After asking our readers to pick the winners of the Central and Pacific Divisions next season, it’s time to turn toward the Eastern Conference. While the Pacific Division vote was split nearly evenly between the Edmonton Oilers (who held the edge) and the Calgary Flames, the Colorado Avalanche dominated the vote counter for the Central, garnering over 62% of the votes. No other team had more than 15%.
The Eastern Conference, like last season, carries a far bit more intrigue, though. With a tumultuous offseason, there’s poised to be a shuffling of the deck, with former titans falling and upstart teams emerging.
No team may exemplify that better than last season’s Presidents’ Trophy winners — the Florida Panthers. Last season’s 58-18-6 record was by far the best in team history, but they bowed out quietly in the Second Round, being swept by the eventual Eastern Conference champion Tampa Bay Lightning.
That playoff disappointment beckoned a host of changes, beginning behind the bench. Interim head coach and Jack Adams Award finalist Andrew Brunette was dismissed in favor of veteran coach Paul Maurice, who aims to gel the team’s defensive holes that ultimately doomed them. That will be a tough challenge with a defense core that’s already missing Mackenzie Weegar via trade and whose most notable additions were depth veterans Marc Staal and Michael Del Zotto. A refresh on offense also hit the team’s scoring depth, with breakout star Mason Marchment departing in free agency and franchise cornerstone Jonathan Huberdeau replaced with Matthew Tkachuk. The team will also have to manage the first few months of the season without Anthony Duclair, who’s rehabbing an Achilles tendon injury.
The Toronto Maple Leafs roared to a 115-point season last year for second place in the division, but they too have taken hits to the roster. A new goaltending tandem of Matt Murray and Ilya Samsonov begs more questions than it gives answers, and the team will miss Ilya Mikheyev and Ondrej Kase as important depth scoring. They did get some of that depth back in the form of Calle Jarnkrok signing in free agency, but the team will largely be forced to run it back with question marks in net.
2021-22 was a season of threes for the Tampa Bay Lightning, who finished third in the Atlantic en route to their third straight Stanley Cup Final appearance. After losing in the Final, though, they’ll need to figure out how to replace the losses of Ondrej Palat and Ryan McDonagh largely internally. They’ll bet on a big breakout season from forward Brandon Hagel, who they paid a steep price at the Trade Deadline to acquire just for that reason. They’ll also have to get through the start of the year without Selke-caliber center Anthony Cirelli, who’s likely out until December with a shoulder injury.
The Boston Bruins are bringing Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci back for one last ride, but they’ll have to do it without Brad Marchand, Charlie McAvoy, Matt Grzelcyk, and Mike Reilly to start the season. With that level of firepower out of the lineup, it could spell trouble in such a competitive division. An apparent downgrade behind the bench as well means the team could struggle to reach the 50-win, 100-point mark again this season.
The Ottawa Senators and Detroit Red Wings both made incredible splashes in free agency, and figure to make it a six-team race for three to five playoff spots in the Atlantic. Ottawa’s additions of Alex DeBrincat and Claude Giroux give them one of the highest-powered top-sixes in the conference, while Detroit’s additions of David Perron, Andrew Copp, and Ben Chiarot give them high-quality depth to support their growing stars.
The Buffalo Sabres and Montreal Canadiens, while likely to be at the bottom of the division again, will both look to take steps forward with significant improvement expected from their young franchise cornerstone. Owen Power’s rookie performance will be the storyline all season in Buffalo, while Cole Caufield will look to transform his elite skill into the consistency required to be an All-Star.
So, PHR readers, we ask you again — who do you think will win the Atlantic Division next season? Make sure to vote in the poll below and leave a comment below to contribute to the discussion.
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