Fall is a season of renewal for hockey players. In the NHL, the calendar shift is a mindset switch. Crisper air and shorter days foster boundless optimism for the season ahead. Anything is possible. Every team has a realistic shot to still be playing in the spring.
“You wouldn’t be excited if you thought you were just playing to finish up outside of the playoff picture,” Buffalo Sabres forward Jeff Skinner said. “That’s what drives that excitement is everyone starts off with a clean slate. For us, expectations have started to build and that’s something you want and that’s something you obviously have to earn. It’s just about taking that next step. Hopefully we can do that this year.”
He’s not the only one. Buffalo is one of three Atlantic Division teams — along with the Detroit Red Wings and Ottawa Senators — on the rise, looking to bust a multi-season playoff absence. The organizations have patiently grown through their cores, recently added veteran talent in free agency and trades, and are closer than ever to making a push. Expectations are heightened. But what will come of them?
Another NHL season will dawn next week. When it does, divisional races could wind up spicier than ever as exciting new teams enter the mix.
Say hello here to the next wave of up-and-coming Atlantic clubs, a ready-and-willing trio that’s hoping to challenge the division’s status quo.
Detroit: Extreme Makeover edition
Moritz Seider thought he might still be dreaming.
The NHL’s reigning Calder Trophy winner was asleep at home in Germany last summer when Detroit general manager Steve Yzerman made several key trades and free agent signings to significantly re-load the Red Wings roster.
In rapid succession, Yzerman signed Andrew Copp, Ben Chiarot, David Perron and Dominik Kubalik. Then there was the trade with St. Louis for Ville Husso, who projects to be the club’s new No. 1 starter alongside rising star Alex Nedeljkovic.
To avoid seeing Detroit again go home early, Yzerman went big instead. Seider lapped it up.
“My mom was awake already, and she just starts telling me all the new players we’d gotten,” Seider shared with ESPN recently. “I was definitely shocked; couldn’t believe it. So, I started texting everyone [to confirm]. I think we’re all just really happy. Overall, we’re looking at [being] a better team this year.”
The Red Wings were once perennial contenders in the Atlantic — and the league at large — reaching the playoffs in 25 straight seasons from 1990-91 to 2015-16 and winning four Stanley Cups. Yzerman experienced that success first-hand, captaining the Red Wings for much of his 1,514-game career from 1983-2006 spent entirely in Motor City.
It seemed inevitable when Yzerman stepped aside as Tampa Bay’s general manager in 2018 he would end up back with Detroit. And so it was in April 2019 that the Red Wings announced Yzerman as Ken Holland’s successor in the GM spot.
Yzerman’s retooling immediately centered around the core in place, including now-captain Dylan Larkin, Tyler Bertuzzi and Jakub Vrana. Since then, Yzerman’s added top draft selections in Seider (taken sixth overall in 2019) and Lucas Raymond (fourth overall in 2020). They had excellent debut seasons in 2021-22, with Seider’s 50-points campaign earning Rookie of the Year honors.
Detroit has more exciting prospects in the pipeline, too. Defenseman Simon Edvinsson (drafted sixth overall in 2021) is coming off a great season with the SHL’s Frolunda HC. Goaltender Sebastian Costa (15th overall in 2021) has shown steady improvement in Western Hockey League.
Larkin hasn’t experienced this depth of organizational talent before. It’s already making his eighth NHL season feel like the most promising yet — but still worthy of proceeding into with caution.
“For sure it’s the most excited I’ve been,” Larkin said. “We just have to go out and prove [how good we are] and we have to do it together. We haven’t really done much in the last five years, so we need to continue to have a chip on our shoulder. We have to earn [our chances].”
Steering the on-ice turnaround will be new coach Derek Lalonde. Yzerman replaced Detroit’s long-time bench boss Jeff Blashill in June with Lalonde, elevating the Lightning assistant to his first head role in the NHL.
Lalonde could see the Red Wings’ potential. He also knew it cratered last season when Detroit deteriorated defensively towards giving up the most goals against in the NHL (4.33 per game) from late February onwards.
Fixing that was Lalonde’s first order of business. Armed with experience from the Lightning’s recent back-to-back Stanley Cup runs, Lalonde can attest how the right personnel only goes so far. It’s team structure that’s foundational.
“We had a saying in Tampa — if they see it, they believe it,” Lalonde said. “And the things we’ve shown them [defensively], they’ve already bought into in this short period. We were last or bottom three in every defensive category pretty much out there last year. And we emphasized that going into camp. I’ve liked our play away from the puck [this preseason], and there’s been a commitment there. When they’re translating things from video in the immediate practice after [seeing it], that means they’re locked in and committed to it.”
