The Atlantic division has been pretty easy to predict the last couple of years. Yes there have been teams that were surprisingly more competitive than they should have been at times, but for the most part most hockey fans knew the three teams that would be competing in the Stanley Cup playoffs, Boston, Tampa Bay, and Toronto. Those 3 teams have been the cream of the crop in the Atlantic, however, with no certainty of the 2019-2020 season resuming, let’s take a look at what possible issues the future will hold for them. These Atlantic concerns rankings are based off what I personally believe is the team’s current goal.
You might honestly look at the Bruins’ last couple of years and think to yourself “they were good, but not entirely impressive.” If you just want to look at Atlantic division titles, considering they’ve only won three in the past decade, you’d be right. However, when you dive deeper into the last couple of years, Boston has been one of the more successful teams in the entire league.
They won the Stanley Cup in 2011, and have been to two more Finals since. They’ve qualified for the playoffs in 8 of the last 10 years, and were on pace to win the President’s trophy this season. They haven’t had a season with fewer than 95 points since the 2012-13 season. That season was a lockout shortened season by the way, which they still won the division. So you may ask “what possible issues can the Bruins face going forward?”. While there may not be many, there are a possible few.
The team Nucleus of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, and Tuuka Rask are all in their 30’s. Their captain, Zdeno Chara, is 43 years old. Obviously with today’s technology and workout regimens, these guys can still muster up a few more years of elite level hockey. However, the time to win for Boston is right now. I understand David Pastrnak is only 23, and the Bruins have other youngsters like Jake DeBrusk, Charlie McAvoy, and Nick Ritchie on the roster. However, the future holds no promises for how these guys will perform or what kind of money they will ask for.
Potential Cap Trouble
Pastrnak has become one of the game’s most elite players. When his contract ends, he can be looking for something northwards of 11+ Million dollars. Large contracts can also be accumulated between the other youngsters. Depending on how long the vets intend to stick around, we’ll be wondering how the Bruins’ cap structure will look in a few years. Chara will be retiring within the next 2 years, so the captaincy will also be a question mark going forward.
At the end of the day, the Boston Bruins have shown they are the kind of organization that can work around these problems and continue to have success. I personally think they will be fine, but I see a good amount concern level for them moving forward.
I personally say the Bruins’ level of concern is 7/10.
Tampa Bay Lightning
Much like Boston, Tampa Bay’s dominance hasn’t been projected in division titles over the last few years, but rather playoff appearances and series wins. In the last decade, they’ve had 6 playoff appearances, two Atlantic division titles, and reached the Stanley Cup Final in 2015. Last season they played in record-setting fashion, capturing the franchise’s first President’s trophy. They’ve had a ton of phenomenal players such as Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov over the past couple of years. That has been coupled with Norris-caliber defense from Victor Hedman, and Vezina-style goaltending from Andrei Vasilevskiy.
Must “Win Now”
The problem with all these accolades and achievements? It hasn’t resulted in the ultimate feat, a Stanley Cup Championship. As i mentioned before, they were able to get to the final in 2015 before being defeated by the Blackhawks. They even reached the conference finals the following year, but the ultimate goal hasn’t been achieved. With all the talent and promise Tampa Bay has had over the years, this is the starting point for where their concerns arise.
I personally believe this current season is (was?) the last chance for this Lightning group to get the job done. After a more than heart-breaking first round sweep in last year’s playoffs, Tampa Bay struggled to start this season. Since the all-star break, however, the team has had more success and catapulted into the Atlantic’s second seed. I believe this was their year for redemption and to finally the get monkey off their backs. If this season were not to resume, I believe the Lightning’s Cup chances will drastically decrease.
Like the Bruins, their leader in Stamkos isn’t getting any younger, and has dealt with a couple of gruesome injuries the past couple of years. He had endured one shortly before the season was put on hold in March. Although they got a steal with Brayden Point’s contract last summer, they still have concerns regarding their cap as well. The Lightning have just over $8 Million in cap room, with about 4 UFA’s this coming offseason. 3 are defensemen, and the lone forward is Pat Maroon. With reports the NHL’s cap may stand put as a result of the season’s pause, this can leave Tampa with some serious questions heading into the future.
Atlantic Concern level: I personally say the Lightning’s live of concern is 9/10
Toronto Maple Leafs
Judging the Toronto Maple Leafs is like trying to solve a rubix cube… it’s kinda hard. For a team that’s had several bad and/or underwhelming seasons over the past two decades, it’s almost strange to consider them one of the teams we expect to regularly make the playoffs now. Since they drafted Auston Matthews with the 1st overall pick in 2016, including the success of Mitch Marner and William Nylander along the way, the Leafs have been one of the league’s most exciting young teams to watch.
They’ve added themselves into the playoff contention bracket within the Atlantic, and with two years of over-achieving playoff runs, a legitimate star in John Tavares actually decided to come home and play for the Leafs, after years of stars rejecting the chance to play here. This propelled the Leafs into legitimate yearly playoff contenders.
Unfortunately, John Tavares turned out not to be enough, as the Leafs lost in the first round to the Boston Bruins in 7 games for the second straight year. Lots of blame was put on now-former head coach Mike Babcock for his stubbornness to adjust lines or his stars’ minutes, but I believe the Leafs’ problems and causes for concern run deeper.
Let’s start off with the obvious. The Leafs have little to no cap room. As of April 30, 2020, the Leafs have an overall cap of $0 according to Cap Friendly. After the team extended Matthews’ contract to 5-years/$11.6 Million, Marner held out this past offseason for comparable value. He ended up with a 6-year/$10.8 Million dollar extension himself. This pushes the Leafs’ cap room tight considering they also have John Tavares’ $11 million on their books.
Kyle Dubas, who fulfilled his “we can and we will” promise to sign his young core to contract entensions, has tried almost anything and everything to maneuver around his club’s restricted cap space. Somehow he extended Jake Muzzin during the current season, and pulled off a trade with the Kings, acquiring Jack Campbell and Kyle Clifford. Getting Campbell was a glaring need for the Leafs’ backup goalie position, but it didn’t address the Leafs’ next big concern… their defensive core.
Most fans out there know the Leafs are stacked on offence. What really did them in the last two postseasons was poor performance from their defence. Morgan Reilly is no doubt a very good defence man, but the rest of their D core isn’t as solid. Dubas was able to pick up Tyson Barrie in a trade last offseason, but he’s had a pretty underwhelming season to say the least. He is a UFA this summer, and it will be very hard for the Leafs to retain his service.
This leaves them with Jake Muzzin, Travis Dermott, Cody Ceci, Martin Marincin, and Justin Holl as their remaining D. Other than Ceci, those players were all apart of the defensive core that let them down just last year against Boston. It is going to be quite an interesting and tough summer for Dubas to find quality additions on the back end with little cap left.
The point I am making is with all of this is that the Leafs unexpectedly and rapidly increased their level of concern with quite the rapid rebuild. Whether you believe this team is good enough to win a Stanley Cup is debatable. However, it’s quite agreeable that they are good enough to compete and do some damage in the playoffs. Considering their core is young but the expectation to win had increased, and that their restricted cap partially affects their ability to add pieces.
Atlantic Concern ranking: I personally say the Leafs’ level of concern is about 5/10.
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