We conclude the 2020-21 Stanley Cup Windows series with the East, a.k.a. the MassMutual NHL East Division.
Where does each team fall on its contention timeline? Some are going for a do-or-die championship right now. Others are sliding into extended windows of dominance. Others are aging out of contention. And some sit very early in their rebuilding processes.
Disclaimer for Twitter ragers: These. Are. Not. Projected. Standings.
WINDOW WIDE OPEN: Philadelphia Flyers
The East division looks like NHL’s deepest and most competitive under the realigned format for 2020-21, but while most of its contenders are veteran-laden groups built to compete in the present, the Flyers are set up to make a run for a championship now and for several years to come. They’re built to last from the net out. Carter Hart is maturing into the Flyers’ first reliable long-term stud in net arguably since Ron Hextall. He’s protected by a big, skilled, young D-corps featuring Ivan Provorov, Travis Sanheim and Philippe Myers, with another potential difference maker on the way in Cam York.
The Flyers are one of the league’s deepest teams at forward, too. They get strong veteran contributions in their top six from the aging-but-still-useful core of Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, Kevin Hayes and James van Riemsdyk, with Sean Couturier and Travis Konecny in their primes and taking over as the team’s top forwards. The key to Philly taking the next step is how its next wave of scoring forwards develops. They used four first-round picks in 2017 and 2018 to select Nolan Patrick, Moran Frost, Joel Farabee and Jay O’Brien. The need to see progress from that group. A lot depends on whether Patrick can conquer his debilitating migraine disorder. A big reason why Philadelphia needs to see that prospect evolution: the future salary-cap setup doesn’t suggest a big-ticket UFA can come to town, as the Flyers will have to devote their funds to RFAs Hart and Sanheim this summer.
Even if the kids aren’t ready to evolve further, the goaltending, defense, veteran forwards and structured coaching from Alain Vigneault make the Flyers a dangerous team.
WIN-NOW WINDOW: Boston Bruins, New York Islanders, Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Capitals
It’s too soon for all-out panic in Boston. This team won the Presidents’ Trophy in 2019-20. Once David Pastrnak returns from his hip surgery, he’ll reform the most dominant line in hockey with Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron. Boston's conscientious group of two-way forwards, which should get prospect Jack Studnicka as a full-time addition this season, will tilt the ice. Charlie McAvoy and Brandon Carlo will log monster minutes on defense. Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak should again form a rocksteady veteran tandem in net, handling the low-quality chances funnelled through coach Bruce Cassidy’s fundamentally excellent team.
But…it was a troubling off-season for GM Don Sweeney. Torey Krug and Zdeno Chara exited the blueline in free agency, directly replaced by no one, forcing Matt Grzelcyk and perhaps Jeremy Lauzon up the lineup. We know better than to bet against the consistent winning culture in this generation of the Bruins, but there’s no question they got weaker on paper this off-season. They’re still good enough to compete for a Cup but perhaps not for much longer. Bergeron is 35. Marchand is 32. Rask, 33, and David Krejci, 34, are UFAs next summer. It feels like we’re approaching the end of an era in Boston.
The Islanders are a tough team to figure out at the moment. I was tempted to place them in the “Window Fogged Up” section as we await the status of star center and RFA Mathew Barzal’s next contract. But if we look at the contracts on this team, it’s mostly a veteran group deployed to contend in the present under Barry Trotz’s excellent bend-but-don’t-break defensive system. The Isles have six forwards aged 28 or older making $5 million or more for at least four more seasons: Anders Lee, Brock Nelson, Jordan Eberle, Andrew Ladd, Josh Bailey and Jean-Gabriel Pageau. The Isles hope first-round picks such as Oliver Wahlstrom will mature into helpful contributors soon, and they’re expecting Noah Dobson to become a long-term anchor on defense along with Ryan Pulock, but the overall Isles identity under Lou Lamoriello is win-now. Why else would he reportedly plan to commit four more years to 31-year-old left winger Matt Martin at an AAV around $1.5 million?
