Six bold predictions for the 2021-22 NHL season

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Ah yes, bold predictions. The easiest way to make yourself look like a fool in a few months.

The whole idea of coming up with bold predictions is knowing full well that most of them probably won’t pan out. But the trick is to balance that with some level of possibility. It’s not a bold prediction to say Nikita Kucherov will win the Art Ross this season, because he’s done it before. That’s just a prediction. And it’s also not a bold prediction to say, I dunno, Pius Suter wins the scoring race because there’s no reality where that happens (sorry, Pius).

So we’re trying to have a little fun, challenge ourselves, but have some basis in reality, while recognizing that most of these may whiff.

Then again, I tasked myself with bold predictions for the Canadian Division last season, took a similar approach and, I must say, the results were…

A 66 per cent hit rate was entirely surprising and not bad at all.

So, maybe this year’s league-wide bold predictions won’t be so bad? Time will tell. Share your boldest takes for the 2021-22 season below, or hit me up on Twitter @RoryBoylen.

Vancouver Canucks finish first in Pacific Division after the regular season

Rory have you lost it?

Well, yes, but that has nothing to do with this. Remember people — bold predictions. This certainly qualifies.

Vegas will be the heavy favourite, and Edmonton comes in behind them. Seattle’s the wild card, as are the Calgary Flames in some ways. Los Angeles is the team on the rise that could shock us all.

When framing the Canucks, it might be helpful to look into a neuralyzer first to forget last season. It was incredibly challenging for the team and, sometimes, for reasons out of their control. Jim Benning made significant changes to the lineup over the off-season as well, which should put them in better position to compete in 2021-22.

Consider that the Pacific Division may be the worst of any of them, so playoff spots are up for grabs. It’s also worth pointing out that the favourites aren’t entirely perfect either. Vegas no longer has the luxury of two elite goalies should one have to miss time, and their power play got more and more atrocious as the year went along — one important factor to regular season success. And the Oilers do have questions about their goalies and, you might say, their defence too.

So why Vancouver? Look at this top nine forward unit. They’re deep. They’ve got speed. They’ve got strength. They could be a matchup problem and have options to shake things up if need be. Want more centre depth? Put J.T Miller down the middle (and it looks like he’ll start the season there). Want to load up the top-six? Move him to the wing and have the capable Jason Dickinson in the 3C hole. Elias Pettersson is back healthy and could have a huge year, while Vasily Podkolzin and Nils Hoglander have lots of untapped potential — a step from either would shift this unit into high gear.

Garland – Pettersson – Boeser
Pearson – Horvat – Hoglander
Dickinson – Miller – Podkolzin

Every team has a weakness, though, and Vancouver’s might be its blue line. That’s the area that needs to improve the most, since they were one of the worst teams at defending against the highest-quality shots last season. It wasn’t an area of strength two years ago either.

This is where Thatcher Demko comes in. Heck, he might be the subject of someone else’s bold prediction. Demko got better as last season went along, and that followed an outstanding 2020 playoff performance in which he took on an otherworldly form now referred to simply as ‘Bubble Demko.’ If you want to get really bold and say he could be in the Vezina conversation then that would be reason enough to elevate the Canucks. He doesn’t quite have to hit those heights, though. Demko carried a .923 save percentage in the last 22 of his 35 games played, and if he can sustain that in 2021-22 he’ll be among the better players at his position and would keep the Canucks in plenty of games when the defence isn’t up to snuff.

Toronto’s starting goalie for Game 1 of the playoffs is neither Jack Campbell nor Petr Mrazek

Nothing is guaranteed in Toronto’s net this season, which is maybe not the best thing heading into such a critical one for the team. Jack Campbell was fantastic for them in 2021, but he’s no stranger to injury and had a groin issue last season. Campbell has also never been leaned upon as a No. 1 over an 82-game calendar and the 22 appearances he made last season were the second-most of his career — the most he’s played in one season was 31 games in 2018-19 for the Kings.

Of course, Campbell doesn’t need to be a 50-game starter necessarily, because Petr Mrazek was brought in to team up with Campbell in a tandem. But Mrazek was the primary starter for two Carolina teams that had Stanley Cup hopes in 2018-19 and 2019-20 and we wouldn’t exactly call it a smashing success.

