2021-22 Atlantic Division and Bruins Preview

( Photo Credit: Mark Blinch / NHLI via Getty Images )

By: Ryan Duffy | Follow me out on Twitter @Rduffy26

The 2020-21 NHL season was a unique experience that caused the league to adjust the scheduling and divisions due to the pandemic. The changes resulted in a 56-game regular-season schedule and placed the Boston Bruins in the MassMutual East Division with seven other NHL teams. These changes were temporary given the circumstances of how the pandemic was impacting the world last January. With the world slowly returning to normalcy, NHL teams are reverting to their customary divisions next season.

Before the divisional realignment last season, there seemed to be three automatic locks to make the playoffs in the Atlantic since the 2017-18 season, including the Bruins, Lightning, and Maple Leafs. Other teams in the Atlantic Division could push for a top-three spot next season with their new additions and rising stars. With this said, how will the playoff picture look in the Atlantic next season?

Boston Bruins

Last season, the Bruins special teams were a driving force in their success during the regular season. Boston finished with a 21.9% conversation rate that ranked 10th in the NHL. Last year’s powerplay had a bit of a decline considering they finished top five in powerplay conversions throughout the league since the 2017-18 season.

Regardless, their powerplay finished 2nd during the 2021 playoffs, clicking at an astonishing 36.8%. The penalty kill was the focal point of their special teams, finishing with 86.0% penalties killed which ranked  2nd in the league behind Vegas last season. At times, the Bruins penalty kill fell apart in the 2021 postseason. The addition of Derek Forbort and Nick Foligno should help return the Bruin’s penalty kill to one of their best elements.

At 5-on-5, the Bruins finished 15th in league with 106 goals and ranked 5th in goals against with 92. With the lack of depth scoring the Bruins have had over the past couple of seasons, Sweeney and the Bruins management have attempted to address this by bringing in Nick Foligno, Erik Haula, and Tomas Nosek. These additions will give the bottom two lines a new look in hopes of increasing 5-on-5 scoring for the Bruins next season.

The Bruins also brought in Linus Ullmark since they will be without Tuukka Rask as he has yet to sign a contract and had surgery on his hip this offseason. Overall, management has attempted to address the lack of depth scoring in forwards, the defensive core size, and the absence of Rask. With the additions made to the roster, Bruins fans should be optimistic about this since they will continue to be a competitive and challenging team to play against within the Atlantic Division.

My prediction: Boston finishes second in the Atlantic Division.

Buffalo Sabres

The Buffalo Sabres have missed the Stanley Cup playoffs every season over the past decade. The Sabre’s organization and its fans have had constant misfortune despite having good talent, but nothing to show for it. The team in previous years has tended to have good starts to the regular season, but then everything seems to fall apart come January. And now, they will be without their captain Jack Eichel due to a herniated disc, Rasmus Ristolainen (traded to Philadelphia Flyers), and Sam Reinhart (traded to Florida Panthers). The Eichel drama has sent the Sabres into turmoil, with management preventing Eichel from getting his desired surgery.

Because of this affair and consistent disappointment, we have likely seen the last of Eichel in a Buffalo uniform. The Sabres were dead last in NHL standings with 37 points (15-34-7), earning them the first overall selection in the 2021 NHL draft. With the selection, they took Owen Power, who will be delaying his NHL debut as he chose to finish his sophomore year at the University of Michigan. The Sabres did tie an NHL record last season! It’s not one that Sabres fans will enjoy, but they tied the NHL record with the 2003-04 Pittsburgh Penguins for most consecutive losses (18 games).

The Sabres and Bruins were the only teams in the East Division that are normally in the Atlantic Division. The Bruins have had their way with the Sabres going 13-2-0 since the 2018-19 season. During their 15 matchups, Boston has averaged 3.47 goals while Buffalo has averaged 1.80 goals per game. The matchup has been lopsided, and this trend is going to continue for the foreseeable future.

With the vast amount of young talent in their system like Dylan Cozens, Rasmus Dahlin, Owen Power, and Victor Olofsson, the Sabres will be lethal down the road. But for now, the team will continue to struggle. As a result, they will likely be in contention to get the first overall pick in the 2022 Draft. The Bruins will play the Sabres four times in the 2021-22 season, so be ready for a blow-out or two within those games.

My prediction: Buffalo finishes eight in the Atlantic Division

Detroit Red Wings

The Detroit Red Wings finished last season with a record of 19-27-10 (48 points) and struggled to find the back of the as they finished with 125 goals for (30th) and a powerplay percentage of 11.4% (30th).  Despite finishing second to last in the Central Division and missing the playoffs for the fifth straight year, this team will show improvement next season. Steve Yzerman has been hard at work to develop the Red Wings into an eventual playoff contender. Last trade deadline, Yzerman was able to fleece the Washington Capitals and acquire Jakub Vrana. Vrana looks like he’ll be an excellent fit for the Red Wings as he finished with 11 points in 11 games for the Red Wings last season.

