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NHL East Division Preview

Despite being roughly a week into the season, I still wanted to put out my preseason preview for the East division, to follow the other three already posted. This is, in my opinion, the best division, from top to bottom, in the new realignment structure. Because of that, I don’t expect the winner of the President’s Trophy (most points in the standings in the NHL) to come from this division. These teams will be taking points from one another throughout the year, making it more likely for a team in a division with less depth to accumulate more points. Whichever team makes it out of the East, and into the final four, will have earned it and will be more battle tested than any opponent they may face in their quest for the Stanley Cup.

Here are my preseason predictions and players to watch for each team.

8. New Jersey Devils

The Devils are in a rebuild. They had an excellent season when Taylor Hall won the Hart Trophy (MVP) in 2018, but they have had to reset since. The team has promising young talent to build around, and they look to have a bright future, but they don’t look to have a roster that is built to win now. They lack depth in their forward group, and they don’t have a proven number one center. I think the forward group has some underrated players with the potential to have breakout seasons, but the lack of high-end talent is still going to be their issue. Miles Wood is someone who scored 19 goals in the 2017-18 season and has the tools the become a strong power-forward. He has similar traits to Tom Wilson of the Capitals, although Wood’s ceiling looks to be a slightly lesser version of Wilson’s current production. He should be able to net 20 goals and be a bruiser on the forecheck who can create space and scoring chances for the more talented players like Nico Hischier, Andreas Johnsson, and Kyle Palmieri.

Mackenzie Blackwood looks to be the future in goal for New Jersey. In a rough season for the Devils last year, he went 22-14-8 with a 2.77 goals against average (GAA) and a .915 save percentage. Those are solid numbers for any goalie on any team, but when factoring in the team he had playing in front of him, he had an outstanding season. He looks like the real deal, and someone who can be the netminder for a team with Stanley Cup aspirations. The defense in front of him isn’t great this year, although I am intrigued by the new pairing of P.K. Subban and Ryan Murray. I think there is potential there for that pair to be well above-average, both offensively and in their own zone.

Player to Watch: Jack Hughes

The 1st overall pick in 2019 did not have a standout rookie campaign. He finished with 21 points in 61 games, and he seemed to struggle to play his game when out there against the best players in the world. After nearly a year off, with the Devils not making the Stanley Cup Qualifiers last summer, Hughes has put on muscle and had ample time to study film in preparation for this season. Look for him to appear more comfortable on the ice, leading him to control the game like he did in junior hockey. He is a wizard with the puck and can create offense with his speed and hockey sense. I think Hughes will have a big year, and show that he was the top pick for a reason.

7. New York Rangers

Artemi Panarin and Mike Zibanejad carried the New York Rangers to the Stanley Cup Qualifiers last year before being swept by Carolina, who advanced to the first round of the playoffs. Those two players had otherworldly seasons, led by Panarin who was a Hart Trophy finalist. They would not have made the playoffs had only 16 teams been invited to the bubble, meaning that the Rangers would need to be much better around those two stars, and have them replicate their 2019-20 statistics, to have a realistic chance to make the playoffs. Only one issue, they are in the toughest division in hockey. It’s simply hard to see this team making the playoffs.

The biggest issue for the Rangers is the defense corps. They don’t have a true number one defenseman, even though they pay Jacob Trouba the salary of a number one. Adam Fox looks to be on the path toward a solid top-pair defenseman, but he is still young, and Tony Deangelo can provide offense from the blue line, but I am skeptical about his play in his own end. Rookie K’Andre Miller has a bright future, but I don’t expect him to make a huge impact on the third pair this season. Jack Johnson is well past his prime and is no longer a top-four defenseman, or even a top-six in my opinion. This defensive group has a few players that are solid members of a long-term roster, but this will be a glaring weakness for this team.

Player to Watch: Igor Shesterkin

Given the issues I detailed about the Rangers defense, picking a goalie as the player to watch could seem questionable. However, Shesterkin was great for New York in a limited sample last season; in 12 games he went 10-2-0 with a 2.52 GAA and .932 save percentage. He is a strong candidate for the Calder Trophy (Rookie of the Year) this season, and he will have earned it by playing well with less-than-ideal support in front of him.

6. Buffalo Sabres

This is a much-improved team compared to their recent history. Even in the last couple seasons, Buffalo jumped out to great starts, looking primed for a return to the playoffs, before stumbling through the final half of the year and not being in contention down the stretch. In a 56-game season, however, a hot start or a strong finish could be enough to sneak into the postseason, especially when the only games played are between divisional opponents. A great two-or-three-week stretch can catapult a team up the standings. The downside for the Sabres is that the division is full of teams as good as, or better, than them. Finding a hot stretch like I just described will be hard, based on the competition they will be facing.