Not that “win now” is a bad place for the Isles to be. They’re fresh off an Eastern Conference final appearance, they do a tremendous job swallowing scoring chances with their shot blocking, and they are set in net. Ilya Sorokin joins Semyon Varlamov and the goalie-guru coaching tree of Mitch Korn and Piero Greco. It’ll be hard to score on this team in 2020-21. The question is whether the Isles can get much better than they are right now. The flat salary cap forced them to trade promising defenseman Devon Toews for draft picks, and Barzal still needs a new deal.
The Penguins, with their aging core of future Hall of Famers and depleted farm system, have felt like a “Window Closing” team in recent seasons, having been swept by the Isles in the first round of the 2019 playoffs and upset by the 24th-overall Montreal Canadiens during the 2020 play-ins. But are the Pens bit more interesting this season? They quietly became one of the best defensive teams in the NHL last year, allowing the second-fewest scoring chances and seventh-fewest shots at 5-on-5 while posting the fifth-lowest expected goals against per 60. The emergence of rookie two-way defenseman John Marino was a big reason why. If the Pens continue to operate as a lockdown defensive unit, there’s slightly less pressure on the forward group led by Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jake Guentzel, Bryan Rust and Jason Zucker to fill the net. Not every game needs to be a track meet. The Pens also augmented their attack by trading for Kasperi Kapanen, whose speedy north-south game makes him a nice fit with Crosby in theory.
So maybe GM Jim Rutherford has bought his rickety roster some time. Maybe. He also added blueliners Cody Ceci and Mike Matheson, who run the risk of reversing the defensive gains made last season. It’s still possible these Pens’ days of Cup contention are over, but they at least have more potential to surprise this season than they have the past couple. It’ll be interesting to see which Tristan Jarry shows up in net: the guy who was arguably the best goalie in the NHL during the first half last year, or the guy who posted an .897 save percentage after the all-star break.
The Capitals know what they are. They very much resemble the Stanley Cup winning squad of 2017-18, with nine veteran holdovers remaining from that roster, including their current top-six forward group of Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Tom Wilson, Jakub Vrana, Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie. Understanding that this mostly veteran roster core only has so many more years in which it can viably make a run at a title, GM Brian MacLellan was decisive this past off-season, firing coach Todd Reirden, adding a veteran turnaround artist in Peter Laviolette, and padding the defense corps with veterans Chara, Justin Schultz and Trevor van Riemsdyk. With Ovechkin in the final year of his contract and Seattle-area native Oshie looking like a too-easy choice to get claimed in the expansion draft and captain the Kraken next year, the Caps are all-in for one more big push. The Chara signing lifts the team’s average age past 30. This is now the oldest team in the NHL. The Caps epitomize win-now mode.
WINDOW OPENING: New York Rangers
The Rangers arguably own the NHL’s entertainment crown at the moment. Few if any teams offer more run-and-gun excitement mixed with young-star appeal mixed with terrible defensive play right now. That was the 2019-20 Rangers’ identity, at least. The potential is far greater for 2020-21.
We know this team will have no problem scoring. Left winger Artemi Panarin is a superstar who makes others around him better, having led all players in assists and points per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 among those who played 1,000 or more minutes last season. Center Mika Zibanejad led the league in goals per game and managed 34 in his final 40 games last season – playing on a different line than Panarin’s. Tony DeAngelo and Adam Fox are dynamic offensive threats on defense. Left winger Chris Kreider brings physicality and leadership. Back to back lottery picks – right winger Kaapo Kakko and left winger Alexis Lafreniere – raise the ceiling even more. Oh, and there’s goalie Igor Shesterkin, who dazzled in his brief debut last year despite facing an extremely difficult workload from a leaky defensive club.
