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Leafs' Tavares: 'No doubt' Atlantic Division will continue to get tougher

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Toronto Maple Leafs captain John Tavares isn't sleeping on any of his rivals in the Atlantic Division in 2023-24.

"The steps that Detroit, Buffalo and Ottawa ... are taking, you see the talent they are developing and the season some of their guys have had (last year) and the way their teams are growing and the challenges they present," he said, per's Dave McCarthy. "They obviously feel they are ready to start contending and be playoff teams.

"There is no doubt it's only going to continue to get harder and harder, so we are aware of that challenge and know what's ahead."

The Red Wings, Sabres, and Senators all missed the playoffs last season to extend their respective postseason droughts, ranging from six years for Ottawa and a lengthy 12 campaigns in Buffalo's case.

The usual suspects dominated the top half of the Atlantic Division for the third straight campaign (excluding the re-aligned 2020-21 season), with the Boston Bruins, Maple Leafs, Tampa Bay Lightning, and Florida Panthers taking the first four spots.

However, the division's underdogs were closer than they've been in quite some time.

The Red Wings were 12 points out of the playoff picture but they posted their highest win total (35) and point percentage (.488) since 2015-16, the last time they made the postseason. The Senators finished six points ahead of Detroit in the standings, and their 86 points made for their highest total since 2016-17. The Sabres were the closest out of the bunch, though, completing the campaign just one point behind the Panthers for the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference.

All three squads made changes to their rosters this summer, too.

Detroit was the most active of the trio, bringing in two-time 41-goal-scorer Alex DeBrincat, responsible center J.T. Compher, wingers Klim Kostin and Daniel Sprong, as well as a host of new blue-liners including Jeff Petry, Justin Holl, and Shayne Gostisbehere. Buffalo also revamped its defense corps by adding Connor Clifton and Erik Johnson and will be relying on talented rookie Devon Levi in the crease. Finally, Ottawa tabbed Joonas Korpisalo as its new No. 1 goalie and reeled in veteran forward Vladimir Tarasenko.

Tavares has faith that his Maple Leafs can handle the increased competition.

"We certainly respect what they bring to the table, but we have to be prepared and we expect a lot of ourselves and have high expectations to still be one of the top teams, if not the top team, in our division," he said.

"That's always the goal when you start the year, and I think with the caliber of players we have and the depth we have, we still want to be right there."

The Maple Leafs made the playoffs for the seventh straight season last spring after finishing as the Atlantic Division's second-best team for the second consecutive year.

The puck drops on Toronto's 2023-24 campaign on Oct. 11 against the Montreal Canadiens.

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