After I kicked off my return to hockey writing final week, I began with what I discovered to be probably the most attention-grabbing pockets of the league: that might be the 4 groups that had been the dregs of the Atlantic Division in 2021-22.
There was a transparent divide between the division’s eight groups, with 4 (Florida, Toronto, Tampa Bay and Boston) being within the league’s top-10 with 107 factors or extra, and the opposite 4 (Montreal, Ottawa, Detroit and Buffalo) within the league’s backside quarter, ending over 30 factors from a playoff spot.
These backside groups, nevertheless, had aggressive summers, apparently aiming to truly win hockey video games within the close to future. I anticipate every of them to be higher and at roughly the identical time – which I discover attention-grabbing – and so I wrote as a lot.
What that article failed to say was that the opposite backside groups being higher at that very same time clearly hurts each other’s possibilities of taking a step up the standings. A crew getting solely just a little higher would possibly truly see that crew fail to maintain tempo and fall additional behind.
It additionally didn’t point out what to make of the groups who had been as soon as Cup contenders, who noticed themselves eradicated from playoffs within the first spherical (Leafs), second (Panthers and Bruins), and Cup Closing (Lightning).
Will the Division be as sturdy? Are any of these groups considerably higher, or weaker?
The solutions right here may have an enormous say in whether or not the underside 4 groups have an opportunity to catch anybody, and if any of those groups have an opportunity to catch Colorado and truly win the Cup.
There was no scarcity of strikes, and every roster seems completely different. Let’s get into how, beginning with the crew that went farthest in playoffs, and dealing our means again.
I don’t suppose there’s a lot of a case to be made that the Lightning are going to be “higher” in 2022-23.
That doesn’t imply they received’t be formidable, however wage cap issues price them Ondrej Palat, who’s been a kind of sneaky “subsequent layer” gamers after the celebs who’ve contributed huge worth to their Cup runs. He tied for the crew lead in playoff targets this previous run with 11.
Additionally they traded Ryan McDonagh to Nashville (for D-man Phillippe Myers, and ahead prospect Grant Mismash), and all McDonagh did final yr was end second on the crew in ice time by way of their playoff run, averaging 22:26 per sport. On prime of that, the Bolts misplaced Jan Ruuta to the Penguins, who had usually been paired with Victor Hedman over the previous couple seasons.
Nonetheless, what they did do, was guarantee they stored their most significant items.
They prolonged Mikhail Sergachev and Erik Cernak and Anthony Cirelli for eight years every. Additionally they prolonged Nick Paul for seven years, and anticipate extra from 24-year-old Brandon Hagel who they acquired on the deadline. They’ve nonetheless bought Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Level, Hedman and Andrei Vasilevskiy. They added Vlad Namestnikov to choose up among the slack, and so they suppose there’s extra there from younger guys like Ross Colton and Cal Foote.
What I see is a rattling good, confirmed crew with the kind of core that ensures they’ll be aggressive, and as soon as once more, hell to place away within the playoffs.
However roster-wise they’re most likely a small share worse, and so they received’t have Cirelli or Zach Bogosian till about December as a consequence of shoulder surgical procedures. Quite a lot of their gamers would’ve spent the beginning of the low season rehabbing, together with Brayden Level. I believe there’s the chance there – after three straight Cup last runs for a slower begin to the season.
The reigning President’s Trophy champs took the alternative street from our subsequent crew, the Toronto Maple Leafs: after a crushing post-season defeat, they traded out a vital core piece and flipped the look of their roster fully.
Their model of “going for it” says they didn’t consider in the way in which they had been constructed final yr. Jonathan Huberdeau was fifth in Hart Trophy voting, and was shipped out alongside D-man MacKenzie Weegar, who put up over 40 factors from the back-end.
You solely do one thing so drastic for those who consider absolutely in what’s coming the opposite means, and what’s coming again to them in Matthew Tkachuk, who had over 100 factors final yr to go along with a extra bodily edge (a deciding issue, for my part, is why they valued him over Huberdeau).
So it’s Huberdeau out, Weegar out, Mason Marchment signed with Dallas, Claude Giroux signed with Ottawa, and Ben Chiarot signed with Detroit. With these names gone, they’ve added Colin White, Nick Cousins, Marc Staal, Anthony Bitetto and Michael Del Zotto (the latter two spent a while within the AHL final season).
Tkachuk is a particular participant getting into his prime and a beautiful addition. Possibly that makes them higher, or not less than completely different, than a one-for-one swap with Huberdeau. After that, it’s virtually unimaginable to argue they’ve improved this low season (which might have been awfully onerous after successful the President’s Trophy and the wage cap present).
There’s nonetheless a ton of expertise right here and an excellent crew. However they bought career-year output from numerous gamers final season (purpose highs from Barkov, 39, Bennett, 28, Reinhart, 33, Verhaeghe, 24, and Duclair, 31, the latter of whom could miss many of the common season with an Achilles tear).
Nearly every thing went proper. Like Tampa, I’d say if something, they’re a couple of share factors worse when simply assessing their roster.
