With every new NHL regular season that rolls around, so too does the opportunity for hockey writers to take a shot at predicting how the standings will look by playoff time.
To say it’s an inexact science is putting it mildly; you look at the results teams finished the previous season with; you look at the changes they made this off-season; and try and project what their youngsters will contribute; and you talk to other hockey observers to get a sense of what they expect of teams. And from there, you piece together what you believe will be the end result will be for them.
It should go without saying that some teams will live up to expectations, that some will underachieve, and others will overachieve. But there is a bar that fans, media and other analysts get set for every one of the NHL’s 32 franchises, and predictions are what this is an exercise in. And let’s be clear – the picks you’ll see from this writer are not the same as THN’s official picks, which you can find here.
One more thing: Your favorite team may be low in the rankings that follow, but that doesn’t mean the author hates your city, or your players. Strictly business. And with that said, over the course of the next four days, we’ll spotlight each of the league’s divisions and offer some views on how the year will unfold. Today, we’ll start with the division that includes the back-to-back defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning:
1. Florida Panthers: The Panthers finished second to Carolina in the makeshift Central division last year, but Florida won one more game (37 in total) than did the Hurricanes, who had three more overtime/shootout losses than the Panthers. That should give you an indication of the caliber of players the Panthers employ – and GM Bill Zito added to his team’s offensive firepower when he acquired 25-year-old right winger and two-time 25-goal-scorer Sam Reinhart from Buffalo, and signed greybeard Joe Thornton to bolster their fourth line. Florida already had one of the league’s better goal-production groups, and adding Reinhart (and getting a full season out of former Flames center Sam Bennett) will only make it more potent.
The Panthers’ defense is somewhat underrated, especially considering they played 21 games last year without star blueliner Aaron Ekblad. In addition, star goalie Sergei Bobrovsky did not have an ideal season (although he did improve on his goals-against average and save percentage in his first season with Florida). It’s reasonable that he could bump up his SP and GAA with a fully healthy defense corps in front of him.
Regardless, the Panthers look like a powerhouse, and one ready to make the jump in the playoffs to do some serious damage. They’ll have their intra-state rivals in Tampa Bay to go through to get to that point, but they have the skill, balance and coaching to do so. Could be some big things coming in South Florida this year.
2. Tampa Bay Lightning: Like all Cup champions, the Lightning have lost some of their depth for salary cap reasons. However, GM Julien BriseBois once again has supplemented his roster with veteran know-how (including former Canadiens/Stars/Ducks star winger Corey Perry, and D-man Zach Bogosian, who is back for a second run with the Bolts), and he still has one of the best top-six groups of forwards in the NHL and one hell of a group of defensemen. And that’s saying nothing of all-world goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, really just entering his prime at age 27.
Make no mistake, the Lightning are going to be excellent this season, and they’ll probably be the odds-on favorite to win their third Cup in a row. Someone eventually will be able to solve them, but it may not be for quite some time.
3. Toronto Maple Leafs: By now, most sentient beings are aware of the dismal way Toronto’s previous season ended. It couldn’t have gone worse, and it couldn’t have come at the hands of a more hated rival, in this case, the Montreal Canadiens. But for as bad as it was, it doesn’t take away from the fact that the Leafs were one of the more dominant regular-season teams last year. They had the NHL’s fifth-most-productive offense (186 goals-for), and got stellar netminding from Jack Campbell en route to posting the seventh-most-effective defense (148 goals-against).
Despite some notable changes to the roster, Leafs GM Kyle Dubas has once again put his team in a position to play well. Competition for jobs exists mainly on the wings, although the most important battle may be between Campbell and off-season unrestricted free agent signing Petr Mrazek. If both goalies stay healthy, Toronto could have impressive goaltending numbers, even if both serve in a platoon role. Head coach Sheldon Keefe is likely to ride the hot hand, as well as mix things up in back-to-back games, and that may have both Mrazek and Campbell healthy and ready to go come the post-season.
Making the playoffs may be more difficult for Toronto now that they’re in a more competitive division, but there’s no way they should wobble and stumble and find themselves on the outside of the post-season looking in. Auston Matthews still plays there. Mitch Marner and William Nylander still play there. John Tavares still plays there, and an above-average defense corps still work there. They’ll be fine until the playoffs, but there will be an incredible amount of pressure on them once they’re there. And if things go sideways in the post-season, we may well be looking at a vastly different Leafs squad this time next year.
4. Boston Bruins: The Bruins have been a playoff team in each of the past five seasons, and they’ve won one playoff round in four of those years. They finished third in the highly competitive East division last season, going on to beat the Washington Capitals in Round One before losing in six games to the New York Islanders. Most of that Bruins team remains intact, with a couple of major exceptions: center David Krejci went home to play in the Czech Republic, and goalie Tuukka Rask is on the sidelines (and without a contract) as he recovers from hip surgery. Both those veterans have made massive impacts for Boston, and to offset their losses, they’ll need step-up performances from newly re-signed winger Taylor Hall and new UFA signing Nick Foligno, as well as new No. 1 netminder and former Sabres starter Linus Ullmark.
Boston’s defense isn’t the most heralded in the game, but head coach Bruce Cassidy found a solid balance for this young-ish group, and their forwards are defensively responsible enough to lend a good hand to them. They’ve got a capable, talented top six forward unit, but the way their bottom-six forwards and bottom two blueliners perform this season may be the difference between earning the last playoff berth in the Atlantic, and challenging for the division title. Either way, they’re almost assuredly a playoff team.
