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They Just Keep Adding More Teams: Your 2021–22 NHL Season Preview

Picture taken in the 30s shows France's ice hockey players. (Photo by - / AFP) (Photo credit should read -/AFP via Getty Images)
AFP via Getty Images

People come up to me on the street all the time, with tears in their eyes—and these are big, strong men, you know—and they say to me, they tell me, "Miss, I love your NHL season previews so much. Why can't we have them more than once a year?"

I am nothing if not a blogger who gives the people what they want—which, I believe, is several opportunities per month to consider the Ottawa Senators. That is why, for the first (and hopefully only) time ever, 2021 has two NHL previews. You can go back to that last one, if you'd for some reason want to relive that horrible January, but I'd recommend you stay here as I inform you of the many, many guys you should know before they return to the rink tonight.

The teams are listed alphabetically within divisions, and I'll be giving you one guy per team, give or take. Additionally, Defector's own amateur epidemiologist Maitreyi Anantharaman will join this preview at regular intervals to answer the most important question these teams are facing: Are all their guys vaccinated?

Metropolitan Division

Carolina Hurricanes: Jesperi Kotkaniemi

BEFORE YOU SCROLL DOWN to try and find the one team you actually care about, let me just tell you that there's lots and lots of DRAMA infecting the Carolina Hurricanes lately. This should by all accounts be a team that you could bandwagon, if you haven't already—last year they finished first in their division for the first time since 2006 and despite falling to the eventual champions the Lightning, they boast a bunch of fun and exciting youngsters like Andrei Svechnikov, and noted friends of Harry Styles Marty Necas and Sebastian Aho.

But this past offseason was not what you'd hope for from a team in the Canes' position. Instead of perhaps simply adding some depth or even just holding on to key contributors, the Carolina summer was a chaotic disaster. The team seems to have downgraded at goalie with the questionable and surprising trade of 2021's surprise hero, Alex Nedeljkovic, to the Red Wings. Their top goal in free agency—holding on to star defenseman Dougie Hamilton—went unfulfilled as a crucial piece of this franchise's resurgence left for the Devils. On top of that, the Canes decided to piss away a lot of goodwill by signing Tony DeAngelo, a notorious asshole who's blown his chances with three franchises already at just 25 years old. Perhaps looking for a way to change the narrative, Canes GM Don Waddell went and did the unthinkable. He offer-sheeted another team's restricted free agent—Jesperi Kotkaniemi of the Canadiens—and made the Canes the first franchise since 2007 to actually acquire another player with this method.

The poaching of Kotkaniemi was undeniably fueled by pettiness—the forward's $20 signing bonus was a reference to Montreal's failed offer sheet for Aho two years earlier. But there's a reason why the Habs were fine to chill out and let the Hurricanes pay the former third-overall pick a cool $6.1 million for this season. I've always had a thing for Kotka, both because his name was pretty and because he was an undersized dude who found a way to make an impact in the NHL much more quickly than anyone thought he would. But the 21-year-old has so far failed to build on the promise of a solid rookie season in 2018–19, and as he enters Carolina he'll be tasked with shedding the inconsistency that has plagued him the past couple of years. The Canes' season won't rise or fall on him alone, but if the team can't meet expectations, and he puts up another five-goal year, he could be an easy symbol for everything that has so suddenly gone wrong for the Hurricanes.

Are all their guys vaccinated? Huh! Yes. They are. Tony DeAngelo is vaccinated. Let’s just go to the next one, I guess.

Columbus Blue Jackets: Patrik Laine

We're not exactly starting off on the cheeriest of notes, are we? The Blue Jackets had a four-year streak of playoff appearances snapped last season, and they don't appear to be in any shape to return to form in this coming season. The problem? Well, nobody really wants to play for Columbus! Not only did the Jackets lose two of the best players in franchise history in free agency two years ago, but at the beginning of last year, their top offensive weapon Pierre-Luc Dubois also wanted out. The Jackets worked out a trade with Winnipeg for another disgruntled youngster in Patrik Laine.

Laine's arrival did not help one bit, and in fact, after some absolutely destructive goal totals in his teen years with the Jets, the 23-year-old has been kind of exposed as a one-dimensional power-play weapon. Laine only potted 10 in 45 games for Columbus as the team finished 29th in goals scored overall on the year. Even more troubling, they spammed the rebuild button by trading their minutes leader on defense, Seth Jones, to Chicago. And as I might have mentioned before, nobody wants to go to freaking Columbus, man, so it's going to take a while to lure unsuspecting rookies to Ohio through the draft.

Are all their guys vaccinated? They are now. Depth forward Zac Rinaldo has spent the last month repeatedly owning himself, giving an anti-vax speech at a dumb PPC rally in some park that got him uninvited from Jackets training camp. The team didn’t even want to assign him to their AHL team, news he shared on his own Instagram story as if some personal triumph. Owned! And unemployed!

New Jersey Devils: Jack Hughes

The Devils were the third-worst team by points in the NHL last year, but I'm actually pretty excited for them this season! And not even in a goofy, ironic, I-own-two-Ottawa-Senators-sweaters kind of way. I want to get out to a Devils game or two this year, because aside from making cool moves in the offseason, they've also got a third-year forward who could rule this league one day soon.

If you've been good and have read these in order, you'll already know that the big prize of 2021 free agency, Dougie Hamilton, is now in New Jersey. But aside from the standout defenseman, they also picked up Tomas Tatar, whose unhappy end to his tenure in Montreal obscured the fact that before last year he had scored 20 goals in six straight seasons. And they got Ryan Graves, who has great hair, from Colorado.

The Devils were able to make these moves in large part because they've missed the playoffs in all but one of the last nine seasons, and they've the draft picks to prove it. This was the second-youngest team in the league last year behind only the Rangers, and while it didn't do them any good in the present, the Devils are working towards an extraordinarily bright future with Jack Hughes, the 20-year-old center who was drafted first overall in 2019. Though he only managed 11 goals and 20 assists in his sophomore year, Hughes's advanced metrics tell the story of a budding franchise cornerstone who drives possession like a mature, top-tier 1C. Get on this train now before it leaves the station.

Are all their guys vaccinated? A weird story at The Athletic broke the news of a “prominent” unvaccinated player on the Devils roster but wouldn’t name him. Then it quoted P.K. Subban, Jonathan Bernier, Dougie Hamilton, Pavel Zacha, and Miles Wood discussing the mystery player, which shortened the suspect list a bit. Eventually he came forward: It is goalie MacKenzie Blackwood, who missed nearly a month of last season with COVID-19 and said last year that he doesn’t have “the greatest lungs.” (Blackwood said this weekend he is "leaning toward" getting vaccinated sometime soonish.)