The talent level on this roster is surprisingly high. Jack Eichel, Taylor Hall, and Sam Reinhart form as good a top line as there is around the league, and the duo of Rasmus Dahlin and Rasmus Ristolainen can match-up with anyone. The issue, from my perspective, is depth. The depth at center is solid with Eric Staal and Cody Eakin slotting in behind Eichel, and Victor Olofsson looks like a sniper who will score 25 goals consistently in his career. The falloff of Jeff Skinner is a major problem as Buffalo is paying a winger currently skating in the bottom six an average of $9 million per year. Having that much money tied to a player who isn’t producing is nearly impossible to overcome. Throw in the fact that Buffalo isn’t deep on defense and only slightly above average, at best, in goal, and you have a team that will be competitive, but will ultimately come up short in this division.

Player to Watch: Taylor Hall

Continuing with a theme from past previews, players to watch are often one’s heading toward free agency. Hall signed a one-year deal with Buffalo in October after his market didn’t seem to form the way many expected. He needs a big year in order to break the bank in the summer. Also, how will he fit in with his new team with a truncated training camp and no preseason? If he fits in and plays well, an extension could come into play. If there isn’t a fit, Hall could find himself on the trade block for a second year in a row. This time, however, the ball will be in his court, as the Sabres gave him a full no-move clause in his contract.

5. New York Islanders

One playoff-caliber team, at least, will miss the Stanley Cup Playoffs in this division. Without the wild cards being used this year, there is no path for the 5th best team in the East to make the playoffs, even though it is likely a lesser team will make it out of another division. Choosing which team from the East will just miss is no easy task, as there are three teams who have flaws that could cost them a spot.

The Islanders have the least amount of star power, which is my reason for picking them to miss, even though I almost expect them to prove me wrong. This team is one of the best defensive teams in hockey; their structure allows them to win low-scoring games consistently, and they get great goaltending. There may not be a team better suited to win 2-1 and 3-2 games than the Islanders. In this division, however, teams can, and will, score. It will be difficult for the New York to keep opposing the opponents’ offenses quiet, especially when teams get eight tries each. In a normal year, this would be a playoff team, but I suspect they just miss out this season.

Player to Watch: Mathew Barzal

By far the Islanders best offensive player, Barzal will need to put the team on his shoulders at times if New York wants to make the playoffs. He has led the team in points for the last few seasons, but I am curious if he can get closer to leading the league in points. I’m not sure if the defense-first system will allow him to get to that point, but if he can find a balance between offense and defense, he has the potential to become one of the top players in the NHL.

4. Pittsburgh Penguins

It would be hard to say a team led by Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin will miss the playoffs, but this year I came close to doing just that. The star power of the Penguins is the only reason I am picking them to finish ahead of the Islanders for the final playoff spot in the East. Crosby, Malkin, Jake Guentzel, and Bryan Rust will carry the scoring load, along with recent additions Jason Zucker and Kasperi Kapanen. Their bottom-six forward group leaves some to be desired, however.

The Pittsburgh defense has some solid pieces, especially Marcus Pettersson and John Marino, who are 24 and 23, respectively, and are signed to long-term deals. Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin remain as well, although Letang is 33 and seems to be starting his decline and while Dumoulin is only 29, he is about as true of a second-pair defenseman that you will find. This defense corps will depend on Pettersson and Marino’s development; if they continue to trend upward, the team could be better than I expect, but if they have down years, Pittsburgh will be in trouble.

Player to Watch: Tristan Jarry

Part of the reason I place such importance on the defense group for Pittsburgh is that they come into the season with Jarry as their number one netminder. He was great last year, no argument here, but he doesn’t have a long track record to fall back on. If he has a rough start, where do the Penguins turn? Casey DeSmith is the other goalie on the roster, and I wouldn’t expect him to carry a team to the postseason. Jarry has a lot of pressure to perform this year, and it will be interesting to see how he handles it.

