Oh my goodness, is it mid-January already? Honey, get out the skate sharpener! Cue up the The Tragically Hip! Order a 40 pack of Timbits! It’s time for some goddamn North American professional hockey. Let’s get to it.
So the way things work for this planned 56-game NHL season is that all the divisions have been mixed up to appease the Canadian government and make travel easier in the midst of this pandemic that, yes, is very much still happening. Just like last year’s playoffs, it feels foolish and ultimately pointless to try and conjure any predictions out of this still-in-flux 2021 hockey project, and if there’s one thing I won’t stand for, it’s looking like a fool.
To that end, my focus here is less on who’s going to be “good” or who’s primed to look “so embarassing that you seriously question whether this massive logistical undertaking was worth even thinking about.” I’m just going to run through the squads by division and spotlight a guy in particular who interests me. There will be visual aids, too.
Ready? All right. Let’s start with the Great White North:
The Loonie Division
Calgary Flames: Andrew Mangiapane
The thing about Flames forward Andrew Mangiapane is … wait! Come on, it’s literally the very first team, don’t you dare start casually scrolling already.
OK, so Matthew Tkachuk is really the obvious guy to talk about here, because he’s a dick who gets on everyone’s nerves while also leading the Flames in points. (Is it too soon to call him a “lovable” dick? I’ve come around on him, personally, because he makes games interesting.) And there’s also Johnny Gaudreau, a short king who remains one of my faves even after an off year. But those have been the key forwards on the Flames for, what, at least three years now, and despite the team’s occasionally strong play, including a division win in 18–19, Calgary hasn’t managed a legit playoff series win since 2015.
Enter Mangiapane, certainly not a savior in his own right but definitely part of an influx of talent and improving youngsters that should be raising the Flames’ ceiling. (Jacob Markstrom, the goalie they got from Vancouver, for sure qualifies as A Big Deal in this respect.) What I find most intriguing about the guy they call “Bread” is how much he gave Calgary in such a small amount of time. In his first “full” season last year, the now 24-year-old finished fifth on the team with 17 goals despite only getting an ice time average of 13:42 in 68 games. For comparison, everyone else in the Flames’ top six scorers played at least 17:57 per game. For an even larger-scale comparison, Mangiapane was the only guy anywhere in the league to earn himself 30 even-strength points while averaging fewer than 14 minutes of ice time. I’m psyched to see where this little sixth-round find takes his game next,
Edmonton Oilers: Ethan Bear
The Oilers’ potential blueliner of the future, and one of the few Indigenous players in the NHL, had a breakout rookie year for an underachieving franchise that’s badly needed depth for the entirety of the Connor McDavid era. Playing 22 minutes a night at just 22 years old, Bear helped turn the Edmonton defensive corps from a true disaster zone into something resembling league average, which in turn helped their goal differential zoom from -42 all the way to +8. It really came from out of nowhere—he was a fifth-rounder who wasn’t particularly exceptional in the AHL—and that means there are still some serious questions about how he grows from here. But he genuinely seems like a good dude, and I’m rooting for him to keep succeeding.
Bear also shares some responsibility for one of the best moments of the Calgary-Edmonton rivalry since Esa Tikkanen. Back in February, his first NHL fight against—oh hey, there’s Matt Tkachuk!—led to a frickin’ goalie brawl. (I meant it when I said Tkachuk makes games interesting.)
Montreal Canadiens: Tomas Tatar
I realize there is something a bit psychotic about being like “Hell yeah! Hockey! Who’s excited?” and then immediately hitting you with a one-two punch of Andrew Mangiapane and Ethan Bear. So here, for you, is a legit top scorer on a playoff team: Tomas Tatar!
The path to the Slovak winger’s esteemed status in Montreal was not exactly a straight one, but Tatar has never been better than in his past two seasons for the Canadiens. Tatar was a longtime Red Wing, and a very good one at that, but as that franchise disintegrated he found himself shipped to Vegas, where he … how do I put this politely … sucked. He was a healthy scratch for the majority of the Knights’ magical 2018 playoff run, and nobody there really minded to see him traded up north as part of the deal for Max Pacioretty.
But Tatar, suddenly, had no problem filling the Pacioretty-sized hole left in Quebec’s largest city. He’s back to being a 20-goal scorer, and he’s still a spry 30 years old. He and his partner in that trade, the much-younger Nick Suzuki, are two big reasons why the Habs have to feel decently optimistic about returning to at least the first round again this year.
Ottawa Senators: Brady Tkachuk
Dear God, they put the rowdy Tkachuk boys in the same division. This one, Brady, has the same knack for offense and is about as frustrating to his opponents as his older brother (and honestly, it’s a real upset that the younger sibling isn’t more annoying than his older brother).