New York Islanders: Anders Lee

Ah, the Islanders. Friend to all who roam the Cross Island Parkway. Foe to all who continually predict their demise with words like "regression" and "shots on goal." I have grown to absolutely adore this team ever since head coach Barry Trotz took the reins and improbably rode them out of the despair that fell when John Tavares left for Toronto. And I really thought that, with their tenacity and their infuriating brand of defense-first hockey, they were going to do the dang thing in Game 7 against Tampa Bay in their second-straight conference final—until Andrei Vasilevskiy played like a Conn Smythe winner and shut them out for a 1-0 Lightning win.

For the third year in a row, following a season where they seriously exceeded expectations, it's impossible to really know what to make of this team. On paper, the group that finished fourth in a tight East Division last season looks like they shouldn't have trouble making the playoffs again. But a couple of key losses are going to be tough to paper over if they want to be legit contenders. Nick Leddy, the number-two defenseman on a team that gave up the second-fewest goals in the NHL, was traded to Detroit for expansion-draft reasons. And in that very same draft, the Isles lost their third-best goalscorer last year in Jordan Eberle.

There's a bit of nostalgic joy in seeing old-timers like Zdeno Chara and Zach Parise on this roster for the new year, but they will have minor roles at best. It's team captain Anders Lee, more than anyone else, whose job it will be to maintain the franchise's record of success through these tricky times. Lee missed all of last year's playoffs with a torn ACL he suffered in March, but when healthy, he's the best and most consistent scorer the Isles have got. Just based on the pure unlikelihood of making it to hockey's final four, even if you're good, this season projects to be a letdown. But maybe the Islanders still have a few more shocks left in them.

Are all their guys vaccinated? The team is fully vaccinated now that Lou Lamoriello has banished (loaned) prospect Bode Wilde to Sweden for refusing the vaccine. Not even to the top Swedish league.

New York Rangers: Kaapo Kakko

The Kaap Man. The Kakk Man. Double O. Triple A. Quadruple K. Whatever you want to call him, the slowly developing 20-year-old from Finland is the player who could make or break the Rangers this year, as a franchise that hasn't won a playoff game since 2017 gears up to show that, at the very least, all this rebuilding effort hasn't gone to waste.

Kakko is one of several dudes who jump out at you when you look at this roster, either because of their past successes or their projected greatness. Adam Fox just won the Norris Trophy in his second season in the league—the only other guy to do that is Bobby Orr. Artemi Panarin picked up a team-leading 58 points in 42 games. Mika Zibanejad had a hat trick of hat tricks last year—a feat only matched by Connor McDavid. Goalie of the future Igor Shesterkin struggled a bit with a slow start and an injury but otherwise gave plenty of reason for optimism. And Alexis Lafrenière, the No. 1 overall pick in 2020, is set to begin his second year aided by a full training camp and preseason.

All of these pieces, however, only had the Rangers finishing a distant fifth in the East last year, as the team showed a propensity for scoring in eye-popping bursts against weaker teams but couldn't generate the chances needed to beat the best. This is where Kakko, who's hopefully about to play his first 82-game NHL season, needs to step up. The second overall pick in 2019, who came into the league boasting a big frame and a beautiful stick, led the team in Corsi and Fenwick last year—meaning the Rangers controlled the game significantly more when he was on the ice vs. when he was off it. But those positives have yet to translate into the tangible results Rangers fans crave, as Kaps has only found the net 19 times in 114 career games. Discovering the right role this season that fully unlocks his potential could, in theory, open up the flood gates and get the Rangers back in the postseason.

Are all their guys vaccinated? New coach Gerard Gallant said they would be fully vaccinated before opening night. He has also noticed a “newfound swagger” in Alexis Lafreniere. Look out, folks!

Philadelphia Flyers: Carter Hart

We are now about to take a slight detour through Goaltender Country.

The recent history of the Philadelphia Flyers can only be summed up as "hilarious." Since 2013, they have missed and made the playoffs in alternating years with flawless consistency, confounding any attempts to sum up their outlook at the beginning of the following season. Well, I for one will not fall into that trap. I fear history enough to convince myself that the Flyers will make the playoffs this coming season. Well, at least if they can patch over their crumbling goalie set-up enough to last them through April.

Carter Hart, just for a second there, was supposed to be the guy. Thrust into a starting role at just 20 years old during a discombobulating 2018–19 Flyers season where they used eight goaltenders, Hart performed admirably and was undeniably the best of the Philly octet. Again, in 2019–20, he was above average with a full workload on a great team. But it all came crashing down in 2021. Hart's painful save percentage of .877 in 25 starts helped sink the Flyers as his team allowed more goals than anybody else in the NHL.

The Flyers, unfortunately, have no choice but to pray that he'll bounce back. The good news is that Hart is young, was struggling through what was a tough season for a kid who lived alone, and truly cannot get any worse. But the bad news is that Philly's back-up isn't much of a Plan B at all. Martin Jones, the clear weak link on those very good Sharks teams from a few years back, signed a $2 million deal this offseason to come to the East Coast after a third straight season with a save percentage below .900. The skaters, headlined by mainstays Claude Giroux and Sean Couturier, are decent enough that you can maybe squint and see a playoff team. But if the goaltending doesn't reappear, the Flyers are going to be absolutely hopeless.

Are all their guys vaccinated? GM Chuck Fletcher said the team would be fully vaccinated by the start of the season.

Pittsburgh Penguins: Tristan Jarry

Nobody—and I really do mean nobody—had a more difficult end to their season than the Penguins' goalie. In his first season as the number-one option in the crease, the 26-year-old had a bumpy start and then performed acceptably if not spectacularly, helping pull a battered, bruised, and aging squad up to the top of the division. But against those dastardly Islanders in the first round of the playoffs, up against the first truly hostile crowds he would have experienced in over a year, it all fell apart for Jarry, who made a brutal mistake to lose Game 5 in double OT and then couldn't recover as his team dropped a 5-3 Game 6 to lose the series. This year will be all about trying to erase those memories.

“When you look back at goaltenders in the playoffs, there’s a lot of up-and-down with most goaltenders,” Pens GM Ron Hextall said as the gang headed into training camp. “You can go back to guys like Patrick Roy who had down times in the playoffs. We expect Jars to grow from it, come in, be a pro, work hard and stop the puck.”

