2021 NHL East Division preview

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This is it – NHL hockey returns this week, and we couldn’t be more excited.

From a heavyweight standpoint, you have to love the East Division. Sidney Crosby. Alex Ovechkin. Evgeni Malkin. David Pastrnak. Brad Marchand. Patrice Bergeron. Jack Eichel. Taylor Hall. 

And that’s just scratching the surface of what’s to come in a group with multiple strong contenders for the Stanley Cup, with the eight teams combining for four championships over the past decade. You’ve got teams coming to the end of their Stanley Cup windows and others on the verge of finally getting things moving.

You just love to see it.

With a nice mix of teams from the old Atlantic and Metropolitan divisions, you’ve got plenty of rivalries to keep you occupied this season. Let’s break down the eight competitors from the mighty-strong East Division for 2021:

Boston Bruins 

  • Stanley Cup Odds: +1400
  • Odds to win division: +250
  • Notable Arrivals: Craig Smith (F), Greg McKegg (F)
  • Notable Departures: Torey Krug (D), Alex Petrovic (D), Joakim Nordstrom (F), Zdeno Chara (D)

You can never really count out the Boston Bruins, but their Stanley Cup window is quickly on its way out.

That’s bound to happen over time, and there are more than enough strong years for Bruins fans to reminisce about from the past 15 seasons. But this might be one of the last real chances to capitalize on that success with much of the team’s core getting older. Brad Marchand is 32, Tuukka Rask is 33 and Patrice Bergeron is 35, and the Bruins don’t exactly have a booming prospect group to build from.

Boston’s top line with Marchand, Bergeron, and David Pastrnak are still the group to beat, but there needs to be other players picking up the scoring slack. With no 20-goal scorers coming past the top line, Ondrej Kase will be given an increased role after a six-game stint a year ago following a trade from Anaheim and rookie Jack Studnicka could find his way up there after a hot AHL rookie campaign, too. But after that, the Bruins need the big guns to be ready at all times because scoring depth isn’t a luxury, even if it seemed to improve as last season went on.

The biggest changes came on the backend, with top defender Torey Krug and longtime captain Zdeno Chara bolting to St. Louis and Washington, respectively. The Bruins didn’t bring in any notable outside help, and the group they have isn’t going to generate much excitement. Charlie MacAvoy is the No. 1, with Jeremy Lauzon likely joining him on the top-pairing. It’s a rather young group, with just bottom-pairing defenders John Moore and Kevan Miller being older than 30, and only McAvoy ($4.9 million) over $4 million on the books. If Lauzon and Carlo take further big steps in their game, that’ll be nice value, but I don’t expect the team’s defense to be a true game-changer for the team.

Now, with all that being said, the top-end players are still that – top-end. That’s why the Bruins are still a real contender and you shouldn’t be too worried about their chances at a long playoff run. Would Tuukka Rask have made a difference in the playoffs had he remained with the club? Maybe, but at 33, you have to wonder how many years of Vezina-caliber play he has left in him. If he plays like he did last year, the Bruins will be fine.

Buffalo Sabres

  • Stanley Cup Odds: +5000
  • Odds to win division: +2000
  • Notable Arrivals: Tobias Rieder (F), Matt Irwin (D), Brandon Davidson (D), Cody Eakin (F), Taylor Hall (F), Dylan Cozens (F)
  • Notable Departures: Wayne Simmonds (F), Jimmy Vesey (F), Johan Larsson (F), Michael Frolik (F)

Let me preface this by saying there are still quite a few concerns about the team’s roster. 

But with that said, things are truly, truly looking up after years of absolute misery. The Sabres haven’t won a playoff series since making the Eastern Conference final in 2007, making the post-season just twice over the next 13 years – including zero in the past nine. That’s a large portion of Jack Eichel’s career completely wasted and the fans deserve better. Since 2015, the Sabres have gone through three different GMs and coaches, on top of a rebuild on and off the ice. Fortunately, some solid off-season moves – highlighted by NHL MVP Taylor Hall – could push this team into a better situation.

