Our Stanley Cup Windows series switches to the Eastern Conference now, starting with the Atlantic Division. In no other division do we see such a pronounced skewing between the haves and have-nots. The Atlantic arguably boasts three of the NHL’s top five teams going into 2018-19 but also lugs around several of the league’s weakest squads. Who is best positioned to pursue a Cup now and in the coming years?
WINDOW WIDE OPEN: Tampa Bay Lightning, Toronto Maple Leafs, Boston Bruins
The Lightning and Leafs remind me of the Winnipeg Jets in that all three teams have an enviable concentration of big-time offensive stars, youth and long-term contracts, meaning this trio of teams should be the NHL’s alpha dogs for the next several seasons.
The Lightning have a leg up on the Leafs at least for this season. Armed with Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh and emerging Mikhail Sergachev on defense, not to mention Vezina Trophy finalist Andrei Vasilevskiy, the Bolts are superior to the Leafs defensively. They can also match Toronto’s firepower. Nikita Kucherov might be the league’s best player not named Connor McDavid and forms an unstoppable tandem with Steven Stamkos. Meanwhile, Brayden Point has emerged as one of the league’s top No. 2 centers, blessed not just with great scoring skill but also shutdown ability. It was his line that neutralized the Boston Bruins’ seemingly immortal unit of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak in the playoffs, remember.
Steve Yzerman has done a great job locking up his most important assets. Kucherov, Stamkos, Hedman and McDonagh all have lucrative long-term deals. Yzerman may have to get creative once it’s time to extend Point and Vasilevskiy but has shown the ability to wiggle out of salary-cap trouble time and again. Tampa is the East’s top team and should be for a while.
That is, unless the Leafs find an elite right-shot defenseman. That’s really the only piece they need to join Tampa. Toronto has everything else, and signing Tavares creates perhaps the league’s best, deepest three-deep center group alongside Matthews and Nazem Kadri. As is the case with all the “window wide open” teams, the Leafs’ have high-end talent signed long term, including Tavares, Kadri and No. 1 defenseman Morgan Rielly. General manager Kyle Dubas has some tapdancing to do with William Nylander unsigned for this coming season and Matthews and Mitch Marner combining to command something similar to the $21-million total AAV McDavid and Leon Draisaitl got in Edmonton, but Dubas insists there’s enough cap space to do it. That promise was a key tenet of the Leafs’ pitch to Tavares. The only team positioned for a longer sustained run of championship pursuit than the Leafs may be the Jets. It’s a very lucky time to be a fan of either team for the next half decade.
On the surface, the Bruins may look like a win-now team in need of urgency. Captain Zdeno Chara is 41. Top center Bergeron is 33, David Krejci 32, David Backes 34. But Boston has a sneaky-strong youth movement. Pastrnak was drafted to be a solid two-way scoring threat, has since matured into a star and now might be knocking on the door of superstar status. Charlie McAvoy looks like a future Norris Trophy winner on defense. Net crasher Jake DeBrusk had a promising rookie year, and scorer Ryan Donato is a Calder Trophy sleeper after flashing great potential in a late-season cup of coffee. Marchand, now a perennial MVP candidate, remains in his prime, as do No. 1 goalie Tuukka Rask and top puck-moving defenseman Torey Krug.
The Bruins’ window may not be as gaping as Toronto or Tampa’s, but it’s still plenty wide. We’re not talking five years, but we’re not talking one year. The Bruins should maintain contender status for several seasons.
WINDOW OPENING: Florida Panthers
The Panthers got eliminated from the playoffs on the final weekend last season. They were very close to breaking through, and there’s reason to expect they will this season. Aleksander Barkov has emerged as one of the sport’s best two-way centers, and he added true first-liner offense to his game last year. He’s joined by a deep, skilled top-six forward group including underrated center Vincent Trocheck and Jonathan Huberdeau, freshly acquired Mike Hoffman, Evgenii Dadonov and Nick Bjugstad on the wings.
