As the calendar year 2021 winds down – and the impact of the COVID-19 virus ramps back up – it’s as good a time as any to take stock of where NHL teams are at. The Boston Bruins and New York Islanders have played a league-low 26 games, but all 30 other teams have played between 27 and 32 games – approximately one-third of their full regular season – so we have a good grasp of who they are.
We’ll break things down by division, with the Atlantic Division kicking things off. In order of their place in the standings:
1. Tampa Bay Lightning. Games Played: 29. Record: 19-6-4.
What went right: Just about everything, save for the Lightning’s overall health. (And as you’ll see, a team that made it through one-third of the season without incurring at least a few serious injuries does not exist this year. Everybody is hurting to some degree.) The back-to-back Stanley Cup champions have been without star winger Nikita Kucherov for all but three games thus far, and with star center Brayden Point missing 13 games and counting with a shoulder injury, it’s amazing to see Tampa Bay tied for first place in the Atlantic, with a game in hand on second-place Toronto. But their consistency is a result of the depth and all-around skill on the Bolts’ roster. They’ve lost two or more games in a row just twice this season, including a December that saw them win all but one of their eight games in the month.
What is cause for concern: Seven of Tampa’s 19 wins this year have come either in overtime or a shootout – well behind the Leafs, who’ve won 17 of 20 games in regulation time. That means the Lightning are going to have to finish with more standings points than Toronto and/or Florida, so if the Bolts go through a tough stretch, home ice advantage in the playoffs could be at stake for them. But as it stands, Lightning fans have to be pleased with what they’ve gotten out of this group.
Rest-of-season outlook: If it all goes about as smoothly as it’s gone for them thus far, and they get Point and Kucherov back at full health, they’ll be the odds-on favorite to make it three straight championships. Jon Cooper is a great coach, and the Lightning can beat you any way you try to play them. They should challenge for the President’s Trophy as the NHL’s top team.
2. Toronto Maple Leafs. Games Played: 30. Record: 20-8-2.
What went right: Jack Campbell showed his stellar play last season was no fluke, and staked out a claim as one of the league’s best goaltenders. After missing the first three games of the regular season, superstar center Auston Matthews went on a points rampage, and now has a team-best 20 goals and 33 points. John Tavares and William Nylander also were producing offense at more than an average of 1.00 points-per-game. The Leafs’ defense – led by a notably next-level Morgan Rielly – also came through. Despite their 2-4-1 start to the year, the Buds are tied for first. That’s about as good as it gets for Toronto.
What is cause for concern: Just as he seems to be all the time, forward Mitch Marner is under a pressure-filled microscope, but this year, he’s also suffered bad luck health-wise, being limited to 24 games. He’s expected to remain sidelined for the next couple of weeks, but fans will be talking about him one way or the other. The more the team wins, the less focus will be on Marner.
Rest-of-season outlook: The Leafs have met the expectations fans and media had for them entering into the season, but as we all know, they’re a bad week or two away from a Toronto meltdown. Head coach Sheldon Keefe should keep them even-keeled, though, and they should be challenging the Florida Panthers and Lightning for first overall in the Atlantic.
3. Florida Panthers. Games Played: 29. Record: 18-7-4.
What went right: The Panthers were in first in the Atlantic for much of the first one-third of their year. They’ve got the second-best offense in the Eastern Conference (104 goals-for), and an underrated defense corps. Goalie Sergei Bobrovsky has had his best numbers in this, his third season as Florida’s starter. Forwards Jonathan Huberdeau, and Aleksander Barkov, and defenseman Aaron Ekblad all have looked like the stars they are. Despite changing head coaches early on, the Panthers have been one of the league’s top teams.
What is cause for concern: After getting out to a dazzling 14-2-3 start, the Panthers have levelled off, losing six of their past 10 games. Offense has been harder to come by with injuries to Barkov and Anthony Duclair. Backup goalie Spencer Knight’s numbers (6-4-2 record, 3.42 goals-against average, .892 save percentage) are significantly worse than Bobrovsky’s (12-3-2 record, 2.47 G.A.A., .917 SP). Florida is essentially salary-capped out, so keeping up with the Leafs and Lightning for top spot in the Atlantic may be a difficult ask.
Rest-of-season outlook: The Panthers were the sexy pick of a number of analysts prior to the season, and you can see why they got all the attention. It’s the same reason they’ll be expected to challenge for first in the Atlantic the rest of the way: high-quality top-end talent and excellent depth.
4. Detroit Red Wings. Games Played: 31. Record: 15-13-3.
What went right: The Red Wings surprised many observers by racing out to a solid-enough 7-5-2 record to start the season. People have been waiting for them to go through adversity, and they’ve emerged from it with relatively few scars. Captain Dylan Larkin’s already-considerable game has improved. Blueliners Moritz Seider and Lucas Raymond have shown they’ll be core members for a very long time. And GM Steve Yzerman has more than $11 million in cap space, which should allow him to accelerate the rebuild in Motown.
