The Atlantic Division boasts teams in all different stages ranging from dominant powerhouses to rebuilds and everything in between. Lets break down who could make the playoffs in the 2020 season.
Tampa Bay Lightning:
The Tampa Bay Lightning may have had one of the greatest regular seasons in NHL history, but they massively under-performed by being swept by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round of the playoffs. Tampa had control for only a portion of Game 1 leading the Blue Jackets 3-0. However, once Columbus came back the Lightning were unable to get back into the series and ultimately had one of the worst playoff collapses in recent memory. Although definitely a sore ending to a spectacular season, the Lightning are still built for greatness in 2020.
In terms of the forward core, the only remaining player who has yet to been signed is Brayden Point, who likely will re-up before the season begins. To have money to re-sign Point, Tampa Bay had to move on from J.T Miller and Ryan Callahan, sending both in trades to the Vancouver Canucks and Ottawa Senators respectively. Tampa Bay succeeds in blending young, cheap talent with skilled veterans who are locked up to team friendly deals. Having both Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov under $10 million per year each with contracts that run until 2024 and 2026 is incredible cap management.
Their defense is just as skilled boasting the likes of Victor Hedmen, Ryan McDonagh, Mikhail Sergachev and Braydon Coburn. Although they may have lost Anton Stralman to their rival, the Florida Panthers, general manager Julien Brisebois made an excellent low risk, high reward signing in Kevin Shattenkirk. Shattenkirk, like many of the Lightning’s players who used to play for the New York Rangers, signed with the Lightning after being bought out by the Rangers during the middle of his 4 year, $26 million contract. Tampa Bay signed the 30 year old defenseman to a 1 year, $1.75 million contract and could play much better in a more sheltered role, with a better team overall. Even if Shattenkirk doesn’t pan out, it’s only a one year deal with a very low cap hit.
Tampa Bay was one of the best teams last year and have been one of the league’s better team for the last half decade. Barring a slew of injuries, that won’t change and the Lightning will be a lock for the 2020 playoffs.
After being just a few steps back of making the playoffs the last couple of years, the Florida Panthers have gone all in this offseason to hopefully bring South Florida playoff hockey for the first time since 2016. Florida added players at all positions bringing in Brett Connolly and Noel Acciari up front, Anton Stralmen on defense and securing star free agent goalie Sergei Bobrovsky in net. While all solid moves, Bobrovsky may have been a bit of an overpayment at $10 million a year for seven years. Bobrovsky, 30, has had an excellent career thus far with the Philadelphia Flyers and Columbus Blue Jackets, but this contract likely won’t age well as he enters into his late 30s. However, with Roberto Luongo retiring and James Reimer not being reliable enough, the Panthers had a huge question in net and have solved that problem with signing of Bobrovsky.
Aside from the new additions, the Panthers have some of the better players on a non-playoff team. Both Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau eclipsed over 90 points for the first time in their careers and Mike Hoffman and Evgeni Dadonov had excellent seasons as well. Couple this with offensive defenseman Keith Yandle and the very underrated Aaron Ekblad, and you have a team that on paper looks good enough to make the playoffs. The Panthers even went one step further and hired one of the best head coaches in NHL history in Joel Quenneville.
The Panthers finished the 2019 season with a 36-32-14 record, missing the playoffs by 12 points. They also finished the year as one of the league’s better teams in terms of offensive production scoring the 9th most goals (264). Their goaltending severely hurt them last year and they ended up allowing the 4th most goals against (273). Florida has only made the playoffs twice since 2000, both times getting knocked out in the first round, and are desperately looking to get back and hopefully make a deep run. It certainly won’t be easy as they have excellent teams in both their division and conference, but ultimately I think the Panthers will be down to the wire fighting for a wildcard position.
Of all the teams in the Atlantic Division that missed the playoffs, the Montreal Canadiens fell just short of getting back for the first time since the 2016-17 season. For starters, the Canadiens were counted out from the beginning of the year despite finishing last season with a 44-30-8 record, missing the playoffs by just 2 points. General manager Marc Bergevin acquired two new forwards in Tomas Tatar and Max Domi who both became gems and important parts of Montreal’s lineup. Not only did Domi and Tatar lead the Canadiens in points with Domi setting a career high with 28 goals and 72 points, but Tatar had a bounce back year netting 25 goals and 58 points. The Tatar trade became even more lucrative for the Canadiens due to acquiring blue chip prospect Nick Suzuki who tallied back-to-back 100 point seasons in the OHL.
