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Opening Week Takes: The Complete NHL 2021-2022 Season Predictions
By: Eli Lo Re
Fresh from an entirely mediocre stint as a hockey pundit making playoff predictions on The Generalists podcast, it is time to test my luck again with one of my favourite annual traditions: my likely inaccurate, completely premature attempt to predict the entire NHL season.
I have done this in a fairly consistent form for about six or seven years, typically circulating my predictions among close friends and encouraging them to submit their own, if only to laugh at our terrible predictions down the line with the benefit of hindsight. But it also holds a deeper meaning, as the randomness and chaos (also described by Commissioner Gary Bettman more charitably as ‘parity’) in the modern NHL reflects the inherent problem of this undertaking. Even diehard fans in today’s NHL can have tremendous difficulty in predicting the outcomes of a season, and it can often feel like an exercise in futility. But that won’t stop me from trying anyways. An important disclaimer up front: these picks are predicated on the (hopeful) assumption that every team is able to play a full season unencumbered by COVID-19.
Throughout my years of gazing into the crystal ball, my deeply unscientific method has yielded some surprisingly strong predictions, including:
- Correctly predicting a Stanley Cup Final matchup between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Chicago Blackhawks in 2015: although, worth noting, I predicted Tampa to win the matchup.
- Staying on board the trendy Carolina Hurricanes bandwagon: year after year, I picked the Hurricanes to make the playoffs, and year after year I was disappointed. Undeterred, I predicted big things for Carolina in 2018-2019, and was rewarded when they finally secured a playoff berth and went all the way to the Conference Finals.
- Picking a Tampa Bay Lightning and Dallas Stars final in 2019-2020, including predicting that Tampa would emerge victorious; a near-perfect start of season prediction. Sadly, Tampa took six games to win, rather than the five I had anticipated.
- Predicting a long overdue Toronto Maple Leafs/Montreal Canadiens first round matchup in 2020-2021. Sure, I had the Leafs winning in seven games, but we all make mistakes.
The double edged sword of making predictions through a combination of casual research, fan-related biases, and gut instinct is that it can lead you down a completely wrong path. Just a few embarrassing lowlights of the Eli NHL Prediction Experience™ include:
- The Buffalo Sabres being a playoff contender in 2020-2021. I get why I made this pick at the time. I tend to like making at least one gutsy prediction for a perennial non-playoff team to make it to the dance - as a Florida Panthers fan, I come by it honestly. It’s easy to forget now, but people were somewhat optimistic about the Sabres making significant strides, although most were smart enough to stop short of predicting playoffs. I took the bait on the heels of the Eric Staal and Taylor Hall acquisitions, and assumed continued improvement from the younger players on the squad such as Casey Mittelstadt and Rasmus Dahlin. Needless to say, this pick was a complete disaster.
- The San Jose Sharks having enough gas in the tank to make a deep playoff run in 2019-2020. They were fresh off a conference finals appearance, and I thought they were ready to go back there. Who knew that they wouldn’t be able to buy a save, and the majority of their big name veteran players would run out of gas all at the same time?
- Occasionally picking the Leafs to win a single playoff round. This one speaks for itself.
Without further preamble, let’s get to this year’s predictions.
Metropolitan Division: We’ll start with the division that completely stumps me. This is truly the hardest division to predict, with arguably no truly elite teams, but plenty of middle of the pack or solid teams heading in very different directions. I am not particularly confident about the Carolina Hurricanes this year - again, I have tended to favour them strongly in my predictions of Christmas-past, but their offseason was truly puzzling. It is hard to see how they can improve on last year with their bizarre goaltending change. However, they are still a very deep and talented squad, and I like them to stay on top of this winnable division. I’m also betting big on a Carter Hart-led Philly renaissance, coupled by the continued relevance of the aging Pittsburgh Penguins, if only because I’m wishfully hoping for a juicy all-Pennsylvania first round matchup. I really wanted to find a way to put the New Jersey Devils into the playoffs, after a terrific offseason highlighted by the Dougie Hamilton signing, but could not find a path for them.
|2 *||Philadelphia Flyers||101|
|3 *||Pittsburgh Penguins||97|
|4 *||New York Islanders||91|
|5||New Jersey Devils||87|
|6||New York Rangers||85|
|8||Columbus Blue Jackets||71|
The Ranges Miss the Playoffs: The Rangers are a young team on the rise, and smart betting money tends to have them continuing this rise. Virtually everyone except Islanders and Devils fans wants to see this big market team with likeable stars and exciting prospects do well. But their off-season was a doozy - the bottom six is a statistical black hole, and it seems like the entire organization is laser-focused on relitigating battles with Tom Wilson and proving their toughness, rather than icing the most talented lineup. I’ll save my energy for jumping on better bandwagons.
