I’m excited to get back to mostly normal after two unusual COVID seasons. Here’s a peek at what to watch for in the 2021-22 NHL season.

Will the Tampa Bay Lightning three-peat?

Last year, I wrote no way, so I’m not making that mistake again. But we haven’t had a three-peat since 1983. Yanni Gourde leaving is a huge loss. Additionally, at some point, motivation wanes, and injuries mount. But as long as Nikita Kucherov and Andrei Vasilevskiy are there, they have a chance. However, Corey Perry is now on the team, and he’s played in the last two Stanley Cups against them. Maybe he’s impersonating Marian Hossa.

Are there any Stanley Cup favorites?

I like a healthy Dallas Stars team. I believe they have the deepest team in the NHL. And they’re very deep at goalie with four decorated starters. Obviously, that’ll change. If Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin can bounce back, I don’t see many teams stopping them. But they, like the rest of the team, aren’t consistent. The other favorite is the Colorado Avalanche, but it’s still not happening unless they become more physical. There’s only so much Nathan Mackinnon can do, and they didn’t add anyone significant.

Any other contenders?

The Islanders aren’t going anywhere. But they haven’t added the right piece to get over the hump yet. Zach Parise is not that piece. But more on this later. I wouldn’t count out the Vegas Golden Knights, but they need a top center, more on this later too, and I wonder how their goaltending change will impact them. I think the Vancouver Canucks will bounce back if they’re healthy, but it’s still too early to go all the way. The Boston Bruins will be there, but they’ll have to do so without Tuukka Rask for a bit. However, Jeremy Swayman may get hot if given the opportunity, and then it won’t matter.

Is this the year the Toronto Maple Leafs finally win a Stanley Cup series? (again, again, again, again)

The Maple Leafs will inevitably win a playoff series. Even a team as cursed as them can’t continue this forever. I thought last season was it, but that was not to be. Now they’re back in the playoff bracket of doom. They’ll need to beat either Boston or Tampa Bay or possibly both to reach the Conference Finals. The Maple Leafs are like a stuck ketchup bottle. Once they finally break free, they’re going all the way. Losing goalie Frederik Andersen is a bit surprising, but he never quite reached his potential. Petr Mrazek is almost the same goalie. His postseasons are a little better than his regular seasons. But he’s three years younger, so it’s a win for the Maple Leafs. Jack Campbell has potential too. I still like the Wayne Simmonds pickup, but twelve minutes a game isn’t enough playing time. He should honestly be on the second line. He’s not getting any younger. Use him.

What do the Montreal Canadiens do for an encore?

Historically, the Canadiens make the playoffs the season after they at least made it to the Conference Finals, but lately, they also regress the following playoffs. The Atlantic Division is stacked, too, so that won’t be easy. I’m a big Cole Caufield fan, and I hope he gets more playing time. I’m excited to see what he can do over a full season. Then there’s Jonathan Drouin. If they put him on a line with Caufield and he can do anything, that would be quite the combination. Sadly, he looks like he might become the next Bobby Ryan.

Will the Seattle Kraken duplicate the Vegas Golden Knights’ success?

No. The Golden Knights caught lightning in a bottle. Everything went right, including what went wrong. The two players they picked that stood out the most were Marc-Andre Fleury and Jonathan Marchessault. The Kraken didn’t get anyone like that. The other key was William Karlsson. There might be a Karlsson in one of the Kraken’s picks, but that wouldn’t be enough. Vegas also had a tragic event bring the whole team together. Hopefully, that won’t happen in Seattle. Jordan Eberle, Yanni Gourde, and Chris Driedger are talented, but this isn’t a playoff team.

Who are the most compelling teams this season?

I’m going with the Chicago Blackhawks again because they gain a healthy and rested Jonathan Toews plus Seth Jones and Marc-Andre Fleury while moving on from Duncan Keith. There’s also Patrick Kane, Dominik Kubalik, and Alex DeBrincat. It’s an interesting mix that might make the playoffs.

The Philadelphia Flyers because you never know what you’re going to get. They could be the top seed, or they could miss the playoffs entirely. And that sums up their last two seasons pretty well. Flyers fans should buckle up for their rollercoaster season. I’m not even going to try to predict what might happen.

The New York Rangers have been amassing young talent and slowly getting better the last few seasons. Suppose Alexis Lafreniere and Kaapo Kakko can play like Adam Fox did last season. In that case, they’ll join potent scorers Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad, and the Rangers might breakthrough this season.

Any key player signings?

