After months of waiting, the NHL returns this week, the first games starting on Wednesday, Jan. 13. In this period of uncertainty, there are a lot of new changes in play for this exclusive season. There are only 56 games and teams will only play everyone in their division eight, nine or 10 times. Only the top four teams from each division will make the playoffs this year.
This specific preview focuses on the East division, which covers the teams on the East Coast. Those teams are the Boston Bruins, Buffalo Sabres, New Jersey Devils, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals. They will play each other eight times each this season.
I think this is the most competitive division in the NHL, and nothing is a given. There is both a mix of young and old players and talent on either end of the age spectrum. Most importantly though, I believe that this is the most talented division in terms of goalies. Goalies are critical to the team, and the presence of a good goalie on every team leaves each team with a solid chance at contending. Let us dive right into how the division might play out.
Philadelphia Flyers (First):
If the Flyers proved anything last postseason, they are the team to beat in their division. Claude Giroux returns to lead the front lines once again and will be helped by James Van Riemsdyk and Jakub Voracek on the first line. The Flyers also have nice forward depth beyond the first line, as they can rely on Kevin Hayes, Travis Konecny, Sean Couturier and others to put pucks into the net. Even when the veteran line leaves, the Flyers have young pieces to take over on the front lines and score with consistent ease. On defense, the Flyers have pieces, but their main guys are Shayne Gostisbehere and Ivan Provorov who can defend at will. If the Flyers can get someone to work alongside Travis Sanheim, then the Flyers have not one, but two deadly lines that will be responsible for most of the action while the third and fourth lines develop into league players behind them. Then there is Carter Hart at goal; the 22-year-old was impressive in his first true playoff run and he can learn a trick or two from Brian Elliott. Either way, Hart is their franchise goalie, who could be in Vezina talks by the end of the season. The Flyers have the most potential to make the playoffs in this division, and although their path might not be easy, their talent will help them come out on top.
Washington Capitals (Second):
The Capitals have spent the last two years trying to get their second Stanley Cup but have had those hopes dashed in the first round. However, that might change this year, as the Capitals have a new head coach and most of their returning talent to lead them to prominent new heights. Alexander Ovechkin is their star, and if not for the pause in mid-March, could have finished with a 50- or even 60-goal season. He will not have that this year but could lead the league in goals for approximately the 10th time. He is accompanied up front by the likes of TJ Oshie and Tom Wilson, among others. Nicklas Backstrom will lead another line that could feature Evgeny Kuznetsov and Jakub Vrana, or even Lars Eller and Carl Hagelin. Basically, the Capitals have options to fill out a good portion of their top four lines, so unless someone gets hurt, there will not be any major issues. John Carlson and Dmitry Orlov, meanwhile, will take charge of the defense, and will have Zdeno Chara to help them teach some of the younger players on a second line while others such as Nick Jensen, Brendan Dillon and Trevor Van Riemsdyk continue to play their best. Out of all the teams in this division, the Capitals had the most interesting goalie change. Braden Holtby left in free agency and was initially replaced by Henrik Lundqvist until he got open heart surgery. Nonetheless, the Capitals have their guy in Ilya Samsonov to control the crease for most games while Vitek Vanecek backs him up. This is good for Samsonov as we might be seeing the end of Henrik Lundqvist. The Capitals, like the Flyers, have the potential for a deep playoff run, and their aggressive plethora of talent is something to look out for in terms of who scores and who defends the scorers.
Buffalo Sabres (Third):
The Sabres have had a decade of disappointment, especially in the last few years with a solid forward core that should have playoff experience. Jack Eichel is not the problem; he is the star of this team. It is everyone else around him. Adding Eric Staal as veteran depth helps with training the younger players, but the Sabres will also need Jeff Skinner to return to his 2018-19 form where he scored 40 goals, leading to a lengthy extension to stay in Buffalo. Luckily, the Sabres also acquired Taylor Hall on a one-year deal, and if he performs well this season, he might get a Skinner-like extension, which would be good for Buffalo’s long-term future alongside Casey Mittelstadt and Dylan Cozens. On defense, Rasmus Dahlin will look to make a junior leap and hopefully land on the first line by season’s end. He has options to work with as well, such as Jake McCabe and Rasmus Ristolainen, but only time will tell to determine how Dahlin does this season. Behind the crease, the Sabres have Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark to take turns, and if both are decent, the Sabres have a serious chance to contend. This Sabres’ team could be the deepest since their President’s Trophy 2006-07 season, and that leaves the potential open for a deep run in a deep division.
New York Rangers (Fourth):
This prediction might be a reach, but the Rangers’ rebuild has been interesting, and a temporary division change might help them. For starters, the Rangers selected Alexis Lafreniere first overall, and he will at least start the season on the second line. That is because the Rangers have one of the better first lines in the league. Mika Zibanejad had a 41-goal season last year, including a five-goal game, and his emergence as a No. 1 center was what the Rangers wanted. He is accompanied by Chris Kreider and Artemi Panarin, both of whom had solid seasons last year. If this line plays like they did last season and Kaapo Kakko improves in his sophomore season, the Rangers will be serious contenders beyond this season. Defense seems to be a key focus everywhere, the Blueshirts have Tony DeAngelo and Jacob Trouba on the first line and Adam Fox on the second line, but after that, the Rangers have some questions. Perhaps those questions could be erased if Libor Hajek and K’Andre Miler continue their development on the team. As for goalie, the departure of Henrik Lundqvist hurts, but Igor Shesterkin proved that this is his team now, and with Alexander Georgiev to boot, the Rangers have a nice tandem to protect the crease. The Rangers have been “rebuilding” for years, and their luck and decisions over the years will lead to some awesome talent on the ice for a dark horse playoff team.
