Anyone else's head in a pretzel when forecasting the first full (let's hope) NHL season in three years? Divisions, conferences, point totals — what was normal is now abnormal after two shortened years threw the hockey world out of its regular cadence.
What's hilarious is that a very select few didn't skip a beat when examining HockeyDB or Hockey Reference pages. For example, world-best Connor McDavid posted the third-highest point total in his six seasons with less than 70 percent of the normal allotted runway last season, scoring at a pace we haven't seen in decades.
The standard has shifted, man.
Anyway, this was a long-winded way of saying that I'm still wrapping my mind around this upcoming season, earmarks and all. So excuse the bold-ness of these bold predictions:
McDavid has another top-10 season for adjusted points
This is a big ask, I know.
The circumstances of last season, which were wildly beneficial to McDavid from a strict point production standpoint, aren't repeatable. He will have to deal with legitimate defensive teams, there likely won't be that carrot, or that juicy round number to chase in meaningless games at the end of the season.
That said, there is no reason to believe that McDavid won't return as a better player — and that's before sharing a line with one of the game's best facilitative players in Zach Hyman. In his best season to date, McDavid becomes the first player this century to register 150 points. It could happen.
Panthers win the Presidents' Trophy — with Spencer Knight
I've bought up all the stock on the Florida Panthers this season. This team hasn't stopped adding talent since Bill Zito came aboard, most recently rescuing weapon Sam Reinhart from the Buffalo Sabres in an offseason where most elite teams were forced to part with talent. Another difference between Florida and the other haves in the NHL is that it has no reason to rest on its laurels. I expect the pedal to be firmly pressed on the gas from start to finish on the season. If Joel Quenneville turns to Spencer Knight earlier than later, the result is a brand-new trophy to the organization's rather bare display case.
Aleksander Barkov does one better
Recognized with the Selke Trophy for his two-way game, Aleksander Barkov earned his greatest individual honour last season for his brilliant campaign with Florida and was rewarded with a hefty extension. It will be exceedingly difficult for him to out-perform a healthy McDavid, but Barkov will earn a Hart Trophy nomination this season as the driving force behind Florida's (anticipated) success. Award voters are wising up, and expect Barkov to benefit from it.
Leafs scratch and claw to make postseason as wild card
While last season (at least the regular season) was a breeze, expect something far different from the Maple Leafs in 2021-22. Having to beat out either the Lightning, Panthers or Bruins to guarantee a postseason seed is no simple task, and I can't imagine the torment from last season won't impact this team to some extent. There is a real vulnerability here; one that showed itself not long after John Tavares was knocked out of the first-round series versus Montreal.
I suspect it's a nail-biter to the finish for the Maple Leafs and, honestly, that might not be a horrible thing. Overcoming some adversity and proving something to themselves along the way might be the best sort of scenario for the Leafs to find themselves in if they do indeed qualify.
Pittsburgh AND Washington miss the postseason
The Penguins and Capitals have each essentially been locks for the postseason in the Sidney Crosby-Alexander Ovechkin rivalry era. Is it possible that both miss this season? It's muddy out there in the Metropolitan Division, and there's a world where the Islanders, Hurricanes, Rangers, and Flyers leave both to battle over scraps in the wild card chase.
This is a big, big season for both organizations. The Penguins are facing a decision on pending free agent Evgeni Malkin and potentially the start of rebuild. The Capitals are locked into what could be the framework of what once was. It's ominous, man. There's something in the air.
Tampa finally loses a postseason round
I mean, it's proven bold, no? The back-to-back champions could, in theory, survive the gauntlet again, and become the first team since the New York Islanders in the early 1980s to win the Stanley Cup in three successive seasons, but I wouldn't bank on it. Significantly weakened after free agency, the Lightning have to survive the toughest division in hockey first, and this time a team like the Montreal Canadiens won't be waiting for them on the other side.
Kessel assists on another Stanley Cup run
We will bear witness to Playoff Phil once again. It's no secret what the Arizona Coyotes are doing, and for that reason the expectation should be that Kessel is on the move ahead of the trade deadline for what could be one last meaningful run. I don't have a clue where he ends up, but I'm speaking this into existence.
We need this.
Technicality prevents Toews from making Canada’s Olympic Team
Olympic officials need names, stat, and it's going to cost someone a spot on Canada's Olympic roster for the 2022 Games in Beijing. Jonathan Toews is coming off a lost season, and one that forced him to step away due to health issues that were affecting his life and ostensibly dragging down his performance. Toews is the comeback player of the year front runner for me, but he won't be available to Canada's Olympic team because the player pool will be established before Toews re-enters the proving ground. Which would be too bad.
Driedger leads Kraken in meaningful March
Ron Francis doesn't have a tremendous track record with goaltenders. The Scott Darling contract, if you choose to remember, was one of the worst free-agent deals in recent memory, and a gross, gross misevaluation on the part of Francis. It seems he's learned from that mistake, but there's reason to believe he's overplayed his hand a bit here. A hot prospect coming into his own, Chris Driedger seemed like the perfect netminder for this moment in time.
Yet, before the ink could dry on his contract, the Kraken splurged on Vezina nominee Philipp Grubauer. I can't shake the feeling that his signing was a misuse of funds, and that Driedger will emerge as the top option for Dave Hakstol when the Kraken are in the postseason hunt late into the season.
Canucks place second in the Pacific Division
It's an open competition behind the Vegas Golden Knights for the No. 2 spot in the Pacific. As down as the market seems to be on Vancouver, it'll be the Canucks — not the Oilers — shuffling in behind for postseason seeding. The mess was his, but Jim Benning cleaned it up as well as he possibly could this summer, and in the process assembled an extremely exciting top-nine forward group.
If Thatcher Demko can take the next step in his development, and do his part to help minimize the warts on the back end, it could be a very exciting season in Vancouver.
Golden Knights, Jets rematch in Western Conference Final
Let's run it back. It was an unthinkable matchup in 2018 and an improbable one now, but there's a world where the Golden Knights and Jets rematch for a shot at a Stanley Cup berth four years after the fact. Winnipeg is far less likely to be in that position with the Colorado Avalanche standing in its way. But after finally addressing their issues on the back end, the high-voltage Jets are as good of a selection as any to be the team that prolongs the pain in Colorado.
Islanders win Stanley Cup
Other than Tampa, no team over the last three seasons has played more playoff games than the Islanders. As currently constructed, they are one of the few proven and voraciously unsatisfied postseason entities. That's a dangerous combination for anyone who stands in their way. New York is the team that can finally solve the Lightning and can win the franchise's fifth Stanley Cup 39 years after its last.
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