NHL 2020-21 East Division season preview

Elliotte Friedman joins Sportsnet Central to discuss how much wiggle room the NHL has if it needs to alter the schedule due to COVID protocols.

The Perfection Line. Sid vs. Ovi. The No. 1 overall pick from each of the past four consecutive drafts. And, quite possibly, the best group of young netminders in the league.

It's all in the East Division, a mashup of Atlantic and Metropolitan clubs that's got plenty of built-in rivalries ready for the most unique NHL season to date.

Here's a rundown of the eight teams that make up the NHL's East Division this season.

Boston Bruins

2019-20 record: 44-14-12, finished atop NHL standings
2019-20 finish: Topped Carolina in Round 1, fell to Tampa Bay in second round
2019-20 top scorer: David Pastrnak (48G, 47A, 95 PTS)

Major off-season additions: F Craig Smith, F Greg McKegg

Major off-season losses: D Zdeno Chara, D Torey Krug, F Joakim Nordstrom

Best-case scenario: Once again, depth scoring is a storyline that follows the Bruins -- only, in a good way this time. With two thirds of the league's most consistent line still recovering from off-season surgery to start the season (though, Brad Marchand recently stated he'll be ready for puck drop), the club's secondary scorers step up in a big way. Craig Smith proves to be one of the best off-season acquisitions of free agency, and his presence pushes the performance of guys like Charlie Coyle and Jake DeBrusk. Consistency in the crease, with Jaroslav Halak and Tuukka Rask both returning, is crucial to their success after a long hiatus, and this well-rested club is re-tooled and ready for another Stanley Cup run.

Worst-case scenario: If defence wins championships, what happens when you let your blue line leadership walk? The absence of former captain Zdeno Chara and gritty defender Torey Krug is felt heavily, and even with Charlie McAvoy stepping into his leadersip role, Boston is slow to hit its defensive stride. With its core aging, this team cannot afford another long post-season run without a Cup.

Buffalo Sabres

2019-20 record: 30-31-8, sixth in Atlantic
2019-20 finish: Missed post-season (not included in return-to-play)
2019-20 top scorer: Jack Eichel (36G, 42A, 78 PTS)

Major off-season additions: F Taylor Hall, F Eric Staal, F Cody Eakin, F Tage Thompson, F Tobias Rieder

Major off-season losses: F Wayne Simmonds, F Dominik Kahun, F Johan Larsson, F Marcus Johansson

Best-case scenario: The Jack Eichel Show finally has a suitable co-host! The dynamic duo of Eichel and newly signed Taylor Hall scores early and often, and their strong chemistry thrusts both into Art Ross and MVP conversations and makes hockey fandom fun again in Buffalo. Fresh off a strong Super Bowl run, The Bills Mafia throws its enthusiasm behind the Sabres. A playoff berth for Buffalo is the hockey story we can all get on board with, and the icing on the cake is a newly-inked deal to keep Hall around a while. A new era officially begins.

Worst-case scenario: It's been nearly a year since most of these players last suited up for meaningful hockey, and it shows. A shortened training camp does no favours for all the new faces on offence, and results in a slow start on the season. Without fellow rebuilders like Detroit and Ottawa in the division, the Sabres spend much of the season in the bottom half of the standings still searching for answers. Hall moves on, and reports of Eichel wanting the same grow louder.

New Jersey Devils

2019-20 record: 28-29-12, last in Metropolitan
2019-20 finish: Missed post-season (not included in return-to-play)
2019-20 top scorer: Kyle Palmieri (25G, 20A, 45PTS)

Major off-season additions: F Andreas Johnsson, D Ryan Murray, D Dmitri Kulikov, D Sami Vatanen, HC Lindy Ruff

Major off-season losses: G Cory Schneider, F Joey Anderson

Best-case scenario: A pivotal year in New Jersey's long rebuild sees the pieces start to fall into place. After an underwhelming rookie season, Jack Hughes' star rises thanks to an extended off-season of training, and fourth-year forward Nico Hischier looks more like the top-line centre the Devils drafted. The young guns lift everyone around them, and show last year's leading scorers (and this year's UFAs-to-be) Kyle Palmieri and Nikita Gusev that this team is heading in the right direction. MacKenzie Blackwood, one of a few bright spots of 2019-20, thrives. Playoffs are within reach.

Worst-case scenario: Last year's scoring woes bleed into 2021, and inconsistent production from the top lines bring frustrating results. An accelerated season forces the Devils into decisions they're not ready to make: are they buyers or sellers? Forced to press on, pending UFAs Palmieri and Gusev wind up walking for nothing and the rebuild continues.

New York Islanders

2019-20 record: 35-23-10, sixth in Metropolitan
2019-20 finish: Lost to Tampa Bay in Eastern Conference Final
2019-20 top scorer: Mathew Barzal (19G, 41A, 60PTS)

Major off-season additions: G Ilya Sorokin (rookie)

Major off-season losses: G Thomas Greiss, D Devon Toews, D Johnny Boychuk

Best-case scenario: Head Coach Barry Trotz has the Playoff Islanders rolling in the regular season, playing their signature lockdown game but with a little more scoring thanks to post-season standouts like Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Anthony Beauvillier. The Ilya Sorokin era is underway, and it's worth the wait. The former KHLer has had an extended off-season of training with Islanders staff, and his veteran-like poise and strong numbers have him in Calder conversations. Another season of being underestimated brings another long playoff run.

Worst-case scenario: Just like last year, their shutdown playing style and strong goalie tandem keeps the Islanders in the bottom third of goals against rankings. But, just like last year, they're also once again near the bottom of goal-scoring, too. Devon Toews' loss is felt on the blue line, and while the season brings strong strides for youngsters like Noah Dobson and Oliver Wahlstrom the team ultimately lacks enough firepower to propel New York back into the post-season.

