Stop us if you've heard this before, but the Toronto Maple Leafs are entertaining sky-high expectations this season.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, it's a familiar refrain for the Maple Leafs, complete with plenty of pomp and circumstance that tends to end with a thud following the first round of the playoffs.
Well, this time Toronto should ascend to the top of the Atlantic Division -- you know, by the conclusion of the regular season. We're not getting into that whole 1967 thing and aspirations of winning the Stanley Cup.
Speaking of the Stanley Cup, the Tampa Bay Lightning fell two wins shy of their third consecutive title last season and should challenge Toronto every step of the way for the division title. The Florida Panthers are likely to finish third after undergoing a bit of an overhaul since capturing the Presidents' Trophy last season.
(Teams listed in predicted order of finish)
1. Toronto Maple Leafs
OK, so you're going to ask why this season will play out any differently for the Maple Leafs. The short answer is the team is talented at its core, and Toronto elected to keep the pieces of the puzzle together.
And let's face facts: Hart Trophy recipient Auston Matthews (NHL-best 60 goals, team-leading 106 points), Mitchell Marner (35 goals, club-high 62 assists) and William Nylander (34 goals, 46 assists) all enjoyed career seasons in 2021-22. All three have yet to hit their prime, and they are joined by defenseman Morgan Rielly (career-best 58 assists).
The major change resides at the other end of the ice following the departure of goaltender Jack Campbell to the Edmonton Oilers. Two-time Stanley Cup champion Matt Murray and former Washington Capitals netminder Ilya Samsonov will battle for playing time in the crease. Ah, and so begins the drama in Toronto.
2. Tampa Bay Lightning
Like Toronto, Tampa Bay kept its core intact -- well, for the most part. Captain Steven Stamkos, who had career-high totals in assists (64) and points (106) last season, former Hart Trophy recipient Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point will comprise a top line that could challenge any other unit in the league.
A lot more is expected of Nicholas Paul after he signed a seven-year, $22.05 million contract in July, and he'll likely be part of the second line, which won't have Ondrej Palat (New Jersey Devils). Brandon Hagel probably will step into that spot for the Lightning.
Former Vezina Trophy recipient Andrei Vasilevskiy can still rely on ex-Norris Trophy winner Victor Hedman in front of him, but Tampa Bay likely will need more from Mikhail Sergachev after fellow defenseman Ryan McDonagh was traded to the Nashville Predators.
3. Florida Panthers
The Panthers didn't stand pat after recording franchise records for wins (58) and points (122) last season. They named Paul Maurice as their coach and acquired Matthew Tkachuk in a blockbuster deal that sent Jonathan Huberdeau (NHL-best 85 assists) to the Calgary Flames.
Tkachuk, who signed an eight-year, $76 million contract extension, provides an element of physicality and abrasiveness that the free-wheeling Panthers didn't possess last season. He will be paired on the top line with captain Aleksander Barkov, who scored a career-high 39 goals last season.
Two-time Vezina Trophy recipient Sergei Bobrovsky is looking to follow up his best regular season with Florida. He has yet to get untracked in the postseason with the Panthers, however.
4. Boston Bruins
The Bruins will feature a new look right out of the chute, with Jim Montgomery replacing Bruce Cassidy as the team's head coach. Team captain Patrice Bergeron, 37, opted against retirement and returns to the fold for Boston, which will be without pesky forward Brad Marchand (hips) and defensemen Charlie McAvoy (shoulder) and Matt Grzelcyk (shoulder) at the start of the season.
David Krejci, 36, is returning from a one-year absence after playing in his native Czech Republic. He likely will pick up where he left off on a line with countryman David Pastrnak (team-high 40 goals) and former Hart Trophy recipient Taylor Hall.
Offseason acquisition Pavel Zacha is looking to build off a career-high point total set last season with the Devils (36). He will have a puncher's chance while slotted on a line with Bergeron and Jake DeBrusk.
5. Ottawa Senators
The new-look Senators added a bit of firepower in the offseason with the acquisitions of Ontario native Claude Giroux and Alex DeBrincat. The duo should aid in the continued development of Tim Stutzle, who received an eight-year, $66.8 million contract extension last month.
While Ottawa boasts a much-improved offense, its back end leaves plenty to be desired outside of workhorse defenseman Thomas Chabot. Veteran Travis Hamonic is a likely candidate as the next man up.
Offseason acquisition Cam Talbot was due to be the team's top goaltender, but that will be put on the back burner for five to seven weeks while he recovers from a broken rib. Anton Forsberg will be tasked with shouldering the load in his absence.
6. Detroit Red Wings
The future is looking bright in Detroit as the team builds around Calder Trophy winner Moritz Seider and promising youngster Lucas Raymond. With that said, there is plenty of work to be done during Derek Lalonde's first season as head coach of the Red Wings.
Captain Dylan Larkin and Tyler Bertuzzi can light up the scoreboard for Detroit, and the team added six-time 20-goal scorer David Perron and fellow top-six forward Andrew Copp to the roster in the offseason. The Red Wings, however, have been rather generous at the other end of the ice -- and that doesn't look as if it will change this season despite the additions of defensemen Ben Chiarot and Olli Maatta.
Goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic could be in for a long season if he doesn't get sufficient assistance from the blue-liners.
7. Buffalo Sabres
Tage Thompson enjoyed a career season for the Sabres in 2021-22, and the team rewarded him in late August with a seven-year contract extension worth $50 million. Thompson recorded team-leading totals in goals (38) and points (68) last season.
Jeff Skinner rebounded from a disastrous season in 2020-21 to score 33 goals and set up 30 others, and former top overall pick Rasmus Dahlin had a team-leading 40 assists. Promising center Dylan Cozens is on the ascent in Buffalo, which likely is placing more emphasis on teachable moments and the development of its young stars than on wins and losses.
Pity Craig Anderson, however. The 41-year-old goaltender is going to be peppered with shots for a Sabres team that will continue to take its lumps.
8. Montreal Canadiens
The Canadiens followed up a Cinderella run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2020-21 with the worst record in the league the following season. How did things get so bad, so fast?
Well, star goaltender Carey Price's health took a turn for the worse with his knee injury, and now the former Hart and Vezina Trophy recipient likely won't play this season after being placed on long-term injured reserve last month. Jake Allen, who signed a two-year contract extension last Saturday, and Sam Montembeault will share netminding duties.
Three-time 30-goal scorer Sean Monahan was added in the offseason to a Montreal offense that features new captain Nick Suzuki and promising Cole Caufield. While that's a plus for coach Martin St. Louis, there are a plethora of minuses on the Canadiens' back end.
--By Bill Bernardi, Field Level Media