The year 2021 is just around the corner, but what will it bring?
A new NHL season has arrived, bringing with it all of the excitement, drama, and intrigue that comes with it. It all kicks off on ESPN on Tuesday with a doubleheader. The two-time reigning Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning will face the Pittsburgh Penguins at 7:30 p.m. ET, followed by the Vegas Golden Knights hosting the expansion Seattle Kraken in their inaugural NHL game at 10:15 p.m. ET.
To get you ready for the 2021-22 season, we asked some of our NHL experts — Stanley Cup champion Mark Messier, ESPN.com reporters Emily Kaplan and Greg Wyshynski, ESPN fantasy hockey writer Victoria Matiash, and NHL on ESPN host Arda Ocal — what they’re expecting to see, including whether the Lightning can make it three in a row as Stanley Cup champions, what to expect from the Kraken, which teams will be the biggest surprises, which players will have breakout seasons, and more.
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What must happen for the Lightning to make it three in a row?
Mark Messier: I believe they have a good chance of winning three straight. I don’t believe they’ll be as focused on the regular-season rankings and finishing first as they have been in previous years. They’ve played a lot of hockey in recent years, so keeping healthy heading into the playoffs might be the most important goal. Another issue is if they can replace some of the players they lost, such as Yanni Gourde, Blake Coleman, Tyler Johnson, Barclay Goodrow, David Savard, and Luke Schenn. All of these guys are undervalued and will be difficult to replace in those depth spots.
Emily Kaplan (Emily Kaplan): The new-look third line must be almost as successful as Gourde, Goodrow, and Coleman’s previous third line. That was a high-octane trio capable of chasing pucks down with the best of them, winning fights along the boards, and making fast passes to the goal. Newcomers Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Corey Perry are expected to fill such positions. While they won’t have the same look, they’ll bring their own set of skills to the table: Bellemare is a fantastic defender, while Perry is nimble and has a penchant for the net. And it will be in the playoffs when they have the most effect.
Greg Wyshynski: I’m Greg Wyshynski, and I’m For this season, the Lightning’s nucleus stays intact, implying that a three-peat is more of a likelihood than a chance. Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point, Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh, and Andrei Vasilevskiy are the only six players in the league with the skills and achievements of Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point, Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh, and Andrei Vasilevskiy. The Lightning, on the other hand, need three things to happen in order to win No. 3. The first is to maintain their identity throughout the playoffs. Tampa Bay found out how to win in the playoffs by recognizing that defense is the key to winning the Cup. The second, which is linked to that, is a healthy Vasilevskiy, who has a five-game shutout run in elimination games. They can cope with other lineup departures, but not this one. Finally, they need those times when someone outside the core scores a crucial goal more than they need to locate another version of their checking line, which, simply, can’t be replicated. Gourde, who is currently with the Kraken, scored the lone goal in Game 7 against the Islanders. In Game 2, Coleman scored a game-winning goal against Montreal. Pat Maroon scored the game-winning goal in their elimination game against Florida, while Ross Colton scored important goals in the Stanley Cup clinching game against Montreal and in the elimination game against Carolina. Tampa, on the other hand, stands apart because it isn’t dependent on its core to win big games. Outside of Vasilevskiy, at least.
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Victoria Matiash: Thank you, Victoria. It’s tough enough to win one Stanley Cup, much alone two in a row. With so many other strong NHL teams, three wins in a row seems improbable. However, if the Lightning are to have a chance, the acquisitions of agitator Perry and Bellemare, as well as better performance from Colton and Mathieu Joseph, will have to compensate for the loss of one of the greatest depth lines in recent memory. (I also appreciate Zach Bogosian’s blue-line addition.) And when it counts most next spring, the league’s greatest goaltender will have to be his best (healthy) self. The top six will continue to contribute; it’s the bottom sextet’s new appearance that worries me.
Arda Ocal: I’m excited to see Perry join this squad; he was a force on the Stanley Cup finalist teams in Dallas and Montreal. He will also emphasize his desire to win the Cup. I’m not saying the Lightning players aren’t eager to make it three in a row, but the other teams in the league are, too, so bringing in a guy who has gone to the playoffs twice and come up short is a guaranteed way to remind the locker room of what’s on the line come playoff time. The Lightning have a decent chance of making another deep run this season.
In their debut season, how far will the Kraken go?
Messier: I believe the league’s general managers learned a lot from the last expansion draft. Vegas did an excellent job of using the available choices and talents to transform themselves into an immediate contender. I believe the GMs were wiser this time, making it much more tough for the Kraken. The Knights set a high standard for an expansion team, so it’s a bit unrealistic to expect the Kraken to meet it in their first season.