5. Montreal Canadiens: The Habs enjoyed a memorable playoff run last season, rolling over three opponents before losing the Cup Final to the Lightning. But we shouldn’t forget that, prior to that run, Montreal didn’t exactly impress in the regular season: they finished the year with just 24 wins in 56 games, two fewer than the fifth-place Calgary Flames (who missed out on the playoffs because they had just three overtime/shootout losses, while the Canadiens had 11).
The Canadiens underwent significant change this summer, losing forward and 2018 third-overall pick Jesperi Kotkaniemi to an offer sheet from the Hurricanes, and valuable depth forward Corey Perry to the Bolts. They’ve also got to do without captain and blueline cornerstone Shea Weber, who likely will miss the entire regular season with a wonky left foot/ankle inury; in addition, they’ll start the year without forward Paul Byron (out until January after hip surgery this summer, and star goalie Carey Price is recovering from a knee injury, though he’s expected to be ready for Game 1. Those are big losses, and although GM Marc Bergevin has replaced them with veteran forwards Christian Dvorak and Mike Hoffman (the latter of whom also will start the year on the sidelines with a lower-body, off-season injury), they may prove to be too big of a collective obstacle for Montreal to qualify for the playoffs.
Now, it’s possible the Canadiens continue the momentum they had in last year’s post-season, but they’re in a much tougher division this time, and they may not have enough depth to get them by and try going on a longer playoff run. It could come down to the final week or two of the 82-game schedule, but in any case, they’ll likely be battling Toronto and Boston for the Atlantic’s final two playoff berths all season long.
6. Ottawa Senators: After failing miserably for much of the start of their 2021 regular season, the Senators got stronger and finished the year on an 8-2-1 run. They now have an impressive foundation, with developing young stars such as forward Tim Stützle and D-man Thomas Chabot, and only two of their players are older than 30. That’s great news.
The less-than-great news is the Sens allowed a whopping 189 goals-against. Only three teams in the league allowed more. Ottawa GM Pierre Doiron helped his defensemen with the off-season addition of former Golden Knights D-man Nick Holden, but with due respect, he’s not going to be the catalyst for sufficient improvement to put the Senators in a playoff position. And after his subpar 2021 campaign, goalie Matt Murray (3.38 GAA, .893 SP) isn’t likely to rebound enough to push them up the Atlantic rankings.
Will Ottawa have a better win percentage than it did last season? It’s possible, absolutely. Are the playoffs a bridge too far for them this season? It’s also possible. All Sens fans want to see is progress, and they probably will. But progress is not linear or a lock. Another year or two, and the Sens will be a force to reckon with. This year? Probably not.
7. Detroit Red Wings: Only the Sharks, Sabres, Ducks and Blue Jackets won fewer games than Detroit did last season. Nineteen wins in 56 games was a clear indication of how far the Wings still have to go to become a genuine playoff threat. But that doesn’t mean GM Steve Yzerman hasn’t improved them; he acquired 2021 Calder Trophy finalist Alex Nedeljkovic from Carolina, and he brought in veteran blueliner Nick Leddy from the New York Islanders. Along with 2019 sixth-overall pick, D-man Moritz Seider, Leddy and Nedeljkovic make Detroit’s defense better, but still not good enough to run with the beasts of the Atlantic.
Slowly but surely, Yzerman has made his roster younger – the Wings have only two forwards older than 28 – but the tough road ahead for Detroit speaks to the struggles virtually all formerly great teams endure as the winning generation retires and a new competitive cycle kicks off. Like the Senators, the Red Wings could and should win more games than they did in 2021, but like the Sens, it probably won’t be enough to propel them into a playoff spot.
8. Buffalo Sabres: (Pre-emptive sigh.) If you want to see how far hockey misery can extend, just look at the Sabres’ results over the past decade. They’ve undergone numerous re-starts and rebuilds, and still will remain overmatched against just about anyone they face this season. Buffalo GM Kevyn Adams and now-permanent head coach Don Granato don’t have a big-budget lineup to work with, but they do have some core pieces in the fold, including D-man Rasmus Dahlin and 2021 No. 1 pick Owen Power, the two of which, one day, could form an elite first-defensive pairing. One day. But not today.
Unfortunately, for now, the Sabres’ roster is a dog’s breakfast of young developing players (Dylan Couzens, Casey Middlestadt), and veterans on untradeable deals (Jeff Skinner, Kyle Okposo). And in goal, they let starting goalie Linus Ullmark leave for a divisional rival in the Bruins, and replaced him with a combo of…um, 32-year-old Aaron Dell (who posted an .857 SP and 4.14 GAA in seven games last year) and 40-year-old journeyman Craig Anderson, who played only four games last season. (Another sigh.)
It’s sad to say, especially when it comes to a sports town that deserves better, but the Sabres almost certainly will continue to be a bad hockey team in 2021-22. Adams may position them well for the future when he trades disgruntled star center Jack Eichel – and, as noted elsewhere on this website, I expect he’ll be traded before the year is through – but he cannot wave a magic wand and turn lemons into lemonade. It’s just not that easy for accomplished organizations to turn a ship around, let alone a franchise like Buffalo and its poor recent history of trying to build anything of value. Even if you do see light at the end of the Sabres’ tunnel, you have to assume more pain is coming.