Justin Bonhard | December 7th, 2018
The Atlantic Division has been nothing short of insanity in the first 28 games of the 2018-19 season. Each team is hovering around .500 in the standings and the storylines are laid out for an explosive finish. Can Buffalo shock the world and take the Atlantic title? Will Boston creep up towards the end? Will it be a race to the finish for Toronto and Tampa Bay for not only the Atlantic title but the Presidents’ Trophy? There isn’t another division in the National Hockey League that has as much potential for a storied season as the Atlantic.
Here is a detailed breakdown of how each team has fared so far this season, and where they will likely end up in April.
Where do you even begin with the Buffalo Sabres? If nothing comes from the remainder of the season, the stretch of 10 straight wins will serve as a preview for the coming years. The Buffalo Sabres have finally found themselves in a possible position that they haven’t seen since the start of this decade, the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Newly appointed captain Jack Eichel is showing nothing short of brilliance on a nightly basis. He leads the Sabres in points and assists, 34 and 27 respectively. The 22-year-old has shown no sign of growing pains in the NHL thus far and has improved drastically from season to season.
Jeff Skinner, who has shown consistent goal scoring in the past with Carolina, is on a record pace this season. Through the first 29 games of the season, he has netted 20 goals. One of Buffalo’s keys over their 10-game run was goal scoring, with 36, and Skinner was a huge part of it with 10 of them being from him.
On the defensive side, Rasmus Dahlin has shown production from the hype of being selected number one overall in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft. At 14 points, he is leading all rookie defenseman this season, and he is doing it at 18 years of age. He will be an integral piece for years to come in Buffalo and coupled with Eichel, Skinner, and even Sam Reinhart’s resurgence, the Sabres will be a fun team to watch.
The future is beaming with potential, but it is the future. The win streak was incredible and it grabbed Buffalo back from the clutches of the Bills. But it won’t amount to anything more than that. The Atlantic, as you will read, is just too star-studded in all areas of the ice, and the Sabres won’t be able to keep up at the end of the season. They will, unfortunately, not take the Atlantic Division title in April.
Tampa Bay Lightning
The Tampa Bay Lightning are the current Presidents’ Trophy winners. At 45 points (22-7-1) they have a four-point lead on Toronto. They have been streaky at times but no more than four wins in a row. It has been relatively the same formula this season, as compared to years past.
It all seemed lost after losing one of the best goaltenders in the NHL, Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay had to leave the next 4-6 weeks in the hands of Louis Domingue.
Domingue, a fifth-round selection in 2010 by Phoenix, was not very good in his four years there with a 27-41-7 record. On paper, they looked like they were in trouble, but it was certainly quite the opposite. Through 16 games played this season, he has a 12-4 record and a .903 save percentage.
Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov continue to be the two-headed monster, but there are plenty of others in the supporting cast that are making their mark. Brayden Point continues his scoring ways and has netted 21 goals, including a hat-trick against Pittsburgh in mid-November. Yanni Gourde, JT Miller and Ryan McDonagh have eclipsed the 20-point marks in the first 29 games, with 23, 20, and 20, respectively.
It is going to be a fun finish for the Atlantic Division. In all likelihood, it will come down to Tampa Bay and Toronto for the Presidents’ Trophy and the Title. Each team has enough firepower to crank out 5+ goals each night, and with the return of Vasilevsky, it could be 5-0 shutouts. All eyes are on the Atlantic, and Tampa Bay is at the top of the list, for now.
Toronto Maple Leafs
John Tavares came to Toronto to come home and more importantly, to win and win big. Alongside Auston Matthews and (finally) William Nylander, the big three have assembled. Toronto has a serious shot at not only a Stanley Cup Final, but to win it. Currently, Tavares has contributed 32 points (18G 14A) and Matthews, in 15 games, has 24 points (15G 9A).
Injuries and contracts have been the only things in their way thus far. The aforementioned Matthews and Nylander were largely a part of that, but now that Toronto is complete, watch the fireworks.
Up and down the roster, there are players that can score. The offense has been stellar with scoring the second-most goals in the NHL with 103. On defense, Morgan Rielly is second in points for defensemen, behind Thomas Chabot in Ottawa.
Between the pipes, Frederik Andersen has been stellar. Coming off of a career-high 38 wins last season, and getting Vezina trophy votes, he is well on his way to set a new best. He has 16 wins in his first 23 games, and his GAA is 2.32.
The Toronto Maple Leafs are all in. The pieces are there and with some execution, the Stanley Cup can be coming back to Toronto for the first time since 1966. Of course, they will face some heavy resistance along the way, first with Tampa Bay, and then the Metro with Columbus and Washington. Getting out of the East will certainly be tough, but the West may not be able to stack up, goal-for-goal with Toronto.
Boston, despite not being in the running at this moment for a playoff berth, will sneak in at the end. Tuukka Rask hasn’t been the Tuukka of day’s past, and it won’t be like that for long. Jaroslav Halak has gotten a majority of the starts this season with 16 and overall has been the better goaltender. Nearing the trade deadline, Halak, who isn’t slated to be a free agent until 2020-21, can be a key piece to move for more offensive production. This, of course, will depend on who is still having the better performance between Rask and Halak. It may be a case of riding the hot hand into the playoffs.