Boston Bruins (Fifth):
Last season, the President’s Trophy Champions were not even a No. 1 seed in their own conference. This time, the Bruins will have to handle a season of mediocrity. Charlie McAvoy and Brandon Carlo will lead a defensive corps that took a massive hit when Zdeno Chara and Torey Krug left for other contending teams. In addition, two of Boston’s top three forwards might miss the start of the season due to injury. That leaves newly named captain Patrice Bergeron to lead a team with young talent until David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand return at some point, and aside from David Krejci, there are not many veterans who can help with teaching the younger players the skills of the game. Should they return early, then things might change in terms of where the Bruins finish this season. As for the goalie situation, Tuukka Rask returns after having to leave the bubble due to personal reasons, and he will have Jaroslav Harak to back him up. In one of the most competitive divisions, the Bruins do not have enough talent with their current list of losses to compete for the top prize, instead, they will fight for a lower playoff spot and just miss out. Maybe next year, the Bruins will return to form again and will show why they were the President’s Trophy Champions last season.
Pittsburgh Penguins (Sixth):
The Penguins have Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, but their core is aging, and their playoff window might be shutting this season. The window was closing after getting swept by the Islanders and got shut more when they lost to the Canadiens in the qualifying round. The Penguins did get Kasperi Kapanen back and also have Jake Guentzel to work with, but outside of them, the Penguins do not have a consistent forward that can fill their lines. They will have to work with Jared McCann, Brandon Tanev and Jason Zucker to improve their skills so they could take over the lines, but there are not many talents outside of these seven that can make this team look as good as they have been over the last decade. Should the Penguins get one big talent out of the blue, then they might be serious contenders. On defense, Kris Letang is going to take charge once again, but there is uncertainty as to who will be his line mate. It could be John Marino, or Brian Dumoulin or even Chad Ruhwedel, but that is inconclusive and will only be determined over time. Gone are the days where Jack Johnson could be his linemate, and the Penguins are going to need to find an answer if they have any shot of competing towards the end of the season. Matt Murray left, but Tristan Jarry is their answer in the crease. With no one to back him up, Jarry will be assigned the task of starting just about every game until a backup does arrive, whether that is through a trade or free agency. The Penguins, stuck in an aggressive division, will have to bunker down and get used to being mediocre for the first time in over a decade.
New York Islanders (Seventh):
The Islanders had a deep playoff run by going to the Eastern Conference Finals, but their playoff experience might have to wait another year. Although they have the talent, they are stuck in a tough division along with some serious playoff contenders. Mathew Barzal returns after weeks of holding out for a contract and will have a decent first line in Anders Lee and either Leo Komarov or Josh Bailey to fill out the spot. The Islanders have a nice mix of veterans and young players, whether that is Andrew Ladd or Jordan Eberle or even Anthony Beauvillier, a future first-line winger. The defense is underrated, as there is no big first liner, but a mix of talent such as Nick Leddy and Thomas Hickey to take charge, alongside Adam Pelech and Scott Mayfield amongst other talents to limit the opposition from finding their way to the net. The departure of Thomas Griess means nothing, especially since the Islanders have Semyon Varmlamov and his successor Ilya Sorokin, who could either be the next Billy Smith or Rick DiPietro. Again, the Islanders have a decent pool of talent that will make them contend, but the Islanders will miss out due to not having enough talent, significantly on defense, to beat out other contenders.
New Jersey Devils (Eighth):
The Devils were not good last season and unfortunately will continue to be not good in a strong division. The Devils do have pieces, Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier will take most of the faceoffs for the top two lines, but outside of them and Nikita Gusev, there is not really anyone that stands out up front for the Devils. If you include Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac, there are only about two decent forward lines, leaving the bottom six with significant holes. On defense, PK Subban returns for another season and will look to lead the defense with the help of Dmitry Kulikov on the first line. Everyone else on the blue line is developing but could be decent members of the stable for years with the right training. One advantage the Devils do have though is their young stud at goal in MacKenzie Blackwood. I like his potential and he could be a franchise goalie just like Martin Brodeur. Blackwood almost got veteran help in Corey Crawford, but he retired suddenly after 10 seasons, so this is Blackwood’s crease to own, which I know he will. If the Devils get some upgrades on defense and on the third line, they could be contenders, but until then, the Devils will let their talent develop while they sit at the bottom of the division. Their three first picks this season sure will thank them later for that.
Due to the nature of this season’s playoffs, the divisional/first round only will be listed for the playoff predictions.
Flyers beat Rangers in seven
Capitals beat Sabres in six
So, this is how I think the East Division is going to play out. Depending on what happens during the season, things might change, and I have no expectation that these spots will be correct. Regardless, the competition in this division should be memorable and will fuel rivalries both new and old. Let the hockey season get underway.