2020-21 East Division Preview

Photo: Patrick Smith/Getty Images

As the realigned divisions are set and with the 2020-21 season just a day away, NoVa Caps wraps up with their division previews. Today, we look at the East Division:

New Jersey Devils

2019-20 Result: 28-29-12 (last in Metropolitan Division, 14th in Eastern Conference)

2019-20 Leaders:

  • F Kyle Palmeri (20 goals, 45 points)
  • F Nikita Gusev (31 assists)
  • G MacKenzie Blackwood (.915 save percentage)

Key Offseason Additions:

  • D Ryan Murray
  • F Andreas Johnsson
  • D Dmitry Kulikov
  • D Sami Vatanen
  • Head Coach Lindy Ruff

Key Offseason Subtractions:

  • G Corey Schnieder
  • F Joey Anderson
  • D Mirco Mueller
  • C Kevin Rooney
  • C John Hayden

2020-21 Outlook: The Devils made a few upgrades at defense heading into the season with the acquisitions of Murray, who posted a 48.51% Corsi-for percentage and a 53.29% expected goals-for percentage in only 27 games with the Columbus Blue Jackets last season; Vatanen, who recorded a 47.78% Corsi-for percentage and a 47.24% expected goals-for percentage, in 47 games with the Devils; and Kulikov, who tallied a 50.85% Corsi-for percentage and a 44.3% expected goals-for percentage, in 51 games with the Winnipeg Jets. The Devils’ average of 3.25 goals-against per game was tied for the third-worst in the NHL last season.

They did not make any significant changes at forward but the addition of Johnsson, who recorded eight goals and 21 points in 43 games with the Toronto Maple Leafs after hitting the 20-goal plateau in 2018-19, is an upgrade after the team finished last season with an average of 2.68 goals-per-game (tied for seventh-worst in NHL).

After losing goaltender Corey Crawford to retirement last week, the Devils head into next season with a hole in goal. MacKenzie Blackwood, who went 22-14-8 with a .915 save percentage, a 2.77 goals-against average, and three shutouts, will head into the season as the undisputed No. 1. The team’s .9127 five-on-five save percentage ranked 23rd in the NHL last season.

The team is hoping for some bounce-back performances from center Jack Hughes, who recorded just seven goals and 21 points in 61 games in his rookie season, and defenseman P.K. Subban, who posted just seven goals, 18 points, and a -21 rating in 68 games after being acquired from the Nashville Predators in June 2019. If the Devils have any chance in a stacked East Division, those two players, in particular, are going to have to put up big numbers this season.

The Devils should improve but are not as deep at forward as they need to be and going into the season without a safety net for Blackwood. It will be tough for them but there is optimism for improvement in the Garden State this season.

Buffalo Sabres

2019-20 Result: 30-31-8 (sixth in Atlantic Division, 13th in Eastern Conference)

2019-20 Leaders:

  • C Jack Eichel (36 goals, 42 points, 78 points)
  • F Taylor Hall (36 assists, 52 points)
  • F Sam Reinhart (22 goals)
  • G Linus Ullmark (.915 save percentage)

Key Offseason Additions:

  • Hall
  • C Cody Eakin
  • F Tobias Rieder
  • C Eric Staal
  • D Matt Irwin
  • D Brandon Davidson
  • F Jack Quinn
  • C Riley Sheahan
  • GM Kevyn Adams

Key Offseason Subtractions:

  • F Marcus Johansson
  • F Jimmy Vesey
  • F Dominik Kahun
  • F Wayne Simmonds
  • GM Jason Botterill

2020-21 Outlook: After missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the ninth consecutive season (the longest drought in the NHL) despite a 9-2-2 start to the season, the Sabres made a lot of changes over the offseason both on and off the ice and head into this season as one of the most improved teams.

