Which teams are squarely in win-now mode? Which teams are rebuilding? Who sits in the murky middle? Our division-by-division series concludes with the Atlantic teams.
Welcome to part 4 of Stanley Cup Windows, an annual blog series in which I (attempt to) assess where each NHL team sits on its road to Stanley Cup contention. Some are squarely in their glory years, others have approached desperate win-now junctures, others are watching their Cup hopes slip away and some are obvious rebuilders.
So how does the Cup-window landscape look for 2021-22? Give the snow globe a vigorous shake. That’ll give you a fair sense of what to expect from the NHL’s standings: chaos. For the first time since March 2020, the NHL’s divisions will align under their traditional structures: Atlantic, Central, Metropolitan and Pacific. Which teams will emerge as the alphas? It’s difficult to know when so many haven’t faced each other in a year and a half. The Seattle Kraken also join the fray as the league’s 32nd franchise.
This year’s Stanley Cup Windows exercise should prove particularly challenging, then. But that’s part of the fun. We conclude with the Atlantic Division, which is not as top heavy as it was the last time all eight of its teams were neighbors.
WINDOW WIDE OPEN
(In position to contend for multiple seasons)
Tampa Bay Lightning
The two-time defending champs have been weakened, no doubt. Their third line of Blake Coleman, Yanni Gourde and Barclay Goodrow played a crucial role in the Lightning’s consecutive Cup conquests, and all three play for new teams now, as does the versatile if overpriced Tyler Johnson. But the core pieces of Tampa’s powerhouse remain. Andrei Vasilevskiy rests in a tier of his own as the top goalie on the planet. Right winger Nikita Kucherov immediately resumed his superstar status upon returning from hip surgery. Brayden Point is one of the game’s most dominant two-way centers, especially come playoff time. Steven Stamkos isn’t the team’s go-to weapon anymore but doesn’t have to be and remains a deadly power-play threat. Victor Hedman was a horse for Tampa on defense despite playing hurt for much of last season, while blueliner Mikhail Sergachev is just entering his prime years and could bloom into elite status in his mid-20s just like Hedman did.
The more a team succeeds, the more money everyone earns, and the tougher it is to “keep the band together.” The Lightning players and coach Jon Cooper were extremely self-aware about that last post-season. Amazingly, the Bolts are already projected to exceed the salary cap next season, so it’ll be extremely difficult to keep UFA left winger Ondrej Palat, especially when Sergachev, emerging top-four defenseman Erik Cernak and defensive-whiz pivot Anthony Cirelli become RFAs again after 2022-23. But Vasilevskiy, Kucherov, Point, Stamkos and Hedman all have between three and seven years left on their deals, and the oldest among them is 31. The Bolts have the pillars to remain juggernauts a while longer, especially because they’re so good at developing lower-grade AHL prospects into viable NHLers.
You can feel the Panthers rising toward the Cup-contender summit right now. They boast prime-year stars in center Aleksander Barkov, left winger Jonathan Huberdeau and defenseman Aaron Ekblad; excellent support players such as left winger Carter Verhaeghe, newly acquired right winger Sam Reinhart and ace shutdown D-man MacKenzie Weegar; and an exciting new wave of kids emerging, from goaltender Spencer Knight to right winger Owen Tippett to left winger Grigori Denisenko to center Anton Lundell. Florida is positioned to be the Atlantic’s new bully team…
…as long as it can sort out contracts for its two most important players. Barkov is a UFA this summer and Huberdeau is next summer. Barkov in particular is the engine driving Florida’s play at both ends of the ice. He’s the reigning Selke Trophy winner. If the Panthers lose him, their long-term forecast obviously changes, but the guess here is that they retain their captain.
(Badly need to win now, big consequences if team falls short)
Toronto Maple Leafs
The Leafs, bowing out in the first round of the playoffs five straight times in the Auston Matthews/Mitch Marner era, are the most obvious win-now pick in the league. General manager Kyle Dubas let pricey UFA left winger Zach Hyman walk in free agency but mostly kept Toronto’s core together for one last swing at the fences. It makes sense given the Leafs dropped two overtime games in a seven-game series in which they fell to a Montreal Canadiens team that reached the final – with captain John Tavares lost for the series minutes into Game 1. Maybe the Leafs were that close. With little else left to try, they may as well give this group one more chance following a season which they improved dramatically on defense and boasted the league’s top goal-scorer in Matthews.
If the Leafs don’t win one, perhaps even two series this post-season, however? Truly anything could happen. It could spell the end for Dubas, maybe even for Shanahan as team president, and would open the door for roster-quaking moves. Marner could go. William Nylander could go. Top defenseman Morgan Rielly happens to be in his UFA walk year, too. On a scale of 1 to 10, the win-now pressure is jacked to 11 for Toronto in 2021-22.
