A Different League: 2021 NHL Season Preview (12-29-20)



By: Victor Herrera

Headline Graphic Credit: NHL.com

Victor Herrera-Columnist & LegacyMaker Sports contributor

Hockey is officially coming back as January 13th is the day scheduled for the start of the regular season. Although this season may be different, with new matchups and new rivalries being born. One of the rivalries to keep an eye on is the Battle of Alberta. As many can remember last season this battle got physical in many ways. Lucky for us we will get to see this rivalry unfold 10 times throughout this season. As hockey fans, we will also get to see Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin continue to battle it out. Even though this Hockey season from start to the very end with be only 6 months. It will be 6 months jam-packed with great hockey. Below are the new division alignments and how I feel each division will end in chronological order.

North:


Toronto Maple Leafs- The Leafs are bringing back a team almost identical to the team from last year. Toronto has been able to resign Ilya Mikheyev and Jason Spezza. Being that Toronto has been known for the inability to make a deep run in the playoffs. Toronto is trying a different approach and has added playoff experience in the signing of Joe Thornton. This team has the talent to win the Stanley Cup. The issue is getting out of the first round. As much as I would enjoy seeing this team win a cup, I think the bad luck continues and this talent will go to waste. Once again.

Edmonton Oilers- The Oilers have been very close to making deep runs in the playoffs for a while now. This offseason may push them to the place they want to be. The Signings of Tyler Ennis and Tyson Barrie make it clear this team is going all-in for this cup this coming year. Both players can produce in ways that will give this team the best chance they have had in a long time to win the cup.

Calgary Flames- Flames made huge strides to becoming the champions of Alberta and the league this off-season. The team signed the number 1 goalie Jacob Markstrom and top-pair defensemen Christopher Tanev. These signings help the flames tremendously to become a top competitor in the National Hockey League.

Montreal Canadiens- The Montreal Canadiens are on the rise. The Canadiens were very aggressive this offseason even landing long time LA King, Tyler Toffoli. Montreal also signed goalie Jake Allen, forward Josh Anderson, and Defensemen Joel Edmundson. It appears the Canadiens are all in and for good reason. Anticipate this team to give Toronto, Edmonton, and Calgary and fight in the North division.

Winnipeg Jets- This offseason the Jets found stability at the defensemen position. After having Joshua Morrissey already signed. The Jets landed a 4 year deal with Dylan Demelo. Dylan Demelo averaged 20 minutes a game in 59 contests and 10 assists with Ottawa and Winnipeg. The Jets maintain their strong goaltending and firepower on the offensive side. This is the time for Winnipeg to bounce back.

Vancouver Canucks- Canucks are fully invested in their future goalie Thatcher Demko. This is a big reason why the team decided to split ways with former goaltender Jacob Markstromand sign veteran Braden Holtby. Given the experience of Holtby, I expect this signing is intended to shape up Demko. Holtby’s experience can help Demko prepare to lead this team for years to come.

Ottawa Senators- It is no secret Ottawa is in the middle of developing the young draft picks into their future superstars. To help with that, the Senators added veterans Matt Murray, Evgenii Dadonov, and Alex Gelchenyuk. These veterans have seen everything the league can throw at you. If this works out, these young players will be ready for anything. Although this team is not super talented. With an all Canadian division, if you can make the playoffs. Arguably, anything can happen.

EAST:

Boston Bruins- The reigning Atlantic Division Champions will once again be one of the favorites to win the Stanley Cup this year. Tukka Rask will be coming back for likely his last season as a Bruin. With the losing of Torey Krug, the role for Charlie McAvoy has just gotten bigger. He will have some help from Matt Grzelcyk who has signed a 4 year deal with the Bruins. It is expected to be another year for a deep run at the cup. The only question is will Tukka win a Stanley Cup with the Bruins, or will his legacy go unfinished.

Philadelphia Flyers- Oskar Linblom beat cancer last year and will make a significant impact on this year’s team. Lindblom and Nolan Patrick who both missed last year can expect to be relied heavily upon. This is a good young team who performed well last season with a very young goalie. After his first year, you can look for big things from goalie Carter Hart. The experience can make Carter a Vezina Finalist. This team will be in the mix for Conference Finals.

New York Islanders- This Islanders team has proven to get better the past two years. Although this team did lose a solid defenseman in Devon Toews. This now will open the door for Noah Dobson. With young players who believe they still have something to prove. Expect this team to make it back to the Conference finals with a chance at the Stanley Cup.

