The regular season is set to begin in less than two weeks. A full 82-game schedule is expected for all teams and things are starting to ramp up into full gear across the league. With lots of changes happening for every team, which Atlantic division teams improved the most this offseason, which stayed the same, and which got worse?
After a year in which the divisional structure of the NHL’s teams was switched up, the NHL returns to normal 2021–22 season. This means the top heavy Atlantic division will be back together once again. The Atlantic will be a battle for top spot with numerous cup contending teams in the division.
Let’s take a look at each Atlantic division teams roster moves using Goals Above Replacement (GAR).
GAR value assesses a players value in terms of how many goals they contribute to their team above replacement. It is calculated using even strength offence, even strength defence, special teams contributions, as well as penalty differential. A replacement level player would have a GAR of zero. Consequently, anything above zero is an above replacement level player, and anything negative is a below replacement level player.
All GAR numbers are courtesy of the Evolving-Hockey.com model.
We’ll only be looking at moves involving NHL players who met the minimum requirements last season to have their GAR calculated.
2020–21 record: 33-16-7
Season finish: 3rd East Division, eliminated 2nd round (4-2 vs NY Islanders)
After a disappointing second round exit, the Boston Bruins lost potentially two core members in the offseason in a sign that the ever looming closure of their seemingly endless Stanley Cup window is closing in. The Bruins tinkered around the outside of their roster as they usually do, but suffered some significant losses that will be hard to replace.
As mentioned the biggest loss for the Bruins was one of their long-time core members in David Krejci. Despite him deciding to retire from the NHL and return Europe, Krejci was still very much among the best second line centres in the entire NHL. His 12.2 GAR ranked 16th league-wide among forwards last season. He’ll be a massive loss for the Bruins.
Unfortunately the team didn’t do much to replace Krejci. The Bruins instead signed four at or below replacement level forwards to replace the three they lost, Nick Ritchie, Sean Kuraly and Steven Kampfer. Of the players added, Nick Foligno has the most potential to bounce back playing a middle-six role for the Bruins, but at age 33 his best days are far behind him. Erik Haula, Tomas Nosek and Steven Fogarty won’t bring much to the table and will be huge downgrades at centre compared to Krejci.
On defence, the Bruins saw Jeremy Lauzon claimed in expansion, Kevan Miller retire, and Jared Tinordi leave in free agency. The only major loss of the three was Lauzon who is still just 24 years old and had a decent season with the Bruins last year.
That said the Bruins did a great job at replacing Lauzon, bringing in the veteran Derek Forbort. Forbort has been great defensively that last couple years and will provide the Bruins with a steady veteran presence in their top-four. At just $3 million AAV it was a nice get for a Bruins team in win-now mode.
In net the Bruins had a big changing of the guard, as long time starter Tuukka Rask was not re-signed as he currently debates retirement. The Bruins also let Jaroslav Halak go in free agency, while trading Daniel Vladar. Incoming is the underrated Linus Ullmark. Ullmark’s 10.1 GAR ranked 21st among goalies last season, and on a much better team than last year his results should only get better. Along with Jeremy Swayman the Bruins are in good hands following the Rask era.
The Bruins didn’t do much of anything in the offseason, particularly at forward after losing one of their best players in Krejci. However they still possess one of the deeper teams in the division and will certainly be right in the mix for a divisional playoff spot.
2020–21 record: 15-34-7
Season finish: 8th East Division, missed playoffs
After a miserable season in which they came dead last in the NHL, the Buffalo Sabres got considerably worse in the offseason and look primed to repeat as the NHL’s worst team. They couldn’t even manage to do the one thing they needed to do in the offseason which was trade Jack Eichel. The Sabres total GAR change of -23.4 was worst in the Atlantic division and they’ll be nearly impossible to catch in the race for last in the division.
The Sabres followed up their disastrous season by starting yet another rebuild, shipping out several key roster players for future assets. Jack Eichel hasn’t been traded just yet, but it’s a guarantee he will never play a game for the Sabres again, especially after being stripped of his captaincy.
