The Ottawa Senators started out the 2021 campaign by crushing any faith their fans possibly had for progress. Ten games in, the team boasted a 1-8-1 record, and it was up in the air whether or not they’d win even ten games altogether.
Well, with four games remaining, they now have twenty.
The Sens has turned things around, particularly with respect to their defense and goaltending, and that’s given fans a lot more optimism than they probably thought they’d have a mere fourth months ago. Despite the fact that they’ll miss the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season, the Senators are 7-2-1 since the trade deadline and will be riding a ton of momentum going into next season. This all begs the question: how far will that momentum take them?
Let’s start with the assumption that the league will return to its former divisional alignment for 2021-22. Of the eight Atlantic Division teams, five of them have qualified for the 2021 playoffs — or are very close to doing so. Those teams are the Boston Bruins, Florida Panthers, Montreal Canadiens, Tampa Bay Lightning, and the Toronto Maple Leafs. For Ottawa to even have a chance to qualify, they need to beat out one of these five teams, as well as Buffalo and Detroit. We’ll go through each and project their roster for next season, focusing on their cap situation as well as what kind of damage the Seattle Kraken could possibly do in the upcoming expansion draft. I won’t be discussing those last two, however, because we should really be looking ahead, and not behind.
As is a tradition at this point, the Bruins have been led to another strong regular season by their top line of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and David Pastrnak, while receiving solid secondary scoring from the newly acquired Taylor Hall, Craig Smith, and David Krejci. Unfortunately for Boston, Charlie Coyle and Jake DeBrusk have struggled this season, and the latter in particular has been an occasional healthy scratch and the subject of trade talks. As for their defense, their top pair of Matt Grzelyck and Charlie McAvoy has been very solid, but there’s not much to like beyond that. They’ve got a promising young goalie in Jeremy Swayman who’s posted a .942 save percentage in eight NHL games, and Tuukka Rask continues to be solid. I’m projecting Seattle to take one of their depth defensemen, either Jeremy Lauzon or Connor Clifton, which isn’t a huge loss but is still one that may need to be addressed in the offseason, in which they’ll have over $32 million to spend on two Top-4 defensemen, a top-six center, and a starting goalie. While still a solid team, a big offseason from Ottawa’s young core will go a long way towards potentially ending the Bruins’ window of contention.
The Panthers have been a big surprise this season, keeping pace in the Central division with top teams such as the Lightning and Hurricanes. Beyond their core of Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Aaron Ekblad, and Mackenzie Weegar, they’ve brought in a number of complementary pieces who’ve more than made up for the departures of Mike Hoffman and Evgenii Dadonov; Patric Hornqvist, Anthony Duclair, Sam Bennett, and especially Carter Verhaeghe, who’s broken out with 35 points in 42 games. They’re likely to lose a decent player to Seattle, such as Radko Gudas, but Florida can easily replace him. I’d bet on them finishing ahead of Boston, and if Ottawa manages to beat them out, the number-one reason will be Sergei Bobrovsky, who’s got a .904 save percentage this season, and has six years left on a deal paying him $10 million annually. Ouch.
The Habs are definitely a beatable team, but it will not be easy by any means. Marc Bergevin is one of the most “hit-and-miss” GMs in the NHL but his acquisitions of Josh Anderson and Tyler Toffoli have been major wins. They have enough cap room to bring back Phillip Danault and Joel Armia, and they have a promising young core consisting of Nick Suzuki, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Cole Caufield, and Alexander Romanov. The big question for the Habs: how much do Shea Weber, Jeff Petry, and Carey Price have left in the tank? Jake Allen’s been a solid backup but he could be picked up by Seattle, leaving them in a tough spot. Lastly, analytics-friendly people will tell you that their 5v5 play has actually gotten worse since firing Claude Julien. I see both Florida and Boston finishing higher in the standings next year.
Tampa Bay Lightning
The Lightning were able to use an injury to Nikita Kucherov to circumvent the salary cap this season, keeping their core intact, but I wouldn’t count on that happening next season. They’ll be $3.5M over the cap next year, and they’ll still need to fill the backup goalie position and other depth roles. They’ll most definitely have to trade Alex Killorn and/or Ondrej Palat to become cap compliant; they’re both worth their contracts but since Tampa can’t afford to keep them, I doubt they’d get too much in return. Tyler Johnson could also be moved if the Lightning retain salary. Expect them to be less dominant in 2022, but still, a Top-3 team in their division carried by Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point, Anthony Cirelli, Victor Hedman, Andrei Vas-yeah I could keep doing this for hours.
Toronto Maple Leafs
You don’t want to admit it, but the Leafs don’t suck as much as they used to. They’ll need to find a starting goalie in the offseason, but Frederik Andersen’s contract coming off the books makes that job easy. They’ve got four solid defensemen for the first time in over a decade, and they’ll have no problem protecting them from Seattle along with the “Big 4”, which should really be called the “Big 3 and John Tavares”. I’d expect them to lose either Alex Kerfoot or Travis Dermott to the Kraken which won’t stop them from easily qualifying for the playoffs next year. We’ll catch them once Tim Stützle and Jake Sanderson have a few NHL seasons under their belt.
Looking at each of these teams, you can pick out a few that the Senators could realistically finish ahead of in the standings next year. Remember, it’s not just guys like Stützle, Pinto, and Formenton who will drastically improve. Josh Norris is twenty-one years old. Drake Batherson is twenty-three. Heck, even Brady Tkachuk, a three-year pro, is a few months younger than Norris. We don’t know where any of them will be after a single offseason, but in general, players like these tend to keep improving for several years.
If enough guys take a step forward, I think there’s a good chance Ottawa beats out one of Boston, Montreal, or Florida. However, a top-three spot in the Atlantic is a bit too lofty of a goal for 2022. If the Senators make the playoffs next year it will most likely be in a wildcard berth. So, how will they fare in that race? How might they stack up against the many threats of the Metropolitan Division? That’ll be the topic of much future debate — stay tuned.