Defenseman Ivan Provorov (#9) of the Philadelphia Flyers reaches for the puck carried by Center Sidney Crosby (#87) of the Pittsburgh Penguins

Previews and Questions on the East Division

On the eve of the opening of camp around parts of the league with the rest not far behind, there’s reason for excitement as the 2020-21 season is upon us. There’s still a long way to go on the execution and (fingers crossed) completion of a regular season and playoffs, but the schedule is set and now weeks–not months–away. No true conferences in this temporary re-aligned NHL, but the “East” division enters with eight teams from the conference that bears its name. Boston and Buffalo (Atlantic) join New Jersey, the Islanders, the Rangers, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh (old Atlantic-turned Metropolitan) and Washington (old Southeast-more recently, Metropolitan). Travel-wise, the East won’t share the same hardships shared by the other three divisions, whose teams span multiple time zones and will log considerably more frequent flyer miles. But with puck drop imminent, there’s still some things worth wondering.

Boston

Players that won’t be in the lineup when the Bruins open their season versus the Devils on Jan. 14: David Pastrnak (hip scope/labral repair), Brad Marchand (sports hernia), Torey Krug (signed 7-year deal with the Blues in the offseason), captain, Zdeno Chara (signed a one-year contract with the Capitals on Wednesday).

The subtraction of Boston’s leading scorers isn’t permanent and the blow is lessened by the delayed start to the season. But replacing Krug and Chara’s minutes on defense will be considerably tougher.

While the Bruins did sign Craig Smith, a nine-year Nashville Predator with five 20-goal seasons, it’s easy to see why fans in Beantown are unhappy with the offseason, culminating in the departure of their 14-year captain.

Questions:

  • Thin as it is, do they circle back on free agency? Sami Vatanen, 29, has struggled with health, but would be a welcomed addition to a questionable defense.
  • How do the Bruins repeat their success from a season ago? Pastrnak and Marchand will miss time–how much could impact their ability to find similar success. Is Jack Studnicka able to make the jump and play top-six NHL minutes?
  • What ultimately happens in the pipes? There have been rumblings that Tuukka Rask may contemplate his playing future at the end of his current contract. It’s worth monitoring where things stand on that front and whether the Bruins make an effort in trying to sign him.

Buffalo:

When you look at the Sabres you look at a team that at the very top should be fun to watch. Why wouldn’t you be excited for the potential first line of Taylor Hall-Jack Eichel-Jeff Skinner. You’re assuming that the two alongside Eichel have bounce-back seasons, one signing a one-year deal in the offseason; the other coming off a miserable start to an eight-year, $72 million extension.

You also see a team that’s got a lot of its roster betting on themselves–which should be good news for head coach Ralph Kruger and first-year GM, Kevyn Adams. Hall is betting on a return to normalcy in the market when he can return to free agency in a post-COVID world. Sam Reinhart, who signed a one-year contract extension, is betting on another season that values him at a north of $7M AAV on a long-term deal–he’s got one season left with RFA status. Jake McCabe, Brandon Montour and Henri Jokiharju join Rasmus Dahlin as prime-aged defenders in contract seasons. Linus Ullmark, who is going to get his third-straight season of NHL goaltending, is also in a contract year. Something to prove and something and  gain here and along the way, they might just be an intriguing team to monitor.

Questions:

  • Can Hall, alongside Eichel, return to the type of form that saw him drive the bus in New Jersey during the 2017-18 season en route to a Hart Trophy? If so, how does he reconcile that and staying with Jack versus dipping back into the open market?
  • What can Eric Staal bring to the Sabres after enjoying some success in the second half of his career with the Wild? Adams acquired his former teammate to round out the middle of the ice.
  • How much can the Sabres surprise? Could they hang along long enough to dip their toe in as a buyer? And how much does this help the franchise show Eichel the organization’s desire to become a competitive in his prime?

New Jersey:

The Devils already figured to be in tough this season following a year in which they fired their coach and GM, traded their captain and the franchise’s only league MVP and bought out Cory Schneider. The news that Nico Hischier won’t be available to begin training camp is concerning, but the belief is that the injury isn’t considered long-term. There’s again a cloud of uncertainty hanging over the team though with contracts set to expire on important players, namely Kyle Palmieri.

