The 1927 New York Yankees were labeled with the “murderer’s row” moniker. If they hadn’t been, we would have had the opportunity to put that honor on the NHL’s East Division.
I spoke at length this offseason about how difficult the Metropolitan Division was set to be. Not only was it obvious from last year’s results, the offseason and the eye test, but sportsbooks largely agreed with that notion as the Metro dominated NHL futures throughout the offseason.
And then came realignment. In an effort to limit travel and considering the Canada/U.S. border closure, the NHL realigned its divisions geographically for the 2020-21 season, resulting in the Metropolitan getting even better.
With that in mind, let’s get to the nitty gritty. We’ll check out the new-look East Division and break down each team within before making a prediction on who should come out on top as well as a value play who could surprisingly march their way to the top.
*Odds courtesy of BetOnline
NHL East Division
Boston Bruins – Buffalo Sabres – Philadelphia Flyers – Pittsburgh Penguins – Washington Capitals – New York Islanders – New York Rangers – New Jersey Devils
It’s Metropolitan Division 2.0. Out are the Carolina Hurricanes and Columbus Blue Jackets and in are the Boston Bruins and Buffalo Sabres. All due respect to the pesky Hurricanes and Blue Jackets, but adding the Bruins to this division is bad news bears for the other seven teams involved, even if I expect some regression from the perennial Cup contenders.
Save for the rebuilding New Jersey Devils, there are seven teams sporting serious postseason aspirations in this division. With just four postseason spots to be had, buckle up for some seriously competitive and intense hockey as part of the best division coming out of the realignment.
NHL East Division Preview & Odds
Boston Bruins (+250)
If this division wasn’t going to be difficult enough, one of the two newcomers is now the favorite to win it all. While I’m more bearish on the Bruins than usual, they’ve proven time and time again that they’re not to be messed with, especially during their Presidents’ Trophy campaign from a season ago.
They lost power play anchor Torey Krug from their blueline and we’re still awaiting a decision from long-time captain Zdeno Chara on his future, but as it stands today, this Bruins blueline is noticeably weaker. Youngster Jeremy Lauzon will be thrust into action and veteran John Moore, who has struggled to get into the lineup due to health and performance over the last two seasons, will be tasked with a significant role as well.
Sniper David Pastrnak will likely miss the first month of the season and fellow first-line forward Brad Marchand is questionable to start the season as well with both players undergoing offseason surgeries.
So nice, he did it thrice! 🙌
David Pastrnak with the hat trick to take sole possession of the NHL goal scoring lead. 🎩🎩🎩
— theScore (@theScore) February 13, 2020
The goaltending tandem of Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak remains, however, as does all-world pivot Patrice Bergeron and reigning Jack Adams winner Bruce Cassidy. Craig Smith was a nice secondary scoring addition and the 2020 trade deadline deal for Ondrej Kase looks excellent at this point given the early-season injury woes.
I’m not sure they’re the best team in the league anymore and this division will give them plenty of competition, so it will be interesting to see how the Bruins fare in their new digs.
Philadelphia Flyers (+350)
Last season, the Flyers went from jockeying for a Wild Card spot to battling for the Metropolitan Division lead in a span of less than three weeks. That’s what a nine-game win streak can do for ya.
Prior to the season, I expected more of the latter than the former. No, I didn’t predict a nine-game winning stretch or even a first-place finish in the Metro, but I loved their quietly productive offseason.
They lost reliable, two-way defender Matt Niskanen to retirement this offseason, but added offensive defenseman Erik Gustafsson to the mix and are in a decent spot to replace Niskanen with the likes of Philippe Myers and the emergence of top-four blueliner Travis Sanheim.
A forward group that ranked seventh in the league remains in tact, as does the young/veteran goaltender duo of Carter Hart and Brian Elliott. That tandem will look to narrow their home/road splits next season as Hart was elite at home and ghastly on the road while the team as a whole farted far better at home (25-6-4) than they were on the road (16-15-3). The splits will narrow and the Flyers, with their depth in all three areas of the roster — are indeed a contender in the difficult east.
New York Islanders (+450)
Like many others, the Islanders are in a cap crisis this offseason as they too feel the effects of a flat cap. Devon Toews was a cap casualty dealt away to the Colorado Avalanche, but the unfortunate career-ending eye injury to defenseman Johnny Boychuk actually helped their cap situation.
