Following the divisional realignment imposed by the NHL for the shortened 2020-21 regular season, the path to the playoffs and beyond will be solely based on head-to-head matchups with divisional foes. The regional realignment sees all Canadian teams moving into the new North Division, while the remaining three divisions are a bit unbalanced in terms of competition.
Each of the divisions’ top four teams will advance to the divisional playoffs, with the first seed playing the fourth seed, and the second seed playing the third seed. A division will have one division playoff champion that will match up against another division champion for the Stanley Cup Semi-Finals.
Some divisions have more of an even balance of quality throughout, but others are a bit more top-heavy, giving the better teams in those divisions a path of less resistance to the playoffs.
Prior to opening night, NoVa Caps has been breaking each of the new divisions to assess the strength of each divisional team through the use of the Goals Above Replacement metric. In this piece, we’ll take a look at each team in the East Division’s 2019-20 regular season goals above replacement (GAR) to project the strength of the division for the upcoming season. [Statistics courtesy of Evolving Hockey.]
The East Division is made of a majority of Metropolitan Division members, minus Carolina and Columbus (who moved to the Central Division). The Boston Bruins and Buffalo Sabres are added to the fray of the East Division, likely making it the most contentious division in the NHL’s realignment.
The new East Division has four teams who made it past the play-in round of the 2020 NHL Playoffs, including three of the top four seeds in the playoffs last season (Philadelphia, Washington, and Boston) and a conference finalist (New York Islanders). Overall, this is going to be an absolute battleground division, where it’s likely a very good team will miss out on the playoffs.
Here’s how the teams in the new East Division rank in terms of GAR for the 2019-20 regular season (Click to enlarge):
First in the East Division in overall GAR for the 2019-20 regular season was the Boston Bruins. Boasting what may be the best top line in hockey in Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak, as well as an impressive overall showing in the regular season across the board for these metrics, it’s not necessarily a surprise seeing them top the division.
The bad news for the Bruins is that two thirds of the top line are likely going to miss some time early in the season, with Marchand (20.6 GAR) and Pastrnak (17.8 GAR) both recovering from offseason surgeries. On top of that, high quality offensive defenseman Torey Krug (7.5 GAR) left the team in free agency and signed with the St Louis Blues. Longtime captain Zdeno Chara (6.8 GAR) shockingly left the Bruins in free agency and signed with the Capitals.
The Bruins were relatively quiet in free agency, opting to bring in veteran forward Craig Smith (12.4 GAR). Smith will help add some balance to the lineup in terms of scoring, likely skating with center David Krejci. Boston also boasts one of the best goaltending tandems in the NHL, Tuukka Rask (25.5 GAR) and Jaroslav Halak (13.3 GAR).
The Bruins will need to rely on their goaltending to bail them out, since the departures of Krug and Chara will lead to younger defensemen entering the lineup. The Bruins’ top six defensemen in terms of GAR last season, minus Chara and Krug are Charlie McAvoy (16.7 GAR), Matt Grzelcyk (5.3 GAR), Connor Clifton (2.1 GAR), Steven Kampfer (1.6 GAR), Brandon Carlo (0.5 GAR), and John Moore (-0.4 GAR).
Second in terms of GAR from the 2019-20 regular season is the Philadelphia Flyers. The Flyers were arguably the hottest team in the NHL prior to the league cancelling the rest of the 2019-20 regular season due to the pandemic.
The Flyers ran into the extremely hot New York Islanders in the second round of the playoffs, and their run ended there. In free agency, the Flyers added defenseman Erik Gustafsson (-0.5 GAR). The -0.5 GAR rate for Gustafsson in 2019-20 was a substantial regression from his 2018-19 season, where he posted a 9.6 GAR for the Chicago Blackhawks.
In terms of departures, the Flyers are now without Derek Grant (0.3 GAR), Matt Niskanen (7.6 GAR), Tyler Pitlick (7 GAR), and Nate Thompson (-6.1 GAR). The Flyers are hoping that a healthy Nolan Patrick (3.8 GAR in 2018-19) can help add more depth up front.
