The offseason flew fast. The Atlantic and Metropolitan divisions are back and that means predicting which four teams in each can make the playoffs. The eastern conference has won the Stanley Cup the last two years. The effects included teams like the New York Islanders and Rangers to add better roster depth. The Florida Panthers added defense and drafted better. The Toronto Maple Leafs and Carolina Hurricanes are close to taking the next step. The Boston Bruins and the Washington Capitals, two teams known for consistency, may be fading or are close to a re-build if neither return to the conference finals. It’s time to break down which of the four in each division can make the push back to the playoffs for 2021-22.
As was written early summer, the Florida Panthers are a solid candidate to reach the Stanley Cup finals in 2021-22. They re-signed key restricted free agents such as Sam Bennett and have a goalie in Spencer Knight to lead them in a deep postseason run. The benefit for the Panthers is they’re back in a division where four teams are still in a re-build process and they can play the rest of the league. Rivalry with the Lightning aside, Florida will be an exciting team to watch because they’re peaking at the right time. Don’t be surprised if they win the Atlantic title.
At first look, the Bruins aren’t a team that could be this high in predictions. Yet their offseason moves were the right ones in every category. They started by re-signing Taylor Hall, a former MVP who anchored a better second line the latter half of the regular season, then signed former captain Nick Foligno for depth.
Boston had a weakness at center depth. They added some starting with former Golden Knight Tomas Nosek, retaining Curtis Lazar and Charlie Coyle, and brought in Erik Haula. Boston made major goaltending changes not re-signing Tuukka Rask, Dan Vladar or Jaroslav Halak. The only goaltender on the roster they wanted to keep was Jeremy Swayman, who could anchor the net in five years. The Bruins signed Buffalo goaltender Linus Ullmark to be their undisputed starter. Ullmark was solid but couldn’t stay healthy on a terrible Sabres team. A 180 degree change in culture, trust and team chemistry is what he needs in order to lead the Bruins back to the playoffs.
Boston could win the Atlantic with these roster changes. General manager Don Sweeney saw the last two seasons as regression after winning the conference in 2019. The bold strategy of replacing veteran presence on defense, goaltenders and adding scoring depth should pay off in a full season and (hopefully) no COVID-19 shutdowns.
Tampa Bay Lightning
This pick is self-explanatory. The Lightning will find a way to be top three of their division but step up and show why they’re back-to-back champions in the playoffs. Unless the roster suffers serious injuries, Tampa should be the favorite to go back to the finals until a team in their conference is fed up and dethrones them. That’s more likely than missing a playoff berth.
Toronto Maple Leafs
They’d be higher but two factors place them in this spot; the three teams above have more seasoned veterans, better coaching and deeper rosters. If/when they play the Leafs, don’t be surprised if the trio wind up with a winning record versus Toronto.
The second reason is more important. We don’t know what to expect from this team after a mouth-dropping 3-1 series collapse against the Montreal Canadiens. Sheldon Keefe could be on the hot-seat. Team confidence was challenged when third line star Ilya Mikheyev admitted a few weeks ago he tried to find a trade out of Toronto. Not a good look weeks before the regular season starts.
John Tavares’ return helps team chemistry the later 2021-22 goes. The additions of Ondrej Case and Petr Mrazek are good for depth and veteran leadership. Jack Campbell becomes the undisputed starter in net after Frederik Anderson was traded. Auston Matthews will score at least 30 goals this season, but all questions start with advancing past the first round of the playoffs…especially if they play the Boston Bruins.
Carolina re-vamped their roster, something that should alarm a lot of teams. They moved on from all three of their starting goaltenders for Frederik Anderson and Antti Raanta, two established veterans. They traded for Ethan Bear, signed Tony DeAngelo and Derek Stepan, and won the restricted free agency bid for Montreal’s Jesperi Kotkaniemi. Despite some departures, the Hurricanes are in win now mode.
Coach Rod Brind’Amour has led Carolina to multiple playoff berths and a division title. A lot of the Metropolitan lacks the charisma and depth to win not just the division but a seven game series. They’re tougher from last year’s central division matchups against Florida, Nashville and Tampa Bay to play better and close out games against weaker opponents.
New York Rangers
If there was any team to challenge for the conference championship, it’s the one in Madison Square Garden. The firing of David Quinn for Gerard Gallant turned heads. Then the Rangers traded for Ryan Reaves, Sammy Blais, Barclay Goodrow and signed Jarred Tinordi.
The Rangers have three stars in Artemi Panarin, Mika Zibanejad and Kaapo Kakko, all on the first line. New York needed better coaching and depth to create scoring opportunities and physical play. They traded and signed the right players the same way Tampa Bay did after their abrupt first round exit in 2019.
Don’t be surprised if the Rangers are one of the best teams in the NHL this year. Coach Gallant’s rapid success with the Golden Knights in 2017 could be replicated with a roster that needed finishing touches.
New York Islanders
While the Rangers have been the talk of New York and the hockey world, Long Island fans are excited to see their team in a brand new building. Barry Trotz’s unit (minus Jordan Eberle) is re-signed and ready to work together more this season. Lou Amoriello signed Zach Parise, a player who impressed during their tenure in New Jersey.
The Islanders are consistent on defense but added chemistry with Kyle Palmieri should produce better scoring chances. Richard Panik and Parise were right moves for added veteran leadership. Ilya Sorokin could get more playing time against division rivals.
The absences of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin for the first six weeks and a fading Capitals team is enough to question who else in the division sneaks into the playoffs and steals a series. New Jersey is in re-build mode and Columbus is in decline. Philadelphia could be that fourth team.
The Flyers defense last year was putrid. Former players Brian Boucher and Keith Jones went off multiple times during their five plus goal losses to the New York Rangers and Islanders. General manager Chuck Fletcher saw enough to sign and trade for multiple players on defense. There’s nowhere to go but up.
Martin Jones is an interesting backup choice in goal behind Carter Hart, who needs to improve and show development his third year. For Hart to improve, the defense should tighten up. Signing Keith Yandle and Rasmus Ristolainen are good starts. Yandle plays hard despite his age and Ristolainen needed a new scene outside of Buffalo. The acquisition of Ryan Ellis gives the Flyers a prime, number one defenseman alongside Ivan Provorov. The offense also benefits and should show on the power-play. Philadelphia added Cam Atkinson and Derick Brassard for forward and center depth.
They’re underdogs to sneak into the playoffs but Alain Vigneault and his staff believe this season shouldn’t repeat last year. It helps they play more than seven teams and not worry about New York every other night.
Last year’s Canadian and eastern division predictions records: 5-3