2021-22 Season Preview: Part 4

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This is part four of our team preview series, which we're releasing every Tuesday and Friday. You can view Part 1 here, Part 2 here, and Part 3 here.

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NEW JERSEY DEVILS

2020-21 Record: 19-30-7, 45 Points.

Result: Seventh in East. Did not make playoffs.

Significant Gains: Tomas Tatar, Dougie Hamilton, Jonathan Bernier, Ryan Graves

Significant Losses: Will Butcher

Strengths: Picking strengths and weaknesses for the Devils is tricky because for all the big upgrades they made, the team will still succeed or fail on the backs of their young core, which is brimming with potential, but still largely unproven. For example, if you add Tomas Tatar on top of Pavel Zacha, Jack Hughes, Yegor Sharangovich, Jesper Bratt, Janne Kuokkanen, and Nico Hischier, you have a group that could make up three strong scoring lines. After Tatar, Zacha is the oldest among that core at just 24-years-old, so if that group develops as hoped, New Jersey could have one of the best offenses in the league as early as this season. The problem is this is largely the same group that resulted in the Devils scoring just 2.59 goals per game last season, which put them in 26th place offensively. Tatar does add a proven element to their top six and having Hamilton supporting their offensive efforts from the blueline should also boost them, even with those additions, the Devils’ offense will only transform from a weakness to a strength if their young forwards make strides in their development. The good news for the Devils is there’s reasons to believe exactly that will happen and they’ll ultimately be a strong team up front this season.

Weaknesses: Similarly, their goaltending is a big question mark. As is the case with their forwards, the Devils have a promising young netminder in Mackenzie Blackwood. He looked good in his first two campaigns, but struggled last season with a 14-17-4 record, 3.04 GAA, and .902 save percentage in 35 starts. The Devils have taken some of the pressure off him by signing Jonathan Bernier, who performed admirably behind the dreadful Detroit Red Wings. Bernier could help be a stabilizing force in net, but they Blackwood to bounce back. If he doesn’t then the Devils are in for plenty of frustrating losses.

Player To Watch: You can basically pick a name out of a hat for the Devils and arrive on a player who is worthy of this category, but I’m going to highlight Jack Hughes. He was taken with the first overall pick in 2019, but with the benefit of hindsight, he might have been brought into the NHL too quickly. He struggled in his first season, scoring seven goals and 21 points in 61 contests. He did do better last season with 11 goals and 31 points in 56 games, but he still has a ton of untapped upside. With two NHL seasons under his belt now, this could be a breakout season for him.

NEW YORK ISLANDERS

2020-21 Record: 32-17-7 record, 71 Points.

Result: Fourth in East. Lost 4-3 to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the semifinals.

Significant Gains: Richard Panik

Significant Losses: Nick Leddy, Jordan Eberle

Important Note: We’ll start with an asterisk when talking about the Islanders: It’s believed that they have unofficially signed UFAs Kyle Palmieri, Zach Parise, Travis Zajac, and Casey Cizikas, but none of that has been announced. Islanders GM Lou Lamoriello has been holding his cards close to his chest, possibly so that rival general managers don’t know how much cap space he has to discourage potential offer sheets on RFAs Anthony Beauvillier and Ilya Sorokin. There’s also been rumors that Lamoriello is attempting to make a big trade, possibly for Vladimir Tarasenko, which might also be why those signings have gone unannounced. So the team we’re previewing right now could be meaningfully different than the actual Islanders’ team. However, I can only evaluate the Islanders based on what they are today, not what they might be tomorrow. So the unconfirmed signings won’t be factored in, though I am going to assume that they ultimately agree to terms with their RFAs.

Strengths: The Islanders featured one of the best goaltending duos in the league last season with Semyon Varlamov and Ilya Sorokin. Varlamov finished fifth in Vezina Trophy voting with a 19-11-4 record, 2.04 GAA, and .929 save percentage in 36 games while Sorokin had a strong rookie campaign with a 13-6-3 record, 2.17 GAA, and .918 save percentage in 22 contests. There’s every reason to believe those two will be similarly effective this season. The Islanders still feature a strong defense, which should make their lives easier and it’s important to note that while Sorokin was a rookie in 2020-21, he’s 26-years-old after dominating the KHL for years, so he’s less of a gamble than other sophomore players.