Goaltender Carey Price had a bounce back year as well after having a rough season in 2018 that was riddled with injuries, finishing the 2019 season with a 35-24-6 record, 2.49 GAA and a .918% save percentage. Even 18 year old rookie Jesperi Kotkaniemi had a relatively good first season netting 11 goals and 34 points in 79 games played.
Montreal has a lot of promising, young players that will continue to hopefully take the next step and with Carey Price in net anything is possible. As they were last year, I think if the Canadiens make the playoffs this upcoming season, it will come down to the wire and they will be fighting for a wildcard position.
The Ottawa Senators had a rough year in 2019 and that’s likely to continue in 2020. However, the Senators have a solid pool of promising prospects and young players who can hopefully build them back into being a consistent playoff team again. After losing Erik Karlsson, Matt Duchene and Mark Stone, it’s no surprise that Ottawa finished the season with the worst overall record of 29-47-6. The sting that made this all the worse was that after electing to keep their 1st round pick last season, and draft Brady Tkachuk 4th overall, they were forced to give their 1st round pick this season to the Colorado Avalanche as they were promised one of those picks in the Matt Duchene trade. Thankfully for Ottawa the Avalanche didn’t land the 1st overall pick with the selection, but still were gifted with drafting one of the best defensemen in the draft in Bowen Byram.
All was not lost for the Senators as they did receive blue chip prospect Erik Brannstrom in the Mark Stone trade from the Vegas Golden Knights. Although only appearing in 2 games for Ottawa last season, he likely will be on the opening night roster and I’m excited to see what he and Thomas Chabot can do on the Senators’ blueline. Ottawa also has the likes of Colin White and Brady Tkachuk to lead the youth movement up front and hopefully continue taking the right steps in their development.
One thing to be optimistic about is that the Senators have 5 selections in the first 2 rounds of the 2020 NHL Entry Draft and can either trade some of those away for more young players, or hold onto them and continue drafting prospects who will help the team succeed down the road. Although it will likely be a tough year for Ottawa, the hopes of landing top prospect
Alexis Lafrenière if they finish at the bottom of the league again should be a ray of hope for a team that has struggled immensely since making it to the Eastern Conference Finals just two years ago.
Detroit Red Wings:
After years of rumors Steve Yzerman is finally running the Detroit Red Wings. Despite having one of the longest playoff streaks in North American sports, the Red Wings finally have acknowledged that they can’t keep mortgaging their future to keep their playoff hopes alive and have been having good rebuilding years in the last 2 seasons.
Last year the Red Wings finished the season with a 32-40-10 record and missed the playoffs by 24 points. Detroit might have some contracts on the cap that have aged poorly, but the roster is littered with lots of young talent which has become the core of the next generation of Red Wings. Led by Dylan Larkin, who is likely the next captain of the Red Wings, Detroit has managed to still stay competitive while rebuilding. Larkin is followed by a supporting cast of Andreas Athanasiou, Anthony Mantha and Tyler Bertuzzi with Michael Rasmussen and Filip Zadina on their way to being regular NHLers as well.
While Detroit continues to rebuild I fully expect Yzerman to pull off some of the same magic he did while managing the Tampa Bay Lightning and helping them become the powerhouse that they are today. The team although not great in overall record the past few years, has a great amount of talent to grow around. The major key to Detroit’s rebuild is not to rush anything, but let things happen naturally so that they don’t become a one-off playoff team, but a team that is a constant threat in the Atlantic Division.
As with many teams in rebuilds, it’s generally hard to make the playoffs, but this is a good thing for the Red Wings. I think Detroit will miss the playoffs for the fourth straight year, but in turn will get another year of development out of their young stars, and letting some younger prospects make the next step into being in the NHL full time.
Toronto Maple Leafs:
After shocking the hockey world and signing big fish free agent John Tavares to a monster 7 year, $77 million contract, the Toronto Maple Leafs had an exceptional year. However, this exceptional year came to a grinding halt when they faced the Boston Bruins in the first round for the second consecutive year and again lost in 7 games.
Even though the Maple Leafs fell short again in the playoffs, they’re likely to be one of the league’s best teams in 2020. Outside of signing restricted free agent Mitch Marner, Toronto has succeeded in signing all of their free agents and staying under the cap. General manager Kyle Dubas also made some excellent moves acquiring defenseman Tyson Barrie and Alexander Kerfoot in exchange for Nazem Kadri. Also, Dubas made some depth signings to bolster the team’s bottom six and add players in case of injury which includes the likes of Jason Spezza, Pontus Aberg, Garrett Wilson and Kenny Agostino. As long as Marner doesn’t bind the Maple Leafs into paying him more than he should be given, Toronto will have set themselves up for long-term success in terms of having all of their star players locked up for at least the next half decade.