Nonetheless, the Islanders still need to sign their best player in RFA Mathew Barzal as they search for opportunities to unload the contract of Andrew Ladd.
Aside from the cap issues, it’s been a quiet season out of Long Island. It appears they’ll return as a low-scoring, defensively-focused club, although the most exciting aspect to the roster will be the addition of rookie netminder Ilya Sorokin.
The team’s third-round pick in 2014, Sorokin has put forth ridiculous numbers in the KHL over the last several seasons. The 25-year-old most recently worked to a scoring-hot 1.50 GAA and .935 Sv% in 40 games last season, but also a 1.16 GAA and .940 Sv% in another 40 games the season prior. That should play despite the increased competition in the NHL.
When everything goes wrong, there is one man to save the day – Ilya Sorokin. pic.twitter.com/Q8iHWFWtqx
— KHL (@khl_eng) November 29, 2016
Given Sorokin’s arrival, the Islanders might not have to score much — again — to be a competitive club within an uber-competitive division.
Washington Capitals (+450)
The 2020-21 Washington Capitals are nearly identical to the 2019-20 Washington Capitals. Nearly.
That means you have your top six of Ovechkin, Backstrom, Wilson, Kuznetsov, Oshie and Vrana. Your bottom six again contains the likes of Carl Hagelin, Lars Eller, Richard Panik and Nic Dowd. They did add Conor Sheary as a secondary scoring option recently, and he’ll likely line up on the third line centered by Eller.
The blueline returns long-time defensemen John Carlson and Dmitry Orlov, Nick Jensen returns for a second full season and Brenden Dillon was re-signed after the club acquired him at the 2020 trade deadline. They brought in former Penguin Justin Schultz while Michal Kempny will miss the season with a torn Achilles tendon.
The most noticeable change comes with the departure of former fan favorite Braden Holtby between the pipes. After parts of 10 seasons with the Caps, Holtby wasn’t retained in free agency and signed with the Vancouver Canucks. The Caps did so with the idea of 23-year-old taking over the No. 1 job before signing New York Rangers legend Henrik Lundqvist to a one-year deal to mentor the young Russian.
— NBC Sports Capitals (@NBCSCapitals) January 17, 2020
However, with Lundqvist’s announcement that he will miss the season due to a heart condition and subsequent release that he is set to undergo open-heart surgery, the Caps signed veteran Craig Anderson to a professional tryout with the goaltending market thinned out by this point.
Nonetheless, you know the Capitals are going to have a lot to say in regard to who takes down the east.
Pittsburgh Penguins (+500)
After a disappointing qualifying-round upset at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens, Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford promised change, and he delivered.
Most notably, Patric Hornqvist was traded to the Panthers for defenseman Mike Matheson, the team re-acquired speedy winger Kasperi Kapanen from the Toronto Maple Leafs and goaltender Matt Murray was dealt to the Ottawa Senators, leaving the door open for Tristan Jarry as the team’s unquestioned starter.
With the likes of Patric Hornqvist, Jack Johnson and Nick Bjugstad departing the team in favor of players like Kapanen along with a full season of Jason Zucker, it looks like a faster, high-tempo Penguins team.
TOP SIX NIGHTMARE
A top line of Crosby, Jake Guentzel and Kapanen looks awfully difficult to defend while Zucker, Evgeni Malkin and Bryan Rust are a top-line trio on a lot of teams. Matheson isn’t Bobby Orr, but he’s an upgrade on Johnson. He’s also going to be on the bottom pair behind a real nice tip four of Kris Letang, Brian Dumoulin, Marcus Pettersson and 2019-20 breakout youngster John Marino.
We’ll see how the new-look Penguins gel, but change was delivered with authority this offseason.
New York Rangers (+700)
Perhaps the most exciting young team in the NHL, make no mistake that the Rangers intend on making the playoff this season.
After a late surge that had them on the cusp of a Wild Card spot in the east, the pause in action hurt their momentum and the Rangers eventually feel to the Hurricanes in the qualifying round.
However, they ping pong balls fell their way as they were rewarded No. 1 overall pick Alexis Lafreniere to join a youthful core featuring 2020 MVP finalist Artemi Panarin, Mika Zibanejad, Chris Kreider, Pavel Buchnevich, Kaapo Kakko, Filip Chytil, Ryan Strome and Brendan Lemieux up front.