Tkachuk was a 20-goal goon immediately upon his entry into the league in 2018–19, and the 21-year-old winger again looks to be one of the lone bright spots on this pathetic Senators squad that did not finish last only because the somehow-much-worse Red Wings were also in their division. Though he certainly needs better line mates to unlock his full potential—that’s where the addition of free agent Evgenii Dadonov comes in handy—Tkachuk actually led the league in expected goals at even strength last year, suggesting that he’s doing plenty right in front of the net and mainly needs to refine his finishing abilities.
That said, there’s still no reason to care about the Senators this year, who are by a big, big margin the obvious punching bag of this division—unless you’re holding out hope for a brother brawl during one of their nine meetings with the Flames.
Toronto Maple Leafs: William Nylander
I was so happy to see my pal Bill bounce back in 2019–20. One of many charismatic youngsters on the Maple Leafs, Nylander had his previous season derailed by a contract dispute and, after a late start, only managed seven goals in 51 games. This of course, opened him up to accusations of selfishness and bigheadedness from hockey’s crustiest commentators, but the winger returned with a vengeance last season to show that he was very much worth a six-year, $41.77 million deal, even for a cap-crunched team like Toronto. His 31 goals were a new career high and led everyone on his team not named Auston.
So this is the time of the year when everyone talks about how the Leafs really look like one of the best teams in the East—a matching bracket for the time everyone talks about how the Leafs failed to win anything yet again. Last year, it was Columbus in the qualifying round who kept them down, which was at least a nice change of pace from it being Boston.
This remains a team that has done absolutely everything you need to do to build a terrifying forward group and has what’s supposed to be a good goaltender in Frederik Andersen. But a lack of solid D and just plain bad luck has conspired against them. Sheldon Keefe is prepping for his first full year as a head coach, and some deck chairs have been shuffled on the blue line, and also, wow, Joe Thornton is practicing with the top line. So maybe that will make a difference. But it’s hard to imagine one or even a few mere mortals having any real control over a franchise this consistently heartbreaking. You can and should watch the Leafs this year, but if you find yourself getting too attached to them, please pull yourself away.
Vancouver Canucks: Thatcher Demko
Thatcher Demko! Man, who would have seen this coming back in August? Vancouver’s second-string goalie was the tragic hero of this year’s playoffs, stopping nearly all the pucks Vegas fired at him in the last three games of the second round but still letting in just enough (one power play goal on 34 shots in Game 7) that his team failed to advance. With last year’s starter Jacob Markstrom departed to Calgary for a big payday, Demko now has a license to drive these Canucks from between the pipes.
Well, actually, it’s more of a learner’s permit. You see, three Tim Howard–esque playoff games wasn’t enough to get the Canucks to go all in on a young goalie who’s played below average across 34 career starts, so they also went out and signed handsome veteran Braden Holtby to cover for him. I’m sorry to say this, because he seems like a great guy, but Holtby was smelly garbage in net last season. On paper, this is a real downgrade for a team that’s otherwise really easy to bandwagon.
Seriously, I love the Canucks’ youthful skaters. Defenseman Quinn Hughes, the Michigan product, outplayed his more-heralded brother Jack and finished second in Calder voting last season. Elias Pettersson avoided any hint of a sophomore slump with another 66-point year. And Brock Boeser got a new puppy! Unfortunately, if the ‘Nucks can’t make one competent goalie out of Demko and Holtby, this year might be an unfamiliar and frustrating step backwards.
Winnipeg Jets: Connor Hellebuyck
Another goalie for you, possibly the best in the league and certainly the hardest-working. Nobody faced more shots and nobody made more saves last NHL season than the American boy Connor Hellebuyck did for the Winnipeg Jets, who nevertheless finished ninth in the conference and won just a single game in the bubble. Imagine what might have happened if they didn’t have an elite goaltender.
Though a lot of the same names still populate the roster, the Jets have pretty clearly dropped off since they looked like Stanley Cup contenders a couple of years ago. The teen sensation from those glory days, Patrik Laine, remains the subject of trade rumors heading into this season, while a lack of depth and that porous defense that passed along so many opportunities to Hellebuyck remain an issue. With their number-one goalie how he is, and with guys like Kyle Connor and Mark Scheifele still potting plenty of goals, the Jets will manage to be a worthy opponent for any other team in Canada. But even with that brick wall in net, they still only managed to be a fringe playoff team. It’ll be a tough task to expand their possibilities any more.
The “Ayyy, I’m Skatin’ Heah” Division
Boston Bruins: Patrice Bergeron
The Bruins looked like a nearly flawless team before the stoppage hit in March, but in the bubble, against teams from outside North Carolina, they went a really terrible 1-7. Unfortunately for those who enjoy watching Brad Marchand eat shit, there’s no reason to get cocky about a decline in overall quality just yet. Boston’s roster is still spectacular heading into this year, even if injuries to Marchand and David Pastrnak, which might affect their opening stretch of games, put their ability to repeat as Presidents’ Trophy winners in doubt.