What can that translate to for Detroit over an entire season? The Red Wings started 2021-22 well, going 12-9-3 through December 1 before the real damage of those defensive deficiencies — among other factors — took hold. Yzerman’s injection of fresh faces should help the Red Wings’ cause. But even so, Lalonde has been trying to preach patience.
“It’s emphasizing the process over outcome,” he said. “There’s that excitement with signing new players, and guys want this to turn around immediately. But then when you hit those bumps in the road, where we play pretty well but we don’t get that outcome, frustration [builds]. I think it’s our job to keep it on track, maybe temper those expectations more into a reality of where we’re at [today], and just let the play and the improvement day to day hopefully take care of itself.”
Check out the five best goals from last year as we prepare for the upcoming season.
A key to success then is cultivating the right attitude, still willing to learn but show off (a little) too.
“We wouldn’t call it pressure or expectations; I think we’d just call it a hunger,” Seider said. “I think we’re really, really looking forward to proving people wrong. We want them to see what we’re all about, what Detroit is all about.”
The Red Wings can tell they’re not alone in trending upwards, either. Their entire division is stacked with rosters on the rise. Larkin sounds wearily aware there are no guarantees for Detroit’s trajectory.
But there is, at the team’s heart, true belief.
“It’s been a long offseason and a long couple of years here,” Larkin said. “Just because we signed players, it doesn’t mean that we’re going to make the playoffs or we’re that automatic team to get there. We have to go out and earn it. But we have more experience, and we can get out of the gate hot and go win some games.”
Continuity is key for the Sabres
Rasmus Dahlin has never felt this before in Buffalo.
After four turbulent seasons, the Sabres’ No. 1 overall pick in 2018 is going into year five on genuinely solid ground. Where there’s something akin to stability.
It’s an unfamiliar experience. And Dahlin is into it.
“This is my first year where we can actually build on something,” Dahlin told ESPN recently. “It’s always been a new coach or new teammates or new something. This is the first year where we have the same core. I know we’re a young and very talented group that are very ready to compete out there. It’s a different feeling for sure.”
And it’s one that’s been brewing for a while. Buffalo had been slipping for over a decade, leading to what is now the NHL’s longest-ever playoff dry spell, dating back to the Sabres’ last appearance there in 2010-11. One strategy after another to rejuvenate the franchise failed. Buffalo had to pivot.
Pouring a new foundation for the Sabres began earnestly in June 2020 when former general manager Jason Botterill was let go. Botterill’s surprising replacement was Kevyn Adams, a former NHLer with no prior GM experience who was, at the time, Buffalo’s vice president of business administration.
Adams’ initial changes were swift. In March 2021, he fired head coach Ralph Krueger and made assistant Don Granato the interim bench boss before extending Granato’s contract that summer.
Trading Sam Reinhart to Florida and Rasmus Ristolainen to Philadelphia in July 2021 was the start of Adams’ roster retooling. The same day Ristolainen was traded, Buffalo selected defenseman Owen Power first overall at the 2021 draft.
The most critical decisions of Adams’ tenure was still to come. Before the Sabres opened camp last season, he stripped then-captain Jack Eichel of the designation, and in November executed a blockbuster deal that sent the disgruntled center to Vegas in exchange for Alex Tuch and Peyton Krebs.
Buffalo drafted Eichel second overall in 2015 with high hopes for his future there, but the relationship between player and team had rapidly deteriorated. Adams’ trade signaled a new beginning for the Sabres in a rebuild where the team’s core character would be prioritized as heavily as its on-ice performance.
Adams received a multi-year extension from the Sabres in September to keep the forward march going. Granato is especially grateful for Adams’ labor so far, and the consistency Buffalo is benefiting from. While Detroit and Ottawa reeled in several free agents over the summer, Buffalo added only Ilya Lyubushkin and Eric Comrie to its tight-knit mix. That was just fine with Granato.
“It’s really nice to have the amount of returning players that we do,” Granato said. “As a coach, you’re always handing off things to your players. You have your meeting, you have your video session, and they go play the game. This group has progressively grabbed those concepts and dialed in quicker and run with them in unison. There’s a lot of passion out of that group, and there’s a lot of love of teammates. They have fun, they embrace challenges. You want guys with that type of approach and attitude.”
