While the NHL — and the NHLPA — continues to figure out just what the 2020-21 season looks like, there’s a barren wasteland of things to talk about right?
Let’s tear apart divisional alignment, something that is looking extremely likely for the coming season to help limit teams’ travel and those pesky United States/Canada border issues.
Greg Wyshynski of the Worldwide Leader has a new paywalled piece about such divisional realignment, and is a good read for those of you with an ESPN+ subscription. But for those who don’t, thankfully there’s the internet, Twitter user @ForPucksSakePod has broken things down for the rest of us.
Of the proposed 2020-21 divisional setup, only the Bruins, Islanders, Capitals, and Hurricanes were playoff teams a season ago while the Rangers and Sabres went to the NHL Draft Lottery party. Even then, though, the Rangers — very legitimately I add — won the lottery and have added top-end talent Alexis Lafreniere to their core while the Sabres added former Hart Trophy winner Taylor Hall on a one-year contract to pair along with Jack Eichel.
That’s a rather formidable divisional setup should that end up being the case as Wyshynski notes in his piece is quite possible.
On paper it’s easy to put the Bruins safety ahead of the Flyers, though the rest is much a gaggle of teams on the cusp of challenging with the likes of the Hurricanes, Islanders, and Capitals fully capable and with the talent to compete for deep Stanley Cup playoff runs — albeit all with legitimate question marks.
The Bruins, for example, are a year older with their core as Patrice Bergeron is 34 and David Krejci is 33 while goaltender Tuukka Rask is also 33 and opted out of the end of last season. The Zdeno Chara era might be over and Torey Krug is in St. Louis, though David Pastrnak is a bona-fide MVP threat in his absolute prime to pace a still deep roster.
Carolina continues to add and retain talent to a deep roster that is waiting on taking the next step, but badly needs goaltending to catch up on the backend.
Washington is a year older with their core pieces like Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, but still boast a slew of talent and John Carlson on the back with an intriguing goaltending tandem. They’ll still be in the hunt so long as their top two forward horses don’t take a major step back.
The Islanders were on the cusp of their first Stanley Cup final since the 80’s, but will they be able to recreate their postseason magic of a year ago with largely the same cast that certainly played above their heads. Oh yeah, and there’s the whole Mathew Barzal contract situation.
Artemi Panarin is an MVP-type player, but who knows what that the Rangers will look like with their thrown together parts and reliance on largely unproven goaltending in the coming year. Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko hardly had the impact most imagined, so who’s to say that Lafreniere won’t run into similar issues as well?
Meanwhile the Flyers retain much of their playoff team from a year ago, but still posses a hole on defense created when Matt Niskanen unexpectedly retired after the season. In-house options remain for Flyers GM Chuck Fletcher and head coach Alain Vigneault to fill that hole, but hardly are as proven as the steady veteran was during his lone season in Philadelphia.
Questions like those that hound the other teams in this proposed divisional alignment don’t escape the Flyers, either. Like Ovechkin and Backstrom, can the Flyers still expect impact from aging players like Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek or does more burden fall upon younger pieces to uptick their scoring like Travis Konecny, Oskar Lindblom, Joel Farabee and others. Can young defensive pieces like Travis Sanheim and Philippe Myers take the next step and form a formidable pair behind Ivan Provorov or emerge to slot in the top pair with him? Will Kevin Hayes provide enough value as a second line center behind Sean Couturier given his hefty price tag? Can the Flyers get more out of big ticket item James van Riemsdyk?
Even in a hypothetical division alignment for 2020-21 there are a slew of questions about who the Flyers’ chief opponents might be — and that doesn’t even include talking about the Penguins, who we can’t possibly see being separated from the Orange and Black no matter the scenario.