NHL East Preview: The gang's all here

NHL East Preview: The gang's all here

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Illustration: Getty Images

This division is loaded with veteran teams like Pittsburgh, Washington, and Boston that still expect to compete for the Stanley Cup, teams on the rise in the Islanders and Flyers, and teams bolstered by recent No. 1 overall picks like the Rangers, Devils and Sabres who are hoping to break through.

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BOSTON BRUINS

BOSTON BRUINS

Illustration for article titled NHL East Preview: The gangs all here
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COVID Response: Jeremy Jacobs is one of the richest owners in the NHL, and one of the very worst. When the pandemic hit, the Bruins honcho’s move was to tell arena workers to fuck off and hit the unemployment line. What a dick.

Staying Away: Tuukka Rask is back after having left the playoff bubble to deal with an emergency situation involving his young daughter. David Pastrnak, who had offseason hip and shoulder surgery, is out until at least February.

Oh, He’s Here Now? Signing Craig Smith to a three-year, $9.3 million deal wasn’t a big splash, but it’s a very good fit. Smith never quite blossomed into a top-line guy in Nashville, but as a bottom-six winger, he can pop in high-teens goals, take the occasional faceoff and not give you anything to worry about. The only other notable addition is taxi squadder Greg McKegg, with a leg for an arm and an arm for a leg.

 Where’d He Go? The Zdeno Chara era is over in Boston, with the longtime captain landing in Washington. That’s more of a shock but less impactful on the ice than the departure of Torey Krug to St. Louis as one of the offseason’s top free agents. Joakim Nordstrom and Alexander Petrovic went to the Flames, while Maxime Legace signed in Pittsburgh.

What To Expect: Easily the best team in the league when coronavirus hit, the early playoff exit was disappointing, but came against the eventual champions and without Boston’s No. 1 goalie. They might come back to the pack a bit, but it’s still Stanley Cup or bust for the B’s.

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BUFFALO SABRES

BUFFALO SABRES

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COVID Response: The Sabres’ arena parking lot has become a coronavirus testing site. Ownership pledged $1.2 million to coronavirus relief in the area early in the pandemic.

Staying Away: Defenseman Casey Nelson, who played 38 games for the Sabres last season, decided to opt out of the season, one of the few players in the league to do so.

Oh, He’s Here Now? There are three possibilities for Taylor Hall’s one-year deal: either things go fabulously with him on Jack Eichel’s line and the Sabres make the playoffs, Hall joins a Cup contender as a deadline rental, or he sticks around and works his legendary draft lottery magic. Everyone’s happy. It’s kind of similar for Eric Staal, who comes over with one year left on the deal he signed with Minnesota and remains useful, although either Staal or free agent signing Cody Eakin will have to be the No. 2 center, and neither concept exactly screams “playoffs.” This is also where Matt Irwin and Riley Sheahan are.

Where’d He Go? The Sabres traded Marcus Johansson to the Wild for Staal and lost a few free agents, most notably Wayne Simmonds and Jimmy Vesey to the Maple Leafs. Michael Frolik signed with the Canadiens, while Lawrence Pilut jumped to the KHL and Vladimir Sobotka to Switzerland.

What To Expect: No team is hurt by realignment for this season as much as the Sabres, who might have had a shot to make the playoffs in a division with the Canadiens, Panthers, Red Wings, and Senators. It’s hard to see how anything better than a sixth-place finish in this loaded division is going to be possible.

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NEW JERSEY DEVILS

NEW JERSEY DEVILS

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COVID Response: Owner Josh Harris was shamed into paying employees during the play stoppage.

Staying Away: Corey Crawford decided to retire instead of playing for the Devils. And after a breakup with defenseman P.K. Subban, don’t expect Lindsey Vonn to show up even if fans are allowed back in Newark.

Oh, He’s Here Now? Ryan Murray joins the defense corps after seven seasons with the Columbus Blue Jackets. Andreas Johnsson was acquired in a trade with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Lindy Ruff, last seen coaching the Dallas Stars in 2017, is the new head coach.

