Five Bold Predictions For The 2021-22 NHL Season
Andrew McGuinness | Thursday, October 7, 2021
Rejoice hockey fans; puck drop is almost here. In less than one week, the 104th season of NHL hockey begins. This is the honeymoon period, where all 32 teams have hope (ok, maybe not Buffalo) and anything seems possible. Rookies seem destined to take steps forward, the juggernauts of years past look somewhat vulnerable and unforeseen breakouts are still bubbling under the surface. Any prediction, no matter how ludicrous it may seem, is at least feasible at this time of year.
So with that in mind, I’ve surveyed the NHL landscape and found five believable but at least somewhat unexpected storylines I think will play out over the next few months. There are no guarantees, of course; hockey is probably the most random of the four major sports, and a bounce here or a post there could either bring these to fruition or cause me to miss the mark by a mile. Either way, here are five bold predictions for the 2021-22 NHL season.
The Dallas Stars Win The Central Division
For the first time since the 2014-15 Kings, a team failed to qualify for the playoffs after reaching the Stanley Cup Final the year prior. Between a COVID outbreak, a massive snowstorm and injuries to their starting goalie, first-line center and a top-line winger, last season was the definition of Murphy’s Law in Dallas.
But that doesn’t mean there weren’t positives to come. Jason Robertson emerged out of nowhere and nearly stole the Calder from Minnesota’s Kirill Kaprizov. Roope Hintz went from decent to outstanding despite playing hurt nearly every night. And Joe Pavelski delivered a borderline Selke-worthy season at 37.
With Tyler Seguin and Alexander Radulov returning this year (and maybe Ben Bishop later on), the Stars finally look like the team that took down juggernauts like Colorado and Vegas in the bubble. Their top-nine is incredibly balanced. Miro Heiskanen is one of the game’s bright young stars on defense. Between Bishop, Anton Khudobin, Braden Holtby and Jake Oettinger, I’m comfortable they’ll receive at least solid goaltending; I’m just not sure who will provide it. The Stars aren’t a better team than the Avalanche, but weird things happen in hockey, and Dallas is good enough to pull off an upset, at least in the regular season. The Stars win their first division title since 2016.
Washington Misses The Playoffs
After missing the playoffs in the first two years of Alex Ovechkin’s career, the Capitals have made the playoffs in thirteen of the last fourteen seasons and each of the last seven. Though their regular season finishes since winning the Cup in 2018 have been strong, Washington has looked very vulnerable in first-round thuds each of the last two years against the Islanders and Bruins, respectively.
The Capitals did almost nothing this offseason unless you count losing Vitek Vanecek in the expansion draft only to reacquire him for a second-round pick. As the saying goes, if you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse, especially for a team with every significant contributor over the age of 30. Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and T.J. Oshie, arguably their three best forwards, are over 33. Their defense depth is suspect thanks to their one other notable offseason move, trading Brenden Dillon to Winnipeg for two second-round picks. Former top prospect Ilya Samsonov’s numbers dropped in a COVID-disrupted second NHL season. Significant injury concerns for divisional rivals Pittsburgh and Philadelphia out of the gate make me feel a little bit worse about this prediction. But in a deep Metropolitan Division, at least one team that expects to make the playoffs won’t. This may not be the end of an era for the Capitals, but they’ll take a step back this season and miss the playoffs for the first time since 2013-14.
Boston Makes Another Big Splash At (Or Before) The Deadline
The Bruins reached a whole different level last season after acquiring Taylor Hall (and Curtis Lazar), with their goals per game jumping from 19th to sixth. Hall had eight goals in 19 games as a Bruin after scoring two in 37 contests with Buffalo, playing his best hockey since winning the Hart Trophy in 2017-18 with the Devils. At his best, Hall is a game-changing offensive talent who helped turn the Bruins into more than a one-line team.
Granted, part of Hall’s success came as a result of playing alongside one of the generation’s most underrated playmakers, David Krejci. After a 14-season career spent exclusively in Boston, Krejci decided to leave the Bruins to play at home in the Czech Republic. Charlie Coyle could be a decent stopgap there, but after a brutal 2021 season, I’m not sure if he’s the answer alongside Hall and Craig Smith. Time is dwindling for the Bruins to win as Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand slowly start exiting their primes. So whether it’s Jack Eichel or Tomas Hertl or somebody else, GM Don Sweeney will make another big splash this season.
Mark Stone Becomes The First Winger To Win The Selke In 21 Years
It makes sense that the Selke Trophy, awarded to the league’s best defensive forward, usually goes to centers; they’re often handed more defensive responsibility, and there have been some darn good ones (Patrice Bergeron, Anze Kopitar, Jonathan Toews and plenty more) in the last ten to fifteen years.
But no winger winning the award since Dallas’ Jeri Lehtinen in 2000-01? That’s a bit of a stretch. Vegas captain Mark Stone has been knocking on this door for a while, finishing third, fifth and second in voting over the last three years. If he wasn’t on your radar before, his impressive shutdown performance of Nathan MacKinnon and a historically dominant possession team in Colorado during the second round last year should have changed that. He also scored above a point-per-game for the first time in his career last year. Another dominant two-way year could easily make him the third individual hardware winner in Vegas history (William Karlsson, 2017-18 Lady Byng; Marc-André Fleury: 2020-21 Vezina).
Elvis Merzlikins Honors His Late Teammate By Winning The Vezina
Speaking of the Vezina Trophy, there is no one more motivated to win the award for the league’s best goaltender than Columbus’ Elvis Merzlikins. Merzlikins’ fellow netminder and Latvian Matiss Kivlenieks tragically passed away over the summer in a fireworks accident at a Fourth of July party at team goalie coach Manny Legace’s house.
“He saved our lives,” Merzlikins told The Athletic’s Aaron Portzline.
When asked how Kivlenieks’ passing will affect his performance, Merzlikins said, “my plan is to win a Vezina Trophy. I’m gonna win a (bleeping) Vezina for him.” Merzlikins finished fifth in voting for the award as a rookie during the 2019-20 season; there would be no better story in hockey this year than to see him finish first this time around.