However, one enormous change (no pun intended) really does separate this Bruins team from the ones that came before it. For the first time in 15 years, Boston will not be captained by Big Z, Zdeno Chara, as the gigantic defenseman has moved on to Washington. Instead, top-line center and lifelong Bruin Patrice Bergeron will take the C, an honor he more than deserves after over a decade-and-a-half of high-caliber production and superb defense. Bergeron’s new leadership role does, technically, signal this as a new era for the Bruins, but it seems more like Nick Lidstrom taking over for Steve Yzerman on the mid-00s Red Wings than any kind of dynamic locker-room overhaul. Like Lidstrom in 2008, Bergeron is more than capable of leading these Bruins on a Stanley Cup run before the sun sets.
Buffalo Sabres: Rasmus Dahlin
I wouldn’t dare tell you to ever get excited about the Buffalo Sabres, but there’s more to like about this particular 2021 iteration than there’s been since Ryan Miller’s peak. The offseason’s biggest coup has former MVP Taylor Hall signing a one-year lease, and the prospect of him and franchise centerpiece Jack Eichel leveling each other up on the same line is mouthwatering.
But the forward group is the least of Buffalo’s concerns. They don’t really have a solid goaltender, which is obviously problematic, and none of their D-men are better than anything you can find off the scrap heap. Except one: Rasmus Dahlin, the first pick in the 2018 draft who’s now entering his third season and is far and away the Sabres’ most promising blue liner at just 20 years old. Already a skillful passer in the offensive zone who plays a key role on the power play, Dahlin spent the offseason adding strength in an attempt to make himself into more of the workhorse two-way top guy that Buffalo needs so badly. The Swedish kid will be asked to do a lot as the Sabres try to defy the odds and make the playoffs for the first time since 2011, but it’s not a stretch to expect that this could be a breakout year that immediately puts him back on par with peers like Cale Makar and Quinn Hughes.
New Jersey Devils: MacKenzie Blackwood
So last week I wrote a whole thing about the Devils’ new goalie signing, Corey Crawford—about how even if he won’t be enough to make New Jersey relevant, one of the best goaltenders of his generation would at least be good for a nostalgic shutout or two against more important teams.
But Crawford’s shock retirement over the weekend creates not just a little more work for me, but also, almost as importantly, a lot more pressure for MacKenzie Blackwood. The 24-year-old Thunder Bayer, who was expected to form a puck-stopping platoon with the veteran Crow, will now barring a trade have to do almost all the work by himself. Though he’s seemed basically fine if a little inconsistent in 64 career starts, Blackwood will need to try and accelerate his development as he attempts to manufacture as many tight wins as possible for the Satanists with a below-average defense and a forward unit that won’t be scoring goals. Good luck!
New York Islanders: Adam Pelech
The goddamn nerve of this frickin’ team. I’ve grown to have a sort of grudging, kid-sidekick type of affection for the Isles after crucial moments spent at Offside Tavern (R.I.P.) and multiple cheap trips out to Barclays Center, where they no longer reside. But nobody can tell me that they play aesthetically pleasing hockey. The Islanders Way since the entrance of head coach Barry Trotz has been to pair anemic offense with relentlessly frustrating defense and stellar goaltending. The thing is, it pretty much works.
Yeah, it couldn’t get them past the supergroup that is the Lightning in the Conference Final, but three playoff series wins in two seasons after being league laughingstocks sure isn’t a failure. The experts say that there’s no way they can keep it up, that a simple refusal to allow the puck to go into your net will eventually wither in the presence of mostly mediocre talent. The experts, however, consistently fail to account for the absolute alpha shit that is failing to put the puck on net for like 45 minutes and then winning an elimination playoff game in double-OT because of a dumbass little counterattack. To be clear: Only the Islanders are allowed to get away with this crap.
OK, right. I’m supposed to talk about a guy. Mat Barzal is silky smooth and a good young center, and I at some point deluded myself into believing that Anders Lee and Brock Nelson are important pieces of an offense that took fewer shots than anyone but the Red Wings last year. But the man I’m actually interested in is Adam Pelech, who in the postseason made himself known as a true top-pair guy alongside the somewhat more established Ryan Pulock. Though his quantifiable numbers really don’t stand out, the Islanders’ results in the regular season with and without him are hard to ignore. Before his injury: 25-10-3. After: 10-13-7. To say that 25-year-old is the backbone of the defense is cliched, but I don’t feel like inventing some other metaphor.