That united front is a pillar of Buffalo’s (hopeful) turnaround. It led to a shift for the team late last season, when the Sabres finished their schedule 12-6-3 to land fifth overall in the Atlantic.
It was the Sabres’ best landing spot at season’s end since 2011-12, when they were third. And the push sparked more than a few fires that stayed well-lit through summer training.
“I was kinda like, ‘oh, why did we start playing this good too late?’” Dahlin said. “It made me very hungry going into this year and seeing what we can do with this team.”
“It left a bitter feeling,” forward Tage Thompson said. “I think that’s a chip that we’re going to take with us into this season and remember the feeling and realize we don’t want to be going home early. We want to carry that attitude right from the start of this year.”
There can be no conversation about Buffalo’s present or future without a focus on Thompson. The 24-year-old was a first-round pick (26th overall) by the Sabres in 2016, who never found his game under Krueger. Then Granato moved Thompson to center last season and it led to a career year, with 38 goals and 68 points in 78 games.
In August, Thompson inked a seven-year, $50 million contract to remain in Buffalo long term. He wanted the pressure that came with such commitment to the Sabres, and being a key cog in their resurgence.
“The core group right now is at the tipping point of turning things around, and that always excites me, being part of something that’s the foundation of something new,” Thompson said. “It’s a really close group here. There’s a natural chemistry between everyone. When you have that, it’s something special that becomes a brotherhood and you’re willing to sacrifice your body for the guy next to you.”
Tuch can distill Buffalo down to a single word: unselfish. It’s what the Syracuse native trusts will continue setting the Sabres apart and guide them back — at some point — to the postseason.
“We’re in the stage of building towards something hopefully great,” Tuch said. “To sit down and go through the process together as a full team is really helpful. But we try not to define success by one single goal. We can’t be like, ‘okay, it’s a failure if we don’t make the playoffs’ or if we don’t finish at a certain place in our division. We’re a young team; we’re trying to progressively get better. It’s that inner competitiveness, but it’s also that camaraderie that really brings the team together.”
Where that cohesion ultimately takes Buffalo by spring will be determined. Granato isn’t setting any expectations for the journey — not publicly, at least. What he wants most is for the Sabres to “identify why they love the game,” and channel that passion into writing a new chapter of Buffalo hockey history that is only just starting.
“I wouldn’t put a cap on what they can do. And I’m not worried about what they can’t do,” Granato said. “We didn’t finish a game last year where we felt overwhelmed. We felt aggravated and frustrated plenty of times, but never overwhelmed. That was a big switch for us. We went from like, ‘geez, how could we have won that game?’ to now they’re pissed off when they don’t win. It’s pretty powerful when it gets going in that direction.
“As we do that, there’ll be a threshold we hit where we start winning more consistently. Where that threshold is, I just know we’re getting closer to it. When it turns to winning more, I don’t know; but we’re going in the right direction.”
Ottawa is owning the moment
Brady Tkachuk admits Ottawa’s been through tough times. But the Senators’ captain also feels that the times are changing.
“I think this is the tightest group I’ve ever been on,” Tkachuk told ESPN after a recent practice. “Everybody is just themselves. It’s fun to come to the rink. It’s fun just hanging out with a lot of your good buddies and just getting to go to work with them. It’s a special bond.”
The pleasure Tkachuk & Co. can take in that position rose from the ashes of a long-term organizational strategy which — in theory — is approaching a pinnacle.
It was back on March 1, 2018, when Ottawa’s late owner Eugene Melnyk wrote in a letter to fans that his team was “focus[ing] on the future” and entering a rebuild.
That declaration stunned the fan base. Less than a year prior, Ottawa was in the Eastern Conference finals — and came one goal shy of a Stanley Cup Final berth from there. The team had deservedly high hopes their momentum would last and stoked the flames by acquiring Matt Duchene via trade with Colorado in November 2017 to add firepower. Only it didn’t.
When Melnyk made his remarks, Ottawa sat 29th in the standings and would finish the season 30th. By September, captain Erik Karlsson had been traded to San Jose. Mike Hoffman was also gone. The Senators were starting over, with (almost) nowhere to go but up. Not that it happened overnight.
Ottawa started its 2018-19 season poorly and all three of Duchene, Mark Stone and Ryan Dzingel were moved before the 2019 trade deadline. The Senators finished that season 31st overall.
