And so, a new NHL season is finally here.
Divisional realignment, a formatted 56-game schedule, a tweak to the offsides rule and the formation of a “taxi squad” are all pivotal changes in what should amount to an exciting 2021 campaign.
After the Tampa Bay Lightning conquered the bubble and hoisted the Stanley Cup in an action-packed 2020 postseason, the entire league will vie to usurp the reigning champions, while the Lightning will set their sights on a repeat bid.
Whatever happens will remain to be seen, but until then, another season brings a new series of NHL power rankings. With that said, here is the first installment of the series right as the puck drops for the new campaign.
At the edge of the crease: Washington Capitals
2019-20 record: 41-20-8 (90 points)
Right off the bat (or stick?), I know what folks are thinking. How could Washington not be inside the top 10 at the start of the NHL season? They only averaged 3.42 goals per game last season (second among all NHL teams) and possess one of the most prolific scorers in the modern era in Alex Ovechkin. Yeah, well, hold the phone. While Ovechkin will be reinforced by T.J. Oshie, former Boston Bruin Zdeno Chara and 2019-20 James Norris Memorial Trophy finalist John Carlson, age could be a detriment. All four players are over the age of 31. When coupled with the lack of offseason acquisition Henrik Lundqvist (heart surgery), Washington could be in a bind in regard to long-term durability.
10. New York Islanders
2019-20 record: 35-23-10 (80 points)
The Islanders’ significant strength last season came from their station-to-station blueliners and goaltending duo in Semyon Varlamov and Thomas Greiss. After Greiss and defenseman Devon Toews departed to the Detroit Red Wings and Colorado Avalanche during the offseason, respectively, new up-and-comers will have to take the helm to supplement an offense led by Mathew Barzal and Brock Nelson. Specifically, the likes of KHL goaltender Ilya Sorokin, along with a slew of prospect defensemen (including Noah Dobson), will vie for available playing time. For Islanders’ fans, it will be about trusting the process brought forth by head coach Barry Trotz.
9. Vancouver Canucks
2019-20 record: 36-27-6 (78 points)
While the Maple Leafs look to be Scotia North Division favorites, the Canucks, if last season’s playoff run is any indication, could be a potential challenger. With a dynamic young duo in 2018-19 Calder Memorial Trophy winner Elias Pettersson and 2019-20 Calder Memorial Trophy runner-up Quinn Hughes, the Canucks have the youth and speed to produce for 25-year-old goaltender Thatcher Demko (who went 2-1 with one shutout in four games played in last season’s Stanley Cup Playoffs). The question for Vancouver will not be their talent or potential, but their development after achieving their first taste of playoff success. Can Pettersson and Hughes lead the forwards and blueliners, respectively? With the departure of goaltender Jacob Markstrom, can Demko and former Washington Capital Braden Holtby take over the goaltending reins? These will be the storylines throughout Vancouver’s 2021 campaign.
8. Toronto Maple Leafs
2019-20 record: 36-25-9 (81 points)
Nothing really needs to be said about Toronto’s offense. With Auston Mathews, William Nylander, Mitchell Marner and head coach Sheldon Keefe (who took Toronto to new offensive heights last season when Mike Babcock was relieved of head coaching duties), no one can deny the potential firepower the Maple Leafs can pile together. When adding in offseason acquisitions that have an emphasis on a more physical style of play (Joe Thornton, Wayne Simmonds and T.J. Brodie say hello), Toronto has a newer look in the faceoff, forecheck and backcheck department. Can Toronto now overcome their postseason demons and use their newly hatched three-dimensionality to monopolize the Scotia Bank Division and Stanley Cup Playoffs? This is the hope, but will it become the reality?
7. Dallas Stars
2019-20 record: 37-24-8 (82 points)
The 2019-20 Stanley Cup Final runner-up finds themselves in this top 10 for obvious reasons. A collection of hard-nosed veterans, young checkers and well-known goaltenders puts Dallas in a position to once again make a playoff push. With their severe checking philosophy, along with a sprinkle of deceptive speed here and there, Dallas can quickly mitigate any superior offense and grind down the opposing defense until an opportunity presents itself in the offensive zone. Should Dallas get an uptick in offensive production from Roope Hintz, Miro Heiskanen and Denis Gurianov and average a little more goal scoring per game as a result (the Stars’ 2.58 goals scored per game average last season ranked 26th), the team could very well make enough noise in the Discover Central Division after the Lightning.