What is cause for concern: Detroit’s record since Nov. 9 is a pedestrian 8-8-1. Alex Nedeljkovic has posted good numbers in net (.917 SP, 9-7-3 record, 2.78 G.A.A.), but backup Thomas Greiss (6-6-0 record, .893 SP, 3.52 G.A.A.) has not. The Wings’ special teams are lousy. Offense does not come easily for them. Boston is three points behind them for fourth in the Atlantic, but the Bruins have five games in hand on them.
Rest-of-season outlook: The playoffs always were going to be a challenge for this squad, and that’s likely to continue. This isn’t to say they can’t outlast the Bruins and the top teams in the Atlantic, but Yzerman’s rebuild isn’t close to being done. More tweaks, and who knows, maybe bigger moves, are ahead for Detroit this year.
5. Boston Bruins. Games Played: 26. Record: 14-10-2.
What went right: The Bruins have again demonstrated their skill at defense, with a top-10-in-the-league goals-allowed average of 2.62. Their best line (David Pastrnak, Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron) has been their most productive. Goalie Linus Ullmark has delivered solid goaltending in his first year as a Bruin, posting a .922 SP and 2.52 G.A.A.. And D-man Charlie McAvoy has led the way on the back end, with a team-best 24:31 of ice time.
What is cause for concern: Boston has been consistently inconsistent for the first time in what feels like ages. They’ve won more than two games in a row just one time this season, and even then, their win streak was just three games. More often than not, it’s one step ahead and one step back.
Rest-of-season outlook: Boston’s netminding situation may change if longtime cornerstone Tuukka Rask decides to play again and hammers out a low-salaried position alongside Ullmark. But the Bruins may continue to struggle to score goals unless secondary scoring types like winger Taylor Hall and forward Nick Foligno get on hot streaks in a way they have yet to at this point. The Bruins may have the fewest games-played in the league, but when they eventually catch up, there’s no assurance they’ll win them all, or even a majority of them. They still feel like a playoff team, but the top of the Atlantic seems like too much of a stretch for them this season.
6. Buffalo Sabres. Games Played: 30. Record: 10-15-5.
What went right: Buffalo also got out to a relatively strong start to their season, going 5-1-1 in their first seven games. But then reality set in for them – especially after they traded former captain Jack Eichel to Vegas – and they’ve went 5-14-4 since then. Some of their younger players have improved – forward Tage Thompson (10 goals, 18 points) and Dylan Cozens. The cloud that hovered over the franchise is now gone with the departure of Eichel. GM Kevyn Adams has the faith of ownership, and this latest attempt at a rebuild may yet yield impressive results.
What is cause for concern: The Sabres have been a goaltending dumpster fire (including a 3.52 goals-allowed-per-game average, fifth-worst in the league). They also have the league’s 10th-worst offense (2.67 goals-against per game). You’re not going to win many more games if those facts don’t change, and the truth is, those facts aren’t likely to change dramatically enough, if at all. This remains a long-term project of a team.
Rest-of-season outlook: Long-suffering Sabres fans are in line for more suffering the rest of this season. It’s important they not lose sight of some key puzzle pieces that already are in place or in the drafting-and-development system, but the odds of a serious turnaround this year are not in Buffalo’s favor.
7. Ottawa Senators. Games Played: 28. Record: 9-17-2.
What went right: The Senators re-signed captain Brady Tkachuk to a long-term contract extension. Winger Drake Batherson had 28 points in 23 GP, putting him on pace to demolish his personal best (34 points in 56 GP). Thomas Chabot and Tim Stutzle are bona fide needle-movers for an organization that needs more of them. GM Pierre Doiron is on a budget, but he’s got a number of key puzzle pieces in place.
What is cause for concern: Given that Doiron said the rebuild is over in Ottawa, it sure didn’t look that way on the ice. While it’s true COVID ate its way through the Senators’ lineup, few expected that they’d be below Buffalo in the standings this year. It’s a major disappointment any way you cut it, and a playoff spot is out of the question.
Rest-of-season outlook: It’s apparent the Senators need an infusion of defense-minded talent before they begin ascending the Atlantic standings. Their defense corps is error-prone and soft, and their goaltending is not good enough to make up for it. Neither is their offense. Batherson is the only Senators player who is averaging near-or-better-than a point-per-game. More pain is ahead for Ottawa. If they’re to evolve, their core young stars now must be difference-makers.
8. Montreal Canadiens. Games Played: 31. Record: 7-21-3.
What went right: N/A.
What is cause for concern: The way things completely imploded in Montreal, virtually everything is worrisome. They don’t have a true, generational No. 1 center to build around. They don’t have a young D-man who can step in and replace what injured captain Shea Weber brought to the team before suffering a potentially career-ending injury last year. And with star goalie Carey Price dealing with a myriad of issues, they didn’t have a front-line goalie in net. The dismissal of former GM Marc Bergevin made headlines in a way the on-ice talent haven’t been able to. Other than that, it’s been a fine year for Montreal.
Rest-of-season outlook: The Canadiens trail the Senators by three standings points, but Ottawa also has three games in hand on Montreal. It will be difficult enough for the Habs to get out of last place in the Atlantic, let alone get close to Buffalo (who lead them by eight points with one game in hand for the Sabres). Misery is unavoidable until major roster changes take place.