With the NHL offseason calmed and team rosters mostly set, we’ve started previewing the 2020-21 campaign. We already previewed the top five teams of the Atlantic Division based on the 2019-20 standings, which you can read here. Today we’ll continue by rounding out the Atlantic Division and starting the Metropolitan Division.
2019-20 Finish: 30-31-8 record, sixth in Atlantic Division
Strengths: Jack Eichel is a rising star in the league and for the first time, he’ll be playing alongside winger of equal or greater caliber in Taylor Hall. With the two of them sharing the ice, the Sabres should have one of the best top lines in the league. With Eric Staal anchoring the second line, their top-six in general is looking pretty good, though a big factor in the success of that second line will be Jeff Skinner, who went from scoring 40 goals in 2018-19 to just 23 points in 2019-20.
Weaknesses: For the Sabres, the key to stepping forward will be finding consistency. Even before adding Hall and Staal, they were a team full of potential and at times over the past two seasons, we’ve seen what they can become when everyone is clicking at the same time. They started the 2019-20 campaign with a 9-2-1 record and peaked in 2018-19 at 17-6-2, but in both cases, they crumbled over time. Part of that is their youth, but not every talented team learns to develop that winning culture and it remains to be seen if the Sabres can. Beyond that, one aspect in particular they need to shore up from the 2019-20 campaign is their penalty kill. The Sabres ranked 30th in the league last season with a 74.6% PK success rate and they’ll need to do significantly better than that this season.
Player to Watch: There’s no shortage of players worth to pick for this category on the Sabres, but Skinner stands out as the biggest one. His eight-year, $72 million contract was questionable even when it was signed in the summer of 2019, but it’s in danger of being a disaster after his struggles last season. Buffalo will be counting on him to bounce back in a big way this season. With the upgrades they made, they don’t even necessarily need him to play on the first line, but they are looking for him to be one of their main scoring threats.
2019-20 Finish: 25-34-12 record, seventh in Atlantic Division
Strengths: The Senators didn’t have a single player record even 45 points last season and their goaltending ranked among the worst in the league. So what is their strength? It’s the complete lack of expectations. They are a team of young players who have yet to really prove themselves and older players who need to reassert themselves after recent struggles. This roster reads like the start of a Disney movie about the team no one believed that ends up coming together and winning against all odds. When you take a step back, there is youth and skill on this roster and without the burden of expectations, perhaps they’ll turn some heads and end up being this season’s pleasant surprise.
Weaknesses: Or perhaps they’ll be exactly what they appear to be: A team that might be good eventually, but isn’t ready yet. Brady Tkachuk will probably take a step forward, but he won’t have much to work with. Thomas Chabot is a great defenseman, but the he doesn’t have much backing him up. Matt Murray shined with the Penguins when they were at their best, but committing to a four-year, $25 million contract with him was a questionable decision after he posted a 2.87 GAA and .899 save percentage in 38 starts last season. If he struggled with the Penguins in 2019-20, how is he going to hold up with the Senators defense in front of him? There are pieces there with the potential to become the cornerstones of a bright future, but can it all come together this season? Probably not.
Player to Watch: I’m very interested to see how Alex Galchenyuk does. He had 30 goals in 2015-16, but last season he struggled to even maintain a bottom-six role with Pittsburgh and Minnesota. In Ottawa though, he should get plenty of ice time. If he’s ever going to bounce back, it will probably be this season while getting top-six minutes with the Senators.
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Detroit Red Wings
2019-20 Finish: 17-49-5 record, eighth in Atlantic Division
Noteworthy Losses: None
Strengths: Well... Dylan Larkin, Tyler Bertuzzi, and Anthony Mantha are three fairly talented young forwards. While none of them have developed into stars, they’re all solid players and combine to be a worthwhile scoring line. There’s potential there for further development and maybe the trio will end up turning some heads this season.
Weaknesses: Almost everything else. It’s overly negative, especially because I do like the experimental additions they added over the summer. The Red Wings got some good veteran role players who should plug some holes nicely. At the same time, we’re talking about a team that was historically bad last season returning with a fairly similar roster. They ranked dead last in goals per game last season at 2 (the next worst was 2.53) and goals allowed per game at 3.73 (the next worst was 3.35). They had the third worst power-play and worst penalty kill. Will they do better this season? Yes, but that’s an extremely low bar.