Right Wing Kyle Palmieri (#21) of the New Jersey Devils goes to a knee after colliding with Referee TJ Luxmore (#21)

Since coming to New Jersey in 2015-16, Palmieri has finished as the team’s leading scorer in four of five seasons. He grew up in Montville and staying in the Garden State might suit him just fine, but he’s also missed the postseason in each of his leading seasons. He watched Blake Coleman get shipped to Tampa and promptly win a Stanley Cup. You just wonder if that’s something he’d get excited about if the contract status remains up in the air and the Devils aren’t in a position to make the playoffs.

Nikita Gusev and Travis Zajac are also in the final season of their contracts as Tom Fitzgerald tries to navigate the future of the club in his first full season as general manager.

Questions:

  • Is there a mutual “waiting period” for Palmieri and New Jersey as the season gets started? I don’t get the sense that the urgency is there right now. That doesn’t necessarily mean one specific thing, but eventually they’ll have to decide what to do on this front.
  • What did Jack Hughes do with the nine-month layoff from competitive hockey? How much strength did the 2019 first overall pick add to his frame and how much can this help improve his production following a tough first season offensively. His brother Quinn shared some thoughts on this prior to the NHL’s return-to-play.

  • How much of last season’s woes could have been masked by more reliable goaltending? We may find out as Mackenzie Blackwood and free agent acquisition, Corey Crawford battle for the net. Blackwood enjoyed success in his first full season–22-14-8 with a 0.915 save percentage. Crawford enters after 14 years with the Blackhawks organization. His postseason showed he’s still got some left in the tank to keep the Devils from being an assumed automatic out.

Islanders:

We’ll switch it up here a bit and start with the questions, because the biggest one is still lingering: how long does the Mat Barzal contract take to get finalized? Lou Lamoriello didn’t do much in terms of adding this offseason and subtracted fellow RFA, Devon Toews as the team dealt with cap woes.

Johny Boychuk’s retirement due to an eye injury means the team can put his $6 million cap hit on LTIR for the remaining tow seasons on his contract. That space will help in their pursuit to sign Barzal to a long-term deal, but it doesn’t appear to be on track to be finalized before the Isles open camp on Jan. 1.

Let’s resume the questions.

Questions:

  • Once Barzal is signed, what/who is next? It sure sounds like Andy Greene is wanted back. Ditto Matt Martin and there’s been all sorts of speculation that Cory Schneider, who Lamoriello famously acquired at the 2013 Draft in Newark, will come on as well to help with the goalie depth.
  • How do the Islanders gain back some blue line depth? The loss of Toews and Boychuk takes a nice chunk out of their top-four. Noah Dobson should be able to take another step but it’s still asking a lot on a team that advanced to the conference finals this past August.
  • How good is Ilya Sorokin? The much-hyped third round pick from 2014 will make his NHL debut this season and will step into the crease with countryman, Semyon Varlamov. By all accounts, he has the trajectory to be a franchise netminder.

Rangers:

After winning the Artemi Panarin free agent sweepstakes a year ago, the Blueshirts followed this year’s offseason by winning the NHL’s second phase of the draft lottery and the right to select Rimouski winger, Alexis Lafreniere first overall. It was the second-straight year of lottery luck for New York after selecting Kaapo Kakko second overall in 2019.

In with the young core and out with some familiar faces, the team emotionally said goodbye to mainstays, Marc Staal (traded to Detroit) and Henrik Lundqvist (bought out). They re-signed forwards Brendan Lemieux and Ryan Strome and defenseman, Anthony DeAngelo. They have the look of a young, competitive roster that just might be playing with house money this season–eight players that figure to be regulars are still on their entry-level contracts.

No more of the three-goalie rotation as Alexander Georgiev and Igor Shesterkin will share the crease and ring in a new era of Rangers goaltending.

Center Mika Zibanejad (#93) of the New York Rangers

Questions:

  • Is Mika Zibanejad the next captain on Broadway? Since trading Ryan McDonagh, the team has gone without a captain but appears to be ready to name one ahead of the 2020-21 season. Newly-extended, Chris Kreider has also been mentioned.
  • Sticking with Zibanejad for a minute–what’s the future hold for him in New York? He’s got two more seasons left on his current deal but after back-to-back 70-point seasons, he’s working himself into joining Panarin as the second Ranger forward with an AAV in double-digits.
  • I said earlier that this is house money in a sense for the Rangers. They did it right for a few years, got some lotto luck and also collected their picks–something they hadn’t done for quite some time. Their issue with being in the bonus penalty has been well-documented, but within reason, I wonder what kind of splash they could make if the team plays itself into a playoff contender?