Given how poor the Pacific Division is, the Kraken have a decent chance of making the playoffs. Seattle’s goaltending and blue line are its best assets. The Kraken will win a slew of 2-1 games and should be able to score in crunch time. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of their top point scorers, like as Mark Giordano or Vince Dunn on the power play, came from the blue line. While anything can happen in the playoffs, I can’t see a Golden Knights-style run to the Stanley Cup Final. But then again, no one predicted that for Vegas in October 2017.
Wyshynski: With more than 90 points, the Kraken will be a playoff squad. From the “Golden Misfits” camaraderie to the tangible connection with a sports-starved community, the Golden Knights had a lot going for them that the Kraken won’t be able to match. While the Kraken didn’t get the same haul as Vegas because clubs have become more savvy about the expansion draft process over the last four years, they did put together a solid experienced bunch that is much superior to the dreck that used to be associated with first-year teams. They also have one thing in common: goaltending. Marc-Andre Fleury’s backstopping propelled Vegas to a division championship right away. Philipp Grubauer and Chris Driedger, the Kraken’s goaltending duo, are the NHL’s third-best. Add in the Pacific Division’s decline, and you’ve got a first-year playoff spot… but probably not much more.
Matiash: In the Pacific, I think they’ll finish fourth, if not fifth. There just isn’t enough weaponry on hand to mount a more powerful assault. The Kraken, as it presently stands, will be more difficult to score against than others. However, they must still put the puck in the goal themselves. In that area, there isn’t enough depth or skill. No, not yet. This isn’t Vegas vs. Vegas vs. Vegas vs. Vegas v
Ocal: I think they’ll make it to the playoffs, but it’ll be a one-and-done situation. Driedger is one of the finest backup goalies in the game, even though he was virtually a starter with the Florida Panthers for portions of last season. They have a solid defensive corps, and they can utilize Yanni Gourde’s return to help address questions about offensive output. On paper, I believe the Kraken will make the playoffs. There may be some movement around the trade deadline as well, particularly if there are any remaining concerns.
What is the most enjoyable surprise team? What has been your biggest disappointment?
Kaplan: The Philadelphia Flyers are a pleasant surprise. In the Metro Division, I could see them ruling the show. I enjoyed their approach; the overarching theme of their actions was to instill a competitive attitude. I particularly appreciate how they handled the blue line by bringing in Ryan Ellis (an all-around star defender), Rasmus Ristolainen (who wanted a change of scenery), and Keith Yandle (who may just make Philly’s power play entertaining to watch). All of this should assist Carter Hart, who is on the verge of a huge comeback.
St. Louis Blues are a disappointment. This year, I’m having a hard time getting enthusiastic about the Blues. I wouldn’t be surprised if they didn’t make the playoffs.
Wyshynski: The Anaheim Ducks have been pegged as the Pacific Division’s weakest club, but I believe they have a potential to be the best of the California teams if John Gibson plays well in goal. The Los Angeles Kings have been searching for the perfect combination of youthful talents and seasoned veterans. With Trevor Zegras, Jamie Drysdale, and perhaps Mason McTavish making an impact on a squad that still includes players like Hampus Lindholm and Ricky Rakell, Anaheim might be the team on that timetable. If none of these works, they can trade for Jack Eichel and still finish ahead of schedule.
Most disappointed team: It seems like the whole hockey world is discussing whether the Pittsburgh Penguins or Washington Capitals will miss the playoffs this season. It’s tough for me to say this since I like all things Alex Ovechkin, but the Capitals will be on the outside of the Eastern Conference playoff picture.
Matiash: The Chicago Blackhawks will surprise everyone by leapfrogging everyone in the Central except the Avalanche. Jonathan Toews is in good health and looks fantastic. Kirby Dach, the youngster, is in the same boat. Tyler Johnson, a former Lightning forward, adds depth to the center of the ice. 325 miles away from Columbus, new defender Seth Jones is ready to explode. Jake McCabe is another solid addition to the D. Vezina winner’s team. Marc-Andre Fleury is a well-known goaltender who adds star power to the crease. It’s going to be a lot of fun at Jeremy Colliton’s club.
On the other hand, I believe the Pittsburgh Penguins will struggle to stay afloat in a difficult Metropolitan Division this season.
The New Jersey Devils are the biggest surprise team. They haven’t been in the playoff race in a long time, but there is reason to be hopeful, particularly if Jack Hughes has a good year. If Mackenzie Blackwood can get some solid goaltending and Dougie Hamilton can anchor the blue line, New Jersey may be a club that turns some heads and becomes competitive in the Metro, particularly in the race for a wild-card berth.