What we’ve seen from the past two years is that Eichel – the second overall pick from the 2015 draft – is truly becoming one of the league’s best players, no doubt. But the quality of players he’s had beside him hasn’t been ideal, until now. Hall is in the fray as the best winger Eichel has ever had and Eric Staal gives the team a legitimate No. 2 middle piece to alleviate the stress. The depth on the team’s right side isn’t great, but Dylan Cozens could force his way onto the wing if needed, and, frankly, the Sabres could elect to give him top-line minutes after a hot World Junior Championship with Canada. Victor Olofsson should still be a good secondary scorer, but it’ll be interesting to see how her performs without Eichel if that ends up being the case.

Buffalo’s own-zone coverage is where things start to fall apart, though. Rasmus Dahlin is one of the league’s best young defenseman and there’s no concern about his overall potential. The hope is that Henri Jokiharju will take further steps to his development after a quiet first season in Buffalo and can be a solid first-pairing defender. But with Rasmus Ristolainen, Brandon Montour, Jake McCabe and Colin Miller, it looks a bit ugly. It wouldn’t matter as much if the Sabres had a great goalie behind them, and while LInus Ullmark has his moments, he hasn’t shown that he can be reliable night-to-night to the point where the Sabres could feel particularly happy.

A playoff appearance, especially in this division, isn’t out of the cards. But will we see the Sabres that vaulted into first place in 2018 with an absolutely incredible run, or is going to be the same-old, same-old once again?

Kyper & Mac preview the East

New Jersey Devils

  • Stanley Cup Odds: +7500
  • Odds to win division: +2500
  • Notable Arrivals: Sami Vatanen (D), Ryan Murray (D), Andreas Johnsson (F), Scott Wedgewood (G), Dmitri Kulikov (D)
  • Notable Departures: Cory Schneider (G), Corey Crawford (G), John Hayden (F), Dakota Mermis (D), Kevin Rooney (F), Joey Anderson (F)

Devils fans know they’re in for a couple more rough years before it gets better, and they’re still a bit away from becoming a real playoff threat. But that’s fine – the team’s young stars are still in development mode and fans are willing to stay patient if it means another shot at becoming an NHL heavyweight.

Early reports have indicated that 2019 No. 1 draft pick Jack Hughes has been a standout at New Jersey camp, playing on the team’s line with Kyle Palmieri and Nikita Gusev. Hughes had a rough rookie season with just seven goals and 21 points in 61 games following an incredible junior career, so the Devils will expect more from the team’s top young star. Fellow first-overall pick Nico Hischier will also need to continue to elevate his game, but if he stays healthy, he’s a valuable contributor. Plus, the Devils don’t have a ton of high-talent wingers to work with their top two centers, so there’s only so much either can do.

Like many of the league’s weaker teams, dissecting the goalie situation is a challenge. Mackenzie Blackwood was one of the hottest goaltenders down the stretch and appears to be the team’s netminder of the future. But he’s still young at 24, and the Devils wanted him paired with a veteran and signed two-time Stanley Cup champion Corey Crawford over the off-season. Crawford retired over the past weekend after deciding he’d rather spend time with family, but that meant the Devils had to scramble to secure the backup position. 

At the time of writing this, Scott Wedgewood – one of the goalies pegged to replace Martin Brodeur over half a decade ago, is back in the fray but isn’t a strong backup option. Expect the Devils to hit the UFA market, but it’s quite limited right now. Jimmy Howard is the best option available, but that’s not saying much given his 2-23-2 record in Detroit last year that made him the league’s worst goaltender. Regardless, consider the backup spot a work in progress.

New York Islanders

  • Stanley Cup Odds: +2500
  • Odds to win division: +1000
  • Notable Arrivals: Ilya Sorokin (G), AJ Greer (F), Austin Czarnik (F), Dmytro Timashov (F), Cory Schneider (G)  
  • Notable Departures: Thomas Greiss (G), Johnny Boychuk (D), Devon Toews (D), Derick Brassard (F)

Do you have faith? Many won’t, but it’s when the Islanders are doubted the most that they do the most damage. The Islanders just missed out on forcing Game 7 against the eventual Stanley Cup champions from Tampa Bay in the Eastern Conference final last season and the group was relatively unchanged, so why can’t they do it again?