Despite suffering from terrible luck, a serious injury, and playing on the terrible Sabres, he still managed a solid 5.3 GAR, good for second on the team. Make no mistake, Eichel is among the best players in the NHL. His cumulative GAR of 41 between 2017 and 2020 ranked 18th league wide among forwards.
The Sabres also shipped out their second best forward in Sam Reinhart for a first-round pick and Devon Levi. Reinhart’s 7.5 GAR was first on the Sabres last season as he carried their offence with Eichel out last season.
The only replacements the Sabres picked up for their two best forwards were Vinnie Hinostroza and Ryan Macinnis. Hinostroza is a solid depth piece, but Macinnis was far below replacement last year. Both are obviously massive downgrades from Eichel and Reinhart.
On defence, the Sabres suffered another big loss. The team let their best overall defenceman leave in Jake McCabe and replaced him with two replacement level players in Mark Pysyk and Will Butcher. The Sabres did make one great move on defence though, shipping out the dreadful Rasmus Ristolainen to Philadelphia for draft picks and Robert Hagg. Hagg is well below replacement, but he was still better than Ristolainen last season.
In net the Sabres also got much worse as they let the underrated Linus Ullmark go in free agency, and replaced him with Aaron Dell. Ullmark’s 10.1 GAR ranked 21st last season, while Dell’s -6.6 GAR ranked 83rd. At the very least bringing in Craig Anderson for Carter Hutton was an upgrade.
The Sabres were the worst team in the NHL last season, and managed to get much worse in the offseason. They’ll go into the 2021–22 season as the favourites to draft Shane Wright next June.
Detroit Red Wings
2020–21 record: 19-27-10
Season finish: 7th Central Division, missed playoffs
It was an offseason of starting fresh for the Detroit Red Wings, as they continued to offload remaining players from the past as they continue their patient and long term rebuild. The Red Wings will continue to be among the worst teams in the NHL, but they made some great moves in the offseason which could signify that the end to their rebuild is nearing.
The Red Wings did a great job offloading some dead weight this offseason, shedding some cap space in the process. The team let Darren Helm, Luke Glendening, Evgeny Svechknikov, Valtteri Filppula and Mathias Brome all walk in free agency.
Filppula, Glendening, and Helm were still useable fourth liners, but at this point in their rebuild the Red Wings aren’t looking to keep around aging veterans. The team also bought out Frans Nielsen, who like Filppula and Glendening would just be taking a roster spot from a younger player.
In their place the Red Wings went out and signed Pius Suter, who had a great rookie season with the Blackhawks last year. For whatever reason Chicago didn’t want to bring him back, and the Red Wings took advantage as he’ll be a perfect fit with their young core. Mitchell Stephens is nothing more than a depth piece and I wouldn’t expect much from him, but Carter Rowney is a good penalty kill option and will be a decent fourth line centre for the team.
On defence the Red Wings lucked out as Settle inexplicably selected Dennis Cholowski. Cholowski has been well below replacement for his entire career and isn’t an NHL player. Alex Biega meanwhile is right around replacement and not a big loss.
In their place the team traded Richard Panik and a second-round pick for Nick Leddy. Leddy had some solid results last season, but was right at or below replacement the four seasons prior. The Red Wings are hoping he can continue his form from the 2020–21 season, but it’s more likely his play goes the opposite direction. The team also signed Jordan Oesterle who should be a good depth option for the team, and an upgrade on both Cholowsi and Biega.
In net the Red Wings made arguably the best deal of the offseason by getting Calder nominee Alex Nedeljkovic from the Hurricanes for Jonathan Bernier and a third-round pick. The Red Wings absolutely fleeced the Hurricanes in this trade as they added a 25-year-old number one goalie for just a third-round pick as Bernier was bound to leave Detroit in free agency anyways.