New York Rangers: Igor Shesterkin
I hope the Islanders enjoyed being the most relevant team in New York for a few years, because the Rangers keep loading up on dudes that’ll bring them back to the top of the marquee. Last offseason, it was the blockbuster signing of Artemi Panarin and the drafting of Kaapo Kakko at second overall that boosted their importance. This time around, some lottery luck (even though the Rangers snuck into the playoff bubble) gifted them a possible generational winger in the 19-year-old Alexis Lafrenière. If they don’t yet project to be a shoo-in for the playoffs, the Rangers at least have the raw talent to turn your head.
The most obvious sign that the Rangers are fully turning the page from their very successful but ultimately Cup-less old guard is the identity of the man with the mask and the poofy leg pads. Henrik Lundqvist, a goalie who became synonymous with big-time New York hockey over a 15-year run with the Rangers, planned to play his 2021 season with the Capitals, but instead will be out of hockey all together as he undergoes and then recovers from open-heart surgery. I wish him all the best.
The loss of Lundqvist—who had become a below-average goaltender late in his career—is more a sentimental blow than a tangible one. And the Rangers have themselves a very enticing mystery box of a replacement. Igor Shesterkin, the 25-year-old out of Moscow, has played all of 12 games in the NHL. Here’s the thing, though: He’s looked spectacularly, unbelievably good in that dozen-start stretch from January to March last season, posting a save percentage of .932 and winning 10 of those 12 contests. They have to actually play the games, of course, but Shesterkin is currently the betting favorite to win the Calder. And … huh … who’s that right after him? Wow, it’s Lafrenière! What a fortunate franchise this is.
Philadelphia Flyers: Ivan Provorov
The Flyers have been a real yo-yo of a team these past few seasons, bouncing in and out of the playoffs every other year with consistent inconsistency since 2013. Based on the pattern, after finishing just a point behind the Capitals at the top of their division and winning 10 games in the bubble, you’d peg them to drop out of the bracket altogether. In reality, though this dumb season isn’t made for rational predictions, the safest assumption would be that this time out they find a kind of unsatisfied middle between trash and contenders.
The Flyers are top-to-bottom a solidly constructed group, with a good goalie in Carter Hart, some standouts at the top led by Sean Couturier, and just an impressive lack of bad players further down. Where they have the most unanswered questions, however, is defense, after the unexpected retirement of a top-line guy in Matt Niskanen. That’s where Ivan Provorov, Niskanen’s partner in 2019–20, comes in. The 24-year-old with highlight-reel offensive abilities is now the unquestioned leader of this unit after making a big step forward onto that line between good and great last year. He’ll need to prove he can keep it up without Niskanen if the Flyers want to be considered a serious threat.
Pittsburgh Penguins: Evgeni Malkin
The cop-out here would be to take “the medical staff,” but they don’t score quite as many goals as Geno, nor do they feature in quite as many fanfics alongside Sidney Crosby.
The Penguins dealt with tons of injuries last year—namely Sid’s core muscle surgery, which allowed him to play in just 41 games. But they still managed their trademark, Patriots-esque production from the randomized fill-in names asked to step up in their place as they finished fifth in the East. Most crucial to the continuation of their 14-year postseason streak was Malkin, who despite some injuries of his own carried his squad through adversity and managed a blistering 74 points in just 55 games.
That exceptional play didn’t resume when hockey did, as Malkin picked up just one assist in the Penguins’ brief collapse in the qualifying round against the underestimated Montreal Canadiens. But heading into 2021, even with zero legit playoff-round wins to their names in the last two years, the strength of the Penguins’ best players is so great that, even when not fully healthy, they remain a formidable foe. The credit for this still goes to the guys they drafted all the way back in 2004 and 2005. Malkin and Crosby not only form perhaps the best veteran center duo in hockey, but also, the more overlooked of the two can play like an MVP when called upon to lead the team. He’s truly so much more, but maybe most importantly to the Penguins, Evgeni Malkin is the league’s best insurance policy against a collapse in status.
Washington Capitals: Alex Ovechkin
Did you know the Caps actually won the division last year? You wouldn’t know it from their offseason, which saw them move on from both their starting goalie and their coach. But technically, the regular season was a success by pretty much any standard. They had the Norris runner-up! They had the Rocket Richard winner! But, oh yeah, they couldn’t make it past the New York Islanders in the first round—the second year in a row that they’ve failed to win a playoff series following their 2018 Cup.
Anyway, this guy, Alex Ovechkin. Maybe you’ve heard of him. The virus has really hindered his chase towards Gretzky’s all-time goal record but he still managed a ridiculous 48 in 68 games last season, which puts the 35-year-old at 706 career goals, or 189 away from The Great One. The inevitable decline that comes with age should, theoretically at least, be starting to creep up on Ovi, just as the passing of time threatens to finally shut down a team that’s been able to stay atop the Metropolitan Division for five straight years. Last season proved that, as long as Ovechkin is producing at a 50-goal pace, the Caps will find a way to make ends meet. But if he somehow can’t do that anymore … well, you fill in the rest.