The blueline will be the question mark after posting some suspect surface and advanced numbers last season. Their 34 shots against per game were the second-most in the NHL and Jack Johnson isn’t going to solve those issues. Jacob Trouba, Anthony DeAngelo and Adam Fox are a nice young trio, but increased results will be required in this division.
The Islanders aren’t the only New York club getting a potential superstar Russian netminder. Igor Shesterkin posted a .932 Sv% in 12 NHL games last season after working to a 1.90 GAA and .934 Sv% in 25 AHL contests. Prior to last season, he too put up sensational KHL numbers, mostly recently a scintillating 1.11 GAA and .953 SV% in 28 games in the 2018-19 season.
— Shayna (@hayyyshayyy) February 23, 2020
They are certainly on the right track and the rebuild didn’t take long to come to fruition, but whether they’re ready to make noise in a difficult east is up the air.
Buffalo Sabres (+1000)
Man, the poor, poor Buffalo Sabres.
Just when you think they’re a postseason contender, they not only get moved into the Metro, but they brought the Bruins with them. Talk about a tough break.
Expectations were raised with the addition of Taylor Hall as the top forward on the open market, and new GM Kevyn Adams added center depth in the form of Eric Staal and Cody Eakin. A top six of Hall, Jack Eichel, Victor Olofsson, Jeff Skinner, Staal and Sam Reinhart is he best group the Sabres have had in years and certainly in Eichel’s five-year tenure.
It was so improved that I had Eichel as a Hart Trophy candidate, but changed my mind after the league’s realignment.
This could be the season when Rasmus Dahlin enters the Norris Trophy debate, even if the remainder of the blueline is mostly mediocre.
The Sabres were happy with the 2.69 GAA and .915 Sv% they received from Linus Ullmark last season as the 27-year old appears ready for No. 1 duties with backup Carter Hutton a major bounce back candidate.
However, it’s all likely to be for naught. The Sabres aren’t going to be an easy out by any means, but even in a shortened 56-game regular season, I don’t see them finishing ahead of any of the teams mentioned so far.
New Jersey Devils (+1800)
It’s going to be a shortened season, but it could become a long one in a hurry for the rebuilding Devils.
The Devils weren’t going to compete regardless of what division they play in, so perhaps the consistent high-level competition will be good for a young Devils team.
It was a tough go en route to a seven-goal, 21-points rookie season for 2019 No. 1 overall pick Jack Hughes as an anemic Devils offense offered little support for the youngster. The team added speedy winger Andreas Johnsson in a trade with the cash-strapped Maple Leafs and acquired oft-injured defenseman Ryan Murray from the Blue Jackets for pennies on the dollar.
The additions make sense for this Devils team are both are pieces for now and the future, but there’s just not enough depth up front or on the blueline to compete in this division.
Where the Devils are really cooking with gas is in goal with Mackenzie Blackwood. The 23-year-old is coming off an outstanding season in which he worked to a 2.77 GAA and .915 Sv% while playing behind one of the worst defensive teams in the NHL. Add in his 23 appearances from the 2018-19 campaign and Blackwood owns a 2.72 GAA and .916 Sv% with five shutouts in 70 career appearances.
— NHL (@NHL) February 7, 2020
In support of Blackwood, the Devils added three-time Stanley Cup champion Corey Crawford coming off a fine season behind another defensively-inept team in the Chicago Blackhawks.
The goaltending tandem looks awfully capable, but unfortunately the forward and blueline groups are just too far behind for the Devils to enjoy much success this season.
NHL East Division Predictions
Division Winner – Philadelphia Flyers (+350)
I don’t like the loss of Matt Niskanen for this Flyers team. Niskanen is a all-situation defender with plenty of experience and a wealth of postseason experience as well. I don’t want to underestimate his absence as the second-pair right defenseman.
That said, the Flyers sport notable depth on defense. They’ll line up Myers, Gustafsson and veteran Justin Braun on the right side while the left side is very strong with Ivan Provorov, Sanheim and the rugged Robert Hagg. The good news is that aside from Braun, all of these players at 28 and under with their potential top pair of Provorov and Myers just 23 years old each. That bodes well for the future.
