Early Season Report Cards: NHL Atlantic Division Summary

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Welcome to the final installment of Early Season Report Cards. This series will return at the 40, 60, and 80 game marks of the season. Thank you for reading along and I look forward to bringing you the Mid Season Report Cards next month. Today we have our Atlantic Division Summary. As we approach the first quarter of the season, we as fans are getting a good look at where teams stand in the standings. There has been plenty of excitement in the divisions thus far, with plenty of teams exceeding expectations and other underperforming. The Atlantic Division looks to be one of the most competitive divisions in the NHL this year. Let’s take a further look into how all eight teams have done so far. If you missed any of the other divisions, you can get caught up here: Metropolitan Division, Central Division, Pacific Division.

NHL Atlantic Division Summary: Early Season Report Cards

Florida Panthers 10-2-3 (23pts)

3.7 GF/G (2nd)

2.6 GA/G (7th)

21.3 PP% (13th)

81.1 PK% (18th)

The Florida Panthers burst out of the gate with an eight-game winning streak that thrust them into early Stanley Cup conversations. We expected the Panthers to be good but even the most die-hard of Panthers fans couldn’t have anticipated the dominant start they’ve had. 

Florida opened their season with questions swirling around their goal crease. Sergei Bobrovsky had seen his play fall off, Chris Driedger took his talents to Seattle, and Spencer Knight was waiting in the wings to take on a larger role after an impressive showcasing in the playoffs.

Analysis

The sample size was much too small on Knight, so the Panthers elected to continue with Bobrovsky as the starter. And that was clearly the right call. Bobrovsky was an elite netminder when he signed for eight years in Florida but he had been anything but elite since coming to Florida. Perhaps the chatter of doubts about his game was what lit the fire in him because he has been unstoppable this year. Sergei boasts a 1.88 goals-against-average and a .940 save percentage to go along with his nine wins. Looks like Florida has their number one goalie back!

Not only is Florida getting Vezina-level goaltending out of Bobrovsky, but they have also been filling the net on the other end of the ice. Outside of the Edmonton Oilers, Florida has the next most potent offence. Some could argue that it is a better offence than the Oilers too, or at least deeper. Edmonton is lead by two generational talents in Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, but what they lack is offensive depth throughout the lineup. That is where the ‘Cats have the upper hand. Florida is a puck-possession monster this season. Every “regular” player on their roster sports a positive Corsi. When this team gets the puck, they hold it. And they drive play after play towards the opposition, generating high-quality scoring chances throughout their lineup. 

This Florida Panthers team is scary to play against and they look poised to run the table here in the Atlantic Division.

 Atlantic Division Summary Grade: A

Toronto Maple Leafs 10-5-1 (21pts)

2.7 GF/G (23rd)

2.6 GA/G (7th)

25.0 PP% (6th)

87.2 PK% (4th)

Had I done my Atlantic Division summary first in this series, we’d be having a very different discussion about this Maple Leaf team. Toronto has seen a resurgence in their play as of late which has resulted in them storming back up the division standings. The Maple Leafs are always under the microscope from its passionate and scrutinizing fanbase. And it was no different entering this season. After yet another demoralizing first-round playoff exit, the ‘Buds came back for another kick at the can with their core. Right now, questions around whether this group of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares, and Morgan Rielly could get it done, are at an all-time high. So high that this season is being seen as boom-or-bust with this group.

Analysis

Well to start the year Toronto didn’t do anything to ease the minds of its fans. They stumbled out the gates and Matthews and Marner were nonexistent. But after that 2-5 start, the Leafs have been the winningest team in the league. Toronto has won eight of their last nine and their stars have finally got it going. Obviously, fans of Toronto want more than regular-season success but this is a fine rebound to calm the fragile nerves of a fanbase that is so desperate to have a Stanley Cup winner again.

Goaltender Jack Campbell (1.82 GAA .939SV%) has been stellar for the Leafs. And now that he’s finally getting some run support, the Leafs have their first positive goal-differential since the third game of the season.

Toronto relies heavily on the play of their core to drive their offence, so it’s imperative they continue their high level of play. With the Atlantic Division proving to be as competitive as ever, it won’t be an easy job to leapfrog teams ahead of you if you’re to fall behind. Toronto looks dialed in now after their sluggish start and will look to avoid any future slip-ups that could cost them valuable points in their season.

Atlantic Division Summary Grade: B+

Tampa Bay Lightning 8-3-3 (19pts)

3.0 GF/G (14th)

2.9 GA/G (14th)

18.4 PP% (17th)

84.1 PK% (10th)

We all know about the Stanley Cup hangover, but what about the back-to-back hangover? The NHL hasn’t seen a repeat champion since the 2016 and 2017 Pittsburgh Penguins. At this same point in their season after winning back-to-back cups, Pittsburgh was sitting at 6-5-3. So Tampa Bay looks a little sprier than their counterparts. 