Adding to the pressure are the seemingly never-ending injury woes that have dogged the Penguins, and their most iconic duo in particular. Sidney Crosby's wrist surgery will keep him out at least for the beginning of the season, and Evgeni Malkin's knee problems will likely bar him from the lineup even longer. The Penguins, at least in autumn, won't look anything like what we've gotten used to over the last decade and a half. And if Jarry can't help carry their depth guys and maybe steal a few wins, the Eastern Conference playoffs might be looking a little bit different as well.

Are all their guys vaccinated? I recently learned about Kris Letang signing in the KHL during the 2013 lockout and then leaving immediately, without playing a game, because the lockout ended two days later. Sorry, I know that wasn’t the question. Yes, they should be 100 percent vaccinated by now.

Washington Capitals: Anthony Mantha

Well, well, well. If it isn't my old buddy from the Detroit Red Wings. The Capitals picked up Mantha in a fascinating mid-season trade that saw the streaky scorer swapped for Jakub Vrana and picks, and damned if he didn't pull the exact same moves he became infamous for in Hockeytown. Though the 27-year-old winger was a top-two or top-three forward for the Wings when healthy, he had this infuriating unevenness to his production. He'd score a goal in three straight games, and then he'd go totally quiet for eight. He'd get you excited about the chance of him leveling up as an offensive weapon, and then he'd cool you down again. Especially for a franchise as starved for winning as Detroit, it was pretty dang annoying to deal with.

In Washington, Mantha started impossibly hot, scoring not just in his debut, but in the three games that followed. But then, for the remaining 10 games of the regular season, he was held scoreless with three assists. And in the playoffs, as the Caps got bounced by the Bruins in five, he again failed to find the back of the net. He finished the year in a tie for 90th on the NHL's goals leaderboard, having played in every game, though his shot totals—56th in the league—at least hint that he was a bit unlucky.

The Capitals were by a long shot the oldest team in the NHL last year—the only one with an average age above 30. (Zdeno Chara did kind of weigh them down there.) And everywhere except for their young and so-far-mediocre goaltending, they're still made up of those same revered names that brought them a Cup in 2018. Even if 77 points last year is nothing to sneeze at, the foundation that has held this franchise up for so long was really starting to feel creaky and wobbly in that Boston series. It'll be Mantha's duty to find that ever-elusive consistency and inject fresh life into a franchise whose window has already lasted far longer than it should have.

Are all their guys vaccinated? Yes. Good! This damn team has spent enough time on the COVID protocol list. If they have to turn to a third-string goalie in the playoffs, it will only be because Vitek Vanecek didn’t stretch enough.

Atlantic Division

Boston Bruins: Taylor Hall

Is this the end of the Boston Bruins?, she typed, frantically peering over her shoulder at regular intervals to ensure that Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand were not stealthily slipping into her room, armed with axes and nunchaku.

The weirdest thing about the Bruins coming into this season is that Tuukka Rask won't be around, at least as of now. The Boston netminder who has always been good and sometimes been breathtakingly unbeatable through his 14 years with the club is currently on the outside looking in as a free agent recovering from hip surgery. Also absent from what had been startlingly consistent roster is David Krejci, who gave 15 years to the team and was still a fine 2C but left for his native Czech Republic in the offseason.

Marchand and Bergeron are of course back and still producing at a high level, and they've been bolstered in recent years by younger standouts like David Pastrnak and Charlie McAvoy. But that still hasn't been quite enough for the Bruins in the past few years. This last season they finished a mere third in their division, and for the second straight playoffs they couldn't advance past the second round.

There'll be some more new faces this time, most notably Linus Ullmark as the new $5 million/year starting goalie. But who I'm most interested to see is Taylor Hall in his first full season with the team that traded for him at the deadline. The former Hart winner thrived in his brief time as a Bruin, scoring eight goals in 16 games after putting up just two for Buffalo in 37. But with the departure of Krejci, the center who coaxed the winger's scoring talents out of hiding, Hall and the new 2C Charlie Coyle face plenty of pressure to keep Boston from slipping down the standings any further.

Are all their guys vaccinated? Without much hassle, they all got the jab. Patrice Bergeron was invited to make the team’s vaccination rate a story of his own leadership success but confessed, “Nope. There were no meetings about it.”

Buffalo Sabres: Jack Eichel

Golly, did the Sabres ever fuck this one up. Buffalo hasn't even made the playoffs since 2011, and they've endured a never-ending stretch of basement finishes in the decade since, and yet this coming year might still be the worst yet, because the king of this franchise will more than likely never play another game for them.

Jack Eichel has had the keys to the Sabres ever since he was picked second overall in the 2015 draft. And though the team itself has failed him, he was always a bright spot, and his 78-point season in 2019–20 gave some reason for optimism in the year to come. That hope was crushed in the way that most sports hope gets crushed. Eichel only scored two goals in 21 games, the Sabres finished dead last, and the center, frustrated by a difference in opinion between himself and the Sabres' doctors over a herniated disk in his neck, finally got fed up with the team's dysfunction.

The Sabres' roster is desolate without their star, and the only reason to care about them is because of the looming questions around if and when and where Eichel gets traded. That's already proven to be a minefield of a potential transaction, both due to the uncertainty of Eichel's health and the return he would require. But Buffalo owes it to the sport of hockey to find a way to get him the hell out.

Are all their guys vaccinated? They are. The team’s guy who sings the national anthem is not. As a result, he is no longer the team’s guy who sings the national anthem.

Detroit Red Wings: Moritz Seider

The Red Wings have so many young kids with potential that I had to exercise some serious restraint to avoid putting like their whole AHL roster on here. But for casuals and those outside of the mitten, Seider is the one you most need to know about right at this exact moment. The 20-year-old German defenseman will always have the burden of being Motown hero Steve Yzerman's first-ever draft choice as Red Wings GM, and the consensus was that it was a bit of a reach when he went sixth overall in 2019. But Mo was just named the Swedish Hockey League's defenseman of the year, and he was one of the first names on the German Olympic roster, and the word out of Europe has been a flowing river of promising updates on his skills. As he enters his rookie NHL season with tons of buzz and the potential to quickly become a No. 1 D-man, his play could easily be the highlight of Detroit's winter for a fanbase craving someone—anyone!—to latch onto as a light at the end of the tunnel.

The rest of the Red Wings? There's still not a lot there. This team did seem to get slightly better in the summer, adding a solid Islanders defenseman with a winning track record in Nick Leddy, a center who had a good rookie year in Chicago in Pius Suter, and Carolina's breakout young goalie Alex Nedeljkovic. Ideally, they'll see at least a small improvement on their 27th-place finish in the league last year. But as Jakub Vrana's shoulder injury very harshly reminded, ambitious long-term rebuilds rarely go according to plan.

