As the NHL’s latter half of the 2021-22 regular season begins, it’s a great time to examine what has unfolded to this point in the year. We’ll start with a look at the Atlantic Division, and move on later this week to the Central, Metropolitan and Pacific Divisions.
Florida Panthers: No team has more points than the Panthers, who have a 32-10-5 record in a league-high 47 games thus far this season. They’ve been led by star winger Jonathan Huberdeau, who is having a Hart-Trophy-caliber year, leading the league in points (64); and defenseman Aaron Ekblad (tied for third in defenseman point-getters, with 41). The scary thing is, they’ve been a sub-par road team (9-7-5), but they’ve been dominant at home (a league-best 23-3-0), and they’ve got an excellent shot at earning home ice advantage for the playoffs. Despite changing head coaches early on, Florida is showing why they were a popular pick to win, and win big this season. Expect more of the same in Pt. 2 of the year.
Tampa Bay Lightning: The back-to-back defending Stanley Cup champions once again are thriving (with a 30-10-6 record), and although they haven’t had star winger Nikita Kucherov for most of the season, they’re only three points behind the Panthers, with one game in hand on Florida. No blueliner has been better than Bolts cornerstone Victor Hedman, and no goalie has won more games than starter Andrei Vasilevskiy (25-7-4). If the Lightning did not have a 2-4 record in shootouts this year, they’d be tied or leading the Atlantic. That is a huge credit to the work of GM Julien BriseBois and head coach Jon Cooper, and to the depth the Lightning have throughout their lineup. Do you really want to bet against them? Because you should not.
Toronto Maple Leafs: With a 29-10-3 mark, the Leafs are on track to beat their franchise record in points (105), and head coach Sheldon Keefe does not get nearly enough credit for steering them to victories far more often than not. They’ve been relatively fortunate on the health front, with only star winger Mitch Marner and backup goalie Petr Mrazek missing a significant amount of games, and they’re consistently as good at home (16-4-1) as they are on the road (13-6-2). Toronto has four games in hand on the Lightning, and five games in hand on the Panthers, and a division title is not at all out of the question. Leafs GM Kyle Dubas did well in acquiring forwards Michael Bunting, Ondrej Kase and David Kampf, all of whom signed high-value short-term deals with the Buds. That said, the road out of the first round of the playoffs certainly isn’t going to be easy for the Leafs, no matter where they finish in the top four in the Atlantic. But this is the challenge for this organization at this point in their competitive cycle. As long as they stay healthy, they have the talent to do real damage come to the post-season.
Boston Bruins: The wear-and-tear of so many solid seasons is beginning to show on the Bruins, who still rely on their top line of David Pastrnak-Patrice-Bergeron-and-Brad-Marchant for most of their offense. Secondary scoring is an issue for them, and the mid-season re-signing of star goalie Tuukka Rask is not going to be enough, on its own, to make up for the lack of goals from the second-through-fourth-lines. The way things are headed, Boston is looking like they’ll be in the fourth overall spot in the Atlantic by season’s end, likely setting them up for a showdown with Florida or Tampa Bay in the first round. And while you certainly can not count them out, the Bruins are going to be hard-pressed to repeat their more recent post-season successes.
Detroit Red Wings: The Red Wings began the season with promise, but their status as a team still not prepared for prime time was underscored as the season has unfolded. Detroit’s road record of 6-12-3 is worse than Buffalo’s (7-12-4) and Ottawa’s (7-11-3), which shows you how far they still have to go before being a legitimate playoff threat. GM Steve Yzerman knows he’s in a marathon, not a speed race, to get this franchise back to the upper tier of NHL teams, and while youngsters Lucas Raymond and Moritz Seider are important building blocks around captain Dylan Larkin, there are still too many holes in their lineup to be a top-four team in the Atlantic. Wings fans have been patient, but they’ll need a little more time before their patience is rewarded with playoff games.
Buffalo Sabers: Buffalo is presently 11 points behind Detroit, and only three points ahead of seventh-place Ottawa – and the Senators have played five fewer games than the Sabers, so there’s still room for them to fall. They’ve been a wasteland for NHL-level goalies, with a whopping six netminders playing at least two games for them this year. Sabers GM Kevyn Adams has a nucleus of a couple great young D-men (Rasmus Dahlin and Owen Power) that will be augmented by their three first-round draft picks this summer, but nobody believes Buffalo will be a playoff team this year, or next year for that matter. The hole the Sabers have dug for themselves with mismanagement and poor development is a huge one, and no amount of sugar-coating can change that stark reality.
Ottawa Senators: The Senators have played only 40 games this season – only the New York Islanders (39 GP) have played fewer games – but that sample size is large enough to indict Ottawa management for projecting their rebuild to be over. They’ve got some high-quality skill (Tim Stutzle, Thomas Chabot, Brady Tkachuk, Drake Batherson) in the fold, but they have too many passengers on a game-to-game basis to convince skeptics they’ve turned a competitive corner . Overall depth is a major problem for them, and, given that they’re a budget franchise that won’t spend near the salary cap ceiling, the help they need is not a single trade or free-agent-signing away. They may well be celebrating next season, but they’ve got to be realistic. A playoff spot is far from a given for them next year, even with improvement from within.
Montreal Canadiens: Calling this season a disaster for the Canadiens is a huge understatement. The injury bug has feasted on them, to a record-setting degree. Their run to the Cup Final last season seems like a dream now. But this may have been what Montreal needed. Their dismal performance lays bare how many problems the Habs have to deal with, and new GM Kent Hughes isn’t fooling himself with delusions of grandeur. Even with goalie Carey Price potentially returning, the Canadiens are too soft, too-challenged on the depth front, and too bereft of elite talent on offense to pull themselves out of the Atlantic’s basement. And next season for them may be painfully similar to this year.