Atlantic Division Teams on The Rise
The Atlantic Division is home to one of the most intriguing storylines of the 2023-24 NHL season. Three teams on the rise are hoping to finally emerge from extensive rebuilds and reward the loyalty of their fans by returning to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Detroit hasn’t hosted postseason hockey since 2015 after ending their incredible streak of playoff appearances at 25 consecutive years. The Buffalo Sabres are looking to snap a more sinister streak of their own, having extended the longest playoff drought in pro sports to 12 seasons last year when they finished one point short of the final wildcard spot. The Ottawa Senators round out the list, hoping the pain of committing to a full rebuild after losing in game 7 of the 2017 Eastern Conference Final will finally pay off.
Unfortunately, the top of their division has long been occupied by established contenders in Boston, Toronto, and Tampa Bay. None of these postseason fixtures appear to be going anywhere, and with the Florida Panthers looking like a threat to follow up their surprise run to the Stanley Cup Final with another competitive campaign, it’s hard to imagine more than one or two of the aforementioned exciting young squads having a realistic shot at a playoff berth.
This all adds up to a three way battle that will be exhilarating to watch throughout the season. Whoever is left standing in May will finally be rewarded for seasons of suffering, and anyone left on the outside looking in will be left with more questions than answers. Jobs may be on the line as patience runs thin after once again failing to fulfill preseason hype.
Though the season is still young, we’re already beginning to see trends emerge after nearly a month of action. Let’s take a look at how each of these teams stack up and evaluate their chances of achieving the lofty goal of snapping extended playoff droughts.
Detroit Red Wings
Is Their Hot Start Sustainable?
The Red Wings jumped out to an early lead in this race, shocking the hockey world with a red hot 5-1-1 start to the year. Their biggest offseason addition, Alex DeBrincat, was scoring at an outrageous pace, their power play was incredible, and the veterans they signed in free agency were chipping in with supplemental scoring and solid leadership. Those who questioned the Yzerplan were shamed for doing so by Wings fans with eyes on the President’s Trophy, but anyone who looked at the underlying numbers knew this pace was unsustainable.
Through the first 7 games of the season, the Red Wings were beneficiaries of a 15.9% team shooting percentage, with DeBrincat leading the way at an ungodly 39.1%. Their power play was converting at an impossible 41.3% rate as well, and 35 year old backup goalie James Reimer was bailing them out in limited action with two of the best performances of his career. They capitalized on all this good fortune to outscore their defensive deficiencies and emerge victorious from a few games in which they were severely outplayed. This isn’t to say they were total frauds, as their transition game and aggressive puck pressure generated plenty of quality scoring chances, but relying on above average shooting luck and a red hot power play has never been a sustainable recipe for success in the NHL. They were bound for some negative regression sooner or later.
Over the last 4 games, that’s exactly what happened. They’ve gone 1-3-0 and only combined for 2 goals in the three losses while DeBrincat has been held off the scoresheet entirely. The early cushion they enjoyed in the standings has shrunk as the rest of the division rounds into form, and they now sit 4th in the Atlantic at 6-4-1 having played more games than any of the teams chasing them down.
The Red Wings’ 5-on-5 possession metrics allow us to see past the heavily applied makeup of shooting percentages and the promiscuous clothing of power play goals, revealing the warts that reside beneath the mirage of beauty. Through 11 games this season they rank 27th in Corsi-for percentage (46.9%), 25th in Fenwick-for percentage (47.5%), and while their expected goals for total is respectable at 10th in the league (20.9XG) it’s not nearly enough to make up for their 29th ranked expected goals against total (22.3XGA). Simply put, they are giving up far more offensive opportunities than they’re creating at even strength, and that’s where the vast majority of the game is played.
