A new NHL season means a relatively blank slate for each of the league’s 32 teams (hello, Seattle Kraken!) and their respective fan bases. A blank slate also means there are plenty of gaps to fill in and questions to answer, so let’s highlight one burning question for every team in the league.
Will the rebuild start to take shape?
A new era of Ducks hockey is right around the corner and Anaheim has done a good job filling the pipeline with promising young pieces. But the future is still very much just a vision right now. Will some of those young pieces — most notably Trevor Zegras and Jamie Drysdale — kickstart their NHL development and bring some clarity to the franchise's future? Or will the Ducks use some of their rebuilding capital to make a big splash on the trade market, say, for Jack Eichel?
Just how bad will they be?
Almost made this one “Who is even on this team anymore?” but it felt a little mean. Still, it seems fair to expect the Coyotes to be among one of the NHL's worst teams in 2021-22. They essentially gutted the roster this offseason in preparation of a massive rebuild, and they appear to be fully embracing the tank lifestyle. With that in mind, what’s the floor here? Can they out-suck the Sabres or some of the league’s other cellar dwellers?
Who is going to be the second-line center?
Boston’s offseason took a twist when it was announced that David Krejci would be leaving the NHL to return home to play in the Czech Republic. That left the Bruins with a question at 2C that has yet to be answered. They seem content with letting Charlie Coyle try the gig on for size, but Coyle struggled last season and may not be the solution for a team that is looking to contend right now. Will he surprise and seize the opportunity? Or will the Bruins need to find another answer, possibly via trade? There have been rumblings about their interest in Jack Eichel and Tomas Hertl.
What happens with Jack Eichel?
Speaking of Eichel, there needs to be a resolution to the standoff between him and the Sabres soon. They may be past the point of no return, as he’s made it clear that he wants a trade, and the clock is ticking. He’s signed through 2026 and the Sabres could continue playing hardball. But If they don’t deal him this season, then they’ll have to navigate a no-movement clause that kicks in on Eichel’s deal next year. All eyes will be locked on that situation until bridges are repaired or a divorce is finalized.
How good will Jacob Markstrom be?
The Flames made a big splash last offseason when they brought in Markstrom to stabilize their goaltending situation. However, he didn’t have the greatest debut season in Calgary, posting a .904 save percentage with four goals saved below average in 43 appearances. That’s a steep dip from the Vezina-caliber season he had in Vancouver the year prior. The Flames will need Markstrom to be better this season, especially after they lost Mark Giordano in the expansion draft.
Did they get better this offseason?
A whole lot has been said about some of the surprising moves that the Hurricanes made this offseason. Letting Dougie Hamilton walk and then trying to replace his production with Tony DeAngelo? Trading Alex Nedeljkovic and then bringing in Frederik Andersen/Antti Raanta? Offer-sheeting Jesperi Kotkaniemi for more than he’s worth? It was all a bit surprising (which is why they topped my list of weirdest NHL offseasons), but have these moves made the team better or more likely to take the next step in the postseason? That’s really all that matters for a Carolina team that has been knocking on the door for a few years now.
Will Seth Jones and Marc-Andre Fleury save them defensively?
The first order of business for the Blackhawks this offseason was revamping the defense. Duncan Keith is out, but the team hopes it found a new franchise defenseman in Seth Jones, who cost them a ton both via trade and contract extension. Jones has shown that he’s capable of being an excellent No. 1 defenseman in the past but has fallen off a bit recently, so the biggest thing to watch in Chicago this season will be whether he can get back to that level of play. Then there’s reigning Vezina winner Marc-Andre Fleury, who they acquired for nothing this summer. Can he still be great in Chicago? What kind of impact will Jones and Fleury have on the goal prevention issues of a team that finished 25th defensively last season?
Can they finally take the next step?
This one is simple. The Avalanche have been trending toward powerhouse status in recent years, and they’re seemingly primed to become legitimate Stanley Cup contenders. However, they have still yet to make it out of the second round of the playoffs with this current group, and patience may start running thin soon if that doesn’t change. There’s little doubt that Nathan MacKinnon and company are headed for a strong regular season, but can they find more postseason success?
