Entering last season, hockey media panned the Atlantic Division as the worst division in the league. That’s not the case anymore. The Atlantic has the three best teams in the NHL in terms of standings points at the twenty-five game mark of the season. The Tampa Bay Lightning, Buffalo Sabres, and Toronto Maple Leafs would all be in first place in any of the other divisions except for the Metropolitan where the Nashville Predators are currently tied with the Lightning as the second-best team in the NHL.
To get an idea of what’s happening around the division, we’re going to see how each team’s play compares their play from last season. To do this, we’re going to look at some key stats for each team. The data for team performance in this article comes from Corsica. The skater data comes from Evolving Hockey.
The charts below each have two sections. The top is a heatmap of team performance indicators. On that heatmap, blue means the team is playing better than last year and orange means they are playing worse than last year. Last year refers to the full season not this specific date last year.
The second section is WAR for the top thirteen forwards and seven defenders in ice time. In this section, I’ve calculated what each player’s WAR would be if they continued to play as they have so far over the full season and then compared that to what they did last year. Players who’ve missed time due to injury will look worse than players who have played most of their team’s games.
Because this is a Lightning blog, we’re going to start with the Bolts and from there, we’ll cover each team in order of standings points as of Wednesday morning. The data in the charts is also current through Wednesday morning.
Tampa Bay Lightning
The Lightning are better so far this year than they were last year at 5v5. They’ve improved both in terms of shot share and expected goal share. They’ve taken a slight dip in the shot quality they allow the opposition but other than that, we see a lot of blue on the top row.
Special teams is different. They’ve gotten better results in terms of shooting percentage and goaltending but other than that, the numbers aren’t flattering. The power play looks worse in every way. The penalty kill, despite a strong start, has fallen apart recently and is worse than the much maligned unit from last season.
Among skaters, Brayden Point shows the most growth and that shouldn’t be surprising. Tyler Johnson is also off to a strong start. Erik Cernak has done an admirable job filling in for Anton Stralman and even though he’ll probably head back to Syracuse when Stralman is healthy, seeing him in this position is encouraging for the future.
Among defenders, Victor Hedman is off to a slow start. His numbers are much worse than the lofty standards he’s set for himself in the past. For now, I consider that an early season quirk and don’t expect it to continue. But if his struggles are caused by something that might persist like a lingering injury of some sort, the Lightning will need to figure out a way to adjust because he’s been a huge part of the team’s success in recent years.
The Sabres are the most interesting team in the division. They’ve improved significantly over last season in almost every area. They’re much better in terms of shot and expected goal share. They’ve improved on offense and defense. Their shooting and goaltending is better.
On special teams, the power play has taken a big step forward. The only area where the team has given up some ground is on the penalty kill. They’re giving up higher quality shots than last season and that’s led to giving up more expected goals. The goaltending has bailed them out a bit but they can’t rely on that to continue.
As impressive as the team’s overall improvement is, maybe even more impressive than that is Jeff Skinner. He’s playing Hart-caliber hockey so far this season. The other noticeable thing with Buffalo’s skaters is that so few of them have gotten worse. And those that have only see a small drop.
This is a team showing almost universal improvement under head coach Phil Housley and while their numbers for the season aren’t good enough justify the results they’ve gotten, the team is clearly headed in the right direction.
Toronto Maple Leafs
The most striking thing about the Leafs is how similar they are to what they were last season. In some ways, that shouldn’t be surprising. They have the same coach and a similar roster. But the season-long absence of William Nylander and Auston Matthews missing a significant number of games due to injury would suggest a drop in performance. That hasn’t been the case.
The Leafs are performing similarly in both shot share and expected goal share. The big area of improvement at 5v5 has been goaltending. Freddie Andersen has been outstanding and is right with John Gibson in the Vezina conversation.
On special teams, the power play is similarly dominant to last year. The penalty kill is improved and is the area where the team has shown the most growth.
Mitch Marner and Morgan Reilly have been outstanding. John Tavares is living up to the hype. Matthews only looks like he’s moving backwards because of all the games missed due to injury. But assuming he plays the bulk of the rest of the season, that will correct quickly.