Under a new GM in Adams, the team signed Hall, who recorded 16 goals and 52 points in 65 games with the Devils and Arizona Coyotes last season, and acquired Staal, who posted 19 goals and 47 points in 66 games, in a trade with the Minnesota Wild that sent Johansson the other way after their average of 2.80 goals-per-game in 2019-20 was 21st in the NHL. Quinn, the Sabres’ eighth overall selection in the 2020 NHL Draft, should also help after he posted 52 goals and 89 points in 62 games with the OHL’s Ottawa 67’s last season.

The Sabres did not make any major changes on defense after averaging 3.12 goals-against per game last season (the tenth-worst). They have some nice pieces like Rasmus Dahlin, Henri Jokijarju, and Brendan Montour and added some depth with the free-agent signings of Irwin and Davidson.

Ullmark had an admirable season as he went 17-14-3 with a .915 save percentage, a 2.69 goals-against average, and one shutout but is 27 and can become an unrestricted free agent after this season. He will need to solidify himself as a No. 1 NHL goalie if the Sabres are going to have a chance.

While the Sabres are much improved, their goaltending tandem is not as good as others in the East Division. They have a chance to crack the top-four but the divisional realignment might have hurt them as they are arguably worse off in this division rather than the Atlantic Division.

New York Rangers

2019-20 Result: 37-28-5 (seventh in Metropolitan Division, 11th in Eastern Conference), lost in three games to Carolina Hurricanes in Stanley Cup Qualifiers

2019-20 Leaders:

  • C Mika Zibanejad (41 goals)
  • F Artemi Panarin (63 assists, 95 points)
  • G Igor Shesterkin (.932 save percentage)

Key Offseason Additions:

  • Rooney
  • F Alexis Lafreniere
  • D Jack Johnson
  • C Colin Blackwell
  • D Anthony Bitetto

Key Offseason Subtractions:

  • G Henrik Lundqvist
  • F Jesper Fast
  • D Marc Staal
  • C Gregg McKegg
  • C Lias Andersson

2020-21 Outlook: The Rangers had a quiet offseason but struck gold at the NHL Draft where they selected Lafreniere, who recorded 35 goals and 112 points in 52 games with the QMJHL’s Rimouski Océanic last season, with the first overall pick.

They also added some defensive depth after averaging 3.14 goals-against per game, tied with the Minnesota Wild for the eighth-most in the NHL, with the additions of Bitetto, who recorded a 46.98% Corsi-for percentage and a 43.86% expect-goals for percentage last season, and Johnson, who posted a 46.38% five-on-five Corsi-for percentage and a 47.34% five-on-five expected goals-for percentage.

The Rangers are banking on Panarin, Zibanejad, center Ryan Strome (who recorded 41 assists and 59 points last season), defenseman Anthony DeAngelo (who posted 15 goals and 53 points), and defenseman Adam Fox (who tallied eight goals and 42 points) to build off of the career seasons they had last season. If some of their production falls off, the Rangers could be in trouble.

For the first time in 16 seasons, the Rangers will not have Lundqvist in the crease. Igor Shesterkin, who went 10-2-0 with a .932 save percentage and a 2.52 goals-against average in his rookie season, and Alexander Georgiev, who posted a 17-14-2 record, a .910 save percentage, a 3.04 goals-against average, and two shutouts last season, will go into the season as the team’s goalies. Both are under 25-years-old.

The Rangers have one of the brightest futures in the NHL and this should be an exciting team to watch but they will likely have to be patient a little longer with some more young players finding their way, others’ production expected to fall, and some spotty play in their own end.

New York Islanders

2019-20 Result: 35-23-10 (fifth in Metropolitan Division, seventh in Eastern Conference), lost in six games to Tampa Bay Lightning in Eastern Conference Final

2019-20 Leaders:

  • C Brock Nelson (26 goals)
  • C Mathew Barzal (41 assists, 60 points)
  • G Ilya Sorokin (.935 save percentage – in KHL)

Key Offseason Additions:

  • Schnieder
  • C Austin Czarnik
  • F Dmytro Timashov

Key Offseason Subtractions:

  • G Thomas Greiss
  • C Derick Brassard
  • D Devon Toews
  • F Tom Kuhnackl
  • D Johnny Boychuk

2020-21 Outlook: The Islanders had a quiet offseason as they were focused on signing restricted free agents Barzal and Ryan Pulock. In order to make room for those two, they were forced to deal Toews, who excelled with the team last season.

