Sabres, Sens may shake up Atlantic pecking order long dominated by Bruins, Lightning
There is disappointment in Boston, where Bruins general manager Don Sweeney mentions the lingering scar tissue in the wake of the President’s Trophy winner’s early playoff collapse.
And there is concern in Tampa Bay, where the Lightning will open the season minus goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, and with captain Steven Stamkos having difficulty recognizing what’s left of a roster that won consecutive Stanley Cups in 2020 and ’21.
On the flip side, in the Atlantic Division’s long-starved playoff markets of Buffalo, Ottawa and Detroit, things are suddenly looking up.
“I believe that we’re talented and now it’s time,” Sabres GM Kevyn Adams declared. “I think our window’s open.”
Sitting at the bottom and looking up, Montreal Canadiens general manager Kent Hughes has a unique perspective of what he anticipates to be a long-awaited shakeup coming to the Atlantic standings.
“I think it’s the nature of pro hockey today with the cap. I think there’s an evolution. And I think it’s hard to stay great for decades,” Hughes told The Associated Press. “Buffalo has a lot of really good young talent. Ottawa’s coming. Detroit’s coming. And hopefully, we’ll fit in there somewhere.”
A reckoning might finally be on the horizon for a division that has long been dominated by Toronto, Boston and Tampa Bay. It's the result of teams showing signs of age and a flat NHL salary cap that’s nudged up just $2 million since 2019-20.
In Toronto, the Maple Leafs remain the constant despite a front-office shakeup that led to GM Kyle Dubas being fired and replaced by Brad Treliving. The Leafs maintained their talented core of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and John Tavares that’s proven capable of dominating the regular season.
The cap, meantime, has benefitted Buffalo, Ottawa and Detroit by allowing each team to patiently spend the past few seasons developing their young rosters, which are showing signs of blossoming.
And don’t forget the Panthers, a team that overcame an injury-riddled regular season to clinch the Eastern Conference’s eighth and final playoff spot. They then surged to the Stanley Cup Final by knocking off Boston, Toronto and Carolina, before losing to Vegas. Panthers GM Bill Zito hopes his team’s run, which began as a playoff push in January, can carry over.
“It became human nature: ‘We have to win, we have to get to the playoffs.’ And it started so early that I really do think that it helped,” Zito said. “Yeah, this season’s going to be daunting. I mean, there’s a lot of good teams.”
ON THE RISE
The Sabres seem poised to finally emerge as contenders and end an NHL-worst 12-year playoff drought.
“I know it’s taken a lot longer than our fans would have liked and our organization would have liked but I think we’re right there,” captain Kyle Okposo said. "We’re excited about where we’re going and we’re embracing it.”
Buffalo announced its pending arrival a year ago when the NHL’s third-best scoring team — and sixth-worst defensive team — finished two points out of playoff contention.
The Senators weren’t far behind, and spent the offseason shoring up their goaltending by signing Joonas Korpisalo to a five-year contract, and adding offensive depth with the addition of Vladimir Tarasenko.
In Detroit, GM Steve Yzerman continued tinkering with his lineup with the additions of forwards Alex DeBrincat and J.T. Compher and defenseman Jeff Petry to a team that finished below expectations a year ago.
ON THE DECLINE?
The Bruins, who set NHL records for wins and points, can be counted among those good teams, even though the memories of their first-round playoff collapse haven’t entirely faded.
“There’s disappointment. It’s not going to go away. There’s scar tissue there,” Sweeney told The AP. “We did a mindset of looking in the windshield as opposed to the rearview mirror, accept that we fell woefully short of what we wanted to accomplish, and it restarts.”
It restarts, however, minus Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci, who both retired, and the cap-strapped team trading away veteran forwards Taylor Hall and Nick Foligno, and defenseman Connor Clifton.
The Lightning are not only dealing with Vasilevskiy set to miss at least the first month of the season after having back surgery, they continued losing key contributors with Alex Killorn’s departure in free agency and Pat Maroon traded to Minnesota.
“It’s tough. You lose some really good players, not only really good players, but really good people,” said Stamkos, who isn’t sure if he’s part of the franchise’s plans beyond this season. “It’s a motivated group. It’s a group that has some younger guys that are going to come in and play a bigger role, obviously.”
ON THE HOT SEAT
The arrival of new ownership in Ottawa coupled with a team that's been retooling since last making the playoffs in 2017, places an emphasis on Senators coach D.J. Smith and GM Pierre Dorion to make a strong first impression.
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: Toronto, Buffalo, Boston, Ottawa, Florida, Tampa Bay, Detroit, Montreal.
AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno and AP Sports Writers Fred Goodall and Tim Reynolds contributed.
AP NHL: https://apnews.com/hub/nhl