Toronto also addressed the backup goaltender position by sending Garrett Sparks to the Vegas Golden Knights and will have a healthy competition between Michael Hutchinson and Michal Neuvirth during training camp to see who will end up as Frederik Andersen’s backup goalie. Regardless of who ends up winning, for the sake of Andersen’s number of starts, hopefully the backup plays better than Sparks did last season.
After making the playoffs for the last three consecutive seasons, it’s hard to imagine Toronto won’t find themselves back in the postseason come the end of the 2020 season. With the amount of firepower they have up front and solid options on the blueline, the Maple Leafs should likely be a lock for the playoffs this upcoming season.
After going on a ten game win streak and looking like a certainty to break back into the playoffs, the Buffalo Sabres fell short again finishing the year 22 points out of a playoff spot. After the Sabres regression following their impressive win streak, they ultimately finished the 2019 season with a 33-39-10 record and decided to part ways with head coach Phil Housley. This prompted general manager Jason Botterill to bring in Ralph Kreuger as the new Sabres’ head coach.
Buffalo currently has the longest active postseason appearance drought at eight straight years and they will be looking to finally take that next step in 2020. The Sabres re-signed winger Jeff Skinner to a lucrative 8 year, $72 million contract which was deserved after he tallied 40 goals and 63 points in 82 games. Along with this Botterill added in depth players such as Marcus Johansson and Jimmy Vesey to bolster the team’s offense.
As for the team’s defense I’m excited to see what Rasmus Dahlin does in his sophomore season after having one of the best rookie seasons for a 18 year old defenseman, finishing the year with 9 goals and 44 points in 82 games. Add in Colin Miller, Rasmus Ristolainen and Brandon Montour and the Sabres look good enough to have a better record than they did at the end of last season.
I think the biggest factor into Buffalo’s success will be their goaltending. Carter Hutton had a lackluster year in net for the Sabres gathering a 18-25-5 record with a 3.00 GAA and .908% save percentage. He will simply have to be better if the Sabres hope to compete with the other teams in the Atlantic Division. Linus Ullmark may give Hutton a run for his money as he also finished the year with a 15-14-5 record and could pull the starting reigns away from Hutton if he plays better. Buffalo has done a lot of good things to hopefully make the playoffs this coming year, but I’m not sure if the goaltending will be able to do it. If they can get good goaltending and stay healthy, they’ll be competing with the Canadiens and Panthers for a playoff position down the stretch.
Since Bruce Cassidy has taken over as head coach of the Boston Bruins, they have seen a plethora of regular season success and done fairly well in the playoffs as well. Last year the Bruins finished among the league’s best with a 49-24-9 record and fought all the way to the Stanley Cup Final before ultimately losing to the St. Louis Blues in 7 games. Although a defeating feeling, the Bruins are one of the teams that haven’t had much change to their roster and could find themselves in the same position as last year in 2020.
The top line of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak was one of the NHL’s deadliest lines last season and that will likely hold true next year as well. Pastrnak, 23, has seen his production explode since entering the league in the 2014-15 season and set new career highs in all categories this year scoring 38 goals and 81 points in 66 games played. Along with his production, Pastrnak is also on one of the best deals currently making just $6.66 million until the end of the 2022-23 season.
Although much of the Bruins’ offense comes from their top line, their secondary scoring has been noticeable as well with Jake DeBrusk, David Krejci, Charlie Coyle and Danton Heinen just to name a few. Boston’s defense remains one of the best in the business as well finishing last year tied for the third least amount of goals scored against them (212). The Bruins still need to lock up defensemen Charlie McAvoy and Brandon Carlo, but with a little over $7 million in cap space, that shouldn’t prove too difficult.
Lastly, Tuukka Rask proved again why he is one of the NHL’s best goaltenders practically standing on his head during some of the Bruins’ series and finishing the playoffs with a 15-9 record, 2.02 GAA and .934% save percentage. By spending a little more on a backup goalie, Jaroslav Halak, who could have arguably been a starter, it allowed Rask to be more rested and help him go deeper in the playoffs. If the Bruins decide to run with this strategy again in 2020 I think it will pay dividends for the team overall and could help them finish high in the regular season standings and make another deep playoff run.
The firepower in the Bruins’ lineup is undeniable and like the Lightning, I think barring catastrophe, they will be a lock for the playoffs again.