We take a look at the Eastern Conference for the 2021-22 NHL season and look at reasons to believe in each team, not believe in each team, and look at whether or not they are going to be a playoff team this season. To keep up with all the NHL action this season, subscribe to ESPN+.
Reason to believe in the Bruins: They still have the best top line in hockey with Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak, and Brad Marchand leading the way, and have the potential for a great second line with Taylor Hall and Craig Smith. They are an older team, they do not have a great farm system, but they still have six or seven really high-end players that are going to carry them. Charlie McAvoy is also going to be a consistent Norris Trophy contender for years.
Reason to not believe in the Bruins: Unless Tuukka Rask returns I am not sure how much confidence you should have in Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman. It is not that it is a bad duo. It is just a question mark. David Krejci's absence is going to be significant on the second line if Charlie Coyle or Jason Studnicka do not step forward to fill that spot.
Playoff team: Yes. Fringe Stanley Cup contender.
Reason to believe in the Sabres: There are not many reasons for optimism here. At all. Rasmus Dahlin might finally break out, and Owen Power is offering some hope in the future. Other than that, this is a dismal situation that is going to result in a 10th consecutive season outside of the playoffs.
Reason to not believe in the Sabres: The roster is lousy. Sam Reinhart has already been traded, Jack Eichel will soon be traded for pennies on the dollar, and the franchise is heading for another rebuild to try and fix the most recent rebuild that flopped (which is an effort to fix the rebuild that flopped before that).
Playoff team: No. They might be picking No. 1 overall again. Or at least have the best lottery odds for it.
Reason to believe in the Hurricanes: Just a ton of talent here at forward and defense. Andrei Svechnikov is ready to break out, Sebastian Aho is a star, Teuvo Teravainen is an underrated monster, and even without Dougie Hamilton they still have an excellent defense. They are a legitimate Stanley Cup contender and might be the best team in the best division.
Reason to not believe in the Hurricanes: While the defense is still outstanding, losing Hamilton IS a big loss, and their goalie situation is a bit of a question mark. Antti Raanta and Frederik Andersen have the ability to be a really good duo, but their age and recent injury history are a concern.
Playoff team: Yes. Top-tier Stanley Cup contender.
Reason to believe in the Blue Jackets: Goaltending is the ultimate X-factor in hockey, and Columbus thinks it has a pretty good one in Elvis Merzlikins. And they might be right. He has the potential to keep them competitive on most nights. They also have Patrik Laine who desperately needs a bounce-back year. If he does (and the ability and track record is certainly there) he could give the Blue Jackets an elite goal scorer to change some games.
Reason to not believe in the Blue Jackets: The rest of the roster just is not that good and has a lot of weaknesses and question marks. They also play in a brutal division that has at least six potential playoff teams. At least one good team here is going to miss the playoffs. Maybe two of them.
Playoff team: No. If they avoid last place it should be a positive year.
Reason to believe in the Red Wings: Moritz Seider brings some huge potential on defense, and if Alex Nedeljkovic can repeat his 2020-21 performance in Carolina they might have the goalie position set for the foreseeable future. They are not ready to compete yet, but if you squint you can see some progress here.
Reason to not believe in the Red Wings: Just a very thin roster without many impact players. Jakub Vrana could have been one, but he is going to miss most of the season due to injury which is a disappointment for everybody. He might have scored 35 goals with his top-line opportunity here.
Playoff team: No. Not with this roster quite yet, and certainly not in this division with this competition around them.
Reason to believe in the Panthers: The 2020-21 season was the best in franchise history, and they spent the offseason adding Sam Reinhart and Joe Thornton to that roster. Aleksander Barkov is a bonafide star, Jonathan Huberdeau is an elite offensive player, and they have a really strong supporting cast around them. This team is for real.
Reason to not believe in the Panthers: Sergei Bobrovsky has not been the goalie they expected him to be, and they might need Spencer Knight -- a rookie, but probably the top goalie prospect in hockey -- to emerge before they can take the next step.
Playoff team: Yes, but maybe a Wild Card team in a tough division. If they do make the playoffs it will be just the second time in franchise history they have made the playoffs in back-to-back years.
Reason to believe in the Canadiens: Cole Caufield and Nick Suzuki are young stars, and if they go off and become impact players that will help. A lot.
Reason to not believe in the Canadiens: They lost a lot. Phillip Danault is in Los Angeles, Tomas Tatar is in New Jersey, Jesperi Kotkaniemi is in Carolina, Shea Weber is done for the season, and Carey Price is taking a personal leave of absence from the team and it is not yet known when he will make his season debut. Those are some key contributors to that magical Stanley Cup Final run. In many cases the biggest contributors. Plus they are out of the all-Canadian North Division and back in with a bunch of Stanley Cup contenders in Tampa Bay, Boston, Toronto, and Florida. Tough break.
Playoff team: No. It just does not seem likely with the roster as it is and the division they are back in this season.
Reason to believe in the Devils: Jack Hughes is going to be a superstar and they made some great offseason additions in Dougie Hamilton, Tomas Tatar, and Jonathan Bernier. There is some good, young talent here with some strong veteran additions.
Reason to not believe in the Devils: Depth is still a bit of a question mark and they have to leapfrog at least a couple of the Islanders, Penguins, Capitals, Rangers, and Flyers. That is not going to be easy.
Playoff team: Not likely, but definitely a better team that will not be easy to play against.
Reason to believe in the Islanders: They have two No. 1 caliber goalies in Semyon Varlamov and Ilya Sorokin, an elite defense pairing in Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock, a great coach, and a forward group that does not have many weaknesses, even if it lacks impact players beyond Mathew Barzal. They have been in the Eastern Conference Final two years in a row.