The Capitals Are Cooked: I root for the Capitals about as much as I can for any team I am not personally a fan of. I love Ovechkin, I love the core group, and I love that they ended their long standing playoff misery in 2018. Indeed, one of the continual errors I have made over the years is picking the Caps to go farther than they end up going. But this year, in a tight division, I just can’t do it. Between their inexperienced goaltending, Nicklas Backstrom’s injury, and the core getting another year older, it just feels like an uphill battle for this team. The rise of other teams in the division necessarily precipitates the fall of at least one of the perennial contenders in this division, and Washington seems like the most vulnerable one to me. However, as long as Ovechkin amazingly remains in the hunt to break Wayne Gretzky’s goal record (despite dealing with a low-scoring era, two lockouts, and a global pandemic, no less), the Capitals will still be appointment viewing for any hockey fan.
Atlantic Division: In some ways, this was the easiest division to predict. The extremely top-heavy division features the Florida heavyweights from last year’s Central Division, the runaway winner of the mediocre Canadian* (Scotiabank North*) division, and the perennially contending Boston Bruins. At the lower end of the spectrum, are current bottom feeding teams with promising signs for the future such as the Ottawa Senators and Detroit Red Wings. The Buffalo Sabres are also here.
Such is the strength at the top of this division, that the Montreal Canadiens, fresh off their first appearance in the Stanley Cup Final since 1993, are widely thought to end up on the outside of the playoffs looking in. I thought quite a bit about being a contrarian and putting them above the aging and declining Bruins (and would really enjoy doing it), but I just can’t quite bring myself to pull the trigger. Even with a couple of nice additions in the offseason, I simply don’t trust Montreal enough without Shea Weber to stabilize the back end, and the talent coming off the roster this year is still likely a net loss.
|1.*||Tampa Bay Lightning||109|
|2 *||Florida Panthers||105|
|3 *||Toronto Maple Leafs||101|
|4 *||Boston Bruins||98|
|7||Detroit Red Wings||73|
This division is harder to find a truly spicy take for the regular season, since I haven’t strayed far from conventional wisdom. But stay tuned for the playoff section below, where I predict the last team coming out of this division standing. Hint: it isn’t the Florida team you are thinking about.
Central Division: In my view, this is a tale of two divisions. Colorado continues to be a perennial Stanley Cup favourite - I don’t think their spot on top is a surprise to anyone. I think people are sleeping on the Winnipeg Jets as legitimate contenders; they have a very strong top six forward group, possibly the best goaltender in the world in Connor Hellebuyck, and significantly improved their Achilles’ heel, their defense, over the summer. Overall, this division has a really strong group of playoff teams. While some analysts seem unsure about who is going to rise from the pack, in my view there is quite a bit of separation between the contenders and the pretenders in this division.
|2 *||Winnipeg Jets||104|
|3 *||Dallas Stars||101|
|4 *||Minnesota Wild||95|
Everyone is Sleeping on the Stars: The Dallas Stars are only two years removed from being on the cusp of a championship, and they still very nearly made the playoffs last year in a shortened season destroyed by COVID-19. They have a strong back end bolstered by the acquisition of Ryan Suter, and a deceptively solid, well coached forward group. With all of the hype around other teams in the division, some deserved (Minnesota, Winnipeg), and some undeserved (see below), it seems like this team is flying under everybody’s radar.
Don't Eat the Chicago Blackhawks' Magic Beans: With the high profile acquisitions of Marc Andre Fleury and Seth Jones this season, and the happy return of captain Jonathan Toews, a lot of hockey people are liking the Blackhawks to recover from their multi-year decline and make a big playoff push. In my view, this team is a complete mirage. Fleury is a great story, but I simply don’t trust him to sustain last year’s Vezina winning performance at age 37. That performance looks like a statistical aberration in his career, especially at this stage. Jones aside, this is a weak defensive group, and Fleury won’t enjoy the same help he received in Vegas. Even putting aside their very troubling off-ice issues, this organization has not put together a strong enough on-ice roster to leapfrog better teams in their division.
Pacific Division: The worst division in the NHL still offers quite a bit of intrigue. The Vegas Golden Knights are clearly the team to beat here, and the Edmonton Oilers seem like a reasonably safe pick to make the playoffs (though an upset here would not shock me, given their alarmingly heavy reliance on a 40 year old Mike Smith in net). Beyond that, there are all kinds of questions. Can the Vancouver Canucks get their momentum back from the 2019-2020 playoff bubble? Are the newly formed Seattle Kraken able to find success as an expansion team? Am I sleeping on the LA Kings and their exciting young players, who may be ready for a playoff push? And what about the Calgary Flames, seemingly mired in mediocrity, but still only a couple years removed from being the top team in the conference? I have zero answers to these questions, but plenty of uninformed guesses.
|1.*||Vegas Golden Knights||106|
|2 *||Edmonton Oilers||100|
|3 *||Seattle Kraken||93|
|4 *||Vancouver Canucks||91|
|7||San Jose Sharks||81|
Four Pacific Teams Make the Playoffs: Most sensible hockey fans, including this one, widely consider the Pacific Division to be the weakest in the NHL, so I’m surprised as anyone that we are going with four teams from the Pacific in the playoffs. Ultimately, this is more a reflection of my distrust of the bottom four teams in the Central, rather than having any real faith in the lesser ‘playoff’ teams of this division.
