Will the National Hockey League (NHL) return to normal in 2021-22?
After an incredibly short off-season, many players, coaches, and fans are hoping this season can be exactly that: normal. A pandemic still rages across North America. However, buildings will mostly be full, and the league expects to play a full 82-game slate.
On the ice, the divisions returned to their pre-pandemic alignment with two notable exceptions. Number one is that the Arizona Coyotes are moving from the Pacific Division to the Central Division. Number two is that the expansion Seattle Kraken are now the eighth team in the Pacific, and the 32nd NHL franchise competing for Stanley Cup.
In this highly competitive environment, the two-time defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning are trying to do what no team has done since 1983: win three titles in a row. I see Tampa Bay as the favorite to do exactly that. However, plenty of strong contenders — Colorado, Vegas, Carolina, Boston, Toronto, Florida, the New York Islanders — stand ready to break up the party.
Without further ado, here is my 2021-22 NHL season preview, featuring predictions for all 32 teams in 32 words or less.
Predicted standings (overall NHL standing in parentheses):
- Tampa Bay Lightning (1)
- Boston Bruins (6)
- Toronto Maple Leafs (7)
- Florida Panthers (9)
- Ottawa Senators (19)
- Montreal Canadiens (20)
- Detroit Red Wings (30)
- Buffalo Sabres (32)
- Carolina Hurricanes (3)
- New York Islanders (4)
- Washington Capitals (11)
- Pittsburgh Penguins (14)
- New York Rangers (16)
- Philadelphia Flyers (23)
- New Jersey Devils (26)
- Columbus Blue Jackets (27)
- Colorado Avalanche (2)
- Minnesota Wild (8)
- Winnipeg Jets (10)
- Dallas Stars (13)
- Nashville Predators (17)
- Chicago Blackhawks (18)
- St. Louis Blues (21)
- Arizona Coyotes (31)
- Vegas Golden Knights (5)
- Edmonton Oilers (12)
- Vancouver Canucks (15)
- Los Angeles Kings (21)
- Seattle Kraken (24)
- Calgary Flames (25)
- San Jose Sharks (28)
- Anaheim Ducks (29)
32 team previews in 32 words or less:
- Tampa Bay Lightning (2020-21 Record: 36-17-3; 2021-22 Predicted Finish: 1st Atlantic Division)
Tampa Bay lost its heart-and-soul third line, but are favored to three-peat as champions. No team can match its elite core of game-breakers: Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, Victor Hedman and Andrei Vasilevskiy.
- Colorado Avalanche (2020-21 Record: 39-13-4; 2021-22 Predicted Finish: 1st Central Division)
Colorado has the makings of a Stanley Cup winner. Cale Makar anchors the blue line, and the Avalanche’s offense, headed by Nathan MacKinnon, is electric. Hopes are high for Darcy Keumper in net.
- Carolina Hurricanes (2020-21 Record: 36-12-8; 2021-22 Predicted Finish: 1st Metropolitan Division)
A fun story the last few years, Carolina is now a legit contender with high expectations. After he failed in Toronto, the Hurricanes are pinning their postseason success on goaltender Frederik Andersen.
- New York Islanders (2020-21 Record: 32-17-7; 2021-22 Predicted Finish: 2nd Metropolitan Division)
Two straight Conference finals berths set expectations high on Long Island. The Islanders are loaded on defense and in goal, and have a budding superstar in Mathew Barzal.
- Vegas Golden Knights (2020-21 Record: 40-14-2; 2021-22 Predicted Finish: 1st Pacific Division)
Robin Lehner is now the unquestioned netminder for a Vegas squad in win-now mode. The Golden Knights are loaded on defense and at wing, but center ice issues remain an Achilles heel.
- Boston Bruins (2020-21 Record: 33-16-7; 2021-22 Predicted Finish: 2nd Atlantic Division)
In recent months the Bruins added Taylor Hall, Nick Foligno, Erik Haula, and goaltender Linus Ullmark. With Tuukka Rask out and David Krejci gone, perennial contender Boston needed the new talent.