The team underwent some changes in goal with Greiss departing and Sorokin stepping in. Sorokin went 26-10-3 with a .935 save percentage, a 1.50 goals-against average, and nine shutouts in 40 games with the KHL’s CSKA Moscow last season. The 25-year-old was selected 78th overall by the Islanders. He will likely split time with fellow Russian Semyon Varlamov, who went 19-14-6 with a .914 save percentage, a 2.62 goals-against average, and two shutouts in 2019-20, this season.

The Islanders defense got worse over the offseason with Toews and Boychuk out the door but the hope is that 21-year-old Noah Dobson can fill part of the gap. Dobson posted a goal, seven points, a -1 rating, a 49.75% Corsi-for percentage, and a 54.07% expected goals-for percentage in 34 NHL games last season. Sebastian Aho, who has not appeared in an NHL game since 2017-18 and posted three goals, 30 points, and a -16 rating in 49 games with the AHL’s Bridgeport Sound Tigers last season, is a candidate to fill in the hole left by Toews. While there are a few question marks and the Islanders likely won’t be as good as they were defensively last season when they allowed 2.79 goals-per-game (ninth), they should be fine led by head coach Barry Trotz.

The Islanders barely made any changes on offense after finishing last season with an average of 2.78 goals-per-game (22nd) despite having only two players with at least 50 points last season (Barzal, Nelson: 54).

The Islanders got worse on defense and may not have the firepower that they need at forward but they should head into the season with one of the NHL’s best goalie tandems. While the East Division is tough, Trotz should find a way to get his group into the top-four.

Pittsburgh Penguins

2019-20 Result: 40-23-6 (third in Metropolitan Division, fifth in Eastern Conference), lost in four games to Montreal Canadiens in Stanley Cup Qualifiers

2019-20 Leaders:

  • F Bryan Rust (27 goals)
  • C Evgeni Malkin (49 assists, 74 points)
  • C Sidney Crosby (1.15 points-per-game)
  • F Jake Guentzel (1.10 points-per-game)
  • G Tristan Jarry (.921 save percentage)

Key Offseason Additions:

  • F Kasperi Kapanen
  • D Cody Ceci
  • D Mike Matheson
  • F Colton Sceviour
  • C Mark Jankowski

Key Offseason Subtractions:

  • Johnson
  • D Justin Schultz
  • G Matt Murray
  • F Patric Hornqvist
  • F Conor Sheary
  • F Nick Bjugstad
  • F Patrick Marleau
  • C Andrew Agozzino

2020-21 Outlook: The Penguins made a lot of changes over the offseason after their second consecutive early Stanley Cup Playoff exit as they traded for Kapanen, who recorded 13 goals, 36 points, an even rating, a 51.63% Corsi-for percentage, and a 47.92% expected goals-for percentage in 69 games with the Toronto Maple Leafs, and dealt Hornqvist in their top-six forward group. As part of the deal for Hornqvist, they acquired Sceviour, who posted six goals, 16 points, a +2 rating in 69 games with the Florida Panthers last season.

They also saw some turnover on defense as they let Schultz and Johnson walk in free agency and acquired Matheson, who recorded eight goals, 20 points, a -1 rating, a 49.75% Corsi-for percentage, and a 45.6% expected goals-for percentage in 59 regular-season games with the Panthers last season, and Ceci, who tallied one goal, eight points, a +7 rating, a 50.22% Corsi-for percentage, and a 50.87% expected goals-for percentage in 56 regular-season games with the Maple Leafs.