Red Wings’ Reasons For Optimism
Despite the discouraging statistics I’ve listed, there are some positives to be found in HockeyTown. Their 10th ranked penalty kill is better than it’s been in years, clicking at a rate of 83.3% after toiling below league average for the past 3 seasons. They added depth and experience over the summer in JT Compher, Jeff Petry, Shayne Gostisbeher, Daniel Sprong, and others who have already looked decent and should continue to improve as they adjust to new teammates and systems. They finally have a legitimate top line thanks to the instant chemistry between DeBrincat and captain Dyan Larkin. They have a young stud on the blue line in Moritz Seider, who has been dominant against tough competition after last season’s sophomore slump. James Reimer has continued to look spectacular in limited action, posting a .944 save percentage and 1.52 goals against average through 4 games and is earning more starts by the day. And let’s not forget that they still have a winning record despite their deficiencies. They aren’t likely to win the Division, but with some tighter defensive play at even strength and growing team chemistry among all the new additions, the Red Wings should be able to snap out of this slump and make a push for a playoff berth by season’s end.
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Buffalo’s young season has been trending in the opposite direction of Detroit’s. They sputtered out of the gate, losing 3 of their first 4 games in regulation before finding their footing with wins in 4 of their last 6. The explosive offense that won the hearts of fans around the NHL last season is once again putting the puck in the net, scoring 23 goals in their last 6 games after burying only 9 in their first 4. Once again the results can be traced to a regression in shooting percentage, but in this case it’s of the positive variety.
The Sabres scored on only 8.1% of their shots through the first four games. Whether their lack of finish was a result of rust or the exceptional play of opposing goaltenders, it’s already correcting itself. They now look like the Sabres we all know and love, shooting at 13.2% over the last 6 games to bring their season average up to a much more characteristic 11.2% (good for 10th in the NHL).
The most surprising part of this offensive awakening is that it’s come almost exclusively at even strength. Last season’s Sabres relied heavily on their 9th ranked power play, which punished opposing penalty killers at a rate of 23.4%. Even though they’ve kept their star studded top unit of Tage Thompson, Dylan Cozens, Jeff Skinner, Rasmus Dahlin, and J.J. Peterka intact, they’ve failed to replicate that success through the first 10 games of this campaign. They’ve only managed to score 3 times on 30 man-advantage opportunities, a 10% conversion rate that ranks 30th in the league.
While the early results have been disappointing, I don’t think this should be cause for concern just yet. The Sabres haven’t had nearly as many opportunities on the power play as most of the teams ahead of them, with 50% of the league having earned 35 power plays and 7 teams already in the 40’s. There’s no reason to believe they won’t figure things out with more practice, and in the meantime they’re making up for the lack of power play production by scoring at even strength (which is more important anyway).
Sabres’ Areas of Concern
While the Sabres’s offense is no area for concern, I can’t say the same for their ability to keep the puck out of their own net. This was their biggest flaw last year, and ultimately ended up costing them a playoff spot. The additions of veteran depth defensemen Eric Johnson (40.3CF%, 42.0FF%) and Connor Clifton (47.4CF%, 49.3FF%) were expected to help, but they’ve been getting caved in, owning on-ice possession metrics below 50%. This is dragging the team’s total shot share down from last season by a considerable margin from 51.4CF%, 50.3FF% to 48.2CF%, 48.8FF%.
Oddly enough, their penalty kill has been vastly improved despite the defensive decline at even strength. They currently rank 5th in the league with a 90% success rate, a far cry from last year’s 28th ranked 73.01%. This is sure to come down as the sample size increases, but if they can finish the season in the 80s they’ll have turned a glaring weakness into an enviable strength.
Behind the defense, Buffalo has actually been the beneficiary of quality goaltending from an unlikely source. Just like last year, they’re running a 3 goalie rotation which is almost unheard of in today’s NHL. Devon Levi was supposed to be the savior for the Sabres’ woes between the pipes after joining the team for an impressive run at the conclusion of his college season, but he’s now struggled mightily through 4 starts with a 3.26GAA and .892SV%. Eric Comrie has been better (2.45GAA, .914SV% in one less game) but the real surprise has been the play of last season’s starter, Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen. He’s 3-1-0 with a 2.60GAA and an impressive .926SV%. We’ve seen him get hot like this in the past, but he’s never been able to sustain it over the course of an NHL season (his totals last year were 3.61GAA and .891SV%). If he can remain consistent, that would be a big boost for a team that hasn’t been able to trust their goaltending since sending Ryan Miller to the Blues ahead of the 2014 trade deadline. If he does cool off, they’d better hope Levi can adapt to the NHL fast.