Pittsburgh Penguins- It has not been a good showing in the playoff the past two years. This coming from a team that has won titles in consecutive years before. Needing to find help for Sidney Crosby the Penguins accomplished that by trading for Kasperi Kapanen. Tristan Jarry will be taking over as goaltender and has proven himself ready for this moment holding a 2.61 Goal Allowed Average through his short 62 game season. This team will make the playoffs but could be eliminated early with a young goaltender.

Washington Capitals- The Capitals thought they had found an answer with the signing of Henrick Lundqvist. However, sadly this will not happen this season as Lundqvist has been diagnosed with a heart issue. With an aging core of players. The capitals made huge changes with a new head coach. After winning the Stanely Cup, the Capitals have failed to win a round in the playoff for the second straight year. Peter Laviolette will take over coaching duties hoping to get one more championship from this aging team. Although they are older this team will be in the mix for the playoffs.

Buffalo Sabres- Taylor Hall is now a Buffalo Sabre. Nobody saw this coming and nobody even thought Buffalo was an option. However, I think Jack Eichel and Taylor might see something we do not. The Buffalo Sabres missed out on the playoffs last year by 3 points. Although this team has not had a history of winning things can change this year. Having two superstars in Eichel and Hall can propel this team to the next level.

New York Rangers- Alexis Lafreniere was last year’s number one pick. Although being a rookie Alexis will be relied heavily upon. Although there are adjustment periods for rookies, I believe those periods are shortened for number 1 picks. With the quick exit from last year’s playoffs. This Ranger team believe they might have found a balance between playing conservative defense while still scoring the puck. This team will be a wild card team. It will be hard to guarantee a playoff appearance but is not impossible.

New Jersey Devils- The Devils were able to find a goalie to pair in their tandem with Mackenzie Blackwood. They found that goalie in veteran goalie Corey Crawford. Doing a tandem in goalie is always risky and can cause some games to getaway. Nobody likes to hear but this will be a year the Devils long to forget. This team is still trying to find a piece to build around with Taylor Hall. Look for another year before the Devils will be mentioned in playoff talk.

CENTRAL:

Tampa Bay Lightning- The returning champions are on their way to making another run at the Stanley Cup. Resigning Pat Maroon and Anthony Cirelli means this team will be just as good as last year. Having arguably the best defensemen in Victor Hedman and one of the best goaltenders in Andrei Vasilevskiy, the Lightning will be favorites to make it back to the Finals.

Carolina Hurricanes- After making the playoffs consecutively for the first time in almost two decades. It is safe to say the “Jerks” are here to stay. This Hurricanes team is ready to take the next leap and go deeper in the playoffs. Adding Jesper Fast in replace of Justin Williams who has retired. Has made it where the Hurricanes will have close to the same team as last year. This Hurricanes team will make the playoffs and can make a run at the Stanley Cup Finals.

Dallas Stars- Anton Khudobin is the man who stole the show in the Stanley Cup playoffs last year. His likable personality and passion for the sport have made him a fan-favorite among the Stars fan base. Khudobin is also the man who will stay in a Stars sweater for a little while longer.
Resigning Khudobin brings a safety net to the goaltender position, given Ben Bishop’s many health issues since arriving in Dallas. Although the Stars were unable to sign Mattias Janmark due to salary cap complications. The team did manage to resign Radek Faksa and Andrej Sekera. This Dallas Stars team is poised to make another deep run at the Stanley Cup.

Columbus Blue Jackets- This Blue Jackets team is built on a young core. This young core has proven to have potential but needs guidance. That is exactly what Columbus went out and got. The addition of veterans Max Domi and Mikko Koivu will allow the young core to grow in more ways and play with more confidence. Columbus is a playoff team and will be one for years to come. They still may be lacking the experience to become Stanley Cup Finals contenders.

Nashville Predators- After a poor performance last season the Predators are hopefully coming into the season. Nashville landed both Mark Borowiecki and Matt Benning, each to a 2-year deal. Expect for them to play most of their time on penalty killing duties and tough defensive situations. The solution is easy for Nashville. If they can score more with the core guys that are coming back, then they can make a run at the Central division. If they fail to do so it will be another long year for the Predator hopeful.

Florida Panthers- Panthers had a relatively quiet offseason. The biggest contract was handed out to Mackenzie Weegar, who the panthers hope can provide both offense and defense for this team. Still, look for the Panthers to be competitive as they collected a total of 78 points last season. This is a team that can make the playoff picture very interesting.

