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Where will the Pens finish in the Eastern Division?

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Taking an early stab at projecting the 56-game season

NHL: JAN 16 Penguins at Bruins Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The 56-game sprint of the 2020-21 season will be the most unique NHL campaign ever. Teams are only playing in the division, so the Penguins will meet their seven Eastern division opponents eight times a piece from January to early May.

How this will really shake out is anyone’s guess. NHL teams are usually very jumbled and only a handful of points can separate most of the division or conference in a normal 82 game season. This year won’t be normal though, it will be shorter and make the games all the more important and intense.

So any projection is basically a shot in the dark. A few games here or there, decided by the errant goal might go a long way to switching up the spots here. But let’s take a crack at it still.

1. Boston Bruins

Key Additions: Craig Smith, Greg McKegg

Key Losses: Torey Krug, Joakim Nordstrom...Zdeno Chara?

—The Bruins won the Presidents Trophy last season as the NHL’s best regular season team. To me, that makes them the team to beat in this division. While it’s true they don’t look like a dominant team right now — especially since off-season surgeries to David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand might place both of their statuses in question to start the season, though Marchand’s window to return should be close to opening for the start of the season. Krug’s absence looms large as well. But Boston remains very deep, with a consistent top goalie in Tuukka Rask. The addition of Smith looks smart and players like Ondrej Kase, Patrice Bergeron, Jake DeBrusk, Charlie MacAvoy and Charlie Coyle should be able to hold them up while Pastrnak rehabs if he needs a month.

2. Washington Capitals

Key Additions: Justin Schultz, Trevor van Riemsdyk, Conor Sheary, coach Peter Laviolette

Key Losses: Braden Holtby, Ilya Kovalchuk, Radko Gudas, Travis Boyd, coach Todd Reirden

—The Caps have won the Metropolitan Division five years in a row, so I’m inclined to err on the side of them achieving regular season success. Goalie Ilya Samsonov barely has more career NHL games (26) than his age (22), which could be a major wildcard — especially since a medical condition has knocked out Henrik Lundqvist from being a 1B for Washington. Defensively, beyond the Brendon Dillon - John Carlson pair the Caps could be very vulnerable as well, so it wouldn’t be surprising if they under-perform here. Yet, this is a quality team with a ton of skill up front with their top six still containing names like Ovechkin, Backstrom, Oshie, Kuznetsov and Vrana who can all be expected to put up big time numbers.

3. Pittsburgh Penguins

Key Additions: Kasperi Kapanen, Michael Matheson, Evan Rodrigues, Mark Jankowski, Cody Ceci

Key Losses: Patric Hornqvist, Matt Murray, Jack Johnson, Justin Schultz, Dominik Simon, Conor Sheary, Patrick Marleau

—The Pens’ strengths should be that their top 10 players (six forwards, four defensemen) can hang with, and really should exceed, anyone in the division, if not the whole league. But if injuries set in — and we know they always seem to set in for this team — it might be a scary picture for a team that’s counting on a bunch of reclamation projects on the bottom end of the lineup. Still, star power and pure skill usually carries the day in the regular season, and the Pens are also a team that typically qualifies for the playoffs fairly comfortably every season for the last 13 years. Adding Kapanen and Jason Zucker in the past 12 months gives enough juice and speed to help 87 and 71 and gives answers that other teams can’t match.

4. New York Islanders

Key Additions: Ilya Sorokin

Key Losses: Devon Toews, Thomas Greiss, Andy Greene

—The Islanders over-perform and make the playoffs under Barry Trotz. It’s tough to explain, but I’m not going to fight it. Adding the young Russian star goalie Sorokin (a former third round pick of theirs) could be a star-turn, but it’s also a risk since Greiss has always been so quietly effective as a 1B goalie over the years. Other than that, NYI is basically the same cast of characters that they have been for the past few years. But don’t discount that they’ve also somewhat recently added Jean-Gabriel Pageau, who is just pesky and skilled enough to fit right in perfectly with this team.

5. Philadelphia Flyers

Key Additions: Erik Gustafsson

Key Losses: Matt Niskanen, Nate Thompson, Derek Grant

—Carter Hart might be strong enough to help the Flyers into the playoffs and it wouldn’t surprise at all. One interesting thing to me about the Flyers is that they’re a team in transition: Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek still make the big bucks, but both had down seasons last year. Ditto James van Riemsdyk. This is really the team of younger players like Travis Konecny, Sean Couturier and Ivan Provorov now. If those veterans again disappoint, it’s going to be tough with the minutes and roles that they play for Philly to make the playoffs.

6. New York Rangers

Key Additions: Alexis Lafreniere, Jack Johnson, Kevin Rooney

Key Losses: Henrik Lundqvist, Marc Staal, Jesper Fast

—The Rangers have $12.9 million of dead cap space in buyouts this season (plus they burned a 2021 second round pick to dump Staal). They’re a very inefficient team right now whose top left handed defensemen are Ryan Lindgren, Brendan Smith and Jack Johnson. They might play a RHD on the off-side to mitigate that, but that still might be an issue in and of itself. NYR is dangerous up front with Artemi Panarin, Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider to go along with youngsters like Lafreniere and Kaapo Kakko. It will also be interesting to see this team without their linchpin of Lundqvist, even if his role was downgraded last season. It seems like this team is destined to come out on the short-end of a lot of 5-4 or 4-3 games this year until they figure out the defense a bit more.

7. Buffalo Sabres

Key Additions: Taylor Hall, Eric Staal, Cody Eakin, Tobias Rieder, Matt Irwin

Key Losses: Marcus Johansson, Johan Larsson, Jimmy Vesey, Wayne Simmonds

—Buffalo should be much-improved with the additions of Hall and Staal. Eakin also adds some needed center depth. But the problem is they have a steep hill to climb, especially with the strengths of the other teams in this division that they’ve been added to for this year. Could this team surprise and even end up in the race for the No. 4 seed deep into the season? Absolutely. There probably won’t be a lot of distance between 3-7 in this division, no matter how it sorts out. For now though, barring a lot of the pieces gelling instantly and on the fly with such a short training camp, it seems like they have to be projected to the bottom end, even if they do have the potential to out-perform this spot.

8. New Jersey Devils

Key Additions: Corey Crawford, Ryan Murray, Andreas Johnsson, coach Lindy Ruff

Key Losses: Cory Schneider, Mirco Mueller, Kevin Rooney

—NJ has quietly made a couple of savvy additions. Crawford had a .917 save% in 40 games last season in Chicago. Murray was the No. 2 overall pick in 2012, and when he plays he is a valuable top-four option (availability has long been his issue, playing only 27 games last year and less than 57 games all of the last three seasons). Johnsson had a 20 goal season two years ago in Toronto before also missing some time last year, but is a sneaky nice add as a complimentary player. The Devils problem has just been pure talent. Last season Kyle Palmieri led them with 45 points in 65 games. Only three players (Palmieri, Nikita Gusev, Nico Hischier) scored more than 33 points last season. After trading Blake Coleman and Taylor Hall last year, this team just doesn’t have a ton of juice or talent, and that’s a big, big problem given that this is a season of only inter-division games and everyone on paper has a lot more talent and skill in the lineup.

The playoffs would be fun here with Bruins/Islanders and Penguins/Capitals in the first round, if this prediction comes true.

As we head into the next season, how do you see the Eastern division playing out?