Why the Flyers would thrive in the NHL’s toughest realigned division

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Nothing will ever be easy for Philadelphia sports. Depending on the franchise, it’s because a team made it hard on themselves (Eagles and Phillies,) or because of the competition they’re a part of (Sixers, Flyers, and Union.) In the 2020-2021 season, the Philadelphia Flyers will battle some of the stiffest competition that the NHL has to offer. While the Eastern division is still mostly the same, the Boston Bruins brings added pressure. Pressure can either make diamonds or burst pipes.

Recently, The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun proposed the NHL’s Eastern division to feature:

  • Boston Bruins
  • Buffalo Sabres
  • New Jersey Devils
  • New York Islanders
  • New York Rangers
  • Philadelphia Flyers
  • Pittsburgh Penguins
  • Washington Capitals

This design allows the Keystone Rivalry to continue between the Flyers and the Pittsburgh Penguins. Previously, the Penguins were not included in the Eastern division. Added to the division is not just the Bruins, but also the Buffalo Sabres. Missing from the usual suspects of divisional foes are the Carolina Hurricanes and Columbus Blue Jackets. For the upcoming season, teams will likely only play against divisional opponents to reduce the spread of the COVID19 pandemic.

Beast of the East

After comparing the Eastern division in 2020-2021 to the rest of the league, teams who finish in the middle of the pack may be about as talented as the leaders of the other divisions. The road to the 2021 Stanley Cup Finals could mean the champion will have to prove their skill against the East. Basing a prediction on the realignment offered by LeBrun, the best betting odds could correlate with an Eastern division team. Six of the eight teams in the East participated in the 2020 Stanley Cup playoffs.

Boston won the NHL’s President’s Trophy in 2019-2020. Already, the East houses the top team from 2019-2020. Both Philadelphia and the Washington Capitals were considered elite teams before the NHL’s pause due to COVID19. Then, the New York Islanders were a team that displayed just how great they were, making an Eastern Conference Finals appearance before losing to the eventual Stanley Cup champions. The Penguins had a strange season due to injury, admittedly not playing to their optimum potential.

More than half of the East could be considered elite at any point during the upcoming NHL season. They’ll bring the best hockey out of the two teams who missed the playoffs in 2019-2020.

Sabres and Devils

These two teams vastly improved during the 2020 offseason. The additions of proven free agents could provide a slight boost to the Buffalo Sabres and New Jersey Devils, but not enough to contend for a playoff spot. The competition within the East will likely keep the Devils and Sabres out of the postseason, but they’ll play up to their opponents. By 2021-2022, New Jersey and Buffalo will undoubtedly be a stronger team than they were because of the competition that molded them.

The Devils signed Corey Crawford, Dmitry Kulikov, extended five players on a two-way contract, and traded for Andreas Johnsson. Considering the new faces, that’s an improvement for the goaltending tandem with Mackenzie Blackwood, a suitable replacement for Sami Vatanen, and a good find after parting from Taylor Hall.

The Sabres signed Matt Irwin, Brandon Davidson, Tobias Rieder, Cody Eakin, Taylor Hall, and extended six crucial players. Of those newly signed free agents, Hall presents the most improvement. Buffalo focused on keeping the younger core players on their team while New Jersey found their upgrades mostly in free agency. It will be interesting to see which team performs better in the East during the upcoming season.

Flyers Prediction

I expect the Flyers to make another strong postseason push in 2020-2021. Regardless of how the NHL scheduling works, inter-divisional only or expanded league, Philadelphia is considered a regular-season favorite once again. While the Flyers did not have a busy offseason, they are still one of the premier teams in all of the NHL.

Against teams within the East in 2020-2021, Philadelphia’s record turned out to be impressive. In 2019-2020, the Flyers were 13-5-2 against their 2020-2021 divisional opponents. Four of those losses were against the Islanders, including an overtime loss. Against everyone else, Philadelphia was only defeated once by any other divisional opponent (the Bruins, the Penguins, and the Capitals in overtime.)

While the upcoming season presents challenges, the Flyers are a team built to handle adversity in a unique state of hockey. At the moment, I’ll target Philadelphia to finish in second place among this stacked division. A lot of my assessment depends on who the Islanders are in 2020-2021.

Photo Credit: Alex Mcintyre

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