Oh how incorrect we were.
All the way back in December, coming off a playoff bubble performance in which the Flyers won a playoff round for the first time in nearly a decade, predictions for the 2020-21 season were rife with optimism.
Nearly four months later, quite a lot has changed, and almost certainly for the worse for Flyers fans.
To gain a retrospective on how we were feeling before the season started on this division versus now, with only a handful of games left, those predictions will be revisited, and of course, assessed.
Let’s see where things went wrong:
It’s a blow to the Capitals that Henrik Lundqvist will be sitting out the 2020-21 season due to a heart condition, and we wish him the best. This also means that Ilya Samsonov will be thrust into a more important role with the club, and while he looks like a great goaltender, he is far less proven than other young goaltenders such as the aforementioned Carter Hart. This season really does feel like the Capitals giving it one last push before they have to switch directions. The additions of Justin Schultz and Trevor van Riemsdyk all but confirm that. Their core players are aging, and though it appears that their power is fading, the Capitals will still give this division a run for its money.
Upon first glance, Ilya Samsonov, in his age 23 season with Washington, has seemingly proven that prediction false. The young goaltender has put in some stellar performances against the Flyers, however, on the season he only carries a 0.898% save percentage, which is suboptimal. Perhaps then it has simply been a case of hot goaltender against one team (though in truth all goaltenders are looking good against the Flyers).
Otherwise, the Capitals have shown they aren’t ready for their time in the sun to expire. Alexander Ovechkin, chasing Wayne Gretzky’s goal record, looks just as sharp and explosive as he ever has at the age of 35, and is currently at a point-per-game pace with 24 goals to match. Their deadline acquisition of Anthony Mantha has also looked smart so far as Mantha has hit the ground running with his new club.
The Islanders haven’t been able to do much because they need to sign Mat Barzal signed, and that obviously should be their first priority. Otherwise, Schneider will replace Thomas Greiss in net, and they were finally able to sign Ilya Sorokin from CSKA Moscow, who looks like an excellent goaltender, so on that front, the Islanders are golden. Devon Toews is a good defenseman, but not anything to be concerned with losing, so it looks like the Islanders’ dumb magic will continue. That team has bought into Barry Trotz’ style, and they are going to continue to be good to our dismay.
I hate to admit it, but the Islanders are going to be good for a very long time provided Barry Trotz is still their coach and Ilya Sorokin is healthy. Sorokin, in his rookie season after coming over from the KHL (he’s an older rookie in his age 25 season), has proven that he can be (if not is) a legitimate franchise goaltender and, at least in my opinion, should be getting Vezina votes for his performances this season.
Their deadline moves to acquire Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac prove that they’re making it “their year”, and why not when you have great goaltending, a sound defensive (yet BORING) system, and one of the most exciting players in the league in Mat Barzal.
The first team to miss out on the playoffs will be the Penguins, and yes, I know that is a bold claim considering they somehow always manage to be good. However, they lost to Montreal of all teams in the play-in round of the 2020 playoffs (whether or not that was on purpose or not is up for debate), made some moves which make them worse by bringing in Cody Ceci and trading Matt Murray (which was inevitable but I don’t rate Tristan Jarry), and lack overall depth. Sidney Crosby and Evgeny Malkin can try their hardest, but I don’t think they will be able to pull it off. They’ll likely just miss out on the playoffs, but they will miss out.
Like the Capitals, the Penguins have proven that they aren’t finished yet. Sidney Crosby and Evgeny Malkin have continued to play like the superstars they are, Jake Guentzel has continued to sustain his 2018-19 form, and even excel past it, and they are getting decent goaltending from both Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith. They also solidified their scoring depth by adding former Flyers and Kings forward Jeff Carter into the mix. The Penguins’ success isn’t luck, but with all the random “NHL21 Regen” type players they bring up who always find a way to be good, it sure seems like it. I guess all that can be said is that they have some pretty good scouts up in the other side of Pennsylvania.
Oh, and buzz off, Ron. You’re a traitor now.
The Bruins didn’t make really any substantial additions over the offseason, and lost Torey Krug to the St. Louis Blues, and are therefore a weaker team because of that. There is also uncertainty over the future of their captain Zdeno Chara (not that he is the player he used to be). However, regardless the Bruins will easily challenge for the top spot in this division. Just coming off of a President’s Trophy, they have solid goaltending, and one of the best lines in all of hockey. Their overall depth and defense may be called into question, but I still think the Bruins are the team to beat here.
Well Chara is a Capital, their rookie goaltender who hadn’t made an NHL start prior schooled the Flyers, and their playoff hopes hang by a thread.
The Bruins have been an odd team, as in many ways they’ve performed as expected. The trio of Brad Marchand, David Pastrnak, and Patrice Bergeron have all been excellent, whether together or apart. However, their depth scoring is quite lacking, and defensively they’ve struggled with a lack of quality and a lot of injuries.
