Greetings and salutations everyone and welcome to another blog here on BlueCollarBlueShirts.com. It’s the annual season preview blog, as I give you my thoughts and predictions on all 32 NHL teams. In other words, this will be a long blog, so get out your favorite beverage, sit back and get ready to scroll. And even better, unlike every other site known to man, despite these blogs going 10,000+ words, you won’t have to worry about ads, text-links, spyware, pop-ups or any of that other junk. It’s all about hockey here!
(Of note: check the main page of this site, as I will have a recap of all of the Rangers drama from Monday for you. There’s a lot of media included in this blog and I didn’t want to increase site load times by including that stuff in this blog.)
In fact, rather than doing the PLUGS segment in this opening space as I normally do (you may have heard, I have a book that’s on sale right now), let’s get right into “The 2021-22 NHL Season Preview”.
One note before getting right into it.
Keep in mind that everything you’re about to read here, while including facts, is all prediction-based. In addition, other factors, such as injuries, trades, COVID-19 and even an Olympic break, which could stunt momentum or give sliding teams a breather, will play a part in this 2021-22 season. All of that stuff is totally unpredictable.
I have listed/profiled these teams based on their conferences and divisions, and in the order that I feel they will finish in. Additionally, for new readers of this site, I already did a Metropolitan Division preview, so I included what I previously wrote about those teams in this NHL 2021-22 season preview.
Once going through all of teams, I’ll give you my Conference Final bracket and Stanley Cup winner. And as I do every season, I’ll revisit this blog after the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs and see how I did!
Debuting in the NHL Central Division this year are the Arizona Coyotes, which must be music to the ears of the seven other teams in this division. After all, if it weren’t for the Buffalo Sabres, the Arizona Coyotes may be the absolute worst team in the league. Then again, perhaps the Coyotes are the worst team in the league! As they say, time will tell! That said, at least you can get a gist of what Arizona is doing right now, whereas Buffalo is just a complete mess.
Everyone and their mother has the Colorado Avalanche winning this division. Spoiler alert: I do too. However, where I differ from most people, and the Vegas odd-makers as well, are where the middle-of-the-pack teams finish.
Right now, Colorado is the odds-on favorite to not only win this division, but the Stanley Cup too. The Avalanche are currently +600 to win the Stanley Cup. The team with the second-best odds are the Tampa Bay Lightning, who are currently +700.
Elsewhere in this division, most people and the Vegas odd-makers have the Wild finishing in second place. From there, the Stars, the Blues, the Jets and the Blackhawks are expected to finish in third, fourth, fifth and sixth place respectively. However, and as you may know already – “the house always wins”. While I do agree that the Avalanche and Wild are the two best teams of the division, I don’t think the Blackhawks are getting as much respect as they should.
When it comes to the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs, I see five teams from this division qualifying, especially considering how weak the Pacific Division looks on paper. Three teams will grab playoff berths from the division, while I think two other teams from this division will snag the wild-card spots. However, I don’t see much difference between the Blackhawks, Blues, Jets and Stars. I see all four of these teams jockeying for third place and for wild-card seeding. These races should really heat up during the final two weeks of the season.
Let’s now look at each team.
By now, you’re well aware of the deep forwards and defensive core that the Avalanche possess. With players like MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog, Mikko Rantanen, Andre Burakovsky and Cale Makar – the Avalanche are built to win in the regular season. And let me reiterate that point – the regular season.
When it comes to previewing the Avalanche, I don’t think anyone has to be concerned about the regular season. Barring a rash of injuries or something else equally as drastic, this is the Avalanche’s division to lose. And even if the Wild or some other team can get hot, something really wrong will have to happen in order for the Avalanche to miss the 2022 Stanley Cup playoffs.
The Avalanche finished second place in their division during the pandemic cut-short 2019-2020 season. Last season, the Avalanche won the Presidents’ Trophy as the top regular season team of the league. However, both seasons ended the same – a disappointing second-round exit from the playoffs, where the Avalanche goaltenders had issues. (To be fair, during the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Avalanche had injury issues with their goalies and had to play a third-string goaltender.)
When it comes to the Western Conference, Colorado and Vegas are pretty much a 1-2 punch favorite for the Western Conference Final. Of course, the Stanley Cup Playoffs rarely go according to script – just look at the Montreal Canadiens from last season.
With the playoff format going back to normal, meaning that the road to the Stanley Cup will be easier for the Avalanche this go-around than it was in 2021, the Avalanche come into this season highly motivated. Maybe it is their year, as historically, we see great teams all the time take some bad blows, only to rebound and then win the Stanley Cup. Need recent proof of this? Just look at the two-time reigning and defending Stanley Cup champions, the Tampa Bay Lightning and all of their crushing playoff losses, before enjoying the run that they are now currently on.
There are many people punching the Avalanche’s ticket and have them winning the Stanley Cup. I’m not one of those people for one reason only – goaltending.
As mentioned, goaltending has been an issue for the Avalanche during the last two post-seasons. And even before Phillip Grubauer deserted the team and took more money with the Seattle Kraken this off-season, I was never sold on him anyway.
Going into this season, the Avalanche have Darcy Kuemper, formerly of Arizona, as their number one netminder. The projected number two goaltender, Pavel Francouz, is expected to miss anywhere from 3-4 weeks after suffering an injury during the preseason.
Perhaps Kuemper, who was no slouch with the down-and-out Coyotes, will enjoy a ton of success playing behind Colorado’s solid foundation. However, come playoff time, can you see Kuemper back-stopping the Av’s to sixteen wins? I don’t think so.
Are the Wild that good to finish in second-place or is the rest of the division just a step below? I think it’s a combination of both.
The Wild, pardon the pun here, had a “wild” off-season. (Har, har, har!) Not only did they buy-out long-time veterans Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, but they also finally came to terms with 2021 Calder Trophy winner Kirill Kaprizov, signing the league’s top rookie to a five-year deal worth $45M overall.
The Wild will have some dead cap money on their books, as current general manager Bill Guerin continues to erase the multitude of mistakes that his predecessor made (Paul Fenton).
