Eastern Conference Preview

2020-21 NHL Season Preview: Part 3

by Corey Abbott
Updated On: December 2, 2020, 9:32 am ET

With the NHL offseason calmed and team rosters mostly set, we’ve started previewing the 2020-21 campaign. We have already covered the Atlantic Division and started the Metropolitan Division in Part One and Part Two of this series. This week, we will complete the remaining Eastern Conference teams. 

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Pittsburgh Penguins 

2019-20 Finish: 40-23-6 record, qualifying round loss to Montreal (3-1) 

Noteworthy Gains: Kasperi Kapanen, Mike Matheson, Mark Jankowski, Colton Sceviour, Cody Ceci

Noteworthy Losses: Matt Murray, Patric Hornqvist, Nick Bjugstad, Justin Schultz, Conor Sheary, Patrick Marleau, Jack Johnson

Strengths: Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust had productive seasons despite being limited by injuries in 2019-20. The Penguins ranked 10th in the league in goals for per game played (3.20). Pittsburgh added Jason Zucker to the top-six forward group last campaign and that was a success. The team is hoping that Kapanen will supplement the group further. The Penguins are at their best when playing with speed and the team still has plenty of offensive talent up front, particularly on the top-two lines.  

Weaknesses: Following two straight quick playoff exits, Pittsburgh’s core group has come into question, but Crosby and Malkin remain important players. The Penguins didn’t renew the contracts of multiple assistant coaches, which will put head coach Mike Sullivan on the hot seat in 2020-21. Pittsburgh made changes at forward, defense and goaltending during the offseason. The team appeared to be in a constant state of flux, mostly due to injuries, while finishing in the middle of the pack in team save percentage (.904) and power play percentage (19.9%). 

Player to Watch: Tristan Jarry is projected to take on the role of the team’s number one netminder in 2020-21. He outplayed Murray last season during the regular season, but was on the bench for most of Pittsburgh’s qualifying round loss to the Canadiens. The team could still seek to land an experienced backup, but for now Casey DeSmith is in line to serve as Jarry’s understudy. 

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Carolina Hurricanes

2019-20 Finish: 38-25-5 record, first round loss to Boston (4-1) 

Noteworthy Gains: Jesper Fast

Noteworthy Losses: Justin Williams, Joel Edmundson, Trevor van Riemsdyk, Sami Vatanen

Strengths: The defense corps of the Hurricanes is one of the best in the league. Dougie Hamilton was having a tremendous season prior to suffering a fractured left fibula, but he returned in the postseason. Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce, who was banged up as well last year, make up integral parts of the group, while Brady Skjei and Hayden Fleury are poised to take on larger roles. Jake Bean could also push for a spot on Carolina’s blueline going into 2020-21. The team allowed the second-fewest scoring chances against at 5-on-5 (1,301) in 2019-20. Carolina also improved offensively last season, while being led by the talented trio of Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen and Andrei Svechnikov. The club had the third-most shots for per game (33.3) last campaign.  

Weaknesses: Goaltending was an issue for Carolina last season even though the team finished 11th in the league in goals against per game played (2.84). Petr Mrazek, who played well in 2018-19, and James Reimer didn’t post strong numbers. They were both mentioned in trade rumors this offseason and it was believed the Hurricanes were searching for an upgrade in the crease, but nothing materialized on either front. Carolina will have to hope that Mrazek can bounce back in the final year of his contract. The Hurricanes could also use more help from their supporting cast at forward to lighten the load for the top line. 

Player to Watch: Martin Necas provided some secondary scoring during his first full NHL season. He was third on the team with 16 goals and collected 36 points over 64 matches. Necas is projected to skate on the second line and he will probably continue to see work on the second power-play unit. 

New York Islanders 

2019-20 Finish: 35-23-10 record, lost in Eastern Conference Final to Tampa Bay (4-2)

Noteworthy Gains: Ilya Sorokin

Noteworthy Losses: Thomas Greiss, Devon Toews

Strengths: The Islanders haven’t had trouble stifling the opposition since Barry Trotz came on board as the team’s head coach. The team ranked ninth in goals against per game played (2.79) and eighth in save percentage (.911) during the 2019-20 campaign. New York’s goaltenders have been the biggest beneficiaries of Trotz’s arrival, which included a league-high 1,153 blocked shots from skaters in 2019-20. 

Weaknesses: New York isn’t a team that sits back despite the attention to detail on defense, but it hasn’t translated into much success in the offensive end. The Islanders ranked 22nd in the league in goals for per game played (2.78) last season. Mathew Barzal, who still needs to be re-signed by the team, and Brock Nelson serve as offensive catalysts for the top-two lines, but the team needs to find the back of the net with much more regularity. 