Can The Sabres Snap Their Playoff Drought?
As a whole, the Sabres look like a strong 5-on-5 team with elite scoring talent that got off to a slow start. Their biggest areas of concern are on the power play and in the depth roles on their blue line (with goaltending still a possible concern in the future, but they seem to have it under control at the moment). These issues are not difficult to solve, especially considering the talent and youth of their core. Let’s also not forget that Jack Quinn was a big part of their success last season as a rookie, and he’s still recovering from offseason achilles surgery. If he returns down the stretch, that may just be the boost they need to push them over the finish line and finally return to the playoffs, but my hunch is that they’ll be in a pretty good position to do that even if he doesn’t come back before spring.
Off-Ice Distractions in Canada’s Capital
So far the Senators’ on-ice results have taken a back seat to the tornado of off-ice drama swirling around the franchise. It started with questions about Shane Pinto’s contract negotiations and when he would be back on the ice, and those questions were answered last week when the league slapped him with a 41 game suspension for activities related to sports wagering which I wrote about here . Before anyone could recover from that bombshell, the NHL delivered another blow to Canada’s capital city by stripping them of a future first round draft pick for their role in the Evgenii Dadonov trade debacle that took place over a year ago. Rather than comment further on the insanity of that situation, I’ll let you listen to what new Sens owner Michael Andlauer had to say about it.
Ottawa’s On-Ice Shortcomings
Understandably, these distractions have been accompanied by on-ice struggles. After a strong 3-1-0 start to the season, the Senators have lost 4 of their last 5 games in regulation while looking disorganized at times. It’s almost like they can’t string together a full 60 minutes of consistent play in their losses. Some nights they start strong, build a lead, and fall apart. Other nights they’re slow out of the gate, give up a few goals, then battle back only to lose in the third period. Whether it’s a blown defensive assignment, a missed offensive opportunity, or a lack of compete in a puck battle, stretches of sloppiness have been costing this team games and valuable points in the standings. These symptoms are common among teams distracted by off-ice drama, but hopefully the worst is over and they can begin producing at the level we saw through the first 4 games of the season.
Nearly all of Ottawa’s underlying numbers rank somewhere around the middle of the league, although one statistic that stands out is their ability to convert on high danger scoring chances. They’ve only generated 43.7% of the even strength high danger chances in the games they’ve played so far, a rate that doesn’t normally lead to much team success. Their ability to convert on the chances they do generate however, is among the best in the league. They’ve cashed in on 14.3% of their high danger opportunities, trailing only LA (18.8%), Minnesota, and Vancouver (both tied at 15.2%). This is indicative of the elite offensive talent on the Senators’ roster, and if they can clean up their mistakes and put forth a more consistent effort, they’re an incredibly dangerous team.
One more area in which the Senators need improvement is in goal. Their .895 team save percentage simply isn’t good enough to compete for a playoff spot, but there are reasons for optimism. New starting netminder Joonas Korpisalo did not look the part early on, allowing some soft goals at inopportune times to the tune of a .865SV% and a 4.0GAA in his first three outings. Fortunately for Sens fans, he appears to be finding his footing as the season progresses, posting a vastly improved save percentage of .932 over his 3 most recent starts while bringing his goals against average down to 2.67. He’s performed at a high level over extended stretches in Columbus and LA when called upon, but he’s never been a full time starter for an entire 82 game season before. The Senators are hoping this is what they’ll get from him for the rest of the season, otherwise it’s going to be incredibly difficult for them to catch back up to Buffalo and Detroit.
Senators’ Season Outlook
Ultimately, it’s difficult to evaluate the Senators when their on-ice focus has been clouded by off-ice events. Furthermore, their blue line has been decimated by critical injuries to Thomas Chabot, Erik Brannstrom, and Artem Zub. I’m not ready to write them off based on what we’ve seen so far; they’re loaded with young talent and have shown they can play better than this. If they can return to form and weather the storm until Chabot and Brannstrom return, they should be within striking distance of a wildcard spot when spring rolls around. Whether or not they can take it from the cluster of competitive bubble teams in the Eastern Conference remains to be seen.
This is an article written by Aaron Kinney
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