For starters, the Islanders finally inked Mathew Barzal after a long off-season, helping free up that burden. It came at the cost of moving defenseman Devon Toews, but the Isles have their No. 1 forward back. Anders Lee took a step backwards in his game last year offensively but there isn’t a reason to be concerned about his play at this point. Brock Nelson and Josh Bailey are still key contributors and Jordan Eberle is coming off of a nice season that saw him miss 10 games due to injury, but a healthy Eberle is definitely going to be one of New York’s top scorers. A whole season of Jean-Gabriel Pageau is nice, too. If Anthony Beauvillier continues his trajectory as a dynamic scoring forward, then they’ve got secondary scoring figured out. 

But the Islanders’ real bread and butter is the team’s defensive play that was put on full display during the playoffs last year. Daily Faceoff doesn’t give any of the team’s defensive pairings much love, but the numbers from last year (with Boychuk and Toews) put them close to the top of the standings in the fewest shots and goals allowed. Ryan Pulock and Nick Leddy will continue to be heavy minute-munchers, but the eyes will be on Noah Dobson after a quiet rookie season. With some newfound openings in the lineup, Dobson should get some top-four playing time in what should be an important year in the 21-year-olds development.

In Semyon Varlamov and Ilya Sorokin, the Islanders should be set in the crease. But which one will be the No. 1 come playoff time? Varlamov is the veteran with some big moments for the Isles last year, but Sorokin is the hot new shoe with something to prove. Sorokin is the goaltender of the future on Long Island, and after proving himself as one of the KHL’s best goaltenders over the past half-decade, he’s finally getting his shot at being an NHL goaltender. If Varlamov falters early, Sorokin will be there to push for starts, but I still think they’ll lean on Varlamov as much as possible to give Sorokin more time to get up to speed.

The Islanders don’t have a ton of starpower, but they’ve got grit and can grind you down until there’s nothing left. We saw it last year in the playoffs and we’ll see it again this year – don’t count the Islanders out of winning the division.

New York Rangers

  • Stanley Cup Odds: +2500
  • Odds to win division: +800
  • Notable Arrivals: Alexis Lafreniere (F), Jonny Brodzinski (F), Jack Johnson (D), Keith Kinkaid (G), Colin Blackwell (F)
  • Notable Departures: Boo Nieves (F), Jesper Fast (F), Lias Andersson (F), Marc Staal (D)

Don’t worry, Rangers fans. Your time is coming. Not yet, but soon.

The Rangers have a young crop that, in 4-5 years, will make the Rangers so feared. Whether it’s Alexis Lafreniere or Kaapo Kakko up front, Adam Fox on the blueline or Igor Shestyorkin in the crease, the Rangers are in good hands – especially with Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad playing some of the best hockey of their career over the past few years. Other than Lafreniere, the first overall pick in 2020, the core unit seemed to have things figured out. From February 1st until March 12th, the Rangers had the third-most points in the Eastern Conference over their 21-game stretch, trailing the Flyers and Bruins by just one point for first place – with both those teams, it should be noted, playing three fewer games. During this impressive run, Zibanejad led the league with 33 points and Panarin finished close behind with 25 (fourth-most in the league).

So how does the team look in 2021? Up front, you have to be happy with what the team has. Panarin and Zibanejad are back after spectcaular 2019-20 seasons, including Panarin who looked destined for the league’s Hart Trophy for a large portion. The top six should include Panarin, Zibanejad, Chris Kreider and Ryan Strome, with the right side – likely spear-headed by either Pavel Buchnevich or Vitali Kravtsov – being the team’s weakest point. In theory, the additions of Kravtsov and Lafreniere should make New York’s secondary scoring less of a concern, but it’s not perfect just yet.

In net, Igor Shestyorkin is the team’s newest starting goaltender after Henrik Lundqvist held that title for 15 years. Shestyorkin has very few losses to his credit in seven years of pro hockey, and he exploded out of the gate with a 10-2-0 record to kick off his NHL career. A late-season car accident took him out of action before the shutdown, but the now-healthy netminder is back and ready to take over. Shestyorkin might be the best bet at a goaltender winning the Calder Trophy since Steve Mason did in 2009, so Rangers fans have a real reason to get very excited.