This Minnesota squad are probably a second-round at best team come the playoffs, but they should continue to improve and become a threat in seasons following this one. It’s a new era featuring roster turnover in Minnesota, as the franchise has moved on from such stars as Mikko Koivu and the previously aforementioned Parise and Suter.
While the Wild’s roster is different from last season, this team, with their collection of youth and veterans, pushed the Golden Knights to a seven games in the first round of last year’s playoffs. Cam Talbot, when on his game, is good as any other playoff goalie in the league, as he’s accumulated numerous shut-outs during the last two years. Of course, he’ll have to be more consistent for this team to jump into the later rounds.
After their success from the 2010s decade, the Blackhawks have fallen off a bit. Of course, the Blackhawks slide to the bottom of the standings started the day they were forced to re-sign Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane to monster deals.
I’ve made this point before and I’ll say it again – no team in the NHL has been more screwed by the NHL hard salary cap like the Blackhawks have been. Fortunately for them, they at least won, and multiple times at that, during their window. Once the Blackhawks were forced to pay their stars, that’s when the fall from the top started.
The Blackhawks, similar to their co-tenant in Chicago, the Bulls, may be experiencing their own version of “The Last Dance”. While familiar faces have either moved on or retired already (Corey Crawford retired last season, Duncan Keith is in Edmonton this season), the Hawks still have Kane and will also have Toews back in the line-up, a Toews who missed all of last season.
The Blackhawks never had an answer in net after Corey Crawford went to New Jersey and then retired. Now, the Blackhawks have the current Vezina winner and the greatest goalie of his generation in Marc-Andre Fleury. Also joining the mix is defenseman Seth Jones, who received a whopping eight-year deal worth $76M during the off-season. In addition, the Blackhawks also added two-time Stanley Cup champion Tyler Johnson to their roster.
The Blackhawks certainly have the experience on their team. They also have some pissed-off and motivated veterans too, where Marc-Andre Fleury may be on a mission to have his own “revenge season”. With fresh face Kirby Dach on the roster too, I think the Blackhawks will surprise a lot of people.
Put it this way, if the Blackhawks get into the playoffs, they’ll be a tough out, and no matter who they play.
ST. LOUIS BLUES
One common talking point you see whenever talking about the Blues is that Jordan Binnington, the goaltender who carried the Blues to the Stanley Cup in 2019, hasn’t won a playoff game since winning Game 7 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final. There are some people who feel like Binnington has entered “flash in the pan” territory.
The Blues shed some parts this season, as they lost Sammy Blais, Jaden Schwartz, Vince Dunn and Mike Hoffman. Joining St. Louis are Pavel Buchnevich and Brandon Saad. There’s also an issue with often-injured Vladimir Tarasenko, where it was reported that Tarasenko would be out the door during this off-season. (Tarasenko remains.)
It’s so hard to win the Stanley Cup, especially in the hard salary cap era. It’s even harder to win it multiple times. I think the Blues will get worse before they get better and that they are no longer a top Stanley Cup contender.
The Jets were riding high at the start of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs, as not only did they upset the favored Edmonton Oilers – they swept them too. Of course, the Jets would then find themselves on the wrong end of the broom in the next round, as the Montreal Canadiens knocked off the Jets in four straight games. (And to be fair, the Jets were without Mark Scheifele, who was suspended during the series after a questionable hit on Jake Evans.)
The Jets still have one of the best goalies in the league, in Connor Hellebuyck. In addition, the Jets defense, already pretty strong, added Brenden Dillon and Nate Schmidt to their ranks during the off-season. One would also think that Pierre-Luc Dubois, acquired in the trade from last season with Columbus for Patrik Laine, should improve after a full preseason in Winnipeg under his belt.
The Jets, returning to the Central Division this season, should be able to make the playoffs as at least a wild card team. This division won’t be as easy as the Canadian Division was last season, nor as easy as the Pacific Division looks this season, but the Jets should qualify for the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs due to the state of the Western Conference.
Stop me if you’ve heard me say this on this site before – in the era of the hard salary cap, no team has lost a Stanley Cup Final and then went back to the Final to win it. However, there is an asterisk here, as the Tampa Bay Lightning, after losing the Stanley Cup Final in 2015, did win it five years later. That said, these Stars aren’t these Lightning. To me, these Stars are just like former Stanley Cup Finalists, the 2016 Sharks and 2017 Predators.
I don’t know what the heck is going on in Dallas, as they seem to have 767867896 goalies under contract. Braden Holtby, who failed in Vancouver, is now here, joining the perennially injured Ben Bishop. However, the Stars may have two better goalies in Anton Khudobin (who is getting big money after the 2020 Stanley Cup Final run) and Jake Oettinger.
The Stars do have the depth, and a nice mix of veterans & young talent to boot, but a never-ending goalie carousel may make it hard for a goaltender to get on a hot streak. There’s also some urgency for the Stars to rebound after last year’s issues, issues that were out of their own control, such as COVID-19 and a major snowstorm. With Joe Pavelski still looking to win his chip, along with guys like Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn, the Stars are trying to win now. I just don’t see it.
The Nashville Predators are somewhat in a mini-rebuild, as a long-time great (Pekka Rinne) retired and others moved on elsewhere (Ryan Ellis, Luca Sbisa, Erik Haula, etc). After a slow start to the 2021 season, the Predators went on a point-streak prior to the trade deadline and qualified for the playoffs, where they were promptly bounced out in six games by the Hurricanes.
The emergence of Eeli Tolvanan was, and should still continue to be, encouraging for the Predators. The team also added “Big Save Dave” Rittich to their ranks, where he will be backing up Juuse Saros, a Saros who is now the undisputed number one goaltender in Nashville.
As mentioned with the Stars, it’s tough to get back to a Stanley Cup Final after losing. The Predators were debating selling off everyone last year, prior to the hot run they went on. I think this will be a down year for the Predators as they try to build a new core.
In a word, the Coyotes will be “awful” during the 2021-2022 season. Already having the reputation of where bad contracts go to die, the Coyotes loaded up on junk contracts this off-season (Andrew Ladd, Loui Eriksson, Shayne Gostisbehere and others).