The Country Music Division
Carolina Hurricanes: Vincent Trocheck
Hear me out on this one. Carolina has an absolutely golden trio of forwards at their disposal in Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen, and Andrei Svechnikov, plus Dougie Hamilton anchoring the defense. I love to sing their praises, particularly those of Svechnikov, the youngest of the group. But after two straight years of making the playoffs, the Canes are no longer the cute underdogs that lived rent-free in Don Cherry’s head. They’re going to need to improve if they want to be able to actually hang with the Bruins, and that’s where guys like Vincent Trocheck and Nino Niederreiter come in.
Both of those forwards have a history of being solid pieces on decent teams, but both of them also played to less than their full potential in 2019–20. Trocheck, in particular, was a 30-goal/75-point guy at his peak in Florida before some poor roster moves kind of pulled the rug out from under him. He was dealt to Carolina at the trade deadline last season and failed to make a mark in his brief showing. As their second-line center, if all goes well, he’s the guy I’m circling because he could help tip this season one way or the other. The continued emergence of Svechnikov and the honest-to-goodness fun that the Canes seem to have while playing is reason enough to enjoy watching them. But if some of their other, less-noticeable bets pay off for them in 2021, this could turn out to be a long and prosperous year.
Chicago Blackhawks: Dominik Kubalik
We’re more than halfway through! Congrats on sticking with this. Your reward is a few words on Dominik Kubalik, the Blackhawks sophomore whose shoes just got a hell of a lot bigger with the injury to promising teenage center Kirby Dach at the World Juniors and the surprise announcement that a mysterious illness will sideline Chicago fixture Jonathan Toews indefinitely.
For a team that finished last in the Central (but still made the bubble, lol), these losses are nearly impossible to paper over and further hinder a team that already has too many weaknesses, including a very inexperienced goaltending group and a total deficiency at defense. Kubalik, however, is a bright spot. An old rookie at 24, and playing in the NHL for the first time after winning an MVP award in the Swiss league, the winger finished just three goals behind Patrick Kane for the team lead and scored more goals per minute played at even strength than anyone else in the entire NHL. He did it with a high shooting percentage, and his age means you can’t quite be as dreamily optimistic about his further development as you might with some younger second-year players. But he’s the absolute last thing the Blackhawks have to worry about right now.
Columbus Blue Jackets: Pierre-Luc Dubois?
The question mark is there because I don’t know whether or not Dubois will be in Columbus by the time I get to the end of this … sentence. *Checks Twitter* Hm. OK. So like many talented players before him, Pierre-Luc Dubois seems to have no real interest in continuing his career in Columbus. (God knows, why, I mean you’re not going to be able to get Raising Cane’s Chicken Fingers playing in New York or Florida).
It remains an open question whether or not Columbus will honor that trade request or keep Dubois around for as long as they can, like they did when they held onto Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky at the 2019 trade deadline. The 22-year-old top-line center has significantly less leverage than those stars, because not only is there two years left on his deal but restricted free agency looms afterwards, and that’s a tough nut to crack.
If nothing else, he has the power to make things a real bummer while he sticks around, if he so desires. But with another forward in Gustav Nyquist already set to miss a long stretch due to injury, and with the past strategies the Jackets have deployed in these situations, it strikes me as unlikely that a team with reasonable postseason aspirations would part with one of its best assets unless the return haul really prevented them from sinking in the short term. If Dubois goes, it’ll be up to just a small handful of talents—Oliver Bjorkstrand at the wing and the Seth Jones/Zack Werenski pairing on defense—to try and salvage the season.
Dallas Stars: Miro Heiskanen
It’s cool to be really excited about a player based on nothing but footage of him dominating the ice as a Finnish teenager and then see him actually come to America and do the same things on actual high-definition NHL ice. That’s pretty much the Miro Heiskanen story over the past two years. In a season that saw that Stars make a somewhat unlikely run through the rest of the Western Conference, the 21-year-old blueliner finished third on his team in points, finished second in the league in defensive point shares, and picked up votes for both the Byng and the Norris, despite demonstrably being a child.
It’s one thing to say a young first-rounder has inherited a team when that team isn’t any good, but particularly with Tyler Seguin out due to injury, Heiskanen enters this season looking like he could be the best player in a Stars group favored to finish in the top half of this division. Of particular note: The lockdown defenseman’s 26 points in 27 playoff games far surpassed his regular season pace of 35 in 68. Just a fraction of that offensive improvement carrying over to 2021 would signal the birth of a titanic two-way monster.
