The countdown to hockey is unofficially official as negotiations between the NHL and NHLPA on a new CBA, and the NHL Return to Play Plan reach the final stages. Edmonton and Toronto will be the hub cities after Las Vegas experienced an extreme spike in COVID-19 cases, including among casino workers over the past few weeks. Hockey is close enough we can begin the puck conversations and where the Pittsburgh Penguins fit against the rest of the Eastern Conference when the puck drops in Toronto.
The Penguins are a somewhat unknown quantity. For only minutes in the 2019-20 regular season, the Penguins were healthy. Except for a couple of games at the start of the season, stars Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby played only the final few weeks together, and they did so without 40-goal winger Jake Guentzel. New trade acquisitions Patrick Marleau and Jason Zucker didn’t yet settle into the Penguins lineup or scheme, and if RW Conor Sheary can regain his scoring touch beside Crosby remains a doubtful mystery.
It’s not even a guarantee the Penguins will finish with the same goalie they’ll start with (Matt Murray).
Preliminary Eastern Conference Power Rankings
1. Boston Bruins
A team which runs away with the President’s Trophy is the defending Eastern Conference champ and includes perhaps the best top line in hockey with Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak, and Brad Marchand is a force.
Boston not only has a big-game goalie, Tuuka Rask, but they’re 1A goalie, Jaroslav Halak, is also a playoff goalie. Boston does not have any glaring weaknesses. They are deep, physical, and a Game 7 loss in the 2019 Stanley Cup left them hungry. The COVID-19 pause probably erased any concerns of tired legs.
When they find their stride, look out.
2. Washington Capitals
On paper, the Washington Capitals should compete well with Boston. We know the Washington top line with Alex Ovechkin-Evgeny Kuznetsov-Tom Wilson is a powerful force, followed by an equally lethal second line centered by Nick Backstrom with a clutch performer T.J. Oshie.
At the trade deadline, Washington added sniper Ilya Kovalchuk for their third line after the Russian had a brief resurgence with Montreal. Washington is loaded, yet for much of the season, teams were able to stay with Washington. The Penguins were able to catch them in the second half, as did Philadelphia.
Starting goalie Braden Holtby, 30, will be a UFA at season’s end but didn’t gallop to the finish line of his Washington Capitals career. The Stanley Cup-winning goalie was 25-14-6 but had an anemic .897 save percentage and even worse 3.11 GAA. According to Hockey-Reference, Holtby had a meager Goals Saved Above Average score, MINUS-16.76 (even average goalies bubble around zero or low minus numbers).
The bet is Washington puts it all together, and any team which advances past them will need a few days in the ice tub. But we may see Ilya Samsonov in goal and Holtby elsewhere next season.
3. Pittsburgh Penguins
Tampa Bay may be a better team, but their string of playoff failures since the 2015 Stanley Cup Final weigh heavily on them. Philadelphia may have surpassed the Pittsburgh Penguins, but that was with an 18-5-1 run before the pause; that momentum will be long gone.
The Pittsburgh Penguins have an experienced core with generational talent in the middle, a (finally) stabilized and healthy defensive corps with three deep pairings and a playoff goalie.
Add a healthy Jake Guentzel, acquired Jason Zucker, with head coach Mike Sullivan and the Penguins are a dangerous team that can play a physical style or lace ’em up for a speed game.
We don’t know how good a healthy Penguins team can be, yet they finished with the seventh-best record in the NHL. That should scare a few clubs ahead and behind them.
4. Tampa Bay Lightning
Fast, talented, and hungry. Tampa Bay was one of the few teams able to keep pace with Boston. Tampa Bay finished with 92 points (2nd, Eastern Conference), lead the NHL in goals-for (245), and was ninth in goals-against (195). Having 2019 Hart Trophy winner Nikita Kucherov doesn’t hurt, either.
Jon Cooper is a slick coach, but Tampa was swept out of the playoffs in Round One by the rugged Columbus Blue Jackets last season. In 2016 and 2018, Tampa Bay lost in the Eastern Conference Final to the eventual Stanley Cup champions, Pittsburgh and Washington, respectively. In 2017, Tampa Bay rushed through the regular season and missed the playoffs.
Tampa Bay is excellent and matches well against the Penguins. Tampa is a bit faster than the Penguins, which causes the Penguins to break from their system to keep up. But so many playoff near-misses and failures. They may be the 2000s Ottawa Senators 2.0.
5. Toronto Maple Leafs
Playoff failures and an inability to get past Round One haunt this Toronto iteration. However, after an inconsistent regular season, the supremely talented Maple Leafs may be ready for the next step. Toronto has more young stars than anyone. Auston Matthews, Mitchell Marner, and William Nylander, with veteran John Tavares, are supremely talented.
Toronto had 20 players show up for the start of Phase 2 voluntary workouts, so they may have an enthusiasm edge on the league. And they have a lot to prove. Goalie Freddie Anderson has been a stellar playoff goalie, too. Toronto’s defense is soft, but Jake Muzzin solidifies their backside.
If Toronto gets rolling and begins to believe, they could run through everyone, but they have not yet been galvanized. Maybe, they never will be.
6. Carolina Hurricanes
So, Carolina shut down Toronto with an emergency goalie, Scott Ayers, but can Carolina recapture the Storm Surge magic, which propelled them into the playoffs last season?
