NHL 2021-22 Atlantic Division preview: Lightning make strong case for three-peat

NHL 2021-22 Atlantic Division preview: Lightning make strong case for three-peat

The NHL 2021-22 season kicks off Tuesday with a full 82-game schedule set to run until April 29. 

This year, 32 teams, with the addition of the Seattle Kraken, will battle it out with the hopes of hoisting the coveted Stanley Cup in what will be the first regular season since the pandemic struck midseason in March 2020. 

The league is split into two conferences — the Eastern and Western conferences — and returns to its original four divisions: the Atlantic, Metropolitan, Central and Pacific, with eight teams in each. 

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Read below for a breakdown of the Atlantic Division.

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TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING

 Tampa Bay Lightning right wing Nikita Kucherov hoists the Stanley Cup after the Lightning defeated the Montreal Canadiens 1-0 in game five to win the 2021 Stanley Cup Final on July 7, 2021, at Amalie Arena in Tampa, Florida. 
(Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports)

The Lightning are arguably the fiercest competitor, not just in the division, but in the entire Eastern Conference. After becoming the ninth team in Cup history to win back-to-back championships, Tampa Bay shows no signs of slowing down in its pursuit of a third.

Despite salary cap issues, the Lightning has been able to maintain their core players, including star forwards Pat Maroon, Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov, one of the league’s top goal scorers. 

They will be without enforcer Barclay Goodrow, who was traded to the New York Rangers in exchange for a 2022 seventh-round draft pick, but the return of Stamkos, who missed all but one game in the Stanley Cup Playoffs because of a lower-body injury, will surely boost Tampa’s odds of a three-peat. 

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BOSTON BRUINS

Boston Bruins left wing Taylor Hall (71) tumbles after a attempting a shot on New York Rangers goaltender Tyler Wall (80) during a shootout on Oct. 2, 2021, at the TD Garden in Boston.

Boston Bruins left wing Taylor Hall (71) tumbles after a attempting a shot on New York Rangers goaltender Tyler Wall (80) during a shootout on Oct. 2, 2021, at the TD Garden in Boston.
(Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports)

The Atlantic Division is split down the middle with four serious playoff contenders, one of which includes the Bruins. 

Last season, the Bruins finished third in the newly realigned East Division — a result of the pandemic — and swept the New Jersey Devils for a playoff spot. After eliminating the Washington Capitals in the first round, Boston’s dream of earning its seventh cup ended with a second-round loss to the New York Islanders

The Bruins’ strongest asset are their dangerous top line. Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak finished the season with 69 points (29 goals, 40 assists), 48 points (23 goals, 25 assists) and 48 points (20 goals, 28 assists), respectively. 

But the Bruins enter the new season without top scorer David Krejci, who elected to leave the NHL after 15 seasons to continue his career in the Czech Republic. Boston is also dealing with goaltending issues as veteran goalie Tuukka Rask risks missing the start of the season while he continues his rehab following hip surgery.

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MONTREAL CANADIENS

Montreal Canadiens right wing Josh Anderson (17) shoots and scores against Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy (88) during the overtime period in game four of the 2021 Stanley Cup Final on July 5, 2021, at the Bell Centre in Montreal.

Montreal Canadiens right wing Josh Anderson (17) shoots and scores against Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy (88) during the overtime period in game four of the 2021 Stanley Cup Final on July 5, 2021, at the Bell Centre in Montreal.
(Mandatory Credit: Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports)

The Canadiens suffered a heartbreaking loss in the Stanley Cup Finals against the Lightning last season, but both teams return to the Atlantic Division for the ultimate showdown as they vie for first place. 

The Habs finished fourth in the North Division last season with a 24-21-11 record. After defeating the Toronto Maple Leafs, 4-3, in the first round, Montreal swept the Winnipeg Jets for a place in the semifinals. A 4-2 victory over the Vegas Golden Knights gave the Canadiens a place in the Final with hopes of ending a 26-year-long drought, but the Lightning would win three games straight before taking it all in five games. 

The Habs are facing two major losses this season that will complicate any chance of making the playoffs. It was announced during the offseason that NHL All-Star Shea Weber would not return for the 2021-22 season — and possibly ever — after a number of injuries became too much for the star defenseman to continue to play on. 

In a shocking announcement, the Habs announced Thursday that they would also be without veteran goaltender Carey Price after he voluntarily entered the NHL/NHLPA player assistance program. 

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FLORIDA PANTHERS

Florida Panthers right wing Owen Tippett (74) skates with the puck as Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Mikhail Sergachev (98) defends during the second period during game six of the first round of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs on May 26, 2021, at Amalie Arena in Tampa, Florida.

