With the NHL switching up each division for the upcoming 2021 season, the New York Islanders now have a few new teams in their division, replacing two teams that have been realigned into another division. Though there are still eight teams in this temporary division.
The division that the Islanders will be in this year will be called the East division, with the Boston Bruins and the Buffalo Sabres joining the Islanders, Flyers, Capitals, Penguins, Devils and Rangers. The Carolina Hurricanes along with the Columbus Blue Jackets will be in the Central division.
The Metropolitan was the most stacked division in the entire NHL last season, with 7 out of 8 teams making the expanded playoffs, the New Jersey Devils being the outliers. The Islanders made it farther than any other team out of the eight, reaching the Eastern conference championship, where they lost to the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Tampa Bay Lightning. They are now a different team than they were just a couple of months ago, but they are still a top 4 team in the division.
This year only the top 4 teams each division will qualify for the postseason. The Isles have not had the busiest of off-seasons, but the moves that they have made were very impactful. The biggest move was the trade of Devon Toews to the Avalanche for whom they acquired two future second round draft picks. The trade was due to the fact that the team did not have and still does not have a lot of cap space. Toews played pretty well the last couple of years for the Islanders, but following the trade, it looks like Noah Dobson will get his spot.
Realistically, that is the only huge loss the team has suffered so far. Thomas Greiss is also gone, but that is due to the fact that the Islanders are finally getting one of their top prospects: Iyla Sorokin, to come play for the team. He will likely split time with current starting goaltender Semyon Varlamov. Varlamov is coming off of an outstanding performance in the playoffs where he alone helped the team win some games. Sorokin, on the other hand was drafted by the Islanders in the 2014, but has yet to play in the NHL. He has been playing in the KHL (the Kontinental Hockey League) the last couple of seasons and was the top goalie league wide. Sorokin may have a chance to win the Calder trophy by the time the season has ended.
The Islanders also brought back star defenseman Ryan Pulock. He and Adam Pelech, who is also coming back after suffering an injury in the playoffs, make up the team’s top defensive pairing. The team is also highly likely to bring back Andy Greene and Matt Martin, of course after they re-sign restricted free agent Mat Barzal, for whom all signs are pointing to a contract extension in the near future, so there is no reason as of yet to worry about him signing a possible offer sheet. Casey Cizikas also seems to be healthy, so assuming Martin is re-signed, they will have their wntire fourth line back.
In addition to losing Toews and Greiss, the team also lost veteran defenseman Johnny Boychuk. Boychuk suffered multiple injuries last season and felt like it was in his best interest to walk away from the game that he loves. The Islanders did play without him for most of the playoffs and they still looked pretty good without his services. So really as of now they are bringing most of the team back, with the notable exceptions being Toews, Boychuk and Greiss. This, in my opinion, would still put Isles as a top team in this East division.
To be realistic, it is highly unlikely that the Buffalo Sabres and the New Jersey Devils will qualify for the playoffs. The Sabres did add former Devils star Taylor Hall in free agency, but they have not made the postseason since 2011 and it doesn’t look like they will snap that streak this upcoming season. The Devils on the other hand are in a full rebuild, they have traded away a lot of talent during the last couple of seasons. It is unlikely that they will be able to survive in this tough division.
That leaves six teams with a chance at four spots. There is the Islanders cross town rivals the New York Rangers, they made the playoffs last year due to the fact that there was an expanded playoff pool, they got swept in the qualifying round. But, the team exceeded expectations and it looks like they are way ahead of schedule. Artemi Panarin had a MVP type year and Mika Zibanejad also had a tremendous season. Considering the fact that they now have first overall pick Alexis Lafrenière, they are a team to watch out for. Though, the Islanders seem to be in a better spot than the Blueshirts.
Then there is the Washington Capitals and the Philadelphia Flyers. The Islanders beat both of these teams in the postseason last season. They beat Washington 4-1, after splitting the regular season series 2-2, dominating the Capitals the whole series and nearly sweeping them, but lost in game 4. The Isles played the Flyers in the Eastern conference semifinals. Philadelphia entered the playoffs as the no. 1 seed in all of Eastern conference. This series went the full distance, in which, the Islanders dropped three games, all in double overtime. They were able to dominate in game 7 and send the Flyers home. Neither the Capitals or the Flyers made a major move this offseason to help them improve their teams. Washington still has Alex Ovechkin and John Carlson, while the Flyers have Claude Giroux, Travis Konecny and Sean Couturier. Though, the Capitals have now lost in the first round of the playoffs in two consecutive seasons and the Flyers, despite being the top seed in the East last year, have not proven that they are for real just yet. So there is no reason to believe that either of these teams are better than the Islanders or at least make it past them. But both are likely to still be playing meaningful games in April and May.
With the Bruins now in the mix, it will definitely put some more pressure on the other teams. Goaltender Tuukka Rask is now back after he exited the playoffs with a family emergency. However the team will likely be without their top players in David Pastrňák and Brad Marchand for at least for the first couple of weeks of the regular season. Despite this, Boston can easily still be considered the top team in this division. They were the top team in the entire NHL during the regular season last year, and now have Rask back and still have a stacked roster. So they are highly likely to make the playoffs.
Then there is the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Penguins have been a big disappointment these last two years. In 2019 they got swept in the first round by the Islanders. Then last season they entered the postseason as the no. 5 seed. They played the Montreal Canadiens who were the 12 seed and lost. The Penguins are now getting Jake Guentzel back, who missed most of last season due to injury. Of course you can’t count them out because they still have Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. But they can’t be considered a favorite.
So, really the Islanders have a pretty good chance of making the playoffs and even a chance of getting the top spot. They are still a great team going into the season. Anthony Beauvillier is due for a breakout season after a stellar performance in the playoffs. Plus this is going to be Jean-Gabriel Pageau’s first full season with the team, after he shined throughout the postseason. The Isles seemed foolish to give up all of that draft compensation in order to get him. But he was surely worth every penny of that deal. In addition to all of this the team has a great coach in Barry Trotz and a hall of fame general manager as well in Lou Lamoriello
This East division is definitely going to be tough, but the Islanders are a top 4 team.
Photo by: New York Islanders