The Red Wings rebuild isn’t over just yet, however they did a great job this offseason of flushing out some remnants from the Ken Holland era while also adding some strong young pieces. The Red Wings won’t challenge for a playoff spot this season, but Steve Yzerman once again showed everyone why he’s among the best general managers in the NHL this offseason.
2020–21 record: 37-14-5
Season finish: 2nd Central Division, eliminated 1st round (4-1 vs Tampa Bay Lightning)
One of the league’s most surprising teams from the 2020–21 season, the Panthers chose quality over quantity in the offseason as they stack up for what could finally be a long playoff run for the team. They’ll be among one of the most exciting teams to watch in the NHL in 2021–22 after adding yet another supremely talented forward in the offseason.
The Panthers had a very quiet offseason, only bringing in two forwards and no defencemen. At forward the team lost Alexander Wennberg and Nikita Gusev to free agency. Wennberg is a decent middle-six centre, but at his $4.5 million AAV the Panthers were right to let someone else overpay him for his services. Gusev meanwhile was terrible last season, finishing third last for GAR among forwards league-wide in 2020–21.
In terms of additions the Panthers made one of the better trades of the offseason by acquiring Reinhart from the Buffalo Sabres for a first-round pick and goaltending prospect Levi. Levi is a solid prospect, but the Panthers have Spencer Knight as their goalie of the future so moving Levi to acquire a player like Reinhart was some great work by the Panthers.
Reinhart will immediately become the Panthers’ second best option on the wing behind Jonathan Huberdeau, and should be set for a huge year playing alongside the stacked Panthers top-six. The team also added some extra depth in the way of Joe Thornton. Thornton doesn’t have much left in the tank, but he’s still a reliable fourth line centre who can take key draws and play on the power play. At just $750,000 AAV you can’t go wrong.
On defence the team bought out Keith Yandle and traded Anton Stralman to the Coyotes for cap relief. Neither player was above replacement last season they won’t be major losses for the Panthers. In net the team lost their best goalie from last season, Chris Driedger in the expansion draft.
Driedger’s 16.2 GAR ranked 10th among goalies last season and he’ll be a huge loss. The Panthers are hoping top prospect Knight can fill in for him, but it’s far from a guarantee. If Knight struggles in his first full season the Panthers may be in trouble between the pipes.
The Panthers look like a real Stanley Cup contender for the 2021–22 season. After picking up Reinhart they’ve got one of the best forwards groups in the Atlantic and will be right in the mix for top spot in the division.
2020–21 record: 24-21-11
Season finish: 4th North Division, eliminated Stanley Cup Final (4-1 vs Tampa Bay Lightning)
After a cinderella run to the Stanley Cup final last season, the Montreal Canadiens could be in tough to even make the playoff this year as they find themselves back in a stacked Atlantic division. The team took some significant hits in the offseason, but did their best to stay afloat by bringing in some solid replacements.
The Canadiens saw some major turnover at forward as they lost two parts of their regular season top line in Phillip Danault and Tomas Tatar. Danault is one of the best shutdown centres in the NHL and was crucial for the Canadiens in their deep playoff run. His 4.7 GAR was fifth among Canadiens forwards last year.
Tatar meanwhile never got the respect he deserved in Montreal last season. Despite being a dominate even strength player, Tatar spent most of the playoffs in the press box for some reason. His 7.8 GAR was third among Canadiens forwards last season and he’ll be a big loss for Montreal.
The team also lost Corey Perry in free agency and Jesperi Kotkaniemi to an offer-sheet. Perry is still a reliable bottom-six option but not a huge loss. Kotkaniemi meanwhile was handed a $6 million AAV by Carolina and the Canadiens did the right thing by not matching it as he is worth nowhere near that much.
After losing Kotkaniemi, they then flipped some of the draft picks acquired from Carolina to get Christan Dvorak from the Coyotes. Dvorak struggled last year with a -2.1 GAR, but in 2019–20 he posted a Coyotes best 11.6 GAR. Odds are he’s something right in between those two seasons. He’ll be a good second line centre option in Montreal, although the high price to acquire him reeked of desperation.
