An ultimate guide to the 2021 NHL season

Yes, you are reading this correct. The National Hockey League’s 104th season will be played only in the year of our Lord, 2021. This will be the first time since the lockout-shortened season in 2013 where the entire length of play is completed in one calendar year.

The Tampa Bay Lightning will defend their second Stanley Cup title win after coming up short of expectations in prior years.

During the offseason, we parted ways with two outstanding goalies as Henrik Lundqvist announced he was missing this season due to a heart condition, and Corey Crawford announced his retirement. Luckily, my Los Angeles Kings had positive experiences with both goalies as the Kings took down the Chicago Blackhawks in one of the greatest seven-game series in sports history, and in the following Stanley Cup Finals, the Kings ran over Lundqvist and the New York Rangers in five games. I just had to throw that in there.

With a shortened season comes new rules as the NHL announced an alteration to how offsides is called.

From the league:

While we sadly didn’t get the New Year’s Day Winter Classic, the NHL will still host outdoor games as four teams will head to Lake Tahoe in northern California. The Colorado Avalanche will play the Vegas Golden Knights on Feb. 20 and the Philadelphia Flyers will battle the Boston Bruins on Feb. 21.

Without further ado, let’s break down the newly-sponsored division alignments and talk about this season.

Scotia NHL® North Division

As you can see, the NHL now sold sponsors for their four divisions to boost revenue and I am demanding all my contributors to write the divisions as such, even on subsequent references.

The Scotia NHL® North Division will feature all eight Canadian teams, and as surprising as it sounds, it’s hard to find a legit Stanley Cup contender here. The Vancouver Canucks were the only franchise north of the border to reach the conference semifinals and they went out in a valiant seven-game war with the Golden Knights.

I really like where Vancouver’s roster is. The trio of centers in J.T. Miller, Elias Pettersson and Bo Horvat were sensational and brought depth to the youthfulness the Canucks possess. Quinn Hughes is only 21-years old, but was one of the best defensemen in the league last year with 45 assists, which earned him honors as a finalist for the Calder Trophy. The Canucks also let goalie Jacob Markstrom walk and in return, signed Stanley Cup champion Braden Holtby to a two-year, $8.6M contract. Let’s not forget the Canucks traded for Nate Schmidt and still have Tanner Pearson.

The only pleasant surprise came in the form of the 12th-seeded, yes, 12TH-SEEDED, Montreal Canadiens, who stunned the Pittsburgh Penguins in four games during the play-in round. However, Montreal made an interesting offseason move as they traded Max Domi, top-three in points for the team, and a third-round draft pick for Josh Anderson. Now, Anderson was hurt for a chunk of last season, but if healthy, he can supplement the Domi loss as he had 47 points with a Columbus Blue Jackets team that swept the Lightning in 2019.

The Calgary Flames once again underachieved as they were eliminated in six games by the Dallas Stars. Maybe it was karma for the Bill Peters’ racism, but the franchise still overcame that to reach the postseason. If the Flames are to win a Stanley Cup, this needs to be the year as star winger Johnny Gaudreau’s tenure with the team could end after the 2022 season. Alas, the team will still have young guns in Matthew Tkachuk, Elias Lindholm and Sean Monahan to keep the team afloat.

What the hell are the Toronto Maple Leafs? Their roster is an embarrassment of riches with Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, Jake Muzzin and captain John Tavares. The team also added veteran leadership in T.J. Brodie, Wayne Simmonds and Joe Thornton. Toronto is over the cap and with the talent and depth they have. There are no more excuses. They have to make a deep run or forever be the laughing stock of the NHL.

As for the Ottawa Senators, Winnipeg Jets and Edmonton Oilers, I really don’t know. The Senators are still a work in progress, the Jets have been taking massive dumps since their conference final run in 2018 and the Oilers, well, you saw what happened against the Blackhawks. There’s no sense of urgency from Edmonton. Two MVP contenders in top scorers Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid, yet nothing to show from it. To shore up a lackluster defense, Edmonton did…NOTHING. They will still roll with the fossil known as Mike Smith at goalie.

This is going to be the most meme-d about division in hockey. There is so much potential, but the Canadian teams have struggled in recent memory. It won’t be a battle of who wants to be the top four to reach the postseason, but who will underachieve their way out of it.