Where the team falters, though, is on the blueline. The Rangers finished fourth in the league with 234 goals last season, but their 222 goals against were good for the sixth most. Having a young defensive group has come with its challenges, but good showings out of Adam Fox and Jacob Trouba have given fans hope. K’Andre Miller is a rookie, but a darn good one and will likely get top-four minutes alongside either Trouba or Fox. Anthony DeAngelo is a solid third-pairing defender that can put pucks in the net and create offense, but will he get stuck with Jack Johnson, considered one of the worst defensemen in the league? 

Like a few other teams in the division, this focus is on long-term development. The Rangers are building a core that should contend for Stanley Cups in the future, but, again, those learning pains will sting for a little bit. A playoff appearance will be a nice victory.

Philadelphia Flyers

  • Stanley Cup Odds: +1500
  • Odds to win division: +375
  • Notable Arrivals: Derrick Pouliot (D), Erik Gustafsson (D)
  • Notable Departures: Chris Stewart (F), Matt Niskanen (D), Tyler Pitlick (F), Derek Grant (F), Nate Thompson (F), Kurtis Gabriel (D)

The Philadelphia Flyers might very well be the team to beat in the East Division.

If any team got hurt the most by the COVID-19 shut down in March, it was the Flyers. After February 1st, only the Colorado Avalanche had more points than the Flyers (30 and 28 respectively). The season shutdown put an end to an incredible 9-1-0 run that made the Flyers look indestructible – and one off-season later, they should be ready for a long playoff run.

The Flyers will look similar this season to what they did last season, with the biggest departure coming from the surprise retirement of Matt Niskanen. Erik Gustafsson will be his replacement, and hopefully he can channel the form that made him a 60-point defender in 2018-19 before struggling to stay in the lineup at points in Chicago last year. Gustafsson has something to prove, but he’s got a solid foundation around him that should aid in his transition to a new club. Gustafsson likely won’t need to be relied on as much behind a top four of Ivan Provorov, Justin Braun, Travis Sanheim and Philippe Myers, so I feel confident in what the group has on the blueline.

Will this be the year that Carter Hart emerges as a legitimate Vezina Trophy candidate? The third-year goaltender played some incredible hockey after a slow start last season and was lights out through much of the playoffs. Now that he’s got the experience behind him, Hart should get the bulk of the starts this season. Philadelphia’s success will likely ride or die with how Hart performs, and his showing in the post-season alone should give hope for a bright future in the City of Brotherly Love.

In terms of pure offensive depth, few teams have what the Flyers have. Claude Giroux is still a star, Sean Couturier and Travis Konecny have continued to get better each season and youngsters Joel Farabee and Oskar Lindblom are wingers with a ton of promise. And, hey, Nolan Patrick is back after missing the entire 2019-20 season with a migraine disorder. If he ends up centering James Van Riemsdyk and Jakub Voracek, that would be a mighty fine third line for a team that already has a strong top six.

The Flyers have the scoring, defense and goaltending capable of big results. But like any big team, putting everything together – especially in a shortened season – is the only major hurdle to overcome. I like Philly’s odds of making it deep in the playoffs.

Pittsburgh Penguins 

  • Stanley Cup Odds: +2000
  • Odds to win division: +400
  • Notable Arrivals: Kasperi Kapanen (F), Mike Matheson (D), Colton Sceviour (F), Josh Currie (F), Mark Jankowski (F), Evan Rodrigues (F), Frederick Gaudreau (F), Cody Ceci (D)
  • Notable Departures: Nick Bjugstad (F), Jack Johnson (D), Patric Hornqvist (F), Matt Murray (G), Justin Schultz (D), Patrick Marleau (F), Dominik Simon (F), Conor Sheary (F)

You have to hand it to the Penguins – they never had a full, healthy lineup at any point last season, losing one key player after another to rank near the top among man-games lost, but still finished as the fifth-seed in the Eastern Conference. They were quickly ousted by Montreal in the qualifying round, but at least we know the team can fight adversity.