Aaron Ekblad, Keith Yandle and Michael Matheson spearhead a sturdy D-corps. The Panthers have their most important assets signed to long-term contracts, and they have some exciting forward prospects coming up the pipeline. College standout Henrik Borgstrom has a chance to stick in the NHL this year, while Owen Tippett has a high goal-scorer ceiling and Aleksi Heponiemi has posted cheat-code numbers in junior. The Panthers’ goaltending future is a bit murky – can James Reimer become a true bellcow after Roberto Luongo retires? – but the majority of their roster is young and ascending. They look like a playoff team this season.
REBUILDING: Buffalo Sabres
Even with the Leafs signing Tavares, the Sabres look like the division’s most improved team on paper this off-season. Adding Jeff Skinner, Conor Sheary, Patrik Berglund and Vladimir Sobotka and a full season of young gun Casey Mittelstadt to the forward corps more than offsets the loss of Ryan O’Reilly. And while uber-prospect Rasmus Dahlin, the reigning No. 1 overall pick, may not set the scoresheet on fire as an 18-year-old, the scouting reports suggest he’s wired to play assertive shutdown hockey from Game 1. That’ll take a lot of pressure off the overworked Rasmus Ristolainen. The Sabres, like the Arizona Coyotes and Vancouver Canucks, are building something interesting, but it’s best to consider this team a rebuilder until it proves on the ice it’s ready to ascend. A healthy season from Jack Eichel would do wonders. Expect a significant increase in points for the Sabres this year but not playoff hockey yet.
WINDOW CLOSED: Montreal Canadiens, Detroit Red Wings, Ottawa Senators
The Habs had a few Cup-threat seasons in the peak years of goalie Carey Price, blueliner P.K. Subban and left winger Max Pacioretty. Now Price is 31, entering Year 1 of an eight-year deal paying him a $10.5-million AAV and has missed significant time with injuries in two of his past three seasons. Subban was dealt away for Shea Weber, who is 33, out half the year with a torn meniscus and has eight years left at $7.86 million. Captain Pacioretty enters the final year of his deal, and the Habs have already announced that they don’t intend to extend him.
Consider the Cup window missed. General manager Marc Bergevin can try to keep this leaky boat afloat, but Montreal will remain weighed down by overpriced veterans, including Andrew Shaw and Karl Alzner, and does not yet have a strong and emerging farm system to provide hope. Even if you believe Jesperi Kotkaniemi wasn’t a reach at third overall in the 2018 draft, the Habs needs many more assets. Few teams appear further away form a Cup right now, as Montreal first has to bottom out before it can even accept its fate as a real rebuilder.
Here’s a depressing stat: the Red Wings, perceived as a bottom-dwelling rebuilder right now, have the highest salary cap number in the league. That’s how badly they’ve buried themselves with expensive veteran contracts, from Frans Nielsen’s to Darren Helm’s to Justin Abdelkader’s. Dylan Larkin and Anthony Mantha have developed into impact forwards, and Filip Zadina was an absolute steal at sixth overall in the draft, but the Wings’ veterans might continue to keep them a bit too competitive, robbing them of the lottery-ball count necessary to secure a franchise-altering superstar pick like Jack Hughes next summer. If Henrik Zetterberg’s bad back keeps him out all year, it might be a blessing. At this point, losses help the Wings more than wins. They are years away from competing in the Atlantic. Don’t forget who’s at the top of this division. Kucherov, Stamkos, Hedman, Tavares, Matthews, Marner, Marchand, Bergeron, Pastrnak and company will bully the bottom teams black and blue.
Where do we start with the Senators? It’s tough to remember the last time a franchise entered a dark age this dark. We’ve already seen the Matt Duchene trade gut the Senators of key prospects and picks, including the potential No. 1 overall selection in next June’s draft after they deferred the pick Colorado received in the deal. Hoffman is a goner, Mark Stone is a UFA next summer, and Erik Karlsson, their greatest player ever, is headed for a bitter divorce, with a trade likely coming any day now.
The Senators actually do have some young players to get excited about. Thomas Chabot looks like a viable long-term No. 1 blueliner down the road, Logan Brown has great playmaking ability, Colin White is a two-way threat, Drake Batherson is an improving scorer and Brady Tkachuk, chosen fourth overall in 2018, is a nasty power forward. But with so much in flux for this franchise, it’s difficult to forecast any success in the standings over the next several seasons. By the time the Senators become competitive again, will they even still reside in Ottawa? It’s debatable.