With longtime No. 2 center David Krejci returning to the Czech Republic and starting netminder Tuukka Rask currently unsigned as he heals from hip surgery, the Bruins have just two players left from their 2011 championship team: first-liners Brad Marchand, 33 and Patrice Bergeron, 36. They still form arguably hockey’s best trio with right winger David Pastrnak, but the Bruins are probably nearing the end of their Stanley Cup contention window. Their center depth is depleted, and their farm system hasn’t churned out an elite skater prospect in the past several seasons.
Pastrnak, defenseman Charlie McAvoy and promising goaltender Jeremy Swayman are perfect pieces to build around, but, if Marchand and Bergeron begin to decline one of these years, the Bruins’ lack of depth will become a problem. Re-signing left winger Taylor Hall won’t be enough to keep Boston in the elite tier. For now, the Bruins deserve one more season of top-contender status, but they might slide toward “merely good” by next season.
WINDOW FOGGED UP
(Unpredictable outcome and differing opinions on whether team is a contender or pretender)
The Habs just reached the Stanley Cup final. They also did so with the NHL’s 18th-best record. This off-season they lost top shutdown center Phillip Danault and their captain in defenseman Shea Weber, and they moved back to the Atlantic Division, gaining the Lightning, Panthers and Bruins as divisional neighbors. Are the Habs prepared for a harsh reality check in 2021-22?
Maybe. On the other hand, the hyper-intelligent Nick Suzuki could continue blossoming into a premier all-situations center. Alexander Romanov’s role could grow on defense. The Habs get a full-season of deadly young sniper Cole Caufield, the addition of Mike Hoffman can at least help their power play, and UFA signee David Savard mitigates the loss of Weber. Same goes with freshly acquired center Christian Dvorak, who can at least partially replicate Danault’s role. The Canadiens, then, are a tough team to assess for this season. Will their personnel losses be too difficult to overcome, or will their youth progression offset that and then some?
(Commencing new phase of playoff contention, low pressure, modest expectations from fans)
The Senators started 2-12-1 last season and went 21-16-4 the rest of the way. The latter stretch made up 73 percent of the season. Brady Tkachuk, Josh Norris and Drake Batherson formed one of the league’s most exciting young lines, and they have high-ceiling support behind them from the sensationally talented Tim Stutzle and mature-beyond-his years Shane Pinto, both likely to occupy the second line. Thomas Chabot leads an improving D-corps that got a surprisingly effective rookie effort from Artem Zub, continues to break in Erik Brannstrom and Jacob Bernard-Docker and still hasn’t graduated Jake Sanderson, the team’s top blueline prospect.
The Sens’ goaltending remains a headache unless Matt Murray figures his game out, and they openly desire a veteran center to provide leadership and handle the tougher defensive matchups. They’re obviously still a flawed group, then. But the Sens are trending up and ready to trend up. Their goal this season is not to land another high draft pick. Ottawa wants to ascend to the playoff periphery.
(Laying foundation for the future, not interested in pursuing a Cup right now)
Detroit Red Wings
Steve Yzerman continues to slow-play things. Trading for goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic was a long-term move, just like last season’s Jakub Vrana trade was, and even this past summer’s Nick Leddy trade meant bringing in a veteran with an expiring deal and trade-deadline value. We should see mega-prospect defenseman Moritz Seider in the NHL this year, and maybe left winger Lucas Raymond as well, but the Wings still don’t appear to be in any rush. The 2022 and 2023 draft classes are just too tempting. If you’re rebuilding now, you might as well lay low one more year to get a crack at a lottery selection in one of those classes.
(Little hope for success in the present or the near future)
The Sabres are rebuilding, technically, but that term doesn’t do justice to how bad things are in Buffalo right now. It remains to be seen if the Sabres trade star center Jack Eichel and/or if they let him get the disk-replacement surgery he wants. An Eichel trade could bring in a franchise-altering haul of picks and prospects that would put Buffalo on a proper rebuild path. For now, though, the franchise sits in limbo, waiting on the Eichel outcome, waiting on No. 1 overall pick Owen Power to play out one more year at Michigan, hoping coach Don Granato can continue to unlock center Casey Mittelstadt’s potential and that blueline prodigy Rasmus Dahlin can receive some help on ‘D’ and not end up on the Rasmus Ristolainen path, asked to do too much too soon.
The Sabres have tied the NHL record for consecutive playoff misses at 10 and should break it this season at 11. It’s a sad state for a market that boasts some of hockey’s best and most devoted fans.Internet Explorer Channel Network