Player to Watch: Anthony Beauvillier made great strides in 2019-20 with 18 goals and 39 points in 68 games. He also had nine markers and 14 points in 22 postseason outings. He has played well on the second line of the Islanders with Nelson and if he gets more power-play time then he could be an under-the-radar breakout candidate. 

Columbus Blue Jackets 

2019-20 Finish: 33-22-15 record, first round loss to Tampa Bay (4-1) 

Noteworthy Gains: Max Domi, Mikko Koivu, Mikhail Grigorenko

Noteworthy Losses: Josh Anderson, Alexander Wennberg, Markus Nutivaara, Ryan Murray

Strengths: One of the biggest question marks for the Blue Jackets going into the 2019-20 season was the team’s goaltending, but it turned out to be the team’s biggest strength. Columbus went with the inexperienced duo of Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins, which raised some eyebrows, but they both excelled in the crease following rocky starts. The Blue Jackets placed third in the league in goals against per game played (2.61). Team defense was a big part of the Columbus game last season. The club permitted the seventh-fewest shots against per game (29.9) and tied for fourth overall in save percentage (.913). 

Weaknesses: The free-agent exodus of Artemi Panarin and Matt Duchene following the 2018-19 season left big holes offensively for Columbus. The team finished 28th in the NHL in goals for per game played (2.57) last season. The Blue Jackets had trouble manufacturing scoring chances, but managed to get by on occasion by capitalizing on their chances and playing well defensively. However, that isn’t a recipe for long-term success. Columbus brought in Domi, Koivu and Grigorenko to provide some center depth behind Pierre-Luc Dubois, who led the team in scoring during the regular season and the playoffs. Domi could provide a spark for the team in the attacking end. 

Player to Watch: Oliver Bjorkstrand is another player who should improve the team offensively if he can stay healthier. He was limited to 49 appearances in 2019-20, but led the team with 21 goals and produced 36 points. Bjorkstrand could be positioned nicely to take the next step this campaign. 

New York Rangers 

2019-20 Finish: 37-28-5 record, qualifying round loss to Carolina (3-0) 

Noteworthy Gains: Alexis Lafreniere, Jack Johnson

Noteworthy Losses: Henrik Lundqvist, Jesper Fast, Marc Staal 

Strengths: The Rangers got a big boost last season from Artemi Panarin, who tied for third in the league with 95 points in 69 contests. He also tied for second in the NHL with 63 assists. Mika Zibanejad, Ryan Strome, Tony DeAngelo and Pavel Buchnevich experienced career-years offensively to help New York rank fifth in the league in goals for per game played (3.33). The Rangers also ranked seventh in power-play efficiency at 22.9%. New York’s offensive attack could get another lift this year with the projected addition of Lafreniere, who was the first-overall pick in the 2020 NHL Draft.

Weaknesses: The Rangers were leaky defensively in 2019-20, while surrendering the third-most scoring chances against at 5-on-5 (1,617) and the most high-danger scoring chances against at 5-on-5 (553). That will have to change if the team is going to continue to trend in the right direction. An improved defensive effort would also take some pressure off of Igor Shesterkin, who is expected to be the team’s top goalie in 2020-21 after he played very well in a limited sample size last season. 

Player to Watch: Shesterkin is an intriguing player for this spot, but all eyes will be on Kaapo Kakko going into his sophomore season. He only generated 10 goals and 23 points in 66 matches during his rookie year. Kakko, who was the second-overall selection in the 2019 NHL Draft, didn’t pick up a point in the postseason, but he played much better. He should improve in 2020-21 and could see more playing time alongside Panarin. 

New Jersey Devils 

2019-20 Finish: 28-29-12 record, eighth in Metropolitan Division 

Noteworthy Gains: Corey Crawford, Andreas Johnsson, Ryan Murray, Dmitry Kulikov,

Noteworthy Losses: Cory Schneider, Joey Anderson

Strengths: It was a rough season for New Jersey in 2019-20, but the play of forwards Kyle Palmieri and Nikita Gusev as well as goaltender Mackenzie Blackwood were bright spots. The penalty kill also performed well, while finishing seventh in the NHL with an efficiency rating of 82.4%.  

Weaknesses: The Devils ranked 24th in the league in goals for per game played (2.68) and 29th overall in goals against per game played (3.25) during the 2019-20 season. New Jersey also permitted the eighth-most scoring chances against at 5-on-5 (1,536). It was a difficult year offensively for the Devils, as no player on the team reached the 50-point plateau and only two skaters topped the 40-point mark. Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes, who was the top pick in the 2019 NHL Draft, failed to live up to expectations. However, they both have plenty of upside. 

Player to Watch: Hughes will be watched closely in his sophomore season after he only registered seven goals and 21 points in 61 contests. The 19-year-old forward had a disappointing 5.7 shooting percentage, which is bound to improve, and a minus-26 rating during his welcome to the NHL. Hughes has too much talent and should be much better in 2020-21.

Corey Abbott

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