Who will win the Atlantic Division in 2018?

NHL: Centennial Classic-Detroit Red Wings at Toronto Maple Leafs

Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

1. Toronto

Beyond Edmonton, I can’t think of any other NHL team more excited about this season more than the Toronto Maple Leafs (I’m sorry….Trohntah Maypa cannot). Auston Matthews returns after setting the world alight last postseason and the future can not be any brighter for him. He’s not alone in this instance, however. William Nylander and Mitch Marner are just such hockey talents that they too are joining in as the future core Toronto will have for the next decade. While all the focus will be seeing how that trio plays this season, don’t sleep on the fact that Mr. San Jose Shark, Patrick Marleau, signed a three-year contract to join the leafs as a secondary scorer. Add in Nazem Kadri, Tyler Bozak, James Van Riemsdyk and Leo Komarov and it’s hard finding a better group of nine-goal scoring forwards in the entire NHL.

Defense, like last year, will be the biggest issue for head coach Mike Babcock’s team. Simply put, Ron Hainsey isn’t good enough to be a top-four defenseman, let alone a top pairing defenseman on a Stanley Cup winning team. Then again, Ben Lovejoy won the Stanley Cup as a top pairing defenseman, so what do I know. Otherwise, there will be loads of hope seeing Morgan Reilly develop as an offensive defenseman while Jake Gardiner is a solid contributor in his own right. Beyond that, everyone else along the blue line should be considered expendable.

Even though Toronto has one of the most expensive rosters in the league, both Nathan Horton and Joffrey Lupul will be making a combined $10.55 million sitting on long-term injured reserve. That frees the Maple Leafs a possible $9 million in cap space and with so many fringe players in the last years of their contracts. Sure, Van Riemsdyk and Komarov would ideally stay while Nylander will be expecting a huge payday via restricted free agency, but general manager Lou Lamoriello has plenty of tools to work with coming to the trade deadline.

This team genuinely should be scary good and I wouldn’t be surprised one bit to see them hit elite levels in 2018. A Presidents Trophy and a Conference Finals appearance, at the minimum, is absolutely not out of the question.

2. Tampa Bay

After a disastrous season to their standards, Tampa Bay returns not just a cheaper roster, but perhaps a better bang for your buck team. Gone are Valtteri Filppula and Ben Bishop during last season’s trade deadline while the Lightning also lost Jason Garrison in the Las Vegas expansion draft. Coming in are experienced players that have been to a few Stanley Cup Finals from time to time. The real question will be whether or not Chris Kunitz and Dan Girardi are good enough anymore to genuinely make an impact on their teams that would swing their season positively.

Steven Stamkos does return in hopes of regaining his status as one of the best players in the sport, but honestly, how many times do you get burned before you realize it’s just not going to happen ever again. At 27, the team captain can still unleash one of the most vicious one-timers in hockey. But with him always being such a low volume shooter and with the lack of strong power play systems in place under head coach Jon Cooper, I just don’t see how Stamkos can get anywhere close to the 60-goal, 97-point season he produced in 2011-12. Along with that, you could argue all of Tampa’s offense is now led by Nikita Kucherov after racking up 40 goals last season.

I’m still high on Vladislav Namestnikov if he can be with the right teammates, but he’ll have to start producing more than the 25-35 points he’s been racking up in each of his first three seasons. Somewhere along the line, Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat will get back to their old 2014-15 selves and Braydon Point will be a massive contributor in making that happen. And as great as Bishop was to Tampa’s best seasons, Andrei Vasilevsky has proven enough times that, at worst, he’s not a step back from the U.S. Olympian. It’s the rest of the roster that I have issues with.

Any other team would not wait to cut ties with Ryan Callahan and Braydon Coburn, and yet here they are getting the third line and top pairing minutes, respectively. Both Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman should still be among the best two-way defenders in the game, but they’ll have to deal with less ideal partners instead of being together in order to spread the talent around. Mikhael Sergachev might come good for Tampa, but at 19 years old, it’s difficult to see if he can contribute right away and meet the high expectations of possibly becoming their third best defenseman. Lastly, Dan Girardi LOL.

Even if Tampa has made some fascinating decisions that should still keep them competitive in the short term, they’re going to have to find a way to spend wisely again next summer once Namestnikov and Cedric Paquette hit restricted free agency again and have just $13 million to work with for six players. Such issues are much harder to resolve if Tampa wants to continue making conference finals appearances like they did in 2015 and 2016. That’s why 2018 is going to be such a critical year for them.

3. Boston

If you were to previously tell any Capitals fan that Bruce Cassidy will be a good NHL head coach somewhere else, they would laugh at your face hysterically. But in 2017, here we are. After such a miserable first half of the season, Boston had no choice but to fire long time head coach Claude Julien in order for them to avoid missing the playoffs for the third straight season. In stepped Cassidy who, for now, stemmed a miserable tide and guided them towards the postseason. After a first round elimination to Ottawa, the Bruins now come into this season not really knowing where their present lies.