Where’d He Go? The Devils traded Joey Anderson for Johnsson. Wayne Simmonds joins him in Toronto after signing as a free agent. Longtime defenseman Andy Greene signed with the Islanders after a 14-year career with New Jersey.

What To Expect: This will eventually be Jack Hughes’ team, but last season showed he has some growing pains to go through before becoming the star he seems destined to be. In the meantime, it’ll be up to fellow former No. 1 pick Nico HIschier to carry the load. Subban looked slow and in serious decline last season, and unless he finds the fountain of youth, New Jersey lacks a real threat on the blue line. The Devils are likewise probably at least a season away from making noise in a tough division.

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NEW YORK ISLANDERS

NEW YORK ISLANDERS

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COVID Response: New York governor Andrew Cuomo proudly announced in October that the Islanders’ $1.3 billion arena at Belmont Park remains on course for a 2021 opening. It’s important to maintain priorities.

Staying Away: It looked for a bit like Mathew Barzal, the Islanders’ best player, might not be in the picture — not because of coronavirus or any health issues, but because of a contract holdout. The restricted free agent did agree to a three-year deal on Saturday, though, and now the Islanders are good to go.

Oh, He’s Here Now? If you aren’t fired up for the trades that landed A.J. Greer and Dmytro Timashov on Long Island, how about the signing of Austin Czarnik? No? Okay, well, now that Mathew Barzal has a new three-year contract, all of the top six forwards are under contract through at least 2023, except for Anthony Beauvillier, who will only be a restricted free agent this summer. Also, Cory Schneider came to camp as the third goalie and a guy to root for, as becoming a perennial Masterton Trophy candidate is a really tough thing to see.

Where’d He Go? The Islanders’ cap crunch resulted in trading defenseman Devon Toews to the Avalanche for second-round picks the next two years. Combine that with Johnny Boychuk’s career-ending eye injury, and the Islanders have lost the blue line depth that was a strength last season, though the Islanders did bring back former Devils captain Andy Greene. Derick Brassard signed with the Coyotes, while Thomas Greiss moved on to get more action, but play for a much worse team, in Detroit.

What To Expect: Coming off of their deepest playoff run since 1993, the Islanders have high hopes, and they should. But it also has to be remembered that their very appearance in the playoffs was highly in doubt when the pandemic hit, and the defense is slightly worse. A lot is going to hinge on young netminder Ilya Sorokin being able to split duties with Semyon Varlamov. You can’t have a wider range of possibilities than the Isles. You can see how they’d win a Cup. You can also see how they’d miss the playoffs entirely. Most likely, they go a round or two.

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NEW YORK RANGERS

NEW YORK RANGERS

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COVID Response: The Rangers are part of a much larger company, as MSG Entertainment also owns Radio City Music Hall, which had to cancel its annual Christmas Spectacular with the Rockettes. In August, the company laid off 350 workers, including 50 in the sports division. The company agreed to pay benefits through the end of the year… but now it’s a new year.

Staying Away: Tony DeAngelo is staying away… from Twitter. We’re all better off for it. Prospect Vitali Kravtsov remains in Russia for now.

Oh, He’s Here Now? You: “There’s no such thing as a bad one-year deal.” Rangers: “We signed Jack Johnson.” This after the Rangers traded Marc Staal and a second-round pick to Detroit for “future considerations.” Staal still could’ve fit under the cap in New York, and the Rangers wouldn’t have a defenseman that they knew was a traffic cone and who might not even make their lineup every night anyway. Let’s see, the Rangers also signed free agents Anthony Bitetto, Jonny Brodzinski, Anthony Greco, and Kevin Rooney. Feels like there’s something missing here, the big-ticket acquisition they usually make… oh, that’s right, the Blueshirts won the draft lottery and got Alexis Lafrenière dropped in their lap.

Where’d He Go? Get well soon, Henrik Lundqvist. The King signed with the Capitals after mentoring the Russian princes Igor Shesterkin and Alexander Georgiev, but won’t be in action in Washington after undergoing heart surgery.

What To Expect: The Rangers are on the rise, but probably still at least a year away from being real contenders as Lafrenière, Kaapo Kakko, K’Andre Miller, and other young players come into their own. Could they make the leap early? Sure, that kind of thing has happened plenty in the past. But just making the playoffs this season would be good enough progress on the track the Rangers have laid out for themselves.