In 2018-19 the Canes were among the better defensive teams and Mrazek was up and down with some putrid months along the way, then he finished the regular season strong. He led them past the Capitals in Round 1 with an .899 save percentage, and got banged up a bit after that. The Canes reached the Eastern Conference final, Mrazek allowed 10 goals in the first two games (against Boston, eek Toronto fans) and didn’t play the last two games. In 2019-20 Mrazek wasn’t nearly as good in the regular season, split playoff time with James Reimer, and again was unravelled by the Bruins, allowing eight goals in three games en route to three losses. (Eek again.)

Mrazek was good when he played last season, but injuries limited him to just 12 games. Both Campbell and Mrazek have the potential to catch fire at the right time, but the risk here is obvious.

All situations. Stats via Hockey-Reference

The Leafs just committed three years to Mrazek and are cap tight, so this bold prediction won’t be easy to come to fruition — hence why it’s bold — but if there’s any sign of this situation being unstable by the trade deadline, how do you not address it? If the Leafs don’t win at least one playoff round this season, and probably more than that, jobs are on the line in the front office.

Who would they target? That’s the million dollar question. In the trade market, the Leafs might have to be competing with a team like Edmonton, who have net questions of their own, or Colorado because Darcy Kuemper is another injury risk (and backup Pavel Francouz is already out 3-4 weeks).

But would they have to go the trade route to address the position? This bold prediction is not mine, but rather managing editor Gary Melo’s (a mad Leafs fan): What if UFA Tuukka Rask, currently injured and not likely back until at least the new year some time, is open to signing back with the team that drafted him?

Direct all feedback to @Im_So_Legendary.

Neither Pennsylvania team makes the playoffs

The Metropolitan Division could be one of the more fascinating this season because of the potential for immense turnover — or maybe none at all.

Here you have your established contenders from years gone by: Washington and Pittsburgh. You have a team in the Islanders that doesn’t look special, but clearly is after back-to-back Round 3 appearances. Carolina had more points than any of these teams last season, while the Flyers are a popular bounce back pick and certainly look better on paper than the inconsistency they’ve played with in recent years.

But then you have a team like the New York Rangers, who seem poised to take a big step out of a rebuild. Even the New Jersey Devils have designs on doing the same after signing Dougie Hamilton in free agency. Columbus may finish last here, but even they have some weapons that could make them a surprise team.

So we’re predicting some turmoil. Chaos, baby.

The Penguins are already starting the season without both Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and there’s no sugar coating that sting. Tristan Jarry returns in net, but he was a problem for the team in the playoffs and doesn’t seem likely to lead a charge. Jeff Carter was absolutely fantastic for the Pens after coming over in a deadline trade last season, but what really are the odds of him being able to sustain that nearly point-per-game average tear he was on, over a full 82-game season? He’ll turn 37 in January and hasn’t scored 20 goals since 2016-17. There’s a bit of a last dance feel here with Malkin and Kris Letang in the final year of their contracts, so if things are going poorly perhaps they double down at the deadline and add. But Pittsburgh hasn’t won a playoff round since 2018, so how aggressive can you really get?

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And the Flyers are just a tough team to get a handle on. Carter Hart seems to be a great bet to bounce back — after all, the 23-year-old has been outstanding at every level he’s played, including the NHL. But last season was so bad with an .877 save percentage and 3.67 GAA that there is certainly more concern now. The Flyers know they didn’t have the right mix and GM Chuck Fletcher made the changes he could — Ryan Ellis, Rasmus Ristolainen, Keith Yandle, Martin Jones and Cam Atkinson are all new faces. But are we sure they’re better than the teams in this division that are clearly on an upwards trajectory?

Neither the Flyers or Penguins reach the playoffs. We don’t even need to boldly predict any of the rebuilding Metro teams taking their place — Washington, Carolina and the Islanders could be the three representatives from this group, with the Atlantic sending five teams.

Jack Hughes at least doubles his career-best point production

Some people may be down on the middle Hughes brother because he hasn’t had the same obvious impact of some other recent forwards chosen No. 1 overall. Auston Matthews and Connor McDavid spoiled us in that regard. But even Hughes’ teammate, Nico Hischier, has gained a lot more respect for his two-way impact.

Jack is about to hit big.

Hughes has point totals of 21 (in 61 games) and 31 (56 games) in his first two seasons, so it’s not bold enough to simply say he’ll have his best offensive season yet. He’ll smash it. Hughes gets to at least 62 points, if not more.

