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2021 Division Previews: East Division

Updated: Jan 8, 2021

We kicked off our division previews with the North Division yesterday, which, due to the naming rights deal the NHL has announced, is now the Scotia NHL North Division. Which means today, we spice things up with the MassMutual NHL East Division. Has a ring to it, doesn't it?

Corporate sponsors aside, what we are really transitioning from is what measures as the weakest division in the NHL to the strongest, although you will not see that reflected in the projected standings points. Why? Well, since each division is only squaring off against their own, there are points to be had regardless of division difficulty. Someone has win.

In this case with the East, there are really four consensus top teams, the seemingly always middling New York Islanders, and then three intriguing up-and-coming teams. So where will they all finish? Let's take a look:

8. New Jersey Devils LINE: 53.5 CUP ODDS: +7500

New Faces: Andreas Johnsson, Ryan Murray, Dmitry Kulikov, Corey Crawford

Key Departures: Joey Anderson, Louis Domingue, John Hayden, Mirco Mueller, Kevin Rooney, Corey Schneider, Sami Vatanen

It's probably no surprise to see New Jersey in the eighth spot in the division projections, since they've finished close to the bottom for years now. However, they have a new coach and a former number one overall pick ready to take off, so things are looking up.

That former number one pick - Jack Hughes - will be the key to the Devils offense this season. Hughes had a disappointing first season after being forced into a top six role. Another former first pick, Nico Hischier, has some injury status questions heading into the season. He is the more complete player of the two at this time, and Coach Lindy Ruff will likely rely on him a lot this season.

The bottom six consists of a bunch of unknowns. It is clear this team is going young and it will be fun to see if any of these players can make a serious impact.

Ryan Murray comes in to a team that has struggled mightily on defense. He and Will Butcher will likely be the stalwarts on the backend, and the team need former Norris winner P.K. Subban to rebound in a big way.

The other newcomer on defense is Dmitry Kulikov, who is notorious for playing top four minutes at an alarmingly detrimental rate. Sometimes reputation can get in the way of results, and that seems to be the case with Kulikov.

The major bright spot of this team is the goaltending. Corey Crawford comes in to form a strong tandem with Mackenzie Blackwood, who both had great seasons last year despite their respective team's struggles. Whether Blackwood or Crawford are handed the majority of starts, the Devils should be in good hands.

7. Buffalo Sabres LINE: 54.5 CUP ODDS: +4000

New Faces: Taylor Hall, Eric Staal, Cody Eakin, Tobias Rieder, Matt Irwin, Brandon Davidson, Riley Sheahan (tryout)

Key Departures: Dominik Kahun, Johan Larsson, Jimmy Vesey, Wayne Simmonds

They may be seventh in our projections, but the Sabres could be one of the most exciting teams to watch in the NHL this season. Everyone is intrigued with the anticipated duo of Taylor Hall and Jack Eichel, who could both be among the league's top point-getters. It also looks like the trio of Jeff Skinner, Eric Staal, and Sam Reinhart will get some run together, which could be a possession-dominant line.

The bottom six is a different story, however. Zemgus Girgensons sustained an injury at the beginning of camp that is rumored to hold him out for most of the season, leaving a void of defensive forwards on the team. Tobias Rieder will likely get first run at his spot, but there is still an open starting spot available because of this. In the mix for that final spot could be Tage Thompson, Casey Mittelstadt, and Riley Sheahan, who is in camp on a tryout. With a likely need for penalty killers, Sheahan gets the nod in our projections. If the Sabres opt for a more offensive route, then Thompson or Mittelstadt would likely be the candidates.

The player to follow on the Sabres this season is Dylan Cozens, who was perhaps the best player at the World Junior Championships. If he can come in and make an impact right away, it will really boost the bottom six and solidify Buffalo as a top ten forward group this season.

Unlike the forwards, the defense is returning its top six. No new changes means there likely won't be much change in results, as this group has established themselves as good puck movers in transition without much positive offensive impact. Their best defenseman, Rasmus Dahlin, may see an expanded role this season, which could be the one uptick for the unit.

The goaltending situation was surprisingly not addressed by new GM Kevyn Adams in the offseason, leaving Coach Ralph Krueger to ride the hot hand between average netminders Linus Ullmark and Carter Hutton.