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PHILADELPHIA FLYERS

PHILADELPHIA FLYERS

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COVID Response: The Flyers awarded $500,000 to five local businesses impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Staying Away: It was touch and go for a minute, but it appears that Gritty, symbol of freedom, won’t be staying away this season.


Oh, He’s Here Now? Not a new acquisition, but Nolan Patrick is back after missing the entire 2019-20 season due to concussion issues. Oskar Lindblom is healthy and back after battling Ewing’s sarcoma. The Flyers made very few moves this offseason after finishing second in the Metropolitan last year, with Erik Gustafsson being the biggest addition.

Where’d He Go? Matt Niskanen provided steady leadership on the blue line last year but decided to retire.

What To Expect: Expect the Flyers to be highly competitive in the tough East Division. The defense corps is coming into its own, as Ivan Provorov finally put together a season worthy of a No.1 defenseman. Smooth-skating Travis Sanheim and athletic freak Phil Myers are underrated weapons on the blue line. The return of Patrick gives the team terrific depth up the middle as Selke winner Sean Couturier continues to do his Patrice Bergeron impression and Kevin Hayes builds chemistry with Travis Konecny and Joel Farabee. More importantly, the Flyers don’t have a question mark in goal for the first time in decades as Carter Hart appears to be the real deal.

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PITTSBURGH PENGUINS

PITTSBURGH PENGUINS

Illustration for article titled NHL East Preview: The gangs all here
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COVID Response: The Penguins got a $4.8 million PPP loan. No other major pro sports team in the country took that money. The Penguins did. Disgraceful.

Staying Away: The Penguins canceled their practice on Saturday because of what the team called “an abundance of caution due to potential exposure of COVID-19.” That’s probably the last we’ll hear about it, right?

Oh, He’s Here Now? It feels like a million years ago and that he’s already played for the Penguins, but Pittsburgh sent its first-round pick this year to Toronto for Kasperi Kapanen. It was a bigger trade than that, but that was the part that mattered. Finally free from the Jack Johnson experience, the Penguins… signed Cody Ceci? Do NHL general managers not have access to video of games, or statistics, or, just, Twitter? Clearly not, because the Penguins also traded for Mike Matheson on the blue line, along with bottom-six forward Colton Sceviour.

Where’d He Go? In what amounted to a sign-and-trade, the Penguins sent would-be RFA Matt Murray to Ottawa for a second-round pick and a guy named Jonathan Gruden, who is obviously not that Jon Gruden. The Matheson-Sceviour acquisition came at the cost of sending Patric Hornqvist to Florida, which, fine, Hornqvist has fallen off. Losing Justin Schultz and Conor Sheary as free agents might be okay if they’d been replaced by better. Being reminded of what you had while those guys are in Washington… that’s not okay. Patrick Marleau returned to the Sharks.

What To Expect: Time is running out on the Crosby/Malkin/Letang era, and a lot of the time, when age takes a team down, it comes fast and hard and ugly. This may not be the year that happens, but the Penguins also don’t have enough to really be considered serious Cup contenders at this point. The floor is much lower than the ceiling is high.

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WASHINGTON CAPITALS

WASHINGTON CAPITALS

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COVID Response: Ted Leonsis, CEO of Monumental Sports & Entertainment, committed to paying employees for canceled games through the end of the 2019-20 regular season.

Staying Away: Henrik Lundqvist signed in the offseason, but will miss the season after having open-heart surgery.

Oh, He’s Here Now? Peter Laviolette will attempt to make the Stanley Cup Finals with his fourth team. Future Hall of Famer Zdeno Chara signed for $795,000 after 14 years with the Boston Bruins.

 Where’d He Go? Braden Holtby, wife Brandi and their two tortoises made their way across the border to Vancouver.

What To Expect: As long as Alex Ovechkin is potting goals on power-play setups from Nicklas Backstrom, the Caps should be in the mix. Laviolette’s track record shows he’s likely to give teams a boost in his first couple seasons.

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