The NHL season may not begin until early October, but that doesn’t mean we can’t start having fun with it.
MyBookie has released NHL divisional odds for the upcoming campaign, so it’s time to kick off a four-part series breaking down each NHL division, touching on each team inside of it, and making a prediction on who we should be placing wagers on to come out on top at season’s end.
Let’s start with what I believe will be the best division in hockey next season, the NHL’s Atlantic Division, in order of last season’s standings.
*Odds courtesy of MyBookie
**Salary information courtesy of CapFriendly
Tampa Bay Lightning (+110)
- 2018-19 Record: 62-16-4 (128 Points)
Tampa Bay enjoyed a record-setting regular season that saw them rack up a whopping 128 points only to completely change course and fall to the eighth-seeded Columbus Blue Jackets in a shocking first-round postseason sweep.
Of course, there’s no panic button needed here. No landscape-changing moves required for the NHL’s deepest and most productive roster. Shocking postseason upsets are nothing new and while it was jaw-dropping to see the Lighting swept after winning 62 regular-season games, playoff upsets are nothing new and something similar will happen again.
Instead, GM Julien BriseBois focused on addressing a couple of offseason needs: cap space and backup goaltender.
The latter was addressed when he added veteran backup Curtis McElhinney coming off another successful season in which he posted a 2.58 GAA and .912 Sv%, one year after posting a 2.14 GAA and .934 Sv% with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The former took some more maneuvering, but the most notable salary dump came when J.T. Miller was traded to the Vancouver Canucks at the draft. The money was needed to both extend goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, which has been accomplished with an eight-year, $76M deal, and sign RFA center Brayden Point, which is still in the works.
The Lightning most recently added to their blueline with the addition of Kevin Shattenkirk who signed a one-year, $1.75M deal after having his contract bought out by the New York Rangers. Shattenkirk is a decent rebound candidate after a tough tenure on Broadway, however, he can at least help on the power play and add to the puck-moving, high-octane nature of the Tampa attack.
This is a team that was by far the best offenses in the league last season with 3.89 goals per game and sat comfortably inside the top 10 with 2.70 goals against per game. Vasilevskiy is coming off a Vezina Trophy season and Nikita Kucherov is coming off an Art Ross and Hart Trophy-winning season.
There’s very little, if anything, to dislike about the Lightning entering the season as the favorites to win the loaded Atlantic Division.
Barring health, the Lightning will be right there when it’s all said and done. They remain a real good bet to win this division for a third consecutive season.
Boston Bruins (+325)
- 2018-19 Record: 49-24-9 (107 Points)
The Bruins dealt with plenty of injuries last season as every blueline regular was sidelined for a notable amount of time at one point or another, but once again Boston fought through injury adversity and ended up marching all the way to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final only to have the Blues comes into TD Garden and take the Stanley Cup home with them.
The Bruins aren’t flush with salary-cap space at the moment which is why we didn’t see them go out and make any big splashes in free agency or in the trade market.
Rather, the Bruins settled for low-key additions in Brett Ritchie and Par Lindholm up front while one of the league’s best d-cores will remain for next season.
I still somewhat question their refusal to add secondary scoring. Charlie Coyle remains from last year’s deadline deal with the Wild, and his playoff contributions were of great impact. However, Boston sure could have used another scoring winger after losing fellow deadline acquisition and playoff contributor Marcus Johansson in free agency.
That being said, the philosophy remains to focus on preventing goals first before scoring them, something the Bruins did with the best of em’ last season. Boston tied for third in team defense last season alongside the Nashville Predators behind an excellent group of defenders while the Tuukka Rask/Jaroslav Halak goaltending tandem yielded fabulous results in the form of the league’s seventh-best save percentage at .912.
While the 2019-20 season still looks bright, there’s little doubt the Bruins’ Cup window is narrowing. Zdeno Chara is 42 years old, Patrice Bergeron is 34 with a lengthy injury history and David Krejci is 33 with some lengthy injuries of his own. The blueline will remain in good shape even after Chara moves on, especially with a potential perennial Norris Trophy candidate in Charlie McAvoy in tow. Still, the Bruins might want to win another Cup with this core before the inevitabilities set in.
For now, however, there’s little reason to expect any notable drop for the Bruins in the upcoming campaign. The defense and goaltending should remain strong and the goal-scoring shouldn’t move much from their 11th-ranked offense from last season.
For now, they’re contenders. However, like with any other team in this division, leapfrogging the Lightning will be a gargantuan task.