Are all their guys vaccinated? Don’t want to talk about it, but for the sake of JOURNALISTIC INTEGRITY, I will tell you Tyler Bertuzzi has not received the vaccine due to “personal choice, freedom of choice and life choice.” Hey look over there, a preseason Lucas Raymond powerplay goal

Florida Panthers: Sergei Bobrovsky

The Panthers, to me, are a tough team to really get a grip on. On the one hand, only three teams in the league last year picked up more points than they did. But on the other hand, nobody was a greater beneficiary of Nikita Kucherov's injury and the Lightning subsequently playing their regular season at about 80 percent capacity. When it came time for the two Florida franchises to meet for real in the first round of the playoffs, the Panthers got knocked out by the eventual champs in six, continuing their failure to win a playoff series since 1996.

If nothing else, the Panthers' regular-season success last year was proof that they're generally doing things right. In legendary head coach Joel Quenneville's second year leading the franchise, he presided over a team that shot the puck more than anybody else, enjoyed a gigantic leap of a season from the 27-year-old defenseman MacKenzie Weegar that covered for Aaron Ekblad's horrible leg injury, and saw the critical components of the forward lines—Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov—produce yet another reliably great season.

Where they need to be concerned, however, is the crease. Florida's upper-echelon team save percentage of .910 was not primarily the product of Sergei Bobrovsky, the man they signed to a seven-year, $70 million contract in 2019. It mainly came by way of Chris Driedger and his .927 mark in 23 of the team's 56 games. Driedger, however, was a casualty of the expansion draft and will be suiting up for Seattle this time out, so it's primarily on Bob to recapture his old Columbus form and, most pressingly, wash out the bad taste of his last appearance—the Lightning's 6-2 win in Game 4.

Are all their guys vaccinated? Yes, these cool guys are, which warms my heart nearly as much as the story of Carter Verhaeghe, a guy who just became really good at his job one day, a thing I would like to do someday too.

Montreal Canadiens: Cole Caufield

Getting back to the Stanley Cup Final after losing it in the previous year is a task so tough that it's only been accomplished once (by the Penguins) since the Gretzky Oilers. But Montreal is facing an even more difficult and, frankly, humiliating question: In a division with the Lightning, Leafs, Panthers, and Bruins, are they even good enough to get back to the playoffs at all?

The Habs last summer were one of the oddest flukes/underdog stories you'll ever see. Their regular season was only the 18th-best out of the whole NHL, but through the luck of geography they found themselves come playoff time facing off against the chokiest franchise in the world: the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Habs rattled off three straight shocking series victories until the Lightning finally showed up to assert their inarguable superiority and hoist the Cup.

The sheer unforgettable nature of that ridiculous run means we're all required to give Montreal at least a grain of respect heading into this season, but their overall performances still decree that they can't be treated much differently than any other borderline playoff hopeful. Making matters worse is the losses this team suffered over the layoff—Phillip Danault to the Kings, Jesperi Kotkaniemi to the Canes, Tomas Tatar to the Devils, and Shea Weber to the ravages of age—not to mention the unlikelihood of Carey Price's astonishing playoff second wind holding up through 2022. (There's also the uncertainty of when or if Price will suit up this year.)

That's not to say there aren't bright spots. Tyler Toffoli, the team's top scorer by a good margin, was one of the true genius free agent signings of 2020. Jeff Petry, after years in Weber's shadow on the Montreal blue line, just got done playing the best hockey of his life. And the kids on the top line just make me grin. There's 22-year-old Nick Suzuki at center, who owns the cutest cat you will ever see. And there's one of the Habs' biggest stories of last season, Cole Caufield, who made his NHL debut in late April after tearing up the rink at the University of Wisconsin and needed zero time to adjust to the pros. The 20-year-old Caufield made waves instantly by scoring two overtime winners at the beginning of May as part of four goals in 10 games, and then he added 12 points across the playoffs, including two critical goals in games against Vegas that the Habs won in overtime. Montreal may not have the wins they'll need in 2021–22, but I think they'll maintain at least a few enjoyable ounces of charisma and swagger.

Are all their guys vaccinated? At first, prospect Jesse Ylönen “décidé de ne pas se faire vacciner.” I imagine he was then threatened with an Alexander Romanov open-ice hit, because the day after he got to camp, Ylönen “change d'idée” and got the jab.

Ottawa Senators: Tim Stützle

YES ... HA HA HA ... YES! The Ottawa Senators became the darling of this website last year, not by winning games—they really didn't win many games—but by being a bunch of excited young kids who scratched and clawed and could occasionally make life hell for the other Canadian teams who crossed their paths. Also we liked how everyone who roots for the Sens seems to be in on the joke that it sucks to root for the Sens.

Ottawa is still far closer to the bottom than the top of the NHL, and it'd be a near-miracle if they can break their streak of four straight missed postseasons, but particularly on the forward lines there are a bunch of talents in their mid-20s or younger who have been tasked with, eventually, hoisting this franchise out of its sinkhole. For this preview, let's highlight Tim Stützle, the 19-year-old German winger who just finished up his rookie NHL season. He's raw and unpolished and a liability on defense, as you would expect from someone so inexperienced. But even with the growing pains and somewhat limited minutes, Stützle showed explosive offense and finished sixth on the team in both goals and assists. And he and his roommate Brady Tkachuk, who's still waiting on a contract as an RFA, appear to have a wonderful little friendship.

Also, speaking of pals, Ottawa has Victor Mete. He's not going to mean a whole lot. But I like Victor Mete and mourn his bond in Montreal with former Habs teammate Jesperi Kotkaniemi.

Are all their guys vaccinated? Yes! YES! Sickos only in the figurative sense here.

Tampa Bay Lightning: Brayden Point

The Lightning: They're still good! And Brayden Point: He's frickin' fantastic!

The defending champions' run to the Cup last summer was compared to the "last day of school" by head coach Jon Cooper, but even if this offseason saw the necessary turnover for any great team in the salary era (not to mention the loss of Yanni Gourde in the expansion draft), the most important pieces for the Lightning remain in blue and white. And nobody—not Stamkos, not Kucherov, not Vasilevskiy—is more important to the long-term success of this team than Point, the 25-year-old who just signed a well-deserved eight-year, $76 million extension.