New York Rangers

2019-20 record: 37-28-5, seventh in Metropolitan
2019-20 finish: Swept by Carolina in qualifiers
2019-20 top scorer: Artemi Panarin (32G, 63A, 95 PTS)

Major off-season additions: Alexis Lafreniere (rookie), D Jack Johnson

Major off-season losses: G Henrik Lundqvist, F Jesper Fast, D Marc Staal

Best-case scenario: Lafreniere is every bit the star we think he is, and without the burden of carrying an entire rebuild, the No. 1 overall pick is immediately positioned for success. It helps that he's got one of the best left wingers in the league to learn from -- Artemi Panarin is on pace for his best year yet, and we're all just sorry it won't be an 82-game season to see him surpass 100 points for the first time. Mika Zibanejad hit 41 goals in 57 games last season -- he does it again, in 56. King Henrik left big skates to fill, and while no one can take his place in New York lore, the young tandem of Igor Shesterkin and Alexandar Georgiev proves worthy of inheriting his crease.

Worst-case scenario: All this excitement has us forgetting one critical piece of information: This team is young. And while there's an exciting future ahead, we're not quite there yet. The arrival of Lafrieniere applies pressure to last year's prized pick, Kaapo Kakko. Where does he fit? The same question can be applied to many young faces, and while there will be thrilling victories (moral and otherwise) there will also be many lessons learned the hard way. Going head-to-head with proven winners like Washington, Pittsburgh, and Boston will be the teachers.

Philadelphia Flyers

2019-20 record: 41-21-7, second in Metropolitan
2019-20 finish: Lost to Islanders in Round 2
2019-20 top scorer: Travis Konecny (24G, 37A, 61 PTS)

Major off-season additions: D Erik Gustafsson

Major off-season losses: F Nate Thompson, F Derek Grant, F Tyler Pitlick, D Matt Niskanen (retired)

Best-case scenario: With little change throughout the roster, the Flyers are able to pick up where they left off despite the long hiatus. Remarkable comebacks by a cancer-free Oskar Lindblom and a healthy Nolan Patrick bolster this club both in the locker room and on the ice, two stars very much worth celebrating. The trophy case starts to fill up: Carter Hart's rapid ascent earns him his first Vezina finalist nod, and Sean Couturier's elite two-way game gets him his second straight Selke, while the Stanley Cup remains firmly in sight. Oh, and Gritty's petition gets the go-ahead:

Worst-case scenario: A troubling trend continues: The Flyers haven't exactly been known for their ability to sprint out of the gates to start seasons, creating their own personal hurdle to overcome down the stretch. Considering this season is more of a sprint than a marathon, a slow start could easily be the difference between contending and not. That inconsistent scoring we saw in the playoffs rears its ugly head, too.

Pittsburgh Penguins

2019-20 record: 40-23-6, third in Metropolitan
2019-20 finish: Upset by Montreal in qualifiers
2019-20 top scorer: Evgeni Malkin (25G, 49A, 74 PTS)

Major off-season additions: F Kasperi Kapanen, F Mark Jankowski, F Colton Sceviour, D Mike Matheson, D Cody Ceci

Major off-season losses: G Matt Murray, F Patric Hornqvist, F Nick Bjugstad, F Conor Sheary, F Patrick Marleau, D Justin Schultz, D Jack Johnson

Best-case scenario: Good health and happiness graces the Penguins in 2021, thanks to a long and restful off-season. No longer forced to piece together their lineup around injuries on any given night, the Penguins look like the perennial contender fans know and opponents fear. Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby remind all the top-list makers that they're not going anywhere just yet. The biggest winner? Kasperi Kapanen, whose speed will see him hit career highs alongside Crosby, all the way into a deep playoff run.

Worst-case scenario: Of all that off-season roster tweaking, the change is felt most in the crease. Matt Murray didn't put up the best numbers last year, and the impending expansion draft also forced GM Jim Rutherford's hand, but Murray's absence now leaves the blue paint void of the kind of experience needed in an intense, shortened season like this one. Another early out brings more big questions.

Washington Capitals

2019-20 record: 41-20-8, first in Metropolitan
2019-20 finish: Ousted by the Islanders in Round 1
2019-20 top scorer: John Carlson (15G, 60A, 75 PTS)

Major off-season additions: HC Peter Laviolette, F Conor Sheary, D Justin Schultz, D Zdeno Chara, G Craig Anderson

Major off-season losses: G Braden Holtby, F Ilya Kovalchuk, D Radko Gudas

Best-case scenario: Here's one for hockey fans: Eight head-to-head matchups between Crosby and Ovi. As for the Capitals themselves, veteran bench boss Peter Laviolette proves to be the right person for the job, stabilizing this group of stars and refocusing them after they fell flat in the bubble. Without veteran Braden Holtby, the crease officially belongs to Ilya Samsonov who is more than up to the task, even without help from a sidelined Henrik Lundqvist -- fellow veteran Craig Anderson doesn't just make the roster, he plays an important role down the stretch. Alex Ovechkin is on pace for another 50-goal season (if only it were 82 games!), and while there's little doubt about his playing future he puts any speculation to rest and re-signs with Washington... then brings home another Stanley Cup.

Worst-case scenario: The loss of Lundqvist, even before he arrived, is a tough blow for all involved. A new head coach for the second time in three seasons keeps this club in identity-purgatory, and last year's troubling trend of special-teams struggles persists. Another early post-season exit. And worst of all: The goatees make a return appearance.

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