The Coyotes also bid adieu to their goaltenders from last season, Darcy Kuemper and Antti Raanta, and replaced them with the questionable Josef Korenar and Carter Hutton.
While the Coyotes did load up on a lot of draft capital during the off-season; where these future “Desert Dogs” will play during the 2022-23 season will be a topic all-season, or at least until that issue is resolved. (Tempe seems to be the front-runner right now, while non-Arizona fans root for Houston.)
The Coyotes will find themselves in a two-horse race this season with the Buffalo Sabres, as these two teams jockey for the best odds at the 2022 NHL Draft Lottery. In fact, one of these two teams may set the futility mark for the worst-ever team of the modern era.
Similar to the Avalanche in the Central Division, this is a one-team division, where the Vegas Golden Knights, at +850, have the third-best odds at winning the Stanley Cup in 2022. At least that’s what the bookmakers are saying!
Yes, the Edmonton Oilers feature two of the best and most dynamic players in all of the league in Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, but as recent history has shown, these two have struggled to make any sort of dent in the playoffs. Until the Oilers address their goaltending issues, it’s hard to consider them as a serious Stanley Cup contender.
The two other Canadian teams of the division, the Flames and the Canucks, feel like teams that are fortunate to be in this division. It’s hard to envision either team breaking into the top three of any other division in hockey.
As you’re aware of, the Seattle Kraken make their NHL debut this season, and fortunately for them, they are part of the worst division in hockey. The three California teams look horrendous, as after many years of being playoff contenders (and Stanley Cup champions too, as both Anaheim and LA have won the top prize in hockey within the past fifteen years), these three teams are all experiencing rebuilds and growing pains.
As has been the case for some time, the Pacific Division is the worst division in hockey, where perhaps the Kraken can help revitalize it a bit. Vegas should easily cake-walk and earn the number one seed.
VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS
Robin Lehner is making headlines throughout the hockey world after his series of tweets accusing NHL teams and doctors of being pill-pushers. While what Lehner is doing may be admirable (I didn’t like how he coyly suggested that Alain Vigneault was one of these people, only to clarify later that he thought AV was just a bad coach), I do question the timing of all of this. After all, Lehner himself even said he may be “canceled” for his tweets, which makes me wonder how focused he is on playing hockey, as his mind seems elsewhere. Had Lehner done his “Twitter Expose” earlier in the off-season, rather than at the on-set of the preseason, it would’ve made more sense to me. That’s all.
Vegas will be without Marc-Andre Fleury this season, as they were forced to send him to Chicago in a pure salary-cap dump trade. I don’t know how anyone didn’t see this coming, especially after Vegas re-upped Lehner. As I’ve said about a zillion times on this site, goaltending can’t take up a major percentage of your salary cap. Now, with Laurent Brossoit as the other Vegas netminder, do you feel confident in Brossoit in the event that Lehner falters?
Goaltending issues aside, Vegas still has one of the best line-ups in all of the league, where their scoring should carry them on most nights. However, to look ahead, these players have failed during the last two Stanley Cup Playoff tournaments, as goals scored on behalf of the Knights were far, few and in-between.
The Golden Knights, who have played it fast and loose with the salary cap since their inception in the league, have been one of the best expansion teams ever in the history of professional sports. However, all good things eventually come to an end. Now in Year Five, this may be the Golden Knights last best chance to win the Stanley Cup, before having to make drastic changes (one could argue trading Fleury is a drastic change already) and without having to worry about the rest of the division.
Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl and did I mention Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl?
Yes, these two Oilers have won the last two Hart Trophies (Draisaitl, 2020 & McDavid, 2021) but what did it get the Oilers as a team? During the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoff bubble, the Oilers were upset by the Chicago Blackhawks in the qualifying round. Last season, the Oilers fared worse, after being swept by the Winnipeg Jets.
For some reason, the Oilers let Adam Larsson go to Seattle for nothing. In turn, the Oilers looked for toughness in guys like Duncan Keith and Zach Hyman, two players who could help come playoff time.
However, and as I’ve been saying for a while now on this site, as long as the two Oiler goaltenders are Mikko Koskinen and Mike Smith, the Oilers, for as dominant as they could be during this regular season, will have no shot at the Stanley Cup come playoff time.
I just don’t get what the Oilers have been thinking during these past few seasons. There have been plenty of big-named and talented goaltenders available, but for whatever reason, the Oilers think Koskinen and Smith are two of the best goaltenders in the league. It just feels like the Oilers are wasting the prime years of Connor McDavid, a McDavid who now is in his seventh season in the league. Time flies.
To hammer this point home even further, for the Oilers to finally make a dent and showing in the playoffs, they’ll need to acquire an established goalie by the trade deadline. If they don’t, it’s another first-round exit.
I have the Flames finishing third here, just like the “experts” at the Vegas sports books. That said, I’m not confident at all in this prediction, as I could see either the Canucks or Kraken grabbing the third seed of this division too.
The Flames are in the unenviable position of “will they or won’t they”, when it comes to talk of a rebuild. The Flames already said goodbye to Mark Giordano in the off-season (Seattle expansion) and will have to make decisions on the rest of the core, in players such as Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, Mikael Backlund and others. In addition, the contract that goaltender Jacob Markstrom received could also become a salary cap killer – if it isn’t already. (Some may also question the contract that Matt Tkachuk has too.)
The Flames should have enough talent to compete for a playoff berth, and maybe they could knock off the Oilers in a #2 seed vs #3 seed “Battle of Alberta” first-round series, but that’s as far as they can possibly go – or at least that’s my opinion! I just don’t see new players such as Blake Coleman, Tyler Pitlick, Nikita Zadorov and others making that much of a difference.
After an inspirational run during the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, which was carried by goaltender Thatcher Demko, the Canucks had a disastrous 2021 campaign, where the team fought COVID issues all season. In fact, no team was impacted by COVID last season like the Canucks were.
The Canucks, as the most northwestern team in the NHL, will always be at a disadvantage when it comes to issues that Robin Lehner recently brought up – sleep and travel. No one crosses more time zones than the Canucks, nor logs as many miles.