Detroit Red Wings: Dylan Larkin
Since Henrik Zetterberg’s career ended in 2018, the Red Wings have been dangling the captaincy out in front of Larkin like it’s $500 on a string. But this season is finally his time to inherit the C, and everybody’s going wild for it. (“How Dylan Larkin’s time golfing makes him a perfect fit as Detroit Red Wings captain,” reads one Free Press headline about Larkin being friendly to new teammate Bobby Ryan.)
Larkin is by default the centerpiece of this Red Wings rebuild right now, being the youngish top line center, hometown kid, and marketable face of the league’s worst team by a points margin so wide it’ll look like a typo if I tell you what it was. Like much of this Red Wings group, however, there remain plenty of doubts about how much he can really fulfill the city’s expectations in the coming years. He’s only topped 20 goals in two of his five seasons, took a step back along with nearly all of his teammates last year, and remains a far cry from true franchise saviors like McDavid, MacKinnon, or Matthews. At 24 years old, he’s approaching that age where it’s worth asking if, despite that 45-point rookie season as a teenager, he may merely be “good” and not “great.”
Not that the the Red Wings have any real standing to be choosers. Larkin’s linemates on the wing—streaky scorer Anthony Mantha and long-haired babe Tyler Bertuzzi—are really the only other skaters on this roster worthy of your respect, depending on how far the unproven forward Filip Zadina comes along in his first full season. Everyone else, except for maybe the goalies, remains junk from the junk yard or too undeveloped to play on an NHL roster. Cross your fingers and trust that process. And keep your eyes peeled for when Larkin makes neat plays.
Florida Panthers: Aleksander Barkov
Much like many people’s 2020s, a year that began with some optimistic expectations for the Florida Panthers ended up being a year where they mostly stood still. In legendary coach Joel Quenneville’s first time getting direct sunlight, and with Sergei Bobrovsky arriving in their crease, the lesser of the peninsula’s two teams still finished 10th in the East for the second time in a row. And even though that mark was anomalously good enough to get them into the playoffs, all they did in the bubble was lose three of four to the Islanders.
So, another year, another Panthers team that has some undeniably stellar talents but can’t pull the right levers to properly support their top-tier forward duo or their assumed franchise defenseman, Aaron Ekblad. As the guy to highlight, you can really flip a coin or just take your pick between Aleksander Barkov, who’s more of a two-way guy, and Jonathan Huberdeau, more of a natural playmaker. For years now, the mid-20s pairing have put up very impressive, sometimes even gaudy, point totals while the team tries and fails to get the other names on the backs of the jerseys to help convert those numbers into wins. Losing Evgenii Dadonov and Mike Hoffman in free agency this offseason, after they accounted for 54 of the team’s 228 goals last season, only seems to make matters worse.
Nashville Predators: Roman Josi
Man, I used to love writing about the Predators. The atmosphere! The attitude! The novelty of it all! The charisma of PK Subban! The magic of Arvidsson and Forsberg! But all of that beer-drenched, chicken-fried, catfish-chucking swagger has faded or outright disappeared since this group’s apex in 2017, especially considering what live crowds will be like this season. What’s left is a team that’s won three postseason games over the past two years and finds itself struggling to pry open a closing window.
But even with all the damage to their pride and their actual physical bodies that the Predators have weathered throughout their decline, they can still boast perhaps the most intimidating defensive pairing in all the league. Alongside Ryan Ellis on his right, the 30-year-old Swiss captain Roman Josi is Nashville’s star and focal point, and he enters 2021 coming off his first career Norris Trophy (though, let’s face it, Victor Hedman was kind of robbed). Ranking fifth on his team in goals and first in points by a long shot, Josi has by far more impact on his team’s offense than anyone else in the league at his position, and the way he’s able to pilot the puck out of his own zone and into enemy territory is extraordinary. If Nashville’s going to try and force something out of what’s left of this roster, he’s as good a lever as you can imagine.
Tampa Bay Lightning: Steven Stamkos
The champs are here, finally. After season after season of embarrassing slips and heart-breaking near-misses, this incredible generation of Tampa Bay Lightning players finally got to hoist the Stanley Cup in an empty Edmonton arena last year. No one deserved it more than Steven Stamkos, the leader whose bad timing with injuries has all-too-often prevented him from contributing in his club or country’s biggest moments.
Though he was not even close to the most impactful player on the ice in the bubble because of, again, an injury, Stamkos still managed to get out there and feature in the most memorable part of that entire run. His stat line—unforgettable if you watched this enthusiastic Pat Maroon video—was 2:45 of ice time, one goal, one shot, +1. All of it coming in the first period of a Game 3 win with the series tied at one.