After trading Murray, the Penguins enter this season with some spotty goaltending as Jarry had a breakout season where he went 20-12-1 with a .921 save percentage, a 2.43 goals-against average, and three shutouts but has only 62 games worth of NHL experience. Casey DeSmith, who went 18-18-2 with a .905 save percentage, a 2.92 goals-against average, and three shutouts. The 29-year-old has played in only 50 NHL games in his career.

The Penguins enter this season healthy after a host of injuries during the 2019-20 season as Malkin, Crosby, and Guentzel all missed significant time at one point due to injury. After grabbing the Metropolitan Division lead from the Washington Capitals on February 18, the Penguins finished the regular season by going a league-worst 3-8-0 and appear to be on the decline after getting swept in the first round in 2019 and lost in the Stanley Cup Qualifiers last summer.

The Penguins may be trending in the wrong direction and could very well have gotten worse this offseason but they should still be in the mix for a Stanley Cup Playoff spot with Crosby and Malkin still leading the way. Their spotty goaltending could end up putting them at a disadvantage, though.

Philadelphia Flyers

2019-20 Result: 41-21-7 (second in Metropolitan Division, fourth in Eastern Conference), lost in seven games to Islanders in the Second Round

2019-20 Leaders:

  • C Travis Konecny (24 goals, 61 points)
  • F Jakub Voracek (44 assists)
  • C Sean Couturier (57 points)
  • G Carter Hart (.914 save percentage)

Key Offseason Additions:

  • D Erik Gustafsson
  • D Derick Pouliot

Key Offseason Subtractions:

  • D Matt Niskanen
  • C Derek Grant
  • F Tyler Pitlick
  • F Nate Thompson

2020-21 Outlook: The Flyers made almost no changes in the offseason after earning the top-seed in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. However, they made one major change at defense as they brought in Gustafsson, who posted six goals, 29 points, a -9 rating, a 48.76% Corsi-for percentage, and a 45.17% expected goals-for percentage in 68 regular-season games with the Chicago Blackhawks and Calgary Flames last season, after Niskanen retired.

The Flyers are hoping for a young blueliner to step up and earn a spot on the top-pair with Ivan Provorov with Niskanen gone. Justin Braun, who recorded a 50.71% Corsi-for percentage and a 50.52% expected goals-for percentage in 62 games last season, appears to be the most likely. The Flyers averaged 2.77 goals-against per game in 2019-20, tied with the Tampa Bay Lightning for seventh.

On forward, the Flyers are hoping for more growth from their young players as Konecny led the team in scoring at 23-years-old, forward Oskar Lindblom (who recorded 11 goals and 18 points in 30 games before being diagnosed with Ewig’s sacroma last season) is 24, and center Morgan Frost could fill in for Grant after posting two goals and seven points in 20 NHL games and 13 goals and 29 points in 41 AHL games last season. The Flyers’ average of 3.29 goals-per-game also ranked seventh.

The team re-signed goaltender Brian Elliott to help with Hart’s growth as the 22-year-old goaltender went 24-13-3 with a .914 save percentage, a 2.42 goals-against average, and one shutout last season. Elliott went 16-7-4 with a .899 save percentage, a 2.87 goals-against average, and two shutouts in 2019-20.

The Flyers showed that they are finally growing and living up to their potential with their superb second half of last season, where they went 19-6-1 (tied with the Boston Bruins for the best record), and their performance in the round-robin where they earned the top seed in the Eastern Conference while posting a +8 goal-differential. They could regress a bit after Niskanen retired but this team should still finish at or near the top of the East.

