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NHL Atlantic Division outlook: Catching top trio of teams seems out of reach

This is the first of two stories looking at the NHL's Atlantic Division in the wake of the draft and free agency period. Read Part Two.

The Atlantic Division is seriously top heavy – and that doesn't even account for the possibility of Erik Karlsson landing in Tampa Bay. And now that John Tavares has been added to the mix in Toronto, it's bad news all around for teams like the Sabres trying to climb from the bottom.

As the mostly silent portion of summer takes hold in the NHL, the Sabres and three other teams are left to stare wistfully at a top of their division that appears rock solid. Teams in the Metropolitan, Central and Pacific all have hopes of cracking the upper echelon. Not so in the Atlantic, where something seismic would have to happen for anyone else to move past Tampa Bay, Toronto or Boston, and Florida is hoping its big finish portends more to come from the opening faceoff of next season.

Here's a look at what almost certainly figures to be the top half of the division in 2018-19:

Tampa Bay Lightning

Slapshots: Getting Nikita Kucherov signed to an extension was job one and GM Steve Yzerman got it done, like he usually does. A $9.5 million cap hit on an eight-year, $76 million deal that starts in 2019 is a solid price. Kucherov, remember, is a downright bargain for this season at just $4.76 million. Defenseman Ryan McDonagh is also at $4.7 million for this season before his seven-year, $47.25 million deal starts next year. What a lineup, with huge pieces like Kucherov, McDonagh, Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman, Ondrej Palat, J.T. Miller, Tyler Johnson and Alex Killorn all signed for at least the next four seasons and some even more than that.

Giveaways: It would take some salary gymnastics to pull off a Karlsson deal and give him the roughly $11 million per season he will be seeking. Ryan Callahan could be moved to accommodate it and you would assume the Senators would demand young blueline stud Mikhail Sergachev. What will Yzerman do after this season about new deals for emerging forwards Yanni Gourde ($1 million) and Brayden Point ($686,667)? And goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy has just two years left at $3.5 million. What's in his future? Winnipeg's Connor Hellebuyck got six years and $37 million, a cap hit of $6.167 million.

Loose pucks: Motivation is high after the Bolts were shut out by Washington in the final two games of the East final and then watched the Caps win the Stanley Cup. Since losing the Cup final to Chicago in 2015, Tampa Bay has lost in Game 7 of the East final twice.

Toronto Maple Leafs

Slapshots: Tavares came home. Seven years, $77 million. It has Leafs fans legitimately thinking Stanley Cup, a real chance to end the league's longest Cup drought and finally leave 1967 in the history books. The forward core is stacked, and Tavares with Auston Matthews and Nazem Kadri down the middle are hard to beat. How good will Mitch Marner be on Tavares' wing when he's already coming off a 22-goal, 69-point season at age 20?

John Tavares makes the move to the Toronto Maple Leafs, where the forward core is now stacked. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Giveaways: That defense group isn't scaring anyone. Morgan Rielly is strong but not elite, and Jake Gardiner has to wipe out the minus-5 nightmare he endured during the Game 7 loss at Boston in April. Toronto boosters are quick to point out the '17 Penguins didn't have much star power on the back end either. As for new GM Kyle Dubas, how will the boy wonder deal with contracts for William Nylander (restricted free agent right now) as well as extensions for Matthews and Marner, who are heading into the final year of their entry-level deals? James van Riemsdyk had to go in free agency in preparation for that day.

Loose Pucks: For all the Cup hysteria, Toronto fans should remember this: The Leafs haven't won a single playoff series since 2004. Might want to try winning one before you ponder winning four in the same spring. The relationship between Matthews and coach Mike Babcock bears watching. Babcock headed to Arizona after the season to mend some fences after Matthews seemed disturbed by his lack of ice time during the playoffs.

Boston Bruins

Slapshots: They're the best 50-win team nobody is talking about. Strong down the middle, strong on the blueline and strong in goal with Tuukka Rask. And they're finding a way to mix in youth, too, with the likes of David Pastrnak, Charlie McAvoy, Brandon Carlo, Jake DeBrusk, Danton Henin and Ryan Donato.

Giveaways: The core is still strong, but the window has to be closing here. Zdeno Chara is 41 and probably heading into his final season. David Backes (34), David Krejci (32), Patrice Bergeron (32) and Brad Marchand (30) are all 30-plus years old. Jaroslav Halak, at two years and $5.5 million at age 33, is an iffy choice for a backup goalie after Anton Khudobin left for Dallas.

Loose pucks: Bruce Cassidy doesn't get much hype outside of Boston but he was a well-deserved Jack Adams Award finalist last season for coach of the year. He squeezed 112 points out of a group that had been in the 90s the previous three seasons.

Florida Panthers

Slapshots: They finished 25-8-2 for 96 points, the third-highest total in their history but missed the playoffs by a single point. Their 52 points after the All-Star break were the most in the NHL, but can they keep that going? You would think so. They traded for Ottawa standout Mike Hoffman and when you add him to the likes of Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov, Vincent Trocheck and Nick Bjustad, you've got quite a forward lineup.

Giveaways: Hoffman has more than a little baggage in the wake of the fiasco regarding his fiancee being accused of harrassing Karlsson's wife. It got him a one-way ticket out of Ottawa and both he and his fiancee will need to lay low on a new team to get accepted. You want to see a little more on defense past Aaron Ekblad and Keith Yandle. Mike Matheson's eight-year, $39 million deal kicks in this season as well. Roberto Luongo seems ageless in net but he's 39. How much good hockey does he have left in him?

Loose Pucks: A cautionary tale for the folks in Vegas comes from Sunrise. The Panthers made the Stanley Cup final in their third season – and have not won a single playoff series in the 22 years since. They're 0-4 and in the NHL's longest drought between postseason triumphs. If they earn a wild-card, they will continue to be hard-pressed to snap that drought.

NEXT: Can the Sabres clip the Wings and move past the Habs and Sens?

NHL Atlantic Division Outlook, Part II: No bottom's up for this quartet

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