Eastern Conference Preview

2020-21 NHL Season Preview: Part 1

by Corey Abbott
Updated On: November 29, 2020, 8:04 pm ET

The NHL offseason has settled down as the targeted start date of January 1 for the 2020-21 campaign draws near. There will likely be other roster moves before the start of the year, as plenty of key players remain unsigned as unrestricted and restricted free agents. However, it has been relatively quiet and it’s a good time to examine how teams currently stand with training camps potentially starting next month. 

Part One will start with the top five teams in the Atlantic Division based on the standings from the 2019-20 campaign. 

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Boston Bruins 

2019-20 Finish: 44-14-12 record, second round loss to Tampa Bay (4-1)

Noteworthy Gains: Craig Smith, Greg McKegg

Noteworthy Losses: Torey Krug, Joakim Nordstrom

Strengths: The top line of the Bruins continues to play at a very high level as one of the best combinations in the league. David Pastrnak tied for the third-most points (95) in the league last year, while tying for the most goals (48). Brad Marchand finished sixth overall in points (87) and Patrice Bergeron, who is among the top two-way centers in the NHL, chipped in with 31 goals and 56 points in 61 appearances. Strong team defense and solid goaltending from Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak gave the Bruins top spot in the NHL in goals against per game played (2.39). It also secured Rask and Halak the William M. Jennings Trophy because Boston permitted a league-low 174 team goals-against.

Weaknesses: Boston’s top-heavy offense continues to be an area of concern and there are question marks for the defense corps going into the year. David Krejci has been the team’s most reliable source of secondary scoring over the years, but the team needs more from Jake DeBrusk, Ondrej Kase and Charlie Coyle. Marchand and Pastrnak underwent offseason surgeries that could sideline them for the start of the year and the depth players on the team will have to step up. Smith, who was brought in to supplement the team’s top-nine forward group, could be a good addition in that regard. Torey Krug was a strong contributor for the Bruins from the back end and losing him creates a big hole. The Bruins also still haven’t re-signed UFA Zdeno Chara and his plans are unclear at this time. 

Player to Watch: It’s believed that Matt Grzelcyk will get the first crack at quarterbacking Boston’s power play. Boston has amassed 183 power-play goals over the past three seasons and finished with the second-best power-play percentage (25.2%) last year. The prospect of not having Marchand and Pastrnak available for the start of the year could be troublesome, but Grzelcyk still finds himself in an intriguing situation going into camp. He could face competition from Charlie McAvoy, who will be leaned on heavily in 2020-21, for power-play time. 

Tampa Bay Lightning 

2019-20 Finish: 43-21-6 record, won the Stanley Cup

Noteworthy Gains: N/A

Noteworthy Losses: Kevin Shattenkirk, Carter Verhaeghe, Zach Bogosian 

Strengths: The Lightning emerged victorious in the 24-team Return to Play tournament for the Stanley Cup thanks to the team’s star players. Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, Victor Hedman and Andrei Vasilevskiy all made strong cases for themselves for the Conn Smythe Trophy, which goes annually to the MVP of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, after they were integral to the team’s success during the regular season. Steven Stamkos, who was limited to one appearance in the postseason, was also a key player during the shortened 2019-20 campaign. Tampa Bay had the highest goals for per game played (3.47) and ranked fifth in power-play percentage (23.1%). 

Weaknesses: Tampa Bay is a deep team at every position, but one thing in short supply this offseason has been cap space. The Lightning have about $2,895,834 in projected cap space and still need to re-sign important restricted free agents Anthony Cirelli, Mikhail Sergachev and Erik Cernak. The team has made Alex Killorn and Tyler Johnson available via trade, but there haven’t been any takers yet. Johnson was also put on waivers last month, but he cleared and Tampa Bay still needs to find a way to shave some salary. 

Player to Watch: Ondrej Palat could become a cap casualty if Tampa Bay can’t trade someone else, but if he stays then it will be interesting to see what version of him shows up next year. He accounted for 17 goals and 41 points in 69 contests during the regular season before exploding for 11 goals and 18 points over 25 postseason matches. He had a great deal of success playing alongside Point and Kucherov. 

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Toronto Maple Leafs 

2019-20 Finish: 36-25-9 record, qualifying round loss to Columbus (3-2)

Noteworthy Gains: Joe Thornton, T.J. Brodie, Wayne Simmonds, Zach Bogosian, Jimmy Vesey

Noteworthy Losses: Tyson Barrie, Kasperi Kapanen, Andreas Johnsson, Cody Ceci, Kyle Clifford

Strengths: Toronto’s roster experienced a bit of an overhaul in the offseason with new players added to the bottom-six forward group and on defense. However, the team’s core remained intact and it is a group that helped the Leafs finish third in the NHL in goals for per game played (3.39) last season. Auston Matthews had the second-most markers (47) in the league last year, while Mitch Marner amassed 51 assists and 67 points in 59 outings. John Tavares had another strong performance with 26 goals and 60 points in 63 appearances and William Nylander, who lit the lamp 31 times, returned to form with 59 points over 68 matches. Toronto also ranked sixth in the league with a power-play percentage of 23.1%. 

