Ah, the return of normal or something close to it. The 2021-22 NHL season promises us (a) an 82-game schedule, (b) traditional divisional alignments, (c) fans in all arenas, (d) regular-season games beginning in October, (e) a Stanley Cup awarded in June, (f) an All-Star Game and (g) probably an Olympic tournament. Thanks to COVID-19 vaccines, the hockey calendar will feel the most “normal” since 2018-19’s. It also means I can revive one of my favorite annual columns: Three In, Three Out.
Beginning in summer 2015, I pegged three playoff teams from the previous season with potential to miss the ensuing season and three non-playoff teams with potential to take their places. I shelved the column last off-season because the 2020 bubble playoff tournament warped the definition of a “playoff” team from the previous season, but Three In, Three Out is back. Thus far, I’ve compiled a 21-15 career record (.583) on the predictions. That’s a success rate I’m proud of considering this entire exercise involves betting against trends, picking good teams to turn bad and bad teams to turn good.
With that, let’s commence Three in, Three Out for 2021-22.
MADE PLAYOFFS IN 2020-21, COULD MISS IN 2021-22
1. Nashville Predators (My projection: seventh in Central Division, 13th in Western Conference)
I would argue that, based on their off-season decisions to date, the Predators are resigned to the idea of going backward to go forward, regressing to a non-playoff team and retooling with additional prospects and draft picks. This team was one of the No. 1 sellers to watch about a month before the 2021 trade deadline, remember, but goaltender Juuse Saros’ incredible play helped Nashville to a surprise playoff appearance. Knowing they’d lose Viktor Arvidsson to the expansion draft, the Preds cashed him out in a trade for a pair of draft picks, and they also dealt top-pair blueliner Ryan Ellis to the Philadelphia Flyers as part of a three-team trade with Vegas that sent center Cody Glass and defenseman Philippe Myers to Nashville. The deal represented a shift toward getting younger. Nashville also made no significant UFA additions and removes two of its better offensive threats in Arvidsson and Ellis from a team that iced the NHL’s 22nd-best offense and 23rd-best power play this past season.
So 2021-22, then, could be more about breaking in the kids. We should see Glass, defenseman Dante Fabbro and right winger Eeli Tolvanen get significant increases in responsibility, while the depth chart is barren enough that no one will block top prospect Philip Tomasino from getting his shot at some point this season, whether it's at his established position of center or on the right wing.
Even with shift toward youth, what Nashville has doesn’t appear to add up to a playoff spot, however. The Preds return to the traditional Central Division, which should be viciously competitive as always, and it's tough to see them placing any higher than fifth or six.
2. Montreal Canadiens (My prediction: fifth in Atlantic Division, 10th in Eastern Conference)
What a magical run 2020-21 was for the Habs. But that run came from a team that finished with the 18th-best points percentage in the NHL and rode some otherworldly play from goaltender Carey Price to some massive upsets in the first few rounds of the playoffs. Some key pieces from Montreal’s Stanley Cup finalist squad are already removed from the house of cards. Defenseman Shea Weber’s career appears to be over; shutdown center Phillip Danault signed with the Los Angeles Kings; wily veteran right winger Corey Perry joined the champion Tampa Bay Lightning; and while left winger Tomas Tatar ended up scratched for much of the post-season, he was a major contributor as Montreal’s first-line left winger for several seasons before that disappointment.
The pieces Montreal brings in don’t appear to trump what it lost. Gritty defenseman David Savard should be Weber’s equal if not better at thwarting enemy attacks but brings no offense to the table. Left winger Mike Hoffman has become a one-dimensional power-play maven. The Habs’ exciting youth crop, led by center Nick Suzuki, right winger Cole Caufield and defenseman Alexander Romanov, should continue improving, and one could argue those gains will offset Montreal’s losses, but moving back to the Atlantic Division will make it hard to reach the big dance. At the very least, the Lightning, Florida Panthers and Boston Bruins should finish ahead of Montreal, and the Toronto Maple Leafs are a fair bet to as well. With the wildcard playoff berths returning, a Habs team sitting outside the Atlantic’s top three will have to contend for a wildcard spot with a crowded Metropolitan Division that could easily produce six competitive teams and five playoff berths.
3. Pittsburgh Penguins (My prediction: sixth in Metropolitan Division, 11th in Eastern Conference)
I’ve twice picked the Pens to slide out of the playoffs in this column, and I’ve been wrong twice, but this coming season is different. Those previous Pens teams had the cowboy GM Rutherford as GM. He was hellbent on squeezing every last drop of competitiveness from the Sidney Crosby/Evgeni Malkin era and repeatedly sacrificed futures in roster-shaking trades to keep the team in the hunt. Under new GM Ron Hextall, who was famously conservative in his time shepherding the Philadelphia Flyers, the Pens have been as quiet as any contender this off-season. They lost two left wingers in the expansion draft, with Jared McCann (traded to Toronto first) and Brandon Tanev joining the Kraken, and the most significant replacement Hextall could drum up was respected checker Brock McGinn.
A team with three consecutive first-round playoff exits losing more pieces than it added and making no marquee upgrades would already be worrisome, but problems from within threaten the Pens’ 2021-22 prospects, too. Malkin’s off-season knee surgery is expected to cost him training camp at the very least, nudging 36-year-old Jeff Carter to the No. 2 center spot. Shockingly, the Pens also appear to be sticking with Tristan Jarry as their No. 1 netminder after he spectacularly melted down against the New York Islanders in the 2021 playoffs. Earlier this week, Penguins president Brian Burke lamented the high price tags for starting goalies on the UFA market this summer and indicated the team would likely roll with Jarry unless it “hit a rut.” After Linus Ullmark signed a long-term deal in Boston for big money, the Pens would be wise to keep a close eye on Tuukka Rask next winter once he recovers from hip surgery.