Playoff teams: Canucks, Maple Leafs, Flames, Canadiens

Dark horse: Senators

Honda NHL® West Division

This is the most top-heavy division in the NHL with the St. Louis Blues, Golden Knights and Colorado Avalanche all with Stanley Cup aspirations. The battle for the fourth playoff spot will be a duel of tankers as the Sharks, Wild, Kings, Ducks and Coyotes are in no position to make a run.

The Avs have it all to win the Cup. The bad taste of being eliminated during the afternoon on USA Network should be the motivation this team needs to not fall apart against inferior competition. There’s not much else to be said. They were top five in scoring and defense last season. Gabriel Landeskog and Nathan MacKinnon are two of the best in hockey and Cale Makar is arguably the best defenseman in the league. The biggest question will be the health and consistency of their goaltenders in Pavel Francouz and Philipp Grubauer. If they can survive the season unscathed, it’s hard not to lock in Colorado as the pick to win the Cup, even if they lose the season series to the Kings again.

The Golden Knights lost Paul Stastny, but what do they do? They sign Alex Pietrangelo to a seven-year deal. Vegas’ window has been open since their inaugural season and may be open for a few more years. As much as I hate Vegas, personally, they don’t have a single hole and are in the same boat as Colorado.

The Blues are looking to win a second Stanley Cup in three years and while they won’t do it with Pietrangelo, they nabbed Torey Krug from Boston. St. Louis still has a handful of their championship core on the roster with Jordan Binnington, Ryan O’Reilly, David Perron and Jaden Schwartz, but can they take down Colorado or Vegas? Only time will tell.

The Wild are as mediocre as they can get and the Sharks and Ducks are tanking. Their fates are chalk. The battle for the fourth spot will come down to the, once again, dumpster fire in the Coyotes and the rebuilding Kings. My Kings are currently on a seven-game winning streak and have one of the brightest young cores in the NHL. However, LA needs to stop paying their championship core as Dustin Brown, Jeff Carter and Drew Doughty are still on the active roster. Anze Kopitar is 33, but still produces enough to warrant a year or two more with the franchise. The Kings acquired a veteran piece in Olli Maatta and signed Andreas Athanasiou to a one-year deal. What should excite LA hockey fans is the abundance of young talent and the possession of the deepest farm system in the NHL. Just look at some of the names: Alex Turcotte, Quinton Byfield, Michael Amadio, Alex Iafallo, Adrian Kempe, Blake Lizotte. I can keep going, but the point stands. The future is bright for the Kings.

With all that being said, the Pacific is mostly predictable outside of that fourth spot.

Playoff teams: Avalanche, Blues, Golden Knights, Kings

Dark Horse: Wild, I guess

MassMutual NHL® East Division

If you love finesse and goal-scoring, this is the division to watch. Every team, except for the New Jersey Devils, are in play to reach the postseason.

Let’s start with the obvious in the Boston Bruins. They took out a stellar team in the Carolina Hurricanes in just five games last year, but ran out of gas against the Lightning. They will get off to a slow start due to the injuries of Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak, but once they are back to full health, they should cruise their way into the playoffs with a roster that includes Charlie McAvoy, Charlie Coyle, Jake DeBrusk and Sean Kuraly, just to name a few.

The Washington Capitals will enter this season with the oldest roster, and it showed in last year’s playoffs as they were pummeled by the New York Islanders. While there’s still a future with Tom Wilson and Jakub Vrana, Washington might want to take advantage of their older talents and send them off for the future. That includes John Carlson. It’s going be quite a show though as Alex Ovechkin and ZDENO CHARA will play side-by-side after being bitter rivals for so long.

Jean-Gabriel Pageau’s acquisition was certainly a welcome sight for the New York Islanders as he racked up 11 points in the playoffs. After signing a six-year deal with the team, he’s going to need to be a star alongside Mathew Barzal and Brock Nelson. Pageau adds the one offensive piece missing from a contender that was 23rd in scoring last season. Semyon Varlamov will need to continue to be stellar in net, especially against the likes of Philadelphia, Boston and the Rangers. They should be set for postseason play.

The Flyers will look to exact their revenge on the Islanders and easily have the talent to do it. They didn’t lose much as their top scorers in Travis Konecny, Sean Couturier and captain Claude Giroux all return. Carter Hart will have his ups and down, but should age tremendously as he’s already doing great things in the net at just 21 years old. Sharpie Philly for the postseason.