Vancouver did a lot of wheelin’-and-dealin’ this off-season, by getting rid of Jay Beagle, Alex Edler, Loui Eriksson, Antoine Roussel, Braden Holtby and Nate Schmidt. In addition, Travis Hamonic was also waived.
New faces in Vancouver, who will join JT Miller, Brock Boeser, Bo Horvat and Elias Petterson are Conor Garland, Oliver Ekman-Larsson and reliable back-up goaltender Jaroslav Halak.
The Canucks may very well finish with the third seed in the division, as they certainly have the talent to do so in this weak division. It should also be noted that the Canucks remain as the only team in the NHL with COVID capacity/arena restrictions, which in theory, decreases their home ice advantage.
Who knows what to expect out of the NHL’s newest franchise this season? The only thing I feel with 100% certainty, is that they won’t have the same success as the last NHL expansion team, the Vegas Golden Knights, a VGK who made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final in their first season. In fact, Vegas will prevent that from happening for Seattle themselves.
The Kraken had the misfortune of following Vegas with their expansion draft, as the Vegas expansion draft is still new, thus opposing general managers weren’t willing to make side-deals with Seattle, as NHL GM’s did with Vegas at the time of their expansion draft. In turn, Seattle doesn’t have the talent roster that Vegas once did, where I wonder who will be scoring the goals for the Kraken? Jordan Eberle? Yanni Gourde? Dare I say Colin Blackwell? (As I write these words, Blackwell is out with injury. Even worse, the Kraken have five players on the COVID-19 list to start their season, despite the entire team being vaccinated.)
Despite having a fresh slate, the Kraken didn’t really splurge on any big name talent, aside from adding Philipp Grubauer, who Seattle envisions as a franchise goalie. I wouldn’t share that opinion, but I’m also just a beer-bellied blogger and not someone with the experience of Seattle general manager Ron Francis. That said, I do question the hiring of David Hakstol as the Kraken’s first coach, as there were better candidates out there (Gallant, Tortorella, Tocchet, etc).
Everyone loves new, so it will be fun to track Seattle this season. Maybe the Kraken can catch lightning in a bottle and jump the two Canadian teams. At the very least, they should be better than what’s going on with the west coast California teams.
After winning the Stanley Cup in 2012 and 2014, in the last five seasons, the Kings have missed the playoffs in four of those seasons. In the one season where they made the playoffs (2018), they were swept by the Golden Knights.
Of the three California rebuilding teams, LA seems the team most primed to turn the corner and return to relevancy. Of course, as I write these words, promising forward Quinton Byfield suffered an ankle injury in a preseason game.
The Kings have a lot of promising young talent away from Byfield, to go along with their established veterans in Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty and Dustin Brown. In addition, LA landed one of the top prizes of the summer this off-season, in center Philip Danault.
Another veteran on the team is goaltender Jonathan Quick, who has regressed in recent seasons. Can Cal Petersen, who did the bulk of the work in net last season, emerge as the true #1 goaltender of this team?
Perhaps if you’re looking for a dark-horse team to surprise, it’s LA, but I don’t see it. After all, that’s why they are a dark-horse!
SAN JOSE SHARKS
Really, when it comes to what team finishes in last place in this division, it’s a toss-up between the Sharks and the Ducks. The Sharks finished six points ahead of the Ducks last season, so that’s why I have the Sharks listed here, despite all the drama in San Jose, where it feels like JAWS has taken a bite out of the franchise.
The Sharks are just a mess. They have too much money wrapped up in players who are no longer able to contribute on a consistent basis. Erik Karlsson, signed for more six more seasons at $11.5M per, takes up 15% of the Sharks salary cap. Even worse, the contract has a NMC. The Sharks are stuck with this stinkeroo of a deal, as no one in their right mind would deal for this contract.
Speaking of messes and contracts nobody wants, here are two words for you – “Evander Kane”. I’ve written about Kane’s troubles all off-season, where I haven’t even recapped them all. Just last week, Kane was accused of using a phony COVID card – a crime when attempting to cross the American-Canadian border, which the Sharks will do this season. If all of Kane’s transgressions weren’t bad enough, it’s been reported and it’s well known that his teammates hate him too. As it stands right now, Kane isn’t with the team at training camp, nor is on their 23-man roster. However, he will be paid and takes up big salary cap dollars.
The Sharks do have talent on this team, such as Logan Couture, Brent Burns and Tomas Hertl. For how long though remains to be seen, as similar to Joe Pavelski and Joe Thornton, these players may go Cup chasing somewhere else. It’s time for the Sharks to hit that big and shiny red reset button, but with bloated and guaranteed contracts, it will be tough. It seems like only Hertl would bring back a decent return of draft picks and prospects.
If you are one that believes in what the Vegas sport books say, the Ducks (tied with Detroit, Ottawa and Arizona) have the second-worst odds of winning the Stanley Cup, where they’re currently listed at +15,000. Only the Buffalo Sabres (+20,000) have worse odds.
Unlike the Sharks, who did add veterans such as Nick Bonino, Andrew Cogliano, James Reimer and others, in their attempt to do something; the Ducks didn’t do anything this off-season, outside of making some limited fringe signings, signings that won’t improve the team.
The Ducks, accepting what they are, are staying the course with their rebuild, as they will use this season to develop the young faces on their roster. Unfortunately for players such as Cam Fowler, John Gibson, Ryan Getzlaf (who could’ve left but opted to stay) and others – it’s going to be a loooooooooooong season in Anaheim, where the Ducks will be far from mighty. (Har, har, har!)
Spoiler alert. When it comes to the Eastern Conference, I see two teams from the Metropolitan Division snagging wild card berths. In other words, that means I only see the top three teams of this Atlantic Division qualifying for the playoffs.
As a Rangers fan, I may be biased here, especially since it’s my belief that the Metropolitan Division is the best and toughest division in hockey. However, and admittedly, the tide is turning a bit, as this Atlantic Division has produced the last two Stanley Cup winners (Tampa Bay). In addition, the Florida Panthers may be the best dark horse team to win the Stanley Cup in 2022, that is if you consider the Panthers to be an underdog. The secret of the Panthers being good may no longer be a secret anymore.
