Training camp has begun for rookies for plenty of National Hockey League franchises, including the New Jersey Devils. Veterans will report later this week. Preseason games will begin in a couple of weeks. Every team has their own questions that have to be answered in camp ahead of the 2021-22 season beginning in mid-October. Since the Devils’ division could be incredibly tight, whether or not the Devils succeed at being a better hockey team than they were last season could come down to how the other seven teams perform. No, the schedule will not be within the division but it is important to pay attention to what is going on with the two New York City teams, the two Pennsylvanian teams, Carolina, and Washington. To that end, this is a snapshot ahead of preseason for all eight teams. A general overview of what I think the main issue each team will have to figure out before Opening Night.
New Jersey Devils
The Main Issue: How Do You Put the Puzzle Pieces Together?
General Manager Tom Fitzgerald was aggressive in this offseason. Ryan Graves was brought in on a trade. The team signed Dougie Hamilton, Tomas Tatar, and Jonathan Bernier. A very young team in 2021 returns another season older. Fans can argue whether playoffs or being in a playoff bubble or just not finishing in 29th is the goal. But the main issue for this year’s traning camp will be figuring out who goes where in the lineup. This includes determining who is the fourth main center on the team, after Jack Hughes, Nico Hischier, and Michael McLeod. It determines who is playing with who in the lineup now. Tatar commands a top-six role; who moves for that? If Andreas Johnsson sorts his game out, he needs to play; so where does he slot in? Do the Devils intend to keep Hughes with Yegor Sharangovich and Janne Kuokkanen, or do they seek other options for more roster flexibility? With Nathan Bastian gone, who plays right wing on a fourth line? With Graves, Hamilton, and Christian Jaros, how are the pairings going to be set? Outside of goaltender, the main task for head coach Lindy Ruff and his staff is to figure out during this preseason how the skaters can be organized for a game. Sure, injuries will happen and poor performances will necessitate changes. But this is the time to figure out options; better to experiment when the games do not count opposed to when they do.
We will have much more to say about the upcoming season later in October. But, for me personally, I think that is the most significant issue of the Devils upcoming preseason.
The Main Issue: Can This Core be Rejuvenated?
The Washington Capitals have been a contender within the division for the last few seasons. If you have been following this league, this division, and/or this site, then you know who they are. Alex Ovechkin is their ace, Nicklas Backstrom is their other ace, John Carlson terrifyingly leads their blueline, Tom Wilson has the ability to do something remarkably dangerous on the ice and Capitals simps will defend him somehow, and the team has plenty of quality in their depth. Few will predict that 2021-22 will be their downfall.
However, Father Time is starting to at least knock on the door in D.C. ThePeerless wrote this post at Japers’ Rink about how 2021-22 is a “do over” season for the Capitals and throughout the text there is this sense that plenty of the Capitals’ players are starting to decline. That the proverbial window is closing. The Capitals did not change much of their roster, so the issue in camp will be whether they can find some kind of spark for immediate gains. Even if it only delays the inevitable decline, it could keep that window open a little bit, if only to ensure the postseason in what could be a very tight division. This could be from a prospect pushing his way onto the roster. This could be from some strong performances from veterans to suggest they have a lot more left in the tank. It could be from a tactical adjustment to make their defense stingier or draw more calls to get their frightening power play on the ice. If they stick to the status quo, then 2021-22 may a rougher season than expected.
For more on the Capitals this season, please visit Japers’ Rink.
The Main Issue: How are the Forwards Going to Handle Not Having Crosby or Malkin?
Similar to Washington, the Penguins have been defined by their aces leading their team to be consistently in the hunt for division titles and possibly deep playoff runs. You know their names well: Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang. Unlike Washington, Crosby and Malkin are unavailable. Crosby is out for six weeks after wrist surgery. He will at least come back early in the season, but he will miss some games. Malkin had knee surgery in June; it is unknown when he will be able to return. One of the reasons why the Penguins have been so successful over the last decade and a half has been their ability to find players to contribute with Crosby, Malkin, and Letang. Now, those players will be tested to do it without Crosby and Malkin for at least the start of the season.
Per this post by Hooks Orpik at PensBurgh, there are some notable names for Mike Sullivan and his staff to work with. Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust have had some choice 5-on-5 numbers and perhaps this will be their time to shine. Jason Zucker is swift and talented enough to hold his own in tougher matchups. Jeff Carter is the veteran presence who can still bag quite a few goals. Brock McGinn and Teddy Blueger are fine bottom-six forwards. In theory, they can hold it together until the stars return. But will they be able to do so? Will Sullivan adjust their playing style as Crosby and Malkin are unavailable? These are the matters to sort out in camp and preseason games. Essentially, who is going to step up and keep the team competitive until they return (not to mention losing any rust they may have)?