A team that shouldn’t be taken lightly are the Rangers. Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibenejad were one of the best scoring duos in hockey last year and will look to carry the Manhattan squad back to the postseason after a few years of retooling. Goaltending will be a work in progress as Lundqvist is no longer with the franchise. Definitely keep your eye on this team for the year.

You know your franchise is a dumpster fire when Taylor Hall jumps ship to sign a one-year deal with the Buffalo Sabres. While a team on the outside looking in, they should be fun to watch with Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart and Rasmus Dahlin.

Good news, hockey fans, the Pittsburgh Penguins are fading. They choked to the Canadiens in the play-in round and look to be the odd man out in this division. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jake Guentzel will still do their thing, but Crosby and Malkin aren’t getting younger. Not to mention that Tristan Jarry will have his hands full on being the main goaltender after Matt Murray was dealt due to cap issues.

This will be a fun division to watch and I expect a dogfight for the four postseason spots. It’s a tough one to call.

Playoff teams: Flyers, Islanders, Bruins, Capitals

Dark horse: Rangers

Discover NHL® Central Division

Last, but certainly not least, the Discover NHL® Central Division features three teams with hopes of winning the Stanley Cup, with two teams having played in last year’s Stanley Cup Finals. Yes, the Lightning and Dallas Stars are both in this division, guaranteeing we will not have a Finals rematch. It’s a Murderer’s Row of contenders as only the Red Wings missed the playoffs of the eight teams.

To Chicago, Detroit, Nashville and Florida, good luck getting through Columbus, Carolina, Tampa Bay and Dallas.

The Lightning will be short Nikita Kucherov for the regular season, but this team is so deep that it won’t matter much. They may not win the Cup this year, but they are sure to be in the running.

Dallas will have their hands full early as they are battling COVID-19 issues and will be short Ben Bishop and Tyler Seguin until the spring, but they should still be frontrunners to win the Cup. I love what Miro Heiskanen and Roope Hintz have brought to Dallas. They are still young, but they can do a little bit of everything as exceptional two-way players. Anton Khudobin will need to be more consistent in net and should be able to after all the playoff experience last year. The Stars are dangerous, ladies and gentlemen.

If we are being honest, the Hurricanes were the biggest disappointment in last year’s playoffs. Their youth showed against the Bruins as Andrei Svechnikov and Teuvo Teravainen were flat in the postseason. Head coach Rod Brind’Amour must get these bunch of jerks solved again if they are going to make another deep postseason run. They have the talent to do it, but they have to put it together when it matters.

The Blue Jackets stunned the Maple Leafs only to be struck by lightning against a Tampa team that wanted to exact their revenge from 2019. It was going to happen. Even after the stellar five-OT Game 1 against the Lightning, Tampa was too determined to eliminate them. The addition of Max Domi was a good one, but then they added Mikko Koivu for some reason. It will be an uphill battle for Columbus to reach the postseason, but John Tortorella is seasoned enough to lead this team well.

It’s time for the Predators to look in the mirror and realize they don’t have the magic of 2017 anymore. Pekka Rinne is nearing fossil-hood and Nashville was eliminated by a dumpster fire in the postseason. There’s a lot of capital to be acquired if you deal Filip Forsberg or Roman Josi. Do it before it’s too late.

I loved the Panthers’ offense last season, but Sergei Bobrovsky was a shell of his former Columbus self. He could easily have a bounce-back year, but it still might not be good enough with this deep division.

This isn’t your adolescent Chicago Blackhawks. The once great dynasty is going into full rebuild. Don’t last year’s upset of the Oilers fool you. Chicago is going to sell Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews soon, and Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith are on their last legs.

While there are more than four playoff teams in this division, I don’t think anyone can bring it to the four I’m going to predict.

Playoff teams: Stars, Lightning, Hurricanes, Blue Jackets

Dark horse: Panthers

Many words and hours were spent putting this guide together, but that’s because the NHL is the most entertaining league in sports. It’s a shame that it’s still as niche as it is, but whatever. We’ve got a thrilling season of hockey ahead of us, and I, for one, can’t wait!

Final Predictions

Stanley Cup Finals: Avalanche vs. Stars

Champions: Colorado Avalanche

Hart Trophy: Nathan MacKinnon

Vezina Trophy: Braden Holtby

Calder Trophy: Gabriel Vilardi

Norris Trophy: Cale Makar

Art Ross Trophy: Jack Eichel

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