The Hurricanes getting rid of both Alex Nedeljkovic and Petr Mrazek is very surprising. Losing goalie Alex Nedeljkovic is the biggest shock this season. I would not have let Nedeljkovic go. He signed for three million a year with the Detroit Red Wings. The Hurricanes wanted to pay him only half that. I still think they should have tried harder to make it work. He’ll probably regress in Detroit since the Red Wings are so bad, and that will make their decision look good. But if he plays like he did last season, major egg on their face.

The biggest non-goalie signing is Nolan Patrick with the Golden Knights. The second overall pick in 2017 hasn’t lived up to his draft status. But he still has potential. If he can blossom into a top-tier center, the Golden Knights will be the immediate favorite. Considering most players have the best years of their career in Vegas, it’s certainly possible. However, injuries and migraines have been the main culprits derailing his career. No change of scenery will ever fix those. But for only 1.2 million a year, you have a chance to get a top-line center.

The Edmonton Oilers finally signed a promising winger in Zach Hyman. If he can be as good or better than James Neal in his first season with the Oilers and stay healthy, they’ve finally found something. It’s worth noting Neal had a hat trick for the St. Louis Blues in a preseason game. If he ends up having a great season, the Oilers will look exceptionally stupid. Something they’ve excelled at the last few years, especially in regards to wingers.

What will happen with Jack Eichel?

That answer will have the biggest impact this season. Even if he ends up somewhere, we don’t know what shape he’ll be in. It would be surprising if he played more than half the season. It’s been pretty tight lip as to what teams are interested. But we know the New York Rangers want him the most. But I doubt the Sabres would trade him to an Eastern Conference team. Vegas would make the most sense if he actually wants to win, and they desperately need a top center. But that doesn’t seem likely between salary cap issues and what they would have to give up. Detroit and Carolina have a lot of picks, but both also seem unlikely. Anaheim and Minnesota have also been linked. If I were the New York Islanders, I’d try hard to get him. If they can pull it off, they’ll have the best top two centers outside Pittsburgh, Toronto, and Edmonton. But unlike those places, the Islanders actually have goaltending, defense, and recent playoff success. This would put them over the top. But they’re also in the Eastern Conference.

Any key players to watch?

The last few seasons, I listed Elias Pettersson, Carter Hart, and Patrik Laine here. They’ll be key people to watch this season too. I’m genuinely surprised Laine re-signed with the Blue Jackets. Although John Tortorella isn’t there anymore, so now, it might be a better fit. I’m grateful there won’t be any more Bill Belichick-style post-game clips from Tortorella anymore.

Along with Nolan Patrick, the guy drafted ahead of him, Nico Hischier has a lot to prove, as does his New Jersey Devils teammate and fellow number one overall pick Jack Hughes.

Speaking of players drafted one-two, it’s Taylor Hall’s first full season with the Bruins, and as mentioned previously, Tyler Seguin will try and bounce back from his injury.

Regarding injuries, Evgeni Malkin will be out the first two months, making it harder to bounce back from his subpar season.

Kirill Kaprizov has a chance to take it to the next level this season too.

What about the move to ESPN and TNT?

It’ll mostly be the same. But both networks have more reach than NBCSN. TNT wants to get people talking about hockey through their studio show, like the NBA, which isn’t done much on TV. If they can succeed, that’s a big win for the NHL. I want some Charles Barkley analysis. I’m more interested to see if the ESPN daily shows and SportsCenter talk about hockey. For example, the NHL is only the lead story on PTI like twice a year. Most of the time, they never talk about hockey, or it’s buried in the bottom of the show where they devote ten seconds to it. They recently devoted a few seconds to Sidney Crosby, and Tony Kornheiser said he was 37. He’s 34. They couldn’t even bother to fact-check that. If ESPN wants their hockey coverage to grow, they vastly need to improve this area. However, I’m grateful ESPN plus is cheaper than NHL TV.

Playoff Predictions

Here’s a stab at predicting the playoff teams.

Atlantic Division

Tampa Bay Lightning
Boston Bruins
Toronto Maple Leafs
Florida Panthers

Metro Division

Carolina Hurricanes
New York Islanders
New York Rangers
Pittsburgh Penguins

This leaves the Philadelphia Flyers, Montreal Canadiens, and Washington Capitals out. All could get in. Most likely to drop from my list are Penguins, Rangers, and Panthers.

Central Division

Colorado Avalanche
Dallas Stars
Minnesota Wild
Any of the other central teams could get this spot.

Pacific Division

Vegas Golden Knights
Vancouver Canucks
Edmonton Oilers
Calgary Flames

The Flames may lose their spot to a Central Division team.

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I'm excited to get back to mostly normal after two unusual COVID seasons. Here's a peek at what to watch for in the 2021-22 NHL season. Will the Tampa Bay Lightning three-peat? Last year, I wrote no way, so I'm not making that mistake again. But we haven't had a three-peat...