Toronto Maple Leafs (+275)
- 2018-19 Record: 46-28-8 (100 Points)
The Maple Leafs were one of the very best clubs in the first half of the season, but for whatever reason, they limped into the postseason with a weak final quarter. They held a 3-2 series lead over the rival Bruins in the first round of the postseason heading back to Toronto, but once again failed to seal the deal and were disposed of in seven games at the hands of the Bruins for the second straight year.
Despite rostering of the Leafs best and most exciting young rosters, change was afoot. GM Kyle Dubas has long been under the pressure cooker of keeping Toronto’s “Big 3” together in terms of negotiating contracts with Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander.
The Nylander deal got done well into the season, costing the youngster two month’s worth of season, and he never recovered from his late start with just 27 points in 54 games.
The Matthews deal got done during the season, and now Dubas remains under the gun, from both fans, media and cap space alike, to get Marner signed to what will amount to a lucrative contract coming off a 94-point season.
In order to create cap space and address roster needs, Dubas pulled off two major trades:
- He traded long-time pivot Nazem Kadri, defense prospect Calle Rosen and a 2020 third-round pick to the Colorado Avalanche for right-shot defenseman Tyson Barrie, center/winger Alexander Kerfoot and a 2020 sixth-round pick. The trade addressed the need for a top-four, right-shot defenseman in Barrie while the Leafs dealt from a position of strength in sending Kadri the other way. Kadri is closer to a second-line center as he was when he produced back-to-back 32-goal seasons in Toronto while Kerfoot is a younger, cheaper option to slide in as the third line pivot.
- Even before the Kadri/Barrie deal, Dubas obliged with defenseman Nikita Zaitsev’s trade request and send the embattled blueliner to the Ottawa Senators along with Connor Brown and prospect Michael Carcone in exchange for another right-shot d-man in Cody Ceci, fellow blueliner Ben Harpur, prospect Aaron Luchuk and a 2020 third-round pick. Ceci is coming off a down season in Ottawa, as is Zaitsev in Toronto, the swap gives both players a fresh start in a new environment. In attaching Brown to the trade, Dubas opened up more than $2M in cap space while also trading the remaining five years and $4.5M annual cap hit attached to Zaitsev.
The young Toronto GM also signed productive RFA forwards Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson to reasonably-priced dealt at $3.5M annual cap hits or under.
Add it all up and it’s going to be a fairly new-look Maple Leafs, but still loaded with talent.
The Leafs shouldn’t have to worry about offense after ranking fourth in that area a season ago. The blueline is no doubt improved with the addition of Barrie as well as Ceci if he can find his game again in a change of scenery. If the blueline can take some heat off of Frederik Andersen – something they haven’t been able to do for the most part in his Maple Leafs’ tenure – Andersen could produce some of the best goaltending results across the league.
The Leafs could challenge the Lightning for Atlantic Division supremacy. They have the offense to be sure, it’s just a matter of whether the new-look blueline can hold up its end of the bargain and allow Frederik Andersen to reach his true Vezina-type ceiling in 2019-20. If that comes to fruition, we could have an upset on our hands in this competitive division.
Montreal Canadiens (+4000)
- 2018-19 Record: 44-30-8 (96 Points)
The Montreal Canadiens surprised their way into playoff contention all the way up until the final few games of the regular season, only to fall two points shy of the final Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference and three points shy when you factor in the tie-breaker that they would have lost to the Columbus Blue Jackets.
The Canadiens made some big-time headlines this offseason when they submitted the first offer sheet since 2013 to Carolina Hurricanes center Sebastian Aho. Aho signed the offer sheet, only to have the Hurricanes match in a no-brainer scenario for the club. At just five years and $42M, the Canadiens didn’t give the Hurricanes to think about in matching, only trying to front-load the contract with signing bonuses in the hope that the small-budget ‘Canes and frugal owner Tom Dundon would balk at writing a lucrative big cheque.
In doing so, the Canadiens not only missed out on Aho, but all of the remaining big-time free agent forwards. Their biggest offseason acquisition is now former Jets defenseman Ben Chiarot who Montreal added with a three-year, $10.5M contract in free agency. In netting Chirot, the Canadiens did address a need on the left side of their blueline to pair with either Shea Weber or Jeff Petry on the right.
There’s essentially no change to their forward group from last season aside from center Nick Cousins. Montreal tied for 13th with an even 3.00 goals per game last season, but I’m not betting on a repeat of such a figure.
