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.