The NHL drops the puck on its 2021-22 regular season on Tuesday, and we couldn’t be more excited for a new year of hockey to get underway. We already told you about our brand-new NHL Elo forecast model last week — so check that out if you haven’t yet — but now it’s time to get into the most important subplots to watch as we head toward opening night. Here are six storylines that will help define the trajectory of the 2021-22 NHL season:
Tampa Bay is going for a three-peat — but there’s a three-team race for Cup-favorite status.
The Tampa Bay Lightning have been just about the best team in hockey for the past three seasons (even if they did collapse against the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round of the 2018-19 playoffs). In that time, the Bolts have finished with the league’s best Elo rating at the end of each regular season and won back-to-back Stanley Cups in 2019-20 and 2020-21 — part of an impressive streak of success for Tampa-St. Petersburg across its major sports. In 2021, the Lightning dominated the regular season despite playing much of it without Steven Stamkos (the franchise’s all-time leading goal scorer) and all of it without Nikita Kucherov (perhaps the world’s current best hockey player). When they got both players back for the playoffs — remember that thing that no one freaked out about at all? — the hockey games almost felt like a formality. If the Bolts were the best team in the league without Stamkos and Kucherov, they might have been the best team of the post-lockout era with them.
Crucially, Tampa returns most of that Stanley Cup winning core this season, including fully fit versions of Stamkos and Kucherov, borderline point-per-game centerman Brayden Point, Norris and Conn Smythe trophy-winning defenseman Victor Hedman and Vezina and Conn Smythe trophy-winning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy. Not bad as far as roster bedrock goes. As such, the Bolts enter the season with the highest Elo rating and sit tied for first in our Stanley Cup odds. According to our model, Tampa will most likely have to contend with one of Colorado or Vegas if they want to achieve a three-peat.
The Avalanche were a mediocre hockey team as recently as three seasons ago, and they were downright awful — like, the worst team in the league awful, despite the fact that the league also contains the Buffalo Sabres — in 2016-17. A lot has happened since then. Nathan MacKinnon turned into a bona fide superstar; Mikko Rantanen turned into a bona fide superstar; the Avs drafted defenseman Cale Makar, who was rookie of the year in 2019-20 and also turned into a bona fide superstar (and a Norris candidate); and the Avs acquired Andre Burakovsky, who isn’t a bona fide superstar but is an excellent winger whose stick is full of goals and assists.
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Colorado’s offense was the most potent in the league a season ago, and its defense was the third-stingiest. Its postseason ended earlier than it would have hoped, but its impressive 2020-21 regular season was a good first step toward contending for a Cup. Last season might have been a season too soon for the Avs — but they’re contenders now.
The Golden Knights knocked Colorado out of the playoffs last June, but their own run ended a series later at the hands of the upstart Montreal Canadiens. The Golden Knights will be looking to bounce back from that mini disaster, but they’re going to have to do so without goaltender and reigning Vezina Trophy winner Marc-André Fleury, whom they traded to Chicago in the offseason. Fleury’s career has been long and successful, but he never experienced as much individual success and glory as he did a season ago.
Fleury’s excellent play between the pipes ensured Vegas gave up the fewest goals last regular season. Remarkably, the Golden Knights have never ended the season lower than 10th in the Elo ratings in their first four seasons, and they enter the new season ranked third, below the Avs and Lightning and above the Boston Bruins. It’s hard to believe that an expansion team has so quickly established itself as one of the best teams in the NHL, but here we are.
How good can the expansion Seattle Kraken be?
It’s fitting (and surely no coincidence) that the Kraken’s first game as an NHL franchise will come Tuesday night against the Golden Knights. In many ways, Vegas’s shadow will hang over everything Seattle does this season, both good and bad. That’s because the Knights completely reset the bar for what is expected of an NHL expansion team when they made their debut in the 2017-18 season, posting the league’s fifth-best record and making the Stanley Cup Final right out of the gate. How much of that was a matter of the right circumstances for Vegas (and Vegas alone) and how much of it Seattle can replicate will tell us a lot about how expansion works in the NHL nowadays.