Max Domi scored more than three times as many goals last season as he did in the same amount of games the previous season in Arizona. At 24, his breakout could be real, but another 28-goal, 72-point season is a long shot in my books. Domi’s left winger Tomas Tatar scored 25 goals, tying a career-high, and tallied 58 points, a new career-high. Paul Byron posted a 0.55 point-per-game pace, the best of his career.
If all of these players can match their career-bests from last season, perhaps the offense remains in the top half of the league, but I’m not betting on it.
The most obvious avenue for the Habs to contend for the postseason again this time around is via Carey Price. It’s no coincidence that Price bounced back from a dismal 2017-18 season and his team competed for a postseason berth. Price posted a 2.49 GAA and .918 Sv% last season, numbers that are almost identical to his 2.47 GAA and .918 Sv% for his career.
Those aren’t the same MVP number he posted in 2014-15 and in 12 games in 2015-16 before getting injured, but it was indeed a rebound season and the Canadiens will need as much, if not more from their well-compensated 31-year-old netminder this time around.
It’s a lethal Atlantic Division that will require a minor miracle for the Canadiens to win, and in an increasingly difficult Eastern Conference, a postseason spot is going to be a tall task again this season.
Florida Panthers (+650)
- 2018-19 Record: 36-32-14 (86 Points)
It was a first-half struggle for the Panthers last season and while second-half improvement was there, they simply could not keep the puck out of their own net, although that could change moving forward.
After a long rumor history, the Panthers made it official and brought in the top goaltender on the free-agent market in Sergei Bobrovsky on a huge seven-year, $70M contract. Bobrovsky is a two-time Vezina-winning goaltender coming off a poor regular season (by his standards), but a solid playoff run in sweeping the top-seeded Lightning and taking the Eastern Conference-winning Bruins to six games.
For his career, Bobrovsky sports numbers a hair better than Price with a 2.46 GAA and .919 Sv%. He won the Vezina in the 2016-17 season with a 2.06 GAA and .931 Sv% after winning it in his first season with the Blue Jackets with a 2.00 GAA and .932 SV% in 2012-13.
While the biggest roster addition was Bobrovsky, he might not be the biggest personnel addition the Panthers’ organization brought on board this offseason.
After firing Bob Boughner after two seasons at the helm, GM Dale Tallon buckled down and brought legendary head coach Joel Quenneville in to lead this franchise to the promised land. The three-time Cup-winning former coach of the Blackhawks and Blues brings a wealth of credibility and success to the organization and brings a no-nonsense approach. We saw what the Barry Trotz addition did to the Islanders last season, and perhaps a wildly successful coach such as Quenneville can achieve something similar.
In some lower-key, yet important moves, the Panthers also brought in reliable veteran defender Anton Stralman on a three-year deal, top-nine winger Brett Connolly on a four-year deal and added a useful bottom-six forward in former Bruin Noel Acciari on a three-year pact.
All of these additions before realizing what the Panthers already had in tow: one of the best young forward cores in hockey. Aleksander Barkov (23) and Vincent Trocheck (26) are about as productive as a top-two center duo can be. Add in wingers Mike Hoffman (29), Jonathan Huberdeau (26), Evgeni Dadonov (30), breakout 24-goal man Frank Vatrano (25) as well as youngsters ready to take another step in Henrik Borgstrom (22) and Denis Malgin (22), and the Panthers have something to work with upfront.
After all, they did rank ninth with 3.22 goals per game last season. The problem lies the fact they also ranked 28th with 3.33 goals against per game while receiving a .895 Sv% from their goaltenders, tied for 28th alongside the New Jersey Devils.
It’s not only now guaranteed that their goaltending improves, but you can realistically assume that they could be in the top five in save percentage next year is Bobrovsky can find his Vezina form, which he’s done twice in the last seven seasons. Even something similar to the 2.42 GAA and .921 Sv% he posted in 65 starts just two years go would suffice.
The Panthers are going to score goals, that’s for sure. They are going to prevent goals at a much-improved clip, that’s also for sure. As a result, they’re a threat in the east and a threat to unseat one of the Lightning, Bruins or Maple Leafs from a top-three spot in the Atlantic.
I absolutely love the makeup of this team moving forward.
Buffalo Sabres (+6000)
- 2018-19 Record: 33-39-10 (76 Points)
Boy did things look bright early on for the Sabres.
