclair, Sam Bennett, and Carter Verhaeghe played way over their heads.

Overall, the Panthers must be taken seriously, and rank as intriguing dark horse candidates to win the Atlantic Division title.

Canadiens could face steepest decline among Atlantic Division’s top teams

Can you go lower than rock bottom?

That’s an agonizingly relevant question for the lowly Sabres. Even without settling the Jack Eichel question, they’ve been bleeding important talent. “Tanking” is the wisest long-term decision, but Sabres fans know many flavors of this type of short-term pain. There won’t be much sweet to go with the bitter in 2020-21.

Take the Sabres out of the equation, and the question gets more interesting. It circles back to that theme of offseason losses, and lingers on: which productive Atlantic Division team could sink this season?

Scroll up for more on the lingering worries for the Lightning, Bruins, Maple Leafs, and to some extent, Panthers.

The Canadiens seem at the greatest risk to slide in 2020-21, though.

Honestly, it’s tempting to parallel these Canadiens with a Dallas Stars team that made a surprising run to the 2020 Stanley Cup Final. After surging, the Stars paid for their deep run in injuries, and also endured both COVID and weather-related headaches. You could absolutely argue that the Stars deserved an incomplete grade, rather than an “F,” for missing the playoffs. Their season ended early, either way.

The Canadiens face some of the same risks.

First, there are their losses.

Philipp Danault and Tomas Tatar comprised two-thirds of one of the NHL’s most underrated two-way lines, and they’re gone. Even if you discount Tatar (like, um, the Canadiens?), Danault is a troubling loss.

Now, it’s possible that David Savard and others help Montreal maintain good defense, while Mike Hoffman and others give the Habs a bit more versatility. There’s a scenario where the Nick SuzukiCole Caufield combo make the Canadiens a more dynamic team.

It’s also plausible that the Canadiens take some serious steps back defensively, without gaining enough to “outscore their problems.”

Some of that concern revolves around wear-and-tear the 2019-20 Stars could relate to.

Much like Ben Bishop, Carey Price required offseason surgery. The Stars barely saw Tyler Seguin play last season, while it’s possible Shea Weber‘s NHL career could be over.

Depth is part of what propelled the Canadiens on their surprising 2021Stanley Cup Final appearance. Still, they often won those playoff games by small margins. It’s also dangerous to totally ignore a very underwhelming regular season.

With some painful losses and serious bumps-and-bruises, the Canadiens could fall far from that Cinderella run.

Eichel question needs to be answered

Even with a healthy Jack Eichel, the Sabres would probably stink this season.

Eichel’s unlikely to be available from the first puck drop of 2020-21 — at least with things dragging on as far as his neck surgery (preferred option or not) goes.

So, it’s possible that the Jack Eichel trade question is a moot point not just for the Sabres, but the Atlantic Division as a whole. At least if the Sabres are too squeamish to trade Eichel to someone in the Atlantic Division.

What if they’re willing to trade Eichel to, say, the Bruins, though? (Frankly, they’re in a spot where they probably just need to take the best deal possible. Seeing Eichel a few more times per season may just be the bitter pill Buffalo needs to swallow to make the best of this situation.)

Interestingly, there’s a scenario that, if the Sabres traded Jack Eichel to an Atlantic Division team, said team might experience a brief setback.

If Eichel must go with fusion surgery (rather than his preferred disc replacement option), then he could miss much of the 2021-22 season — maybe even all of it. That’s relevant if an Eichel trade package consists of a mix of current NHL roster players (along with the preferred boost of draft picks and prospects).

There’s the possibility for domino effects with a Jack Eichel trade. Even if Kevyn Adams can’t stomach the thought of seeing Eichel scoring extra goals against the Sabres as an Atlantic Division opponent, it’s still one of the most important unanswered questions remaining in the NHL offseason.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Sabres agree with Dylan Cozens on 7-year, $49.7M extension

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Buffalo Sabres agreed to terms with forward Dylan Cozens on a seven-year extension worth $49.7 million.

The team announced the contract. Cozens will count $7.1 million against the salary cap through the 2029-30 season.

Cozens, who turns 22, is the latest core player the Sabres have extended over the past six months. Buffalo signed All-Star forward Tage Thompson for $50 million over seven seasons in August and defenseman Mattias Samuelsson to a seven-year, $30 million deal in October.

Rasmus Dahlin, the top pick in 2020 who’s a Norris Trophy candidate and filled in for Thompson at NHL All-Star weekend, figures to be next for a big contract. He’s signed through next season and can begin talking about an extension this summer.

Cozens, who was set to be a restricted free agent, has already set career highs with 17 goals, 26 assists and 43 points – with 30 games left in the season. The seventh pick in 2019, Cozens has 34 goals and 60 assists in 169 regular-season NHL games, all with Buffalo.

The Sabres, led by Dahlin, Thompson, Cozens and 2021 No. 1 pick Owen Power, are contending to make the playoffs. The organization’s 11-year playoff drought dating to 2011 is by far the longest in the league.

Stanley Cup champion Avalanche steadily returning to health

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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Had his coach been watching, this might have made for an anxious moment: Colorado Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar catching an edge and falling in the fastest skater contest.