The Pacific Northwest Rising: I didn’t love Seattle’s expansion draft, and am still not quite sure who is going to be scoring their goals. But with a great goaltending tandem and a deep defense group, that may be enough to get into the playoffs, especially with plenty of matchups against weak Pacific teams. And I’m betting on Vancouver’s disastrous COVID-ravaged season being an aberration, though admittedly this may be wishful thinking on my part. I certainly dislike many of the moves their GM has made, but at the end of the day, there is still a lot of elite young talent on this roster, and that is tough to bet against.
Since I love baking good storylines into these predictions, I thought long and hard about having the two Pacific Northwest teams face off in the playoffs to begin their rivalry in earnest. Sadly though, I could not find a rational way to argue for Edmonton falling behind both teams.
Now for the most fun part - gaming out my likely inaccurate playoff matchups. We’ll keep this brief, and reserve the right to make more long-winded playoff predictions in April.
|Tampa Bay Lightning/Boston Bruins||Tampa in 4|
|Carolina Hurricanes/New York Islanders||Carolina in 6|
|Florida Panthers/Toronto Maple Leafs||Florida in 7|
|Philadelphia Flyers/Pittsburgh Penguins||Philadelphia in 5|
Round Highlight: Yes, the Leafs are out in the first round. Again. Sorry, Toronto fans. If anything, take consolation from the fact that I have picked them to lose in the first round - I often predict that they will win at least one round, which may be their kiss of death.
|Colorado Avalanche/Minnesota Wild||Colorado in 7|
|Vegas Golden Knights/Vancouver Canucks||Vegas in 7|
|Winnipeg Jets/Dallas Stars||Winnipeg in 6|
|Edmonton Oilers/Seattle Kraken||Edmonton in 4|
Round Highlight: Even though Vegas is likely to dominate their division, I don’t think this team had a great offseason. They had a hard time closing out Vancouver two years ago, and I can still see this matchup going the distance.
|Tampa Bay Lightning/Florida Panthers||Florida in 6|
|Carolina Hurricanes/Philadelphia Flyers||Philadelphia in 6|
Round Highlight: That spicy pick I mentioned earlier in the Atlantic Division section? Here it is. Yes, Tampa Bay are the defending champs, and yes, they just beat the Panthers this past year. But I can see a combination of long-term exhaustion and big personnel losses finally catching up to the Lightning, while the Panthers continue to improve and look poised to finally make a deep run. A Panthers win here would make the league’s hottest new rivalry all the better.
|Colorado Avalanche/Winnipeg Jets||Colorado in 7|
|Vegas Golden Knights/Edmonton Oilers||Vegas in 6|
Round Highlight: Man, I really wanted to pick the Jets here. I love this team, and think they made all of the right moves to make a good run this season. If they were facing any other team, I would pick them in a heartbeat. I would not be surprised to see the Jets win this matchup, but I think Colorado has just enough star power and depth to finally advance past the second round, albeit by a razor’s edge.
|Florida Panthers/Philadelphia Flyers||Florida in 5|
|Colorado Avalanche/Vegas Golden Knights||Colorado in 6|
Round Highlight: The thing that probably stands out here, is how high I am on the Philadelphia Flyers. That they are even present for a Conference Finals run may seem wildly optimistic. But I think they have an excellent top nine forward group, a strong veteran defense corps, and I fully expect Carter Hart to return to form after a disastrous shortened season last year. Putting all of that together, I like them as much as anyone to emerge out of the Metropolitan Division, where there does not seem to be a truly elite Stanley Cup contender. All of that said, I think their ride ends in this round against a better and deeper team.
|Colorado Avalanche/Florida Panthers||Colorado in 5|
At the end of the day, as much as I love a trendy dark horse pick, I had to break my own heart here, and predict an overdue Stanley Cup win for this iteration of the Colorado Avalanche. They are the deepest and most talented team on paper, and in theory should give my beloved Panthers more than they can handle, just as they did in the infamous 1996 Stanley Cup Final.
Lastly, I always wrap these predictions up by attempting to guess how the individual awards are going to shake out. This tends to go a bit better than predicting the fate of the league as a whole, with wrong picks often at least being in the running for the award they are expected to win.
- Conn Smythe: MacKinnon
- Hart: Crosby
- Art Ross: McDavid
- Norris: Makar
- Vezina: Hellebuyck
- Selke: Barkov
- Calder: Knight
Feel free to copy this format and make your own predictions for this season - I’m looking forward to being roasted on the numerous picks that inevitably will not work out. Happy start to the NHL season, everyone!