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Atlantic Division reset: Bruins want to hold their spot, but surging Sens looking for breakthrough

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Capitals Bruins Hockey

Patrice Bergeron, left, signed a new contract with the Boston Bruins but he'll be without the injured Brad Marchand, right, for the first two months of the season.  

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This is the second part of a three-part series looking at the NHL's Atlantic Division heading into training camp. Part 2 deals with the two middle-of-the-road clubs.

If we can start with the premise that the top three teams in the Atlantic in some order will be Tampa Bay, Toronto and Florida, it means the battle for No. 4 looms large in the Eastern Conference playoff race.

The Boston Bruins were fourth last season with 107 points – finishing 32 points ahead of the Sabres, 33 ahead of Detroit and 34 ahead of Ottawa. You would ordinarily think there's no way such a deficit could be made up in one season by anybody, but the Bruins suddenly started to look oddly vulnerable after losing Game 7 of their first-round playoff series at Carolina.

In the what-have-you-done-lately department, the Bruins fired Bruce Cassidy, the coach who led them to Game 7 of the 2019 Stanley Cup final against St. Louis. Then their summer devolved into a flurry of bad injury news.

Winger Brad Marchand (hip) and defensemen Charlie McAvoy and Matt Grzelcyk (both with shoulder injuries) won't be ready for the start of the season –- and it could be into December before Marchand and McAvoy are back.

In Ottawa, meanwhile, the Senators might have won the offseason for the entire NHL. They traded for forward Alex DeBrincat from Chicago and goalie Cam Talbot from Minnesota and signed Ottawa native and former Philadelphia captain Claude Giroux to a three-year contract in free agency. Those are some serious additions.

The Sabres' youth movement and Detroit's foray into free agency have both clubs thinking they can get into the mix as well, but it's the Senators who most observers peg as Boston's chief challenge to sneak into the No. 4 spot.

And the Sabres will get a good look at all the changes in Ottawa right away, as the Oct. 13 season opener in KeyBank Center will be against the Senators.

A look at the Atlantic's middle ground:

Boston Bruins

Around the boards: Among all the offseason downers, the Bruins got better news in August when perennial Selke winner Patrice Bergeron pushed aside retirement rumors and signed a one-year, $5 million contract and center David Krejci returned on a one-year, $1 million contract. Krejci spent 2021-22 home in Czechia, playing in the top pro league and in the Olympics. He's played 962 games over 15 seasons with the Bruins and should thus get to 1,000 this year. Despite signing a four-year, $20 million contract, old friend Linus Ullmark was not the No. 1 goalie by the time the playoffs rolled around as Jeremy Swayman (2.41/.914) played five of the seven games against Carolina.

New and notable: Cassidy's replacement as coach is Jim Montgomery, who was 61-43-10 in parts of two seasons in Dallas but was fired in December 2019 and subsequently entered an alcohol abuse treatment program. Montgomery got back into the game the last two years as an assistant in St. Louis. In addition to all of the old reliables, Montgomery gets an interesting new face up front in former New Jersey forward Pavel Zacha, who should be able to become a 20-goal scorer in Boston. And with Cassidy gone, former first-round pick Jake DeBrusk's long-standing trade demand has gone away. Funny how that sometimes works.

And Montgomery dropped this nugget recently to the Boston Globe: DeBrusk and Zacha are going to get chances to play on Bergeron's wings.

"Those are the two in particular, of the guys that we see in the top nine, that we need to take steps,” Montgomery said. “Not only for this year, to alleviate minutes from the guys that play top minutes, but also for the future.”

Vs. the Sabres: Nov. 12 and March 19 at KeyBank Center; Dec. 31 and March 2 at Boston.

Ottawa Senators

Around the boards: The hype for the Sens hasn't been this high since their 2007 Stanley Cup final team that beat the Sabres in the East final. Their playoff hopes haven't been this clear since the Craig Anderson-led team in 2017 came within a Game 7 goal of beating Pittsburgh in the East final. Talbot will play with a chip on his shoulder after Minnesota displaced him for Marc-Andre Fleury. Ottawa is an asset management delight: The Sens have five players signed for at least the next five years at $4.9 million or more. Just last week, they went all in on center Tim Stützle at $8.35 million a year through 2030-31. DeBrincat, a pending restricted free agent, is probably next. 

Sens GM Pierre Dorion called it a "historic day" for the franchise when he made the surprise reveal of Stutzle's contract at a media and sponsor season kickoff event last week. He's hoping he'll look back at the last three months as having been his team's most historic summer.

New and notable: Owner Eugene Melnyk died March 28 and left the team to his daughters, Anna and Olivia. They own it now via a board of directors and there are no rumblings of a sale. In fact, the push continues for a downtown arena. All the incoming NHL veterans are getting a lot of attention but forward Shane Pinto and defenseman Jake Sanderson, the team's No. 1 picks in 2019 and 2020, respectively, should be ready to break through. Sanderson's father, Geoff, played on the Sabres' 1999 Cup final team.

Vs. the Sabres: Oct. 13 and April 13 at KeyBank Center (season opener and season finale), Nov. 16 and Jan. 1 at Ottawa.

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