This division, which boasts two thirds of the Original Six teams, has good regular season teams in Boston and Toronto. Ever since John Tavares told the Islanders to suck it, Toronto starts off each season as a top five favorite to win the Stanley Cup. (Toronto has the fourth-best odds this year, at +1200) However, and as it’s been since 2003 – the Leafs can’t get out of the first round.
While the Montreal Canadiens had a Cinderella run last season, a run that was aided by playing in a weak division and playing teams with injuries and suspensions, it’s hard to see them returning to the playoffs this year. This division should be top heavy with Tampa, Florida, Toronto and Boston, while Montreal should be the best of the bottom four teams, which also include Detroit, Ottawa and Buffalo.
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
Yes, I root for the Rangers, but I’m realistic too – I see Tampa Bay, despite having their roster plucked apart this off-season due to the salary cap, pulling off the first three-peat of the hard salary cap era.
Regular readers of this site know that I hate the hard salary cap, especially since it punishes teams for drafting well, which Tampa Bay has done an excellent job of doing so over the years. Outside of Ryan McDonagh, Tampa Bay pretty much built the core of their roster through the draft.
By now, you know that Tampa lost a bunch of their depth players this off-season, as Tyler Johnson, Yanni Gourde, Barclay Goodrow, David Savard, Luke Schenn and Blake Coleman have moved on and mostly for salary-cap related reasons.
Tampa, realizing that you need grit and toughness to win a Stanley Cup, has brought long-time veteran Corey Perry into the mix, the same Perry who was on the losing end of the last two Stanley Cup Finals (Dallas and Montreal) to these Lightning. Returning to Tampa is Zach Bogosian, who after winning the 2020 Stanley Cup, spent the 2021 season with the shaky Leafs.
Yes, Tampa has been stripped down a bit, but when you feature one of the best forwards in the NHL (Nikita Kucherov), one of the best defensemen in the NHL (Victor Hedman), one of the best coaches in the NHL (Jon Cooper), and the best goalie in the NHL (Andrei Vasilevskiy), you’re still going to be pretty good. And oh yeah, Tampa has Brayden Point, a Point who was seemingly made for the playoffs. And did I mention they have Steven Stamkos too? (Stamkos is regressing, but when he’s healthy he can be dominant.)
Two other factors in favor of Tampa? Stanley Cup experience and success, where you can’t overlook any of this at all.
Like any Cup contending team, this Tampa roster most likely won’t be the same 23-man roster come the playoffs. I’d expect the Lightning to be a player at the trade deadline, where they can deal off draft picks for veterans on expiring contracts at 50% the cost. (They did just this last season in the Savard trade.) Until someone beats the Lightning in the playoffs, I’m still riding the Lightning to win the Cup.
The Panthers would’ve had a deeper run in the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs, had they not drawn the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round. Despite that series loss, the Panthers played the Lightning tough in the six-game set.
The Panthers, similar to the Hurricanes, are a team on the rise. After losing some depth players this summer, in guys like Keith Yandle, Anton Stralman, Brett Connolly and goalie Chris Driedger (Driedger was actually going to be the number one goalie in Seattle, before Seattle got Grubauer in free agency), the Panthers added both Sam Reinhart and Joe Thornton to their roster. Think about that, the Cup-less Thornton is approaching the age of 60 years old (I’m exaggerating, but hey, all of us are approaching the age of 60 years old in a way!), yet he chose Florida to sign with.
The core of this Panthers team, with freshly minted captain Aleksander Barkov leading the way, should be a major threat this season. Of course, the issue of the starting goaltender hasn’t gone anywhere. In fact, that issue may be magnified.
Sergei Bobrovsky, with his insane contract, should be the defacto number one goalie, but he hasn’t played well since leaving Columbus for Florida. Spencer Knight, who Florida is high on, could take over the spot, which would mean Florida would be paying a back-up goaltender $10M. Ouch.
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
The Leafs, who may get more press and attention than any other team in the NHL, find themselves in a similar spot – good enough to easily make the playoffs, but will fail to make any noise once there.
Everyone knows all the talking points about Toronto. They have an analytical head coach in Sheldon Keefe and an even more analytical general manager in Kyle Dubas. As I’ve always said on this site – HOCKEY PLAYERS, and not charts & graphs, win Stanley Cups. Toronto should take notice of all of the veterans and grinders not only in Tampa, but from last year’s Montreal team too.
Toronto’s fearsome four-some of John Tavares, Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner haven’t gotten it done in the playoffs. Even when one of these players is injured, the Leafs, in theory, should be deep enough to win a playoff round. As we saw in the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs, that’s all that is – a theory, as the Montreal Canadiens upset their rival in a seven-game first round series, a series that Toronto choked away.
The Leafs, somewhat like Colorado, are a team that wants to get through this regular season as fast as possible and then get the bad taste from the 2021 playoffs out of their mouths. The Leafs, after many years of Frederik Andersen in net, have moved on and now feature a goalie tandem of Petr Mrazek and Jack Campbell. Do you see either of these goalies hoisting a Stanley Cup? I didn’t think so either.
It feels for the last several years on this site, I always say the same thing about the Bruins – they have peaked and it’s over, only for the Bruins to do well and make deep playoff runs, including making it all the way to Game 7 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final.
During the past two playoffs, the Bruins won a pair of first rounds in five-games, only to lose in the second round to two teams playing their best hockey of the salary cap era in the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2020 and the New York Islanders in 2021.
The Bruins, admittedly, are shedding parts, as after losing Zdeno Chara last season, the Bruins will be without David Krecji this season. The Bruins will also be without Tuukka Rask, at least for the time being, with Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman carrying the goaltending load.
Boston also added some veterans to their already aging core, in guys like Nick Foligno, Tomas Nosek and Erik Haula.
It wouldn’t shock me if the Bruins got into the playoffs somehow, but I’m leaning on the Bruins being the best team of the 2021-2022 season to NOT make the playoffs.
