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Sizing Up the Atlantic Division

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Where do the Sabres stand in the Atlantic Division, both next season, and moving forward?

NHL: Toronto Maple Leafs at Buffalo Sabres Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

With the first wave of free agency in the books, and the long-awaited Ryan O’Reilly trade completed, the Atlantic Division is taking shape for the 2018-19 season.

It’s a long offseason, and of course there could (and likely will) be additional moves made in the division (looking at you, Tampa). Barring something unforeseen, the power structure in the Atlantic isn’t likely to see a significant shift prior to the regular season.

For the most part, every team in the division has been active this summer. The Toronto Maple Leafs added coveted free-agent center, John Tavares, the Tampa Bay Lightning are still the front-runner in the Erik Karlsson sweepstakes, and the Buffalo Sabres completely revamped their bottom-six (and drafted some kid from Sweden).

With all of the significant pieces that have been added (and subtracted) in the division, where does that leave the Sabres both next season, and moving forward? We take an in-depth look at where each team stands in 2018-19, and assess how well-stocked they are for in terms of future talent.

Note: Teams are listed below in the order I believe they will finish in the standings next season

Tampa Bay

If the Lightning are able to finally swing a trade with the Ottawa Senators for Karlsson (a deal that looked to be complete last week, until the report was squashed mere minutes after it initially came out), they will surpass the Maple Leafs as the odds-on favorite to win the division and likely, the Stanley Cup.

The defending Atlantic Division champs still boast one of the highest-octane offenses in the NHL, and a more-than-respectable blue line. If they do land Karlsson, they will likely have to part with one of their skilled forwards in order to shed some salary. At minimum, the 28-year-old defenseman will look for something similar to the eight-year contract Drew Doughty just signed with the Los Angeles Kings, worth about $11 million per season. As it stands, the Lightning have just under $3.5 million in cap space.

Regardless of whether the trade ever fully matriculates, Tampa Bay is still arguably the best team in the division. With a mostly-healthy Steven Stamkos and a 100-point campaign from Nikita Kucherov, they were a force to be reckoned with during the regular season in 2017-18.

With nearly all of their significant players returning next season, they’ll look to avenge their ousting in Eastern Conference Final.

Moving Forward

On top of possessing one of the strongest current cores in the NHL, the Lightning’s prospect pool is nothing to sneeze at.

Anthony Cirelli, Taylor Raddysh and Mitchell Stephens are all great prospects at forward, and Cal Foote is one of the top defensive prospects in the league. Though he is no longer considered a prospect after spending all of last season in the NHL, Mikhail Sergachev is another elite young talent on the Lightning blue line.

Add their impressive prospect pool to a young core that consists of Brayden Point, Nikita Kucherov, Yanni Gourde, Victor Hedman and Tyler Johnson (all of whom are 27 years of age or less), and you have an organization that is set to be competitive both now, and well into the future.

Toronto

Over the past two seasons, the Maple Leaf’s young core has developed almost perfectly, setting them up for potential long-term success. After executing the “classiest tank job” in league history (just ask them), Toronto landed their face of the franchise in Auston Matthews.

Leading up to that point, the organization already had high-level players like William Nylander and Mitch Marner in the pipeline. Prior to the 2016-17 season, many felt that the Sabres were actually ahead of the Maple Leafs in their respective rebuilds, but that narrative was quickly silenced.

On the first day of free agency, Toronto emerged victorious in the John Tavares pursuit, signing the 27-year-old to a seven-year deal worth $11 million per season. In Tavares, they receive an elite centerman, but it remains to be seen how greenhorn GM Kyle Dubas manages the salary cap moving forward. Nylander is still a restricted free agent, and all three of Matthews, Marner and Kasperi Kapanen come off of their entry-level deals next summer.

One aspect of their current roster that could hinder a deep playoff run is the defense. As a glaring weak spot in the organization for two years straight, the fact that they still haven’t addressed the issue is a bit head-scratching.

Moving Forward

Again, depending on how well they navigate the salary cap, Toronto could be well situated for long-term success. Nearly their entire core is made up of players in their early 20’s (save for Tavares of course), all of whom have shown that they can produce at the NHL level.

On top of that, their prospect pool is pretty strong too. Timothy Liljegren is an excellent young defenseman, though they need a lot more than just him to make their back-end even remotely formidable. Also, players like Jeremy Bracco and Carl Grundstrom have the makings of excellent depth-scoring options down the road.

Boston

The Boston Bruins were quietly one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference last season, falling one point short of the Atlantic Division crown. Similar the other top teams in the division, they have a nice mix of established veterans and high-level young talent.

With outstanding scoring depth and a formidable defense, aside from Tampa Bay, they are the most well-rounded team in the Atlantic. What will be interesting to see is whether or not goaltender Tuukka Rask can continue the high-level of play he displayed during the second half of last season. The 31-year-old netminder is still a solid starting goaltender, but he has produced less than a .920 save percentage in each of his last three seasons in Boston. His GSAA of -1.9 since 2015-16 is less than optimal.

