The Atlantic Division is back in action with one of the strongest divisions in the NHL. Many will be watching the pecking order in this division after the back-to-back Stanley Cup Champion Tampa Bay Lightning had to part ways with significant contributors this offseason in order to remain under the salary cap ceiling. The Florida Panthers are looking like a significant threat, as well as the high-octane Toronto Maple Leafs.
We’ll be taking a look at each division and projecting how the standings may pan out based on Goals Above Replacement (GAR) projections, courtesy of Evolving-Hockey. To read more about GAR and other advanced analytical terms, check out our glossary.
A few notes on the methodology for these posts: the projections are based on the active roster for each team as CapFriendly shows them. Players who did not fully participate last season do not have GAR projections, due to a lack of playing data from 2021. There are no goaltending GAR projections available, so we used the goaltenders’ 2021 season goaltending GAR as a benchmark.
To note specifically for this post, Tampa Bay’s superstar winger Nikita Kucherov does not have a GAR projection. This is due to the fact that he did not participate in the 2021 regular season.
Boston Bruins (2021 Season GAR: 103.7, 2021 Finish: 3rd in the East Division)
The Bruins are returning a solid lineup after a trip to the second round of the playoffs last season. The star power is still alive, with the so-called “Perfection Line” remaining intact, consisting of the abrasive scorer Brad Marchand, the sniper David Pastrnak, and the two-way center Patrice Bergeron. Outside of that, the Bruins might have some struggles with depth at center with longtime Bruin David Krejci leaving the NHL to play in his native Czech Republic. This could leave newly extended winger Taylor Hall without a strong option at center on his line.
On top of losing Krejci, longtime goaltender Tuukka Rask is no longer with the team for the time being. The Bruins replaced Rask with the solid Linus Ullmark, who put up solid numbers even though he was playing behind the putridity that is the Buffalo Sabres.
Here are the GAR projections for the Bruins:
Goaltender Jeremy Swayman tops this list, but it’d be surprising to see him at the top of this list by the end of the season. It’s more than likely that one of Pastrnak, Bergeron, Marchand, or defender Charlie McAvoy raise to the top of the chart here by the end of the season.
The thing to watch, as mentioned a bit earlier, is the quality of center depth for the Bruins. Bergeron is as solid as ever, but the next best center in GAR projections for 2021-22 is Charlie Coyle at 1.9 GAR. This can surely limit the effectiveness of Taylor Hall, who really melded well with Krejci in their short time together. It’s more than likely that the Bruins will be in the rental trade market for a second line center.
Buffalo Sabres (2021 Season GAR: 12.9, 2021 Finish: 8th in the East Division)
The result of the Buffalo Sabres previous rebuild has resulted in another rebuild, unfortunately for Sabres fans. Netting a superstar in Jack Eichel after losing out on the best player in hockey in Connor McDavid back in the 2015 NHL Draft was a very solid consolation prize, but Buffalo enters this season with Eichel and the front office in open dispute due to differences of opinion in surgical procedures to address Eichel’s spinal cord injury. Eichel has been stripped of the captaincy as a result of his public trade demand. The Sabres traded away franchise cornerstones in Sam Reinhart and Rasmus Ristolainen. For all the promise that the Sabres showed a few years back, they’re back to square one with their rebuild all over again.
Here is the Sabres’ projections:
Eichel has been included in these projections, but it’s unlikely he plays for the Sabres ever again. Even with Eichel’s projections, this team is likely to finish last in the NHL. The Sabres have some younger talent worth watching in Casey Mittelstadt and Dylan Cozens, but the quality of the team on the ice is poor. The pain doesn’t stop for the Sabres there, they’re also likely icing one of the worst goaltending pairings in the league in Aaron Dell and Craig Anderson. Prior to the Sabres drafting Eichel, they were 23-51-8, good for 54 standings points. It wouldn’t be surprising if they were around that low watermark this season.
Detroit Red Wings (2021 Season GAR: 17.7, 2021 Finish: 7th in the Central Division)
The Red Wings have been slowly building up the quality of their roster over the past few seasons, and General Manager (and team legend) Steve Yzerman, has been making shrewd and calculated moves to bring Detroit back to the level they were when they were hockey’s foremost dynasty.
One thing that’ll hurt the Red Wings this season is that they’ll be without winger and former Capital Jakub Vrana for the first few months of the season due to a shoulder injury that required surgery.
Here are the projections for the Red Wings:
The Red Wings are unlikely to really compete for a playoff position unless something in the Atlantic Division drastically changes, but they should be much more competitive than they have been in year’s past. With the addition of the solid, young goaltender in Alex Nedeljkovic, the Red Wings have a solid tandem in net with Thomas Greiss. They also added veteran defenseman Nick Leddy to their blue line.
Overall, expectations should be somewhere in the fifth or sixth place team in the Atlantic Division.
Florida Panthers (2021 Season GAR: 92.9, 2021 Finish: 2nd in the Central Division)
The Panthers are coming off a very solid 2021 regular season and have added even more firepower to a quality lineup. Although they lost breakout goaltender Chris Driedger in the Seattle expansion draft, they have one of the best goaltending prospects in hockey to step into his role, Spencer Knight.
The Panthers acquired forward Sam Reinhart from the Sabres, then signed veteran center Joe Thornton and defenseman Brandon Montour in free agency. At forward, they’ve added more talent than they lost. The key for the Panthers is getting defenseman Aaron Ekblad back to full strength and contributing on their back-end.
