By Ty Anderson, 985TheSportsHub.com
You can call it the East Division.
Or you can call it the NHL version of The Group of Death.
Either works, to be honest.
With the NHL realigned for the 2021 season due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the Bruins will find themselves in what is certainly the toughest division in hockey, with its eight teams posting a combined 59.7 percent point percentage during the 2019-20 season, which is easily the best out of the four.
The division features five of the league’s top 11 teams in point percentage, too, between the Bruins, Capitals, Flyers, Penguins, and Islanders, and the eight teams in this proposed division averaged 82.5 points in 2019-20. The Sabres and Devils, of course, were the only teams in this division not invited to the restart in Toronto.
Everybody knows the challenge in front of the them.
“Some pedigree in our division, I guess, is the best way to put it,” Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy said, citing the experience of teams such as the Penguins and Capitals. “We have to control our own play and do what we have to do. But I think it’s a very strong division.”
And here’s who makes up that strong division…
The only other Atlantic-to-East club in the division, the Bruins can take comfort in the fact that they went 3-0-0 against the Sabres last season, and outscored the Sabres 9-4 over that three-game sample. The Bruins have gone 7-3-1 against the Sabres over the last three seasons overall. And that 11-game head-to-head that featured some special teams domination from the Bruins, too, with Boston’s power play clicking at over 23 percent while their penalty-killing group has killed off 92 percent of Buffalo’s power-play opportunities.
But with Jack Eichel’s frustrations reaching a fever pitch, the Sabres swung for the fences this offseason with the signing of free agent Taylor Hall and acquisition of veteran center Eric Staal from the Wild. They also added third-line center Cody Eakin (a career-best 22 goals and 41 points in 2018-19) on a two-year deal to bolster the group’s experience and veteran know-how in the middle of their lineup.
New Jersey Devils
The Bruins have outright dominated the Devils for what feels like years now, and it’s been especially true since 2017, with the Bruins capturing wins in all but two of their nine meetings (7-1-1 record overall). The Bruins have averaged over three goals per game against New Jersey since then, and possess a plus-12 goal differential.
The Bruins took two of their three meetings with Jersey last year, with their only loss coming in the shootout.
The Devils signed veteran netminder and two-time Stanley Cup winner Corey Crawford in the offseason, but Crawford left the Devils for personal reasons shortly into training camp, and announced his retirement from hockey last week. That’s left the Devils down an NHL goaltender, and that’s probably the last thing the Devils could’ve afforded to lose when considering the firepower in this division.
The other big change for the Devils comes behind the bench, with Lindy Ruff taking over as the team’s head coach. Ruff, who was a head coach for the Sabres and Stars after that, had spent the previous three seasons as an assistant coach for the Rangers, running the team’s defensive groupings.
New York Islanders
One of the league’s final four a season ago, Barry Trotz and the Islanders can make life hell on just about anybody. But the Bruins have found a way to manage that hell, really, with the Bruins posting a 5-0-1 record against the Isles since Trotz took over as their head coach in 2018.
This success has really been on the back of Tuukka Rask, with the 33-year-old Rask in net for all of those contests, and holding the Islanders to just six goals on 154 shots (a .961 save percentage).
The Islanders did suffer some losses on the backend this season, with Johnny Boychuk forced to retire due to eye issues, while Devon Toews was shipped to Colorado with the Islanders worked into slight cap trouble.
Their big addition is in net, with highly-touted prospect Ilya Sorokin finally reporting to the NHL after spending the previous six seasons with CSKA Moscow of the KHL and after a .935 save percentage and 1.50 goals against average in 40 games last season. They also added ex-Devils netminder Cory Schneider as their third goalie.
New York Rangers
The Bruins swept the 2019-20 season series with the Rangers, three games to none, and outscored the Blueshirts by a 13-7 margin. They’ve also grabbed 12 of a possible 18 points against N.Y. over the last three years.
Youth is the name of the game for the Rangers in 2021, too, with No. 1 overall pick Alexis Lafreniere and top defensive prospect K’Andre Miller both cracking the Rangers’ opening night roster. The team will also be led by goaltenders Alexandar Georgiev and Igor Shesterkin in the first year of the post-Henrik era in Manhattan.
The Flyers have emerged as one of the few teams who can match the Bruins down the middle, and if Kevin Hayes can continue to be what Kevin Hayes was a year ago (and he looked it in Wednesday’s win over the Penguins), it by all means wipes out the advantages of a Charlie Coyle third line. Following the successful Hayes addition in 2019, the Flyers’ offseason was headlined by the retirement of defenseman Matt Niskanen, but they added a solid replacement in Erik Gustafsson, and 2017 No. 2 overall pick Nolan Patrick is back and healthy after missing all of last season with migraine issues.
But these additions pale in comparison to the promise of Carter Hart. Finally looking like the Flyers’ answer to their quest for stable goaltending, Hart enters 2021 after putting up a 24-13-3 record and .914 save percentage in 40 games last year before a 14-game playoff run featuring a .926 save percentage.
But these teams have always played what feel like coin-flip contests, with Boston holding a 6-1-5 record against Philly over the last four seasons, and with the scoring differential favoring the Bruins by just 10 goals over that 12-game sample.
Much like the Bruins and their core, the Penguins are still trying to squeeze what they can out of their high-powered one-two down the middle with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and d-man Kris Letang.
But unlike the Bruins, this year will come with an absolute ton of change for the Penguins.
Pittsburgh’s Jim Rutherford traded Matt Murray and handed the keys to the crease to Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith. He also traded Patric Hornqvist out of town, and added defensemen Cody Ceci, Michael Matheson, and forwards Kasperi Kapanen and Colton Sceviour.
That’s significant change.
The Bruins, by the way, took two of their three 2019-20 head-to-heads with the Penguins, and have a 6-4-2 record against Pittsburgh since 2016.
The Bruins subbed out the Lightning for Capitals in this new division. Fun times, of course.
Boston’s greatest obstacle for nearly a decade, the Bruins enter the 2021 season having won just five of their last 24 meetings with the Capitals. This head-to-head series at one point featured a 14-game winning streak for the Capitals. So, yeah, it’s been a lot like getting kicked in the face again and again and again.
But the biggest reason for that record, goaltender Braden Holtby, is out of D.C., leaving Ilya Samsonov as the heir to the throne. The Bruins don’t know much about Samsonov, really, though they did score on one of their four shots against him in his 37-minute relief outing against the B’s back on Dec. 23, 2019.
That could be a rivalry-changer in the B’s favor, but the Capitals are still one of the heaviest teams in the entire league, and that was before they added ex-Bruins captain Zdeno Chara on a one-year deal.
How the Bruins handle their eight meetings with the Caps in 2021 is going to be telling. With Chara joining a hit-friendly group featuring Tom Wilson, Alex Ovechkin, TJ Oshie, Brenden Dillon, and Garnet Hathaway, the Bruins are going to need their bottom-six and Kevan Miller to keep pace while also trying to match the high-end skill possessed by the Caps’ Ovechkins, Kuznetsovs, and Backstroms. No easy feat.
Listen to Ty Anderson and Matt Dolloff preview the 2021 Bruins season, and take a deep look at the East Division, in the newest episode of The Sports Hub Sidelines Podcast