In his 19-year-old sophomore season, Hughes was one of the top Devils forwards, with a positive on-ice shot and goal differential for a team that was minus in both categories. He’s elusive, great on controlled entries, and at elevating his linemates. Hughes’ playmaking ability is well-established, but he also took a step up as a shooter last season, taking more shots on net overall and seeing his conversion rate rise by two percentage points. It still wasn’t great though (7.7 per cent), and has room to grow again.

And now we have the potential for better power play results. Just seven of Hughes’ 31 points last season came on the man advantage, and New Jersey’s PP unit ranked 28th in the NHL. The addition of Hamilton gives them a proven quarterback and that alone should improve the Devils’ situation.

In his rookie season, Hughes averaged .34 points per game. In Year 2, he averaged .55. If he has the same year-over-year improvement in Year 3 and averages .75 points per game in 2021-22, that’s a 62-point season. And the conditions could be setting him up for that sort of leap.

Ross Colton, Mathieu Joseph step up to fully replace Tampa’s scoring on the third line

The cap finally caught up to the Lightning this off-season, and they lost their entire third line of Yanni Gourde, Barclay Goodrow and Blake Coleman. That would lead to a depth issue on most teams. Not the Lightning, though.

Ross Colton, 25, and Mathieu Joseph, turning 25 in February, had the two best goals per 60 minutes rate (at 5-on-5) for the Lightning last season. Neither played all that much, averaging just under 11 minutes per game, and both had extremely high shooting percentages that won’t be sustained (19.6 for Colton, 20.3 for Joseph). But those declining shot percentages will be offset by rising minutes and opportunity.

And while Colton showed well as a rookie last season, Joseph’s numbers have been screaming “underrated asset” for a few years now. Over the past three seasons combined, Joseph has averaged 1.01 goals every 60 minutes of 5-on-5 action, which ranks 33rd among all NHL players with at least 1,000 minutes played. That’s just ahead of Alex DeBrincat, Artemi Panarin, Josh Anderson and Elias Pettersson, and just behind Brayden Point, Mark Stone and Steven Stamkos. This is the same stat that indicated Carter Verhaeghe could be a breakout candidate before he did it with greater opportunity in Florida last season, or why Jakub Vrana was on track to break big when the Capitals weren’t giving him minutes (and maybe why we should be buying into 2021-22 breakouts for Jordan Kyrou, Michael Bunting, or another step up for Joel Farabee).

Joseph doesn’t need to be an elite performer, but if he and Colton can replace the 20-ish goals Coleman and Gourde would have been good for, the Lightning will keep rolling without much in the way of a weakness.

Florida Panthers win the Stanley Cup

Now we’re off the rails, picking a team to win it all that hasn’t won a single playoff round since 1996.

Or are we?

The Panthers were one of the NHL’s top regular season teams last season, and challenged the Lightning to an exciting six-game series that, perhaps, would have played out a bit differently without a Sam Bennett suspension in Game 1, or if Aaron Ekblad had of been healthy enough to play in the series.

This year, the Panthers come back reloaded, improved and with the full buy-in from their captain.

That Aleksander Barkov signed an eight-year extension before the season even started is no small thing. It wouldn’t have been strange for one of the game’s top centres to walk in free agency and try his hand at playoff hockey elsewhere, but Barkov chose to commit to the changes in Florida.

Ekblad, who was having a great year before breaking his leg, is back. Sam Bennett was fire after Florida traded for him at the deadline, and whether or not he regresses back to the usual “regular season Sam” we got used to seeing in Calgary doesn’t matter much, because you can count on him upping his game come playoff time. And besides, the Panthers acquired Sam Reinhart, Buffalo’s only consistently good player last season, and they now have three of the top four picks from the 2014 draft on the same team.

The Panthers had the fourth-best offence in the league last season and only added to it. Their top-nine forwards are deadly and even the fourth line could be a lot to handle.

I can hear the naysayers now: “But Rory, what about Sergei Bobrovsky and his anchor of a contract? He stinks!”

It’s true that Bobrovsky hasn’t been great in two years with Florida (he was slightly better last season though!) but Spencer Knight could carve out more of a workload for himself. The 13th overall pick from 2019, Knight has been elite at every level he’s played, and then posted a .943 save percentage in four regular season games at the end of last season, when he joined the Panthers after his NCAA career ended. Knight even got some playoff action, too, going 1-1 and stopping 56 of 60 shots the Lightning threw at him.

Bobrovsky will get his starts, but there’s a path to Knight taking over the lead role of this tandem and it could put him on track for a Calder Trophy season if he does.

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