The Kraken’s initial lineup has enough solid contributors to make you think maybe Seattle can recapture some of the Vegas magic. Though it passed on a few big names, the team immediately picked up a handful of productive players — such as forwards Joonas Donskoi, Jordan Eberle, Jared McCann and Yanni Gourde, defensemen Mark Giordano and Vince Dunn and goalie Chris Driedger — in the expansion draft, then used its cap space to add Vezina Trophy finalist Philipp Grubauer, forward Jaden Schwartz and a few other interesting parts in free agency. The resulting team remains short on high-end talent but has more depth (and far better goaltending) than we might have expected from expansion teams of yesteryear. That and a weak Pacific Division should keep Seattle in the playoff mix, even if asking for yet another debut-season finals bid is probably a bit much.
These good teams badly need to get over the hump.
There’s no shortage of teams that have been competitive over the past few years yet were ultimately unable to make a Stanley Cup Final breakthrough. The New York Islanders have won 28 playoff games since the 2018-19 season, second only to the Lightning over that span, but fell short against Tampa in the conference finals each of the past two years. Coach Barry Trotz’s team will run it back once again with what was the NHL’s best goaltending unit a year ago (Semyon Varlamov and Ilya Sorokin) and much — though not all — of the same cast that forced Game 7 against the Bolts. The third time might be the charm for New York and its trademark defensive-minded approach in the playoffs, but time could also be running out for a team that was tied for the league’s fourth-oldest last season.
Meanwhile, the Carolina Hurricanes have won 17 playoff games over the past three seasons without a Stanley Cup Final appearance to show for it. The balanced Canes had hopes of standing up to the Lightning in their second-round series last year, but Tampa Bay held Carolina’s offense to just 1.8 goals per game in the 4-1 defeat. Now the team will have to deal with losing D-man Dougie Hamilton and goalie Alex Nedeljkovic, two of its three best players last year by goals above replacement. The Florida Panthers can relate to Carolina on a certain level; they also aspired to take Tampa down in last year’s playoffs but never came all that close despite playing a spirited series. Florida still hasn’t made it past the first round since going to the Stanley Cup Final in 1996. And the Winnipeg Jets seem to be stuck on a similar treadmill since making the 2018 conference finals — they’ve made the playoffs each season since but never went any further than Round 1. The Jets will try again with an upgraded blue line this year.
All of these teams have the potential to finally reach the next level, but in recent seasons, they’ve just done a lot of falling short.
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What do we do with Canada’s most disappointing clubs?
When the Montreal Canadiens came within three wins of winning the Stanley Cup last season, that was progress for hockey’s home country — which hadn’t provided a finalist at all over the preceding nine seasons. But the Habs might be facing down some serious regression to the mean (see below) after last year’s miracle final run. And the two highest-rated Canadian clubs by Elo — the Toronto Maple Leafs and Edmonton Oilers — each have their own extensive histories of dashing fans’ hopes of seeing the Cup come back north of the border.
Toronto’s postseason struggles are no secret: The Leafs haven’t won a Cup since before the 1967 expansion — (the only Original Six team not to do so) and haven’t won a single playoff series since before the 2004-05 lockout. Leafs fans — still among the most loyal, somehow — have been suffering for generations now, but they finally have a team full of truly elite skaters to get excited about. Only seven players have scored more points than Auston Matthews since the beginning of his career in 2016-17, while no one has scored more goals.
Add Mitch Marner and John Tavares to the mix, and the Leafs have got three of the most dangerous offensive players over the course of the past half decade of the league. Goaltending was a bit of an issue for the Leafs last season — Jack Campbell, who was previously a bit of a journeyman, was excellent, but starter Frederik Andersen’s save percentage (.895) was far below the league average (.903). Adding veteran Petr Mrázek in free agency should help Toronto keep more pucks out of its own net, which will be crucial for a team that had no problem putting them into the nets of their opponents. Now if they can only get the balance right when the playoffs commence.