Reason to not believe in the Islanders: Would like to see somebody else other than Barzal be able to step forward and make an impact. Losing Jordan Eberle hurts. They can sometimes be prone to long stretches in the regular season where they do not win many games, and they will not have much margin for error in this division.
Playoff team: Yes, and one that will probably beat a "more talented" team or two on their way to another deep playoff run. Maybe even a Stanley Cup Final appearance.
Reason to believe in the Rangers: Artemi Panarin is a legitimate MVP candidate, Adam Fox is a literal Norris Trophy winner, and they are oozing with talented high draft picks that have superstar potential. They also have an outstanding young goaltending duo with Igor Shesterkin and Alexandar Georgiev. If everything clicks together at the right time the sky is the limit here for this team.
Reason to not believe in the Rangers: Ownership is a little nuts and made wholesale changes, increasing the pressure. They also might have fallen victim to the same trap some other Metropolitan Division teams have fallen into and let Tom Wilson dictate how they build their roster. Never do that. They also actually need those high draft picks and top prospects to pan out and become star players.
Playoff team: Maybe. They need some things to go right. But they are one of six teams in the Metropolitan Division that could finish anywhere between first and sixth place and it would not be much of a surprise.
Reason to believe in the Senators: There is a lot of young talent here, especially when they get Brady Tkachuk signed. They could make this work long-term if ownership makes the right investments.
Reason to not believe in the Senators: Why would you trust this ownership group? They can not even get Tkachuk, their best player and franchise building block, signed on time for the start of the 2021-22 season.
Playoff team: No. The roster is not yet good enough and the division is brutal.
Reason to believe in the Flyers: This is not a bad roster by any means. There is a lot of talent here and they made some great pickups this offseason by adding Cam Atkinson, Ryan Ellis, and Keith Yandle. Rasmus Ristolainen does not make much sense, but it does fit the Flyers team-building operation by being a wildly bold and potentially reckless move that grabs headlines. Even so, there is a lot of talent here that can win.
Reason to not believe in the Flyers: It seems like the entire season is riding on the shoulders of Carter Hart. If he is good and plays like he did his first two years in the NHL they will be a playoff team, maybe even a very good playoff team. If he does not, they will probably be a disappointment and go back to looking for another franchise goalie to finally fix that position.
Playoff team: Maybe. Let us see how Carter Hart plays.
Reason to believe in the Penguins: When healthy, they still have Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, and Jake Guentzel. Some of them might be getting older and declining, but they can still be impact players. Do not bet against those guys. Jeff Carter, Bryan Rust, Kasperi Kapanen, and Brian Dumoulin are also strong complementary players to that core.
Reason to not believe in the Penguins: They lost some forward depth and did not really do a great job replacing it, and they still have the gigantic question of whether or not Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith are good enough goaltenders to help them compete for a Stanley Cup. Goaltending completely changed their playoff series against the New York Islanders.
Playoff team: Probably. This will be the year a lot of people pick them to miss the playoffs, and they might ultimately be correct, but this core and this coaching staff led by Mike Sullivan are not going to be counted out easily.
Reason to believe in the Lighting: They have been the NHL's best team for seven years now and won back-to-back Stanley Cups. They have superstars at every level of the roster, including the best goalie in the league (Andrei Vasilevskiy) playing behind a forward and defense group of All-Stars. It is almost unfair.
Reason to not believe in the Lightning: They did lose four very important complementary pieces this offseason as Tyler Johnson, Blake Coleman, Barclay Goodrow, and Yanni Gourde all exited in trades, free agency or the expansion draft. Eventually, the salary cap gets you. The latter three players (Coleman, Goodrow, and Gourde) formed one of the NHL's best, most dominant, and most effective lines the past two years and played a key role in their two Stanley Cup wins. They need their internal pipeline of talent through the farm system to help replace them.
Playoff team: Yes. Maybe the NHL's first three-peat since the early 1980s New York Islanders dynasty.
Reason to believe in the Maple Leafs: They still have a great core of talent with Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, John Tavares, and Morgan Rielly at the top of the lineup. For all of the criticism and flaws, this is a good hockey team. It is also a very exciting hockey team. It should be a Stanley Cup contending hockey team.
Reason to not believe in the Maple Leafs. The current roster at the start of the season is probably a little bit worse than the roster that was not good enough to win a playoff round a year ago, losing its fifth consecutive First Round series. So why should things be different this season? They are also counting on Jack Campbell to repeat his 2020-21 performance in goal, which might be asking a lot.
Playoff team: Yes. But nobody cares if this team makes the playoffs. The only reason people will care is if they actually win a playoff series and do something when they get to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Until then, it is just a team that finishes in third place and can not get out of the First Round.
Reason to believe in the Capitals: They have been a constant in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for a decade and a half now. They still have Alex Ovechkin. They still have a great core of veteran talent. Also, Anthony Mantha is going to have a monster season on this team.
Reason to not believe in the Capitals: Nicklas Backstrom's hip is a concern, and they need big bounce-back seasons from Evgeny Kuznetsov and especially starting goaltender Ilya Samsonov. Those three things could really impact how this season goes for the Capitals. They are also one of the oldest teams in the NHL with their forwards and defense both averaging more than 30 years of age.
Playoff team: Probably. Very similar to the Penguins in that a lot of people will probably expect this to be the season they miss the playoffs. Also very similar to the Penguins in that they still have a ton of talent you probably should not bet against.