'Most excited I've been': NHL's Atlantic Division heavyweights now have company

Auston Matthews saw it as only a matter of time.

The NHL's Atlantic Division has largely included two distinct classes — to varying degrees — over the last number of years.

A top half led by the two-time Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning, followed by the Boston Bruins, who were finalists in 2019, the 2022 Presidents' Trophy-winning Florida Panthers, and Matthews' talent-rich, but chronically underachieving Toronto Maple Leafs.

And the rest — teams at various stages of what have been, in some cases, long and painful rebuilds.

The Ottawa Senators, Buffalo Sabres and Detroit Red Wings haven't been competitive for quite some time.

That could finally change in 2022-23.

"The division obviously got better," Matthews said at the recent NHL/NHLPA player media tour. "Some of the teams that maybe weren't as strong in the standings before have added a lot of guys.

"They're drafting higher, got some really good picks."

Ottawa grabbed the biggest summer headlines by adding sniper Alex DeBrincat, veteran forward Claude Giroux and goaltender Cam Talbot to complement a maturing core that includes Brady Tkachuk, Thomas Chabot, Tim Stutzle, Josh Norris and Drake Batherson.

The Senators haven't been close to the playoffs since making it to double overtime in Game 7 of the 2017 Eastern Conference final, but appear poised to finally step up in class alongside the Atlantic's big hitters.

"Toughest division," said Tkachuk, Ottawa's captain. "As a team, organization we want that challenge and prove the doubters wrong. It's gonna be a fun, exciting year.

"It's the most excited I've been."

The Buffalo Sabres, meanwhile, have missed the playoffs an NHL-record 11 consecutive seasons. After making strides in 2021-22, they're eager to take another step with Rasmus Dahlin, Tage Thompson and 2021 first overall pick Owen Power.

"We're fully aware of that, but we're also a team that will get better," Dahlin, the top pick in 2018, said of improvements across the Atlantic. "It's just fun that we have really competitive division. Life is not fair all the time, and it's not easy, but we've just got to deal with it.

"We're a team that can beat everyone."

Detroit will feel the same after their youngsters made big strides last season — a sixth straight without playoff hockey — including Moritz Seider, who won the Calder Trophy as the league's top rookie, and Lucas Raymond. The Red Wings also switched up their goaltending by acquiring Ville Husso.

"Our division was one of the toughest for the last few years," Tampa Bay netminder Andrei Vasilevskiy said. "It's gonna be even tougher now."

"Is it good to see?" Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly added. "No, but it makes that hockey, that important hockey, that much more intense, that much more competitive."

And there's the Montreal Canadiens, who are at a different stage of development as their rebuild continues after securing the No. 1 pick at July's draft — two years removed from an improbable run to the final in the NHL's pandemic-shortened 2020-21 campaign.

"It's always strong," Canadiens captain Nick Suzuki said of the division. "Seems like ever since I was a kid all these teams are always good. Obviously, there's teams in different positions.

"We have a lot of talent on the roster."

The NHL's post-season format sees the top-3 clubs in its four divisions secure playoff spots, while the rest battle for a pair of wild-card berths in each conference to round out the 16-team field.

Florida topped the Atlantic last season, followed by Toronto, Tampa Bay and Boston. The Lightning downed the Leafs and Panthers in the first two rounds of the playoffs, and then made it all the way to the final — a third appearance in as many years — where they lost to the Colorado Avalanche in six games.

"Super competitive division," Bruins goaltender Jeremy Swayman said. "That's a really good blessing for us to have. All year long we're gonna be battling with really good, quality teams to make playoffs.

"That's just gonna make us better."

Matthews said the fact there are few pushovers should help his group as it looks to break a drought that's seen Toronto fail to make the second round of the post-season every campaign since 2004.

"That's a definitely a good thing for us," he said. "Those games are extremely important.

“They're going to mean a lot."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 7, 2022.

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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press