For more on the Penguins this season, please visit PensBurgh.
The Main Issue: Can They Show They are Contenders?
The Carolina Hurricanes were in the Central last season and won it over the eventual Stanley Cup winners in Tampa Bay and a now-really-good Florida team. A lot of things clicked for them in addition to their strong 5-on-5 play, which they have made their hallmark for the last five years plus. They then proceeded to have one of the more confusing offseasons I could think of. After getting good goaltending, primarily from young goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic, they traded him away, did not retain their veterans, and brought in the oft-injured Frederik Andersen and Antti Raanta. After having Dougie Hamilton and Jaccob Slavin lead their blueline, they lowballed Hamilton, who decided to go to New Jersey. And a bunch of that money that could have been used for Hamilton was instead used as part of an offer sheet for Jesperi Kotkaniemi - definitely a response to Montreal’s offer sheet for Sebastian Aho, right down to the $20 signing bonus (Aho wears #20. The Canes weren’t subtle). He can be quite good but $6+ million good? I do not know. Sure, they brought in some depth signings (Ethan Bear: good. Ian Cole: less good) and at least Andrei Svechnikov got a big raise. But these were the right moves to make for what could be an actual contender?
Now that the Canes are in a different division, the stakes are a bit different. The season will likely be a dog fight among Carolina, Washington, and Pittsburgh at a minimum. Training camp will be the first area where we can see whether they are legitimate contenders to win this division. On paper, they should. The team still has a talented blend of forwards from stars who are still young (Aho, Svechnkikov), future contributors (Necas, Kotkaniemi), and quality veterans (Trocheck, Niederreiter, Martinook, Staal). The blueline still has Slavin and Brett Pesce. The Canes should still be a strong team in 5-on-5; their issue has been with the other parts of the game: goaltending, special teams, shooting luck, etc. Last season, they were not a massive issue. So will their changes keep them from being one? Can they show they are primed to hit the ground running when the season begins? Again, we will get our first set of answers in camp.
For more on the Hurricanes this season, please visit Canes Country.
The Main Issue: Who Else Will the Blue Jackets Start Building Around?
The Columbus Blue Jackets appear to be rebuilding for 2021-22. Seth Jones is gone after a massive trade with Chicago. Nick Foligno and David Savard, two veterans of the team, were traded at least season’s deadline. Pierre-Luc DuBois was jettisoned to Winnipeg after four games last season. Head coach John Tortorella is out. At least a familiar face in Jakub Voracek returned in exchange for Cam Atkinson, another long-time Blue Jacket. Some have been retained for a longer term; Zach Werenski, Boone Jenner, and Oliver Bjorkstrand are all signed beyond the next four seasons. Obviously, the team will build around them. The main question is: Who else will be joining those three?
More change could be happening to Columbus in this season. This is the final season on the contracts of both of their goaltenders, Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins. Patrick Laine, who was the return in the DuBois trade, is in the final season of his current contract. Should he have another disappointing season, the Blue Jackets may opt to move on from the RFA. Max Domi could be a part of the future; but he is out for six months after surgery in June so he will miss a big part of this coming season. Given that he is a center, the Blue Jackets especially need to sort out who will play there. Logic would suggest Adam Boqvist will be a part of blueline’s future as he was one of the featured players in the deal for Seth Jones. He still needs to show that, though. There will be spots available in camp and the young players in the system will get their shot at them. Whether it is just for this season or beyond will be up to the players and management’s evaluation of those players. But the process begins with this training camp and preseason.
For more on the Blue Jackets this season, please visit The Cannon.
The Main Issue: Will the Islanders Stay Competitive Mostly As-is?
It has been a good time to be an Islanders fan. The team made two deep playoff runs in a row. Barry Trotz has proven he is one of the league’s best coaches. The roster is very much more than the sum of its parts, typified by their “Identity Line.” Owners Scott Malkin and Jon Ledecky have been excellent. Most of all, the Islanders are finally getting a new arena in Belmont on the Island. So how do you keep the good times going?