But already it’s time to defend that title, and the Lightning will be embarking on this undertaking without their top point-getter in both the regular season and the playoffs, Nikita Kucherov, who will miss at least the entire regular season after surgery. That feels like an enormous, impossible blow to all their hopes, but just as Kucherov (and Brayden Point) kept the team in the stratosphere without Stammer, it’s now his turn to try and maintain this level of success without Nik. On his 2019–20 pace in a normal season—he played 57 games in the real world—the 30-year-old Stamkos would have earned his second straight 40-goal, 90-point year. But last February was so long ago that it’s fair to feel a bit of uncertainty about his durability or simply his ability to consistently be elite on the ice. It’ll definitely take more than one sentimental moment for the Lightning to capture that repeat.
The “Aw, These Guys Are Playing?” Division
Arizona Coyotes: Clayton Keller
I always enjoy talking shit about the Arizona Coyotes, a team that’s never presented much of an argument for why it should exist. But this past year, the Coyotes clawed themselves out of the pit where they dwelled, managed their first playoff win since 2012, and have put at least enough space between them and the dregs of the NHL that it would feel unsporting and somewhat dishonest to single them out for contraction. Also, they have Phil Kessel, and I want to be nice to Phil.
Even with my newfound good manners, however, I won’t claim the Coyotes are an especially entertaining team for a neutral fan to follow. They were 22nd in the league in goals scored last year but fourth in goals allowed, meaning that there weren’t a lot of loud horn sounds in their games. This … strategy? trait? … was magnified in the ‘yoffs, where goaltender Darcy Kuemper was forced to do backflips in all of the team’s four bubble victories.
But we’re not focusing on Kuemper; we’re looking at Keller, one of only two Coyotes (along with Nick Schmaltz) to top 40 points last year. Not unlike Dylan Larkin, who I wrote about a little further up, Arizona’s long-term faith in Clayton as future centerpiece is still based on projections, hopes, and the fact that they have little other choice, more than it is overwhelming performances so far. After putting up 23 goals and 42 assists in his rookie year, the 22-year-old BU product hasn’t yet topped 20 goals or 50 points in either of his follow-up campaigns (though he probably could have just crossed that line if not for COVID). Keller’s already a rich man either way, but the playmaking winger is entering that point in his career where he needs to more firmly make good on the projections or risk a reputation as a [shudders] bad contract. The Coyotes sure as hell need a breakout, because nobody else is going to suddenly pull them up the standings.
Colorado Avalanche: Nathan MacKinnon
Nothing I write could do justice to the beauty of this kid’s game. The first overall pick in 2013 has now put up a trifecta of 90-point seasons as he’s driven the Avs out of last place and into pole position for the Stanley Cup. MacKinnon sports blinding speed, a lethal shot, and some sort of magnet on his stick that allows him to carry the puck from end to end with ease,
The Colorado tale as they began their ascent was that they boasted an absurdly good top line, led by MacKinnon, but looked lost whenever their best players weren’t on the ice. Slowly but surely, however, the Avs have filled out a talented supporting cast that keeps them from feeling forced to use Nate and Mikko Rantanen for 23-plus minutes every night. There’s a lot to like about the defensive pairing of reigning Rookie of the Year Cale Makar and newly traded-for ex-Islander Devon Toews, especially as Makar’s exciting offensive gets bolstered by increased NHL experience and a growing hockey IQ. And depth forwards like Nazem Kadri, Andre Burakovsky, and Valeri Nichushkin—none of whom were on the team at the close of the 2018-19 year—all combine to make Colorado a dazzling, almost Lightning-esque example of top-to-bottom excellence. It’s almost enough to make me forgive the time that fucking rat Claude Lemieux tried to end Kris Draper.
Los Angeles Kings: Matt Roy
Not the most memorable name, and frankly, not the most memorable personality! (You’ll see if you watch the video below.) But the L.A. Kings are not the most memorable team. Familiar names from better days like Quick, Doughty, Brown, and Kopitar still haunt the Staples Center, but with the arguably exception of Anze they’re all shadows of their former selves, making the Kings feel a bit like Season 12 of a TV show that should have been canceled long ago.
Like essentially every roster living in Tank City, there’s some sort of hope on the horizon—the closest being 18-year-old center Quinton Byfield, the second overall pick in the 2020 draft. But most of it’s wrapped up in the assumed high draft picks L.A. will get as it continues to suck. At least there’s 25-year-old former Michigan Tech Husky Matt Roy, who had the best on-ice team shot attempt percentages (aka Corsi and Fenwick) of any King returning for 2021. On a squad with a -34 overall goal differential, he also had a team-leading plus/minus of +16.
God, aren’t you proud of me for only bailing on writing about one cruddy franchise in this whole dang preview?
