One of the most unique aspects of the upcoming 2021 NHL season is divisional realignment. Because of the ongoing COVID pandemic (or as I call it, #CoronaSZN), the United States/Canada border has been closed for quite some time. The NHL has realigned divisions for the 2021 season and as a result, the East Division was created. It is made up of the eight regionally based franchises: Boston, Buffalo, New Jersey, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Washington. What should their fans – and beyond, for that matter – look for this season? Here’s what fans could expect in this 2021 NHL East Division Preview.
It has been a season of discontent for Bruins fans. First, they were unceremoniously dumped in the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs by Tampa Bay. During the offseason, two of their most beloved players on the blue line in Krug and Chara departed in free agency. Even with those departures, the Bruins still have one of the most experienced veteran groups in all of the NHL. Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron lead the core group of forwards. David Pastrnak, though, will miss the first month after recovering from hip surgery. With Krug and Chara gone, the defense will need to step it up with Charlie McAvoy leading a young group. Tuukka Rask returns to the team after leaving during the playoffs due to personal reasons.
After another season of missing the playoffs, superstar forward Jack Eichel spoke and Sabres management seemed to listen. New general manager Kevyn Adams used some cap space to sign Hall, Staal, Eakin, and Rieder. They’ll definitely look to score a lot of goals, especially with Jeff Skinner and Kyle Okposo. There is also plenty of talent on the blue line with Irwin joining former first-round picks Rasmus Dahlin and Rasmus Ristolainen. But the problem for the Sabres might be goaltending. Inconsistency between the pipes between Linus Ullmark and Carter Hutton sank the Sabres’ playoff chances in 2019-20. Will it sink them again? It might be the difference in snapping their playoff drought of nine consecutive seasons.
New Jersey Devils
The Devils have missed the playoffs in six out of the last seven seasons, but is there hope on the horizon? New coach Lindy Ruff’s system depends on speed up front and the Devils have plenty of young legs to fly. Jack Hughes looks to improve on a disappointing rookie campaign. Nico Hischier signed a long-term deal over the Summer, so he’ll be in the Devils’ future for a while. Defensively, the Devils have Kulikov and Murray to add experience to a young group. The team does have some issues to deal with at goaltender with Corey Crawford retiring midway through camp. The Devils will need to rely on Mackenzie Blackwood again to carry the load.
New York Islanders
The Islanders didn’t need to make many changes to a lineup that has surprised many pundits the past two seasons. Two years ago, they upset Pittsburgh and last season in the bubble, they made it all the way to the Eastern Conference Final. Barry Trotz has proven to be the head coach that the Islanders need. Can they go further this season? The Isles signed star forward Mathew Barzal to a three-year deal, which stabilizes their forward group that includes Brock Nelson and Josh Bailey. It did come at a cost as they traded Toews to Colorado and letting other key cogs sign elsewhere. The Isles don’t need to worry about goaltending with Semyon Varlomov and former KHL standout Sorokin splitting time.
New York Rangers
The most interesting team in this division is the Rangers. The Blueshirts made the Stanley Cup Qualifier last season, only to be bounced by Carolina. But the reward for the early exit was sweet as they won the special draft lottery, with which they selected Lafreniere. The Rangers won’t have worries scoring as they are LOADED up front with Lafreniere, Hart Trophy candidate Artemi Panarin, and Mika Zibanejad. Defensively and between the pipes is where the Rangers might have the most questions. The defense allowed an average of 34 shots on their goaltender per game last season and only added Johnson. The Rangers allowed Lundqvist to sign with Washington (more on that later) and will need to rely on relatively untested Igor Shesterkin.
Additions: defense Erik Gustafsson.
Departures: defense Matt Niskanen.
After a season that see them go further in the playoffs than most anticipated, the Flyers are anticipating a Cup run this season. They have forward depth, including the ever-present Claude Giroux and the returning Oskar Lindblom and Nolan Patrick. The Flyers scored 3.29 goals per game last season, seventh in the league. Defensively is where the Flyers have the most concern, but it isn’t by a whole lot. Niskanen retired, but Ivan Provorov is ready to establish himself as the league’s top defenseman. The addition of Gustafsson gives Provorov a steady partner on the blue line. Following years of misses, the Flyers might also have their franchise goaltender with Carter Hart. The goalie enjoyed his best season with 24 wins and two playoff shutouts.
The Penguins have had two consecutive seasons of early exits; in 2019, they were swept by their division rivals on Long Island. Last season, they were bounced from the Stanley Cup Qualifier by Montreal in four games, including a humiliating Game 4 shutout. Is the window starting to close in the Steel City? Their top two forwards – Sidney Crosby (33) and Evgeni Malkin (33) – are in their thirties and Father Time always wins. General manager Jim Rutherford added some youth at forward to help the aging duo. The Pens will also have Jake Guentzel back after recovery from shoulder surgery. Defensively is where the Penguins might struggle even with the additions of Matheson and Ceci. That may not be good for young goaltender Tristan Jarry, who the Penguins believe could be the next answer between pipes.
Following a disappointing departure from last season’s playoff bubble, the Capitals jettisoned Todd Reiden in favor of Peter Laviolette. Will he be the difference this season? The Caps have won five consecutive division titles and might have enough to win a sixth. Washington has plenty of depth up front with Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Nicklas Backstrom for scoring. Sheary was added on the cheap for added scoring depth. The Capitals might have some trouble on the blue line, though. They’re hoping that added veterans Schultz, van Riemsdyk, and Chara will help John Carlson solve their defensive woes. It’ll need to be solid to help Ilya Samsonov, who takes over after Holtby’s departure. The Caps had signed Henrik Lundqvist, but a heart issue forced him to sit out this season.
Who Makes the Playoffs?
Which teams make it to the playoffs in this 2021 NHL East Division preview? This division is arguably the toughest in the NHL in 2021. It features several teams that have the chance to compete for a Stanley Cup. The one advantage is that travel schedule won’t be as difficult as other divisions and already heated rivalries will stay hot. Several teams could surprise, but only with the right conditions. Here’s how I see things working out in this 2021 NHL East Division preview:
- 1. Philadelphia: they have all the tools in the making for a division and maybe a deep playoff run.
- 2. Boston: the B’s have all the depth in the world at forward, but the defense needs to grow up quickly.
- 3. NY Islanders: never count out the Sons of Long Island on a long playoff run.
- 4. Washington: defensive issues aside, they’ll have enough upfront to make the playoffs, however…
- 5. Pittsburgh: … their defensive issues might see them miss the playoffs for the first time since 2006.
- 6. NY Rangers: lots of scoring power, but their free-wheeling system could cost them a playoff spot.
- 7. Buffalo: added a lot of pieces in the offseason, it won’t be enough to snap a playoff drought.
- 8. New Jersey: it’ll be a long Winter in the Garden State, but might surprise if goaltending gets hot early.