By Matt Blittner, The New York Extra/TheNYExtra.com
“Captain _______, come get The Stanley Cup!” — Gary Bettman, NHL Commissioner.
It’s a sentence every NHL team hopes to hear at the end of the grueling grind that is the Stanley Cup Playoffs; unfortunately, only one can.
With the 2021-22 NHL season officially getting underway tonight, this is as good a time as any to preview the season and give you a glimpse at how it might unfold. (WARNING: I have not seen the future and I can be right or wrong in what follows).
Of course, with any season preview comes some questions and the first one is: how will the Seattle Kraken fare as the NHL’s newest franchise?
General Manager Ron Francis and his staff worked long and hard to construct the inaugural Kraken roster. They certainly get quality marks for deploying Philipp Grubauer in net. However, I question if Grubauer will take this team to the promised land. If he couldn’t do it in Colorado with all the Avs’ firepower then I’m skeptical he can do it in the Pacific Northwest. Granted, Colorado’s post-season failures were not solely on Grubauer’s shoulders, but there’s no doubt he could have been better.
On defense the Kraken should shine as Seattle stockpiled plenty of quality blueliners, including: Vince Dunn, Haydn Fleury, Adam Larsson and Mark Giordano (who was named the team’s first ever Captain on Monday).
Upfront the Kraken are not built to be an offensively superior team, but the likes of Jordan Eberle, Joonas Donskoi, Yanni Gourde, Marcus Johansson, Jared McCann, Jaden Schwartz, Riley Sheahan, Brandon Tanev and Alexander Wennberg comprise a deep group that could surprise people.
Overall, Seattle will benefit from playing in what is likely the weakest division in the NHL — The Pacific Division — and should be able to at least compete for a playoff spot.
Another question on everybody’s minds is: will Tampa make it a three-peat? The Lightning are seeking to do what hasn’t been done since the Islanders’ dynasty in the early 1980’s and it would be foolish to bet against them.
With All-World netminder Andrei Vasilevskiy in net and a core group that consists of Victor Hedman, Nikita Kucherov, Ryan McDonagh, Brayden Point, Erik Cernak, Anthony Cirelli, Alex Killorn, Pat Maroon, Mikhail Sergachev, Ondrej Palat and Captain Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay is more than talented enough to go back-to-back-to-back.
And even though the likes of Gourde and Barclay Goodrow have departed South Florida, they’ve been replaced by players like Corey Perry, who brings another veteran leader and proven playoff performer into the mix.
As for the rest of the league, let’s go division-by-division and give you my best guess as to how this season will play out. (Remember, the Top-3 teams in each division qualify for the playoffs. The two best teams of the remaining 10-teams in each conference earn Wild Card berths).
Arguably the strongest division in the NHL, five of the eight teams that reside in the Atlantic Division are legitimate playoff contenders.
Boston, Toronto, Tampa, Florida and Montreal can all stake a claim to being strong enough teams to go the distance. Of these five, perhaps only Montreal is in any danger of missing out on the playoffs as Shea Weber will not play this season (and likely never will again due to injury) and Carey Price is in the NHL’s Player Assistance Program for at least the next 30-days. Without these two veteran stalwarts, the Canadiens are not the same team who went to the Stanley Cup Final last season.
As for the “other three” teams in the division, Buffalo is a mess while Detroit and Ottawa are on the upswing, but far from being viable contenders.
PREDICTION: 1) Toronto 2) Tampa 3) Boston 4) Florida* 5) Montreal 6) Ottawa 7) Detroit 8) Buffalo
(* denotes Wild Card team).
Another strong Eastern Conference Division, the Metropolitan boasts three teams who are virtual locks to make the playoffs, while three others have legitimate chances to secure a Wild Card berth.
The Islanders, Hurricanes and Capitals are the class of the division. Long Island has been to the third-round of the playoffs in back-to-back years and added the likes of Zdeno Chara and Zach Parise to an already playoff tested group. The Hurricanes have undergone some changes since last season but they still have plenty of quality young talent who are just beginning to stake their claim among the NHL’s best. And Washington still has Alex Ovechkin and company, which annually makes the Capitals a threat to go all the way.
The big question is when will Nicklas Backstrom return from a hip injury that will cause him to miss the start of the season? If Backstrom is out for months, rather than days or weeks, Washington could be in danger of having to fight for a Wild Card berth.