Jared Bednar wasn’t tuned in, though, and had no idea what happened in the skills contest over All-Star weekend. Only that Makar emerged from his crash into the boards just fine.

These days, things are definitely looking up for the Stanley Cup champions on the injury front. Defenseman Bowen Byram returns to the lineup, along with forward Valeri Nichushkin. Defenseman Josh Manson is creeping closer to a return. Same for captain Gabriel Landeskog, who’s yet to play this season. Forward Darren Helm is progressing, too.

In spite of all their bumps and bruises, the Avalanche entered the All-Star break in a playoff spot. To weather the injury storm, Colorado has relied on 39 different skaters this season, a mark that’s tied for the most in a single season since the team relocated to Denver in 1995.

“Anybody we can get back right now is huge,” said Makar, whose team kicks off a three-game trip Tuesday night in Pittsburgh.

Byram returns after being sidelined with a lower-body injury since early November. He was an integral part of their Stanley Cup run a season ago, when he led all rookies with nine assists in the postseason. Byram was off to a fast start this season – two goals and three assists in 10 games – before his injury.

“He’s looking great. He’s buzzing out there,” Makar said of his fellow blue liner. “Hopefully it doesn’t take him too long to get back into game mode. But I think he’s a guy that can turn it on pretty quickly.”

Byram missed a chunk of games last season as he dealt with concussion symptoms. This time, he was able to be around the team as he worked his way back.

“I was just happy it wasn’t my head,” Byram said. “It was a lot easier to be out when you’re still feeling good and feel like yourself. … I’m just excited to get going again.”

Count on Byram for as many minutes as necessary, too.

“I’m 100%, so no reason to ease into it,” Byram said. “I’m confident with jumping back in.”

Manson will join the Avalanche on the trip so he can skate with the squad. He’s been out with a lower-body injury since the start of December.

“I do think it helps to get on the road, be around the guys,” Bednar said.

Landeskog could be back “fairly soon,” Bednar said, but didn’t have a definitive timeline quite yet. The longtime Avalanche captain has been sidelined since knee surgery in October.

The Avalanche entered the All-Star break on quite a roll, winning seven of their last eight. They’ve amassed 57 points, which trails Dallas (66 points at the All-Star break), Winnipeg (65) and Minnesota (58) in the Central Division.

One thing the Avalanche are guarding against is another slow start out off the break. It happened over Christmas when the team had a few days off and promptly went 0-4-1 upon their return.

“It’s just shifting the mentality back to game mode. No more vacation,” Makar said. “We still have a long way to go. We’re not where we want to be right now. But there’s a lot of time left.”

Kraken add some size, acquire Jaycob Megna from San Jose

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SEATTLE — The Seattle Kraken acquired defenseman Jaycob Megna from the San Jose Sharks in exchange for a 2023 fourth-round draft pick.

Megna is in the midst of his best season with 12 points in 48 games for the Sharks while averaging more than 19 minutes per game.

“Jaycob has shown with his play this season that he is a responsible defenseman that can be relied on in all situations,” Seattle general manager Ron Francis said. “He provides welcome depth to our defensive group and we are happy to have him join our organization.”

The 6-foot-6, 220-pound Megna will add some size and bulk to Seattle’s lineup. Megna ranked fifth for San Jose in both blocked shots and hits.

Megna previously played for Anaheim for parts of three seasons between 2016-19. The 48 games played this season is a career-high for the 30-year-old.

Seattle is tied for the lead in the Pacific Division and will return from the All-Star break beginning against the New York Islanders.

Islanders sign Bo Horvat to 8-year deal after trading for him

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The New York Islanders signed center Bo Horvat to an eight-year contract less than a week after acquiring him in a trade with the Vancouver Canucks.

The team announced the contract after their first practice following the All-Star break. Horvat’s deal is worth $68 million and carries a $8.5 million salary cap hit through the 2030-31 season.

General manager Lou Lamoriello joked to reporters at practice on Long Island that Horvat’s contract was “too long and it’s too much money.”

The Islanders sent forward Anthony Beauvillier, prospect Aatu Raty and a protected first-round pick to the Canucks for Horvat . He was set to be an unrestricted free agent after the season, and the trade was a result of Vancouver and Horvat’s camp being unable to reach a deal last summer.

Lamoriello and Horvat expressed confidence about getting a deal done after the trade. The 27-year-old has scored more than 30 goals for a second consecutive season.

Horvat was chosen as an All-Star and played for the Pacific Division despite the trade. He played with longtime Canucks teammate Elias Pettersson and combined on one last goal together before parting ways.

“I want to get going,” Horvat said after the All-Star 3-on-3 tournament. “That’s enough. Let’s start playing some games and getting to know the guys. I just want to start playing hockey again.”

Horvat was on vacation with his family in Orlando when he was traded. He said coach Lane Lambert wanted him to enjoy All-Star festivities before getting rolling with the Islanders, who play at the Philadelphia Flyers.

“Obviously getting my legs under me is going to be No. 1 and getting systems down and obviously chemistry with the new linemates and stuff like that,” Horvat said.

After facing the Flyers and Seattle, Horvat will play against his former team when Vancouver visits UBS Arena.