A couple of weeks ago, the NHL announced the division realignment for the 2020-21 season. The East Division looks a lot like the Metropolitan, with the Carolina Hurricanes and the Columbus Blue Jackets swapped out for the Boston Bruins and the Buffalo Sabres. The division has no shortage of big names, and is home to a few of the best rivalries in the league. It’ll be must-see TV.
Six of these eight teams qualified for the Stanley Cup playoffs in the bubble last season, but only the top four will participate in the postseason in 2021. Given the reduced amount of games, the MLB-style schedule, the implementation of the taxi squad, playing against the same seven teams all season, personnel changes, and the unpredictability of the COVID-19 pandemic, predicting the four teams who will make it out is nearly impossible. But let’s take a crack at it.
Eastern Division Playoff Teams
#1. Washington Capitals
The Washington Capitals have won a division title each of the past five years. In its existence, the Metropolitan Division was pretty much a battle for second place – only two other teams ever won it. Until someone knocks Washinton off the hill, there’s no reason to believe they won’t come out on top again, even if the division has a different name.
While we’re citing history and trends, let’s take a look at new bench boss Peter Laviolette. In his first season behind an NHL bench, he coached the New York Islanders to second in the division, a single point behind the Philadelphia Flyers for first. In his first full season with the Carolina Hurricanes, they finished first in the division and won the Stanley Cup. When he joined the Flyers 35 games into the 2009-2010 season, he took them all the way to the Stanley Cup Final.
The following season, his first full stint in Philly, they won the Atlantic Division. He finished second in the Central Division with the Nashville Predators in 2014-15, his first season with them. He would eventually take them to the Stanley Cup Final two years later. Clearly, Laviolette-coached squads have success early on, which bodes well for the Capitals.
The main advantage the Caps have, however, is simply the names they have on their roster. They have the greatest goal-scorer of all-time in Alex Ovechkin, the best passer of his generation in Nicklas Backstrom, an elite defenseman who just finished second in the Norris voting in John Carlson, and the league’s most intimidating power forward in Tom Wilson. Combine this premier core with a deep back end and a quality supporting cast on offense, and you have a team who fully expects to win their sixth straight division.
#2. Philadelphia Flyers
The Philadelphia Flyers are coming off a surprisingly successful 2019-20 season. They were a point behind the Capitals for the Metropolitan Division lead before the league shut down, and earned the No. 1 seed in the East in the playoffs after going 3-0 in the round-robin stage. They won their first playoff series since 2011-12, and were a game short of an Eastern Conference Final appearance.
A lot of people are picking Philly to represent the East in the Stanley Cup Final this year, and it’s not a bad choice. Alain Vigneault has already coached two other clubs to a Cup Final appearance in the past 10 years. In the regular season, Carter Hart proved to the Flyers faithful that he is their bona fide No. 1 goaltender, and broadcasted it to the world in the postseason, where he posted a 2.23 goals against average (GAA), a .926 save percentage (SV%), and two shutouts. He’s also only 22.
The Capitals superstars give them the edge over Philadelphia, but there’s a potential X-factor that could help the Flyers take the East. Oskar Lindblom was their leading point scorer before he was diagnosed with a rare form of bone cancer in December of 2019. Thankfully, he finished his final round of treatment in July, and even appeared in a playoff game. If he is able to get back to the level he played at in 2019-20, the race to the division crown could come down to Caps vs. Flyers on May 7 and 8 – the final games of the regular season.
#3. New York Islanders
The New York Islanders have exceeded everybody’s expectations the past two seasons. No one gave them a chance against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2019 playoffs, and they ended up sweeping them. They followed that up with a trip to the Eastern Conference Final in the bubble over the summer. It’s time fans acknowledge their legitimacy and realize they’re here to stay.
There are several key contributors to their success, but it starts in the front office. Lou Lamoriello joined the Islanders in May of 2018 and has an impressive track record on the Island: some names he’s brought on include Barry Trotz, Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Semyon Varlamov, Robin Lehner, Andy Greene, and Matt Martin. These may not be the flashiest names, but as Herb Brooks would say, they’re the right ones.
However, without a true goal-scoring threat on offense, what this season could very well come down to is goaltending. Position coach Mitch Korn pulling the strings is definitely a huge help, but he certainly has his work cut out for him. Semyon Varlamov wasn’t stellar in his first season in the orange and blue. The 12-year veteran went 19-14-6 last year with a 2.62 GAA and a .914 SV%.
The second piece to their opening night tandem is Ilya Sorokin, a highly touted Russian prospect. He’s been considered by many to be the best goalie not in the NHL for the past few years, so if he lives up to the hype and Varlamov can give them a chance when he takes the crease, the Islanders are poised for a third consecutive playoff appearance.
#4. Boston Bruins
The Bruins made it to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final in 2019 and finished with the most points in the NHL last season, so having them squeak in at fourth was a tough decision. But when you lose Zdeno Chara and Torey Krug and don’t make an effort to adequately replace them, your team gets worse.
However, with the Florida Panthers deciding that Massachusetts native Keith Yandle will not be a regular in their lineup this season, there could be potential for a fit in Boston. Even if a trade doesn’t happen, though, the talent on the Bruins’ roster is evident. Newly anointed captain Patrice Bergeron was on pace to set a career-high in goals last season before the pause.
Brad Marchand remains an elite goal-scoring force from the left side. David Krejci is only two years removed from a 73-point season. Charlie McAvoy can make plays from the back end just as well as any defenseman in the league. And they have the best goaltender in the division in Tuukka Rask, as well as one of the better tandems in the NHL with Jaroslav Halak in the mix.
The name that hasn’t been mentioned yet will likely determine the Bruins’ fortunes. David Pastrnak underwent hip surgery in September, and the original prognosis was that he would be out until mid-February. Head coach Bruce Cassidy revealed that Pastrnak is ahead of schedule, which is music to the ears of Bruins fans. One of the biggest stars in the league, the Bruins will need to at the very least tread water in the standings until he steps back into his slot in the “Perfection Line.” If they are in the mix by the time he returns, the Bruins will be in good shape.
Probably the most shocking snub on this list is the Pittsburgh Penguins. Sidney Crosby missed the playoffs his rookie year but has made it every year since, totaling 14 consecutive seasons. This team just doesn’t look how we’re used to seeing them, though. The famous “HBK Line” was one of the better third lines in recent history and was pivotal in their two Stanley Cups. Now, after the top two forward lines, there is a massive drop-off.
They’ve also been trending down the past three seasons, bowing out of the playoffs in the second round in 2018, getting swept in the first round in 2019, and losing to the 12-seed Montreal Canadiens in the qualifying round last year. It was a historic run for the Penguins, but it may have run its course.
Another team that people are high on are the New York Rangers. They were one of the hottest teams in the league before the pandemic struck last year, and likely would have snuck into the playoffs. Their rebuild went a lot quicker than expected, and they have some young guns in their lineup. It looks like the Blueshirts will be good for a long time, but their youth and inexperience could hinder their path to the postseason. Give them one more year.
There are so many factors and variables that can and will affect the outcome of this unique season. We’re already seeing it with the Dallas Stars and all of their positive COVID-19 cases. In 82-game seasons, NHL teams have time to find their game and make adjustments if they get off to a slow start or start to pile up injuries. But in this shortened 56-game season, with only the top four in each division making the playoffs, there is little to no room for error.