NHL division preview: 4 questions looming over the Atlantic

The Atlantic Division has been home to some of the NHL's heavyweights in recent years, but cracks are showing in its traditional powers.

The Atlantic Division has been the NHL's toughest in recent years — featuring four of the top seven teams by points over the last five seasons.

At least one squad from that group, including the Tampa Bay Lightning, Boston Bruins, Toronto Maple Leafs and Florida Panthers, has played in each of the last five Stanley Cup Final matchups, with Tampa Bay winning twice.

Beyond that cohort is a rising Buffalo Sabres team and an Ottawa Senators squad with a promising core. The Detroit Red Wings are also adding veteran talent and the Montreal Canadiens have a young club that should only get better in the years to come.

This division projects to be a tough one for the foreseeable future, but the balance of power may shift as the squads that have grabbed the spotlight in the past give way to new contenders.

Whether that happens in 2023-24 remains to be seen. Here are the questions that could define the Atlantic in the upcoming season.

Have the Maple Leafs changed enough to change their fortunes?

The story with the Maple Leafs has been consistent for some time, as the team has been offensively explosive and successful during the regular season only to fall short of expectations in the playoffs.

Considering the team is still built around a core group of Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner, William Nylander and Morgan Rielly, it might seem reasonable to expect a similar result in 2023-24, but the team has a new general manager in Brad Treliving and seems to be seeking a new identity.

Offseason additions like Ryan Reaves, Tyler Bertuzzi and Max Domi were made in order to add what the new GM refers to as "snot" to the team's game. It would be an oversimplification to say Treliving values toughness above all while his predecessor Kyle Dubas was only interested in high-end skill. After all, Treliving also signed offensive defenseman John Klingberg in the offseason and Dubas experimented with players like Kyle Clifford and Wayne Simmonds during his tenure.

That said, Treliving clearly values traits that go beyond the quantifiable more than Dubas did. Whether that will lead to better decisions remains to be seen. At the very least the Maple Leafs have a slightly different look.

If the team's core was the problem all along it won't matter, but it's possible Toronto has changed its stripes enough to shift its narrative.

The Toronto Maple Leafs have a new team architect and have added some NHL players who bring a physical element.  (Gavin Napier/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
The Toronto Maple Leafs have a new team architect and have added some NHL players who bring a physical element. (Gavin Napier/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

What do the Boston Bruins look like in the post-Patrice Bergeron era?

The last time the Bruins entered a season without Patrice Bergeron in their lineup, George W. Bush was still serving his first term as president.

We simply do not know what this team looks like without its six-time Selke Trophy winner and future Hall of Famer. Even during his age-37 season in 2022-23, he was the third-leading point producer and defensive centrepiece of a team that set the NHL record for wins in a season.

Boston isn't waving farewell to a declining player it has fond memories of, it's having its heart ripped out of it. Add in the retirement of David Krejci and the Bruins have lost their identity down the middle.

That doesn't mean this team is doomed. It still has David Pastrñák filling the net, an enviable defence corps led by Charlie McAvoy and Hampus Lindholm plus a stellar goaltending duo of Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman.

It's not reasonable to project that Boston will crater all the way from setting records to missing the postseason, but it's difficult to know what to expect from a team in uncharted waters. That's especially true considering Bergeron's greatest contributions weren't always linked to offensive production. His presence is a bit tougher to quantify than some other great players.

The Bruins may well show that Bergeron was just one man and there's a reason they were so unstoppable in 2022-23 that goes beyond his two-way abilities. But there's a reason the Bruins outscored their opponents 64-27 when Bergeron was on the ice last year at even strength and allowed just eight goals in his 138:20 of penalty-killing time.

Will the Lightning bounce back?

Plenty of NHL teams would be ecstatic to produce a 98-point season and lose in a hard-fought first-round battle, but not the Lightning.

Before the 2022-23 season Tampa Bay had either reached the Stanley Cup Final or recorded at least 113 regular-season points in five straight seasons. In other words, the Lightning have been the class of the Eastern Conference.

It's unclear if the team can reclaim that status.

On one hand, the team has retained much of the core that made them so dominant in previous seasons and that group hasn't aged out of effectiveness. The team's oldest key player is Steven Stamkos, who still has plenty of juice at 33. Andrei Vasilevskiy, Brayden Point, Mikhail Sergachev, Brandon Hagel, and Anthony Cirelli are all on the right side of 30. This squad shouldn't be washed.

On the other hand, it would be hard to claim that Tampa Bay improved during the offseason. The loss of Alex Killorn hurts and newcomer Conor Sheary won't provide the same all-around impact on the wing. The Lightning hope a full season of Tanner Jeannot will be impactful, but he's a tough player to project after a rough 2022-23.

It's hard to pinpoint what the Lightning are likely to do better in 2023-24 than they did during last season's disappointing campaign, but it would be foolish to rule out Tampa Bay's core.

Has Buffalo's time finally come?

The Sabres own the NHL's longest playoff drought at 12 seasons, but they have plenty of talent to get over the hump this season.

Buffalo came one point short of making the postseason in 2022-23 and can reasonably expect young players like Owen Power (20), Rasmus Dahlin (23), Dylan Cozens (22), Casey Mittelstadt (24) and Peyton Krebs (22) to improve with experience. On the flip side, the Sabres have just one player who projects to be a top-nine forward or top-four defenceman over the age of 30 and Jeff Skinner remains a deadly goal scorer at 31.

Internal improvement is likely and the team also made a couple of savvy veteran additions to its blueline, onboarding Connor Clifton and Erik Johnson.

Buffalo can also feel optimistic about its goaltending situation improving considering their netminders managed a collective .896 save percentage last year. Rookie Devon Levi is expected to take the reigns and although he's unproven, that's a bar he should be able to clear.

While there's plenty of reasons for optimism the Sabres still have a tough road ahead. The Bruins, Lightning, Maple Leafs and Florida Panthers won't be easy to leapfrog and the road to a playoff berth without topping one of them is narrow.