The NHL off-season is in full swing following the 2019 Entry Draft and free agency. There will likely be other roster moves before the start of the 2019-20 season, but it has been relatively quiet and it’s a good time to examine how teams currently stand with training camps drawing closer.
Part One will start with the top five teams in the Atlantic Division based on the standings from the 2018-19 campaign.
Tampa Bay Lightning
2018-19 Finish: 62-16-4 record, first round loss to Columbus (4-0)
Strengths: Tampa Bay rolled over the competition during the regular season thanks to a deep and talented roster. Nikita Kucherov (128 points), Steven Stamkos (98 points) and Brayden Point (92 points) had big offensive years. All three players also topped the 40-goal plateau. Victor Hedman was finalist for the Norris Trophy again after he won the award in 2018. He headlines a strong defensive group with former Rangers Ryan McDonagh and Shattenkirk, while young blueliners Mikhail Sergachev and Erik Cernak are primed for larger roles in 2019-20. Andrei Vasilevskiy captured the Vezina Trophy and remains one of the best options in the crease. The arrival of Curtis McElhinney strengthens the backup goalie position even though Louis Domingue, who is now on the trade block, performed well in that role last year.
Weaknesses: Tampa Bay could use more contributions from the team’s supporting cast up front. Yanni Gourde was the club’s most productive forward outside of Kucherov, Stamkos and Point with 48 points. Despite the tremendous success Tampa Bay had during the regular season, the team was bounced from the playoffs early. The Blue Jackets swept the heavily-favored Lightning and quickly ended the team’s bid for a championship. The star players on the Lightning were held in check and the team’s special teams, which were excellent in the 2018-19 season, were awful. The strengths of the team became weaknesses in the playoffs, but this team is too good for that to carry over into 2019-20. Getting Point, who is among a large group of excellent RFAs, signed to a new deal remains a priority.
Player to Watch: Sergachev skated in 75 games last season, while working in a defense rotation. He is projected to occupy a top-four spot on the team this campaign and will likely see action on the second power-play unit. Sergachev slipped to 32 points in 2018-19 after he had 40 points during his first year with the Lightning. Getting back over the 40-point mark shouldn’t be a problem for him this coming season.
2018-19 Finish: 49-24-9 record, Stanley Cup Final loss to St. Louis (4-3)
Noteworthy Gains: Brett Ritchie
Strengths: Boston’s top line remains one of the best combinations in the league. Brad Marchand reached 100 points despite being limited to 79 games, while David Pastrnak (81 points) and Patrice Bergeron (79 points) were outstanding as well. Bergeron only skated in 65 contests, while Pastrnak played in 66 matches, which makes what they did all the more impressive. The addition of Jaroslav Halak provided the Bruins with depth in the crease and it gave a well-rested Tuukka Rask the ability to shine in the playoffs. Of course, playing behind a team that allowed the sixth-fewest shots against in the league made the jobs of their goaltenders easier.
Weaknesses: David Krejci provided some much-needed secondary scoring in 2018-19 with 73 points, but that could be a difficult act to follow. The Bruins need more from Jake DeBrusk, Charlie Coyle, Danton Heinen and Karson Kuhlman this campaign. DeBrusk flashed some potential with 27 goals last year. Boston’s defense corps was battered and bruised in 2018-19. Brandon Carlo played the most games (72) during the regular season and only one other blueliner played more than 65 contests. The team still has to sign key RFAs Charlie McAvoy and Carlo with an eye towards Torey Krug, who can be a unrestricted free agent next summer.
Player to Watch: The competition for a spot on the second line alongside Krejci and DeBrusk is certainly worth monitoring. It’s been a revolving door for a long time. Kuhlman and Coyle are intriguing players to watch for the role. Coyle may also slide onto the third line as a center, which makes Kuhlman the player to monitor by a small margin.
Toronto Maple Leafs
2018-19 Finish: 46-28-8 record, first round loss to Boston (4-3)
Strengths: Toronto boasts one of the best one-two punches at center in the league with John Tavares and Auston Matthews. Having talented wingers like Mitch Marner and William Nylander to compliment them provides the Leafs with plenty of offensive firepower. Toronto led the league with 235 even-strength goals for and ranked first in expected goals for. The Leafs hope that the additions of Kerfoot and Spezza will make up for the loss of Kadri.