Montreal also went out and added Mike Hoffman and Mathieu Perreault in free agency to help replace Tatar and Danault. Hoffman is among the best finishers in the NHL, but his overall game is lacking compared to Tatar. At the exact same cap hit of $4.5 million AAV, Montreal would’ve been better off just bringing back Tatar.
Perrault meanwhile as a great add, as he has flown under radar in Winnipeg in recent years but is a very strong even strength centre and will be a perfect fit in the Canadiens bottom-six.
On defence the big loss for the Canadiens was obviously their captain Shea Weber, as he’s reportedly debating retirement due to some serious nagging injuries. He’s not the player he once was, but he’ll still be missed in Montreal. In his place Montreal went out and signed David Savard to a four year $3.5 million AAV deal. Savard’s offensive impacts are dreadful which bring his GAR way down, but he’s still decent defensively. That said he’s a big downgrade compared to Weber.
The team also added two more below replacement level defencemen in Chris Wideman and Sami Niku. Wideman hasn’t played in the NHL in two years and Niku has been below replacement his entire career. Neither should be expected to contribute much.
The Canadiens went on a miracle run last year, but they’ll be in tough to do the same in 2021–22 in the leagues best division. They did a good job at replacing their losses, but they’re probably still a worse team than last year. Given the depth in the Atlantic division, the Canadiens will most likely be battling for a wild card spot this season.
2020–21 record: 23-28-5
Season finish: 6th North Division, missed playoffs
The Ottawa Senators had a relatively quiet offseason apart from adding a couple dependable veterans to surround their young core. Despite what their general manager says, the rebuild is far from over for the Senators as they stand very little chance at claiming a playoff spot in the Atlantic division in 2021–22.
The Senators didn’t any major changes to their roster, preferring to switch out some of their veteran depth pieces. At forward to teams biggest loss was Evgeny Dadanov who was shipped to Vegas for depth defenceman Nick Holden and a third-round pick. Other than that the Senators only saw Derek Stepan, and Ryan Dzingel leave, both of whom were below replacement last season.
In their place the Senators traded prospect Logan Brown for Zach Sanford. Sanford is a reliable bottom-six winger and is a big upgrade over both Stepan and Dzingel. He’ll provide the Senators with some more size and experience in their lineup.
On the backend the Senators brought in Holden as mentioned, while also signing veteran Michael Del Zotto. Del Zotto may not be as good as his 6.2 GAR from 2020–21 shows, but he’s been above replacement for six of the past seven seasons and is a good add to a very thing Senators blue line.
In net the Senators used a staggering five different goalies last season so shedding a couple in the offseason was inevitable. Marcus Hogberg was among the worst goalies in the NHL last year so the Senators made the right call to make him the odd man out. The team also lost Joey Daccord in expansion, although he’s right around replacement level and not a big loss.
The Senators are one of the weaker teams in the NHL, and they didn’t do anything major in the offseason to change that. That said they certainly won’t be the pushovers that some of the league’s other bottom teams are, just don’t expect them to challenge for a playoff spot just yet.
Tampa Bay Lightning
2020–21 record: 36-17-3
Season finish: 3rd Central Division, won Stanley Cup (4-1 vs Montreal Canadiens)
Fresh off their second straight Stanley Cup win, the Tampa Bay Lightning will be looking to become the first team since the 1982 New York Islanders to win three straight Stanley Cups. It won’t come easy though as they could only outrun their cap issues for so long and suffered some significant losses in the offseason. That said they’ll once again be one of the best teams in the division.
As expected, the Lightning the suffered the worst losses at forward of any team in the Atlantic division, losing their entire third line from 2020–21. That may not seem like a huge loss but Tampa Bay’s third line was probably the best third line in the NHL last season. Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow priced themselves out of Tampa Bay, while Yanni Gourde was picked up by Seattle in the expansion draft.
