Around this time next week, the Philadelphia Flyers will drop the puck on another season, which will be very different from the decades of hockey we’ve come to experience.
As you’ve probably heard by now, the league is scheduled to play a shortened 56-game season with teams playing games only within their own divisions. The top four teams in each division make the playoffs. Short and sweet.
That’s great news for hockey writers who were thinking about previewing all of the Flyers opponents this season. Since there’s only seven teams on the Flyers’ schedule, let’s take a quick look at where each rival stands after a rather strange offseason. Keep in mind, the league temporarily realigned for geographical purposes to cut down on travel. So the Carolina Hurricanes and Columbus Blue Jackets are gone from the former Metropolitan Division, and the new “East Division” welcomes the Boston Bruins and Buffalo Sabres, who were in the Atlantic Division last season.
The Bruins were the Presidents Trophy winners last season so they’re considered the favorite by oddsmakers to win the newly formed East Division. The Bruins deploy one of the league’s best lines, which is centered by perennial Selke Trophy finalist Patrice Bergeron and flanked by Rocket Richard co-winner David Pastrnak and talented pest Brad Marchand. However, Boston has struggled to find consistent secondary scoring or any type of help on the wings to play with second line pivot David Krejci. On the blue line, the Bruins said goodbye to longtime captain Zdeno Chara, who is now 43, and unrestricted free agent Torey Krug, who signed in St. Louis. All eyes will be on emerging star defenseman Charlie McAvoy and goaltender Tuuka Rask, who notably left the playoff bubble early for personal reasons in March.
The Bruins are still strong down the middle with Bergeron, Krejci and Charlie Coyle, but have weakened in other areas. Offseason surgery for Pastrnak and Marchand could result in a stumble out of the gate, as both will likely miss the start of the season.
The Sabres have been mucking along the floor of their division for the last decade but things may start to be finally looking up. Jack Eichel is a no-doubt stud as the team’s No. 1 center and somehow the swords managed to lure in former Hart Trophy winner Taylor Hall for at least one season. Buffalo also added Eric Staal via trade. Suddenly, the Sabres’ top-six forward group, which also includes Sam Reinhart, Jeff Skinner and Victor Olofsson, is actually pretty dangerous. But there’s a big drop-off after that. The same can be said on defense after you get past Rasmus Dahlin, who is primed for a breakout year. The Sabres have enough to be competitive and they’ve shown they can open a few eyes in the early going after piecing together a 10-game winning streak in 2018-19, and after starting last season 9-2-1. A shortened season will help them, but probably not enough.
New Jersey Devils
The Devils are on the way up. First overall picks Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier will surely be big names in the future in Newark but this Devils roster is still years from being a real threat in the postseason. The Devils cut ties with goaltender Cory Schneider and brought in two-time Cup winner Corey Crawford to shake things up. But there’s not a whole lot to be excited about beyond that. Unless you count P.K. Subban’s $9 million cap hit coming off the books in two years. And hey, there’s only five more years of paying Ilya Kovalchuk’s recapture penalty.
All joking aside, it will be interesting to see how New Jersey and Buffalo respond after not playing a real game for 10 months, as neither qualified for last year’s 24-team postseason tournament.
New York Islanders
We spent all last season wondering how the Islanders were so good and we might spend this season doing the same. On paper, the Islanders still look mediocre but have shown they can play playoff hockey with the best of them, ousting the Flyers and reaching the Eastern Conference final last year through a painful, grinding style. It’s crazy to think the Islanders could be even more boring if they don’t find a way to sign restricted free agent Mathew Barzal in the next week. The Isles return basically the same team, minus the retired Johnny Boychuk and fellow D-man Devon Toews, who was traded to relieve New York’s salary cap crunch. The Isles will showcase goaltender Ilya Sorokin in a tandem with Semyon Varlamov after the departure of Thomas Greiss. Are the Islanders any good? Who knows. But simple math says this might be one of the teams the Flyers need to beat out to make the playoffs.
New York Rangers
The Rangers will likely be one of the most exciting teams in the league this year. But will it be a step in the right direction for the Blueshirts? With Artemi Panarin coming off a 95 points-in-69 games season, and Mika Zibanejad recording 41 goals in just 57 games, the Rangers have one of the best 1-2 scoring punches in the league. It’s scary to think that they have another 1-2 punch in 2020 first overall pick Alexis Lafreniere and 2019 second overall pick Kaapo Kakko still waiting to make their presence felt. With Jacob Trouba, Tony DeAngelo and Adam Fox manning the blue line and a young and talented goalie tandem in Igor Sheshterkin and Alexander Georgiev, the rebuild on Broadway went a lot faster than first anticipated. The Rangers are back.
Will this finally be the year the Penguins start trending south? Crosby and Co. looked quite disinterested once the postseason began, bowing out to the underdog Montreal Canadiens in the opening round. Crosby is now 33 and Evgeni Malkin is 34 so the core is reaching their final kick at the can in the next few years. The Penguins refuse to rebuild with those two players in the lineup, so look for another all-in push by the team’s management. The addition of Kasperi Kapanen and a healthy Jake Guentzel should help Pittsburgh field a couple of dangerous scoring lines. The Pens are now putting full trust in Tristan Jarry after trading two-time Cup winner Matt Murray a few years after they allowed Marc-Andre Fleury to be taken in the expansion draft.
The Capitals can be filed as another aging team that is looking for one more crack at a Cup. They brought in coach Peter Laviolette to get them there and the Caps made a few other interesting moves to bolster their depth. Ilya Samsonov’s time in the crease has arrived, especially after Washington let Brayden Holtby walk and lost newly acquired Henrik Lundqvist for the season due to a heart condition. The Caps added Zdeno Chara, Justin Schultz and Trevor van Riemsdyk on the back end and they still roll out Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Jon Carlson on a dangerous power play. The 2018 champs still have a lot to offer. ••