GM Pierre Dorion began to retool more intensely. He hired D.J. Smith as head coach in May 2019, and shifted focus onto Ottawa’s future talents, including Drake Batherson, Josh Norris and Alex Formenton. In 2020, Dorion drafted Tim Stutzle third overall and Josh Sanderson fifth overall, adding to a prospect group that already included Tkachuk (the club’s 2018 fourth overall pick). Tkachuk would sign a seven-year extension with the team in October 2021 and, three weeks later, be named Ottawa’s tenth captain.
Slowly, and from the inside out, Ottawa was finding its way — and Dorion was patient in that process. But this past summer, it was full steam ahead. Dorion untied Ottawa from Matt Murray in a trade with Toronto, and acquired Cam Talbot from Minnesota to be the team’s next No. 1 starter (Talbot has since suffered a rib injury that will hold him out for up to seven weeks; Anton Forsberg projects to be Ottawa’s No. 1 in the meantime).
Dorion didn’t stop in the crease. He nabbed dynamic forward Alex DeBrincat in a draft-day trade with Chicago, and signed hometown product Claude Giroux.
Couple those moves with a healthy Shane Pinto in the mix — he missed most of last season with injury — and Ottawa looks closer than ever to establishing a foothold in the Atlantic. Smith can see those changes developing too; but the operation is still in motion.
“[There’s a] confidence level, for sure,” Smith said of what’s different this season. “I think when you put a guy like Giroux and DeBrincat out there, these are real NHL players that the league knows and knows as top players. I think that helps the young guys have confidence because as much confidence as they have [normally], when you go into Washington and you see [Alex] Ovechkin and you see all the league’s best, you still know you’re a tier under them. At the end of the day, you earn your own confidence in this game and in this world, and we’ve got to earn it.”
There’s a carefully curated core in Ottawa ready to do just that. Stutzle proved he’s all-in on the Senators’ potential last month, committing to stay in Canada’s capital on an eight-year, $66.8 million extension.
The 20-year-old can tell Ottawa is on the brink of breaking through. He’s betting the rest of the league will see it, too.
“Everyone knows on our team, that we’re a good team,” Stutzle said. “But we don’t put pressure on ourselves. We’ve just got to play our way and play for ourselves. We’ve really got to show [from the start] what kind of team we are and the way we play.”
If Ottawa gets that buy-in across the board, will the Senators slide swiftly back up the standings? They haven’t made playoffs since that Eastern Conference finals run, marking a franchise-record five-year drought. The Senators also boast more talent — and cohesion — now than they have in years.
Expectations for Ottawa have increased accordingly. The Senators are determined to make that a positive thing.
“Everybody’s just ready to go; we’re ready to show everybody what we believe in [with this team],” Tkachuk said. “But you don’t want to put too much pressure from the outside on us and set numbers or set goals about where we want to finish. What successful teams need to do is push each other to be their best. That’s what we’ll do.”
“Everyone says you want to make playoffs,” Stutzle added. “But in the end, you need 100 points to get in. So that’s a lot. We just try to play our game, focus on ourselves and that’ll be the most important thing.”
Spoken like a true veteran, more of whom the Senators now hold. Tkachuk said he’s “leaned heavily” on Giroux — the former long-time captain of the Philadelphia Flyers — to keep developing his own leadership skills. And Stutzle has sensed an increased maturity in the whole group coming through.
It’s an easy time to be optimistic. Stutzle trusts that Ottawa can make those good feelings last.
“I think we are going to work every night,” he said. “We’re going to show the fans that we play for the city, play for the team and just work every night. We want to outwork the opponent, and I think that’s the way we can win.”
Who has the best playoff chances?
The Florida Panthers, Tampa Bay Lightning, Toronto Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins topped out the Atlantic last season and earned playoff berths.
Detroit has the best chance of breaking into that fold.
The Red Wings have depth at every position as well as experience. Their goaltending situation also projects to be more stable than Buffalo’s (with Anderson’s injury history) and Ottawa’s (Talbot is already sidelined for weeks). The Senators and Sabres will be exciting to watch and exhibit the great potential in their ranks. Both teams will be counting on contributions from a lot of young players, though. That often leads to growing pains.
Even if Detroit wants to downplay some of the impact its newcomers will make, there’s no denying how much better more established players — Copp, Perron, Chiarot, and Husso especially — should make on that roster. Add to that the growth of Raymond and Seider, the dialed-in details from Larkin and Bertuzzi, plus the championship pedigree of Lalonde’s past, and there’s a lot to like about where Detroit is heading.
Health will be key, of course (as it is for all teams). The strides taken by Ottawa and Buffalo should be major. But it’s Detroit though who should be making the top tier of their division most nervous.