6. Boston Bruins
2019-20 record: 44-14-12 (100 points)
The Bruins sing a similar tune to the Maple Leafs, as their offense is a force to be reckoned with. The explosiveness with the puck starts with their “Perfection Line,” spearheaded by Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak. If someone was wondering what kind of production the trio put up together and with other combinations, well, look no further than their numbers last season. The line, however, will not be at full strength to start off the year, as both Marchand and Pastrnak underwent surgery procedures in September. While Marchand is inching closer to being 100% ready for game action, Pastrnak will likely be unavailable until the beginning of February at the earliest. Should Boston start the season strong in what looks to be a stacked MassMutual East Division, they will need to rely on their newly minted team captain in Bergeron to lead the way.
5. Philadelphia Flyers
2019-20 record: 41-21-7 (89 points)
There is no denying the fact that the Flyers underperformed in last year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs. After squeaking by the Montreal Canadiens in the First Round, the team was defeated by their Metropolitan rivals in the Islanders in the Second Round. The main culprit, as surprising as it sounds, came from their offense, even though the unit averaged 3.59 goals per game (which ranked first in the entire NHL) from Jan. 1 until the regular season’s pause on March 11. Averaging 2.38 goals per game in the postseason, it turns out, does not usually bode well for long-term playoff success. No matter, as Philadelphia brings back a hungry roster looking for redemption. They also possess a goaltender by the name of Carter Hart, who might be pretty good.
4. Vegas Golden Knights
2019-20 record: 39-24-8 (86 points)
If you want a complete team with efficient scorers, rock-solid defenders and nigh-impregnable goaltending, Vegas might be as textbook as it gets. Mark Stone on the top line brings star-caliber scoring potential, while Robin Lehner, not Marc-Andre Fleury, will take the starting goaltender gig after the 29-year-old tallied a 1.99 Goals Against Average (GAA) during the 2019-20 postseason in 16 games started. And, to think, Vegas on the defensive side got stronger this past offseason after they netted former St. Louis Blue defenseman Alex Pietrangelo on a seven-year, $61.6 million-dollar deal. Talk about the rich getting richer, and the stronger getting stronger. Once the deck is shuffled, you have a team in the Golden Knights who have legitimate Stanley Cup Final potential in spades (see what I did there?).
3. St. Louis Blues
2019-20 record: 42-19-10 (94 points)
St. Louis brings a methodical, slow-burning and self-paced form of play that is highlighted every game by their offensive and defensive philosophy. Even though they lost the services of Pietrangelo, they offset the departure by bringing in former Bruin Torey Krug, who collected 48 blocks, 36 hits and 22 takeaways last season. While the offense, defense and goaltending (led by third-year Ontario native Jordan Binnington) are solid in all facets, the team will become much more formidable when forward Vladimir Tarasenko hopefully returns from shoulder surgery. If St. Louis can hold the line long enough until he eventually returns, watch out, NHL.
2. Colorado Avalanche
2019-20 record: 42-20-8 (92 points)
I imagine Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar is grinning ear to ear. After all, what head coach wouldn’t? He has a top-five forward in Nathan MacKinnon and a blooming right-handed 22-year-old defenseman in Cale Makar (who won the Calder Memorial Trophy last season) at his disposal. A high-octane team that Colorado only got deeper this past offseason, as forward Brandon Saad from Chicago and Toews from the Islanders, were brought in. Should the Philipp Grubauer and Pavel Francouz goaltending duo hold up their end of the bargain, this team is by far and large a Stanley Cup favorite.
1. Tampa Bay Lightning
2019-20 record: 43-21-6 (92 points)
This leaves us with the Lightning. Was there ever a doubt? This team won their first Stanley Cup since 2004 last season behind their immense speed and revamped defensive corps that became much more of a physical unit. Now, this team does have its warts – star forward Nikita Kucherov (who led the team with 85 points last season) will miss the regular season after undergoing hip surgery. Even still, benefit of the doubt has to be given to Tampa Bay. They did hoist the Cup, even though power play phenom Steven Stamkos played a grand total of two minutes and 47 seconds in the entirety of last year’s postseason. Although Kucherov and Stamkos are not the same player to a tee, the argument still holds. Tampa Bay has the depth and, most importantly, the resiliency. They proved it.