Here’s the Panthers’ projections:
Ever since the Panthers threw a seven-year, $70M contract at Sergei Bobrovsky, the returns have been underwhelming. The Panthers are not exactly a defensively focused and structured team like the Columbus Blue Jackets were under John Tortorella, and it seems Bobrovsky has struggled ever since leaving that system. The key factor in the Panthers’ success (or lack thereof) is in net. If neither Spencer Knight or Sergei Bobrovsky can backstop the Panthers, they’ll be on the outside of the playoff picture looking in, with captain Alex Barkov entering unrestricted free agency.
If the Panthers are going to make any waves in the playoffs, they’ll likely need to be carried by stars Jonathan Huberdeau, Reinhart, and Barkov. As it stands right now with their GAR projections, they’re likely a wild card team.
Montreal Canadiens (2021 Season GAR: 67.1, 2021 Finish: 4th in the North Division)
The Canadiens went on a magical run in the playoffs, upsetting opponents on their way to a matchup with the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Stanley Cup Final. They were out-skilled and outmatched by the Lightning, but as a result of this Cinderella run, it was proven that Carey Price is still an all-world quality goaltender capable of carrying his team deep in the playoffs.
The Habs were in the center of the NHL offseason news storm when the Carolina Hurricanes submitted an offer sheet to former third overall pick Jesperi Kotkaniemi in an apparent “revenge” move for when the Habs submitted an offer sheet to Sebastian Aho. The Habs decided not to match Carolina’s offer of a one year contract worth $6,100,035, and were rewarded Carolina’s 2021 first and third round picks.
The Habs then went and traded for Christian Dvorak from the Arizona Coyotes to replace the hole Kotkaniemi (and Phillip Danault) left in the center of the lineup.
Here’s the projections for the Habs this season:
The Habs will have to adjust to life without their captain Shea Weber on the back-end. The Habs are constructing a young, electric next core group consisting of Cole Caufield and Nick Suzuki. Caufield will definitely be a player to watch this season, as his goal scoring prowess should have him firmly at the center of Calder Trophy contention.
Ottawa Senators (2021 Season GAR: 57.1, 2021 Finish: 7th in the North Division)
The Senators are starting to ascend after four seasons of rebuilding. They have the star power in Brady Tkachuk and Thomas Chabot and the young promise of Tim Stutzle and Josh Norris. The roster that general manager Pierre Dorian has put together in Ottawa has the makings of a future playoff contender, but not a contender just yet.
The Senators are another team in this division that’ll have their struggles in net. After winning two Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins, Matt Murray has not looked like the same player. Realistically, he hasn’t looked like the 2015-16 and 2016-17 Matt Murray since the second round series against the Capitals in 2018.
The Senators have yet to agree to a new contract for restricted free agent Brady Tkachuk, but a significant hold-out seems relatively unlikely. Tkachuk has the makings of a franchise stalwart and potential captain, and Ottawa wants to fight the connotation that they cannot hold onto their star players.
Tampa Bay Lightning (2021 Season GAR: 86.3, 2021 Finish: 3rd in the Central Division)
The Lightning may have had a somewhat underwhelming regular season, especially in comparison to their prior two regular season performances, but their talent in the playoffs paid championship dividends. Yes, they were over the salary cap substantially in the playoffs after activating superstar Nikita Kucherov off of the long term injury reserve list. Outside of that, the Lightning were still a high caliber team even without arguably their best player out the entirety of the regular season. The Lightning are an elite team that are slightly weaker coming off of a salary cap induced exodus this offseason.
They’ve lost their entire third line in Blake Coleman, Yanni Gourde, and Barclay Goodrow. Even with those losses, they still have Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point, Anthony Cirelli, Victor Hedman…you get the point. The Lightning are still loaded, and are going to be shooting for a third title in a row.
Oh, don’t forget about Andrei Vasilevskiy in net either. Vasilevskiy has taken the reins as the best goaltender in the world with authority. Overall, the Lightning are going to be the same old dangerous team in the regular season and again in the playoffs. They’re going to be a tough out for any team facing them, and it wouldn’t surprise many if they went on another deep playoff run.
Toronto Maple Leafs (2021 Season GAR: 110.1, 2021 Finish: 1st in the North Division)
It’s likely there’s no fan base that’s suffering more in the NHL world than Toronto fans. After putting together one of the strongest forward cores in the league in Auston Matthews, Mitchell Marner, William Nylander, and John Tavares, the Leafs haven’t been able to sniff the second round of the playoffs. On top of that, they haven’t won a Stanley Cup since 1967, which was the final year where the NHL only consisted of the Original Six teams. To put this pain in perspective, their last championship is seven years older than the Capitals franchise. Oof.
As mentioned, the forward group for the Leafs is astoundingly strong. You have to give credit to Leafs’ general manager Kyle Dubas, who didn’t make any huge panic moves this offseason. Realistically, their predicament feels a lot like the Capitals entering the 2017-18 season, and the Leafs (and their fans) are hoping those similarities come true. Also, semi-spoiler alert, the Leafs have the second highest compiled GAR projections entering the season in the NHL. They’re a quality squad, they just need that next level in the playoffs that they haven’t quite found yet, and losing the hard-nosed Zach Hyman won’t necessarily help there. If the Leafs can’t find themselves past the first round in the playoffs this season, you can likely expect a Canadian media firestorm with the team making huge moves to restructure their roster.
2021 Atlantic Division Standings Projections:
- Toronto Maple Leafs (110.4 GAR)
- Boston Bruins (98.2 GAR)
- Tampa Bay Lightning (74.5 GAR)
- Florida Panthers (70.6 GAR)
- Detroit Red Wings (67.7 GAR)
- Montreal Canadiens (67.7 GAR)
- Ottawa Senators (48.2 GAR)
- Buffalo Sabres (26.7 GAR)
By Justin Trudel