McGuinness: Biggest surprises of 2021 NHL season (so far)
Andrew McGuinness | Wednesday, March 17, 2021
The most unique season in the NHL’s 103-year history is about at its halfway point. Most teams are nearing the 50% mark of the pandemic-induced shortened season, giving us a good perception of their future. There’s still plenty of time for some teams to change their fate, but we have a pretty good feel of what direction each of the 31 teams is heading in.
As always, there are a handful of teams that do about as well (or as poorly) as most expect. However, there are always a few teams that either defy expectations or are deflated by them. With about half of the 56-game season complete, it’s safe to pick out a few teams that meet those categories.
Florida Panthers (2021: 19-5-4, 2019-20: Lost in qualifier round)
Just making the playoffs seemed like an ambitious but perhaps reachable goal at the start of the year. Yet right now Florida is first in the entire league right now and has been one of the most consistent teams all season. Newcomers Patric Hornqvist, Carter Verhaeghe and others have made significant contributions. The core of Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau and Aaron Ekblad look as dominant as ever. If their $10 million goalie Sergei Bobrovsky can just find his A-game, the Panthers could be a favorite snap the NHL’s longest series winless drought. Securing the No. 1 seed in the top-heavy Central Division will be difficult, but it’s a major priority moving forward.
Vancouver Canucks (2021: 14-16-2, 2019-20: Lost in round two)
The Canucks were a pleasant surprise in the 2020 playoffs, coming within one victory of being just the second Canadian team to reach the conference finals since 2015. Most people expected the Canucks to take a step back after losing a lot of their depth in the offseason. Yet they’ve been terrible in a North Division where the last playoff spot or two should be up for the taking. General manager Jim Benning is likely on the hot seat as a result.
Winnipeg Jets (2021: 17-9-2, 2019-20: Lost in qualifier round)
The Jets aren’t a dramatically different team on paper than they were last year (other than the massive Patrik Laine-Pierre-Luc Dubois swap, which hasn’t had massive implications yet). A quick look under the hood shows that; after all, the Jets are still outshot and out-chanced heavily at five-on-five most nights. But thanks to reigning Vezina winner Connor Hellebuyck, they’re making it work. If GM Kevin Cheveldayoff adds a blue-liner at the deadline, Winnipeg could cement themselves as Toronto’s biggest threat to come out of the North Division.
Dallas Stars (2021: 9-9-6, 2019-20: Lost in Stanley Cup Finals)
It’s tough to evaluate a team like the Stars, who have undergone two significant stoppages to their season; one to a COVID-19 outbreak, and another due to the massive winter storm that struck Texas a few weeks ago. That being said, the Stars haven’t been able to find the offensive magic that lifted them to a surprise Finals run in the bubble. The incoming return of stars Ben Bishop and Tyler Seguin could save them, though.
Chicago Blackhawks (2021: 14-11-5, 2019-20: Lost in round one)
Much like Winnipeg, great goaltending has lifted the Hawks into the playoff picture despite a weak defense. No one saw 25-year old rookie Kevin Lankinen turning into one of the league’s hottest goalies, but that’s exactly what happened. Don’t ignore a potential MVP year from Patrick Kane, though; only Oilers stars Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl have more points than his 42.
Buffalo Sabres (2021: 6-18-4, 2019-20: Missed playoffs)
Most people didn’t think the Sabres would make the playoffs in the tough East Division this year. But at least they didn’t figure to be an outright trainwreck. Whoops. Jeff Skinner and Taylor Hall combine to make $17 million yet have combined three goals. Skinner has been benched three times by second-year coach Ralph Krueger, and superstar captain Jack Eichel and solid goaltender Linus Ullmark are both out with long-term injuries. Buffalo is all but a lock to tie the longest playoff drought in NHL history at 10 straight seasons. A 12-game losing streak that’s still intact is a pretty devastating nail in the coffin.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.