Boston Bruins 

2019-20 Result: 44-14-12 (first in NHL), lost in five games to Lightning in the Second Round

2019-20 Leaders:

  • F David Pastrnak (48 goals, 95 points)
  • F Brad Marchand (59 assists)
  • G Tuukka Rask (.929 save percentage)

Key Offseason Additions:

  • F Craig Smith
  • C Greg McKegg

Key Offseason Subtractions:

  • D Torey Krug
  • F Joakim Nordstrom
  • D Zdeno Chara
  • F Brett Ritchie

2020-21 Outlook: After winning the Presidents’ Trophy but going 0-3-0 in the round-robin, the Bruins appear likely to regress this season. They lost a pair of top-four left-handed shooting defenseman in Krug and Chara in free agency and will rely on 22-year-old Urho Vaakanainen, who posted five goals, 14 points, and a +18 rating in 54 AHL games last season, and 23-year-old Jeremy Lauzon, who posted a goal, two points, and a +5 rating in 19 NHL games, to fill in for them.

After their top-line of Marchand, Pastrnak, and Patrice Bergeron combined for 107 (over 47.1%) of the team’s 227 goals last season, the team added Smith, who posted 18 goals and 31 points in 69 games with the Nashville Predators last season. Bergeron and Marchand are getting on the wrong side as Bergeron is 35 and Marchand is 32, so the Bruins need some more depth scoring as there will be questions as two of their top stars are getting up there in age.

While there are a lot of questions facing the Bruins, they still have one of the NHL’s best goaltending tandems of Rask, who went 26-8-6 with a .929 save percentage, a 2.12 goals-against average, and five shutouts last season, and Jaroslav Halak, who went 18-6-6 with a .919 save percentage, a 2.39 goals-against average, and three shutouts. They helped the Bruins finish with a league-best .9338 five-on-five save percentage.

Losing Krug takes a big hit on the Bruins’ power-play, which finished second in the NHL with a 25.2% efficiency. The hope is that Charlie McAvoy, who posted five goals, 32 points, and a +24 rating in 67 games last season and recorded seven power-play points in his rookie season in 2017-18, can take his place. The Bruins are a top-heavy offensive team but if they could keep their power-play percentage among the league’s best, it will go a long way in the East Division.

While the Bruins still have one of the NHL’s best goaltending tandems and lines, the lack of depth scoring and on defense could set them up for a big regression in a tough division.

Washington Capitals

2019-20 Result: 41-20-8 (first in Metropolitan Division, third in Eastern Conference), lost in five games to Islanders in the First Round

2019-20 Leaders:

  • F Alex Ovechkin (48 goals)
  • D John Carlson (60 assists, 75 points)
  • C Nicklas Backstrom (42 assists)
  • G Ilya Samsonov (.913 save percentage)

Key Offseason Additions:

  • Schultz
  • Sheary
  • D Zdeno Chara
  • D Trevor Van Riemsdyk
  • D Paul LaDue
  • G Craig Anderson (maybe)
  • Head Coach Peter Laviolette

Key Offseason Subtractions:

  • G Braden Holtby
  • D Radko Gudas
  • F Ilya Kovalchuk
  • C Travis Boyd
  • Head Coach Todd Reirden

2020-21 Outlook: After the team allowed an average of 3.44 goals-per-game from December 22 on was the worst among the 24 teams that qualified for the NHL’s return-to-play plan, the Capitals added four defensemen over the offseason in Schultz, who posted a 49.77% Corsi-for percentage and a 50.88% expected goals-for percentage in 46 games with the Penguins last season; Chara, who recorded a 46.79% Corsi-for percentage and a 48.46% expected goals-for percentage in 68 regular-season games with the Bruins; Van Riemsdyk, who tallied a 53.22% Corsi-for percentage and a 52.12% expected goals-for percentage in 46 games with the Carolina Hurricanes; and LaDue, who racked up nine goals, 27 points, and a +11 rating in 48 games with the AHL’s Ontario Reign. The team also replaced Reirden with Laviolette behind the bench.

The team did not make any changes on offense but made one change on the third-line with Kovalchuk departing in free agency and the team signing Sheary, who recorded 10 goals and 23 points in 63 regular-season games with the Penguins and Sabres last season, after the Capitals’ 3.42 average of goals-per-game was second behind only the Tampa Bay Lightning (3.47) last season.