Player to Watch: One potential silver lining for the team I didn’t really touch on is Thomas Greiss. He struggled mightily in 2017-18, but his other four seasons with the Islanders were fantastic. In fact, he’s put together a really solid career to date with a 2.63 GAA and .915 save percentage in 282 games. It’s going to be tough for him in Detroit given what’s in front of him, but he might be up to the challenge and provide a degree of stability for the team.
2019-20 Finish: 41-20-8 record, first round loss to New York Islanders (4-1)
Strengths: The star power up front of John Carlson, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and of course Alex Ovechkin. The group backing them up isn’t anything to sneeze at either. The 2019-20 edition of the team had seven players with at least 40 points, all of which are returning. To give that some context, the Nashville Predators were a middle-of-the-road team offensively with three players scoring at least 40 points. With the talent they have and the depth behind them, it’s not hard to see why the Capitals were a close second behind the Tampa Bay Lightning in goals per game.
Weaknesses: Weirdly, in spite of all that firepower, the Capitals were a mediocre team on the power play last season, finishing with a 19.4% success rate. Fixing that aspect of their game will be one of the priorities for Peter Laviolette now that he’s taken over as Washington’s head coach. Their goaltending is also a question mark. Braden Holtby struggled last season and with him out, Ilya Samsonov will step up as the team’s starter. Samsonov is talented, but he only has 26 games worth of NHL experience. So is he up to the task of being the number one goaltender on a team hoping to compete for the Cup?
Player to Watch: I think it has to be Samsonov. A talented, but inexperienced goaltender on a veteran team looking to win now is always an intriguing story, but it’s not necessarily a recipe for disaster. Matt Murray of course won back-to-back championships with the Penguins in his first two NHL seasons and more recently Jordan Binnington won the Cup as a rookie goaltender. So it absolutely can be done, it’s just a question of if Samsonov specifically is the right man for the job. It helps a lot that the Capitals signed Lundqvist. While Lundqvist isn’t the goaltender he used to be, he should be a good mentor for Samsonov and if something happens, Lundqvist can still hold his own for stretches of time. This is a goaltending duo that looks like it can work.
2019-20 Finish: 41-21-7 record, second round loss to New York Islanders (4-3)
Noteworthy Gains: Erik Gustafsson
Strengths: There’s a good balance on this team. They have the reigning Selke winner in Sean Couturier, high-end forwards in Claude Giroux, Travis Konecny, and Jakub Voracek to power their offense. They also got Kevin Hayes, who is a solid second liner even if he’s somewhat overpaid and there’s always a chance that James van Riemsdyk bounces back. Their defense is young, but talented with Ivan Provorov and Travis Sanheim providing a great foundation. Erik Gustafsson also helps ease the loss of Matt Niskanen, who announced his surprise retirement. Even their goaltending, which has traditionally been a thorn in the Flyers side, is looking strong with Carter Hart in between the pipes.
Weaknesses: For the Flyers, there’s no glaring weakness, but the bar is being set really high for them. This is a team that’s for years struggled to put everything together, but after an encouraging 2019-20 campaign, the expectation is for them to have a deep playoff run. So the question isn’t if they are particularly bad at anything, but if they stack up to the Tampa Bay Lightning and the rest of the league. The Flyers offense is solid, but is it the best? Probably not. Their defense is talented, but there are better out there? For all Carter Hart’s skill, is he ready to play like a Vezina Trophy contender? Philadelphia needs to find a way to take that step from very good to excellence and as good as they are on paper, there are teams that are arguably better out there.
Player to Watch: Nolan Patrick missed the entire 2019-20 campaign because of a migraine disorder, but a recent report stated that he’s been scrimmaging now for well over a month. Nothing’s certain, but there is the potential that Patrick will be able to play next season. What kind of player he’ll be is another question entirely. He has superstar potential and if you’re talking about the Flyers making that leap to a championship, a breakout from Patrick would be a path to that. However, his first two seasons in the NHL left plenty to be desired and after missing the entirety of what would have been his third campaign, it’s unfair to look for him to breakout in the coming campaign. All the same though, if he’s healthy, he’s definitely someone to watch. If nothing else, he’s someone who is easy to root for after all he’s had to overcome.