They still have enough talent to make some run towards respectability, but eventually they will have to start rebuilding. Last year could have really been the telling sign, but the top line of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak was arguably the best combination in hockey and the rest of the team followed their lead towards elite puck possession. Usually, those analytics will tell you when it is time to abandon ship, but instead it told that this aging squad still had something left in the tank.

Brandon Carlo wasn’t awful as a rookie defense pair for Zdeno Chara and the Charlie McAvoy era begins with great celebration among Bruins fans. Up front, Frank Vatrano will be getting more playing time and hopes to prove himself as a genuine top six forward. Beyond that, the Bruins did struggle mightily to score goals and this year may be no different thanks to the lack of turnover throughout the lineup.

If anything, the hopes would be for Pastrnak to come through as an elite player and for Marchand to continue being one of the league’s great scorers. Otherwise, advanced numbers or not, difficult choices will have to be made. Zdeno Chara is a free agent after this season and while he’ll be irreplaceable from a sentimental standpoint, the captain is 40 years old and the Bruins only have $14 million to work with for eight roster spots next season. If only the front office wasn’t so stuck in the past, thinking about previous Stanley Cup finals appreances, and didn’t trade some former number two overall pick from the 2010 draft.

4. Montreal

After being one of the most luck starved teams in 2016, Montreal rode themselves of their miserable head coach Michel Therrien and made it back to the postseason. Carey Price returned to full fitness and was back as being one of the best goaltenders in the entire NHL while Max Pacioretty continued to be among the most consistent goal scorers. On the backend, Shea Weber was not so much of a downgrade to P.K. Subban as most feared when the two were traded for each other in the summer of 2016.

From a depth standpoint, Philipp Danault was a pleasant surprise to all be stepping into a top-six role and finally fulfilling his potential when he was taken as a first-round pick in the 2011 NHL draft. However, the rest of the lineup did not really deliver in what turned out to be a league average offense. If anything, they carried elite goaltending and defense into the playoffs, but that wasn’t enough to overcome the New York Rangers in the playoffs, even if they were outshooting them most of the series.

To fix this remedy, they brought in Tampa Bay outcast Jonathan Drouin to replace the fantastic but much older Alex Radulov. Along with that, Ales Hemsky hopes to avoid being his usually injured for most of the season self to add some extra scoring depth. Charles Hudon will also be getting a longer look at the big club after being such a prominent member of the AHL club over the past three seasons.

Beyond that, the rest of the team looks quite suspect on the dependability scale. Thomas Plekanec is entering his age-35 season and on the last year of his contract while everyone is still waiting for Alex Galchenyuk to break out into anything more than an above average top six forward. On the backend, Andrei Markov and Alexei Emelin are being replaced by more playing time for Jordie Benn and the now expensive Karl Alzner.

Overall, Montreal is a tier better and they can only get more comfortable with a full season under head coach Claude Julien. Jeff Petry will also continue to deliver underrated numbers from a puck possession standpoint, as will Artturi Lehkonen. A deep playoff run isn’t entirely out of the cards, but loads of players will have to perform better than their expectations in order for them to hit such a target.

5. Buffalo

After dealing with so much misery over the past handful of seasons, the Buffalo Sabres are more than done trying to rebuild. New head coach Phil Housley returns to where his NHL career began and bring his success as a coach with the United States Junior team and Nashville Predators into the fold. He’ll gladly be embedding in veterans Jason Pominville, Marco Scandella and Benoit Poulliot into a talented team that hasn’t yet seen the whole greater than the sum of its parts just yet.

You would hope that every one of Buffalo’s key players will return guns a blazing after receiving so much criticism and bad injury luck over the past season. Among the biggest under the spotlight is Jack Eichel who demanded to see change that may or may not have intentionally meant firing former head coach Dan Bylsma. Either way, it is very difficult for me to see how his comments on clean out day last season are nothing more than a competitive young star that is sick and tired of losing, nothing more nothing less. Any other way that his comments get spin against him are what disgust me about how the best in hockey get treated so distastefully in such an easy manner. No matter what you’re thoughts are on the matter, Eichel also now has a $10 million cap hit that he starts owning next season, so all the pressure will be for him to become one of the best in the league fast and put money where his mouth is.

While the hope is for Buffalo to finally become an above average puck possession team again, they will eventually have to deal with a lot of issues heading into next offseason. The Sabres now have just $19 million to work with for 10 roster spots with Robin Lehner and Sam Reinhart in need of new contracts. Along with that, Evander Kane and his $5.25 million cap hit could be off the books, but that still limits the Sabres to signing better talent unless more prospects come through for this team.

As long as Terry Pegula is the owner, there is no such thing as spending on the cheap in upstate New York so the Sabres will have to start to deliver fast. Otherwise, it really will be the players turn this time around to pay for their consequences.

6. Ottawa

As exciting as it was to see Ottawa in the conference finals last season, it should forever be known that they had the luckiest path to get there in some time. In the first round, the Senators played an injury-ravaged Boston Bruins team that didn’t have a clue how to put pucks in the back of the net all season long. In the second round, they faced a team that was probably as bad as them in puck possession in the New York Rangers. Along the way, Erik Karlsson dazzled us all postseason and proved to everyone that he’s been the best defenseman in hockey for some time. He is simply one more Norris Trophy or another deep postseason run away from becoming a should-be Hall of Famer in my eyes as only Duncan Keith can rival what the 27-year old Swede has done throughout his career.