The Capitals are getting a bit older with Ovechkin 35, Carlson 31, Backstrom 33, and forward T.J. Oshie 34, but none of them have shown signs of slowing down after Carlson led NHL defensemen in scoring and Ovechkin tied Pastrnak for the league lead in goals last season. The Capitals will need them to keep producing at a high level to ensure their Stanley Cup window stays open.

The biggest question mark heading to the season for the Capitals appears to be in goal. After Holtby left and Lundqvist was signed to replace him but will not play this season following a heart procedure, the Capitals could head into the season with three goaltenders that have combined for only 55 games worth of NHL experience. Samsonov, who excelled in his rookie season where he went 16-6-2 with a .913 save percentage, a 2.55 goals-against average, and one shutout in his rookie season, will take over the No. 1 spot but the back-up job is up for grabs. The team signed Anderson, who went 11-17-2 with a .902 save percentage and a 3.25 goals-against average in 34 games with the Ottawa Senators last season, to a PTO for a safety net but Vitek Vanecek, who went 19-10-2 with a .917 save percentage, a 2.26 goals-against average, and two shutouts with the AHL’s Hershey Bears last season, will be the back-up heading into the season with Anderson as the No. 3 goalie. The Capitals also have Pheonix Copley, who went 17-8-6 with a .905 save percentage, a 2.47 goals-against average, and two shutouts with the Bears last season, as an option.

While goaltending is a big question mark for the Capitals, this team still has one of the best offenses in the NHL and a much-improved defense. Supposing they could hold off father time for this season at least, they compete for the top seed in the East Division.

Breakout Candidates

Kapanen – Penguins

After an average season, the Penguins are planning to start Kapanen on Crosby’s line. Kapanen posted 20 goals and 44 points in 78 games during the 2018-19 season and played with center Auston Matthews a lot at the start of the season with forward William Nylander holding out without a contract. Kapanen has shown himself as a forward with some scoring touch in his first two full NHL seasons and playing in the Penguins’ top-six forward group could help him have a breakout season.

D Philippe Myers – Flyers

The 23-year-old could get a look on the top pair with Provorov after Niskanen retired after posting four goals, 16 points, a +17 rating, a 51.43% five-on-five Corsi-for percentage, and a 50.34% five-on-five expected goals-for percentage in 50 games during his first full NHL season. Myers could thrive with even more responsibility and time next to one of the league’s best young defensemen as he averaged only 17:06 worth of ice-time per game last season.

F Ondrej Kase – Bruins

After being acquired in a trade with the Anaheim Ducks on February 21, 2020, the 25-year-old only had one assist in six games with the Bruins. Kase had 20 goals in 66 games in 2017-18 and 11 goals and 20 points in 30 games in 2018-19. With him expecting to start in the top-six forward group this season, Kase could bounce back from a rough 2019-20 season where he saw his production dip to just seven goals and 24 points in 50 games.

F Kaapo Kakko – Rangers

The 19-year-old had an underwhelming rookie season where he recorded just 10 goals, 23 points, and a -26 rating in 66 games. However, there is a reason why Kakko was taken second overall in 2019 and he posted 22 goals and 38 points in 45 games with Liiga’s TPS in 2018-19, indicating that he struggled to adjust to the NHL last season. Kakko could get some time on Panarin’s right-wing, which would only benefit him in his sophomore season.

Standings Predictions

  1. x – Flyers
  2. x – Capitals
  3. x – Penguins
  4. x – Islanders
  5. Rangers
  6. Bruins
  7. Sabres
  8. Devils

** x – denotes postseason teams

Previous Division Previews

West Division

North Division

Central Division

By Harrison Brown

About Harrison Brown

Harrison is a diehard Caps fan and a hockey fanatic with a passion for sports writing. He attended his first game at age 8 and has been a season ticket holder since the 2010-2011 season. His fondest Caps memory was watching the Capitals hoist the Stanley Cup in Las Vegas. In his spare time, he enjoys travel, photography, and hanging out with his two dogs. Follow Harrison on Twitter @HarrisonB927077
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