Chicago Blackhawks- Although many veterans did not want a rebuild, it seems that is what is happening in Chicago. The Blackhawks haven’t been highly competitive in a few years now. The front office may seem to have a different plan for the team as they have traded away young players for draft picks. The Blackhawks did sign Mattias Janmark and Malcom Subbanin’s hopes for some change on the fourth line and at the goaltender position. Do not expect these Blackhawks to be in the playoff picture. It appears they will be playing for the lottery and hoping for a high draft pick.

Detroit Red Wings- Missing the playoffs the last 4 seasons have not fared well for the Red Wing fan base. It is clear Detroit is taking a slow and thought out process to their rebuild. Although they were able to add goalie Thomas Greiss and defensemen, Marc Stall. The Red Wings also lost a few key parts in goalie Jimmy Howard and Defensemen Trevor Daley. There is no telling when this original 6 team will be back to dominating and competing year in and year out. I doubt it will be this year.

WEST:

Vegas Golden Knights- The Knights have shown they are all in it to win. They went out and won the Pietrangelo sweepstakes and signed Alex Pietrangelo to a 7-year deal worth 62 million dollars. There is no question about it Pietrangelo was the player to get his off-season. This signing will set the Knights up for another deep run at the Stanley Cup.

Colorado Avalanche- This high scoring offense, may have gotten just a little bit better. The Colorado Avalanche are poised to do big things on the offensive side of the puck. Already having Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen. The Avalanche were able to Aquire Brandon Saad to help on the second line and Devon Toews to provide support within the defensemen. Both Toews and Saad have made a splash in the league. Both players will fit well within the organization with their speed and scoring ability. The Avalanche like last year is no fluke and a team that will be in the mix for favorite to win the Stanley Cup.

Minnesota Wild- After making the playoffs for the seventh time out of the last 8 seasons. This Minnesota team is revamped and expecting to make a breakthrough in this year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Wild have not won a playoff series since the 2015 NHL season. That can all change after the offseason moves made by this team this offseason. The Wild have acquired veteran goaltender Cam Talbot and center Nick Bonino. Nick Bonino brings experience in the postseason after winning Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins. This team will be exciting to watch and can shake up things in the very powerful West Division.

St. Louis Blues- After losing Captain Alex Pietrangelo to the Vegas Golden Knights. The Blues landed a star of their own. Torey Krug will be a St. Louis Blue for the next seven years. Krug as a defenseman played 61 regular-season games and collected 49 points, 40 of which coming by way of an assist. Although losing Pietrangelo the addition of Krug will allow more cap space. The league has done no favor for St. Louis as they will play this season in the Western Division. Anticipate this Blues team to perform better than last season but come up short.

San Jose Sharks- San Jose did not make any big changes when singing free agents this year. However, they did lose long time Shark defensemen, Joe Thorton. They were able to sign Patrick Marleau to a one-year deal to add some depth to the center position. This team will still be in playoff contention but do not pose a huge threat for the cup.

Arizona Coyotes- The Coyotes lost a big part in their offense by the signing of Taylor Hall to the Buffalo Sabers. However, they seem the have found a player who is can be capable to help produce offense this season. Coyotes were able to sign Christian Fischer to a two-year deal. This signing provides stability for the team’s third line. This team will be a wild card team, but if they can get into the playoffs. Do not write this team off.

Anaheim Ducks- The Ducks made some splashes in the pond this offseason by signing a solid defenseman in Kevin Shattenkirk. The team also made much-needed improvements to their offense with the signings of Derek Grant and Maxim Golod. This team is trending in the right direction to become competitive once again. It will take one more year before they will be back into the playoffs.

Los Angeles Kings- Kings lost a big part of their offense when they traded Tyler Toffoli to the Canucks. They were able to rebound and sign Austin Wagner to help generate offense with Tyler Madden who they had acquired in the trade. It appears the team may be in a rebuilding phase, but still have a mixture of youth and veterans on the line up to potentially be competitive.

Photo courtesy of the hockey writers

Here are my predictions for award winner this 2021 season:
Hart Trophy: Connor McDavid
Norris Trophy: Miro Hieskanen
Vezina trophy: Carter Hart
Calder Trophy: Alexis Lafreniere
Final 4 Teams: Edmonton Oilers, Colorado Avalanche, Tampa Bay Lightning, and Philadelphia Flyers.