When it comes to hockey, it’s always safe to expect the unexpected. If there’s any sport that comes with a massive degree of unpredictability, it’s probably the one in which the athletes strap knives to their boots and fire vulcanized rubber at each other. It’s a wild sport played by crazy people, so good luck trying to make sense of it all.
It can be a daunting task to try and predict the future in a NHL season, especially before a puck has been dropped. And while the vast unknown can be scary, it’s also part of the appeal. A blank slate means infinite possibilities, and we love watching the unexpected play out.
But part of the fun also lies in throwing (stuff) at the wall and seeing what sticks. Some call them predictions. Some call them takes. Some call them nonsense. Whatever you choose to dub them, I’ve been warming up my arm and I’m ready to present to you some things that will (and will not) surprise you about the 2021-22 NHL season.
Five things that will surprise you this NHL season
Islanders will come out of the East
Maybe this won’t (or shouldn’t) surprise you considering the Islanders have made it to the Stanley Cup semifinals in each of the past two postseasons, but there still seems to be a large contingent of doubters when it comes to the Isles. In fact, New York has the fourth-shortest odds to win the Eastern Conference this season, behind Tampa Bay, Toronto and Boston.
Heading into the new season, I’m putting them atop my list to win the East. A lot of the big contenders in the conference seemingly got worse this offseason, including the back-to-back Cup champs. The Lightning were the only team to beat the Islanders in each of the past two postseasons, and New York was one of the only teams to give the Bolts a legitimate scare.
The Isles are returning most of their roster this year (one that carries a nice mix of youth and experience). They’re built for playoff hockey and they have one of the best coaches in the league. My money is on this being the season they get over the hump.
Flyers will contend for the Metro Division title
The Flyers were unquestionably one of the most disappointing teams in the NHL last season. They came into the campaign with lofty hopes (especially after a strong finish to the prior season) but crashed and burned. Now, they could be primed for a bounce-back.
Ryan Ellis should be a great partner for Ivan Provorov, Keith Yandle can provide power-play value and experience on the back end and the promising Cam York could make the leap and join the blue line as well. (I’m not crazy about the addition of Rasmus Ristolainen, but maybe a change of scenery — aka anywhere but Buffalo — helps him.) Philadelphia has a nice mix of youth and experience up front, and the addition of Cam Atkinson should help the Flyers find more scoring.
Most importantly, Carter Hart will have a chance to reset. You look at the reasons why things went wrong for Philly last year and Hart’s surprisingly dismal 2020-21 campaign has to be near the top of the list. The strange circumstances of the pandemic-altered season seemed to take a toll on Hart both on and off the ice, so a return to semi-normalcy should help him regain his form as one of the top young goaltenders in the game. If that’s the case, the Flyers should have a good shot to contend in a division where most of their top competition either treaded water or got worse this offseason.
NHL won’t actually participate in the Olympics
At the risk of sounding like a huge Debbie Downer, I’m trying to avoid getting too excited about NHL players heading back to the Olympics in 2022. Yes, the NHL/NHLPA reached an agreement with the IIHF to send players to Beijing this winter after skipping the 2018 Games in Pyeongchang, but there’s still a lot of uncertainty surrounding that agreement.
Given the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the rise of the Delta variant, there’s a lot of language in the deal that will allow the league (or players) to back out of the agreement without penalty. The COVID rates in North America and overseas will be closely monitored in the lead-up to the Winter Games, and that data could have a major impact on whether the NHL chooses to participate.
You might see some players opt out of the Olympics due to safety concerns and the fact that NHL contracts will not be insured in the event of a COVID-related illness at the games. (The IIHF will have a $5 million emergency fund to help cover lost NHL salaries.) But, on a larger scale, the NHL could just pull out of the Beijing Games altogether if COVID numbers continue to climb.
Scheduling concerns also could play a factor. The league plans on holding both an Olympic break and an All-Star break this season, meaning there will be limited wiggle room with an 82-game slate. If the pandemic forces regular-season cancellations that cannot be rescheduled outside of the Olympic break, the NHL won’t be going to Beijing.
Maybe it’s just the past year-and-a-half conditioning me to expect the worst when it comes to the pandemic, but there could be disappointment on the horizon.
Travis Green is the first coach fired
It’s always an interesting exercise to predict which coach might get axed first in a season. There are a number of coaches that probably should be on a hotter seat than Travis Green, but there are a lot of things to consider when it comes to a potential firing — among them, contract, expectations and desperation level of the front office.
With that in mind, I’m going to submit Green as my pick to be the first coach on the chopping block this season. After a surprisingly fun and successful campaign in 2019-2020, Vancouver took a big step backward last season. The Canucks were terrible defensively, and they were downright painful to watch at times. It certainly wasn’t all Green’s fault, as the organization gave him a show of faith with a reported two-year contract extension earlier this year.
