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The Ottawa Senators are on everybody’s mind for the first time in a long time, and that includes star players on their arch-rivals.
After trading for sniper Alex DeBrincat, signing top-tier veteran forward Claude Giroux and keeping young talent around via long-term extensions, the Sens are signalling to the entire NHL that they are done with being one of the league’s bottom-feeders. Players on the rival Maple Leafs have heard the message loud and clear.
"Our division has gotten a lot better, and I think it's good for us," winger Mitch Marner said via NHL.com. "It will make our team have a bit more of a challenge every single night and that's what you want, you want to have a challenge every night and be competing every night."
It certainly will be a challenge almost every night the Leafs have to face a team within the Atlantic Division. Whether it is the Lightning, Panthers, Bruins and now Senators, the Leafs will face a much stiffer test in their pursuit of a top-three spot in the division than they did a year ago.
"I think our division, it's no secret the quality of division we are in," said defenceman Mark Giordano. "I think even playing Montreal last year at the end; going back even to my time in Calgary, playing Ottawa, they might not be where they wanted to be in the standings the last few years but they're a tough game every night. I'm sure with the Battle of Ontario, it'll only get better (this year). With Montreal, those games against us are always a battle (between our teams), but everyone is always trying to get better.
"We'll have to wait to see how it all plays out through camp and the start of the season, but it is going to be super competitive this year."
Ottawa isn't the only team in the division that has taken a step forward this offseason. The Detroit Red Wings, while likely not a threat for a playoff spot, will be much tougher to face on a nightly basis after adding David Perron, Andrew Copp and Dominik Kubalik up front, Ben Chiarot, Olli Maatta and Mark Pysyk on the back end, and Ville Husso in goal.
Toronto, meanwhile, has lost some depth with Ilya Mikheyev and Ondrej Kase (who combined for 35 goals last season) departing in free agency, and Nicolas Aube-Kubel the only notable forward addition so far. They also have a few question marks in goal, with general manager Kyle Dubas rolling the dice on Matt Murray (.906 SV%) and Ilya Samsonov (.896 SV%) to fill the void left by Jack Campbell (.914 SV%). The Leafs finished fourth in the NHL last season with 115 points and the core of the team remains in tact, so they will once again be considered a favourite to lock down a top-three spot in the division.
The Atlantic was one of two divisions in the NHL last year that featured four 100-point teams, the other being the Metro. Although the Senators might not be there just yet, it won't be long before they are knocking on the door.
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