The same teams have dominated the Eastern Conference in the NHL for the better part of a decade. In all fairness, the Tampa Bay Lightning have dominated the entire league in recent history by winning the past two Stanley Cups, but they are far from the conference’s only powerhouse. The Washington Capitals won the cup in 2018 (who could forget that summer-long party), and the Pittsburgh Penguins won the previous two championships before them. The Toronto Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins have consistently fielded strong teams year after year as well.
In the salary cap world that is today’s National Hockey League, long-term success is more complicated than ever. To be a successful team, you need good players, and the more success a team has, naturally, those players will want to be paid accordingly. The best recent example of this is the Chicago Blackhawks. The Blackhawks were the team of the 2010s, but as time went on, they became victims of “salary cap hell,” and they now find themselves in the midst of a rebuild.
In today’s Eastern Conference, the aforementioned Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals are probably the closest to slipping from powerhouses to also-rans. Both teams have aging superstars in the twilight of their careers and very little cap space to replace them. Couple this with the fact that both teams are considered to have prospect pools in the bottom half of the league, and it appears that both franchises could be headed for a rebuild sooner rather than later.
The Bruins could join the Penguins and Capitals in the dreaded rebuild if/when the play of Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand drops off, but having young superstars like David Pastrnak and Charlie McAvoy could undoubtedly help bridge the gap to the next generation. Who they pick as their next coach could go a long way in determining how well the transition to the next generation goes (read about the firing of former coach Bruce Cassidy here: Breaking News: Bruins Head Coach Bruce Cassidy Fired).
Although some of the traditional powers are heading for turbulent times, other current mainstays at the top of the conference are not going anywhere soon. The Florida Panthers, NY Rangers, Toronto Maple Leafs, and Carolina Hurricanes are loaded with talent that is in their prime or will be within a few years. Even the Tampa Bay Lightning, who have played more hockey than anyone over the past few seasons, have enough of their stars in their prime and under contract to remain a factor for a few more seasons.
What about the teams in the Eastern Conference that haven’t been basking in glory in recent years? The top eight spots in the east were pretty much decided by Valentine’s Day this season, but that should not be the case starting next season as three teams will begin their rise as contenders for one of the eight available playoff spots. Those three teams are:
The Detroit Red Wings
2021-22 record: 32-40-10, 74 points, 12th overall in the Eastern Conference.
The 2021-22 Detroit Red Wings finished twenty-six points out of a playoff spot, but Motown has plenty to be optimistic about. General Manager Steve Yzerman returned to Detroit in April of 2019 after building the dynasty the Tampa Bay Lightning and their fans are currently enjoying. He immediately turned heads when he drafted defenseman Moritz Seider with the sixth overall pick in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft when many scouts and analysts had Seider pegged as a mid to lower first-round pick. Yzerman proved the critics wrong as Seider finished as a finalist in the Calder Trophy voting this season and is a solid piece to build the Detroit defense around for many years to come.
In keeping with his reputation as one of the more competent GMs in the league, Yzerman has also made some very shrewd trades for the Red Wings. He acquired young goal scorer Jakub Varana from the Capitals, goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic from the Hurricanes, and Robby Fabbri from the St. Louis Blues to go with homegrown talents like Todd Bertuzzi, Lucas Raymond, and budding superstar Dylan Larkin. These players are under twenty-eight years of age, to make matters even better. The Wings also have the eighth overall pick in this year’s draft, allowing them to add to an already impressive talent pool that includes defenseman Simon Edvinsson, goaltender Sebastian Cossa, and forwards Jonatan Berggren and Joe Veleno among others.
If Yzerman chooses to push for a playoff spot this season, he will have plenty of salary-cap space available to further improve the team. The Red Wings currently have over $35 million available with eight roster spots to fill and no major contracts that need to be re-signed. One thing that is for sure is there will be a new coach behind the bench for Detroit next season as Jeff Blashill has been relieved of his duties – of course, whoever the new coach is will not count against the salary cap.
Exciting times are just on the horizon for hockey fans in Motor City.
The New Jersey Devils
2021-22 record: 27-46-9, 63 points, 14th overall in the Eastern Conference.
The New Jersey Devils were one of the most snake-bitten teams in the NHL this season. Injuries to goaltenders Mackenzie Blackwood and Jonathan Bernier, along with defenseman Dougie Hamilton as well as forwards Miles Wood, Jack Hughes, and Nico Hischier, derailed what was supposed to have been a season where the Devils took a step forward back toward playoff contention. That’s the bad news.
