With NHL training camps just around the corner, the 2021-22 season is coming into sharper focus. A slew of questions will be popping up, challenging teams and individuals on a number of levels. Here are the five biggest questions facing NHL teams and/or players this coming year:
1. Will the Maple Leafs rise or regress? Like it or not, the day-to-day exploits of the Toronto Maple Leafs are almost always newsworthy. You don’t develop one of the largest fan bases in the league, if not, the world, and not have your team’s successes and failures magnified – and this season will be no different for Toronto. After their painful collapse at the hands of the arch-rival Montreal Canadiens in the first round of last year’s playoffs, the Leafs are under incredible pressure to atone for their failure, with the threat of major change looming large should they not at least make it out of the first round of the 2021-22 post-season.
Barring some astonishing in-season losing streak, Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe’s job is under no serious threat. But now that Toronto is back in the Atlantic Division – with powerhouses including the defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning, the improved Florida Panthers, and the veteran Boston Bruins, as well as the Habs – the Leafs will have to perform throughout the regular season to assure themselves of a playoff berth. And that’s the bare minimum for the Buds; missing the playoffs altogether, with one of the best forward groups in the league, would be an unmitigated disaster.
However, no matter how well they do through the first 82 games, they’re still going to be judged by the seven to 14 games they play after that. Any type of collapse or letdown similar to last spring’s will be met with media and fans’ heated calls for major alterations to the team’s talent core. If they can overcome past disappointment and push through the first and second rounds of the playoffs, the Buds will stir up a passion that has frequently been stunted by the organization’s letdowns. Maple Leafs ownership has recently enjoyed the success of the NBA’s Toronto Raptors, but all that goodwill will be squandered if it cannot replicate that on the hockey side and reward the fans’ seemingly endless support.
2. How healthy are the Dallas Stars’ veteran forwards? The Stars made one of the bigger moves this summer, adding veteran blueliner Ryan Suter to make their defense corps one of the best, if not the best in the game today. That said, much of the Stars’ fortunes in 2021-22 will rest on the health of star center Tyler Seguin, who appeared in only three games all last season. His absence, along with that of fellow star forward Alexander Radulov, was the reason Dallas fell short of making the playoffs.
The Stars say both Radulov and Seguin are back at 100 percent heading into the 2021-22 campaign, but Radulov just turned 35, and Seguin will be 30 in January. Along with star winger Jamie Benn (who is now 32 years old) and Joe Pavelski (who turned 37 in July), the output of the quartet of Stars veteran forwards will go a long way as to whether Dallas is one of the Western Conference’s top teams or whether it falls short of the playoffs two seasons in a row for the first time since 2016-17 and 2017-18.
3. Do the rejigged New York Rangers have enough to make it into the playoffs? The Blueshirts cleaned house after last season, dismissing GM Jeff Gorton and head coach David Quinn and respectively replacing them with former NHL star Chris Drury (who takes on the president and GM roles), and 2017-18 Jack Adams Award winner Gerard Gallant. The Rangers also made significant alterations to their roster, changing their bottom-six group of forwards to include former Lightning winger Barclay Goodrow, former Golden Knights enforcer Ryan Reaves and former Blues winger Samuel Blais with an eye on making them more rugged and deeper overall.
Here’s the issue with these changes: Drury still has an unaccomplished top-six forward unit, and their defense (including their goalies) is largely the same. That collection of talent was not good enough to earn a playoff spot this past year, and they’re back in a Metropolitan Division that includes the improved (at least, on paper) Philadelphia Flyers, the always-dangerous Pittsburgh Penguins, the deep, skilled Washington Capitals, the cross-town rival New York Islanders, and the up-and-coming New Jersey Devils. That leaves six teams and only four playoff spots. That means two teams are in for colossally negative consequences, and we know Rangers team owner James Dolan is a reactionary type who doesn’t react well when they underachieve.
Can the Blueshirts avoid more and bigger changes this year by (a) making the playoffs; and (b) pushing aside a team or two that will be favored over them if they’re good enough to make the post-season? It certainly won’t be easy for them, but the Rangers do have enough pure talent to at least challenge for a playoff berth right up through the end of the regular season. Anything less than that likely will trigger more widespread change next summer.
4. Wither the NHL’s Western Canadian franchises? For many different reasons, the three west-Canadian franchises all are under immense pressure to make the playoffs this season. The Edmonton Oilers are looking to rebound from a humiliating first-round playoff exit, while the Vancouver Canucks and Calgary Flames both are seeking to erase the memory of not evening making the playoffs last year. Edmonton and Vancouver have retooled, with the Oilers adding veteran D-men Duncan Keith and Cody Ceci, former Leafs winger Zach Hyman and former Hurricanes winger Warren Foegele, and the Canucks adding former Coyotes Connor Garland and Oliver Ekman-Larsson. Calgary also has made big moves, saying goodbye via the expansion draft to team leader Mark Giordano, adding D-man Nikita Zadorov and forwards Brad Richardson and Blake Coleman, and agreeing to at least a full season under veteran head coach Darryl Sutter.
Of the three western-Canadian teams, the Oilers are the only lock to make the playoffs this year. Even in a watered-down Pacific Division, the Flames and Canucks are going to have to fight tooth-and-nail to earn one of the four available post-season berths. And if either or both of those two teams miss out on the post-season, the blowback will be enormous and likely will result in major change. And just because the Oilers are almost assured to be a playoff team, they’re in the same boat as the Leafs, insofar as nothing they do up until the playoffs will matter. Another catastrophic post-season will be a waste of the skills of stars Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, and the Oilers will be at a crossroads when it comes to the rest of the roster. Whatever the case, the Pacific will be a division to keep an eye on, simply for the drama that will come out of Canada’s west.
5. Will the Philadelphia Flyers’ many changes pay off? This writer argued last season that the disappointing Philadelphia Flyers needed to shake up their lineup, particularly when it came to longtime star forwards Jakub Voracek and captain Claude Girioux. It looks as if Philly GM Chuck Fletcher was listening, dealing Voracek to Columbus for winger Cam Atkinson, and almost completely revamping his defense corps, adding former Preds D-man Ryan Ellis, former Sabres blueliner Rasmus Ristolainen, and former Panthers defenseman Keith Yandle. But it could turn out that the biggest difference between the Flyers making or missing the playoffs in 2021-22 will be the play of Martin Jones, the former Sharks starting goalie who signed with Philadelphia this summer as the presumptive backup to No. 1 netminder Carter Hart.
After Hart’s strong sophomore season for Philly in 2019-20, his numbers plummeted last year (to career-worsts of an .877 save percentage and a 3.67 goals-against average in 27 games). Fletcher must believe that’s an aberration, as he signed Hart to a three-year contract extension this off-season. However, if Hart falters and goaltending once again becomes an issue in Philadelphia, they’ll be turning to Jones, a 31-year-old who has posted two consecutive regular seasons of an .897 SP and at least a 3.00 GAA. Regardless of how the new-and-theoretically-improved Flyers’ defense corps is, it’ll mean nothing if they can’t get rebound years out of their goalies and get back into the playoffs.