At one point early, they were the best team in the NHL. They led the Atlantic Division and even ripped off an 11-game win streak mid-season. However, their success was largely built on winning almost all of their one-goal games, something that’s simply impossible to maintain. Once their record in close games tilted the other direction, the collapse began.
It was both a steady and ugly fall. By season’s end, only the Ottawa Senators, New Jersey Devils, and Detroit Red Wings finished with fewer than the 76 points the Sabres put up, and the Wings and Devils both finished within four points.
Despite going a respectable 25-15-5 at home, the Sabres were abysmal on the road to the tune of a 12-24-5 mark.
They managed to re-sign 40-goal man Jeff Skinner to once again form a dynamite duo with Jack Eichel on the top line and top power-play unit. The problem is, that’s about all the Sabres have up front for anyone to get excited about next season, aside from perhaps Sam Reinhart.
They added Jimmy Vesey in a trade with the Rangers in a bid to boost their secondary scoring, but Vesey has yet to eclipse 17 goals in his three NHL seasons to this point and the 35 points he posted in 81 games last season represents his career-high.
They also signed Marcus Johansson in free agency, but the veteran is more of a complementary player and does not drive the offense. Other names expected to help are Okposo, Sobotka, Sheary, Rodrigues and 20-year-old Casey Mittelstadt.
Now, Krueger is interestingly tasked with bringing success to a franchise that has starved for it. The Sabres last made the playoffs in the 2010-11 season in which they were ousted in the first round for the second straight season.
Where the Sabres could surprise is on the back end where they are the deepest in talent. Rasmus Ristolainen, Rasmus Dahlin, Zach Bogosian, Brandon Montour, Collin Miller and Jake McCabe are the most likely to form the top six with veterans Matt Hunwick and Marco Scandella as well as Casey Nelson likely on the outside looking in to start.
Still, they have a deep crop to work with here. It’s also a youthful group as all of the top six mentioned above are under 30 while Dahlin is a future Norris candidate at just 19 years of age.
The goaltending duo of Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark went untouched this offseason, and to be quite honest, it wasn’t on them last season. Sabres goaltending combined for a .901 Sv% last season, tied for 22nd with the Red Wings, but Buffalo’s banged-up blueline and a soft group of forwards were more to blame than the goaltenders themselves.
Still, given the improvements of almost all teams around them and the minimal, if any, roster improvements made themselves, it’s hard to envision any dramatic improvement from the Sabres this time around.
Detroit Red Wings (+20000)
- 2018-19 Record: 32-40-10 (74 Points)
The Red Wings are under new management as Red Wings legend Steve Yzerman is now calling the shots in the GM chair, an overwhelmingly positive happening as the Tampa Bay Lightning team that posted 128 regular-season points last season was largely built by Yzerman and his staff in Tampa.
With the Red Wings, Yzerman inherits a club very much embattled in a rebuild. They have some nice young forward to build around in Dylan Larkin, Anthony Mantha, Andreas Athanasiou and Tyler Bertuzzi while youngsters such as Evgeny Svechnikov, Michael Rasmussen and 2018 first-rounder Filip Zadina could all turn into big-time players at the NHL level, but it’s going to take time.
The back end isn’t as promising. The current d-core is an aging one as Mike Green, Jonathan Ericsson, and Trevor Daley are in their mid-30s. Madison Bowey, 24, was brought in for Nick Jensen at the trade deadline last year while names such as Filip Hronek (21), Dennis Chowlowski (21), Joe Hicketts (23) and Jared McIsaac (19) are the blueline of the future at this point.
Still, it’s a vastly unknown group in need of a makeover. Their young defensemen are at an age where they are overwhelmed by NHL competition, which is part of the reason why Detroit ranked 27th in team defense last season.
The goaltending duo of Jimmy Howard and Jonathan Bernier remains intact and the Red Wings will look to deal Howard at the trade deadline while Calvin Pickard can take over backup duties upon Howard’s possible departure.
One problem on Yzerman’s plate is the large contracts handed out to veterans.
Frans Nielsen, an admirable player, is making $5.25M for three more years. Justin Abdelkader, he of six goals and 19 points last season, is earning $4.25M annually for each of the next four seasons. Darren Helm (32) is making $3.85M for two more seasons and Danny Dekeyser, although just 29, is making $5M for three more seasons, a lot of money for a stay-at-home blueliner who doesn’t contribute on offense.
For now, the contracts aren’t killers given the state of the rebuild. However, they make these veterans impossible to move and therefore none of the above hold any sort of trade value and cannot be flipped for future assets.