The good news is that New Jersey has proven to have a solid young nucleus of talent that took major steps forward in their development. Before his season-ending injury in April, former number one overall pick Jack Hughes was having the type of season that matched the hype he came into the league with. Another number one overall pick by the Devils, Nico Hischier, was given the captaincy at the start of the season and proved that despite being only twenty-three years old he is ready to lead this franchise for years to come. Forward Jesper Bratt, also twenty-three years old, had a breakout season – posting twenty-six goals and forty-seven assists for seventy-three points. 202o first-round pick (one of three the Devils had that year) Dawson Mercer also had a solid rookie campaign in New Jersey.
The talent the Devils have “down on the farm” is also the envy of many teams in the league. 2020 first-round pick Alexander Holtz spent most of his rookie season with the Utica Comets of the American Hockey League and was every bit as good as advertised. There, he scored twenty-six goals in only fifty-two games and showed an upward trajectory in his defensive abilities as well. Comets coach Kevin Dineen also saw Fabian Zetterlund, Reilly Walsh, Nikita Okhotiuk, and Kevin Bahl take significant steps in their development, with Nolan Foote, Tyce Thompson, and Graeme Clarke showing they can become legitimate NHL players as well.
Jack Hughes’s brother, Luke, was selected by the team in the first round of the 2021 Entry Draft and is projected by many to become a first-pair NHL defenseman. It appears he will play one more season at the University of Michigan and then join either the Comets or Devils after the Wolverine season is over. As if this weren’t enough, the New Jersey Devils also possess the number two overall pick in the 2022 Entry Draft.
The Devils are heading into the offseason with over $25 million in salary-cap space available. Although Bratt, Wood, and Jesper Boqvist all need new contracts, New Jersey is expected to be a major player in the offseason. Whether it is via trade for Minnesota’s Kevin Fiala or unrestricted free agents like Filip Forsberg and Johnny Gaudreau, the Devils will be looking to improve their roster and have the cap space and prospects to make it happen. Good times should be returning to the Prudential Center very soon.
The Buffalo Sabres
2021-22 record: 32-39-11, 75 points, 11th overall in the Eastern Conference.
It has not been easy or fun for the Buffalo Sabres and their fans for the past few seasons. One of the most passionate fanbases in all of hockey saw their team fall not only into the cellar of the Eastern Conference but the entire National Hockey League. Stars like Sam Reinhart and Jack Eichel forced their way out of town, and the unthinkable began to happen – the Sabres found themselves playing before a half-filled KeyBank Center night after night, and the crowds that were there seemed to expect the team to lose.
They say it is darkest before dawn, and although it may not seem like it, some positives came from this past season. Management wisely expunged themselves of both Reinhart and Eichel and was able to get handsome returns for both. They also stuck with coach Don Granato, who had taken over for Ralph Krueger during the 2020-21 season. The players seem to like playing for Granato and have bought into his philosophy by all accounts. They missed the playoffs by a twenty-five-point margin, but they showed improvement this season, and most nights, they were a tough team to play against.
It’s only going to get better for the Sabres. On the blue line, former number one overall pick Rasmus Dahlin had his best season offensively – registering fifty-three points in eighty games. 2021 number one overall pick Owen Power arrived in Buffalo at the end of the season after finishing his collegiate career at the University of Michigan. His eight games with the Sabres showed the exciting style of play the team expected to get from him.
The forward group is where the strength of the Sabres lies. Alex Tuch, acquired in the Eichel trade, has made it clear he wants to play in Buffalo and very much so appears to be captain material. Tage Thompson had a major breakout season in 2021-22, scoring a career-best thirty-eight goals. Youngsters Dylan Cozens and Casey Mittelstadt took the next steps in their development, and veterans Kyle Okposo and Jeff Skinner had better than expected seasons.
More help is on the way too. Jack Quinn, JJ Peterka, and Peyton Krebs (also acquired in the Eichel trade) had outstanding seasons for the team AHL affiliate, the Rochester Americans. All three are expected to compete for spots on the NHL roster when training camp for the 2022-23 season opens.
The Sabres have over $41 million in cap space available this offseason. They have only twelve players on the current roster under contract and undoubtedly need to shore up their goaltending, but they have their core players all under contract through next season. The opportunity is there for the Sabres to make some significant upgrades this summer to go with the impressive young talent they already have. If they do not make the playoffs in 2022-23, they should at least be in the hunt for most of the season, which will serve them very well as they emerge from their rebuild. Hang on, Buffalo; better days are coming.