6. New York Rangers LINE: 60.5 CUP ODDS: +3300

New Faces: Alexis Lafreniere, Kevin Rooney, Jack Johnson, Anthony Bitetto, Keith Kinkaid

Key Departures: Henrik Lundqvist, Jesper Fast, Micheal Haley, Greg McKegg, Marc Staal

An MVP-worthy season from Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad's evolution to a superstar have really solidified this top six into must-watch territory. If former number two overall pick Kaapo Kakko can start showing glimpses of his true potential, this could be a high-scoring team.

Top draft pick Alexis Lafreniere expects to begin the season on the third line, where he and Filip Chytil will need to take steps forward to really give the team a chance at the playoffs.

The defense was the team's weakness last season, and with Jack Johnson being the only addition, it will likely remain the anchor holding the team back. Johnson and Brendan Smith have skated together so far in camp, which would be a frustrating pairing for Rangers fans.

There is some bright spots here, though. Adam Fox has been every bit as advertised and more, after an impressive rookie season. Jacob Trouba is coming off a down year, and a bounce back is expected. Tony DeAngelo was a point machine last season, and his promotion to the top pair could nicely compliment the team's top offensive talent up front.

The legendary Henrik Lundqvist is gone, so there's clearly a void left here, right? Actually, no, that is not the case. Igor Shesterkin burst onto the scene last season, going 10-2 with a .932 save percentage. If he is even 75% as good as last season, he and backup Alexandar Georgiev may be able to make up for some of the Rangers' defensive woes.

5. New York Islanders LINE: 64.5 CUP ODDS: +2000

New Faces: Dmytro Timashov, Cory Schneider (tryout), Matt Martin

Key Departures: Thomas Greiss

Turnover is not a big thing with Lou Lamoriello's teams, as evidenced by the "new face" Matt Martin reportedly returning to the club on a four year deal. Still, the Islanders were a fringe playoff team last season and project to be the same this season - slightly edging out the Sabres and Rangers but still a notch below the big four in the division.

This is all contingent, of course, on Mathew Barzal. The team's top center still remains unsigned, with the Isles having less than $4 million in cap space. If Lamoriello can find a way to get a deal done - which we expect - then you can expect more of the same from the team this season. If not, well, the Isles could very well find themselves in New Jersey territory as this season's bottom feeders of the division.

One of the most underrated top pairs in hockey consists of Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock. Pelech, more of the stay-at-home type, is as consistent as it gets defensively while Pulock, the do-it-all defenseman with a big shot, should be widely more considered in fantasy lineups than he is.

Semyon Varlamov, while not stellar, is a sufficient starter in the NHL. The eye-opener in net though this season is Ilya Sorokin, who looks to be be finally getting his shot to prove he can take the reigns on an NHL job.

4. Philadelphia Flyers LINE: 66.5 CUP ODDS: +1600

New Faces: Erik Gustafsson

Key Departures: Matt Niskanen

This was a tough forward group to nail down a projection on, as the Flyers have a number of youngsters ready to unseat some veterans for significant playing time. The status of Nolan Patrick is still up in the air as well, despite his camp appearance, due to the nature of his severe migranes.

Overall, despite the exact line combinations, this forward group is deep and capable of doing damage on any given night. Any positive impact from the likes of Morgan Frost and Joel Farabee would be an added bonus.

Out goes Matt Niskanen (due to retirement) and in comes Erik Gustafsson. Like the forward mix, defense pairs are still up in the air, including the replacement for Niskanen on the top pair. Justin Braun is the most likely candidate, due to time spent there in the past, but the Flyers would be best to use Philippe Myers in an expanded role.

In net, it's completely the Carter Hart show. Although the backup role may be proven to be insignificant, the Flyers did bring back aging vet Brian Elliott to compete with youngster Alex Lyon. Teams are required to carry three goalies this season, so all three could make the club.

As you can see by the big leap in projected standings points, the Flyers are considered to be in the upper echelon of the division. Spots two through four are all only separated by one point between former Metropolitan Division foes, so the race for seeding should be tight.

3. Washington Capitals LINE: 65.5 CUP ODDS: +2000

New Faces: Conor Sheary, Justin Schultz, Trevor van Riemsdyk, Zdeno Chara, Henrik Lundqvist (IR), Craig Anderson (tryout)

Key Departures: Ilya Kovalchuk, Radko Gudas, Michal Kempny, Braden Holtby

Washington has been returning the same core pieces and adding complimentary players for years now, and there's not much reason to expect a drop off this season in doing the same. Will they compete for the top seed? Probably not, but it's tough to write off their offensive firepower no matter their age.