The Flyers are backstopped by solid youngster Carter Hart (14.9 GAR) and veteran backup Brian Elliott (-3.9 GAR). The Flyers should remain a strong contender for the playoffs, and perhaps the Stanley Cup, especially with Sean Couturier (14.6 GAR), Travis Konecny (11.7 GAR), Philippe Myers (11.2 GAR), Ivan Provorov (10.7 GAR), Jakub Voracek (10.2 GAR), and Claude Giroux (8.9 GAR) leading the way.
Third in overall GAR in the East Division is the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Penguins had an interesting offseason (to say the least), shipping out power forward Patric Hornqvist (7.8 GAR) to Florida in return for Mike Matheson (5 GAR) and Colton Sceviour (1.6 GAR). On top of that, the Penguins re-acquired Kasperi Kapanen (-0.6 GAR) in a package that included Pontus Aberg and Jesper Lindgren, shipping out David Warsofsky, Evan Rodrigues (-1.9 GAR) (and later re-signed), Filip Hallander, and a 2020 first round pick.
They then traded Nick Bjugstad (0.2 GAR) with 50% salary retention for a 7th round pick from the Minnesota Wild in a salary dump move. On top of that, the Penguins shipped out two time Stanley Cup winning goaltender Matt Murray (-4.8 GAR) to the Ottawa Senators for Jonathan Gruden and a 2020 second round pick.
In free agency, the Penguins signed Cody Ceci (-0.1 GAR) and Mark Jankowski (0.2 GAR). It’s hard to say whether the Penguins really improved this offseason, but it’s hard to count them out with Sidney Crosby (3 GAR) and Evgeni Malkin (9.4 GAR) still leading the way.
The Capitals slide in at fourth overall in overall GAR in the 2019-20 season. After a blisteringly hot start to the season, the Capitals were ineffective and seemingly uninspired after early-December but were able to still limp their way to their fifth straight Metropolitan Division championship.
General Manager Brian MacLellan certainly made it a point to shore up the defensive corps, as well as hiring a new head coach in Peter Laviolette. The Caps signed Zdeno Chara (6.8 GAR), Paul LaDue (AHL), Justin Schultz (-1.9 GAR), Trevor van Riemsdyk (0.3 GAR), and re-signed Brenden Dillon (4.8 GAR) on the defensive side. The Caps also made a low risk, high reward signing in Conor Sheary (5.5 GAR) for more offensive depth.
The biggest question for the Capitals coming into the season is goaltending. Is Ilya Samsonov (8.4 GAR) ready to take the reins as a number one goaltender? And are Vitek Vanecek and Craig Anderson (3.1 GAR) capable backups?
On top of that, as Evgeny Kuznetsov (0.9 GAR) goes, so do the Caps. Over the past three years, the Capitals rely (and pay) Kuznetsov to be a top tier center in the NHL. In 2017-18, Kuznetsov posted a 10.2 GAR en route to a dominant postseason and a Stanley Cup. In 2018-19, Kuznetsov posted a 2.8 GAR, a harsh drop off. After that, Kuznetsov dropped to 0.9 GAR last season, which means he’s on the border of being a replacement level player. For the Caps to succeed, they need 2017-18 Kuznetsov, not the 2019-20 iteration.
On top of that, Alex Ovechkin posted his worst year in GAR going back the last six seasons with a 3.4 GAR. Since Kuznetsov and Ovechkin mostly played together, these metrics make a lot of sense in context.
In fifth are the New York Islanders. As mentioned earlier in this post, the Isles and their suffocating defense pushed their way into the Eastern Conference Finals last year, and ended up falling to the eventual champion, the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The Islanders have had a relatively quiet offseason in terms of acquisitions. They traded out solid defenseman Devon Toews (4.9 GAR) to the Colorado Avalanche for two second round picks, and acquired young forward Dmytro Timashov (0.8 GAR) from the Detroit Red Wings for future considerations.
Veteran forward Derick Brassard (4.1 GAR) and veteran goaltender Thomas Griess (5 GAR) exited the team via unrestricted free agency. The Isles also signed forward Austin Czarnik (0.7 GAR). It looks like the Islanders will play solid prospects Oliver Wahlstrom and Kieffer Bellows at forward this season.