Tampa Bay also lost Tyler Johnson, who the team had been trying to get rid of for over a year due to his big $5 million AAV. He’s obviously not worth that big cap hit, but he’s still a decent bottom-six option and will be missed in Tampa Bay. All said the team lost their second, fifth, eighth, and ninth ranked forwards for GAR in 2020–21.
Due to their cap constraints they weren’t able to replace them with much either as the team only signed two veteran depth forwards in Perry and Pierre-Eduouard Bellemare. Perry had a great playoff run for the Canadiens, and is still a capable bottom-six winger. Bellemare meanwhile is strictly a fourth line centre and not much more. Both are big downgrades over Coleman and Gourde.
On defence the team made the right call not to resign Savard, who’s -6.6 GAR ranked fourth worst among all defenceman last season. In his place the team brought back the much cheaper veteran option in Zach Bogosian, who spent the 2019–20 season in Tampa Bay. Bogosian will be a decent bottom pair option, but nothing more.
In net the team swapped out one terrible goalie for another. Curtis McElhinney retired in the offseason as the team went out and got Brian Elliot to take his spot. Elliot and McElhinney finished second and third last among eligible goalies for GAR last season, so all said an even swap. With the best goalie in the world in Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa doesn’t need much from their backup, but if he were to go down with an injury they’d be in big trouble between the pipes.
As everyone expected the Lightning suffered some significant losses in the offseason due to their incredibly tight cap situation. They added some decent depth pieces, but not enough to make up for their losses. Tampa won’t be as good as they were last season, but they’ll still be among the best teams in the division and a contender for the top seed.
Toronto Maple Leafs
2020-21 record: 35-14-7
Season finish: 1st North Division, eliminated 1st round (4-3 vs Montreal Canadiens)
Coming off yet another crushing first round exit, the Toronto Maple Leafs decided to keep their core intact this offseason for another run. The team went out and signed some sneaky good depth pieces and should once again be one of the deepest teams in the division, although we’ve heard that story before.
The only major loss for the Leafs in the offseason was Zach Hyman, who the team simply couldn’t afford to keep around. Hyman has been a mainstay in the Leafs top-six alongside Auston Matthews and his loss will certainly be felt. His 8.3 GAR was third among Leafs forwards behind only Matthews and Mitch Marner.
Apart from Hyman the Maple Leafs didn’t suffer any major losses as Thornton, Alex Galchenyuk, Nic Petan, and the recently acquired Nick Foligno were at or below replacement last season and can be easily replaced.
The Maple Leafs did a great job replacing them too, bringing in some sneaky good players like Ondrej Kase and Michael Bunting. Both Kase and Bunting are solid third liners who are improvements over the players leaving, apart from Hyman. David Kampf meanwhile is not very good and the Maple Leafs would be better off sticking him in the AHL.
On defence the team lost just Zach Bogosian and Ben Hutton, two bottom pairing defencemen. Hutton in particular was brutal last season and any team is better off without. In net the Leafs decided to let go of long time starter Frederik Andersen, replacing him with Petr Mrazek. Andersen could still rediscover his form next season, but Mrazek seems like a safe bet to be the better goaltender in 2021–22 and will form a great duo with Jack Campbell.
The Maple Leafs only suffered one major loss in the offseason, and are primed to once again battle for the top spot in their division. With some new solid depth pieces on the roster, the Maple Leafs will be among the deepest teams in the entire NHL. Expect them to be one of the favourites for top spot in the Atlantic division.
A top heavy division
The Atlantic division is without question the most top heavy division in the NHL, containing at least four real Stanley Cup contenders. However on the other end of the spectrum they also possess a complete lack of depth in the division similar to the Pacific division, as three of the divisions teams are expected to be near the very bottom of the NHL standings.
The race to claim the three divisional playoff spots will be fierce, with four teams having a real shot at winning the division. Those same four teams should be playoff locks and among the best teams in the league in 2021–22.
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