The Canadians, as mentioned, are coming off a Cinderella season. However, this off-season has been a big pumpkin for them. Not only will they be without their captain Shea Weber (injuries), they’ll also be without their franchise goalie Carey Price for some time too. (Unknown reasons, thought to be mental health issues, although John Scott, on his “Dropping The Gloves” podcast, said he heard the issues were substance-related. In any event, whatever is plaguing Price is not known with 100% certainty.)
The Habs did add solid players in Christian Dvorak, Mike Hoffman, Cedric Pacquette and David Savard this off-season, but they also lost Philip Danault, Corey Perry, Eric Staal and Jesperi Kotkaneimi, with the latter accepting an offer-sheet with the Hurricanes. (You may have heard.)
What might help Montreal, is if Weber goes on the LITR and if the team can get some cap relief while Price addresses his issues, perhaps Montreal can create cap room so they can be players at the trade deadline. Of course, goaltender Jake Allen will have to stand tall for Montreal in the meantime.
Cole Caufield, Montreal’s star rookie, and a Caufield who looked great in some games during the 2021 Stanley Cup playoffs, should have a good campaign, but it feels like Montreal will take a huge step back this season, as they address injury/personal issues, and more importantly, face reality – a return to the Atlantic division.
DETROIT RED WINGS
Ever since Steve Yzerman returned to Detroit, his message has been clear – he’s rebuilding through the draft.
The Wings were somewhat players during the off-season, nabbing Alex Nedeljkovic and Nick Leddy, while unloading Richard Panik, Luke Glendening, Valtteri Filppula and Frans Nielsen from their books.
A major story for Detroit, will be Tyler Bertuzzi’s refusal to get vaccinated, which means Bertuzzi won’t be able to play in Canada until he chooses to do so or until Canada lifts their vaccination mandates. (And it doesn’t feel like Canada will be lifting those restrictions anytime soon.)
The Wings won’t compete for a playoff spot, as they will continue to rebuild and become a perennial playoff contender again. It’s why I’m surprised that Marc Staal decided to stay in Mo-Town, rather than chasing the Stanley Cup with a contender.
If you’re a Senators fan, you can say this – “at least I don’t root for the Sabres”.
Between Brady Tkachuk contract negotiations and a mercurial owner (Eugene Melnyk); two of the biggest names the Senators acquired this off-season were Michael Del Zotto and Nick Holden – two names that aren’t going to instill fear into anyone.
The Senators, trying to get back to relevancy ever since their run in the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs, do have talented players, especially in Thomas Chabot and Tim Stutzle. However, these talented players won’t be seeing the playoffs in 2022.
LOL. I’m not even going to waste my time. All I’ll say, and as I always say whenever talking about the Sabres – their poor fans, as they are one of the biggest fan bases in all of hockey. These fans deserve better. How the Sabres can charge NHL ticket prices to these hardcores is a slap in the face.
When it comes to these Metropolitan division teams, I see five of them qualifying for the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs. With the playoff seeding reverting back to three teams from each division and two wild cards from each conference; once again, I see the Metropolitan Division taking the two wild card spots away from the Atlantic Division.
I see the Washington Capitals, the New York Islanders and the New York Rangers taking the three top seeds of the division. When it comes to the wild cards, I see the Carolina Hurricanes and the Pittsburgh Penguins coming out of the division; and with the Philadelphia Flyers in the mix of things. While I think the Devils will be improved from their 2020-2021 campaign, I see them at the bottom of the division, with only the rebuilding Columbus Blue Jackets being worse than the team that calls Newark, NJ home.
As has been the case for a while, once again, the Capitals finished the 2020-2021 regular season with a top three finish. The Capitals have been “Stanley Cup” ready for a while, including winning the Stanley Cup during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs. In turn, this Caps roster hasn’t really changed much, with Alex Ovechkin, who could’ve became a free agent, re-signing with the team during the summer (and after the Seattle expansion draft), in what was one of the worst-kept secrets in hockey. Ovi, just like the Capitals organization themselves, wanted to finish his future Hall of Fame career with the franchise. There’s a lot of honor in that, especially since as time goes on, you’ll see less players remaining with one franchise throughout their entire career.
The Capitals had two significant losses this off-season, where they actually recouped one of those losses. After Seattle drafted goaltender Vitek Vanecek during their expansion draft, Vanecek was sent back to the Caps a week later, after Seattle signed Philipp Grubauer to become their first-ever starting net-minder. However, the Caps did lose defenseman Brenden Dillon during the off-season to the Winnipeg Jets. However, for the most part, the Capitals return with the bulk of their successful core, in guys like John Carlson, TJ Oshie, Nicklas Backstrom, Tom Wilson and Evgeny Kuznetsov; with Kuznetsov’s future in Washington sparking much debate.
After winning the Stanley Cup in 2018 with Barry Trotz running the show from the bench, the Capitals are now on their second head coach since Trotz left Washington for the nomadic Islanders. After two first round exits under Todd Reirden, future Hall of Fame coach Peter Laviolette now has the reigns, where during the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Capitals fared no better with Laviolette as they did with Reirden – as the Caps were ousted in the first round in five-games for the second consecutive season.
While the Caps are older, and as a roster, are one of the oldest teams in all of the NHL; as the Bruins have shown us and the Caps last season, older teams can be successful too. For how long remains to be seen, but the Caps should be one of the top teams of the division in 2021-2022 (if not the best where I have them pegged). However, the playoffs are a different story, but with a full preseason and training camp under Peter Laviolette, you’d have to think this team will become a playoff threat again, rather than reverting to what they were prior to the 2018 Stanley Cup run – two rounds and done.
Another thing to monitor, is as the season progresses and as the trade deadline approaches, the Capitals, always a playoff contender, should attract veteran rental players to help bolster their chances.
NEW YORK ISLANDERS
The Islanders didn’t do much this off-season, but really, they didn’t have to. After all, with two straight Eastern Conference Final berths under Barry Trotz, the Islanders didn’t really need to tinker with their line-up.