3. Boston Bruins

Boston will be without David Pastrnak, who shared the Rocket Richard Trophy (most goals) last year, to begin the season due to injury. That is a big loss for a team without a ton of scoring depth. The Bruins have relied on its top line of Pastrnak, Brad Marchand, and Patrice Bergeron to handle much of its scoring over the past few seasons. Understandably so, considering how productive the trio has been. However, not having one member of the group for some time in a shortened season is a problem. I don’t think it will cost them a playoff spot, but it will require the likes of Jake DeBrusk, Charlie Coyle, and David Krejci to fill the void, and if that group can score throughout the year, look out for Boston to make a deep run.

I have no worries about the goaltending tandem of Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak, as they have been nothing short of spectacular. However, the group of defensemen in front of them lost two key pieces this offseason. Torey Krug and Zdeno Chara both left in free agency, and Boston didn’t bring in a replacement of note. Their depth at the position used to be a strength, and it looks to be their biggest weakness now.

Player to Watch: Charlie McAvoy

I mentioned the lack of depth on defense. What is one way to overcome a lack of depth? Have one player take a step and become a workhorse, number one defenseman who can log big minutes, shut down the opponent’s best players every night, and produce offensively. This is what I see for McAvoy in his future. He looks like he has what it takes to become a top five defenseman in the NHL, if not top three. The question, for me, is how long it will take him to reach that potential. The Bruins would love for it to be this season, because they need a boost, and he might just be able to provide it.

2. Washington Capitals

The Capitals have won their division five seasons in a row, and I expect they will have a chance to make it six, even in this new East division. The Washington roster is as deep as it has been at both forward and defense in recent memory. This team won’t have any problems scoring goals, with the likes of Alex Ovechkin, T.J. Oshie, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Tom Wilson, and Jakub Vrana returning, alongside one of the best third-line centers in the league in Lars Eller.

The defense was the Capitals’ biggest problem last season, and they now have eight NHL defenseman, all of whom could play in the top-six for any other team, on their 23-man roster. Based on the opening-night roster, the duo of Jonas Siegenthaler and Trevor van Riemsdyk are the 7th and 8th defensemen on the team. The depth on the blue line is impressive. John Carlson returns after finishing second in Norris Trophy (best defenseman) voting last year- a good argument can be made that he should have won the award. Expect another big year from him, playing in a new system under Peter Laviolette that encourages defenseman to be more involved offensively. Zdeno Chara should be able to come in, after signing a one-year deal, and provide quality third-pair minutes as well as kill penalties.

Player to Watch: Ilya Samsonov

You may notice I have not mentioned goaltending to this point, and that is because Washington’s biggest question coming into this season rests between the pipes. Samsonov got off to a roaring start last season, as a rookie, while splitting time with Braden Holtby. His numbers slipped late in the season, before he did not travel to the bubble with the team for the playoffs. Part of the reason for his drop in performance can be tied to deteriorating defensive play in front of him, but it is hard to say if that was the only reason. The Capitals need Samsonov to take the position as the next in a line of great goaltenders to come through the organization if they hope to have another crack at the Stanley Cup in the Ovechkin era.

1. Philadelphia Flyers

This looks like the most complete team in the East, on paper, after reaching Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals last summer. Philadelphia doesn’t look to have a single glaring weakness, aside from maybe right-side defense, which I don’t expect to be too big of an issue. I always talk about the importance of depth at center- the Flyers have Sean Couturier, Kevin Hayes, and Nolan Patrick. I mention scoring depth- Travis Konecny, Claude Giroux, and James van Riemsdyk fit the bill. They also have solid depth pieces in Scott Laughton, Oscar Lindblom, and Joel Farabee.

Shifting to the defense, Ivan Provorov leads a group that is deep, even though I don’t see an elite number one. Provorov is a borderline all-star, while the group of Travis Sanheim, Erik Gustafsson, Justin Braun, and Philippe Myers are all quality NHL defensemen. This group doesn’t blow you away as one of the best in the league, but they certainly get the job done. Behind the defense is the goaltending duo of Carter Hart and Brian Elliott. Hart is the bell-cow in this tandem, but if he faulters, Elliott played quite well last year and looks to be a great fit as the backup. The Flyers are a solid team, top-to-bottom, and are one of the more complete teams in the NHL. I expect a really strong year from them.

Player to Watch: Nolan Patrick

The former number-two overall pick missed last season with migraines, and has yet to breakout as an NHL player. I don’t think Patrick is a bust, by any means, but I am waiting to see more from him. In his two seasons before the migraine issues, Patrick recorded 30 and 31 points. That is, frankly, underwhelming for a player picked where Patrick was. Given that this season is only 56 games, 30-40 points is where I would hope to see him. However, if he plays well and moves up the lineup, 45 might be attainable.

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