Should the Capitals come back to the pack, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and the Rangers will be waiting to pounce. The Penguins have their own injury issues with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin out to start the year. Crosby should be back within a week or two, but Malkin will miss at least the first two months of the season recovering from his off-season knee surgery.
Philadelphia’s season could go one of two ways. Either Carter Hart returns to the form he showed in his first two-years in the league and backstops the teams to a playoff berth, or he continues to struggle like he did last season and costs Head Coach Alain Vigneault his job.
That leaves the Rangers, who should be an improved team from last season. How much they’ve improved will be determined by how tough new Head Coach Gerard Gallant gets them to play. If the top players like Mika Zibanejad, Artemi Panarin and Ryan Strome insist on continuing to play an East-West style of hockey, this team will fall well short of the high expectations placed on it by Owner Jim Dolan. If, however, Gallant gets all of his players to buy-in to his North-South, straight-forward brand of hockey, then the team should be in good shape.
Of course, the Rangers still need a Captain and Monday’s announcement that the team will instead have SIX Alternates was a perplexing one. All off-season we heard from Gallant and Drury they would name a Captain. Now, they have failed to identify one and will instead once more employ a leadership by committee approach. Only time will tell how that plays out.
Meanwhile, the Devils and Blue Jackets bring up the rear of the division.
PREDICTION: 1) Carolina 2) Islanders 3) Washington 4) Pittsburgh* 5) Rangers 6) Philadelphia 7) New Jersey 8) Columbus
(* denotes Wild Card team).
EASTERN CONFERENCE FINAL:
Islanders over Lightning.
Colorado is the class of this division. That much is obvious. What isn’t obvious is how the rest of the division pans out. The second through sixth spots in the division aren’t separated by much and can shake out any number of ways.
Winnipeg with its grinding, physical style of play and superb goaltending in the form of Connor Hellebuyck would seem to be a playoff lock. And don’t be surprised if the Jets go far in the post-season.
Dallas went to the Stanley Cup two-years ago and after missing the playoffs last season, the Stars want to get back to where they feel they belong. An interesting mix of young and old players should provide the Stars with enough points to secure a playoff spot when all is said and done.
Chicago is vastly improved thanks to the additions of Marc-Andre Fleury, Tyler Johnson, Seth Jones and the return of Captain Jonathan Toews. Add those four to the likes of Patrick Kane, Alex DeBrincat and Kirby Dach and you have a team who should be able to return to the post-season.
The Blues and Predators can never be counted out of any playoff race, but it feels like it’s just not their time to shine. Of course, St. Louis won The Cup back in 2019, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them make another playoff run.
Meanwhile, the Wild and Coyotes are likely to be treated like stepping stones by the rest of the division.
PREDICTION: 1) Colorado 2) Winnipeg 3) Chicago 4) Dallas* 5) St. Louis* 6) Nashville 7) Minnesota 8) Arizona
(* denotes Wild Card team).
Vegas’ window to compete for a Cup is closing rapidly. With all the moves to reshuffle the roster and with so many of the original Golden Knights now playing elsewhere, this could be Vegas’ last chance to do something special before needing to rebuild/retool. However, this year, the Golden Knights should still be the heavy favorites in the Pacific; if for no other reason than it being a weak division.
Edmonton is the only true challenger to Vegas’ throne, but even though the Oilers tout Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl upfront, they just don’t have the defensive talent and the reliable goaltending to take the next step. Essentially, unless McDavid and/or Draisaitl all of a sudden become some hybrid defense/forward/goaltender type of players, the Oilers are not going to be more than a playoff bubble team.
Now, for reasons I explained in the beginning of this column, the Seattle Kraken should be able to round out the Top-3 of this division.
As for the remaining teams in the Pacific, Vancouver and Calgary are both intriguing, but neither has that special something that makes you believe they’ll be a threat to make the playoffs (although, I have been wrong before).
That just leaves the California trio of the Kings, Ducks and Sharks; each of whom is in various stages of rebuilding.
PREDICTION: 1) Vegas 2) Edmonton 3) Seattle 4) Calgary 5) Vancouver 6) Los Angeles 7) Anaheim 8) San Jose
WESTERN CONFERENCE FINAL:
Colorado over Vegas.
STANLEY CUP FINAL:
Colorado over Islanders.
It should be a fun season around the NHL and it all begins Tuesday night as the Lightning host the Penguins in the Season Opener on ESPN at 7:30pm(EST) and then the Kraken officially play their first game in Vegas at 10pm(EST), also on ESPN.