Point has been a high-impact forward since the moment he entered this league, and his 41-goal, 51-assist campaign in 2018–19 still stands out as the high-water mark of what he can do. But it was the Lightning's long-awaited successful postseasons in 2020 and 2021 that have served as the official announcement and then confirmation of his superstar status. Point scored a league-high 14 goals in each of them, including an absolutely unbelievable streak of nine straight games with a goal across the second and third rounds of 2021. On a team that looks to be very top-heavy heading into their run at a three-peat, he'll be asked to maintain that blistering pace and do everything he can to ensure that shooting percentage of 17.3 doesn't drop a hair. But even if the Lightning are slowly beginning to erode, as is the fate of every dynasty, Brayden Point will be standing tall in Tampa for a very long time to come.

Are all their guys vaccinated? Obviously they are. True champions would never turn down a competitive advantage. 

Toronto Maple Leafs: Jack Campbell

Sorry Toronto, but we do have to talk about what just happened in the playoffs. As the No. 1 seed out of the Canadian division, the Leafs entered the postseason with a clear and obvious path to the semis—or at least their first series win since the lockout. But at the very beginning of their run, John Tavares suffered one of the more violent hockey injuries anyone can remember, and a little over a week later, the Leafs had blown a series 3-1 lead and been shown the door by the underdog Canadiens. At this point, I think I've run out of fingers to count the heartbreaks.

Now that the mean recap is out of the way, let's focus on one of the brightest spots of Toronto's 2021: The sudden transformation of Jack Campbell into a brick wall. Prior to this year, the 29-year-old from Port Huron, Mich., had never really gotten a chance to prove himself as a starting goalie. The Stars kept him in the minors, the Kings had Jonathan Quick, and the Leafs, after trading for him from L.A., still had their longtime guy in the crease Frederik Andersen. But after returning in March from an early-season injury, Campbell stole the main gig all for himself with an unforgettable stretch, boasting an 11-0 record at one point before eventually ending on 17-3-2. Andersen has since moved to Carolina, and Petr Mrazek has crossed the border as an insurance policy against Campbell's small sample size. But the aura of invincibility that Campbell inspired last year—including several fantastic nights in those disappointing playoffs—manufactures some legitimate confidence that he can finally live up to his full potential as the 11th overall pick of 2010. See! Not everything that happens to the Leafs is always bad.

Are all their guys vaccinated? They’re waiting on William Nylander’s second dose to kick in, so yes, soon. Sorry he didn’t have time to get jabbed earlier, he was a little busy (clearing throat, glaring at everyone but Alex Kerfoot) scoring!!! in the playoffs!!!

Pacific Division

Anaheim Ducks: Trevor Zegras

Normally I'm loath to even really think about the Ducks, who've been easily ignored for three seasons now and hopefully hit rock bottom in 2021. But Trevor Zegras makes them at least a bit more interesting. The ninth overall pick in the 2019 draft came out of Boston University and destroyed the minor leagues in just a couple dozen games last year, leading to a call-up that saw the 20-year-old create plenty of chances and tally better than a point every two games.

The Ducks finished last in a bottom-heavy West division last year, and have so far failed to show much movement in their transition away from the core that won five straight division titles from 2013–17 and toward whatever success might be found in the future. Offensively, they've been ... well, offensive, finishing last in the league in goals scored in two of the past three years and failing to ice more than two (two!) double-digit goalscorers last year. John Gibson, meanwhile, has a lot going for him and was previously thought to be a franchise cornerstone at goalie, but the past two seasons have been disturbingly subpar and leave a lot of questions to answer.

So Zegras is, truly, not just the most important player for the Ducks moving forward but also perhaps their best player already in the present, as the versatile, speedy, and creative playmaker brings instant excitement to a team that previously had none. Barring a big leap from the much-heralded teenage defenseman Jamie Drysdale, Zegras is in fact the only Anaheim Duck of any worth to a neutral at the start of 2021–22. But that's at least one more guy than they had a year ago.

Are all their guys vaccinated? They are. Mason McTavish sounds like a fake name.

Calgary Flames: Johnny Gaudreau

Remember, like, what was it, 20 years ago? When the 2015 playoffs happened? Do you remember how you felt about the Calgary Flames back then? (Oh come on, I'm sure you felt something.) They had a young Johnny Gaudreau and a young Sean Monahan and they won their first playoff series since that Cup Final run in 2004. The future was looking bright! But then the Flames went three years before winning another playoff game, fell to the Avs in five in 2019 after winning the Pacific, lost to the Stars in the first round in the bubble, and then finished fifth among Canadian teams in 2021.

Although the recent results have dampened optimism around the Flames, the individual parts on this roster still have plenty of worth. Even if their stalwart defenseman Mark Giordano was allowed to leave in the expansion draft, this group has playoff potential. But when I write "potential," imagine I'm drawing the word out and saying it with a bit of uptalk, because this is not a team you can trust.

The guy I've chosen to pick on is the aforementioned "Johnny Hockey." He was a wonderful story in his early career, as the small and kindly fourth rounder burst into the NHL fresh off a Hobey Baker Award in college and immediately made an outsized impact, picking up 64 points as a 21-year-old in 2014–15. He briefly took his performance to a world-beating, transcendent level with a 99-point year in 2019, but even though he's maintained the ability of a first-line winger in the past two seasons, it's hard to call them anything other than a disappointment. The rate of Gaudreau's production is back where it was when he was still an inexperienced kid, when theoretically the 28-year-old should be in his prime. The story of his career is as good a metaphor as I can make for the Flames heading into what feels like a crucial year for their still-decently-young core. The ceiling is high, but when you're 5-foot-9 and don't own a ladder, it's unclear what you can really do to reach it.

Are all their guys vaccinated? The one thing that does not suck about this team is that they are all vaccinated. Johnny Badreau, more like. Erik Badbranson.

Edmonton Oilers: Jesse Puljujarvi

This is me trying to be cool and indie and not just name the guys on the Oilers that everyone, everywhere cares about. Jesse Puljujarvi, the 23-year-old winger who got picked fourth overall in 2016, is your lucky winner.

Despite an ongoing and depressing lack of playoff success, the Oilers have turned it around the past couple of years. They've now finished second in their division twice in a row after two seasons on the outside of the postseason looking in (which should never ever happen to a team with Connor McDavid in a league where 16 teams make it). Obviously, a huge part of the recent winning records can be credited to McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, but those two were stellar in 2018 and 2019 as well, and so it's clear that Edmonton has enjoyed a more all-encompassing improvement.

