The 2021-22 season was one where all eight qualifiers for the NHL Eastern Conference Playoffs had at least 100 standings points, the first time this has happened in NHL history. There was a relatively large chasm between fourth place (making the playoffs) and fifth place (missing the playoffs) in both the Atlantic Division and the Metropolitan Division.
It was also a season where the “newer” contenders finished ahead of the most established contenders, indicating that a potential changing of the guard for Eastern Conference powers could be in progress.
Typically, the top two finishers in the Metropolitan Division have been the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins. However, in 2021-22, the top two finishers were the Carolina Hurricanes (116 points) and New York Rangers (110 points). In 2021-22, the Pittsburgh Penguins finished in third place (103) while the Capitals finished in fourth place (100). The Capitals finished 16 points ahead of the fifth-place New York Islanders.
The Atlantic Division standings played out similarly. The top two finishers in the Atlantic Division were the Florida Panthers (122 points) and the Toronto Maple Leafs (115 points). This was different from the recent past when either the Tampa Bay Lightning or the Boston Bruins would be the division front runners. Instead, the Tampa Bay Lightning finished in third place (110 points ) while the Boston Bruins finished fourth (107 points) and were a wild card team. The Bruins also finished a whopping 32 points ahead of the fifth-place Buffalo Sabres.
Thus, the question is whether a changing of the guard within the upper echelon of the Eastern Conference is taking place.
Age Is Just A Number?
In comparing the average ages of the Metropolitan Division teams from last season, the Washington Capitals ranked as the second oldest team in the NHL, with an average age of 29.42 while the Pittsburgh Penguins ranked as the fourth oldest team, with an average age of 29.32. In contrast, the newer powers of the Metropolitan Division, the Carolina Hurricanes ranked 17th in the league with an average age of 27.35 while the New York Rangers were even younger, ranking 26th in the league in age with an average age of 26.48.
A similar comparison was done among the Atlantic Division teams from last season. The Tampa Bay Lightning ranked third in age, with an average age of 29.45 while the Boston Bruins ranked ninth in age with an average age of 28.32. The two front-running teams in that division were younger than the “older” powers but the contrast in age was not quite as drastic as in the Metropolitan Division. For the Atlantic, the Florida Panthers ranked 14th in the league with an average age of 27.78 and the Toronto Maple Leafs ranked tenth with an average age of 28.27.
2022 Playoff Results
The first round of the playoffs featured the following matchups:
- Florida Panthers against Washington Capitals,
- Toronto Maple Leafs against the Tampa Bay Lightning,
- Carolina Hurricanes against the Boston Bruins, and
- New York Rangers against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
In all four series, a relatively younger upstart team was the higher seed in a matchup against an older team. All four series were competitive, with three out of four being decided in seven games and the remaining series decided in six games.
In three of the four series, the younger upstarts prevailed, with Florida defeating Washington in six games, Carolina over Boston in seven games, and New York over Pittsburgh in seven games.
The only exception was the defending Stanley Cup-winning Tampa Bay Lightning defeating the Toronto Maple Leafs in seven games. The first-round series results pointed to a potential trend of older teams being past their peak as contenders, at least in the cases of Boston, Pittsburgh, and Washington. The Tampa Bay Lightning was the only “older” team that advanced.
In contrast, the one older team that advanced to the second round, the Tampa Bay Lightning, featured key players in their prime or late prime: Steven Stamkos (31), Victor Hedman (31), Nikita Kucherov (28), Alex Killorn (32), Brayden Point (25), and Andrei Vasilevskiy (27). Tampa Bay also has a Vezina Trophy-caliber goalie which also enhanced their chances of advancing in the playoffs.
Later Round Results
In the second round, results were mixed, with regard to team age. The New York Rangers defeated the Carolina Hurricanes in seven games, despite being younger than them by nearly a year, on average. In the Atlantic Division, the Tampa Bay Lightning, older on average by a year and a half, swept the Florida Panthers. Player age was not the primary factor in either result.
In both of those series, the winning team had superior goaltending. The Rangers primarily used Vezina Trophy finalist, Igor Shesterkin, in goal. In contrast, due to injury, the Hurricanes primarily used their backup, Antti Raanta, as their Number One goalie, Frederik Andersen, was unavailable. The Lightning featured Andrei Vasilevskiy in goal, who is regarded as one of the best in the game and is annually a contender for the Vezina Trophy. The Panthers went with Sergei Bobrovsky who has not been consistent from year to year.
Eastern Conference Finals
For the Eastern Conference Finals, the matchup was between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the New York Rangers. The Lightning’s experience served them well as they came back to win the series after dropping the first two games. The Lightning ultimately lost the Stanley Cup to the Colorado Avalanche.
Judging from the results of the first round, there are strong indications that a changing of the guard is in progress. The three older teams, Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Capitals, and Boston Bruins, all fell in the first round. However, injuries are affecting those teams, too. For the Capitals, Nicklas Backstrom required surgery on his problematic hip, with no timetable for return. In addition, Tom Wilson required knee surgery to repair his ACL and is out until December.
The Boston Bruins also have numerous players who needed off-season surgery and will miss a good portion of the early part of the season. Brad Marchand will be out until December. Charles McAvoy had shoulder surgery and will be out until December. Matt Grzelcyk had shoulder surgery and will be out until November. The absences will put Boston at a severe disadvantage at the start of the season.
The Tampa Bay Lightning, with players in their prime or late prime, is currently in a great position, as evidenced by advancing to the Stanley Cup Finals for the third consecutive season. But a few years from now, it is likely that they could be dealing with similar problems that Boston, Pittsburgh, and Washington are facing this off-season.
The playoff teams with younger core groups of players, including the Carolina Hurricanes, New York Rangers, and Florida Panthers, could very well be the new perennial powers of the Eastern Conference. The teams that were outside the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference still have a long way to go to make the playoffs, unless one of the older, injury-prone teams falter.
A Look At The NHL Standings At The Holiday Break
Mid-Season Look at Each NHL Team; Eastern Conference
Capitals-Panthers 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round Preview
Capitals Will Enter 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs As Second Wild-Card, Face Panthers In Round One
Elite Prospects — Teams’ Physical Statistics
X-Factors For Most Teams Entering The 2022-23 NHL Season
2022-23 NHL Offseason Power Rankings
(Statistics from Hockey Reference, NHL.com, Quanthockey, Elite Prospects, and Cap Friendly.)
By Diane Doyle