It doesn’t look pretty at this stage, and it likely isn’t getting any better anytime soon despite the bright future of several Red Wings forwards. There’s no chance at a division crown here, and it would take some form of a miracle to get into postseason contention.
Ottawa Senators (+50000)
- 2018-19 Record: 29-47-6 (64 Points)
Both off the ice and on the ice, the Ottawa Senators are the biggest dumpster fire we have seen for some time in this league. Plenty of clubs go through trying rebuilds and the last place finished from an one-ice perspective, but the team continues to be saddled with off-ice drama.
The Erik Karlsson departure wasn’t exactly completed in a friendly manner, nor was the Mike Hoffman exit thanks to drama between the spouses of both players.
Fans are begging for a new owner, however, Eugene Melnyk refuses to sell the team and is in a legal battle with his business partner over the failure to agree on a spot to build a much-needed new arena in the city’s downtown core. Fans aren’t making the trek to the outskirts of the city in the dead of winter to watch a last-place club that cannot seem to put a good product on the ice or avoid the tabloids off of it.
There’s even less incentive for fans to attend live games after the team failed to sign – and therefore forced to trade – the trio of Mark Stone, Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel at last year’s deadline. GM Pierre Dorion is now largely void of trade chips and is spending his summer acquiring injured players and circumventing the cap by bloating his cap to get over the cap floor while actually paying his salary-retained, injured roster much less than what the books tell us.
It’s going to be a long season in Ottawa, there’s no getting around that. There are some players to get excited about in defenseman Thomas Chabot and winger Brady Tkachuk, however, Chabot is due for RFA status after the season and the drama on that negotiation can commence.
They are yet another Atlantic Division club that brought in a new coach this offseason as Ottawa pried D.J. Smith off of Mike Babcock’s staff from the rival Maple Leafs. Smith was in charge of the Maple Leafs’ defense, and the Senators interestingly acquired two of Toronto’s worst blueliners from last season in Nikita Zaitsev (trade) and 38-year-old Ron Hainsey (free agency). In fact, Melnyk publicly criticized the Maple Leafs’ defense last season before his new coach helped recruit two of their worst blueliners from the 2018-19 season.
Ottawa could perhaps get some trade value out of 38-year-old Craig Anderson is he can bounce back with an improved season as he’s on the final year of his contract. Anderson is certainly serviceable enough to serve as a contender’s backup if there’s a need at the February trade deadline.
For now, the Senators are once again basement bound and destined for lottery-pick territory. One only hopes the off-ice drama subsides, but as long as Melnyk owns the franchise, that seems like a pipe dream.
For now, lay off any Senators futures play until there is some sort of improvement in the on-ice product.
Atlantic Division Picks
Tampa Bay Lightning
Value can be interpreted in different ways.
Some look at an eight-team division with the favorite at just +110 and conclude that there isn’t enough value here, especially in a league like the NHL where parity runs rabid.
However, we need to keep in mind that this Lightning team finished 28 points better than any other club last season and added to their roster with an upgrade in their backup goaltending situation and an offensive-minded, puck-moving defenseman in Shattenkirk.
I do believe there are teams in this division that can certainly close the gap, but it’s a big gap and Tampa Bay’s roster is not to be messed with, especially up front. They’re also armed with clearly one of the best goaltenders in the NHL.
It’s a loaded Atlantic Division and a difficult Eastern Conference as a whole, but I think we’re still getting quality value here with by far the league’s best team from last year to repeat as Atlantic Division champs this season.
Value Pick: Florida Panthers
I’m not too confident in Florida’s ability to leapfrog the Lightning, Bruins and Maple Leafs in order to take down the Atlantic this season, however, I just love the on-paper personnel, the decision to hire a three-time Cup-winning coach and the fact they addressed their biggest need with authority is netting goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky.
I mean, the Panthers lost a lot of games due to goaltending last season. They missed the playoffs by 12 points, but they also didn’t have Trocheck for an extended period after a scary mid-season ankle injury.
With a healthy season from their elite young forward group as well as a big season from Bobrovsky in net, it would not surprise me to see the Panthers sneak their way into the Atlantic’s top three. Add in the expertise behind the bench and Florida is in fantastic shape to become a full-blown contender next season.
If you want some notable value in the Atlantic, give the Panthers a shot, but I think it’s bleak for any of these Atlantic Division clubs to upset the Lightning over a full 82-game campaign.