Florida Panthers right wing Owen Tippett (74) skates with the puck as Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Mikhail Sergachev (98) defends during the second period during game six of the first round of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs on May 26, 2021, at Amalie Arena in Tampa, Florida.
(Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

The Panthers have crept into the top ranks of the division after serious additions in the offseason and stand to pose a serious threat to Tampa Bay.  

After finishing second in the Central Division with a 37-14-5 record last season — atop the Lightning– the Panthers were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs. But Florida is hoping to build upon last season’s memento, re-signing defenseman Brandon Montour and Gustav Forsling and forwards Sam Bennett and Anthony Duclair.

The additions of Sam Reinhart and veteran Joe Thornton will also boost Florida’s scoring chances. Last season, the Panthers were tied for fourth in the league with 3.36 goals per game. 

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TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS

Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Jack Campbell (36) makes a save on Ottawa Senators forward Egor Sokolov (75) in the first period Oct. 9, 2021, at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto.

Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Jack Campbell (36) makes a save on Ottawa Senators forward Egor Sokolov (75) in the first period Oct. 9, 2021, at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto.
(Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports)

The Maple Leafs won their first division title last season after more than two decades, but their playoff frustrations continued with a first-round exit. 

Toronto could face a similar finish this season after some hard hits to the roster. Joe Thornton,  Nick Foligno and Riley Nash all moved on, while top producer Zach Hyman signed a monster $38.5 million contract with the Edmonton Oilers

The pressure will be on Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and John Tavares — the team’s priciest members — to produce another playoff berth. 

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OTTAWA  SENATORS

Ottawa Senators center Shane Pinto (12)battles with  Toronto Maple Leafs center Adam Brooks (77) in the first period Oct. 4, 2021, at the Canadian Tire Centre in Ottawa.

Ottawa Senators center Shane Pinto (12)battles with  Toronto Maple Leafs center Adam Brooks (77) in the first period Oct. 4, 2021, at the Canadian Tire Centre in Ottawa.
(Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports)

The Senators finished sixth in the Scotia North Division last season, missing the playoffs for the fifth year in a row, but the young squad’s rebuild could be nearing its end. 

If negotiation talks with restricted free agent Brady Tkachuk are headed in the direction the organization says they are, the 22-year-old star winger will join Josh Norris and Drake Batherson on a young but dangerous top line. 

The Senators have also beefed up their defense with the addition of veteran defenseman Nick Holden and Michael Del Zotto. 

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DETROIT RED WINGS 

Columbus Blue Jackets goaltender Matiss Kivlenieks (80) makes a save in net against Detroit Red Wings right wing Richard Panik (24) in the overtime period May 8, 2021, at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio.

Columbus Blue Jackets goaltender Matiss Kivlenieks (80) makes a save in net against Detroit Red Wings right wing Richard Panik (24) in the overtime period May 8, 2021, at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio.
(Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports)

The Red Wings haven’t made a playoff appearance since 2016, and the last time they won a playoff series was back in 2013. Despite having 11 Stanley Cup championships, the franchise has found itself in a drought over the past few seasons. 

Detroit’s biggest issue last year was a lack of production. It ranked second to last in goals scored with just 125. During the offseason, it added forward Pius Suter, who played his first NHL game with the Chicago Blackhawks last season. It also signed veteran forward Carter Rowney, who is coming back from injury, and center Mitchell Stephens, who was acquired in a trade from the Lightning. 

The Red Wings also acquired Calder Trophy finalist Alex Nedeljkovic from the Carolina Hurricanes and defenseman Nick Leddy, two significant additions for the struggling Red Wings.

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BUFFALO SABRES

Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Casey DeSmith (1) makes a save against Buffalo Sabres left wing Anders Bjork (96) to secure a Pens victory during a shootout Oct. 5, 2021, at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh. The Penguins won, 5-4, in a shootout.

Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Casey DeSmith (1) makes a save against Buffalo Sabres left wing Anders Bjork (96) to secure a Pens victory during a shootout Oct. 5, 2021, at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh. The Penguins won, 5-4, in a shootout.
(Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

The Sabres sit at the bottom of the pack, and the situation surrounding former captain Jack Eichel plays a big role in that prediction.

Last season the Sabres finished eighth in the East Division with a grim 15-34-7 record. Eichel missed half the season with a serious neck injury, but after a failed physical before the start of training camp and being at odds with the club over his treatment, the team could stand to lose its biggest threat. Trading Eichel may be the team’s best move after losing top scorer Sam Reinhart, who was traded to the Panthers after six seasons with the Sabres.

The goaltending situation is not much better after losing Linus Ullmark and Carter Hutton. Craig Anderson was signed in the offseason, but he played in just four games last season with the Capitals. 

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