However, it was revealed that Karlsson was playing the postseason with torn tendons in his left foot and will still need more time to recover from offseason surgery. Ottawa did bring in Johnny Oduya as injury cover, but there is just no way the 36-year old is going to be good enough to fill in Karlsson’s shoes, even if it is for the short term. Beyond that, it is more of the same with this Senators squad.

To be honest, Ottawa didn’t really do anything statistically that made them great. They were in the bottom half in almost every advanced and traditional category you can think of at even strength and special teams, and yet they somehow squeaked their way into the best possible scenario they could ever have. I seriously doubt they will repeat the feat in 2018 and they will enter next summer in a peculiar spot.

The roster will have $17 million to invest in seven players, but this includes needing to resign Mark Stone while half of their blue line and Kyle Turris will hit the free agent market. As long as Eugene Melnyk owns this team, they will continue to be mediocre in talent. But with Guy Boucher freaking the entire NHL out with his 1-3-1 trap, who knows how far they will genuinely go.

7. Florida

Just when you thought Florida was taking positive steps towards building a consistent playoff performer, 2016-17 happened and the bottom fell out. Gone are Jaromir Jagr, Jussi Jokinen, Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith and the Panthers front office bluntly might not have done enough to replace every bit of that talent. However, the team does have a new head coach in Bob Boughner and hopes are that the computer boys have done it again in exploiting a market inefficiency.

Instead of going after tried and maybe too trusted veterans to spend their millions in salary cap space, Florida decided to go after Europe’s talent pool and acquire star players from the KHL and Finland to round out their roster. After all, if Artemi Panarin and Alex Radulov became such success stories, surely the same could happen to 28-year old Evgeni Dadonov, who will take over Jagr’s spot on the top line right wing position. And while the remaining players may not make the NHL club, signing goaltender Harri Sateri and forward Henrik Haapala was not boring acquisitions and should be ones to watch if the Panthers are in need of any call-ups.

Among those to return, Jonathan Huberdeau, Alexander Barkov and Nick Bjugstad will hope to have much healthier seasons than they did last season. Along with that, Radim Vrbata was added to deliver some much-needed scoring depth while Vincent Trochek will hope to continue his gradual improvement as a top-six forward. Jared McCann and Denis Malgin will also hope to build on their first seasons in Sunrise while Owen Tippett will at least get a shot at staying at the big club after being picked 10th overall in this summer’s NHL draft.

On the backend, all will depend on how healthy Aaron Ekblad is in both the short term and long term. When he is on, the former number one overall pick is one of the best young defensemen in the sport, but he is starting to develop a concussion history that is just too frightening to project how his career will play out. Roberto Luongo does return, but at 38, who knows how long Florida can depend on him completely. Outside of those two and the offensively sound and defensively deficient Keith Yandle, Florida is trying out a bunch of under-23-year-old defensemen that show great potential. Ian McCoshen will get his first full-time crack at the NHL level while Alex Petrovic, Michael Matheson, and Mark Pysyk will hope to keep improving under Boughner’s guidance.

After spending eight seasons as head coach with the Windsor Spitfires, Boughner became an assistant coach under San Jose boss Peter Debour. Now the 46-year old will hope to fulfill his dream at the NHL in becoming a full-time head coach. He does have a tough challenge ahead of him, but it’s not like he has little talent to work with. If things break right, Florida can return to the postseason.

8. Detroit

If you’re looking for one sad story, watching how far the Detroit Red Wings have fallen is one of them. Beyond moving to the new Little Caesars Arena, there really isn’t much to say about a once proud franchise. Henrik Zetterberg is back , but he’s in his age-37 season. It’s amazing what type of skill and talent the team captain brings, but it’s just a horrific sign to still see him leading the team in scoring, no matter how much Anthony Mantha and Andreas Athanasiou will certainly be ones for the future. Along with that, 20-year old Dylan Larkin will hope to rekindle the magic he had in 2015-16.

Ken Holland surely has to be on his last legs as general manager as it has seemed like the Red Wings have never recovered since Nicklas Lidstrom’s retirement. They have brought in some solid young players, but none have been able to be absolute certainties for carrying the team to another Stanley Cup anytime soon. Along with that, the signings of players like Thomas Vanek and Stephen Weiss along with the contract extensions of Danny DeKeyser, Justin Abdelkader and Jimmy Howard have been unmitigated disasters. Trevor Daley will do his best to the best player along a very mediocre defense corps, but at 33-years old and with so much wear and tear after two Stanley Cups, this signing just screams “keep getting dem checks” as the great philosopher Jalen Rose would say.

Evgeny Svechnikov could bring some promise, but all will depend on whether or not Detroit’s higher ups want him playing in the NHL at all for tanking purposes and after him starting the season on injured reserve. Detroit simply has to tank, whether or not they have a spanking new building. For the health of the league in Gary Bettman’s eyes, I guarantee he’ll stop at nothing to give the Red Wings the number one overall pick this summer.

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