However, the Bolts did feel the effects of their hangover to start the year. Tampa, and especially goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, were not their usual dominant selves. Tampa surrendered 12 goals in their first two games and 26 in their first six, on route to a 2-3-1 record. But much like the Leafs, patience with their stars would prove to pay off. Tampa’s players settled in and have not lost in regulation since. And once again, they are doing this all without star forward Nikita Kucherov.

Analysis

That’s scary news for every other team that is wondering if Tampa has the ability to be the first three-peat champion since the New York Islanders of the ’80s. There were plenty of questions around whether Tampa could achieve this rare feat. Gone during the offseason is their energy line of Yanni Gourde, Blake Coleman, and Barclay Goodrow. That line was an integral part of their roster and the depth that made the Lightning such a force to match up against. 

But stepping up in a big way has been forward Alex Killorn. With 14 points in 14 games, Killorn is on pace to have a career year. It’s still early to assume Killorn, who has never averaged a point-per-game in a season, will continue this pace. But the 32-year-old veteran has taken it upon himself to find that extra gear when the team needs it most. 

The worry for Tampa is that, as well as a job they’ve done spreading the puck around in the top-six, the bottom six group has been a nonfactor. In fact, describing the third and fourth lines as non-factors may be an understatement. Of the 43 goals the Lightning have scored, only four have come from those two lines. That is not the scoring depth this team is used to. Tampa is still an elite team that is surely playoff-bound, but they will need supplementary scoring if they want a shot at achieving the elusive three-peat.

Atlantic Division Summary Grade: B

Detroit Red Wings 8-7-2 (18pts)

2.9 GF/G (16th)

3.1 GA/G (19th)

15.4 PP% (24th)

75.9 PK% (25th)

The Detroit Red Wings have been a pleasant surprise to start the year. The Red Wings did a great impression of being a doormat last year, but the youth movement has injected new life into the Motor City and has made them a formidable opponent night after night. The standings may not have shown it last year, but the Detroit rebuild was ahead of the pack. Fans of Detroit were excited to start this campaign as they knew they’d finally get to see highly touted rookies Lucas Raymond and Moritz Seider in their lineup. And boy have those two delivered!

Analysis

Both Raymond and Seider are in discussions for the Calder Trophy this year. Raymond, the fourth overall pick in the 2020 draft, has seven goals and 17 points in 17 games. His roommate, Seider, who was selected with the sixth overall pick in the 2019 draft, has two goals and 12 points in 17 games as the Wings’ best defenceman. 

Detroit went out in the offseason in search of their franchise goaltender. The Red Wings struggled mightily during their rebuild to keep pucks out of their net. The Wings had selected a goalie in every draft since 2014 but none of those picks have started a game in the NHL yet. There is a lot of hype around the 2021 pick, Sebastian Cossa of the Edmonton Oil Kings, but the Wings brass decided he needs more time to groom in juniors. So Detroit went out and got themselves last year’s Calder finalist, Alex Nedeljkovic. 

Nedeljkovic had a rocky start but is beginning to find his way with his new team. Nedeljkovic and fellow goalie Thomas Greiss have split starts this year as both are duking it out for the starting position. Detroit would like to see ‘Ned eventually take the reins and do for them what he did for the Carolina Hurricanes last year.

Detroit is enjoying early season success but it’s a long season and it will be interesting to see how these young guys keep up over the NHL’s 82 game grind. 

Atlantic Division Summary Grade: C+

Boston Bruins 8-5-0 (16pts)

3.1 GF/G (11th)

2.8 GA/G (13th)

25.0 PP% (6th)

82.9 PK% (12th)

Boston has enjoyed an incredible amount of success over the last 10 years, having won a cup in 2011 and runner-up appearances in 2013 and 2019. But as the Big Bad Bruins enter the 2021 season, some were wondering if their championship window was beginning to close.

Boston has done an impeccable job of staying competitive by having many of its stars sign cap-friendly, team deals. This has allowed them to have roster depth that is the envy of many NHL franchises. It has also made it an attractive destination for free agents, like the recently signed Taylor Hall. Taylor has played well since coming over late last season, but he is still looking to find the form that won him a Hart trophy back in 2018. 

Analysis

Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand continue to lead the offence and neither want to hear any talk that age is catching up to them. Marchand has come out the gates with eight goals and 19 points while Bergeron has 13 points in 13 games in his 18th NHL season. 

There is talk that Tuukka Rask could be back in Boston soon, but if not, the Bruins seem to be content giving the net to youngster Jeremy Swayman. The Bruins have an older team and Swayman is the only player on the roster who is on an Entry-Level Contract. So there is plenty of experience in front of Swayman, but is there enough experience in him to lead the Bruins to the promised land? The rookie netminder has certainly impressed thus far with five wins in seven starts to go along with a 2.16 GAA and .914SV%.