Columbus Blue Jackets
How different will they look under Brad Larsen?
Honestly, it’s hard to pinpoint a reason why anyone outside of Columbus should care about the Jackets this season. They’re still rebuilding and stand almost no chance of competing in a tough Metro division, but this year will provide a good opportunity for some on the roster to prove their worth. With John Tortorella out of the picture and Brad Larsen now running the bench, offensively geared players like Patrik Laine (in a contract year) could have more freedom. For better or for worse, Tortorella was unrelenting in his commitment to physical, defensive hockey. It will be interesting to see what CBJ’s game plan looks like under Larsen.
How good will Tyler Seguin be?
It’s no secret that Seguin is a massive piece for the Stars. He’s arguably the best offensive player on a team that doesn’t score a whole lot, so his absence last season (just three games played) was predictably devastating. He’ll be back this year, but will he be as effective as we’ve come to expect? Seguin, who will turn 30 in January, is coming off serious hip surgery (plus a battle with COVID-19), so it will be important to keep an eye on his productivity.
Detroit Red Wings
What’s the rebuild timeline looking like?
It’s been a tough stretch for the once-proud Red Wings, but there’s reason to believe that the dark days of this rebuilding phase are nearing an end. Steve Yzerman is at the helm and steadily guiding this team back toward relevancy. Detroit's offseason saw a few nice additions to build around, including Pius Suter and Alex Nedeljkovic, but expectations for the Red Wings remain relatively low. For now, the question isn’t so much “Will they be good?” as it is “When will they be good?” That timeline may become more clear if they can be competitive and develop some of their promising young players.
Can they finally make some noise in the playoffs?
Six seasons into the Connor McDavid era, the Oilers have just eight playoff wins, and McDavid now has more Hart trophies than playoff series wins on his resume. For a team that employs two of the most offensively gifted players in the world, there’s been an embarrassing lack of organizational success in Edmonton. Patience is really running thin as prime years of generational talent are wasted, so there aren’t many teams in the league facing more pressure than the Oilers this season.
Is this Spencer Knight’s team now?
We all seemed to have a pretty good idea that Sergei Bobrovsky’s contract would age like fine milk. However, I’m not sure we all predicted it would curdle this quickly, as we now head into his third season in Florida wondering if he’s even the true No. 1 anymore. The Panthers used three goalies during their playoff series against the Lightning last season, and Knight clearly gave them the best chance to win. He is only 20 years old and has a very limited NHL sample (six total appearances), but everything he’s shown so far indicates he’s worth the hype that made him a first-round pick in 2019. Will that continue? And how heavily will the Panthers lean on him in his first full season?
Los Angeles Kings
Are they a playoff team?
The Kings have endured some ugly seasons lately, but they appear ready to turn a corner soon. They have one of the best prospect pipelines in hockey, and I was impressed with their summer moves. Adding Phillip Danault, Victor Arvidsson and (presumably) Quinton Byfield should give them a much better and deeper forward group this season. Considering they play in a division that looks like one of the weakest in the league on paper, the Kings may have a chance to sneak back into the playoff picture in 2021-22.
How much of an impact will the youngsters have?
As weird as it feels to say, the Wild were a fun team last year. That’s largely because of Kirill Kaprizov’s arrival, as he proved to be worth every bit of the hype he earned in the KHL. Assuming Kaprizov signs a new contract ahead of this season, it’ll be important to monitor what kind of growth he exhibits from Year 1 to Year 2 and how that’ll affect Minnesota's standing in the West. There are also a few more youngsters coming up through the system that could continue pushing this team in the right direction, namely Matthew Boldy and Marco Rossi.
Can they possibly follow up last season’s success?
At the risk of sounding like a hater, it seems like there’s a significant chance that the Canadiens come crashing back to earth after a Cinderella playoff run last season. Following that improbable run to the Stanley Cup Final, they took some significant hits this offseason. Shea Weber may not play again. Carey Price underwent offseason knee surgery. Phillip Danault left via free agency. Jesperi Kotkaniemi got plucked by Carolina. Of course, they made some corresponding moves to help soften the damage, but this team is facing an uphill climb to match what they accomplished last season. Maybe they’ll prove me wrong (again), but don’t expect me to eat another hat.