The only real loss the Bruins experienced this summer was from a depth-scoring presence, when Riley Nash signed with the Columbus Blue Jackets as a free agent. Other than that, they will field a pretty similar roster to last season. Expect them to contend for the division once again.

Moving Forward

While the Bruins’ prospect pool isn’t bad by any stretch, it isn’t as strong as some of the other teams in the Atlantic. Jakub Zboril is an excellent young player on the back-end, and Jeremy Lauzon has quietly developed into a strong defender too. At forward, Ryan Donato, Anders Bjork and Zachary Senyshyn all have top-six potential at the NHL level.

On top of that, Boston already strong crop of young scoring talent in David Pastrnak and Danton Heinen. Simply put, the Bruins aren’t going away any time soon.

Florida

The Florida Panthers may very well be the most underrated team in the division, and perhaps in the entire Eastern Conference. Part of the reason for that could be due to their inconsistency as a team, and a lack of national recognition. Understandable, given their paltry following.

After finishing just one point shy of a playoff spot after an incredible second-half run, the Panthers will definitely be a wild card contender in 2018-19. Despite essentially gifting Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith to the Vegas Golden Knights last offseason, they were able to produce on the shoulders of Aleksander Barkov and Vincent Trocheck. Aaron Ekblad, 2014 first-overall pick, continues to be a strong defensive presence, while veteran Keith Yandle keeps producing points on the back-end.

Florida was able to bolster their wing by adding Mike Hoffman via trade this offseason, following a cyber-bullying scandal in Ottawa. Similar to the Bruins, the Panthers’ only real question mark moving forward is in net. Roberto Luongo celebrated his 39th birthday in April, and with four more years remaining on his current deal, it will be interesting to see how long he can produce as an effective starting netminder.

Moving Forward

When looking at which teams will become a force in the division over the next few years, Florida needs to be part of the conversation. Their roster is still quite young, and their best days are ahead of them. That being said, their prospect pool is pretty pedestrian.

Owen Tippett is probably their best youngster, but aside from him, there aren’t really any elite players in the pipeline. With the 15th overall pick last month, they went off the board, selecting Grigori Denisenko. To their credit, Florida also nabbed winger Serron Noel in the second round, who was regarded by some as a first-round talent.

Samuel Montembeault could be the answer to the team’s future between the pipes, but he has quite a bit of developing to do. On defense, the solid but unremarkable, Ian McCoshen is really the only noteable prospect in the system.

Buffalo

The fan base is somewhat all over the place in terms of where they feel the Sabres stand at the moment. When veteran center, Ryan O’Reilly was dealt last week, after months of speculation, the blue-and-gold faithful were pretty split as to whether or not they supported the trade.

The team did get a little weaker in the top-six, but they were able to completely re-vamp the bottom-six with the additions of Vladimir Sobotka and Patrik Berglund. As the center piece of the deal, the Sabres acquired promising forward prospect Tage Thompson, a lottery-protected first round draft choice, and a 2021 second round pick.

As of right now, it’s a little tough to gauge where Buffalo will finish in terms of overall points. Much of it will depend on how much players like new addition Conor Sheary and rookie Casey Mittelstadt contribute on the score sheet.

It remains to be seen just how well Mittelstadt will fare in his first full year of NHL action. If the Sabres hope to improve in the standings, they will need him to produce in a big way. Sheary will likely ride shotgun with Jack Eichel, as the organization holds out hope that he can recapture some of his magic from 2016-17. That is when Sheary spent the year on Sidney Crosby’s left side, producing 53 points in 61 games.

The 2018 first overall pick, Rasmus Dahlin will provide an immediate upgrade to the defense. The 18-year-old is superb in every defensive category. Hopefully, he can take some of the load off of Rasmus Ristolainen’s shoulders in the near future, as he becomes the team’s franchise defenseman.

In net, the Sabres have a brand new tandem in organizational product, Linus Ullmark and free agent signee, Carter Hutton. Hutton led the league last season with a .931 save percentage.

Moving Forward

Here’s where things get really fun. The Sabres’ new core is really starting to take shape. Eichel is well on his way to becoming one of the top centers in the NHL, Mittelstadt is coming off of an extremely impressive collegiate (and international) season, and Dahlin is the cornerstone defenseman the team has needed for well over a decade. Sam Reinhart will hope to build of of his strong second half last season where he notched 37 points in 38 games.

In Rochester, a fresh crop of youngsters are set to help the Amerks return to the postseason in 2018-19. Victor Oloffson, Rasmus Asplund, Cliff Pu and Alex Nylander will all look to show the organization that they deserve a shot at the big club with impressive AHL campaigns.

Defenseman Brendan Guhle will also look to continue his development as a future top-four blueliner. Whether he starts the year in Buffalo or Rochester remains to be seen.

Despite the fact that the Sabres will probably fall short of a playoff birth in 2018-19, they have one of the strongest cores of young talent in the NHL. There’s some growing to do, but they’re certainly the right track.

Detroit

When assessing the teams that could become a force in the next two to three years, the Red Wings are making their way into the conversation, and rightfully so. In 2018-19 however, they will likely miss the playoffs again, as they work their way through another rebuilding season.