After a season lost to stalled contract negotiations, Puljujarvi returned to the Oilers a better man after a year in the Finnish league. The formerly underwhelming kid clicked perfectly as a wingman to McDavid and cruised to new career highs. (Admittedly a low bar to clear.) Translating his speed and his strength into tangible results has been the last piece that Puljujarvi has struggled to put together, but in a contract year, the bison-enjoying forward is primed to rocket up the points leaderboard. The Oilers line of McDavid, new signing Zach Hyman, and Puljujarvi could be one of the scariest in the league. And that's without the German on the second line who won the Hart in 2020.

Are all their guys vaccinated? Grim, if foreseeable development: The team’s lone unvaccinated player, Josh Archibald, a guy also convinced of a “plandemic,” was just diagnosed with myocarditis following an asymptomatic COVID-19 case and is out indefinitely. Duncan Keith wasn’t too keen on the jab, but he got it.

Los Angeles Kings: Viktor Arvidsson

An old fave of mine has new digs. Arvidsson was a regular 30-goal scorer at the peak of that party-all-day-party-all-night Predators squad of last decade. Injuries, bad puck luck, and probably just the chaos of the world have combined to derail his production in the last two seasons, which led a Preds team that hasn't won a series since 2018 trading him for draft picks as part of the start of what looks to be a longer-term retooling. But the signs are there that Arvidsson, still just 28, can bring badly needed scoring chances to the Kings' forward unit.

Unfortunately, though he managed to escape a deteriorating situation in Nashville, he likely won't get back to the playoffs this year with L.A., either. But at least he's on a team further along in the rebuilding process. The Kings bought low on both Arvidsson and Phillip Danault this summer, and they'll be added to a roster that somehow still includes key names from the 2014 Cup win—Kopitar, Brown, Doughty, Quick. Those guys aren't what they used to be, as evidenced by the Kings' 25th-best point total in the NHL. But the skaters still provide solid production, and in the crease, the young Calvin Petersen put up above-average numbers in his first year as the main starter. Throw all those folks in together with the continued development of highly drafted prospects Quinton Byfield (though he'll be out for a while with a fractured ankle) and Alex Turcotte, and there are, at the very least, more good things to say about the Kings this year compared to last. Certainly not every team can make that claim.

Are all their guys vaccinated? They are all vaccinated, as they should be. Don’t want to take chances around small child Quinton Byfield nor sweet old man Alex Edler.

San Jose Sharks: Tomas Hertl

Ugh, I know. You're thousands of words into this and you really don't care about the San Jose Sharks. If you promise to stick out the rest of this with me I will do you a solid and keep it short.

The Sharks have missed the playoffs in back-to-back years now, after being deep-round fixtures for basically my whole life. The team's leading scorer last year was Evander Kane, who's not in training camp as the league investigates allegations of abuse made by his estranged wife, as well as questions surrounding the legitimacy of his vaccination card. If Kane doesn't play, Tomas Hertl is easily their most important player. He's a 1C going on his ninth year with the Sharks and he works like crazy when he's out there to tilt the ice away from his team's leaky defense. He's a UFA after this year, and therefore a prime candidate to do some damage in the playoffs elsewhere if the Sharks opt for a deadline deal. But either way, I can't in good conscience recommend you pay this team any mind.

Are all their guys vaccinated? All the players in camp are vaccinated but—this feels like one you could guess on your own—the NHL is investigating Evander Kane, who's away from the team, for use of a fake vaccine card.

Seattle Kraken: Mark Giordano

I mentioned him a little higher! Did you catch it? That's called long-term storytelling, baby.

It's not a perfect comparison, but Mark Giordano is essentially to the Kraken what Marc-Andre Fleury was to the Golden Knights. Not only does he fulfill the expansion team "Marc/Mark" requirement, but he's also a longtime NHL vet who was synonymous with one franchise and now gets to be the most recognizable face of a brand new one. Giordano gave 15 strong years to the Calgary Flames but went unprotected in the draft due to his age (38) and his contract (nearly $7 million in this, its final year). Also like Fleury, it is widely assumed that Giordano comes to this expansion franchise in the sunset of his career, with his best years behind him. But while Giordano has seen some of the expected decline in value that comes in a hockey player's late 30s, he's also only a couple of years removed from his Norris Trophy–winning season, and on the Flames last year he played in every game while leading the team with nearly 23 minutes of ice time per night.

I'm kind of afraid to make any big prediction about the Kraken. Based on the nature of the expansion draft, they come into their debut season projected to feature strong goaltending, few if any stars, but all-around decent depth. It's not hard to imagine them in the playoffs, but unless career secondary scorers like Yanni Gourde and Jaden Schwartz have it in them to become first-choice offensive weapons, the Kraken will likely be playing a grind-it-out, defensive style of hockey centered around their netminders and their top defensive pairing of Giordano and the famously large Jamie Oleksiak. It could easily work out very, very well! But even if it doesn't, the Kraken went a long way towards guaranteeing themselves future roster flexibility, drafting plenty of short-term contracts. So perhaps be careful about getting too attached to this inaugural gang.

Are all their guys vaccinated? Yes! Seattle Vaxxen. Don’t know anyone on, or anything about, this team, sorry. Welcome, though.

Vancouver Canucks: Petey and Quinner

Thank goodness they finally arrived! The fate of Elias Pettersson, Quinn Hughes, and the Vancouver Canucks was a tense offseason story that threatened to drag into the start of play, as the pair of young stars, close friends and restricted free agents, went so far as to decamp to Michigan in late September before eventually coming to terms with the team that drafted them in 2017 and '18.

A longer and even more drawn-out standoff between these two kids and the Canucks would have been nothing short of a disaster, as Vancouver already looks to be in a tough spot as it is. While they've steadily improved from irrelevancy since the middle of last decade, they stalled out in 2021, battled an especially widespread COVID outbreak, and finished last among Canadian teams. This year, in a division that could really go a hundred different ways, the burden falls primarily on their top center of the future and their top defenseman of the future to lift this team back up.

Pettersson, the Swedish forward, was out for much of last year with an injury but when healthy is the primary engine that drives the Vancouver attack. Hughes is one-third of the NHL's most talented trio of brothers and has more of a positive impact on his team than any of them, at least at this moment. He's not great at the "defense" part of defense yet, but only two blueliners in the whole league accounted for more assists than he did last season.

But while there's plenty to like about their games, it's the chemistry and the friendship between these two that's especially lovely. Here's Quinn on sharing a room with Elias on the road:

Him as a roommate, sometimes he would ask me like a million questions at night. I would just be on my phone trying to relax and chill and I wouldn’t respond because I was just zoned in on my phone. He would get so mad at me and then all of a sudden he wouldn’t talk to me for like a day, he’s like “Oh, how does it feel now” and that happened two or three times. So I had to be careful with that not to hurt his feelings and act like I’m ignoring him.