Where are they as an organization?
The Predators find themselves in one of the more dangerous scenarios an NHL team can face: attempting to retool on the fly. Call it a “soft rebuild,” a “competitive transition” or whatever else you want to call it — the Preds are turning the page but still trying to stay in the hunt. They’ve parted ways with some veteran pieces (Ryan Ellis, Victor Arvidsson, Pekka Rinne) and may continue to reshape their roster for the long term (Filip Forsberg has one year remaining on his deal) without blowing the entire thing up. But teams that attempt on-the-fly overhauls often get stuck in No Man’s Land — not good enough to truly contend, not bad enough to score franchise pillars via the draft. It’s not impossible to pull off, but it takes some precision. By the end of this season, we should have a better idea of whether the Predators think they can make it work.
New Jersey Devils
Can they contend in the Metro?
The Devils … contending? Seriously? Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself here, but New Jersey could be closer to relevancy than some might think. Jack Hughes made great strides as a sophomore and will have some more help up front this year. Adding Dougie Hamilton and Ryan Graves will help reinforce the defense. In a division that seems to be wide open, it’s not outrageous to think that the Devils could be in the playoff picture at season's end.
New York Islanders
Can they get over the semifinal hump?
In each of the past two playoffs, the Islanders have reached the semifinals only to be knocked off by the eventual Stanley Cup champion Lightning in a hard-fought series. While the Bolts were hit by some notable offseason cap casualties this summer, the Isles are returning most of their roster (one that carries a nice mix of youth and experience) and are primed to make another run. They’re built for playoff hockey and have one of the best coaches in the league. Is the third time the charm?
New York Rangers
Will all that grit pay off?
After their promising rebuild stalled out a bit and they were criticized for being too soft last season, the Rangers committed to getting a lot tougher this summer. New general manager Chris Drury went out and invested in grit, acquiring Barclay Goodrow, Ryan Reaves and Sammy Blais to help inject some physicality into the lineup. That should help them fend off Tom Wilson a bit more effectively this season, but will it actually make them a better hockey team?
Is the rebuild done?
I wouldn’t be asking this question if general manager Pierre Dorion wasn’t quoted as saying “the rebuild is done. Now we're stepping into another zone” earlier this offseason. Do the Senators have some good young players to build around? Absolutely. But is the rebuild over? I, uh … I’d be shocked if it felt that way this season. It seems like there’s still a lot of work to be done in Ottawa, but I suppose we’ll have to wait and see what this new “zone” looks like.
How will Carter Hart and the defense look?
The Flyers were among the most disappointing teams in the league last season, largely because of the poor play of their defense and young netminder Carter Hart. Philadelphia aggressively overhauled the defensive corps, adding Ryan Ellis, Rasmus Ristolainen and Keith Yandle to the new-look blue line. Cam York could also make the jump to the NHL this year. Will that be enough to stabilize Philly’s back end? And more importantly, will Hart be able to shake off a rough season and regain his form as one of the top young goaltenders in the game?
Are they still worth fearing?
For better or for worse, it was a pretty quiet summer in Pittsburgh. The Penguins return largely the same roster, but is that a good thing? They took the East Division but once again failed to win a postseason series. That’s three straight years that the Pens have been one-and-done in the playoffs, and there doesn’t seem to be a lot of optimism that things are going to change. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are both heading into this season with health concerns, and the rest of the lineup isn’t getting younger. Tristan Jarry is coming off one of the worst playoff showings I can remember, and, as such, confidence in him is a bit limited right now. In a competitive Metro Division, are you willing to overlook them?
San Jose Sharks
Will Tomas Hertl stay?
Evander Kane’s status with the Sharks remains very much up in the air. Will he be cleared following the NHL’s gambling probe? And if so, will the Sharks welcome him back? That’s an intriguing storyline heading into this season, but the bigger personnel question is whether this will be Tomas Hertl’s final season in San Jose. Hertl has one year remaining on his contract, and he’s expressed his desire to play for a contending team. The Sharks would like to keep him long-term, but can they convince him to stick around given the unfortunate state of the team at the moment? Or will they have to say goodbye and just hope to get a fair return for the talented center?