The answer seems to be: “Status quo - mostly.” There are some changes from last season’s roster. For cap reasons, the Islanders sent Nick Leddy to Detroit. They also sent Andrew Ladd to Arizona with a bunch of picks to make it happen. Jordan Eberle was selected by Seattle, and that is a significant loss at forward. However, extensions were given out to Adam Pelech (who led the blueline with Leddy), Anthony Beauvillier, Casey Cizikas (who wants to “die an Islander”), Ilya Sorokin, and Kyle Palmieri. The only notable new name is Zach Parise. No, not 2009 Zach Parise, but a mid-30s Zach Parise with lots of wear and tear on his body. I guess that may work for depth. And Anders Lee could be returning for camp. While there are more specific questions that could be asked such as who is playing on the left side of defense behind Pelech and how will the Isles get cap compliant to pay their entire defense next season, there is one larger question. But it all points to one larger question: Can the Isles still be a playoff team in this division? Can they still compete with mostly the same roster from last season minus Eberle and Leddy? Camp will give us a taste of what is to come.
For more on the Blue Jackets this season, please visit Lighthouse Hockey.
The Main Issue: Will the Goaltending Be At Least Halfway Decent?
I could be cute and note that this is an even-year season so the Flyers should be a playoff team. They have been alternating playoff appearances on-and-off since 2012. Last season was an underachievement given the talent on the roster. However, the biggest flaw has been the traditional issue with the Flyers for decades: the goaltender position. Last season saw all three goaltenders for the Flyers each post overall save percentages below 90%. The hope has been on 22-year old (now 23) Carter Hart and he posted an 87.7% save percentage in even strength and all situations. That would have been not good in 1981 (top ten ranged from 89.2% to 91.3% per Hockey-Reference), and it was abysmal in 2021. The other two goalies, Brian Elliott and Alex Lyon, were not much better - and both are gone from the organization. To fill the gap, the Flyers signed Martin Jones - who has not finished a season with an overall save percentage over 90% since 2017-18.
Sure, the Flyers made some other moves that warrant praise, such as bringing in Ryan Ellis, and criticism, such as bringing in Risto Ristolainen. Sure, the forwards should still be a source of strength with Claude Giroux and Sean Couturier. But it would take an all-star team of skaters to survive the horrible, terrible, absolutely no good, very bad goaltending performances the Flyers had last season. Had they had NHL average goaltending, the Flyers could have snuck in and took a playoff spot. Did Flyers management go out and get NHL average goaltending? No. They replaced Elliott and Lyon with one of the worst performing goaltenders in the league for the last three seasons in Jones. If the Flyers are going to bounce back into a playoff position for 2021-22 to keep the alternating streak going, then they need Hart and Jones to be play a whole lot better than they have been. A team does not need top-ten goaltending to succeed, but they are not going get a lot of wins if the goalies are getting beaten way more than the rest of the league. That is their #1 issue in my view. Camp will show whether Hart and/or Jones will perform that much better.
For more on the Flyers this season, please visit Broad Street Hockey.
The Main Issue: Will the Rangers Take a Step Back This Season?
In the wake of Tom Wilson flexing on the Rangers and the envy of the Islanders’ apparent “identity,” James Dolan fired President John Davidson and GM Jeff Gorton - who were both managing a rebuilding Rangers team that showed signs of competing sooner rather than later. After all, Adam Fox won the Norris, goaltender Igor Shesterkin showed he was as good as advertised, and Artemi Panarin produced at an incredible rate. Then again, with all of that, they still missed the playoffs. As the kids would say, that’s pretty “mid.” Either way, the man with the power said he wanted changes and after assistant GM Chris Drury was bumped up to replace Gorton, he got them.
Whether they were good changes remain to be seen. Pavel Buchnevich was shipped off to St. Louis for fourth-liner Sammy Blais. A very questionable move by Drury to put it nicely. Character forward from Tampa Bay, Barclay Goodrow, had his rights acquired and received a head-scratching six-season contract. A 2022 third round pick was sent to Las Vegas to bring in 34-year old Ryan Reeves, who signed an extension shortly after his acquisition. Signings included Jarred Tinordi and Patrick Nemeth. The Rangers added a beef, grit, toughness, and other things that some fans love that do not necessarily translate to actually winning hockey games. Recall that the Rangers.The one move that might may be behind the bench in Gerard Gallant. Gallant has a track record of making teams successful. Why he has not been retained somewhere for a long time is another question. But the main issue will be whether Gallant can get enough out of the players, particularly the incoming players who can be mean, to be competitive. Maybe he helps Kaapo Kakko, Vitali Kravtsov, and Alexis Lafreniere to improve so much as to overcome the shortcomings of the other moves. Still, on paper, the Rangers are primed to take steps back. This preseason will show whether that is true or not.
For more on the Rangers this season, please visit Blueshirt Banter.