Red Wings Atlantic Division Preview Part 1: Toronto, Florida & Tampa Bay

Dec 21, 2019; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Detroit Red Wings left wing Adam Erne (73) skates with the puck as Toronto Maple Leafs right wing Ilya Mikheyev (65) tries to defend during the second period at Scotiabank Arena. Mandatory Credit: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 21, 2019; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Detroit Red Wings left wing Adam Erne (73) skates with the puck as Toronto Maple Leafs right wing Ilya Mikheyev (65) tries to defend during the second period at Scotiabank Arena. Mandatory Credit: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports /
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Florida Panthers

Record Last Season: 37-14-5
Playoff Results Last Season: Lost in six games to Tampa Bay in the first round
Expectations this season: A deep run in the playoffs

The Panthers saw a successful regular season that ended with a thud in the first round of the playoffs where the eventual champion Lightning bounced their rival in six games. The Panthers got better in the offseason, adding Sam Reihart via trade from Buffalo and though it’s not a game changer, added veteran Joe Thornton who’s chasing down his first Stanley Cup. Head coach Joel Quenneville has a more veteran laden lineup that will not only compete in the Atlantic for the top spot, but also push for a deep run in the playoffs.

Here are three things to watch for from the Panthers this season:

It’s going to be crowded at the top. Does Florida stand a chance of winning the division?

It shouldn’t be doubted in the slightest. Toronto is going to have a lot of pressure this season as their first round exit last year will put a spotlight on them to see how they respond. It’s not to say they’ll wilt–but Florida is a much different team than the last time the two met. They’ll match up better down the middle, and if goaltender Spencer Knight emerges as many expect he will, that’s a huge reason to think Florida could be the king of the division.

That leaves the only other team that should win the division in Tampa Bay. The defending back to back champs lost some punch but are still a formidable opponent. In Florida’s favor? A 5-2-1 head-to-head record in last year’s playoffs–albeit it one with Nikita Kucherov in the lineup.

Once the playoffs started, Tampa went into beast mode and the rest is history. The Panthers will feast on the likes of the Sabres while the Red Wings and Senators will be tough outs. Montreal is a wild card, as their Cinderella run that ended with a loss to Tampa in the Stanley Cup Final leaves them as probably middle of the pack.

The Atlantic comes down to the Panthers, Bolts, and Leafs and Florida certainly has a good shot at taking the division.

Speaking of Spencer Knight, does he take over the starting gig in Florida?

Complimentary of teammate and projected starter Sergei Bobrovsky, Knight will be competing for the top job openly. He sparkled in his first playoff start, helping the Panthers fend off elimination in game five, though they would fall in the next contest. The issue of course is a financial one with Bobrovsky still on the hook for five seasons at a $10M AAV.

Would Quenneville really sit his goalie at that price? According to NHL.com’s Michael Morreale, general manager Bill Zito said the best man will get the job–regardless of their financial numbers.

"“[Coach Joel Quenneville] has set the tone for every player and every position … best guys play,” Zito said. “Whoever the coaching staff feels is going to give us the best chance to win is going to play and that’s what he said from the moment I got here. We’ve embraced it and I think it’s been healthy, fair and good for the team.”"

The window is wide open for Florida. Regardless of who they start, if Knight builds on his brief performance from last season and Bobrovsky shows the form that helped him win the Vezina in Columbus, they could boast one of the best tandems in the league, making the who starts argument moot.

How will the Red Wings stack up against Florida?

The Red Wings beefed up their lineup a bit too, but are still obviously a few steps behind the Panthers. Detroit swiped a couple from Florida but dropped six of the eight. It won’t be any easier this season, either.  Florida will certainly give Detroit fits with the likes of Aleksander Barkov, Reinhart, Sam Bennett, Jonathan Huberdeau, Patric Hornqvist, and Anthony Duclair.

Never mind Owen Tippett, who is due to take the next step as a goalscorer, and Thornton, who can center the fourth line. Heck, Frank Vatrano had 18 goals in 56 games so he’ll be a threat, too. The Panthers won’t be short on goal scoring, and while Detroit will be better defensively, it doesn’t seem likely they’ll have to win with the stifling defensive style they did last season instead of matching them in scoring.

Outside of Buffalo and Ottawa (and of course Montreal, who Detroit beat handily in 2019-20) it’s going to be a tough draw for Detroit in the Atlantic. The Panthers will be no different.

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