In less than 24 hours, the 2021-22 NHL season will officially be underway.
It’s a reset for the NHL this time around. If everything goes according to plan, each team will play 82 games for the first time in three years. The divisions are back to their pre-pandemic alignment, with the only exception being the Arizona Coyotes moving to the Central to make room for the expansion Seattle Kraken in the Pacific. Every division looks like there will be battles throughout the season, ranging from the division crown to the final playoff spots.
One of the more interesting storylines, however, is the history that the Tampa Bay Lightning have the possibility to make. The last time an NHL squad celebrated a third consecutive cup win, the 1982 New York Islanders were hoisting the Cup for the third of four consecutive times. Their road to history, however, will not get easy. Their division is stacked at the top. Their conference rivals are either tough outs in the playoffs or teams looking for one last shot at glory. The other side of the bracket has two legitimate superpowers and a cluster of hungry squads looking to make their mark. As a wise man once said, it’s lonely at the top.
So where do the teams match up before the puck touches the ice?
1. Tampa Bay Lightning: The bottom six went through a serious overhaul due to cap constraints, but this roster is still loaded with star power. If health is permitting, they’ll be serious contenders for the Atlantic Division crown, the Presidents’ Trophy, and beyond.
2. Colorado Avalanche: They have the deepest roster in the NHL from a talent perspective, but patience could falter if they’re unable to make it past the second round. How the Avs transition from Philipp Grubauer to Darcy Kuemper in net will ultimately decide their fate.
3. New York Islanders: The Islanders have to be the most well-structured team in the NHL, with defense, goaltending, and coaching all being at elite levels or close to them. If they can score consistently and force the Eastern Conference playoff to run through their new stadium, the Isles could break through as a serious Cup contender.
4. Vegas Golden Knights: There’s a couple major questions surrounding the Knights, mostly centering around the forceful transition from Marc-Andre Fleury to Robin Lehner and if they did enough to fix the problems that ended their playoff run last season. They still have more than enough talent to stay competitive, however, and the Pacific Division still looks a year or two away from being on Vegas’s level.
5. Florida Panthers: The core from the best Panthers squad in this century remains intact, with the addition of Sam Reinhart and a healthy Aaron Ekblad hopefully pushing them over the top. The real X-factor here is in goaltending; if Sergei Bobrovsky regains his form or Spencer Knight enjoys a Calder-worthy season, this is a team that could do more than just win their first playoff series in 25 years.
6. Boston Bruins: The Bruins had a really good offseason, but the losses of David Krejci and Tuukka Rask indicate that a changing of the guard is still looming. Rask can likely be offset by a strong duo of Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman, but how will the transition from Krejci to Charlie Coyle on the second line affect their scoring depth?
7. Carolina Hurricanes: They still have the pieces to be a quality team, but losing Dougie Hamilton and undergoing an unnecessary overhaul of their goaltending has me somewhat concerned. If Rod Brind’Amour can work his magic again and pull this team into Cup contention, that will be an incredible accomplishment.
8. Toronto Maple Leafs: They have the talent to do some real damage, but it’s always been a question whether this team can finally shed the choker label that’s haunted them for the last decade and a half. If they fall short once again, do the Leafs remain as patient as they were this offseason?
9. Winnipeg Jets: The Jets have always had the offense and the goaltending to carry them far in the playoffs, but a lack of defensive depth has done them in the last few years. Adding Brenden Dillon and Nate Schmidt to pair with an emerging crop of young defenders could work wonders for Winnipeg, especially in the cutthroat Central.
10. Washington Capitals: Nicklas Backstrom’s injury poses a small problem for the Capitals, but Alex Ovechkin and crew should still put up a lot of goals. If Evgeny Kuznetsov and Ilya Samsonov can get back on the right track after a season filled with distractions, they have the firepower to make one more spirited Cup run.
11. Edmonton Oilers: Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl will still likely be pushing the Oilers to some kind of relevance, but did they truly get better? 38-year-old Duncan Keith and Cody Ceci don’t really move the needle for me on defense, and trusting goaltending to 40-year-old Mike Smith is an extremely risky proposition.
12. Minnesota Wild: Kirill Kaprizov has almost single-handedly turned the Wild from one of the more boring squads in the NHL to a legitimately exciting team, and he was awarded the big bucks for it. The question is now what Kaprizov has in store for an encore, as well as if the center depth and defense can hold up to keep the Wild competitive in a stacked division.
13. St. Louis Blues: Replacing Mike Hoffman and Jaden Schwartz with Pavel Buchnevich and Brandon Saad were savvy moves by Doug Armstrong, and having a healthy Vladimir Tarasenko back can only help their scoring depth. They’re a re-emergence from Jordan Binnington and a return to form from their defense away from being competitive, and they do have Scott Perunovich waiting in the wings to help with the latter.
14. Pittsburgh Penguins: Betting against a core featuring Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang feels like a fool’s errand, but there’s viable reason for it this time around. Crosby and Malkin will miss significant time to start the season, and Tristan Jarry has to rebound after a disastrous postseason. If they can weather the early storm, they’ll be ok.