- Toronto Maple Leafs (2020-21 Record: 35-14-7; 2021-22 Predicted Finish: 3rd Atlantic Division)
Toronto has become a regular season monster as forwards Austin Matthews, John Tavaras and Mitch Marner can score at will. Defense and goaltending issues remain, and could stir again in the playoffs.
- Minnesota Wild (2020-21 Record: 35-16-5; 2021-22 Predicted Finish: 2nd Central Division)
Game breaker Kirill Kaprizov changed Minnesota from perennial mediocrity to a Cup contender overnight. The Wild have talent around him, an excellent defense (minus Ryan Suter), and two good options in goal.
- Florida Panthers (2020-21 Record: 37-14-5; 2021-22 Predicted Finish: 4th Atlantic Division)
After years of scuffling, Florida emerged as a real contender. Featuring talent like Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov, Aaron Ekblad, and MacKenzie Weegar, the Panthers might have the NHL’s best young core.
- Winnipeg Jets (2019-20 Record: 30-23-2; 2020-21 Predicted Finish: 3rd Central Division)
Winnipeg improved its defense by adding Brenden Dillon and Nate Schmidt. With forwards Kyle Connor and Blake Wheeler, the Jets can score, especially if Pierre-Luc Dubois returns to elite status.
- Washington Capitals (2020-21 Record: 36-15-5; 2021-22 Predicted Finish: 3rd Metropolitan Division)
Superstar Alex Ovechkin leads a Washington offense that can still score with anyone. Concerns about the blue line and goaltending haven’t gone away, and that could lead to another short postseason.
- Edmonton Oilers (2020-21 Record: 35-19-2; 2021-22 Predicted Finish: 2nd Pacific Division)
With forwards Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, plus newcomer Zach Hyman, Edmonton will have no trouble scoring. Below-average goaltending, depth, and defensemen other than Darnell Nurse, are still glaring problems.
- Dallas Stars (2020-21 Record: 23-19-14; 2021-22 Predicted Finish: 4th Central Division)
Dallas endured a horrific pandemic season but returns a roster just two years removed from making the Stanley Cup Finals. The Stars need more offense to go with their all-world defense.
- Pittsburgh Penguins (2020-21 Record: 37-16-3; 2021-22 Predicted Finish: 4th Metropolitan Division)
Aging Pittsburgh desperately wants to keep its contention window open, but face injuries to Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin to start the season and worries over starter Tristan Jarry in goal.
- Vancouver Canucks (2020-21 Record: 23-29-4; 2021-22 Predicted Finish: 3rd Pacific Division)
A COVID-19 outbreak crippled disappointing Vancouver last year. With a good off-season, a weak division, and stars like Elias Pettersson and Bo Horvat, the playoffs seem likely now.
- New York Rangers (2020-21 Record: 27-23-6; 2021-22 Predicted Finish: 5th Metropolitan Division)
What direction is New York going? The Rangers, with star Artemi Panarin and defenseman Adam Fox, want to contend. New York took steps to get tougher, not better, in the offseason.
- Nashville Predators (2020-21 Record: 31-23-2; 2021-22 Predicted Finish: 5th Central Division)
Goalie Juuse Saros carried the Predators into the playoffs last season, and may need to do the same this year. Even without Ryan Ellis, Nashville’s defense, led by Roman Josi, is elite.
- Chicago Blackhawks (2019-20 Record: 24-25-7; 2021-22 Predicted Finish: 6th Central Division)
Chicago is attempting one last Cup run with stars Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury and defenseman Seth Jones were huge additions to a squad with promising young talent.
- Ottawa Senators (2020-21 Record: 23-28-5; 2021-22 Predicted Finish: 5th Atlantic Division)
If Ottawa can get Brady Tkachuk signed, the Senators could surprise. With talented players like Thomas Chabot, Connor Brown, Drake Batherson, and Tim Stützle, Ottawa is ready for a big leap forward.