Despite losing Jordan Eberle (Seattle) and Nick Leddy (Detroit), the Islanders still have a pretty strong team, where they added veteran Zach Parise to the mix. The Islanders also did a great job of shedding cap room in both the Leddy deal and with their trade of Andrew Ladd’s contract (Arizona).
Like most successful teams, the Islanders have a good 1-2 combination in net, with Seymon Varlamov and Ilya Sorokin. However, come playoff time, who gets the nod, as Trotz used both goalies during the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
While Mat Barzal, and to a lesser extent Adam Pelech, are the “faces of the team”, the Islanders are basically a group of veterans, where the system of the team carries the squad to deep playoff runs rather than any individual “super-starring” the team to the top.
Yes, I’m an Islander hater, but once again, just like their fourth line, “The Identity Line” – the Isles will be a force to be reckoned with. And yes, what I’m saying here is way too early, as it’s September 2021 and not April 2022 – but I think the Isles will be great in the regular season, but come the playoffs, I see the Islanders taking a step back. The competition in the conference will be stronger, especially in the Metropolitan Division and I don’t like the odds of the Isles making three consecutive ECF’s.
NEW YORK RANGERS
Of course, I’ll have a full preview of the Rangers 2021-2022 season as we get closer, but even if the Rangers weren’t my team – I would still think that the Rangers will qualify for the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
I don’t know if I said this before on this site or on social media, but I think when historians in the future look back at the Rangers 2020-2021 season, they’ll put an asterisk on it and say it was a “Murphy’s Law” season – as anything that could go wrong did go wrong, and there was plenty out-of-the-box stuff that happened too.
I know I’ve said this before on this site and multiple times at that – the Rangers aren’t built to win a Presidents’ Trophy – they are built for the playoffs.
Maybe I’m over-rating the Rangers as a three seed here, but even if it’s a wild card berth, the Rangers will make the playoffs. They are just too talented not to and for the first time in “The Letter Era”, they are also bringing Stanley Cup champions (Sammy Blais and Barclay Goodrow) and veterans (Ryan Reaves, Patrik Nemeth, etc) along for the ride.
Once known as the youngest team in the NHL, the Rangers are no longer a bunch of pimply faced kids anymore. While the Rangers do possess a ton of youth (Alexis Lafreniere, Kaapo Kakko, Filip Chytil, K’Andre Miller, etc), the Rangers also have a good balance of star players and veterans (Artemi Panarin, Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider). And oh yeah, the Rangers also have a Norris Trophy winner (Adam Fox) and a goaltender who could challenge for a Vezina Trophy too (Igor Shestyorkin).
The Rangers have made a lot of changes since May 2021 and I think all of these changes have been for the greater good. With high expectations from owner James Dolan, expect the Rangers to return to the top of the division.
I know, I know, I know – many fans, experts and people within the NHL think that the Carolina Hurricanes will win the division. After all, along with the Penguins and Islanders, the Hurricanes also have the best Vegas odds among all Metropolitan teams of winning the Stanley Cup in 2022 (+2000). However, those odds will always be flawed to me, especially with Toronto as the fourth-most favored team to win the Stanley Cup.
After nine playoff-less seasons, the Carolina Hurricanes have turned the corner under both head coach Rod Brind’Amour and with their “Bunch of Jerks” campaign. The Canes, who possess an amazing trio of talented players in Sebastion Aho, Andrei Svechnikov and Teuvo Teravainen, combined with their other youthful players, also added playoff experience this off-season in guys like Derek Stepan, Brendan Smith and others. And then there was the whole Jesperi Kotkaniemi offer-sheet. And I haven’t even mentioned that the Canes also made a wholesale sweep of their goaltenders, moving on from both Alex Nedeljkovic and Petr Mzarek for Antti Raanta and Frederik Anderson.
And oh yeah – did I mention that Dougie Hamilton is no longer in Carolina either? However, Tony DeAngelo is, and if DeAngelo can have a season like he had in 2019-2020, he’ll be a much better value than Hamilton and his high-priced contract with the Devils. (DeAngelo comes in at 1/9th price of Hamilton.)
The Canes are a franchise that have been on the rise during the last three seasons. However, come the playoffs, veteran teams, in both Boston (twice) and Tampa have ended the dreams of the Canes. Now, the Canes are a veteran team themselves, but at the same time, there’s been so much roster turnover, where it feels like the Canes have changed too much. The Canes will now need time to gel and the skaters will also have to learn the tendencies of their new goalies too. That’s why I think while the Canes will be a playoff team, they won’t be at the top of the division as many predict them to be either.
I know I use the phrase “as mentioned previously” a lot, but yeah – as mentioned previously, I think we’ve been at the beginning of the end with the Penguins for some time now, where a rebuild should be upcoming.
The Penguins will start the season at a major disadvantage, as both Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby will be out. If there was anything about the Penguins that was questionable to me, I wonder why Crosby waited to get surgery until late into the off-season, rather than addressing his issues right away? To me, it looks like Crosby wants to be 100% for the Olympics more than anything else.
The Penguins last two playoff runs have been disastrous, as in 2020 they were upset by the upstart Montreal Canadiens, and in 2021 were bounced out of the first round by the Islanders in six games. It’s also led to many people in Pittsburgh questioning the job status of Mike Sullivan. While Sullivan was the coach of the Stanley Cup winning teams of 2016 and 2017, people also have short memories and an attitude of “what have you done for me lately?” I don’t think it would shock anyone if Sullivan was canned mid-season, especially in the event that the Penguins have a poor start. (Also keep in mind that the new Penguins front office didn’t hire Sullivan either.)
The Penguins are one of the oldest teams in the NHL, despite featuring a young starting goaltender in Tristan Jarry, a Jarry who was just an absolute horror show in net during the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs. You can directly blame Jarry for the Penguins failure to get out of the first round last season. And if Jarry doesn’t work out again, do you really want to hitch your wagon to Casey DeSmith or Louis Domingue?
The Penguins are just getting old. While Crosby, Malkin, Letang and Carter are no slouches, at the same time, it feels like their best years are behind them. If there’s anything to the Penguins advantage here, it’s that they always seemingly find a way to discover youthful talent, who step right up and deliver, in guys like Jake Guentzel (now a veteran), Bryan Rust, Teddy Bleuger and Evan Rodrigues.