The Bruins are still very much a competitive team, as shown by their strong Corsi% this season. But there is concern about whether they can beat the top teams in the league. When up against teams above .500 they have registered only one win in six tries – a 3-2 shootout win over Florida. That’s not a good look early in the season. Surely Boston will be in a playoff spot by season’s end. But how deep can this team go once in the playoffs? 

Atlantic Division Summary Grade: B

Buffalo Sabres 6-6-2 (14pts)

3.0 GF/G (14th)

3.1 GA/G (19th)

21.6 PP% (12th)

82.1 PK% (15th)

After opening the season with +20000 odds to win the Stanley Cup, it’s safe to assume the Buffalo Sabres’ hot start to the season caught us all by surprise. The Sabres rebuild seemed to lack any clear direction and on top of that their offseason was swamped in Jack Eichel drama. Perhaps while everyone wanted to talk about Eichel, the Sabres players were content just putting their head down and going to work.  

Analysis

The Sabres marched out to a 5-2 record to start their campaign. The result was a pleasant distraction for the Buffalo faithful which spent an entire offseason pondering the status of their former captain. But at the end of the day, that hot start was just that- a distraction. The false sense of optimism felt by the fans was short-lived and now it was time to come back to reality. The Sabres have only won once in their last seven games and look more like the team we expected to see this season.

It’s safe to say the Sabres will not be catching opponents by surprise any longer this year. 

The Sabres’ top line of Tage Thompson, Jeff Skinner, and Rasmus Asplund has been formidable and should continue to produce. They’ve generated positive Corsi stats and with the help of Rasmus Dahlin on the backend, they’ve contributed to the majority of high-quality scoring chances for the Sabres. 

There are some bright spots for this club, but they are far and few between. It’s going to be a long year for Buffalo, again, but it’s encouraging to see their young talent continue to grow and mature. It’ll be another year of no spring hockey for Buffalo, but hopefully, with turning over a new leaf in the post-Eichel era, these Sabres can form a new identity and bring in a winning culture.

Atlantic Division Summary Grade: C-

Montreal Canadiens 4-11-2 (10pts)

2.1 GF/G (30th)

3.4 GA/G (27th)

14.3 PP% (28th) 

70.7 PK% (29th)

Now we knew there’d be a falloff for the Montreal Canadiens this year but did anyone see it being this bad in la belle province? The Canadiens and its fans enjoyed a magical run to the Stanley Cup final last season but if that run provided you with any hope of what this roster could do year after year, that was quickly squashed. Montreal lost Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Phillip Danault, and Tomas Tatar in the offseason. Shea Weber’s career looks over due to injury, and Carey Price admitted himself into the league’s player assistance program.

There was a lot of loss for the fans and the players inside the locker room. Leaders were gone and role players that helped Montreal become the exciting underdog had left. Montreal can’t seem to catch a break either. Mike Hoffman was just placed on the Injured Reserve list and Cole Caufield has seen his confidence falter as he was demoted to the AHL after his slow start. 

Analysis

Montreal coach Dominique Ducharme still believes in his team and that they can turn it around. In the ultra-competitive Eastern Conference, I’d say that’s just wishful thinking. Montreal sits second-last in the East, seven points outside a wildcard spot, and have played at least three more games than every team ahead of them in the standings that they’d have to leapfrog. You have to admire the confidence in Ducharme but it does look rather silly to ignore the writing on the wall. Montreal is in no place to compete this year. 

There is a silver lining is that Nick Suzuki has continued to develop nicely. He leads the team in scoring with 14 points in 17 games. He looks to be a lock as Montreal’s number one centre for years to come. This might be the year that Montreal embraces a rebuild and looks to get in on the Shane Wright sweepstakes. I’m no advocate for tanking but if there was ever a year…

Atlantic Division Summary Grade: D-

Ottawa Senators 4-10-1 (9pts)

2.4 GF/G (28th)

3.5 GA/G (30th)

17.6 PP% (20th)

73.8 PK% (28th)

Speaking of teams being in the Shane Wright sweepstakes, the Ottawa Senators are doing their best to cement their place in the basement of the East. General manager Pierre Dorion was quoted this offseason saying the Ottawa rebuild was done. That’s a tough take when your team hasn’t improved in the standings since last year. Now, I believe this Ottawa team is better than their record shows. They have a nice group with Drake Batherson, Brady Tkachuk, Tim Stutzle, Joshua Norris, and Thomas Chabot. But the Senators have yet to address their goalie issues. 

Analysis

Matt Murray (3.10 GAA .897SV%) does not look to be the answer in the net for Ottawa. Backups Anton Forsberg (4.56 GAA .884SV%) and Filip Gustavsson (3.01GAA .915SV%) haven’t fared any better either. If I was a general manager, I wouldn’t be so quick to exclaim that my rebuild was done.

Sure, Ottawa will benefit from another year of development for their young players. But at what point does maturing in the NHL “end” and you start delivering on expectations. The Ottawa fanbase is growing restless. The Sens have not made the playoffs since 2017 and this year surely looks to continue that streak. 

Atlantic Division Summary Grade: D-

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