Weaknesses: The team’s defense remains a sore spot. The group underwent plenty of changes during the off-season with Gardiner and Hainsey leaving as free agents, while Zaitsev was traded to Ottawa. The Leafs brought in Ceci with that deal, while acquiring Barrie from Colorado in the Kadri trade. The right side of the defense corps remains thin, but the team hopes that they will be more efficient when it comes to moving the puck to the forwards. They will have to support Frederik Andersen better after allowing the third-most scoring chances against. Getting a capable backup goalie ranks high on the team’s to-do list as well. Michael Hutchinson will face competition from Michal Neuvirth, who agreed to a PTO with the Leafs, during training camp. The top priority for the club is still getting a contract done with Marner, who is a restricted free agent, while dealing with a tight cap situation.
Player to Watch: Andreas Johnsson played well during his rookie season with 20 goals and 43 points in 73 games. He took on a larger role as the year progressed and he became a regular linemate of Auston Matthews at the end of the regular season and during the playoffs. If Johnsson lands a spot alongside Matthews and Nylander then his fantasy value will get a significant boost. Johnsson has plenty of sleeper appeal going into 2019-20.
2018-19 Finish: 44-30-8 record, ninth in the Eastern Conference
Strengths: Montreal exceeded expectations last season thanks in large part to great performances from newcomers Max Domi and Tomas Tatar. The return to form of Carey Price and Shea Weber’s long-awaited comeback from injury certainly helped as well. The club needs them to maintain that level of play and not drop off. The Canadiens ranked third in the league in shots on goal and finished 14th in goals for game. Montreal’s roster could be bolstered further if top prospects Nick Suzuki and Ryan Poehling are ready to make the jump to the NHL and Jesperi Kotkaniemi makes progress following an up and down rookie campaign.
Weaknesses: The Canadiens finished last in the league with 31 power-play goals in 2018-19. The team was 30th overall with a power-play percentage of 13.25%. Jonathan Drouin, who struggled offensively for most of the season, led the team with 16 points on the man advantage. It’s an area that needs to improve and could push them into a playoff spot if their success at even strength (eighth in the league with 210 even strength goals) is repeated. Montreal will be hoping that Kinkaid can provide the club with a better understudy for Price this campaign after Niemi struggled in 2018-19.
Player to Watch: Suzuki is someone to monitor during training camp, as he could compete for a top-six forward spot entering the 2019-20 season. He captured the Wayne Gretzky 99 Award as the OHL playoff MVP last year after he amassed 42 points in 24 games. Suzuki was acquired from Vegas in the Max Pacioretty trade.
2018-19 Finish: 36-32-14, 10th in the Eastern Conference
Noteworthy Losses: Roberto Luongo, James Reimer, Troy Brouwer
Strengths: Florida possesses a strong offensive roster led by a productive collection of forwards. Aleksander Barkov (96 points), Jonathan Huberdeau (92 points), Mike Hoffman (70 points) and Evgenii Dadonov (70 points) had career years offensively in 2018-19. A bounce-back performance from Vincent Trocheck would provide a boost. Henrik Borgstrom, Owen Tippett and Aleksi Heponiemi could be ready to contribute as well, which would provide some additional depth. The offense was supplemented by defenseman Keith Yandle, who generated a personal best 62 points and helped the Panthers place second overall in power-play percentage (26.77%).
Weaknesses: The biggest problem on the Panthers last season was goaltending. The team signed Bobrovsky to a seven-year contract worth $70 million to remedy that issue. The move, which was speculated on for a while, happened after Luongo retired and Reimer was traded. Sam Montembeault is expected to serve as Bobrovsky’s backup. Florida struggled defensively last year, while allowing the eighth-most high danger scoring chances against and committing the most giveaways. Stralman was added to help the team’s top-four group and the hiring of future Hall of Fame coach Joel Quenneville will be beneficial up and down the lineup. The changes should get Florida back in the playoff hunt.
Player to Watch: The second line of the Panthers will be an interesting story to watch at training camp. There will be plenty of competition to see who plays alongside Trocheck and Hoffman. Tippett, Connolly and Heponiemi are the most intriguing names who will be in the mix. Tippett and Heponiemi have the most potential offensively. They could give Florida more scoring punch during even-strength situations and take some pressure off the top combination.