For now, however? It’s undeniable that the Pens got worse this off-season. They haven’t adequately replaced the pieces they lost, they already have a star player likely to miss time, and they haven’t repaired their shaky goaltending. With their farm system gutted for trades in recent seasons, they also don’t have significant internal reinforcements likely to contribute in high-impact roles. I’ve been wrong before about “this finally being the end” of Pittsburgh’s fantastic run, but one of these years I’ll be right.
MISSED PLAYOFFS IN 2020-21, COULD MAKE IT IN 2021-22
1. Philadelphia Flyers (my prediction: third in Metropolitan Division, sixth in Eastern Conference)
The Flyers were trending toward legitimate Cup-contender status by the end of 2019-20, remade as a sturdy defensive group under Alain Vigneault. Then glue guy Matt Niskanen suddenly retired last off-season, and the Flyers’ identity evaporated. They allowed a league-worst 3.52 goals per game, their most in 14 years, and their 73.1 percent penalty-killing efficiency was their worst in franchise history.
But were those numbers deceiving? Philadelphia actually placed in the top half of the NHL at 5-on-5 in per-60 shots against, shot attempts against, scoring chances against, high-danger attempts against and expected goals against. It was goaltending that dragged down the Flyers’ “defensive” numbers. With prodigy Carter Hart enduring a nightmare season plagued by confidence problems, no team in the NHL posted a lower 5-on-5 save percentage. Even the Flyers’ historically bad penalty kill was a mere 20th in expected goals against. The team had the worst penalty-kill SP in the league. The palms get sweaty when considering that Hart’s new backup is Martin Jones, who has graded out as the league’s worst netminder for the past three seasons combined, but even average to slightly below average goaltending last season might’ve been enough to keep Philly in the playoff picture. Hart and Jones don't have to play Vezina-level hockey for the team to improve.
And that’s before we factor in all the other roster changes. The Flyers have been as busy as any team in the league this off-season. Cam Atkinson replaces Jakub Voracek on the right wing; elite puck-mover Ellis replaces Myers on defense, while the Flyers hope they can work the “Escape from Buffalo” effect with maligned but toolsy blueliner Rasmus Ristolainen. The Flyers placed high enough in the standings two years ago to bypass the play-ins and compete in the bubble round-robin. With some fresh faces around to help and given the idea things can’t possibly get worse in net, the Flyers look like a strong bet to bounce back in 2021-22.
2. Los Angeles Kings (my prediction: third in Pacific Division, sixth in Western Conference)
The teams on the “predicted to miss” list share the common predicament of moving to a challenging division. The Kings find themselves in the opposite scenario. Aside from Vegas, can we truly, safely project any other Pacific Division team to make the playoffs? The Edmonton Oilers are the next-best bet thanks to Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl but have made questionable off-season moves so far. The Kraken are an unknown as a new team. Every other team in the 2021-22 Pacific missed the playoffs this past season: the Flames, Canucks, Kings, Ducks and Sharks. Of that group, I like L.A. to emerge and snatch the third playoff seed in the division.
Signing Danault should have a fascinating ripple effect on L.A.’s, lineup, as I outlined the day of the signing. Since he’ll be tasked with the toughest defensive assignments, all-time-great two-way center Anze Kopitar can focus on scoring more. Not only does Danault assist L.A. at preventing goals, then, but he’ll also indirectly help L.A. score more of them. So will new addition Arvidsson. The Kings also have an enviable crop of high-ceiling youngsters ready to contribute in the NHL, from Quinton Byfield to Arthur Kaliyev to Alex Turcotte. If even one or two of them bust out, the Kings will become a much deeper and deadlier squad up front. Byfield in particular is set up for success since Danault and Kopitar can handle so much responsibility. He’s a candidate to smash opponents with some of the easiest matchups in the league if he beats out Gabe Vilardi for third-line center duties.
The Kings suffered no significant personnel losses, added some impactful pieces to help them at both ends of the ice, are better positioned than almost any other team in the league to make sudden and significant improvements from internal prospects and play in the league’s weakest division. That’s a recipe for a breakout season in L.A.
3. Dallas Stars (my prediction: fifth in Central Division, eighth in Western Conference)
If I’d done this column a year ago, I would’ve placed Dallas in the regression section. After an impressive run to the 2020 final, they’d lost top center Tyler Seguin to hip surgery and No. 1 goalie Ben Bishop to knee surgery. With a flat salary cap and RFAs Roope Hintz, Radek Faska and Denis Gurianov needing new contracts, GM Jim Nill also wasn’t positioned to add significant help. So the Stars already looked like a weaker team on paper heading into the 2020-21 season – and that was before COVID-19 ravaged the club, postponed its first week of games and forced it to play an even-more-condensed schedule than the rest of the league.
This season, Dallas gets Seguin back. While Bishop may not suit up at all, the team is deep in goal with new signee Braden Holtby joining Anton Khudobin and Jake Oettinger. Two thirds of the team’s breakout top line from this past season – Jason Robertson and Roope Hintz – are still ascending. While it hurt to lose center Jason Dickinson and defenseman Jamie Oleksiak this off-season, the Stars should be fine on defense with UFA additions Ryan Suter and Jani Hakanpaa joining Miro Heiskanen, Esa Lindell and John Klingberg.
This is a deep team coming off a season in which everything went wrong. With better luck, Dallas should climb back to a low rung on the Western Conference playoff ladder.