Pittsburgh was a letdown. Since Sidney Crosby’s first season in 2005-06, this club has never missed the playoffs. What a dash! But, whether it’s due to aging or a lack of trust in goal (Tristan Jarry was fourth in wins last season but had a.909 save %), I’m curious to see where this squad will finish this season.
Pick one player who you think will be moved before the deadline.
Jack Eichel, according to Kaplan. I believe he will be moved within the next three weeks. While the standoff over his neck surgery has dragged on for much too long, there has been some movement behind the scenes. The NHL and NHLPA have stepped in to help speed things up, and Eichel may now share his medical records with prospective clubs. The Anaheim Ducks, Calgary Flames, Vegas Golden Knights, or Minnesota Wild are all candidates. A club trades for Eichel while agreeing to let him to get the surgery he wants, he heals for six weeks, returns to the ice this season, and everyone is relieved.
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Wyshynski: In San Jose, it’s a Catch-22 situation. Tomas Hertl is unlikely to sign a contract with the Sharks until they are on the verge of being a contender, which they won’t be unless they reload with assets that selling a player like Hertl might offer. As a big guy who can contribute offensively, the 27-year-old center might be a game-changer for a contender. In the last year of his contract, he only has a $5.625 million cap hit before becoming unrestricted free agent. Both the individual and the team would benefit from a change.
Matiash: Is there a deadline? Before I finish typing this phrase, Phil Kessel may be traded. He’s requested a trade to a contender, the rebuilding Coyotes have no reason not to play, and the veteran’s real-life take-home salary of $1 million (cap hit: $8 million) is quite cheap for clubs that aren’t on the bubble. There’s no reason why this couldn’t happen right now.
John Gibson is an ocal. Gibson will not be the cause of Anaheim’s problems, which seem to be continuing this season. There are plenty of playoff contenders who might benefit from a goalie improvement, so it’s not a question of if, but how many calls the Ducks get from GMs around the league for Gibson’s services.
Who do you think will be the breakthrough player in 2021-22?
Spencer Knight, says Kaplan. He’s just 20 years old and is theoretically second in line behind Sergei Bobrovsky, the league’s second-highest-paid goalkeeper. But, based on what I’ve seen of Knight and, more significantly, what I’ve heard behind the scenes, he seems to be destined for stardom. This year, he’ll be playing for one of the top teams in the league, and he’ll be responsible for a significant portion of the burden. We’ll be talking about him as one of the NHL’s fastest-rising talents this season.
Linda Cohn and Emily Kaplan, hosts, bring their hockey knowledge and enthusiasm to the show, covering the latest news from the league and interviewing the greatest personalities on and off the rink. Listen to it here »
Wyshynski: Yegor Sharangovich had a great debut season with the Devils that went unnoticed because, well, the Devils last season were easy to ignore. He’s in line for a big year. The 23-year-old striker is anticipated to reunite with Jack Hughes and may be joined on the wing by offseason signee Tomas Tatar to create a dangerous attacking combination. His goals per game average from last season suggests he’ll score about 25 goals in a complete season, and I believe he’ll do so in 2021-22, if not more.
Vince Dunn is in for a good time after breaking away from St. Louis’ surplus of talented defenders. Matiash: Vince Dunn is in for a good time after breaking away from St. Louis’ oversupply of gifted defensemen. Although the Kraken aren’t expected to score a lot, the 24-year-old and Mark Giordano will provide more than their fair share from the blue line. Dunn should also take up the anchor role on the top power play full-time before the end of the season, in my opinion. Despite the fact that the four-year veteran has failed to score 40 points in a complete NHL season, he does it this year. With no difficulty.
Kaapo Kakko, Kaapo Kakko, Kaapo Kakko, Kaapo Kakko, Ka He had a strong preseason with the Rangers, made significant defensive improvements for the Blueshirts last season, and now he seems to be poised to break out and score points. I’ve been saying that if Kakko, Alexis Lafreniere, and Igor Shesterkin have strong years in net, the Rangers are a playoff club with a nice run ahead of them. Kakko is a major part of it, and he seems ready to keep his word.
Who do you think will win the Stanley Cup Final?
Messier: Avalanche vs. Lightning The Lightning are victorious in seven games.
Lightning vs. Golden Knights, Knights in 6. Kaplan: Lightning vs. Golden Knights, Knights in 6.
Islanders vs. Golden Knights, according to Wyshynski. The Knights have a 6-point lead.
Panthers vs. Avalanche, Matiash. The Avs are in 6th place.
Isles vs. Avalanche in Ocala. Isles in 7th place.