It will be as much as arguably their largest addition – head coach Paul Maurice – to make sure they’re constructed not only for common season success, however for the playoffs.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Regardless of the howls and yowls from blood-thirsty jowls round Ontario, the Leafs are runnin’ it again, child. Nothing might probably go flawed.
Reverse the Panthers, there’s apparently front-office perception on this core of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares, William Nylander and Morgan Rielly.
The Leafs are coming off 54 wins, ending fourth within the common season, earlier than placing collectively a first-round efficiency heralded by many as “completely different” regardless of the identical final result because the earlier 5 playoffs – a first-round knockout.
The Leafs lose beginning goaltender Jack Campbell, who was both spectacular or atrocious, relying which half of the season stats you cherry-pick, and Ilya Mikheyev, who was an impactful supplementary participant for the Leafs.
In return, the roster additions look one thing just like the season earlier than, the place the Leafs bought a seize bag of low-cost gamers in hopes that somebody is ready to get away and have success.
Calle Jarnkrok is a dependable addition at an inexpensive worth, although probably not a needle-mover. Adam Gaudette is a possible break-out participant with some upside, and there’s hope that the dash-gang of Nicolas Aubel-Kubel and Zach Aston-Reese can present a extra high-energy, bodily have a look at the underside of the lineup, the place the Leafs have sometimes housed older or punchier gamers. (If these guys hope to stay because the fourth-line guys, “sprint gang” higher discuss with their final names solely.)
The largest change is that with Campbell gone, and Petr Mrazek dealt to Chicago, the crew has positioned its bets on a bounce-back for Matt Murray (who’s coming off a .906 save share season, his greatest yr since 2018-19), and Ilya Samsonov, who was an .896 final yr.
Murray is simply 28, but it surely’s onerous to seek out many believers that he’ll be the man to take this crew over the mountain, and Samsonov looks as if a lottery ticket at greatest (although with the shortage of different choices, it looks as if they picked the perfect out there lottery ticket, not less than).
What the Leafs do have going for them is that final yr, of the 16 groups who made playoffs, just one had a crew save share worse than Toronto’s .899 (22nd in NHL). The crew was good with out goaltending to start with.
If Murray and Samsonov are simply OK, the Leafs needs to be too.
The room for inner enchancment appears small. The core was glorious final season, and by way of prospects on the way in which, solely Matthew Knies after his faculty season (or mayyyybe Nick Robertson?) strike as gamers who might be instantly impactful.
And so it goes: The Leafs had been excellent, and supplied good well being shall be excellent once more. They consider that in the event that they bang their head towards the door lengthy sufficient with this group, finally the rattling factor will open. And it might! It might, or they might concuss themselves within the course of and quit as soon as and for all. Keep tuned.
The Boston Bruins of tomorrow will look extra just like the Boston Bruins of previous, as each Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci have returned to supply a one-two punch down the center. The most recent face round shall be behind the bench, as Bruce Cassidy was let go in favour of Jim Montgomery. Nonetheless, the core and tradition of that group ought to persist given Bergeron, Krejci, Brad Marchand, David Pastrnak and Charlie McAvoy are all returning.
The Bruins’ largest query mark previous their growing older core is an enormous one: can they survive the primary few months? Marchand had surgical procedure on each hips, and shall be out till not less than December, and McAvoy had shoulder surgical procedure, holding him out simply as lengthy. Matt Grzelcyk had work on his proper shoulder too, which can hold him out till not less than November.
This feels just like the Islanders’ scenario final yr: the crew had a brutal street journey whereas their new area was being completed (after which instantly COVID) to begin the yr, and the vibe was that if they might simply tread water lengthy sufficient, they’d be nice as soon as they bought to have some residence video games and get wholesome. However for the Isles, the season was too far gone earlier than they might get there.
There’s no scarcity of expertise on the Bruins. It’ll nonetheless be Bergeron and Pastrnak and Taylor Corridor and Krejci and Hampus Lindholm supplemented by guys like Charlie Coyle and Jake DeBrusk and Brandon Carlo.
Between Jeremy Swayman and Linus Ullmark, I anticipate somebody to offer them saves. They received’t all of a sudden be unhealthy, but it surely does really feel prefer it might be a battle at occasions within the early going. They’ll want a very good yr from Nick Foligno, and perhaps one thing from Pavel Zacha, and some D-men to exceed expectations.
They had been the final crew of the “large 4” within the Atlantic Division this previous season. I’d anticipate them there once more, and if anybody from the underside rises up, I’d think about the Bruins are the primary crew they’re hoping to trace down.
What this implies for the remainder
There’s excellent news in right here for the underside groups within the Atlantic. I can’t see a single crew within the prime half of the group that appears poised to be higher, and that’s not precisely a knock.
We’re on the level the place with years of a flat wage cap, the groups who’ve been aggressive and attempting to win Cups are having their hardest time retaining deep rosters. Because the expertise has gotten shorn off the highest like a bartender clearing foam from a contemporary pint, among the great things has fallen to the groups down under.
It is one factor to rise to the highest, however staying there within the NHL’s present financial setting is sort of unimaginable. That’s mirrored in the perfect of this division, and with that, the video games needs to be aggressive and nearer than ever.