The Bruins..well...they aren’t as good as they were last year. Their shot metrics were among the best in the league in 2017-2018 and that isn’t the case this year. Instead, they’ve looked average. The drop at 5v5 is mostly due to a decrease in their offensive performance. The defense and goaltending have been slightly improved but not enough to compensate for the drop in shots and goals.
The special teams have also moved in the wrong direction. The power play is only slightly worse but the penalty kill has plummeted. They’re giving up lots more shots than they did last year and it shows in their results.
Among skaters, the Bruins have a slew of players who have dropped off from last season. The depth at forward that helped them so much last year isn’t there this year. Jake DeBrusk, Ryan Donato, and Danton Heinen are all having trouble replicating last season’s performances.
The Canadiens are another interesting team. They looked good on paper last year but struggled to score goals. This year, they’ve improved on their 5v5 shot metrics slightly on both offense and defense but what’s really driving their improved results is finally scoring some goals. Unfortunately for them, the goaltending hasn’t held up its end of the deal and that’s why the team is on the playoff fringe.
Montreal’s penalty kill is one of the most improved aspects of any team in the NHL this season. They’re allowing far less shots and controlling the quality much better than last year. But the power play is the opposite story. They’ve been worse in every way with the advantage.
The Habs don’t have any major movers among skaters. Jesperi Kotkaniemi has been great as a rookie. Max Domi and Jonathan Drouin are both having nice bounce-back years after struggling last season.
If the Sabres are the most interesting team in the division, the Wings are the least. They’re an old team with bad contracts that doesn’t seem to have a plan to get much better any time soon. They’re a little worse than they were last year and that trend will probably continue for the next couple of years as the team gets older unless Ken Holland finds a way to dump some of the albatrosses from the cap sheet.
Andreas Athanasiou has been great but after him, the team doesn’t have many positives. Justin Abdelkader appears to have reached the cliff that everyone saw coming for him well before he signed his outrageous extension.
The Senators are bad but at least they’re fun. Fun on the ice for their fans and fun off the ice for everyone else. Their 5v5 shot numbers are worse than last year. They’ve improved offensively but gotten worse defensively resulting in similar expected goal numbers to last year. The goaltending has also dropped off a bit.
The theme continues on special teams. They have a vastly improved power play but a worse penalty kill. But if a team is going to be bad, at least be bad in a fun way. So kudos to the Sens for that.
Thomas Chabot has been the brightest spot for the Sens this season. He looks like a future star on the blue line. Matt Duchene is playing like they expected him to play when they acquired him last fall. Mark Stone has somehow improved on last year, which puts him in the Hart conversation to this point in the season. I know he won’t win because of how bad the team is but if we’re just talking about the players who’ve added the most value to their teams over the first twenty-five games or so, he deserves to be mentioned.
Finally, we reach the Florida Panthers. A common pick prior to the season to be in the playoff conversation, they currently sit in last place in the Atlantic.
Something weird is going on with their 5v5 defense. They’ve given up fewer shots but the shots they allow are much more dangerous than last year. That results in a decrease in expected goal share despite an improvement in shot share.
The penalty kill is much better this year but the power play isn’t. And the results they’re getting are the reverse of that with improved goaltending and worse shooting percentages, which is again, weird.
The most encouraging sign for the Panthers this season is the return to form of Aaron Ekblad. Last season, it looked like he might never again reach the heights he saw in his rookie season. But he’s having his best season in years and if he maintains this level of play, that will be huge for Florida’s hopes of making a quick climb back to respectability.
The Atlantic Division is good. We already knew about the Lightning and the Leafs. The Sabres are playing above their heads but are massively improved over last season. The Bruins and Canadiens are at least competent with potential to be more than that if they can work out some of the kinks.
What was once perceived as the worst division in the NHL is no longer that. The Pacific holds that spot comfortably. Come playoff time, the Atlantic bracket could be the most fun to follow in the early rounds.