Through the first weeks of the 2023-24 season, the Atlantic Division has lived up to the hype, with seven of the division’s eight teams sitting at or above a .500 points percentage. The Atlantic also contains the best defensive team early on, with the Boston Bruins allowing just 14 goals against in nine games, and the best offensive team, with the Detroit Red Wings scoring an outstanding 40 goals in 10 games.
The general consensus was that the Atlantic Division would be an absolute gauntlet this season and while that has certainly held true in the early days of the season, it hasn’t happened in the way anyone predicted. Nobody expected the Buffalo Sabres to stumble out of the gate so profoundly, but an even bigger surprise is the hot start the Montreal Canadiens have found themselves off to with a 5-2-2 record through their opening nine games.
Detroit has had an excellent start, making them one of the best stories across the league in October, however they are still just fourth in the division by points percentage (.650). We expected the Atlantic Division to be the league’s toughest this year, but so far it has also been the most chaotic (though the Pacific is a close second with the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers both having very rough starts).
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How are Detroit’s playoff hopes looking and what are their odds of remaining competitive in the strangeness that is the NHL’s Atlantic Division?
Detroit’s Hot Start
These past few weeks have been the most fun weeks that most Red Wings fans have experienced in nearly a decade. Blowouts, late comebacks, hat tricks, you name it and the Red Wings have done it early on this year. They currently lead the NHL in goals for, with Alex DeBrincat and Dylan Larkin among the NHL’s leaders in points and DeBrincat tied for the league lead in goals.
Through 10 games the Red Wings are scoring on just under 13% of their shots, which is not a sustainable number for this team, but if they can stay in the top half of the league by shooting percentage then they will have a chance to compete in this division given their exactly average goaltending (currently 16th in NHL save percentage).
Despite the strong 6-3-1 start, the Red Wings are only five points ahead of the Ottawa Senators and the Sabres who share the bottom spot in the division with eight points apiece. That means that one bad or unlucky week could be the difference between Detroit sitting second in the division as they do now, or them sitting in the bottom once again. The Atlantic is going to be volatile this year and while it is common for the playoff picture to be clear across the NHL by Thanksgiving, that doesn’t feel quite so certain this year.
Big Surprise, the Bruins are Still Great
I think the Bruins are becoming the new New York Islanders who for years thrived on doubters and low expectations. Last year, many people (myself included) thought that the Bruins were finally going to fall off with injuries to key players and the loss of head coach Bruce Cassidy . . . and then they had the best regular season in NHL history.
This year, expectations were similarly tempered after the retirements of both their top-six centers and the loss of key supporting cast members like Tyler Bertuzzi and Taylor Hall. Despite it all, the Bruins look like an absolute force once again, one that you can pencil in as a serious contender for this season’s Stanley Cup already.
Sabres Are a Mess, but They’re Improving
The Sabres had a really rough start to the year, with their electric offensive talent not translating early on and their highly touted goalie prospect Devon Levi looking like a 21-year-old with a single digit amount of pro games under his belt (which is exactly what he is so don’t panic).
Luckily for them it didn’t take all that long to get their offense firing, though their goaltending situation looks as uncertain as ever. They will certainly be in the playoff mix this year, especially if they get their goaltending situation sorted again (oof, that sounds familiar).
Canadiens Off to a Hot Start
This is the only team in the Atlantic that I don’t think Red Wings fans need to worry about this year, despite the wicked start they’ve gotten off to. Despite their 5-2-2 record and some impressive efforts against the league’s better teams, the Canadiens are obviously still a way off from being a legit contender. Their advanced stats look like those of a bottom-five team despite the early wins. The moment Montreal’s goaltending comes back to earth, so will they.
Senators Fans Can’t Catch a Break
The Senators have been the talk of the NHL this month, and not in a good way. Poor goaltending has sunk the Sens early on, but even league-average goaltending would likely be enough for this team to succeed. The return of Josh Norris and the emergence of Ridly Greig will go a long way to extend this team’s offensive firepower throughout their lineup, not to mention the signing of Vladimir Tarasenko. Ottawa isn’t a playoff lock by any means but if their goaltending can meaningfully improve, they will be dangerous.
Leafs and Lightning are Still Great
Both of these teams have nothing to prove in the regular season at this point. We know they’re top heavy, we know their stars will be more than enough to drag them into a playoff spot, and we know the season really begins on game one of the playoffs.
The Lightning have been dealt a wild hand with Andrei Vasilevskiy set to miss several more months recovering from surgery, but Jonas Johannson looks like he’s capable of being good enough to keep the team on track until Vasy returns.
Panthers Are a Wild Card
Obviously any team with Matthew Tkachuk and Alexander Barkov are in a pretty good spot, but the Panthers are a team that I really believe could miss out on the playoffs this year. You know the saying “you can’t win a playoff spot in October, but you sure can lose one”? Well that’s basically where the Panthers are right now with some of the worst finishing luck in the league (7.97% shooting percentage is seventh worst in the league) and injuries to several important defensemen. The Panthers are playing Oliver Ekman-Larsson nearly 24 minutes per game. That should be enough for you to understand the fragile state the Panthers are in.
How Do Detroit’s Playoff Chances Look?
Better than I expected! I didn’t expect the Red Wings to come flying out of the gates as they have so far this year but it is a most welcome surprise. They’ve set themselves up well for a more serious run at a playoff spot this year which I think was clearly the goal by adding contributors such as DeBrincat, Shayne Gostisbehere and J.T. Compher.
Some of the things that a team in Detroit’s position needs in order to make the playoffs is lots of scoring from key stars, solid depth scoring, and good-enough goaltending. DeBrincat and Larkin look poised to lead the team offensively all year, with growing chemistry that should make them a dangerous duo at even strength and on the power play for years to come.
The team has also had decent depth scoring so far with Joe Veleno, Daniel Sprong and Andrew Copp combining for 11 goals and 18 points in the team’s middle six forward group. Lastly, the team has received good, though inconsistent, goaltending to this point, with James Reimer looking like a great backup and Ville Husso showing that he has the potential to be a great starting goalie when he’s at his best.
Detroit will need a lot of things to come together for them to make the playoffs, especially considering how difficult their division is, but they’ve had a very promising start to the season. I’d currently put their playoff odds right around the 1 in 3 mark since the level of success they’ve seen so far is based more on shooting luck than on great puck possession and play driving, though I think it is still a real possibility that they weather the storm of regression and are able to be above the playoff line this year for the first time in eight years.