That leaky defense will determine whether the Rangers are a fun, high-flying periphery playoff threat or a rising juggernaut. Last season, they sat bottom-five in the NHL in shot attempts, shots, scoring chances and high-danger chances allowed per 60. If that doesn’t change, they’ll have to get by on lots of 5-4 wins. It will be interesting to see what type of impact K’Andre Miller could have on the D-corps if he makes the team. He’s reportedly having a fantastic camp so far.
WINDOW FOGGED UP: Buffalo Sabres
Typically, a new GM hire means a fresh strip of runway and time to rebuild, but that’s likely not the case for Kevyn Adams. The Pegulas fired Jason Botterill because his rebuild was taking too long. Captain Jack Eichel continued to express his annual end-of-season disappointment after his career-opening playoff drought extended to five seasons, and ownership understands it needs a happy superstar lest he get the itch to request a trade out of town. Adams, then, arrived with a ton of cap space and a mandate to try and make the Sabres competitive quickly.
It certainly appears he correctly identified Buffalo’s biggest area of need: center, which has been a black hole behind Eichel ever since the Ryan O’Reilly trade gutted the roster in 2018. Eric Staal and Cody Eakin slot into the No. 2 and 3 center spots now, also providing insulation that lets top prospect Dylan Cozens earn his way up the depth chart on merit instead of by default. The Sabres are clearly want to avoid repeating the mistake they made with Casey Mittelstadt.
So Buffalo looks way better up the middle. It also added the top UFA forward on a one-year deal in left winger Taylor Hall. If he’s healthy, he and Eichel could harvest career years out of each other. The Sabres, however, still look young and green on defense. Rasmus Dahlin could use more help around him. And the goaltending tandem of Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark feels like a placeholder for Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen. It’s therefore difficult to say for sure if Buffalo can finally push for the playoffs just yet – especially since, by a stroke of rotten luck, it lands in a ridiculously tough East division, in which one or two good teams will miss the big dance. The fact the Sabres inked Hall for just one year, which gives them an ejector-seat option to trade him at the deadline, tells us even they don’t quite know what they have yet. Maybe they’re done phase 1 of the rebuild. Maybe not. They also have just 10 players signed for next season, so Adams will once again have a pretty blank canvas to work with in summer 2021.
REBUILDING: New Jersey Devils
Frustrated with the status of the rebuild, the Devils cleaned house last season, axing GM Ray Shero and coach John Hynes. Now they hope promoted GM Tom Fitzgerald can inch the team back toward the right path, with new coach Lindy Ruff helping jumpstart the offense.
New Jersey’s long-term pillars are in place…probably. Nico Hischier still has the makings of a rock-solid No. 2 center at worst. Jack Hughes, a year removed from No. 1 overall draft status and Patrick Kane comparisons, could rebound massively after a bad rookie year. The advanced metrics suggest Hughes was extremely unlucky as a shooter, and he added significant muscle during the long COVID-19 layoff. With smooth skating D-man Ty Smith hoping to make the team this year and sniper Alexander Holtz added to the pipeline, the Devils have some real building blocks. It was encouraging to see goaltender Mackenzie Blackwood break out and become a viable long-term starting option last season, too.
Can the Devils move the needle in their rebuild this season? They did make some sneaky-useful additions, adding left winger Andreas Johnsson to their top six and deepening their D-corps with Ryan Murray, Dmitry Kulikov and, this week, a returning Sami Vatanen. But even with some on-paper improvements, a competitive Devils squad might still struggle to stay afloat against such stiff competition in the East. It’s thus more likely we see progress without a playoff berth in New Jersey this year. What will happen to reliable right winger Kyle Palmieri? He’s been one of NHL’s most consistent goal-scorers for the past half decade but is a UFA this summer and would fetch a significant return on the trade-deadline rental market. Since he’ll be 30 by the time he commences his next contract, might the Devils decide he’s too old to retain on a long-term pact?
Fitzgerald has some exciting work ahead. In summer 2021, the Devils have three forwards and five defensemen going UFA, many of whom carry large price tags. They have just 11 players signed for next year, leaving close to $40 million in cap space to allocate. That’s another reason to not get too aggressive this season.