Yzerman improved his roster during this offseason by bringing in young talent Pius Sutter and Alex Nedeljkovic while also bringing in veterans Nick Leddy and Jordan Oesterle. Down the pipeline, the Red Wings have a couple of dynamic players like Moritz Seider and Lucas Raymond, who have the potential to crack the lineup next season. While this team may not be playoff-bound next season, writing on the wall suggests that this team will become a contender in the coming seasons.

The Red Wings and the rest of the teams ordinarily in the Atlantic didn’t play the Bruins in the 2020-21 season. The Red Wings’ last played the Bruins in the 2019-20 season, which the Red Wings finished last in the NHL (17-49-5). From 2018-2020, the Bruins surprisingly went 2-4-1 against the Red Wings, averaged 3.04 goals, and allowed 3.21 goals against per game. Regardless of the losing record in recent years, the Bruins should handle the Red Wings in the four games they play each other next season.

My prediction: Detroit finishes seventh in the Atlantic Division.

Florida Panthers

The Florida Panthers will be a force to be reckoned with in the Atlantic Division next season. Other than the New York Islanders, who forced the Tampa Bay Lightning to a game seven in the Stanley Cup semi-final, the Panthers perhaps gave the Lightning the biggest run for their money last postseason. Although the Panther’s special teams were underwhelming during 2020-21, they were ranked 4th in the league in goals (188) and 9th in goals against (151).

Their goaltending and defensive play improved as they were ranked 26th in the goals against in the 2019-20 season.  Much of their improvement came from Chris Driedger stepping into form as the 1A/1B goalie alongside Bobrovsky. With Driedger selected by the Seattle Kraken in the expansion draft, this slots highly regarded goalie prospect Spencer Knight into the main roster for the Panthers. Bobrovsky’s thus far as a Panther has underperformed his $70 million contract, which still has five years remaining. When Bobrovsky’s play is inconsistent, they’re going to rely on Spencer Knight, who could potentially steal the starting goalie position for the Panthers.

This team offensively is very deep, with plenty of proven goal scorers and point producers such as Alexander Barkov and Johnathan Huberdeau. They have only gotten deeper this offseason by adding Sam Reinhart, who has scored 20+ goals five of the last six seasons. With Reinhart joining the Panthers, don’t be surprised if the goal total for him climbs to 30+ goals playing alongside Barkov. Don’t sleep on their defensive talent either, with Aaron Ekblad, Mackenzie Weegar, and Brandon Montour running their backend.

Since the 2018 season, the Bruins have a 4-2-1 record against the Panthers with 3.17 goals and 3.21 goals against per game. Expect high-scoring affairs between these two clubs in their three matchups next season, considering the offensive weapons these teams have at their disposal. Overall, the similarities between these two teams are a lot more glaring than people think. Both have rookie goalies that may compete for a starting position, a deep forward group, and a solid defensive core. Because of the similarities, these two teams will be an exciting matchup competing for a top-three spot in the Atlantic Division.

My prediction: Florida finishes as the third seed in the Atlantic Division.

Montreal Canadiens

Montreal was a team that shocked the hockey world last season. Despite being regarded as underdogs throughout the 2021 postseason, they miraculously made it to the Stanley Cup final. During their regular season campaign, they had a record of 24-21-11 (59 points), which wouldn’t have made the playoffs in any other division. While they have made some good additions to their forward and defensive groups, they have lost some critical pieces that helped them get to the finals.

Departures like Danault, Perry, Staal, and Kotkaniemi are significant losses to their forward roster. They will also be without their captain Shea Weber due to a career-threatening injury. The additions of Hoffman and Dvorak could be sneaky good pickups for the Canadiens playing on the top two lines for Montreal. While the Canadiens have a solid top three forward lines, this team heavily relied on their defensive depth to get them deep into the playoffs. Montreal general manager, Marc Bergevin, was able to add a steady and reliable defenseman in David Savard. Still, he certainly won’t make up for the loss of Weber, who logged significant minutes in all situations.

The arch rivalry between the Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens will return next season, with both teams returning to the same division. Boston is 5-2-1, averaging 3.50 goals for and 2.00 goals against per game in their last eight meetings. The hatred between these two teams has somewhat declined, mainly because Montreal hasn’t had great regular-season success in recent years.

Nevertheless, if the Canadiens can play as they did last postseason, expect some fiery battles between these two clubs. Montreal will make a push for a playoff spot, but it’s going to be a steep hill to climb because of how stacked the Atlantic is and the competition they will be facing for a wild card spot in the Metropolitan Division. Montreal will be a middle-tier team in the Atlantic division, but they will undoubtedly be a tough matchup.

My prediction: Montreal finishes fifth in the Atlantic Division.