It will be tough performing choreographed routines in an empty arena. That fan energy and excitement was part of the Carolina surge. Fortunately, Carolina has talent at the top with Sebastien Aho and Andrei Svechnikov, and now depth in the middle.
Carolina went all-in and snagged Pittsburgh-native, Vincent Trochek, at the trade deadline. Trocheck gives Carolina two scoring centers and allows head coach Rod Brind’Amour to slide Jordan Staal to the third line. Penguins fans may remember how capable Staal can be as a third-line center.
Carolina’s blue line is bursting with talent, from Jaccob Slavin to Dougie Hamilton and newly acquired Brady Skjei.
However, Carolina falls well short in net with Petr Mrazek and Anton Forsberg. Carolina is fast, they have talent, but they lack jam or enough grit. Goaltending and physicality are where they fall short.
Just don’t get into a Game 7 against Carolina, they still have Justin Williams for one more ride, at least.
7. New York Islanders
The pesky team no one wants to face. New York doesn’t put a skate outside of head coach Barry Trotz’s system. They play a patient, flawless systemic game but also have the ability to attack when their coach gives the order. Last season, New York waited patiently for the Penguins to make mistakes, then pounced.
New York acquired prototype third-line center, J-G Pageau, from Ottawa at the trade deadline. Pageau adds depth, talent, and scoring to the NYI lineup, and New York can genuinely roll four lines. New York still has the “best fourth line in hockey” with Matt Martin, Casey Czikas, and Cal Clutterbuck, which should be ready to roll for the NHL return to play.
New York is four deep down the middle but has a spotty defense.
8. Philadelphia Flyers
Perhaps the paper tiger of the Eastern Conference. Philadelphia languished on the playoff bubble for much of the season until an 18-5-1 run to the COVID-19 pause vaulted them into second place in the Metro Division.
Sean Couturier with Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek are a worthwhile top line. Kevin Hayes may be miscast as a second-line center because he’s a defensive stalwart more than a scorer.
Philadelphia caught fire and raced past the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Metro Division but they are thin, and players such as James Van Riemsdyk didn’t produce enough this season to be feared.
Philadelphia acquired former Penguins depth player Derek Grant, and he may be the Flyers third-line center in the NHL playoffs. Second-overall pick (2017) Nolan Patrick hasn’t yet distinguished himself in the NHL and did not play this season as concussion symptoms and migraines derailed his career. He was skating and practicing with the team before the COVID-19 break, but it has been a year since he played in a game.
Philadelphia goalie Carter Hart has not yet played a playoff game, either.
9. Columbus Blue Jackets
Call me a sucker for Columbus and coach John Tortorella. If there is one team willing and able to skate through bricks, it is Columbus. Injuries decimated Columbus this season, and they, like the Penguins, never had a healthy team.
Well, now they are healthy except for winger Josh Anderson. Top defenseman, Seth Jones with primary players Cam Atkinson and Oliver Bjorkstrand, will return from the injured list.
Columbus plays a playoff-style and won their first-ever playoff series last season when they swept the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round.
Will Elvis Merzlikins keep riding his rookie wave into the playoffs, or will Tortorella turn to starter Joonas Korpisalo? Columbus is an unknown, but they are always tough.
10. New York Rangers
NYR held onto Chris Kreider at the trade deadline, but then he suffered a significant injury just days later. That boo-boo should be all better, and New York will be at full strength. The Rangers made a playoff push, even without Kreider.
New York is more potential than performance at the moment. Top-line center Mika Zbinejad had an outstanding season, and All-Star winger Artemi Panarin provides the pop from the second line.
New York is still a work in progress with a dozen players who are 25-years-old or younger in their lineup.
The goaltending battle between Alexandar Georgiev and “King” Henrik Lundqvist is undecided, too. In fact, New York has three goalies who could start Game 1 of the Qualifying Round, including Igor Shestyorkin. Coach David Quinn publicly stated training camp would be an open competition for three.
NYR isn’t a threat to win the Stanley Cup, but the experience will go a long way towards maturing their group faster.
11. Florida Panthers
Ever talented, ever underachieving in the second-half. Florida has more talent than many teams above them, but they are too easy to play against.
Aleksander Barkov is a skilled first-line center with Evgenii Dadonov on his right side. However, Florida has question marks throughout their lineup, including second-line center Erik Haula, who is playing with his third team in four years.
Florida goalie Sergei Bobrovsky signed a massive seven-year, $70 million deal last July but turned in a subpar season with a .900 save percentage. In 34 career playoff games, Bobrovsky has just a .902 save percentage, too. Despite a Vezina Trophy on his shelf, Bobrovsky isn’t a playoff goalie.
Florida could be easy pickings in Phase 4.
12. Montreal Canadiens
The Pittsburgh Penguins Qualifying Round opponent, the Montreal Canadiens could be pesky. They are fast, and they have some talent spread through their lineup, including Max Domi, Jonathan Drouin, and 20-year-old Nick Suzuki.
Montreal also has six-time All-Star Carey Price in the net.
However, Montreal does not seem to be too enthusiastic about the NHL return. Their facilities remained closed for the first two weeks of Phase 2 because only two players were in Montreal and wanted to skate.
Montreal was 10 points out of a playoff spot when the season paused, and that figures to be about right. The other 11 teams were within shouting distance of a wild-card spot.