One looming, long-term threat to this dynamic, however, is their contracts. Quinn signed for six years, while Elias is now only locked in for three.

Are all their guys vaccinated? Maybe? The team won’t say what’s up with Travis Hamonic, who signed a new deal this summer but didn’t show up to training camp for reasons Vancouver reporters suspect are vaccination-related. Meanwhile, scientists are hard at work on a vaccine that prevents “mourning Olli Juolevi.” Early trials of the Jack Rathbone pill, a potential treatment, show promising results.

Vegas Golden Knights: Robin Lehner

Earlier this month, the veteran goaltender accused the NHL of medical malpractice related to teams' distribution of Benzodiazepines and Ambien, while also calling for the firing of Flyers coach Alain Vigneault, who he referred to as "Dinosaur coach treating people robots not human." (Lehner never personally played under Vigneault and later clarified that his criticism was separate from the improper medical treatment accusations.)

On the ice, Lehner is also dealing with the increased pressure of being the number-one goalie on a Stanley Cup favorite. I suppose this was the job he was hired to do by Vegas, but it's been a chaotic journey to get to this point. Lehner played inconsistently for the Sens and Sabres at the start of his career, then found tremendous success with the Islanders in 2018–19 as he turned a corner in his battle against mental illness and substance abuse. The Isles were overcrowded at goalie, however, and Lehner signed with Chicago the following offseason, where he played half a year and then was traded to the contending Knights. Since then he's competed with Marc-Andre Fleury for the main gig, with Fleury getting the nod for most of 2021 due to his timeless and Vezina-winning form. Finally, though, Fleury is in Chicago and Lehner is in the driver's seat.

Got all that? OK, now here's something that will probably make you roll your eyes at me for forcing you to read that previous graf. It might not matter all that much if Lehner is at the world-beating level of Fleury last year or if he's merely pretty good. That's because this Vegas team is frickin' stacked all over, and even if one piece falters, the rest is strong enough to easily carry the roster into the playoffs and beyond. Not only did the Knights have amazing goaltending, but the defensive unit (led by Shea Theodore) also helped their guys out by allowing the fourth-fewest shots in the NHL last year. And on offense, the Knights finished third in the league with 191 goals pretty impressively spread out among guys like Max Pacioretty, Alex Tuch, Mark Stone, and Jonathan Marchessault. No one injury can truly hobble them, and only Edmonton appears ready to give them a real fight for the division. All Lehner really has to do is avoid setting the whole house on fire.

Are all their guys vaccinated? As their awfully cringe social media team might put it, “oooo holy heck yes vibesssss”

Central Division

Arizona Coyotes:

Chicago Blackhawks: Seth Jones

In a gigantic year for free-agent defensemen, it was the former Blue Jacket Seth Jones who won the lottery. After being traded to Chicago back in July, Jones signed an eight-year, $76 million contract extension that will keep the 27-year-old paid until 2030. (God, that year feels weird to type.)

It's hard to imagine a wilder and more controversial deal than this one. As the numbers suggest, Jones is popular with the top decision-makers inside the NHL, who value not only his ability to start attacks from his own zone but also the conditioning and work ethic that allowed him to play an average of over 25 minutes a night in every game last season. Analytics, however, rate him overall as more of a second-tier guy who struggles to deny other teams' penetration and, in 2021 specifically, as a really concerning mess who can't be absolved from Columbus's 48-point year. Personally, I trust math more than I trust GMs. But Jones, at least, will get a massive runway to try and prove that he's not overhyped.

The Blackhawks, though they didn't make the postseason, slightly overachieved last season with a hodgepodge of guys led by their old and new franchise wingers—Patrick Kane and Alex DeBrincat. Marc-Andre Fleury, though he will almost certainly drop off from his Vezina-winning Vegas season, should be an improvement to their goalie situation, and Jonathan Toews is back after missing a year due to health concerns to try and resume one of the most extraordinarily consistent runs of offensive production in hockey. Though they're probably still on the outside looking in, there's a chance that another vintage Fleury campaign and some puck luck could help them to a fourth-place finish.

Are all their guys vaccinated? They are. Good for them.

Colorado Avalanche: Gabe Landeskog

You're doing great! We're almost to the end! Gosh, it's like the NHL keeps adding more and more teams or something.

Though it ended in the second round for the third year in a row, the Presidents' Trophy–winning Avalanche enjoyed their best season in 2021 since their last Stanley Cup win two decades earlier, as they led the league in goals and finished third in goals against while showing the potential to obtain even better results. If new goalie Darcy Kuemper plays up to expectations in net they should be an absolute monster. The real challenge, now, is to emulate the Lightning—do everything possible to keep this contender mostly intact and extend the title window for as long as possible until the randomness of the playoffs goes their way. That's where the Gabriel Landeskog contract comes in. Though he's at best the fourth-most important skater on this team from a numbers standpoint, Landeskog is the heart and soul, and the face of this franchise's rebuild since they made him captain in 2012 at just 19 years old. Though the Avs seemed to waver a bit at the start of the summer, in the end he commanded his new eight-year deal at $7 million per.

In the short term, it's a no-brainer that the Avs had to keep Landy on their team. But when you factor in Cale Makar's $9 million per year, and Mikko Rantanen's $9.3 million per year, and the fact that Nathan MacKinnon is due for a huge pay increase up from his $6.3 million in 2023 (and so is 2019's fourth-overall pick Bowen Byram), this Landeskog contract could be a huge headache if his body begins to wear down as he hits 30. I wish I could talk about this great team without getting out the calculator. But it's an unfortunate reality of the NHL that a team this talented can't stick around forever. Better make the most of it while you can.

In lieu of a highlight, here is MacKinnon very comfortably talking about how hot his captain is.

Are all their guys vaccinated? Yes! So enjoy this video of Erik Johnson giving his captain a little smooch knowing the odds of mid-smooch viral transmission were low.

Dallas Stars: Roope Hintz

Everybody loves Roope Hintz, but I'm finding it hard to totally explain why. Some of it's just the name I think (pronounced row-pay). Some of it is absolutely the potential that the shaggy-haired, 24-year-old Finn has to carry an aging Dallas group into the future—even with a really gross-sounding groin injury that nagged at him all year, the kid provided explosive and efficient production to the tune of 43 points in 41 games.

But there's also just a whole je ne sais quoi around this dude. He dresses well. He plays with flair. He just seems to have it all figured out, and people are drawn to that. Like, I don't know. Look at the hat!

That's Roope Hintz with a hat. Now look at the dog!