As the roster currently stands, Detroit is incredibly weak up front with only two 20-goal scorers from last season in Gustav Nyquist and Anthony Mantha. The blue line isn’t much better. Mike Green is still the only scoring threat on a defense of players who are for the most part, way past their prime.

Similar to the Sabres, this team is probably a few years away from playoff contention. Sure, they added a consistent point producer in Thomas Vanek, but other than that, the Red Wings will continue to struggle offensively in 2018-19.

The situation for next season doesn’t get any brighter in net. Jimmy Howard was sub-par last year (to put it nicely), and he’ll have to compete for starting minutes with free agent acquisition, Johnathan Bernier.

Moving Forward

Here’s where things stop looking so bleak for Detroit. On top of an already strong group of developing youngsters, the Red Wings assembled one of, if not the best, draft class in the NHL last month.

After Filip Zadina inexplicably fell to them at sixth-overall, Ken Holland went on to select forwards Joe Veleno, Jonathan Berggren and defenseman Jared McIsaac with picks 30, 33 and 36 respectively. Not a bad haul.

On top of the 2018 draftees, Detroit holds the rights to prospects like big-bodied centerman Michael Rasmussen, wingers Tyler Bertuzzi and Evgeni Svechnikov and defenseman Filip Hronek, all of whom are very close to NHL ready.

Montreal

The division has a bright future, but the sun stops shining once you hit Montreal. The Canadiens are in really rough shape, both next season, and down the road. The franchise has been on a downward trajectory since dealing P.K. Subban for Shea Weber, in what was then and still now is one of the most lopsided deals in recent memory.

To add insult to injury (pun intended), Weber has been ruled out for a majority of next season after having offseason surgery for a torn meniscus. Not that he’s the elite player he was years ago, but losing Weber is a crushing blow, both on and off the ice, to an already suspect defensive corps. Weber skated in only 26 games for the Canadiens in 2017-18.

Up front the situation isn’t quite as bleak, but similar to the Sabres last season, there is very little scoring depth in Montreal. Last year, Brendan Gallagher was the team’s top point-getter with a whopping total of 54 on the season. Yikes.

With a roster made of up incumbents and a few rookies, the Canadiens are in for a rough season. Their only hope is if Carey Price regains his magic after a rough 2017-18 campaign, and carries his team as he has done so many times before.

Moving Forward

In short, this franchise is in trouble. Though they do have a couple of nice youngsters in defensemen Noah Juulsen and Victor Mete along with forward prospect Ryan Poehling, Montreal does not have much organizational depth. It will be a year or two before we see just how big of a reach Jesperi Kotkaniemi was last month.

The Canadiens would be best suited tearing everything down and starting from scratch, a tough task in a hockey hungry city like Montreal. It’s nothing short of a miracle that Marc Bergevin still has a job in the NHL. If the Canadiens do attempt a full-blown rebuild in the near future, they need to do it with someone else at the helm.

Ottawa

Is there an organization in rougher shape than Ottawa? Rivalry aside, you have to feel bad for that fan base - which is saying something, coming from a Sabres writer. The only reason Bergevin isn’t unanimously considered the worst general manager in the division is due to the existence of Pierre Dorion.

With Erik Karlsson all but gone, this team has zero hope for 2018-19. Goaltender Craig Anderson wants out of town, Bobby Ryan’s albatross contract is still on the books for now and they have almost nothing outside of Matt Duchene and Mark Stone in terms of offense.

In short, the Senators are in terrible shape, from ownership all the way down to the water boy. Eugene Melnyk can’t sell out an arena in a Canadian market. Move the team to Quebec, fire it into the sun or just put the poor city of Ottawa out of its misery. This franchise is so far removed from the one that made a miraculous run to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2016-17.

Moving Forward

Much like Montreal, the prospect pool in Ottawa isn’t particularly impressive. They do have Colin White and Logan Brown, who show some promise in the forward ranks. Blue-chip defensive prospect, Thomas Chabot will get his first full season of NHL action this year as well.

Adding Brady Tkachuk last week will help, but it’s still amazing that they passed up on Zadina. While their farm system isn’t a total disaster, it’s still pretty weak in comparison to the rest of the division.

Summary

One of the biggest points to be made here is the false narrative that the future of this division belongs to Toronto and Buffalo. It is so far from the truth.

Tampa Bay is set up to be a force for at least the next five years. Same deal with Boston. Even the Panthers are in a decent position to make a push for the crown in the near future. Depending on how their prospects develop, Detroit is in a very similar spot as the Sabres, though they probably don’t have as many players with an “elite” ceiling ala Mittelstadt, Eichel and Dahlin.

The only two teams in the Atlantic who appear to be utterly hopeless for the foreseeable future are Ottawa and Montreal. Over the next five-plus years, it will likely be a six-team race. The Sabres are improving, and there’s a lot of promise in the system, but this is a young, talented Atlantic. The road to the top is, and will continue to be, crowded for quite some time.