The NHL realigned its divisions for the 2020-21 season, which will start Jan. 13, 2021, and have each team playing a condensed 56-game intradivisional schedule.
The East Division is loaded with established teams. The Boston Bruins had the best record during the NHL regular season after reaching Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final in 2019 before losing to the St. Louis Blues. The New York Islanders reached the Eastern Conference Final last season, losing to the Tampa Bay Lightning, the eventual champions. The Washington Capitals won the Stanley Cup in 2018 after the Pittsburgh Penguins won it in each of the previous two seasons.
The Philadelphia Flyers were finding their stride late last season and entered the Stanley Cup Playoffs as the top seed in the Eastern Conference after winning the round-robin portion of the Stanley Cup Qualifiers. The New York Rangers added forward Alexis Lafreniere, the No. 1 pick in the 2020 NHL Draft, the Buffalo Sabres signed forward Taylor Hall, the League MVP in 2018, and the New Jersey Devils, who have a new coach in Lindy Ruff, boast a young core that includes forwards Nico Hischier, the No. 1 pick in the 2017 NHL Draft, and Jack Hughes, No. 1 in the 2019 NHL Draft.
So which team in this new division is the favorite?
Five NHL.com staff writers offered opinions. Here are their answers:
The Flyers were coming on strong last season before play was paused on March 12 because of concerns about the coronavirus, winning nine of their last 10 games. They played well in the postseason until running out of steam against the Islanders in Game 7 of the second round. Carter Hart is the biggest reason I picked Philadelphia. The 22-year-old goalie has proven himself in back-to-back seasons. It wouldn’t be surprising if he improves on the 2.59 goals-against average and .915 save percentage he’s had in his first 74 NHL games. Hart also has Brian Elliott, a capable veteran backup, to help him. The Flyers can win with Elliott. Ivan Provorov is one of the top defenseman in the NHL. They’re deep up front and on the back end. Most notably, center Sean Couturier won the Selke Trophy as the best defensive forward in the NHL last season and Kevin Hayes plays a similar type of game. Philadelphia is hungry, talented and ready to win. — Dan Rosen, senior writer
New York Islanders
The Islanders have made major strides in two seasons under coach Barry Trotz and there’s no reason to think much will change this season, especially after advancing to the Eastern Conference Final for the first time since 1993. Deep playoff runs are nice, but the Islanders are primed for more this season, when they’ll play their home games at Nassau Coliseum for the final time before moving to their new arena at Belmont Park. The Islanders have star power in center Mathew Barzal, three 20-goal scorers in forwards Anders Lee, Brock Nelson and Jean-Gabriel Pageau, and Russia-born goalies in Semyon Varlamov and Ilya Sorokin ready to form a formidable one-two punch. I anticipate forward prospect Oliver Wahlstrom and defenseman prospect Noah Dobson to fill holes in the lineup. What makes the Islanders so tough is their ability to play any type of game. Whether it’s a tight-checking, in-your-face style, or a quick-paced, north-south game, they have the coach and personnel that can get the job done. — Mike G. Morreale, staff writer
The Capitals will go as far as second-year goalie Ilya Samsonov takes them, and I think that’s a long way. Backup Henrik Lundqvist‘s decision to sit out the season because of a heart condition leaves Washington thin in goal, but there’s no doubt Samsonov is the real deal. The 23-year-old is coming off an impressive rookie season that saw him finish 16-6-2 with a 2.55 GAA and .913 save percentage in 26 games. The rest of the roster features as much top-end talent as any in the NHL. Forwards Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeni Kuznetsov, T.J. Oshie and Tom Wilson, and defenseman John Carlson, each played a key role on the Stanley Cup-winning team of 2018 and form a nucleus that can do it again. Washington also added defenseman Justin Schultz, a member of the 2016 and 2017 title-winning Penguins. Incoming coach Peter Laviolette, who guided the Carolina Hurricanes to the Cup in 2006, might need to manage the ice time of some of the veterans to avoid burnout from the compressed 56-game schedule, but this team is deep enough to win it all. — Mike Zeisberger, staff writer
I’ll take any team with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. But the Penguins, like the Bruins, are facing questions about their championship window closing; Crosby and defenseman Kris Letang are 33 and Malkin is 34. That’s why they should be motivated and hungry to win. The Penguins have opted to ride goalie Tristan Jarry, sending two-time Stanley Cup-winner Matt Murray to the Ottawa Senators this offseason. Jarry, 25, was 20-12-1 with a 2.43 GAA and .921 save percentage last season. Malkin scored 74 points (25 goals, 49 assists) and Crosby scored 47 points (16 goals, 31 assists) in 41 games, missing 28 because of a core muscle injury that required surgery. The Penguins also have an emerging star in defenseman John Marino. It’s certainly not going to be easy, but the Penguins have the experience, the smarts and the stars to take them through this compressed season and win the East as they try to extend that window a little bit further. — Amalie Benjamin, staff writer
As Amalie mentioned, the window for the Bruins may be starting to close. But between the veterans who have been to the Stanley Cup Final three times with Boston since 2011 (forwards Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci) and their younger stars (24-year-old forwards David Pastrnak and Jake DeBrusk), the Bruins will win the East. Pastrnak led the Bruins with 95 points (48 goals, 47 assists) last season and Marchand was second with 87 (28 goals, 59 assists), each in 70 games; Bergeron was third with 56 points (31 goals, 25 assists) in 61 games. I know Pastrnak and Marchand may not be ready to start the season, but they’ll get back soon. The defense will be different without Torey Krug, who signed as a free agent with the St. Louis Blues, and captain Zdeno Chara’s future with Boston remains uncertain. But the Bruins are in good shape with Charlie McAvoy and Brandon Carlo on the blue line. They’re in great shape in goal as well. Tuukka Rask, back after opting out of the 2020 postseason, was 26-8-6 with a 2.12 GAA and .929 save percentage in 41 games, all starts. Jaroslav Halak completes a one-two punch that allowed the fewest goals in the NHL last season. The Bruins will be just fine. — Tracey Myers, staff writer