That's Roope Hintz with a dog. Do you get it now? Hm, yeah, me too...

What? The Stars? Oh, uh, they'll be OK, maybe.

Are all their guys vaccinated? Everyone on the real team is; AHL guy Joel L’Esperance says he is “a little uncomfortable with some of the potential things that could happen with the vaccine.” He didn’t say which things. Cool, skilled baby Jason Robertson, who looks to be about 11, may have to wait on the FDA panel.

Minnesota Wild: Kirill Kaprizov

If I'm Wild GM Bill Guerin, I'm getting down on my knees every night and thanking the Lord that this team managed to resign Kaprizov. This wasn't an offseason to remember in general for the Wild. They parted ways with former franchise defenseman Ryan Suter and former franchise forward Zach Parise, who now leave an eight-figure dead cap hit on the team's books in three of the next four years. That duo, who joined the team together on 13-year deals in free agency in 2012, was supposed to push the still-fledgling Wild into contention, but the best they ever did was back-to-back second round appearances. As their era ends, the outlook for the team remains essentially the same—a borderline playoff group not expected to survive past the first week of May. (Or maybe June this year, with the Olympic break built into the schedule.)

But oh my god would this team look so much worse if Kaprizov had said fuck it and gone back to Russia, which he could have done if he didn't like what he was seeing in Minnesota. Instead, however, the 24-year-old reigning Rookie of the Year signed a five-year, $45 million contract in late September. In doing so, the Wild clung to something that so many teams in their position desperately need: a player who is must-see TV.

Kaprizov broke Marián Gáborík's franchise record for points by a rookie when he came over from tearing it up with CSKA Moscow last year, scoring 27 goals in a mere 55 games and dragging the Wild offense up from 15th in the NHL to 8th. The 5-foot-9 winger with the messy hair may not look like a destructive force, but he's seemingly impossible to contain, constantly influencing the game with his smarts, his speed, and his ruthless finishing ability. Eighty-nine percent of the Wild's goals scored with him on the ice last year included Kaprizov as one of the names on the scoresheet. If we're lucky, he should only improve from here, and even if he probably won't be able to do all by his lonesome what Suter and Parise couldn't has a pair, it'll be fun to watch him try.

Are all their guys vaccinated? Is the Pope Catholic? Is Joel Eriksson Ek a number one center? You’d better believe these lovable lads are all vaccinated.

Nashville Predators: Eeli Tolvanen

Before you ask—no, they don't call him "Eeli" because he's slippery like an eel. It's just his name.

The Preds have seen better days. Once the most fun team in hockey, they are now seriously in danger of missing the postseason for the first time since 2014. Viktor Arvidsson and Ryan Ellis, who both gave years of standout play to this franchise, are gone now, and what's left is a team in a frustrating limbo, not quite tanking but certainly not good either. They only have a few of the top-tier guys left who helped make them Cup contenders, but they're also still lacking the depth that builds up when you're able to pick high in the draft.

Tolvanen is someone I've had my eye on since he shined for Finland in the 2018 Olympics, and his lethal wrist shot is the kind of skill tailor-made for exciting GIFs from overseas. He stayed stuck in the minors for his first two years with Nashville, but after returning briefly to the KHL during COVID he finally made an impact on the main roster in 2021, finishing fourth on the team with 11 goals at just 21 years old.

Is Eeli the future of the Nashville Predators? No, I don't think so, but at his age it's still anybody's guess. At the very least, he's a fantastic power-play weapon and an OK second-line winger with a high ceiling. That he is the person I'm most excited to see for the Preds this year kind of stings.

Are all their guys vaccinated? Coach John Hynes said the team would be fully vaccinated before the regular season, so Juuse Saros won’t be doing much quarantining in the hilarious black triangle he calls home.

St. Louis Blues: Jordan Kyrou

The Blues' roster, to me, is like the desk that I'm writing this on. It's fine! It's functional. It does not break when I set my computer on it. It had a bit of a wobble but I was able to fix it with some crumpled paper. It's acceptable, but I also do not ever think about it unless I'm running out of gas in a hockey preview and need to reach for a metaphor to describe a team I don't have much to say about.

That's the Blues to me. Torey Krug and Colton Parayko in the defense? Yeah, sure, cool. David Perron and Pavel Buchnevich on the wings? OK! Ryan O'Reilly at center? Good, man. Jordan Binnington in goal? Solid enough!

If anyone catches my attention on this thoroughly decent team, I suppose it's Jordan Kyrou, who just finished his first full season and emerged with 14 goals and 21 assists (in a contract year, no less). Kyrou, who's 23, is novel primarily for his speed. Former Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo got to witness that firsthand in January when Kyrou pickpocketed the puck from him and then beat him in a race to the other end and scored, and those rockets on his skates really became his calling card throughout the rest of the year. If it's not franchise-changing, it's at least pretty neat, watching him zip around out there while defenders try to catch him like he's a bouncy ball traveling down a staircase. Though the Blues look likely to be a fringe playoff team again, Kyrou at least injects a bit of longed-for chaos into their sturdy ranks.

Are all their guys vaccinated? Yes … or at least they’ve been offered the vaccine. (But really, yes.)

Winnipeg Jets: Nikolaj Ehlers

As if Manitobans didn't have it hard enough already, I just made them wade through the entire goddang preview just to read a few words about their average little team. The good news, though, is that even if the Jets are going to be scrapping to get back to the playoffs, Nikolaj Ehlers freaking rocks.

Ehlers isn't quite getting the usage he deserves in Winnipeg—he ranked sixth among their forwards in average ice time last year. But he's a treat to watch whenever he's out there, skating hard on both ends and deploying his wrist shot so effectively that it makes a Jets fan forget all about the unfulfilled potential of Patrik Laine. Though the 25-year-old winger had always been somewhere between a 20- and 30-goal scorer, he was more efficient than ever, scoring 21 goals in 47 games for second place in his team's rankings. The Jets this season project to have the same identity as usual—some solid forwards anchored by a herculean goaltender in Connor Hellebuyck—but the continued improvement of Ehlers is a delightful subplot that could help push this team above its perennial place among the "pretty good."

Are all their guys vaccinated? Yes. And as vaccine-induced T-cells (?) are to, ah, organs (tissues?), this year’s much-improved blue line will be to Connor Hellebuyck. Neal Pionk rules. This is A Neal Pionk Website. [Ed. note: This website has no official position on Neal Pionk.]

That's it! That's everyone! You're dismissed. Go watch the games tonight.

Additional Guys by Maitreyi Anantharaman.

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