15. New York Rangers: The Rangers are pushing for the playoffs this season, adding grit to pair with their elite skill players and a coach in Gerard Gallant that knows how to maximize the talent under his direction. If that translates to the positive development of players like Alexis Lafreniere, Kaapo Kakko, and Vitali Kravtsov, the postseason could return to Broadway for the first time since 2017.
16. Vancouver Canucks: The Canucks dodged a serious bullet by getting Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes under contracts, and the collection of scoring talent and Thatcher Demko in net looks like enough to consider Vancouver for the playoffs. Their kryptonite, however, will be a defense that may concede a lot of scoring opportunities, and Oliver Ekman-Larsson won’t fix that at this stage of his career.
17. Philadelphia Flyers: The defensive overhaul was completely necessary for the Flyers, but none of their moves will matter if Carter Hart can’t rebound to prior form. Still, the Flyers have a strange trend in recent history of alternating years of playoff appearances, and they did miss the postseason last time…
18. Seattle Kraken: The Kraken will begin their maiden season with a solid goaltending duo and a strong defensive corps, but it’s hard to predict where the goals are going to come from. Expecting a season like the Golden Knights had is probably unrealistic; believing the Kraken can make the playoffs like their desert-dwelling brethren did in their first season is well in the ballpark.
19. Chicago Blackhawks: The return of Jonathan Toews and the additions of Seth Jones and Marc-Andre Fleury have the Blackhawks facing high expectations, but this roster still has some points of concern. How will they respond to the sudden increase in pressure, and do Stan Bowman and Jeremy Colliton survive if this season disappoints?
20. Dallas Stars: Injuries and bad luck did the Stars in last season, but the team is largely healthy heading into the next season. Call this a conservative ranking for now, as I want to see how the Stars respond to a season of disappointment.
21. Montreal Canadiens: This seems pretty low for last season’s runner-up, but there are more problems facing les Canadiens than a tougher division. Weakened center depth, a shakeup in on-ice leadership, and Carey Price being unavailable for the first month of the season will test this team early.
22. New Jersey Devils: Dougie Hamilton and Ryan Graves should make the defense a lot better than it was last season, and Jack Hughes seems on the verge of breaking out as a legitimate NHL star. Bad news for the Devils is the division is unforgiving and will likely temper the expectations for this season, but they’re trending in the right direction.
23. Los Angeles Kings: Quinton Byfield’s long-term injury certainly dampens the Kings’ outlook for this season, but several key additions and a strong prospect core approaching the NHL has the future looking bright. They could easily take advantage of the weak Pacific Division and make a playoff appearance ahead of schedule.
24. Calgary Flames: Trusting this team feels impossible to me, and there will likely be a lack of leadership in the early going with former captain Mark Giordano getting picked up in the Expansion Draft. Another season of mediocrity has to force this team to take action, and that might mean blowing up this core.
25. Nashville Predators: Juuse Saros can only do so much on his own, and the odds aren’t looking too good. Ryan Ellis and Viktor Arvidsson’s departures indicate a rebuild is coming, and a poor start could lead to a full-blown commitment.
26. Ottawa Senators: The Brady Tkachuk contract saga doesn’t seem to be coming to an end, which is a shame, given the Senators have some legitimately good talent. Young forwards like Tim Stutzle, Josh Norris, Drake Batherson, and Shane Pinto taking the next step up will be key if the Senators want to have a successful season.
27. Columbus Blue Jackets: A coaching change hopefully allows Patrik Laine to round back into form, and Elvis Merzlikins has some potential as a top netminder in the NHL. Unfortunately, the roster has too many holes to place them anywhere but last in the Metropolitan Division.
28. San Jose Sharks: The Evander Kane drama looms large, which can’t help a team locked into bad contracts and below-average goaltending. Tomas Hertl is shaping up to be one of the league’s premier trade chips come Deadline time.
29. Detroit Red Wings: Alex Nedeljkovic is the latest big move of the Yzerplan, and rookies Moritz Seider and Lucas Raymond gives Wings fans something to look forward to. Losing Jakub Vrana for the first half of the year and Tyler Bertuzzi due to his anti-vax views, however, are losses that will be hard for this team to come back from.
30. Anaheim Ducks: With no additions to make any fixes from last season, don’t expect the Ducks to do anything of note this season. The only way this season is a success is if Trevor Zegras and Jamie Drysdale emerge as building blocks for the future.
31. Arizona Coyotes: The Coyotes tearing down their core netted them several prospects and eight picks in the first two rounds of the 2022 Draft, including three in the first round. With how bad this team will be this season, there’s a chance the Coyotes could head to their new home with phenom Shane Wright in tow.
32. Buffalo Sabres: How the entire Jack Eichel situation has unfolded is how bad teams stay bad. At least the Bills will distract Buffalo from the nightmare their hockey team has become.