With Atlantic Division gap narrowed, Red Wings can now think about playoffs

Detroit News

Detroit — The Red Wings finished with 80 points last season and missed the playoffs by 12 points.

Florida secured that final wild-card spot and the Panthers went on to shock the hockey world, reaching the Stanley Cup Final.

Nobody is expecting the Red Wings to play into June, but could the Wings somehow end a seven-year drought of missing the playoffs?

It’s still a difficult ask, but there is legitimate hope. A path is there, given how many of the teams in the Atlantic Division have suffered personnel losses. It’s difficult to project the Wings in a top-three spot in the division (and a guaranteed playoff spot), but earning one of the two wild-card spots in the Eastern Conference appears possible.

General manager Steve Yzerman has acquired the elite goal-scorer (Alex DeBrincat) the Wings needed, as well as size (Klim Kostin, Christian Fischer) and offensive depth (J.T. Compher, Daniel Sprong). Yzerman also upgraded the defense (Jeff Petry, Justin Holl, Shayne Gostisbehere) and got a proven backup goaltender (James Reimer).

This roster looks capable of contending for a playoff spot.

But the question will be how much the gap has narrowed between the Wings and the upper echelon of the Atlantic Division and the Eastern Conference?

For now, let’s concentrate simply on the Atlantic Division, whose top half has been as powerful as any of the four divisions the last several years.

This season? It’ll be good, but maybe not as good as in the past.

Let’s take a look at how the Atlantic Division is shaping up about a month before training camp begins:

Boston: The Bruins loaded up during last season’s record-breaking 135-point season, hoping for a Stanley Cup and understanding future consequences. A shocking first-round playoff exit, salary cap ramifications and restraints, and retirements of Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci have tarnished the summer. It’ll be fascinating to see how this season unfolds for Boston. This roster still has elite talent (David Pastrnak, Brad Marchand, Charlie McAvoy), and the defense and goaltending is fine. But that forward group isn’t anywhere close to where it was a season ago, and you wonder if the Bruins can consistently produce enough offense. The Bruins have definitely come back to the pack.

Toronto: The addition of former Red Wings forward Tyler Bertuzzi, along with forwards Max Domi and Ryan Reaves and defenseman John Klingberg changes the complexion of this team. The Leafs chose not to break apart their four star forwards (Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares, William Nylander), so their top two, maybe three, lines are going to be as deep as any in the NHL. But there’s a gnawing suspicion this roster isn’t as good as it was at the end of last season, as some key free agents departed (notably Ryan O’Reilly). The continued playoff disappointments and impending free agency of those star forwards will constantly be in the news cycle, too.

Tampa Bay: Remember the old Boston Celtics with Larry Bird, Robert Parish and Kevin McHale? Or when the Dallas Cowboys were getting older with Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin? The Tigers toward the end of their run with Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera leading the way? All those rosters were formidable, but you doubted whether they could make another championship run because of health, or lack of depth, or too much mileage being used in previous long playoff runs. These Lightning are beginning to feel that way. It’s difficult to believe they won’t make the playoffs, since there’s still enough quality talent. But they don’t look as powerful as they used to be. And injuries to key people would really sink them.

Florida: The Panthers made an unbelievable run to the Stanley Cup Final, but they paid for it with their bodies. Matthew Tkachuk (sternum), Aaron Ekblad (shoulder) and Brandon Montour (shoulder) all had offseason surgery and may not be ready to begin this season. That’s three crucial players. There’s enough on this roster to keep the boat steady and win games. But again, that’s three vital parts of the lineup and the defense, in particular, without Ekblad and Montour, who starred during the playoffs, will be suspect. The one positive for Florida, though, is gaining that playoff experience and success it had. The Panthers have a better understanding of what it takes to win.

Buffalo: This is the team to keep an eye on. The Sabres missed the playoffs by one point. They have a terrific young nucleus headed by center Tage Thompson and defensemen Rasmus Dahlin, Owen Power and Mattias Samuelsson, along with a deep forward group. The key will be goaltending, and how good it can be. If youngster Devon Levi takes a major step, this easily could be a playoff team.

Ottawa: It feels like we’ve been waiting for the Senators to make a push into the playoffs for a minute now. With the addition of goaltender Joonas Korpisalo and the return of forward Josh Norris (Oxford) from shoulder surgery, this roster does look like a playoff team. They missed the playoffs by six points last season, but don’t underestimate the return of Norris, who had a 35-goal season two years ago. The Senators also appear deep on defense. Maybe this is finally the Senators’ time.

Montreal: The Canadiens are definitely rebuilding, but they’re likely to be better than last season’s 68-point team. Montreal was devastated with injuries last season, have been for the last several seasons, and are counting for that trend to end. There’s a good base here, with some high-quality talent, but contending for the playoffs is a ways away.


Twitter: @tkulfan

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