Weaknesses: The Islanders’ basic strategy in recent years has been to win on the strength of their defense and goaltending. That’s paid off nicely, resulting in them getting to the Conference Finals (or semifinals as they were called in 2021) in back-to-back years. However, you still need at least a token level of offense to win games. In 2020-21 they scraped by with 2.71 goals per game, which put them in 21st place offensively, but now they’ll be moving forward without Jordan Eberle and offensive defenseman Nick Leddy. On the one hand getting Anders Lee, who was limited to 27 games last season due to injury, will help, but on the other hand injuries are part of the game and if your team is relying on the idea that all of your main forwards will stay relatively healthy, then you’re skating on thin ice. Is the Islanders’ offense bad enough that their strong goaltending and defense can’t save it? Not necessarily, but as they’re set up today, they’re pushing that limit. As noted at the start of the Islanders’ review though, Lamoriello might address this weakness at least to some extent before the season starts.

Player To Watch: Ilya Sorokin already showed he can play a great game at the NHL level, but it will be interesting to see how he does now that he has fully transitioned to North American hockey. As noted above, he’s 26-years-old and has a ton of KHL experience in addition to his season in the NHL, so he’s not really a prospect despite just entering his sophomore season, but last season he was used primarily as the Islanders’ backup, becoming more of a 1B as the season went on and it will be interesting to see if he is able to establish himself as the team’s outright starter this season. The biggest roadblock is Semyon Varlamov, who is an outstanding goaltender in his own right. That might keep the Islanders strictly in a 1A/1B situation throughout the season. From a fantasy perspective it hurts both goaltenders value by having each of them play less than they’re capable of, but it’s a good problem for the Islanders to have. Either way, it’s going to be interesting to see how the goaltending situation develops and how Sorokin performs in particular.

NEW YORK RANGERS

2020-21 Record: 27-23-6, 60 Points.

Result: Fifth in East. Did not make playoffs.

Significant Gains: Patrik Nemeth, Barclay Goodrow

Significant Losses: Tony DeAngelo, Pavel Buchnevich

Strengths: Led by a veteran core of Artemi Panarin, Mika Zibanejad, Pavel Buchnevich, and Ryan Strome, the Rangers scored 3.14 goals per game last season, which was good for 10th place. While trading Buchnevich does shake up that core a bit, with the likes of Alexis Lafreniere, Kaapo Kakko, and Vitali Kravtsov all candidates to take a step forward this season, the Rangers might still be even better offensively than they were last season. They’re certainly a more physical team. The Rangers clearly prioritized grit this summer, adding two-way forward Barclay Goodrow as well as enforcer Ryan Reaves. If the Rangers’ skilled forwards get pushed around this season, they’ll have some players who can respond.

Weaknesses: The Rangers aren’t a perfect team, but they don’t have any glaring weaknesses, so I’m going to highlight something a little less conventional here: The Rangers’ looming potential cap issues. Mika Zibanejad and Ryan Strome are set to become UFAs in the summer of 2022 while Vitali Kravtsov, Kaapo Kakko, and Adam Fox will become RFAs. Then in the summer of 2023 K'Andre Miller, Filip Chytil, and Alexis Lafreniere will be RFAs. It’s going to be tough to keep this team together and even if they do manage to re-sign all those players, the raises they get could significantly reduce their depth.

Player To Watch: While Jack Hughes took a step forward last season, Kaapo Kakko continued to struggle in 2020-21 with nine goals and 17 points in 48 contests. Kakko was taken with the second overall pick in 2019 behind only Hughes. When New Jersey and the Rangers got the first and second overall picks in the 2019, it was thought that it would only heighten their rivalry, but so far Hughes and Kakko haven’t taken leading roles with their respective teams. That said, they’re still young and could take big steps forward this season. Kakko in particular has a lot to prove after starting his career with two underwhelming campaigns.