While I have the Penguins as a wild card team here, it wouldn’t shock me if they grabbed one of the top three spots of the division either. However, similar to the Rangers P.L. or “Pre-Letter”, I just don’t see the Penguins winning the Stanley Cup. Fortunately for the Penguins, and unlike the Rangers – at least the Penguins won the Stanley Cup multiple times during the Crosby era.
The Flyers, who looked like they were back on the rise, took a stumbling fall down the ladder last season. Prior to their collapse, it looked like the Flyers finally had a true starting goaltender since the days of Bernie Parent in Carter Hart. However, call it the “Curse of The Flyers” or whatever you want, but for whatever reason, Hart, like many Flyer goaltenders before him, had a disastrous season during the 2020-2021 campaign.
Goaltending will always remain a huge issue for the Flyers, where if Hart can revert to what he was prior to last season, the Flyers will improve. If he doesn’t, Martin Jones, another goalie who had a terrible 2020-2021 season, will then be tasked to shoulder the load.
The Flyers really focused on their defense during the off-season, adding Ryan Ellis, Rasmus Ristolianen and Keith Yandle to help their blue line and goaltenders. In addition, Yandle should also improve the Flyers struggling power-play.
It’s going to be interesting to see how Kevin Hayes plays this off-season. After losing his brother to an untimely death, Hayes will professionally look to carry on his brother’s honor with his play on the ice. Some use tragic events as an inspiration. Some can’t overcome it. Without trying to sound too morbid here, as I wanted to address this horrible tragedy very lightly, I do think that Kevin Hayes will have a monster 2021-2022 season, as his team rallies around him, just like they previously did with Oskar Lindblom.
While the Flyers have improved their roster, one must also wonder about their aging core, in guys like Claude Giroux, Sean Couturier, and to a much lesser extent, Ivan Provorov (24 years old).
The Flyers will be well-coached under Alain Vigneault, but as the story goes, AV has always been the bridesmaid but never the bride, as he’s never won a ring. I don’t think that changes in 2022 either.
NEW JERSEY DEVILS
I don’t think the Devils will be scaring the “hell” out of anyone this season. In fact, I think the opposite, as I see the Devils being “pitch-forked” themselves on most nights. However, the Devils, similar to the Rangers in recent seasons, are in the middle of a rebuild, where they are now starting to see light at the end of their tunnel.
The Devils are trying to build around a young core in guys like Jack Hughes, Ty Smith, Nico Hischier, Jesper Boqvist and others. In addition, the Devils were very active this off-season, giving Dougie Hamilton a whopping $9M per-season contract, which is 11% of the team’s salary cap. Also eating up 11% of the team’s salary cap is PK Subban, a Subban who becomes an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season. I don’t expect Subban to make it through the whole season with the Devils, as he will most likely become a rental for some playoff contender. (And imagine if it’s Montreal? The same Montreal who is without Shea Weber? Hmmmm, the story writes itself!)
Aside from the big Hamilton acquisition, the Devils also beefed up their roster by going after talent such as Jonathan Bernier, Tomas Tartar, Ryan Graves and others. Without question, the Devils should be much better this season than last season, but they also play in the toughest division in hockey. In other words, no playoffs for the red-and-black attack.
While I have the Devils in seventh place here, I think points-wise, they’ll be much closer to fifth and sixth place in the division than they will be to eighth place.
Somewhat similar to what I said about Kevin Hayes, and kind of like what happened in Vegas during the 2017-2018 season after the horrific shooting prior to the season; Columbus also has their own tragedy to rebound from, as the team lost goaltender Matiss Kivlenieks after a Fourth of July fireworks accident. While I believe that the Blue Jackets will play with valor and pride when honoring their fallen friend, I just don’t think this roster has what it takes to get out of the Metropolitan cellar.
Columbus, like Winnipeg, is a city that no NHLer wants to play in. Akin to the Islanders, you don’t see “sexy” or big-name free agents looking to sign with the middle-America Ohioan team. In fact, the opposite is happening here, as pending free agents run away from Columbus whenever they are able to, something that first started during the days of Rick Nash.
The current Columbus roster seems shot to shit, as after losing players like Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky two seasons prior, the team also said goodbye to David Savard last season and just lost Seth Jones this off-season. There’s really no one to really rally around in Columbus, despite the Blue Jackets best attempts to market anyone possible.
In a way, it feels like Columbus, and not Seattle, is the new NHL expansion team, right down to a new head coach in Brad Larsen, a Larsen who replaces John Tortorella – a Torts’ who has moved on to television after fulfilling his contractual obligations with Columbus.
It just feels while Columbus is able to churn out talent, just when the going gets good, the top stars leave for greener and better pastures. Until Columbus can attract star players and keep their own homegrown talent, it just feels like Columbus is on a hamster’s wheel.
And after saying all of this – watch the Blue Jackets win the Stanley Cup. Hey, stranger things have happened!
STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF PREDICTIONS
Eastern Conference Final – Tampa Bay Lightning vs New York Rangers (Yes, I’m in pure “homer” mode here! That said, there’s always one dark horse team that emerges in the playoffs. Why not the Rangers?)
Western Conference Final – Colorado Avalanche vs Vegas Golden Knights
Stanley Cup Final – Tampa Bay Lightning over Vegas Golden Knights.
Quick plug before closing out.
My new book, “The New York Rangers Rink of Honor and the Rafters of Madison Square Garden” is now on sale.
As mentioned previously, the book is now available in hardcover, in paperback and in Kindle formats. To purchase a copy of the book, visit this link:
For those still looking for signed paperback versions of the book, I have 18 copies left for sale for $25 (includes shipping price) through me directly. Here is all the information on that:
If you haven’t already, subscribe to this blog for the next update:
I’ll be back later tonight/early tomorrow, recapping all of the Rangers drama from Monday.
Until next time…
Stay FABULOUS my friends.
As always here, thanks for reading and…
LET’S GO RANGERS!
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