Ottawa Senators

Similar to the Red Wings, The Ottawa Senators will be a team that shows improvement next season. The Senators have been in rebuild mode since the 2017-18 season, after going to the conference final in 2017. Since then, they have gained young assets which have already made significant contributions to the team, including Chabot, Tkachuk, Norris, Batherson, and Stützle, who all play top minutes for the Senators.

Despite having a roster with minimal NHL experience, Ottawa’s general manager Pierre Dorion stated, “The rebuild is done… It’s time to start winning.” While the implications of his comments are unclear, most people can agree that making the playoffs is a bit of a stretch for this team. They have yet to sign their leading scorer Brady Tkachuk, who had 36 points in 56 games last season, which could be problematic for Senators fans with training camp just around the corner.

It would come as a surprise if the Senators and Tkachuk could not agree on an extension because he is a significant building block for this organization. They will be relying on their young talent to be competitive and may surprise a lot of people. But, questions remain on whether Matt Murray, who had a .893 save percentage and a 3.38 GAA, can stay healthy and perform going forward.

The Bruins play the Senators four times next season. They are 6-1-0 against the Senators since 2018, with Boston averaging 3.38 goals and 2.21 goals against per game. As mentioned previously, Ottawa has the potential to shock people, but they sure as heck won’t be close to Boston’s level.  All around, the Bruins have more experience, talent, and presumably better goaltending than the Senators.

My prediction: Ottawa finishes sixth in the Atlantic Division.

Tampa Bay Lightning

The Tampa Bay Lightning are the reigning back-to-back Stanley Cup Champions and are looking to become the NHL’s newest dynasty since the New York Islanders won four straight Stanley Cups from 1980-83. While this is a massive mountain to climb, Tampa Bay is fully capable of winning another Stanley Cup, given the talent they have. But next postseason will be the most difficult cup to win, especially with the loss of their infamous third line of Blake Coleman, Yanni Gourde, and Barclay Goodrow.

They still have the same top six forwards they had in their Stanley Cup runs over the last two seasons, but the loss of their third line may be more significant than people think. Lightning general manager, Julien BriseBois, picked up free agent Corey Perry. Who will help subdue the loss of the third line with his sandpaper style of play on the bottom two lines?

Tampa has had their way with Boston in recent memory as the Bruins have gone 2-5-1 since the 2018 season. The Lightning’s offense has taken a stranglehold on the Bruins as they have allowed 3.50 goals against per game. Boston has been unable to match their firepower, scoring just 2.88 goals per game, with the Bruin’s top line and powerplay being the main contributors in scoring. The two teams have faced one another in the Stanley Cup playoffs twice in recent years.

Both playoff meetings were disastrous outcomes for Boston as they lost to Tampa in five games in the 2018 playoffs and the 2020 bubble. Overall, the matchup between these teams has gone in favor of the Lightning. This year may differ, although with the depth that Tampa Bay has lost and the depth that Boston has gained, but only time will tell.

My prediction: Tampa Bay finishes first in the Atlantic Division.

Toronto Maple Leafs

Perhaps the Bruin’s biggest rival in recent years, the Toronto Maple Leafs, will be an interesting team to follow in 2021-22. Despite finishing first in the North Division (35-14-7), they somehow managed to have another disappointing postseason, losing to Montreal in the first round. Kyle Dubas and Maple Leaf’s management has had to retool their roster since the core of this team has yet to achieve any playoff success.

Departures include Fredrick Anderson, Joe Thornton, Zach Hyman, and Nick Foligno (Thanks Dubas). Dubas also made a couple of additions to the roster, including ex-Bruins Nick Ritchie and Ondrej Kase. They also added depth in their forward group with Michael Bunting and goaltending depth with Petr Mrazek. Looking at last year’s roster compared to their current roster, it seems to be a bit of a downgrade on paper.

Ritchie is a downgrade on the first line from Hyman, especially since Hyman was pace to score 62 points in a standard 82-game regular season.  Questions still surround goaltending with Jack Campbell on whether he can replicate the season he had last year and whether Mrazek can take the wheel if Campbell struggles. Despite the uncertainty, Dubas still believes that the core of this group can still win a cup together. If Toronto somehow doesn’t make the playoffs or fails to win a playoff round, expect major roster and management changes.

The Bruins have owned the Leafs in the regular season since 2018 (5-1-1). Boston has scored 3.84 goals and allowed 2.59 goals against per game in that seven-game span. The Bruins faced the Leafs in the playoffs in 2018 and 2019, where they won both series in a seven-game fashion. With the roster adjustments both teams have made since they last played one another, it will be interesting to see if the Bruins will be able to keep their success against the Leafs.

The Bruins have always seemed to elevate their game when playing the Leafs, which fans can expect them to do in the three games they play this season. The Bruins play the Leafs in the final game of the regular season, so depending on the standings, the Bruins and Leafs could be battling for home-ice, or dare I say, a ticket to the Stanley Cup playoffs.

My prediction: Toronto finishes fourth in the Atlantic Division (wild card spot).

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