Boston has been battered with injuries this season. Only four skaters have suited up for all 28 games thus far. Two key injuries have been to Kevin Miller and Charlie McAvoy on the defensive end. Miller, with a +78 in his career, has been out since Nov. 26 with cartilage damage in his Larynx. And McAvoy, the future of this defense after Zdeno Chara hangs up the skates, has been in Concussion Protocol since October, and no timetable has been set for his return.
The Boston Bruins have the highest average in terms of penalty minutes per game with 11.1. The main benefactor of that is from their most controversial player, Brad Marchand. I say controversial because he is the face of this franchise and his playing style isn’t one to be deemed as clean. In 28 games this season, he has sat in the sin bin for 72 minutes, which is good for a pace of 237 minutes by seasons end. That is a lot of time for being a man down with a deadly division to play in, where Toronto and Tampa Bay are third and fourth in Powerplay percentage.
Despite the miraculous and unpredictable position that the Buffalo Sabres have found themselves in this season, it will all come to an end. Boston will round out the top three of the Atlantic and slide into the playoffs, which is the position they want to be in. They don’t have nearly enough firepower to handle their division rivals like Toronto and Tampa Bay, and Rask, if given the nod is a big question mark in the playoffs. Going against one of the Metro teams will be an advantage. As we have seen in years past, the last team in is oftentimes the deadliest.
These four above teams have shown excellence in the early going of the 2018-19 season. The Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators, Florida Panthers, and Detroit Red Wings still have a little ways to go before they can match up. Here is what we got so far.
The Montreal Canadiens made some, at the time, catastrophic moves in the offseason. But now that the season is rolling along, the moves aren’t as outlandish as they once seemed. The Alex Galchenyuk for Max Domi trade seemed like a fleece by Arizona, but Montreal has enjoyed the young winger. Domi has 13 goals and 17 assists this season, which leads the Canadiens in points. Tomas Tatar came over in a trade for former Captain Max Pacioretty, which set Montreal on fire. But, Tatar too is showing signs of old after only contributing 34 points with Detroit and Las Vegas last season. Shea Weber coming back is also huge for the defense, as he was forced out with injury for an extended period of time. Finally, Carey Price isn’t the goalie he once was, at least in the early going of this season. With a 10-8-4 record, it isn’t looking like another Vezina potential season for #31. All in all, They will not be able to keep up with the above four teams, even Buffalo. At most, with key players like Jesperi Kotkaniemi or Artturi Lehkonen picking up the pace, they will tie Buffalo in terms of points. But, Buffalo will have more ROW (overall wins) at the end.
Losing Erik Karlsson drew a massive hole in the heart of this team. The Return was substantial for the future, with four players that have been drafted and two more coming from the early rounds of the 2019 and 2020 NHL Draft. Chris Tierney, who came to Ottawa in the deal, has been the most notable with 20 points (3G 17A) this season. The Majority of the scoring is in the hands of four 28-year-olds, with Matt Duchene, Thomas Chabot, Mark Stone, and Tierney. The Senators have yet to be shut out so far this season but are just hanging on to just below .500 win percentage. Craig Anderson has been stable this season. At 37-years-old, he has started in 24 of Ottawa’s 28 games. This won’t hold up too much longer. Eventually, Ottawa needs to look into a valued backup with experience to take the reins from Anderson. Jaroslav Halak looks like a good candidate from Boston, and there are pieces that can be moved to help out Boston as well.
The Florida Panthers are still sitting at the bottom of the Atlantic with no hope in sight. Having allowed the 6th most goals in the NHL isn’t going to win you many hockey games. James Reimer and Roberto Luongo have split the workload this season, with Luongo being the better of the duo. At 5-3-0 with a shutout under his belt, Luongo is keeping Florida up from the bottom of the league. On the offensive side, there is plenty of potential with the first two lines, but that is where it dips. Jonathan Huberdeau, Evgeni Dadonov, Mike Hoffman, and Aleksander Barkov have been the top scorers with at least 26 points or more. Beyond that, only six more members of the team have registered 10 or more points. Behind shaky goaltending, the Florida Panthers need to invest in finding scoring help.
Detroit Red Wings
Finally, the Detroit Red Wings. Once upon a time, they went to 25 straight playoff appearances. But now, they are likely heading toward their fourth straight season, with making it past April. With the third oldest team in the league, their time of dominance is now met with the speculation of a rebuild. Dylan Larkin is the new face of the franchise, and he is rightfully so. With a pure bliss of speed and creativity, he leads the team in points with 26 (11G 15A). Andreas Athanasiou is another promising young name to lead the next generation of Red Wings back to the playoffs, he currently has 18 points in 25 games. The now 34-year-old Jimmy Howard is between the pipes in Detroit and has played remarkably well. With a 9-6-4 record, he has only allowed 2.77 goals per game and has saved .920 percent of the shots he has faced. It will be a race to the bottom for both Detroit and Florida, but at the current pace, Detroit will be last in the Atlantic. The essential pieces aren’t there and rebuilding this franchise may be the best move that they can make.
Standings Right Now (points)
Tampa Bay Lightning (45)
Toronto Maple Leafs (41)
Buffalo Sabres (38)
Montreal Canadiens (33)
Boston Bruins (32)
Detroit Red Wings (30)
Ottawa Senators (27)
Florida Panthers (27)
Standings At The End Of The Season
Toronto Maple Leafs (113)
Tampa Bay Lightning (110)
Boston Bruins (104)
Buffalo Sabres (98)
Montreal Canadiens (85)
Ottawa Senators (82)
Florida Panthers (77)
Detroit Red Wings (73)
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Main Credit Image: Embed from Getty Images