As the NHL gets ready to kick off the 2020-21 NHL season next week there is one certainty — well, maybe two after the news teams are being affected by positive COVID cases. First, the NHL might be dealing with delays all season long as more and more positive tests are revealed among the players. Second, and the reason for this article, if no delays greatly affect the temporarily realigned East Division, it’s a beast of a division and some quality teams will miss the playoffs.
The ongoing Covid pandemic led to a need for closer proximity and less travel so there were likely few alternatives for teams located in the northeastern United States region. That certainly doesn’t appease the sense of fairness for the eight teams within this stacked division.
For example, the East Division has four teams – the Boston Bruins, Washington Capitals, Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins – that reached the 40 wins mark during last years shortened NHL season. That fact alone is telling as only three other teams in the entire league reached that plateau – the Tampa Bay Lighting (Central Division), along with the St. Louis Blues and Colorado Avalanche (both in West Division). The seven-team Canadian division did not have a team that reached the 40 wins mark.
While it might be unfair for several quality teams in the East, all they can try and do is adapt and overcome. As fans however, it leads to the question of what four teams will make the playoffs from the Beast of the East? To try and predict how it will finally finish seems futile as one could argue that seven of the eight teams could realistically qualify. Although the New Jersey Devils are a young team on the rise, they are still a year away from competing for the postseason – especially in this division.
Notably, there are several teams in this temporary Eastern division that are heading in opposite directions. For example, the New York Rangers are going to be a lethal offensive team over the next several seasons. Adding the first overall pick from 2020, Alex Lafrenière, will likely pay immediate dividends for the Rangers. They also have a solid tandem in goal with Russians Igor Shesterkin and Alexandar Georgiev manning the crease.
Unlike the Rangers, the Washington Capitals are not in a prime position in goal. They have a young promising goaltender in 23-year-old, Ilya Samsonov – the 22nd overall in 2015. The unfortunate and untimely health issues of Henrik Lundqvist may have foiled Washington’s mentorship plan for the young Russian. The alternative counterpart for Samsonov is 28-year-old journeyman Pheonix Copley. Both players are limited to less than 30 games NHL experience. Despite the teams firepower, this roster gap could prove to be costly.
Battle of PA & Wild Card
The battle of Pennsylvania might not just be a political one and could even become a competition for a final playoff position. The Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins have aging rosters but are still well capable of making the postseason. However, if it came down to choosing between which of these two teams will make the playoffs, I would go with the Flyers.
They just seem to have more depth and a better surrounding cast than their counterparts in Pittsburgh. Both teams have solid young starting goaltenders, each former WHL’ers – the Penguins Tristan Jarry and Carter Hart in Philadelphia – that are still proving themselves as such. Again, I would give the nod to the Flyers in a head-to-head comparison of the two.
The one wildcard in this division will be the Buffalo Sabres. They looked like they were close last season, but things fell apart and the abrupt stop did not give them a chance to recover. The addition of Taylor Hall, Eric Staal, along with a young Dylan Cozens could push this team over the edge and help them obtain a ticket to the postseason dance. That said, I am not sold on the goaltending tandem of Carter Hutton (35) and Linus Ullmark (27). Hence the wild card in this top heavy division.
The last two teams in the division, the Boston Bruins and New York Islanders, are what I consider as the two teams most likely to earn a playoff spot. The team did lose defenseman Torey Krug, captain Zdeno Chara, and still have one key injury in David Pastrňák – expected to be out until mid-February but ahead of schedule. However, the reigning Presidents Trophy champion Bruins are still a formidable team and should qualify in one of the top four spots.
The obvious caveat with the Islanders is the contract situation involving their brightest young star – Mathew Barzal. The 23-year-old is in New York, but he and his camp have decided to hold out of camp as an unsigned restricted free agent. Although many think the deal will happen, it is far from guaranteed. Should GM Lou Lamoriello decide to trade him they would likely get a very good impact player in return. Either way, this team is too deep, balanced, and well coached to miss the playoffs.
Time will tell, and soon!
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