Conor Sheary was a nice offseason add, as he can play up and down the lineup and should be a nice fit to start with Lars Eller and Carl Hagelin.

Where the Capitals did add is on the blueline. Justin Schultz gives the team a strong puck mover and offensive zone savvy that it lacked a bit last season. Of course "Big Z", Zdeno Chara, adds a priceless presence to the locker room and can still contribute on the ice. It's certainly possible he ends up on the top pair with John Carlson at some point.

Henrik Lundqvist was brought in to help mitigate the loss of Braden Holtby, but due to heart complications can no longer play this season. That means it's the Ilya Samsonov show in Washington, unless Craig Anderson can somehow turn back the clock.

2. Pittsburgh Penguins LINE: 64.5 CUP ODDS: +1600

New Faces: Kasperi Kapanen, Nick Bjugstad, Colton Sceviour, Evan Rodrigues, Mark Jankowski, Mike Matheson, Cody Ceci

Key Departures: Patric Hornqvist, Dominik Simon, Zach Aston-Reese, Justin Schultz, Patrick Marleau, Matt Murray

The Penguins forward group was decimated by injuries last season, and this season they face a lot of turnover. Evan Rodrigues returns to the team after being traded, and began training camp on the top line with Sidney Crosby. We've seen that role work out for similar players before him, so it's not crazy to think it wouldn't work out for him as well.

The big add was winger Kasperi Kapanen, who was originally drafted by the Pens. While slotted here for the third line with Jared McCann and Mark Jankowski, Kapanen could also get some play on Crosby's wing as well. As it stands this lineup is impressively optimized, giving them the slight edge on second place in the division.

Newcomers Mike Matheson and Cody Ceci form the third pair on defense, which, while underwhelming, is somewhat of an upgrade from years previous.

John Marino's rookie season was not talked about enough, as he was overshadowed by the likes of Cale Makar, Quinn Hughes, and Adam Fox. Marino's performance earned him a new contract, and it will be well deserved if he can maintain that level of play.

Out goes Matt Murray, meaning that it is truly Tristan Jarry's turn in net after a strong 2019-2020 campaign. Jarry's ability to repeat his performance is wildly up in the air, but he will be crucial to the success of Pittsburgh this season.

1. Boston Bruins LINE: 70.5 CUP ODDS: +1200

New Faces: Craig Smith, Greg McKegg

Key Departures: Zdeno Chara, Torey Krug, Joakim Nordstrom

The rich get richer as Boston added the underappreciated Craig Smith in the offseason. Smith was part of one of the best third lines in hockey in Nashville last season, and has incredible isolated impact numbers year after year. He should be the perfect compliment to Charlie Coyle this season, and can move up the lineup if need be.

Speaking of moving up the lineup, with David Pastrnak expected to miss some time to begin the season, Anders Bjork likely gets the first crack with Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron. If he flounders, there's plenty of other options on the roster to fill the void in the meantime, including Smith, Ondrej Kase, Nick Ritchie, or even Jack Studnicka.

If anything hinders the Boston Bruins this season, it will be their left defensemen. Matt Grzelcyk has been good in a sheltered role, and he will likely try to fill Torey Krug's shoes. With Chara leaving, however, right-shot Jeremy Lauzon is getting run as his replacement on the top pair. Lauzon has not measured favorably in his young career so far, so the Bruins could be asking for trouble.

Tuukka Rask returns after opting out of the bubble postseason to again form one of the best backstopping duos in hockey. He split time last season with Jaroslav Halak, and, with a compact schedule, we would expect much of the same this season.

The Bruins not only ranked atop of the East Division, but also measured out as the best team in hockey based on individual standings points added. This is despite the expected problems on defense and Pastrnak missing some time. Their tougher schedule knocked them down a bit in overall point projections, but look for Boston to continue its dominance deep into the playoffs again this season.

**Regular season point total lines and Stanley Cup odds courtesy of**


Other division breakdowns:

1 comentario

I might not be understanding the chart, but that Sabres 3rd line is their 4th line, I would expect Cozens to center a 3rd line with Thompson and Ruotsalainen flanking him if they continue to play the way they have in camp. If Boston and Pitt are leading the division Buffalo has a great chance. Both took steps back.

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