Weaknesses: Toronto’s defense and goaltending permitted the sixth-most goals against per game played (3.17) last campaign. The addition of Brodie provides an upgrade to the top-four group on the blueline, while Bogosian and Mikko Lehtonen are worth keeping an eye on as well. Toronto will also have to improve a penalty kill that ranked 21st overall in 2019-20 with a success rate of 77.7%. The individual who will be watched the closest will be number one goalie Frederik Anderson, who is coming off a poor 2019-20 season and has one more year left on his contract.  

Player to Watch: Nick Robertson starred in the OHL with Peterborough last season. He led the league with 55 goals in 46 games and he concluded the shortened year with 86 points. Robertson skated in four contests with the Maple Leafs during the postseason and he scored his first NHL goal. He will be in the mix for a roster spot with Toronto out of training camp and could end up playing alongside John Tavares. However, he will face competition for the role from Ilya Mikheyev and Vesey. 

Florida Panthers 

2019-20 Finish: 35-26-8 record, qualifying round loss to NY Islanders (3-1)

Noteworthy Gains: Patric Hornqvist, Alexander Wennberg, Carter Verhaeghe, Markus Nutivaara, Radko Gudas

Noteworthy Losses: Evgenii Dadonov, Mike Hoffman, Mike Matheson, Brian Boyle, Colton Sceviour

Strengths: Florida’s offense ranked sixth in the league last season with 3.30 goals for per game played. Jonathan Huberdeau has produced at an elite-level over the last two season, which includes a 78-point performance (23 goals, 55 assists) in 69 matches during the 2019-20 campaign. Aleksander Barkov is among the top young centers in the league. They have the ability to push the Panthers forward despite the departures of Dadonov and Hoffman, who remains an unrestricted free agent. Florida had the 10th-best power play in the league last season with a success rate of 21.3%. 

Weaknesses: There are question marks surrounding offensive depth, but Wennberg, Keith Yandle and Aaron Ekblad can contribute. The Panthers could also get a boost from prospects Owen Tippett and/or Grigori Denisenko. Florida’s major issue is in the defensive zone, as the team surrendered the fourth-most high-danger scoring chances against (481) at 5-on-5 in 2019-20. Sergei Bobrovsky was brought in to solve the team’s goaltending problem and he struggled mightily in the first season of his seven-year, $70 million contract. He will have to find a way to bounce back, especially if his teammates don’t find a way to improve in their own end in front of him. 

Player to Watch: Tippett and Denisenko are both worth monitoring during camp because they will be placed in opportunities to succeed. Tippett spent the 2019-20 season in the AHL with Springfield. He notched 19 goals and 40 points in 46 games during his rookie campaign. Tippett, who was taken 10th overall by the Panthers in the 2017 NHL Draft, had one goal in seven appearances with Florida during the 2017-18 campaign. The roster changes in the offseason are slated to give him a chance to land a top-six forward spot going into the year. 

Montreal Canadiens 

2019-20 Finish: 31-31-9 record, first round loss to Philadelphia (4-2)

Noteworthy Gains: Josh Anderson, Tyler Toffoli, Joel Edmundson, Jake Allen

Noteworthy Losses: Max Domi

Strengths: Carey Price remains the star of the Canadiens and he showed just how valuable he can be during the postseason when he’s at the top of his game. However, he will need to improve his regular-season numbers following a down year in 2019-20 and the addition of Allen as a backup could help keep him fresher over the course of the year. Price’s teammates are fairly good at keeping the scoring chances against down, but need to improve his margin for error with better efforts offensively. 

Weaknesses: The Canadiens ranked 20th in the league in goals for per game (2.93) last campaign and placed 22nd in power-play percentage (17.7%). The top line of Tomas Tatar, Brendan Gallagher and Phillip Danault have been the offensive catalysts for the team. Montreal hopes that Toffoli and Anderson will more than make up for the loss of Domi. Nick Suzuki, who had a strong rookie year followed by an impressive postseason, and Jesperi Kotkaniemi, who looked much better in the NHL Return to Play, will also be counted on to take steps forward this campaign. 

Player to Watch: Suzuki had four goals and seven points in 10 postseason matches after he finished sixth in scoring among rookies during the regular season with 41 points (13 goals, 28 assists) in 71 contests. The 21-year-old is slated to center Montreal’s second line in 2020-21, which could put him between newcomers Toffoli and Anderson. That would be a combination with plenty of upside. 

Corey Abbott

Corey Abbott is an Editor for Hockey on NBC Sports Edge. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @CoreAbbott.