Playing devil's advocate about the Leafs and Bruins

It’s being taken as a given that the Atlantic Division is going to have three of the five best teams in the league this year, and that Florida is probably going to make the playoffs after barely missing last season and improving this summer.

This is a view shared by many in the hockey world, and with good reason. I certainly subscribe to the idea that all four of these teams are exactly what people think they will be. But all summer, I’ve had a bit of a nagging suspicion that I can’t quite shake around the Leafs and Bruins, specifically.

With Tampa, just about anyone would look at that roster 1-20 and say, “This absolutely has to be one of the best teams in the league this season.” At least, barring catastrophic injuries to multiple players — not out of the question since it happened two seasons ago — this is a team whose eighth-best forward is either Yanni Gourde or Tyler Johnson (depending on your tastes), and whose fifth-best defenseman is, what, Jake Dotchin? Forget it. This is an incredible club.

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Boston and Toronto, though, there’s something I kinda can’t shake. Don’t get me wrong, I think both are very, very good, but I might have spent a little time recently talking myself into being bearish on them.

Toronto obviously took a big step this summer in signing John Tavares, giving them arguably the best center depth in the league (though Pittsburgh would have something to say about that) and generally did a good job of clearing out some of the problematic parts of last year’s roster.

The loss of James van Riemsdyk on the wing, though, could hurt more than many expect — he scored 36 goals last season and only had seven fewer points than Willy Nylander — and all the concerns about that defense should still apply. Obviously the addition of Tavares, which bumps down everyone else in the lineup and therefore dramatically improves the No. 3 center position vacated, if you want to call it that, by Tyler Bozak. Therefore, it’s arguable — and I’m not totally sold on my own argument here but I think it’s worth considering — that the addition of Tavares could end up being a net push, or certainly not as much of a gain as one assumes on the surface.

Given how well they did last year, it’s going to be tough for the Leafs and Bruins to get much better this season. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

This was a 105-point team last year, tied for sixth in the league with the reigning Cup champs, and a lot of its best players are still improving. There’s room to grow offensively on a team that scored 270 goals, so it’s an enviable position.

But uhh, what about that defense? This is the big potential hangup people cite with the Leafs, and for good reason, because unlike a lot of the presumed elite teams in this league, there’s no high-end No. 1, even if you like Morgan Rielly quite a bit, and the rest of the guys are solid for their roles (Gardiner, Carrick, Dermott), or — let’s be generous here — “mystery boxes” (Hainsey, Zaitsev). I don’t think this is a bad defense by any stretch of the imagination, but is it enough to help this team take the next step many suppose? Especially in a division that should be more competitive than it was last season? Well, I’m still erring on the side of “yes” but I’m not as convinced as I was even a month ago.

The same is true, for different reasons, of the Bruins, who were a point shy of the division lead that would have given them a slightly easier playoff path, and three points shy of the Presidents’ Trophy. This, of course, comes when most reasonable pundits thought they would be okay or even bad — those pundits, from what I understand — include people in the Boston front office, who privately weren’t counting on anything particularly good to come their way in 2017-18.

Boston improved its backup goaltending position by adding Jaro Halak this summer, and otherwise made some depth signings that could shore up the bottom of a roster that frankly needed shoring up. Maybe you say the loss of Nashes Riley (coming off a career year) and Rick (who was serviceable in a middle-six role down the stretch) canceled out the likely marginal improvements from adding Joakim Nordstrom and bringing another kid or two aboard for the full season, like Ryan Donato or Anders Bjork.

But as with the Leafs, I look at that defense and say, “Ehhh, I dunno.” Unlike Toronto they at least have that high-end No. 1 in Charlie McAvoy and Zdeno Chara was very good again last season at age 620. Torey Krug is an elite “situational offensive D” and Brandon Carlo is a solid No. 4. But if you’re choosing from John Moore, Kevan Miller and Adam McQuaid, you’re taking two of three bad options, and there will always be the lingering question of whether Chara has another good year in him. Guys over 40 are rare in this league for a reason, after all.

The combo of Halak and Tuukka Rask in net should keep Boston pretty competitive failing all else, but this team shot almost 10 percent last year. That includes the incredible Marchand-Bergeron-Pastrnak line shooting north of 12.1 percent as a three-man unit in all situations. Even if you love that line (and you should, because it’s the actual best in the league) you have to assume they’re not gonna score 74 percent of the goals when they’re on the ice together next season.

Generally speaking you don’t worry about that top line. Every other line, though? Well…

David Krejci scored at a 60-point pace last season. Is that something he can replicate with Danton Heinen and literally any of the team’s meager right wing group. After Pastrnak and David Backes (yikes) you’re in the “who really knows?” camp with Bjork, maybe Noel Acciari.

Then there’s the center depth. They added Chris Wagner this summer to bring a little more solidification there, and if you’re thinking “Who is Chris Wagner, again?” that’s kinda the point. He’s fine but he had 16 points last year, so that’s an area of concern, especially in a division that’s getting incredibly good down the middle.

Again, people are going to think I’m saying these teams are bad or something, and I’m absolutely not. Moreover I still lean more toward their being elite, or at least close to it. But is it really a foregone conclusion that these are two guaranteed top-five clubs? I’m just starting to wonder about that.

Ryan Lambert is a Yahoo! Sports hockey columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

All stats via Corsica unless otherwise noted.

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