But there should be a couple of big takeaways from the Canucks’ offseason. General manager Jim Benning, who is clearly on the hot seat himself, is desperate to fix this thing in a hurry (even if it means kicking his salary cap crunch down the road a bit), and his approach to do so has been a bit questionable. The team has improved in spots, but the defense still looks like it could be a mess. If so, a slow start to the season could result in Green getting thrown under the bus as Benning desperately scrambles to save his own job.
Juuse Saros wins Vezina
The Predators sneaked into the playoffs last season and actually put up a decent fight against the Hurricanes in Round 1, so it’s somewhat easy to forget that Nashville was a bit of a mess in the first half of 2020-21.
The biggest reason for the Preds’ second-half turnaround was goaltender Juuse Saros, who almost single-handedly dragged his team into the postseason picture. Over his final 23 starts, Saros posted a .941 save percentage and gave up fewer than two goals a game. It was good enough to earn him Vezina and Hart consideration at the end of last season.
This year, with Pekka Rinne officially out of the picture and the Predators facing relatively low expectations, Saros figures to shoulder a heavy workload in Nashville. If he can avoid some early season struggles (a concerning trend for him) and get back to the level of play he found down the stretch, he’ll be among the league’s best goaltenders.
As long as a retooling Preds team doesn’t sabotage him, there’s reason to believe that Saros is capable of officially establishing himself as one of the league’s elite goaltenders with his first Vezina.
Five things that WON'T surprise you this NHL season
Vegas and Colorado run away with their respective divisions
Thanks to last season's temporary league realignment caused by the pandemic, the Avalanche and Golden Knights were a fearsome one-two punch in a relatively weak West Division. They beat up on teams all season long, and it took until the final day to crown a divisional champ (and Presidents’ Trophy winner), with the Avalanche narrowly topping the Golden Knights via tiebreaker.
We’ll get back to a more traditional league alignment this season, which means the Avs and Knights will no longer share a division. Both still look to be among the best two to three teams in the entire league and, without having to compete against each other, they both should be near-locks to finish atop their respective divisions. It doesn’t hurt that the Central and Pacific just aren’t very good.
Maple Leafs don’t get out of the first round
I don’t feel like I need to explain this one.
Connor McDavid wins Hart again
No NHL player has won consecutive Hart trophies in over a decade, but nobody should be shocked if Connor McDavid accomplishes that feat this season. The Oilers star put together an absolutely absurd shortened season, posting 33 goals and 105 points over 56 games. He factored in on 57.38 percent of Edmonton's 183 total goals – the highest single-season percentage in NHL history. There wasn’t a logical debate against him for MVP.
This year, he heads into a full season with more forward help than he’s had in a while, which is somewhat of a scary thought. The Oilers did a pretty nice job adding some reinforcements up front, including Zach Hyman who should have a chance to thrive on McDavid’s wing. As long as he stays healthy, there’s little doubt that McDavid is going to tear up the league again.
It may not be as much of a one-man race as it was last season — Nathan MacKinnon finally securing his first Hart on a strong Colorado team is a very real possibility — and perhaps McDavid will have to battle voter fatigue, but there’s no reason to say he’s not equipped to run it back.
Jack Eichel will get traded
It’s a bit of a shock that Eichel is still a member of the Buffalo Sabres today, so it shouldn’t come as a shock if he’s somewhere else tomorrow. Eichel and the Sabres remain at odds over the center’s injured neck and how it should be treated. It seems like we’re past the point of no return, so expect a separation in the near future. Eichel has made it clear he wants out of Buffalo, and neither side wants an open wound to fester much longer.
Plus, the longer this carries on, the more leverage Buffalo loses. If the Sabres don’t trade Eichel this season, it will have to maneuver around a no-movement clause that kicks in next year that could hamper a return package. The team would prefer to avoid trading its top player, but this standoff could become an ugly, pesky distraction during the season. At some point, you just have to move on, and it seems like the best idea for all sides is to just start fresh.
A deal is going to get done this season. The big questions are when and with what team(s).
Sabres and Coyotes will battle it out for last place
The race to the bottom of the league can sometimes be as exciting and entertaining as the race to the top. This season promises a very intriguing tank battle in the cellar of the standings.
The Coyotes and Sabres seem destined for pathetic seasons given the state of their respective rosters, with most league observers agreeing that those two teams are the worst the NHL has to offer. Arizona more or less gutted its roster and is unapologetically heading into a rebuild, while Buffalo is about 10 years into a rebuild of its own. They say the night gets darkest just before the dawn, but these franchises are still very much in the pitch black right now.
The Sabres won the race to the bottom in 2020-21 thanks to a horrific season, and now they’re arguably worse heading into this season. Still, the Coyotes have fully committed to the tank, and it’s very plausible that they beat the Sabres at their own game – losing. A lot.