For the first time in three years, the NHL is going to have a full 82 game regular season (we hope). There will (hopefully) be an Olympic break in the middle, but this season will be more like what everyone was used to unlike the COVID disrupted messes the last two seasons were. Does that mean normal service resumes? It's the NHL, there's always chaos somewhere along the way. Perhaps that comes from an expansion team being good and everyone expecting it this time. Here are the sure to be wrong 2021-22 NHL season predictions:
1. NY Islanders
6. NY Rangers
7. New Jersey
The top six teams in this division could honestly finish in any order, and any order of them would make sense. There isn't much separating them, so the most important question to ask is "what are you sure of?" In this case, the Islanders are as sure a thing as any team in this flawed division, even with a style not conducive for regular season form and a season opening 13 game road trip. Carolina has as deep a group of forwards as any, but their defense and goaltending could be notably worse than last year. Both the Penguins and Capitals have a feel of the end being near, but it's hard to ever accurately predict when that will happen, and it's hard to imagine it happening this year. Philadelphia may need too many things to go right to make the postseason with questions on all three levels of their team and the Rangers would be higher up this list if they didn't lose their minds because of Tom Wilson and the Islanders forcing them to get players that punch better than they score. New Jersey is getting better, but with a goaltender that is hesitant to get vaccinated and a forward group that might be too young, they're at least a year away and the Blue Jackets will always be annoying, but their rebuild is just beginning.
The gap between team one and four in this division is much smaller than the difference between four and five, such is the gulf between the two halves of the division. One to four could also finish in any order, and any order would likely be correct. Toronto nudges ahead of Tampa based on a need to prove something in the regular season while Tampa's shallower depth, Olympic obligations and a sense that the regular season doesn't matter much to them anymore holds them back. Boston is aging, and their depth is not anywhere near their peak, but that top line is too good to have them fall any further. Florida has so much upside because of their depth and offensive potential, but there's still a sense of a group needing to learn how to win. Montreal had their magical Cup run and are paying for it with the absences of Carey Price and Shea Weber, and their depth has not gotten any better after a bunch of changes this offseason, some of which felt unnecessary. Detroit has young talent beginning to emerge which puts them on top of the bottom pile ahead of Ottawa who will be annoying even as the Brady Tkachuk saga flies them too close to the sun and the Sabres... may the lottery odds be forever in your favor.
5. St. Louis
Joe Sakic and his team have built a machine in Colorado, one that has become a regular season buzzsaw yet has fallen short too often in the playoffs. Such are the questions this year for a team that is slightly thinner and needs to get over the hump come May, but none of those should be a problem in the regular season. They are likely to win the President's Trophy again. Minnesota has a looming cap crunch, but keeps Kirill Kaprizov happy and thus will be a fun team to watch once again. Winnipeg has more defensive depth to go in front of a Vezina caliber goaltender which should steady their ship. Dallas and St. Louis are starting to feel long in the tooth, but both have excuses for why last year for both was underwhelming. Dallas in particular feels like a team being slept on after everything that could go wrong last year having gone wrong. Both should feel relatively secure in playoff positions. Chicago made big moves in the hopes of keeping the Kane/Toews window open, but they'll need another Marc-Andre Fleury Vezina season in order to punch above their weight, and behind that Chicago defense it doesn't seem likely. The Predators are a team that feels a losing streak away from starting a major rebuild, while the Coyotes are in the midst of one and are going to bottom out with eyes on the future.
5. Los Angeles
7. San Jose
Vegas, like Colorado, is waiting for a playoff push over the hump that hasn't come since their inaugural season. Each exit has been painful, and there is a sense that there isn't unlimited time to win with this group. As for the regular season, it shouldn't be an issue where they are head and shoulders the best team in it. Edmonton is deeper at forward than they've ever been in the McDavid/Draisaitl era, and even with questions on the blueline and in goal, the overwhelming might of their forwards should make the playoffs a sure thing. Yes, the Seattle Kraken are in line for a playoff spot in year one, and that is because they have solid depth, particularly on the blue line, and plus goaltending to go with it, even if the top end scoring talent isn't there. It helps that every other team has major questions too. Calgary would be wise to fully embrace Darryl Sutter's brand, and it seems like they have, but it's not 2012 anymore. The Kings hope it's 2012 with a playoff run in their future, and they seem to expect one with some of the signings they've made, but this feels like a team trying to win perhaps a little too early. Vancouver is like Edmonton lite with great forward depth and an extremely questionable blue line, and those questions might be too much to bear. The Sharks are in limbo as bad, long-term contracts run their course, and the Ducks continue to fail to decide whether to stick or twist with a rebuild.
(A1) Toronto over (WC2) Washington in 7
(A2) Tampa over (A3) Boston in 6
(M1) NY Islanders over (WC1) Florida in 7
(M2) Carolina over (M3) Pittsburgh in 6
(A2) Tampa over (A1) Toronto in 6
(M2) Carolina over (M1) NY Islanders in 7
(A2) Tampa over (M2) Carolina in 6
(P1) Vegas over (WC2) St. Louis in 5
(P2) Edmonton over (P3) Seattle in 5
(C1) Colorado over (WC1) Dallas in 5
(C3) Winnipeg over (C2) Minnesota in 7
(P1) Vegas over (P2) Edmonton in 6
(C1) Colorado over (C3) Winnipeg in 5
(C1) Colorado over (P1) Vegas in 7
2022 Stanley Cup Final:
Colorado over Tampa in 7
Hart: Connor McDavid (EDM)
Art Ross: Leon Draisaitl (EDM)
Calder: Moritz Seider (DET)
Norris: Cale Makar (COL)
Vezina: Connor Hellebuyck (WPG)
Selke: Mark Stone (VGK)
Rocket Richard: Auston Matthews (TOR)
Jack Adams: Dave Hakstol (SEA)
Apologies to all who I have inevitably jinxed. Happy hockey season!