Minnesota Wild: Jared Spurgeon
Like Patrice Bergeron, Minnesota’s Jared Spurgeon is taking over the captaincy for his team after a lengthy residency by a well-respected vet (in this case, Mikko Koivu). Unlike, Patrice Bergeron’s team, however, the Wild aren’t very good. They are an average-at-best team who have nevertheless been gifted a spot in a division where it should be relatively easy to make the playoffs. And if they do grind out another opportunity to lose in the first round, it’ll be because the unit Spurgeon leads—that’s the defense—have annoyed their opponents and kept the Wild competitive. Limiting the other guys’ shot attempts are about the only thing the Wild do well, but that’s historically been proven to be an effective method for creeping above .500.
And if you are, for whatever reason, going to be watching the Wild, you might as well also keep an eye on the debut season of Kirill Kaprizov, the 23-year-old winger who’s a two-time KHL scoring leader and played like a beast at the 2018 Olympics. He arrives amid high expectations, but frankly wouldn’t have to be much more than decent in his rookie campaign to qualify as a solid asset on this lacking forward group. Ah, fuck it. I’ll give him the video. Sorry, Jared.
San Jose Sharks: Erik Karlsson
This poor Swede thought he was escaping the NHL’s basement when he got traded from Ottawa to San Jose in the 2018 offseason. And for a brief moment, he was right. But heading into 2021, the Sharks look almost as bad as the Sens, coming off a rare failure to qualify for the postseason and showing few signs that they can wake up from the nightmare in which they find themselves.
The 30-year-old Karlsson has seen his on-ice quality take a pretty steep drop since his world-beating peak during the last decade in Canada’s capital. But he’s still, unfortunately, one of the top players on a Sharks team that “features” terrible goaltending and one of the league’s shallowest pools of skaters. Along with his fellow defender Brent Burns, Karlsson should in theory be one of the main engines powering a Sharks offense that finished third in the league in goals in 2018–19. But his diminished abilities are part of the reason why San Jose plummeted all the way down to 28th in that category this past year. Even with a $90 million contract to soften the blow, Karlsson’s trajectory has been a sad, sad story about the fleeting nature of athletic dominance.
St. Louis Blues: Jordan Binnington
The unlikely hero of the Blues’ 2019 Stanley Cup run was also, not quite shockingly, the goat of last season. Binnington was the goalie who initially helped St. Louis go from worst to first, but he had some struggles when the calendar flipped over to 2020 and then failed to get a win in any of his five bubble appearances, giving up 21 goals on just 141 shots.
With No. 2 goalie Jake Allen crossing the border to back up Carey Price in Montreal, and the rookie Ville Husso filling his place, the Blues don’t have even a wisp of a proven safety net to take care of that six-foot space between the posts. But just as it would have been premature to induct Binnington into the Hall of Fame after his rookie season, it’s also unfair to dismiss him just on the basis of a horrible stretch at the wrong time. Binnington is, undeniably, a goaltender who can win the Stanley Cup. No one can ever take that away from him. And, luckily for him, he’ll also enjoy the protection of a top-notch defensive unit—one that might have lost Alex Pietrangelo but replaced him with the next-best free agent in Torey Krug.
Though there is much to like about the Blues, Binnington’s most recent performances and the ongoing injury problems of deadly offensive weapon Vladimir Tarasenko are definite red flags. It’d be an enormous upset if they missed the postseason, but those two glaring issues make the Blues at the very least the shakiest-looking team that could still win the division.
Vegas Golden Knights: Alex Pietrangelo
It’s so inspiring to see a franchise so young be so willing to go all-out in pursuit of a Cup. The success of that inaugural season has seemingly given Vegas some of the highest standards (and least cap space) of anyone in the NHL. Now, with an army of pricey free agents and that fantastic foundation still left over from a near-flawless expansion draft, they’re entering 2021 looking more dangerous than ever.
The headlining acquisition for really any team during the break was the Knights’ signing of Alex Pietrangelo, a cornerstone defender who did it all for the Stanley Cup-winning Blues and now will join forces with Shea Theodore, giving the Knights two of the top six Norris vote-getters from last year. Even worse for other teams’ chances of scoring goals against Vegas, they’ll be backed by a bonafide stud goaltender in Robin Lehner, a recent arrival whose feel-good career resurgence and face turn is exactly what Vegas needs to save them from a past-his-prime Marc-Andre Fleury and his poorly thought-out pricey contract.
They’re overloaded on the offensive side of things, too. Max Pacioretty, Mark Stone, Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson, Reilly Smith—all of these guys on the top two lines combine to overwhelm defensemen with an attack that ranked first in the league in shots on goal last year. And all of them are locked in for at least the next two seasons, and through 2024 or 2025 in most cases. There’s essentially zero financial flexibility left for the Knights to improve this roster without making big sacrifices. But they don’t need to! They could very well be the most entertaining team in hockey this year. I guess we saved the best for last.
OK, so … 1, 2, 3 … 29, 30, 31. Wow, yeah, that’s it! I did it! Enjoy the games, everyone. And stay safe. And go Wings!