The New York Islanders are going to be playing in the East Division this season, which is shaping up to be arguably the toughest in the NHL. The competition is going to be intense, especially with some of the teams that struggled last season, like the New York Rangers and Buffalo Sabres, looking poised for breakout seasons.
While the New York Islanders will face tough opponents throughout the season, every team in the East Division has at least one major weakness or something that can cause them to struggle. With this in mind, let’s look at the key liability that every team in the division possesses.
Washington Capitals (Goaltending)
The Washington Capitals are perennial Cup contenders, with a great roster and one of the best players in the NHL in Alexander Ovechkin. However, goaltending is going to be one of the biggest questions throughout this season.
Braden Holtby left in free agency to sign with the Vancouver Canucks, and while he struggled last season, he had the talent, experience, and playoff pedigree that is going to be difficult to replace. The Capitals hoped that signing Henrik Lundqvist would help fill the void, but medically unable to play this season and will be taking the year off.
The Capitals will hope that 23-year-old Ilya Samsonov is as good as promised and minor league journeyman Pheonix Copley can step up in a big way. If both goalies struggle, the Capitals season could take a plunge and ultimately be a disaster. The team might consider making a move to fill the need at goalie, but the weakness is something to keep an eye out for.
Boston Bruins (Defensive Depth & Scoring Depth)
The Boston Bruins have been the class of the Eastern Conference in recent seasons and are expected to contend in the East Division as one of the top teams. However, there are some question marks that give the Islanders and other teams vying for the top reasons to be hopeful. The Bruins will have to find answers for the losses of Torey Krug and Zdeno Chara, who both signed elsewhere in free agency.
The loss of the key players leaves the Bruins with depth issues. The roster is still one of the best in the NHL but the third line on offense and bottom defense pair are where the concerns lie. A lot of pressure will lie on younger skaters, like Ondrej Kase and Anders Bjork, to help with the depth on offense while Connor Clifton and John Moore might be responsible for carrying the lower end of the defense. Considering how this season is going to be unlike any other, roster depth is pivotal in a team’s success and Boston can struggle this season without some past contributors.
New York Rangers (Defensive Depth)
The Rangers are going to be the team to watch out for. The young talent on their roster mixed in with established veteran stars like Artemi Panarin and Chris Kreider gives many Rangers fans hope for this being the year that they will take the next big step, potentially competing for the division. While the roster has the talent, the downfall can start from their lack of defensive depth.
The Rangers acquired Jacob Trouba last offseason and Adam Fox is emerging as one of the best young defensemen in the NHL. Unfortunately, the rest of the defense is either unproven or lacking the talent, making the overall unit a clear weakness.
It will be interesting to see if 22-year-old Ryan Lindgren can have a breakout season in his second full season and if the risky signing of former Penguin Jack Johnson pays off. (from ‘Rangers sign struggling Jack Johnson in curious NHL free agency move,’ New York Post, 10/09/2020) The Rangers are entering this season with high expectations but will need to find answers defensively if they hope to compete in a tough East Division.
New Jersey Devils (Defense)
The New Jersey Devils are in the middle of a tough rebuild that requires many younger players and patience from the fans. The Devils have young talent offensively with the continuing growth of Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes but the clear weakness is in the defense.
PK Subban has been a disappointing acquisition thus far and was a liability last season more than an asset. Once regarded as one of the best defensemen in the league, Subban is a $9 million cap hit and not playing up to the expectations. They acquired Ryan Murray and Dmitry Kulikov with hopes that they can help, but the question marks throughout the unit leave the Devils with a defense that is easily vulnerable to the great scorers the East Division has to offer.
Philadelphia Flyers (Defensive Depth)
The Philadelphia Flyers were one of the best teams in the NHL last season and lost to the Islanders in seven games in the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Flyers have a talented roster led by solid scorers and one of the best young goalies in the NHL in Carter Hart. However, the Flyers’ defensive depth is a major concern entering this NHL season.
Ivan Provorov is a magnificent defenseman and the Flyers acquired Erik Gustafsson this offseason but the second and third line are where the concerns lie. The question is if younger skaters like Robert Hagg and Philippe Myers can make their mark this season but if not, we can see this weakness exposed throughout the division.
Buffalo Sabres (Overall Depth)
The Buffalo Sabres signed Taylor Hall this offseason, indicating that they are going to be competitive this season. With Jack Eichel continuing to grow into one of the best young skaters in the NHL, one would think that the Sabres are ready to compete in the East Division. The roster looks top-heavy and the overall depth is an issue that can constantly hurt them in the competitive East Division.
Across the roster, the Sabres may have a few viable starters but not enough to put together convincing second or third lines. Even though they acquired Eric Staal, it’s hard to see much scoring in the later lines and the young pairing of Rasmus Dahlin and Henri Jokiharju can impress us but the defense still looks vulnerable. Additionally, the goaltending is a lingering question mark, with Linus Ullmark expected to split time in net with Carter Hutton, both goalies leave a lot to be inspired.
Pittsburgh Penguins (Goaltending)
The Pittsburgh Penguins have a concerning roster with the core that won them back-to-back Stanley Cups starting to age. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin continue to play at elite levels but the roster is starting to look like a shell of its glory years. This couldn’t be more true than in net with Marc-Andre Fleury departing in the 2017 NHL Expansion Draft and Matt Murray being traded to the Ottawa Senators in the offseason. Granted, both goalies are aging, but they were pivotal in the Stanley Cup runs in the previous decade.
The Penguins will now turn to younger goalies that have yet to prove their marks in the NHL. Tristian Jarry is 25 years old and split time with Murray last season but will now be expected to be the starter. The backup, Casey DeSmith, has spent most of his career in the minors but is now expected to be the backup goalie and potentially start close to half the games this season. With both goalies unproven and expected to take on larger roles, they can either fill the need in the net or become the weakness that hurts the ‘Pens all season.
What Are the Islanders’ Primary Weaknesses?
The Islanders have to worry about two primary weaknesses, the defensive depth, and potential goaltending depth. After trading Devon Toews and Johnny Boychuk retiring, the Islanders will have to hope younger skaters like Noah Dobson can step up to play strong defense on the third line. (from ‘Islanders trade Devon Toews to Avalanche to ease salary cap crunch,’ New York Post, 10/12/2020) Goaltender Thomas Greiss was signed by the Detriot Red Wings in the offseason and Ilya Sorokin is expected to be the backup or even split time with Semyon Varlamov. If Sorokin, coming over from the KHL, fails to adjust to the NHL, goaltending can become a liability.
Despite listing the weaknesses of each of the East Division teams, all the teams are built to win and make the division the toughest in the NHL. It should be exciting to watch how the season will unfold and the ways the teams adjust to their strengths and weaknesses. The regular season starts next week and hockey fans can rejoice.
Mike Fink joined The Hockey Writers in November 2020 and covers the New York Islanders. In addition to covering the Islanders, Fink has written for multiple sports blogs and platforms covering the NHL, NFL, MLB, and college sports. Follow Mike on Twitter @Finks_thoughts for more Islanders and general hockey insights.