The Isles will be backstopped by a pair of Russian netminders in Semyon Varlamov (20.4 GAR) and rookie Ilya Sorokin. The 25-year-old Sorokin has been a stalwart in the KHL, posting a .929 save percentage or higher every season since 2014-15, and a GAA under 1.61 in the same time frame. The Isles are constructed to play more as a unit than having elite game-breakers across the lineup, which makes them a difficult team to project using GAR.
In sixth are the quickly reloading New York Rangers. After making the play-in round of the NHL Playoffs, they won the NHL Entry Draft Lottery and selected bona-fide prospect Alexis Lafreniere first overall, following the selection of Kappo Kakko second overall in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft. The Rangers are still likely outside the playoff window this season, but have elite prospects in the ranks.
In terms of departures, the Rangers shipped out veteran defenseman Marc Staal (-6 GAR) to the Red Wings in a cap dump, and sent out disgruntled young forward Lias Andersson (-1.9 GAR) to the Kings. The Rangers did not make any big splashes in free agency, but were able to retain some of their younger talent in Brendan Lemieux (2.2 GAR), Ryan Strome (6.7 GAR), Anthony Deangelo (9.2 GAR), and Alexandar Georgiev (10.6 GAR).
Even after losing longtime netminder Henrik Lundqvist (8 GAR) to unrestricted free agency, the Rangers are still solid in net with Georgiev and upstart talent Igor Shesterkin (7.5 GAR).
If the Rangers are looking to make noise this season, they’ll need a repeat performance of the 2019-20 regular season from center Mika Zibanejad (8.5 GAR), where he put up 41 goals, 34 assists, and 75 points in 57 games played. Having elite left winger Artemi Panarin (24.9 GAR) could definitely help that cause.
Seventh in overall GAR from the 2019-20 regular season is the Buffalo Sabres. The Sabres made a huge splash in free agency, signing former Hart Trophy winner Taylor Hall (2.8 GAR) to a one year contract. Hall’s GAR figures have dropped off the past two seasons, likely due to playing on rebuilding teams in New Jersey, and an offensively challenged Arizona team for the second half of last season.
In 2017-18, when Hall won the Hart Trophy, he put up a 26.2 GAR. The Sabres will need that from him to make any noise this season. Playing with franchise cornerstone Jack Eichel (16.5 GAR) should help rejuvenate Hall’s game.
The Sabres also brought in veteran center Eric Staal (9.2 GAR) in a one for one deal for Marcus Johansson (2.2 GAR). The Sabres are definitely improved up front with the additions of Hall and Staal. The Sabres are still a bit lacking defensively and in net. The Sabres will need to bank on former first overall pick Rasmus Dahlin (4.1 GAR) to make the next step. The Sabres will be relying on Linus Ullmark (4.7 GAR) and Carter Hutton (1.9 GAR) in net, which may not be enough to keep up in the extremely tough East Division.
Coming in last in overall GAR from the 2019-20 regular season is the New Jersey Devils. It’s pretty likely that the Devils will end up at the bottom of the division again. In free agency, the Devils signed Sami Vatanen (1.6 GAR), Dmitry Kulikov (-2.8 GAR), and Corey Crawford (who unfortunately announced his retirement on January 9th).
The Devils did add some talent to their lineup via trades this off-season, acquiring Andreas Johnsson (2.4 GAR) from the Maple Leafs for Joey Anderson (2.5 GAR in 18 games played), and defenseman Ryan Murray (2.7 GAR) from the Blue Jackets for a 2021 fifth round draft pick. With Corey Crawford announcing his retirement, the Devils will have a decision to make in net. They’ll likely bank on young, solid goaltender Mackenzie Blackwood (14.8 GAR) to be their starter, but there’s not exactly a bevy of options for their backup or taxi squad goaltender.
Here are potential standings results for the 2021 regular season, taking into account 2019-20 performance, as well as off-season additions and departures:
- Boston Bruins
- Philadelphia Flyers
- Washington Capitals
- Pittsburgh Penguins
- New York Islanders
- Buffalo Sabres
- New York Rangers
- New Jersey Devils
By Justin Trudel