The Flyers have high-end talent up from in Claude Giroux, Sean Couturier and Jakub Voracek, but it’s their depth up and down the group that is the key. Kevin Hayes is a workman-like center who plays in all situations, Morgan Frost lines up as the third-line center and Scott Laughton is an underrated fourth-line pivot in terms of forechecking, tenacity and scoring touch.
Their top point-getter last season was winger Travis Konecny, they’ll get Oskar Lindblom after he was forced to the sidelines due to his cancer diagnosis. At the time, he was leading the team with 11 goals through 30 games and miraculously returned in the postseason.
James van Riemsdyk is a former 37 goal-scorer on the third line, Joel Farabee is a former first rounder and Nicolas Aube-Kubel and his elite forechecking ways will get a shot on the fourth line.
And then there’s Carter Hart in goal. The end results of his gaping-wide home/road splits was a 2.42 GAA and .914 Sv% across 43 games. He’s not going to be nearly as bad on the road (3.81 GAA/.857 Sv%) next season, but not likely as good at home either (1.63 GAA/.943 Sv%). However, I do expect another step forward for the 22-year-old that owns a quality 2.59 GAA and .915 Sv% through 74 career NHL appearances.
SAVE OF THE YEAR?! 🙌🙌🙌
— theScore (@theScore) December 12, 2019
They’re not the flashiest group, but this is a deep roster. In this division, it’s tough to label them the best in any department, but when it comes to their roster, top-to-bottom, the Flyers could lay a claim as the deepest team in the east.
Add it up and I think they’re a good bet to take down the new-look East division.
Value Pick – Pittsburgh Penguins (+500)
From the first-ranked Bruins at +250 to the fifth-ranked Penguins at +500, there obviously isn’t much room for your true “value pick”. The Rangers are about your final option at +700, but they’re not ready to win the division, not yet at least.
While I like the Flyers as a favorite within the top four odds group in this division, the truth of the matter is that the Penguins are my bet if I’m making just one to win this division.
Clearly, the sportsbooks aren’t in the same boat after a wildly disappointing postseason result a season ago. However, I would counter that argument with the fact that the Penguins finished just four points behind the Capitals for a share of the division lead last season despite a laundry list of injuries, mostly to their top players.
Jake Guentzel missed 30 games with a shoulder injury, Sidney Crosby missed 28 games due to core muscle surgery, Evgeni Malkin missed 14 games with multiple ailments, as did Bryan Rust. Kris Letang missed another eight games, Patric Hornqvist 17 and their best defensive defenseman Brian Dumoulin missed 41 games with an ankle injury.
I mean, just add up those games. Those players alone account for 152 man games lost in a shortened season. Once again, the Penguins battled through and persevered. If you cut those injuries in, say, half, I’m betting on the Penguins as Metro champs last season.
And I think this team is better. They’re faster, younger and finally have what appears to be a full-time right winger for Crosby. The Crosby/Guentzel combination if one of the best in the NHL and Kapanen’s north-south speed and shoot-first ways should work quite well alongside the elite play-making skills of Crosby. Add it up and I think Crosby can return as the NHL’s scoring leader this season.
Another sick pass from Sidney Crosby, another slick goal from Jake Guentzel.
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) March 6, 2019
The Malkin second line is one of the better second lines in the league. The third line features a new, big centerman in Mark Jankowski alongside the likes of Jared McCann and the speedy, physical Brandon Tanev. That’s a top nine I’m hanging my hat on.
The simple upgrade of Matheson over Johnson already makes their defense better. The top four is untouched, but should be far healthier.
Matt Murray is a two-time Cup champion, but his game has regressed significant in recent years and he posted a career-worst .899 Sv% last season. They’ll look for Jarry to work to a similar 2.43 GAA and .921 Sv% again this season, but keep in mind backup Casey DeSmith is the owner of a 2.66 GAA and .917 Sv% across 50 NHL appearances. He was just on the outside of the numbers game in goal for the Penguins over the last couple seasons.
Let’s just keep in mind the Penguins still sport the best one-two punch down the middle in Crosby and Malkin. So long as that remains the case, the Penguins are a major threat, but this time the supporting pieces look awfully stellar.
This division is no cake walk for anyone, but there isn’t a team I will be focusing on more than the Penguins when it comes to the east. The competition is elite, but sign me up for the value we’re getting with Crosby, Malkin and company at +500.