What can we say about the Oilers that we haven’t said in the past? They haven’t been truly great (or even particularly good beyond a season here or there) since the early 1990s, and they have a proclivity for wasting high draft picks (Taylor Hall, for example). If Kucherov isn’t the world’s best player at the moment, then Connor McDavid is — and Leon Draisaitl isn’t far behind. The duo have combined for 1,071 points and exactly one playoff series victory since the beginning of the 2015-16 season. Our model doesn’t hate the Oilers, but it doesn’t love the Oilers either: It gives them a 64 percent chance of making the postseason and just a 3 percent chance of winning the whole thing. Not terrible, not great. And certainly not good enough for a team that boasts two of the best five players in the game.
Which non-playoff teams will surprise — and who will they replace?
Setting aside the emergency-use postseason structures of 2020 and 2021, only 61 percent of playoff teams from one season have made it back the next under the NHL’s usual format (put into place in 2014). That means in a normal year, we can expect about 10 clubs to return to the playoffs, with the other six postseason slots exchanging hands.
Which teams might be involved in that shuffle? According to our forecast, the 2021 playoff squads most likely to miss it this year are the 2021 Stanley Cup runner-up Canadiens (53 percent odds to miss the playoffs), who admittedly have some young talent but also massively overperformed their minus-9 regular season goal differential in the playoffs and suffered a challenging offseason to boot. They’re joined by the St. Louis Blues (48 percent), Winnipeg Jets (46 percent), Nashville Predators (43 percent), Oilers (36 percent) and Minnesota Wild (35 percent). And in terms of playoff teams who had subjectively bad offseasons, we might also toss onto that list the Pittsburgh Penguins. Though they have just a 29 percent chance to miss the playoffs in the model, it doesn’t know the Pens will be without Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin to start the season.
Not all of those teams will miss the playoffs, most likely — but it would be a surprise if at least a few of them didn’t fall out of the mix. And to take their place, the model thinks the best bets are the Calgary Flames (54 percent playoff odds), New York Rangers (51 percent), Dallas Stars (51 percent), Vancouver Canucks (38 percent) and Arizona Coyotes (37 percent), to go with the Kraken (45 percent in their first season). Beyond that group, the Chicago Blackhawks (35 percent), L.A. Kings (29 percent) and New Jersey Devils (16 percent) also received high marks from offseason graders for their additions, making all three strong candidates to defy their low preseason Elo playoff odds.
Can the aging best of the post-lockout era make one last run?
The Bruins, Penguins and Washington Capitals have been among the best teams of the current era. Is it possible that any of them could make a run this year?
For the Bruins to compete, they’ll have to figure out how to patch a David Krejčí-sized hole at second line center and hope incoming goaltender Linus Ullmark can put up Tuukka Rask-like numbers in net. Ullmark has been better than league average in both save percentage and quality start percentage in his time in the NHL so far, which is remarkable considering all that time has been spent playing for a historically bad Buffalo team. Second-year wunderkind Jeremy Swayman was fantastic in limited playing time a season ago and should push Ullmark for the starting job. It’s worth noting, though, that neither goalie has made more than 34 starts in a season.
In Pittsburgh, the injuries to Crosby and Malkin will make life difficult. Crosby is expected to miss only a few games after having successful wrist surgery in September, but Malkin will be out for at least two months while he rehabs from knee surgery. It’s hard to put into words what these two players have meant for the Penguins over the past decade-plus, but as age and injuries catch up to them, it’s only natural to wonder how much they’ve got left in the tank.
The same can be said for Crosby’s natural rival down in Washington, D.C. Alexander Ovechkin is a nine-time Rocket Richard Trophy winner as the league’s top goal scorer and is just 165 goals shy of breaking Gretzky’s all-time record of 894. Most players slow down in their 30s; Ovechkin (36) has already had two 50-goal seasons, a 49-goal season and a 48-goal season after turning 30. It’s unclear how long Ovi can keep doing this, but if he stays healthy and keeps up his career pace of 0.61 goals per game for another three seasons and change, he’ll break Gretzky’s record before his 40th birthday. The Caps have missed the playoffs only three times in Ovi’s 16-year career. Whether they can make another run will probably depend on a number of factors outside of his control — like if they can get better than league average goaltending this time around.
Check out our latest NHL predictions.