Smell that? It’s that crisp fall air, and it only means one thing: Hockey is here.
The NHL season opens in less than two weeks, when the defending back-to-back Stanley Cup Champion Tampa Bay Lightning host the Pittsburgh Penguins on October 12. It’ll be a double-header night for the NHL as that Lighting-Penguins game will be followed by the debut of the newest NHL expansion franchise, as the Seattle Kraken take on the second-newest NHL expansion franchise, the Vegas Golden Knights. It will all happen on the new NHL TV Networks of ESPN and TNT/Turner Sports.
While there is a lot of “new” happening in the NHL this season, as far as league predictions go for the upcoming 2021-22 season, there is a lot that will feel familiar. So here are my NHL predictions for the upcoming season, from Division winners to Award winners and everything in-between.
Atlantic Division Winner: Tampa Bay Lightning
They’re the best team in the league. So why wouldn’t the Lightning win their division? With the league reverting to their regular divisional alignment after mixing things up last year, the Lightning would be favored to win any division they were put in. Even with Boston, Toronto, Florida, and Montreal to deal with, Tampa Bay still stands above the rest.
Metropolitan Division Winner: New York Islanders
The Metropolitan is stacked, much like the Atlantic, but it doesn’t have a head-and-shoulders best team. Washington, Pittsburgh, Carolina, and the New York Rangers all stake a decent claim to step out as a division leader, but I’ll go with the Islanders.
Central Division Winner: Colorado Avalanche
The addition of the Arizona Coyotes to the Central does little to enhance the prestige of the division. Much like in the past, the Central will yet again be a meat-grinder of a division, with a relative toss-up for the teams that could finish between second and seventh. But, the team at the top is clearly the Colorado Avalanche.
Pacific Division Winner: Vegas Golden Knights
Another division that has a complete toss-up feel behind the top team is the Pacific. We don’t know exactly how the expansion Seattle Kraken will fare, but it’s unlikely that they unseat the Golden Knights as the top team in the division. Of course, the Edmonton Oilers will have plenty to say about the top spot, but I still feel most confident with Vegas.
Non-Playoff team from 2021 that will make 2022 Playoffs: Dallas Stars
The Stars were hindered by so many injuries and COVID-19 issues last season that they had no chance to get their footing underneath them following a trip to the Stanley Cup Final in 2020. Even with starting the season from behind, the Stars made a push toward the postseason late last season but fell short. However, I think they will figure out which two of their four NHL-level goaltenders they’ll need to get into the postseason this year.
Playoff team from 2021 that will not make the 2022 Playoffs: Nashville Predators
A team that directly benefitted from the misfortunes of the Stars last season, I don’t see the Predators being able to do the same this year. They are in a difficult Central Division. With the return to health of the Stars, the offseason additions by the Chicago Blackhawks, and the Minnesota Wild locking-up Kirill Kaprizov, I don’t see the Predators being able to make it back to the postseason.
Art Ross Trophy (Most Points): Connor McDavid (Edmonton Oilers)
He’s a freak. He’s the fastest kid alive.
Hart Memorial Trophy (MVP): Connor McDavid
McDavid scored 105 points in 56 games last season. So what is to say that he doesn’t top 100, 110, 120, 150 points this season? He’s the best player on the planet right now. It would take an unfortunate injury or a Herculean effort from someone else not to have McDavid named the Most Valuable in the league.
Norris Trophy (Best Defenseman): Cale Makar (Colorado Avalanche)
A finalist last season, the Avalanche might have one of the best defensive groups in the league, and Makar continues to be the group’s catalyst. He’s one of the most exciting young defensemen to watch in the league, and he was paid as such this offseason. Now he’ll have to back it up.
Vezina Trophy (Best Goaltender): Andrei Vasilevskiy (Tampa Bay Lightning)
There’s a lot of good goalies in the league, a lot of great goalies, too. There’s only one All-World talent in-between the pipes in the NHL, and it’s Vasilevskiy. He will win another Vezina this season and might even win another Conn Smythe while he’s at it.
Calder Trophy (Best Rookie): Cole Caufield (Montreal Canadiens)
He broke out late last season with the underdog Canadiens, but with a full NHL season ahead of him, Cole Caufield is supposed to play a major role in Montreal and will have a decent workload put on his 5’7″ shoulders. Of course, there’s stiff competition in this year’s NHL rookie class, including Caufield’s former Team USA teammate Trevor Zegras, Quinton Byfield, Moritz Seider, and Spencer Knight. Still, I have to go with the former Wisconsin Badger here.
Rocket Richard Trophy (Most Goals): Auston Matthews (Toronto Maple Leafs)
Matthews led the NHL in goals last season while playing with a busted-up wrist. With an offseason to heal, who’s to say he won’t be able to repeat again? Others to keep an eye on are Connor McDavid, Nathan MacKinnon, David Pastrnak, and Alex DeBrincat, but I’ll stick with Matthews to do it again for the Maple Leafs.
Disappointing Player: Patrik Laine (Columbus Blue Jackets)
The change of scenery last season was needed for Laine when he was with the Winnipeg Jets, but the change to the Columbus Blue Jackets might not have been what the 23-year-old former second-overall draft pick was hoping for. He has a new coach behind the bench in Columbus, but with the roster the Blue Jackets are icing and on an expiring contract, there’s a lot that could go wrong for Laine after a disappointing 2020-21 season.
Breakout Player: Kirby Dach (Chicago Blackhawks)
BIAS WARNING: Dach’s breakout season was supposed to be 2020-21. But he broke his wrist at the World Junior Championships and missed two-thirds of the year. Coming back from surgery early and playing on a less than 100% healed wrist, Dach tallied two goals and ten points in 18 games for the Blackhawks to close last year. Now with a fully healed wrist and the first full training camp of his young career, the 2019 third-overall pick should be poised for a more prominent role in Chicago and a breakout year as the Blackhawks look to meet their new expectations for the 2021-22 campaign.
Stanley Cup Final: Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Colorado Avalanche
The best in the East meets the best in the West this season. I don’t think we will see another underdog run to the Cup Final this year like we did last season with the Canadiens. Although, I will also predict that the Avalanche will top the Minnesota Wild in the Western Conference Finals to make it to the Cup Final. Like I said earlier, the Lightning are the best team in the league, and it would be a shock if they aren’t able to get back to the Stanley Cup Final again and try to repeat, nay, three-peat as Cup Champions.
Stanley Cup Winner: Tampa Bay Lightning