To solve the scoring issues, they traded for Taylor Hall from the hapless Sabres around the deadline, and he’s worked out pretty well for them so far (this a very good article on Stanley Cup of Chowder on what Hall brings specifically to the Bruins). However, defensively they still have had struggles. Additionally, their goaltending has been average but not exceptional. However, they somehow have managed to find some great performances from Jeremy Swayman and Dan Vladar of all.
It’s potentially a toss up as to whether Boston or the Rangers make the playoffs, but Boston currently hold the edge, and their trading for Taylor Hall has seemingly put them over the line.
The addition of Lafreniere will help the Rangers, but they haven’t done enough to propel themselves out of the basement of the East division. Jack Johnson is simply not an NHL defenseman, and it will take a while longer for the Rangers to clear cap space and develop talent to take themselves back into the running. Lafreniere will be scary in the future, but as a rookie I don’t think he’ll be able to singlehandedly (well, along with Panarin and Zibanejad) drag the Rangers close to the playoffs.
They’ve spanked the Flyers 9-0 and 8-3 this season, and have surprised many by how “not bad” they’ve been. As expected, Artemi Panarin and Adam Fox have been excellent, and Ryan Strome has put up points as well. Additionally, after struggling in the beginning of the season after coming back from a bout with COVID-19, Mika Zibanejad has turned things around to the tune of 39 points in 45 games.
Though, most importantly, Igor Shesterkin has played very very well. Like a comparable young goaltender in Sorokin, Shesterkin deserves at least a few Vezina votes this season, and his 0.925% save percentage leaves him tied for 5th place in the NHL with Marc-Andre Fleury.
6. Philadelphia Flyers
Yes, you are reading this correctly. Though the Flyers’ have largely remained silent over the offseason, they look set to take another big step forward in 2020-21. Phil Myers is confirmed to be back after he re-upped with the club, and key breakout players from 2019-20 and last season’s rookies should be expected to contribute heartily to the Flyers’ success. Especially if Nolan Patrick is indeed back like the organization expects him to be, the Flyers’ will be one of the deepest teams in the division, and that should carry them straight into the playoffs. Especially with Carter Hart backstopping them, sky is the limit for the Flyers.
That’s really all that needs to be said here. We all know what’s happened. Other than Joel Farabee, the young players who took big steps forward in 2019-20 haven’t done so in 2020-21, and despite veteran players such as Claude Giroux giving it their all and carrying the team on their backs, poor goaltending and shocking defensive errors have led to losses despite standout performances.
The Devils are looking like the worst team in this division. They were the bottom of the Metro last year, and they’ll be bottom of the East this year. They just have nobody who I think can inspire them to victory, and I can’t see any way they overtake even the Rangers, who just simply have more star power. Nico Hischier is a great hockey player, but he alone can’t save the Devils, who ironically, are damned in 2020-21.
Well they would be the worst team in the division if it weren’t for the Sabres, but this prediction is still fairly accurate. In fairness, Nico Hischier, who is now the Devils’ captain, missed a lot of the season with an injury to his leg and has only played nine games so far. They clearly missed Hischier a lot, as while Jack Hughes has certainly looked better, he hasn’t been as nearly an impact player as the Devils might have hoped. Additionally, to the chagrin of Flyers fans, their goaltending hasn’t been good. Mackenzie Blackwood simply has not been great in net, though I guess there’s no room for being smug since on the whole, Carter Hart hasn’t been either (it seems like two bad stretches in February/March and right now have tanked his numbers). Young goaltenders will have bad stretches, and I’m sure Blackwood will be fine in the long run.
Secret General Manager Jack Eichel managed to sway Taylor Hall over to Buffalo on a surprise one-year deal that makes the Sabres a bit more interesting for 2020-21. They also brought in Cody Eakin who is a decent but unremarkable forward, and Eric Staal, who despite entering his age 36 season, has more than enough left in the tank to be effective. Despite these additions, I still don’t see the Sabres having enough to surpass other clubs in this division. Perhaps if Jack Eichel and Taylor Hall become a dynamic duo and carry the team, and if Rasmus Dahlin takes a step forward, they could leapfrog some clubs, but I don’t have faith in that happening.
Surprise surprise that the team famous for an incredibly long winless streak is at the bottom of the East, and were the first team eliminated from playoff contention. The Sabres have since traded both Taylor Hall and Eric Staal, and they’ve simply been floundering all year. Especially with Jack Eichel now injured, and it confirmed he will miss the rest of the season, there won’t be many more wins ahead for Buffalo.
The only bright spots for Buffalo have been the play of Sam Reinhart against the Flyers, and overall of goaltender Linus Ullmark, who has kept an impressive save percentage (0.917%) for a historically bad team.