Are they going to be competitive right away?
Seattle has the unenviable task of following up the Vegas Golden Knights as the NHL’s newest expansion team. Not only did the Knights immediately win over the city of Las Vegas and establish an enthusiastic hockey community on the Strip, but they also advanced to the Stanley Cup Final in their inaugural season and have remained highly competitive since. No pressure or anything, Kraken.
St. Louis Blues
Will they be good enough defensively?
After years of boasting a strong defensive presence, the Blues had some trouble keeping it together in their own end last season, giving up nearly three goals per game. They got steamrolled by the Avalanche in the first round of the playoffs, and they looked like they didn’t even belong on the same sheet of ice as the Avs. Fast forward through the summer and St. Louis hasn’t done much to improve defensively. They lost Vince Dunn via the expansion draft and have yet to outsource any help. On top of that, they lost one of their better defensive forwards in Jaden Schwartz (also to Seattle). It could be a long season for Jordan Binnington in net.
Tampa Bay Lightning
Can they defend their throne despite offseason losses?
As much as we like to joke about the Lightning finding creative ways to bend the rules, it was always inevitable that they were going to suffer some significant roster losses this summer. (That’s what happens when you’re $81 million over the cap, am I right guys?!) Yanni Gourde, Barclay Goodrow, Blake Coleman, Cedric Paquette, Tyler Johnson and David Savard are among the departures, so the team’s absurd depth certainly took a hit over the past few months. That being said, they’ve still got an incredible core and an excellent front office, so who’s to say they can’t run it back yet again? No team has won three straight Stanley Cups since the Islanders did it in the early 80s, but Tampa may still have a shot.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Is there still reason to believe in this team?
Yet another promising year for the Maple Leafs spontaneously burst into flames with a downright embarrassing playoff collapse, so now what? They’ve still got a pretty good team on paper and should be a legitimate threat in the East, but, hey, go ahead and get your hopes up at your own risk. This core group still has yet to win a playoff series, and it feels like they’re being held together by a thread at this point. If they don’t find a way to shake off the chokers label this year, there will almost certainly be a big shakeup coming next summer.
Can they rebound after last season?
After a surprisingly fun and successful campaign in 2019-2020, everything seemed to go wrong for the Canucks last season. Elias Pettersson only played 26 games. Quinn Hughes and the rest of the team looked lost defensively. COVID hit the entire roster hard. It was a mess. They’ve made some nice offseason additions, especially up front, and they should catch a few more breaks this year. Should we expect Vancouver to be back in the hunt? Or will the defense continue to hold the Canucks back?
Vegas Golden Knights
Will they try to upgrade at center?
One thing that we’ve come to learn about the Golden Knights is that they’re not afraid of getting aggressive when it comes to player acquisition, especially when they’ve identified an area of need. With that in mind, it’s a bit surprising they didn’t find a way to upgrade the center position. The lack of center depth hurt Vegas against the Canadiens in the playoffs, and there was plenty of smoke about the Knights trying to make a run at a top-six center, including Jack Eichel. They did swap Cody Glass for Nolan Patrick this offseason, but how much will that accomplish for them? Should we expect Vegas to continue exploring options down the middle?
Do they have enough left in the tank?
The Capitals are aligned similarly to the Penguins in that this is a team that has an established, aging core but has been trending in the wrong direction without doing much to stop the bleeding. Washington still has holes on the roster (especially on defense), and I’m starting to wonder whether the top-end talent still has good enough legs to make it through a full season followed by a lengthy Cup run. Injuries hit this team hard at the end of a condensed season last year, as did inexperience in net. If the Caps are clicking, they should be able to keep pace in the Metro, but that’s not a sure thing.
Can the defense hold up?
The Jets’ back end has been in rough shape for much of the past two years, and they’ve relied heavily on Connor Hellebuyck as the last line of defense. Winnipeg made some tweaks to the blue line, acquiring Brenden Dillon and Nate Schmidt in hopes of finding some stability. They’re not major splashes, but will they help the Jets keep more pucks out of the net?