As always, the Pens have one of the best top-six lineups in the league with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin leading the way down the middle. Jake Guentzel and Jason Zucker are the highlights on the left side and will continue to be a force on the scoresheet, while Bryan Rust will look to continue the run that made him so dangerous a year ago, along with Evan Rodrigues, who’s back on Crosby’s wing  after the Sabres moved him out at the deadline last year. But like usual in Pittsburgh, the scoring doesn’t run that deep further down the lineup, but it didn’t seem to be too big of an issue last year as long as everyone rallied together and played as a team. So maybe they don’t need to worry too much, especially if Crosby and Malkin stay healthy.

On defense… they certainly have bodies. Kris Letang’s best days are behind him, and he was often overshadowed by rookie John Marino last year. Still, the problem doesn’t lie on Letang’s shoulder and more with Cody Ceci and MIchael Matheson, two of the weaker blueliners in the division. Both have played for teams where they had to play more than their skill allowed them too, but maybe they’ll stand out more with limited usage instead in Pennsylvania.

The real x-factor: will Tristan Jarry be good enough as a full-time starter? Matt Murray is no longer in the fray and Casey DeSmith isn’t going to command many starts along the way. Jarry was a top 10 goaltender prior to the NHL all-star break but his game quickly fell off down the stretch, but hopefully he’s ready for the full season. If it’s any consolation, he was quite impressive through the first 50 games of the 2019-20 campaign, and the season only has 56 games, so…

When the Penguins were healthy last year, they were tough to beat. You can’t predict injuries and can’t do much about them when it happens other than find ways to limit the damage. Hopefully that series loss to Montreal was a wake-up call for a team trying to ring another championship out of their two superstar forwards before it’s too late.

Washington Capitals

Carl Hagelin
Feb 17, 2020; Las Vegas, Nevada, USA; Washington Capitals left wing Carl Hagelin (62) is tripped by Vegas Golden Knights defenseman Jon Merrill (15) during the third period at T-Mobile Arena. Mandatory Credit: Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports
  • Stanley Cup Odds: +2000
  • Odds to win division: +400
  • Notable Arrivals: Zdeno Chara (D), Conor Sheary (F), Justin Schultz (D), Henrik Lundqvist (G), Trevor van Riemsdyk (D), Paul LaDue (D), Craig Anderson (G)
  • Notable Departures: Radko Gudas (D), Ilya Kovalchuk (F), Travis Boyd (F), Braden Holtby (G)

Just like with Boston, Washington’s Cup window is closing quickly – but it’s not completely shut just yet. 

Alex Ovechkin is still a beast, John Carlson is playing some of the best hockey of his career, Evgeni Kuznetsov and Jakub Vrana have been fantastic and the team’s goaltender of the future, Ilya Samsonov, is finally here. But, for the most part, the core is getting up there in age, with Washington holding the oldest opening-week roster with an average age of 30.58 – the only team to break the 30-year-old mark. 

At the team’s core, Ovechkin is still a threat to hit 50 goals in a full season, but 35-40 seems very plausible in a shorter season. If he keeps scoring, the Caps are fine. Secondary scoring isn’t a concern with seven forwards recording at least 39 points last season, with all of them returning once again. The Caps didn’t add any scoring this off-season, but that’s OK as long as Washington’s top guns continue to perform at the level they’re capable of.

Carlson came just short of winning the Norris Trophy a year ago but he’ll be in contention again. But consistent performance from the group behind him was an issue last season, especially during the post-season. Dmitri Orlov is a good partner on the left side, but I’m not too thrilled about a second pairing of Brenden Dillon and Justin Schultz. Zdeno Chara was a nice addition as a depth defender, but he’s in his 40s and may need to sit a bit. 

Fortunately, the Caps have a good goaltender behind the defense in Samsonov. A year ago, Samsonov was many steps ahead of longtime starter Braden Holtby statistically, but he never appeared to be “the guy” in spite of an impressive 16-6-2 record. With Henrik Lundqvist out of the picture with a heart issue, the Caps elected to sign Craig Anderson to work with Samsonov and rookie Vitek Vanecek to be a veteran mentor, but look for the Capitals to utilize Samsonov as much as possible.

There are reasons to get excited about every position on Washington, but how much longer can the key players continue to be impactful? The Capitals might not be ready for a second Stanley Cup in four years, but they’ll put in a fight.

Check out our other division previews from Steven Ellis

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