It's never too early to take stock of where teams stand in the NHL. The 2019 NHL Draft has passed, and many of the big names in free agency have found a home for this season, so this is as good a time as any to look at the balance of power in the Atlantic Division. We asked nine NHL.com staff writers for their opinions on which team will be the best in the division this season.
Here are their thoughts:
William Douglas, staff writer
Tampa Bay Lightning: They just have too much of everything not to repeat as Atlantic Division champions. You can't argue against a team with right wing Nikita Kucherov (128 points; 41 goals, 87 assists), voted the Hart Trophy winner as NHL MVP, and Andrei Vasilevskiy (39-10-4, 2.40 GAA, .925 save percentage), voted the Vezina Trophy winner as the best goalie in the NHL. Did I mention center Steven Stamkos, who was ninth in the NHL last season with 98 points (45 goals, 53 assists)? And the offense could be even better if right wing Mathieu Joseph builds on a respectable rookie season when he had 26 points (13 goals, 13 assists) in 70 games in a supporting role. The Lightning are still solid at defenseman with Victor Hedman, a finalist for the Norris Trophy, awarded to the best defenseman in the NHL. This will be a dangerous team looking to rebound from being swept by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the Eastern Conference First Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs after racking up 128 points in the regular season.
Video: Top 10 plays of 2018-19: Kucherov
Tom Gulitti, staff writer
Boston Bruins: Though the Lightning ran away with the Atlantic Division and the Presidents' Trophy last season with 128 points -- 21 more than the Bruins -- Boston proved to be the best team in the Eastern Conference in the playoffs by reaching the Stanley Cup Final before losing to the St. Louis Blues in seven games. Expect Tampa Bay to take a step back during the regular season while refocusing and dealing with the disappointment of being swept by Columbus. But the Bruins will continue to build on what they've established in combining for 219 points the past two seasons, the second most in the NHL behind the Lightning's 241. With depth at forward headed by Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak, strong defensemen that include Charlie McAvoy, Brandon Carlo, Torey Krug and Zdeno Chara, and Tuukka Rask's goaltending, the Bruins remain one of the elite teams in the NHL.
Video: Top 10 plays of 2018-19: Marchand
Pete Jensen, senior fantasy editor
Florida Panthers: Their long-awaited breakout season is finally here. The additions of Joel Quenneville as coach and Sergei Bobrovsky as workhorse goalie were the missing pieces to the puzzle. After the Lightning took the NHL by storm last season, they just might finish second in their own state (and the Atlantic Division). Quenneville will demand more defensively, especially from defenseman Aaron Ekblad, and the Panthers can carry over their power-play success (they were second in the NHL at 26.8 percent last season) to even strength with a healthy Vincent Trocheck (the center was limited to 55 games last season). With one of the most potent forward groups in the NHL and a strong prospect pool, Florida has a chance to create a winning culture for years to come. How far the Panthers go in the playoffs will be determined, but no one should be shocked if they not only make the postseason, but also win the loaded Atlantic.
Video: FLA@ANA: Huberdeau sets up Ekblad on the doorstep
Adam Kimelman, deputy managing editor
Lightning: The team that won the Presidents' Trophy and returns every key player is the one that will win the Atlantic for a third straight season. They have Vasilevskiy and two Norris candidates, Hedman and Ryan McDonagh, who had an NHL career-high 46 points (nine goals, 37 assists) and a plus-38 rating that was second in the NHL to Calgary Flames defenseman Mark Giordano (plus-39) despite starting just 46.83 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone. At forward, the Lightning had three of the seven players in the NHL with at least 40 goals and 90 points: Kucherov, Brayden Point and Stamkos. They help make up a top nine that is the envy of the rest of the League. The question isn't whether the Lightning will win the division again, it's how many points they will win it by.
Mike G. Morreale, staff writer
Lightning: Given how easily the Lightning won the Atlantic last season, even the slightest regression won't really matter. Tampa Bay enters this season on a mission, and the players and coaches will be focused and determined to get it right. They're relentless when at their best, and the key pieces remain for another big run with Vasilevskiy, Kucherov, Stamkos, Point and Hedman each ready to do his part. There's also a chance defenseman Callan Foote and forward Carter Verhaeghe earn significant roles as rookies. Verhaeghe led the American Hockey League with 82 points (34 goals, 48 assists) for Syracuse last season. The Lightning will find a way to repeat as division champions because they are young, ridiculously skilled, and even more battle-tested.
Rob Reese, fantasy editor
Toronto Maple Leafs: How can a team that has two of the best centers in the NHL (Auston Matthews, John Tavares), a goalie who finished top four in wins in each of the past two seasons (Frederik Andersen), and now a highly coveted right-shot defenseman (Tyson Barrie) be overlooked? Not to mention right wing Mitchell Marner, who finished 11th in the NHL with 94 points (26 goals, 68 assists) last season. Barrie, who had 55 power-play points (nine goals, 46 assists) the past two seasons for the Colorado Avalanche, could be the missing piece that gives Toronto a top-five unit. With a deep forward group, changes to their defensemen and one of the best goalies in the NHL, the Maple Leafs will be atop the division at the end of the season.
Video: Auston Matthews lands at No. 6 on the list
Dan Rosen, senior writer
Lightning: To suggest the Lightning won't win the division is to suggest they got significantly worse this offseason. They didn't. The core is still intact, meaning the Lightning are still the deepest team from front to back. Anton Stralman left, but Kevin Shattenkirk signed. That's a fair righty-for-righty swap at defenseman. J.T. Miller was traded, but that means Joseph gets a bigger opportunity. Find me a better 1-2-3 down the middle than Stamkos, Point and Anthony Cirelli. You can't. The Lightning won't win 62 games again or get 128 points. Those are fairy-tale numbers. Fifty wins and 110 points will be enough to win the division. Those are walk-in-the-park numbers for a team this talented.
Dave Stubbs, columnist
Lightning: This team has everything to prove after its season for the ages went over a cliff in four stunning playoff games. Management, coaches and players have had a very, very long offseason to remember (or try to forget) the inglorious end. Tampa Bay wasn't the team it was last season by accident. The bitterness of defeat can be a stronger motivator than the sweet taste of victory, and though the Lightning might not run away from the rest of the NHL this season, they're more than good enough to dominate their division.
Mike Zeisberger, staff writer
Lightning: Five esteemed colleagues each make a case for the Lightning, and so do I. But we're not the only ones who feel that way. In an informal poll of 10 NHL players conducted at the European Player Media Tour in Stockholm on Thursday, seven picked the Lightning as the favorites to win the Stanley Cup, let alone win the Atlantic. Their reasoning usually came down to the presence of Vasilevskiy, Hedman, Kucherov, Stamkos and Point. Sure, Tampa Bay has experienced shortcomings in the playoffs recently, but that hasn't swayed the respect shown the Lightning by the opposition. When I informed Hedman of the survey results, he said, "That's nice to hear. We think we still have a very good team." I couldn't agree more.
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