- Montreal Canadiens (2020-21 Record: 24-21-11; 2021-22 Predicted Finish: 6th Atlantic Division)
After barely squeaking into the playoffs, Montreal nearly won the Cup. The Canadiens will miss Shea Weber, and must overcome Carey Price’s absence and high expectations to repeat their success.
- Los Angeles Kings (2020-21 Record: 21-28-7; 2021-22 Predicted Finish: 4th Pacific Division)
Los Angeles feels like a team on the rise. Veteran stars Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty lead a team stocked with young talent. Can Cal Petersen be “the guy” in net?
- St. Louis Blues (2020-21 Record: 27-20-9; 2021-22 Predicted Finish: 7th Central Division)
The 2018-19 season was a long time ago for the Blues. Standout forward Ryan O’Reilly and defenseman Colton Parayko must wonder what could’ve been for a franchise in decline.
- Philadelphia Flyers (2020-21 Record: 25-23-8; 2021-22 Predicted Finish: 6th Metropolitan Division)
Philadelphia made many changes this summer. Unless they can help goalie Carter Hart more, the Flyers will likely struggle. Their young talent needs to step up and take charge.
- Seattle Kraken (2020-21 Record: N/A; 2021-22 Predicted Finish: 5th Pacific Division)
With Mark Giordano, Adam Larsson, Jamie Oleksiak, and Vince Dunn, expansion Seattle will feature one of the best blue lines in the NHL. Finding scoring beyond Yanni Gourde is a glaring issue.
- Calgary Flames (2020-21 Record: 26-27-3; 2021-22 Predicted Finish: 6th Pacific Division)
Forward Matthew Tkachuk is the future foundation, but Calgary is not good enough to win now, nor bad enough to snag a high draft pick. The Flames seem stuck in mediocrity.
- New Jersey Devils (2020-21 Record: 19-30-7; 2021-22 Predicted Finish: 7th Metropolitan Division)
Signing defenseman Dougie Hamilton signaled that New Jersey is attempting to accelerate its path to contention. The Devils are a few years away, but the franchise keeps accumulating young and talented assets.
- Columbus Blue Jackets (2020-21 Record: 18-26-12; 2021-22 Predicted Finish: 8th Metropolitan Division)
Columbus disappointed last season, which triggered the departures of Jones and coach John Tortorella. Defenseman Zach Werenski is now the cornerstone, and Brad Larsen the coach the Blue Jackets hope to build around.
- San Jose Sharks (2020-21 Record: 21-28-7; 2021-22 Predicted Finish: 7th Pacific Division)
Evander Kane’s poisonous offseason cloud hovers over this flailing franchise. First was his gambling scandal. Second was his allegedly false vaccine card. It’s an awful situation for a team in transition.
- Anaheim Ducks (2020-21 Record: 17-30-9; 2021-22 Predicted Finish: 8th Pacific Division)
Well past its glory days, Anaheim is getting younger around veteran captain Ryan Getzlaf. Expect many trades and changes as the Ducks’ season lurches along.
- Detroit Red Wings (2020-21 Record: 19-27-10; 2021-22 Predicted Finish: 7th Atlantic Division)
In the loaded Atlantic, Detroit will face plenty of setbacks as it continues rebuilding. The Red Wings’ slow growth is still on schedule, but the team needs star power beyond Dylan Larkin.
- Arizona Coyotes (2020-21 Record: 24-26-6; 2021-22 Predicted Finish: 8th Central Division)
Phil Kessel returns as essentially the lone recognizable name for a franchise in the midst of a complete teardown. If their futures pay off, this could become a good team long-term.
- Buffalo Sabres (2020-21 Record: 15-34-7; 2021-22 Predicted Finish: 8th Atlantic Division)
What an off-season nightmare for the Sabres. Just as things were slowly turning around, star forward Jack Eichel’s injury, combined with the team’s handling of it, resulted in chaos and an exodus.