Philadelphia:

At the time of the league’s pause due to COVID-19, the Flyers were coming off a loss to the Bruins, their only loss in their final 10 games of what ended up being the regular season. In the bubble, they maintained form, beating out the 100-point Bruins, division-foe Washington and eventual Cup champions, Tampa for the one-seed in the East as the playoffs got underway. After taking out Montreal in six games, they got undone by the Islanders in seven. They return virtually the same roster this season.

That includes Sean Couturier and Travis Konecny, who in a blink of the eye, have become reliable contributors along with Jakub Voracek and Claude Giroux, still productive members of the old guard. It’s the kind of mix though that just might put the city of Brotherly Love in the mix to knock at the serious-contender door. Add Ivan Provorov, Travis Sanheim and goalie, Carter Hart behind the play and you have the recipe for a pretty good team.

Questions:

  • Of course you want him to be healthy and to make sure he isn’t rushing anything–that’s what’s important here. But how good can a healthy Nolan Patrick with a training camp under his belt be? I think he’s got a high ceiling still.
  • Another player I wonder about in Philly is Shayne Gostisbehere. His 2-18-19 campaign wasn’t great–dropping from 52 points to 28. Last season, he plummeted to just 12 points in 42 games and wasn’t a regular in the postseason. I have to imagine he was made available this offseason, but his $4.5 million ticket for three more seasons is tough–especially now. He’s maybe sixth on the depth chart right now but I wonder if he sits some more if there’s a trade re-visited and how creative they’d be willing to get?

Pittsburgh:

For the first time since his rookie season, Sidney Crosby and the Penguins failed to qualify for the postseason, stunned in a four-game defeat  by the Canadiens in the play-in round of the NHL’s return to play. Carey Price did his part, posting a 0.947 save percentage in four games.

It might have been a short series in the midst of a tricky situation, but Jim Rutherford knows his team’s window isn’t getting wider. It came as no surprise that the the GM again decided to shuffle the deck after dealing Phil Kessel the year before in another shakeup of the roster. This time it was Kasperi Kapanen–once dealt by the Pens–returned back in a deal that included Pittsburgh’s 15th overall pick to Toronto. They also shipped out Nick Bjugstad and Patric Hornqvist and cleared up the crowded crease, sending Matt Murray to Ottawa.

Mark Jankowski and Cody Ceci signed in the Steel City via free agency, a pair of low-risk deals to add depth to a team that knows its important pieces are at the top. But much of that top is north of 32 and the urgency is understandably high.

Questions:

  • How hot is Mike Sullivan’s seat? This offseason, the team dismissed three of Sullivan’s assistant coaches. Though the Pittsburgh bench boss publicly stated that he felt the change was “inevitable” given the circumstances, the finger-pointing has narrowed if there is a slow-start to 20-21.
  • Just how far are we from Trader Jim’s next splash? Is the GM that has always shown a certain fondness to making bold moves ready to pull the trigger in the same vein as a coaching change? And if so, does Kris Letang become a name worth watching? Letang has two years left on his contract.

Washington:

At the time I started writing this piece–some 1,990 words prior, the Capitals hadn’t announced that they had signed Chara. But that’s now official, the 43-year-old signing a one-year, $795,000 deal on Wednesday. The deal follows an offseason in which ex-Penguins, Justin Schultz and Conor Sheary come on board along with Trevor van Riemsdyk. The news on Chara comes just days after the announcement that Henrik Lundqvist will be forced to miss the season due to a heart condition.

Everyone is rooting for Lundqvist–an impossible person to dislike. Even given the strange look, it was going to be fun to watch the netminder take a run at the Cup with the Caps following a magnificent career in New York. Now, Washington will try and find another option for its tandem along with Ilya Samsonov. Craig Anderson will accompany the team in training camp on a professional tryout.

Like Pittsburgh, this is a team in a win-now mode with the years of being able to do so numbering. Before the news with Lundqvist and now with Chara, that’s clearly on display, bolstering its roster with pieces that still have something to offer to a team with serious cup pursuits.

Questions:

  • How will Peter Laviolette and Alex Ovechkin co-exist? Laviolette could be the last head coach that No. 8 has in his NHL career. He’s an up-tempo coach who shouldn’t have an issue with one of the game’s best scorers of all-time (and who would?), but it’s a big part of the job there.
  • Not only is this purely speculative, but it would require an insane amount of salary cap gymnastics and even then, it may not come close to being enough–but all this Chara talk made me wonder how much the Caps would love to add Ryan Getzlaf as a rental, don’t you think?

Enjoy the season.