Who is EXCITED for the 2021-22 NHL season to start??? I, for one, cannot wait! But with the beginning of the new season comes many questions. Who is going to be the best team? Will Tampa 3-peat this season? How bad is Buffalo going to be and what happens with Eichel? While we wait for the answers to these questions to be answered throughout the season, lets take a look at the divisions and make some predictions prior to the season starting. I will give my early favorite and one dark horse to win each division! Get ready for me to blow your mind!!!
Winner: Boston Bruins
I was all over the Bruins in the playoffs last year and they let me down when they played the Islanders. The Atlantic division is going to be the toughest division in the NHL this year! This division has Tampa, Boston, Florida, Toronto, and Montreal. These were all playoff teams last year with Tampa and Montreal being the teams that played in the finals. This does not take into consideration the up and coming teams in Ottawa and Detroit who are not going to be easy wins for anyone this year. So why did I pick Boston? Boston did a lot to improve this off-season with the additions of Ullmark and Foligno. Ullmark should be a BIG upgrade in net over Tuukka Rask, who did not play well in the Islanders series. They also resigned Hall and Reilly. I expect Swayman to pick up where he left off as the number 2 goaltender this season and be given more opportunities. He only played in 10 games last season but was lights out. I expect Swayman’s games played to increase to around the 30-35 games mark this season with it being a full 82 game schedule. The big question for Boston this season will be how does the second line look with the loss of Krejci? I expect this to be a very tight race between Tampa and Boston but with the turnover that Tampa had on their roster this season Boston will squeak out the division!!
Dark Horse: Florida Panthers
I am not sure if I can call the Panthers a “dark horse” or not as they did finish second in their division last season, but this division is just stacked this year. Florida is getting a huge defensive piece back in Ekblad who is returning from the devastating knee injury. The Panthers also went out and traded for Sam Reinhart to bolster their offense. Bobrovsky will be the number one goalie for the Panthers to start the season after Driedger was selected by the Kraken in the expansion draft. Coming into this season the number two goaltender will be the up and coming stud Spencer Knight. Knight will be the Panthers’ franchise goalie within the next two years. Knight got to play in the playoffs last season against Tampa and played very well! In the two games he played against Tampa he had a 93.3 save percentage and a 2.06 goals against average. Look for the Panthers to give him a lot more opportunities in net this season. The Panthers will be in the mix for the number 1 seed in the division this year!
Winner: New York Islanders
This is the Islanders year! The Islanders were leading their division last year until they lost Anders Lee. The Islanders still took the Lightning to game 7 in the second round and lost a 1-0 game on a shorthanded goal. This is the year that the Islanders will get over the hump. They still have one of the best goaltending tandems in the league with Sorokin and Varlamov. They are also one of the best defensive teams in the league returning their top pairing of Pelech and Pulock. The Islanders also added some veteran presence by signing Chara and Parise to one-year contracts. The Islanders were already very good last year but this year they have a healthy Anders Lee and Sorokin is now in his second full season in the league. The Pens and the Capitals will not allow the Islanders to win this division easily but they are just too good of a team!
Dark Horse: New York Rangers
This is the true definition of a “dark horse” pick. The Rangers were in the playoff race right up until the end of last season. They are returning their goal-tending combo of Shesterkin and Georgiev. Their chances this season will be hinged on the play of these two. The Rangers return their core players this season in Panarin, Zibanejad, and Fox. In the off-season the Rangers added Barclay Goodrow, Sammy Blais, and Ryan Reaves. The addition of Reeves is a direct result of the incident last season involving Wilson. I am one of many fans that are looking forward to that matchup this upcoming season. Goodrow is a huge pick up for the Rangers and should be an upgrade over Buchnevich. This division consists of the Hurricanes, Pens, Capitals, Rangers, Islanders, Flyers, Blue Jackets, and Devils. The Hurricanes, Pens, and Capitals have all taken a step back this off-season, but will still be good. The Devils could challenge The Rangers for the title of “dark horse” as well but I see them being another year or two away.
Winner: Colorado Avalanche
To me this is a no brainer. That does not mean that the Avs will run away with the division but they are too good to not win it. The Avs come into the 21-22 season as the defending Presidents Trophy winner and all they did was get better in the off-season. This off-season did not come without some losses. They lost Soderberg to a European team, they traded Graves to the Devils, and lost Saad in free agency. The biggest loss that the Avs suffered was losing their Vezina finalist, Grubauer, to the Seattle Kraken. I have never been a believer in Grubauer as a goaltender to lead his team to a Stanley Cup. He has benefitted from playing in front of a very good defensive team and a team that also held the best Corsi in the league last season. So how did the Avs get better with this loss? They went out and traded for Darcy Kuemper. Kuemper played great for a terrible team last season in Arizona. Kuemper on a better team, like the Avs, should be a great fit. The only concern with Kuemper is his health. If Kuemper stays healthy this will be the year they finally make a big push in the playoffs!
Dark Horse: Chicago Blackhawks
The Blackhawks had a BIG off-season. I am not sure if there was a team in the league this off-season that did as much as they did to improve. One of their biggest upgrades was “addition by subtraction”, the trade of Duncan Keith. Keith has been one of the best defense-men in the league for years, but his skills have dropped off tremendously over the last few years and he had a horrible contract on the books for the Blackhawks. They traded him to the Oilers for Caleb Jones. They then went out and traded for Seth Jones, Marc-Andre Fleury, and Tyler Johnson. This is another team that was in the playoff hunt until the last few games of the season. If Fleury can have another Vezina caliber season with the other upgrades on the team, they can compete and have an outside chance at winning the division.
Winner: Vegas Golden Knights
This is the weakest division in the league and the Knights are by far the best overall team in this division. The Oilers are the only other legitimate team in this division. I can see the Kings, Kraken, and maybe the Canucks fighting for the other two playoff spots, but they will be fighting for the bottom two spots. This division is truly a two-horse race with the Knights easily being the best team! The loss of Fleury is going to put a lot of pressure on Lehner to be the man to lead this team. This was the best defensive team in the league last year and lost out on the President’s trophy in the last game of the year. They did not do a whole lot to improve this off-season, but they did make sure to bring back some of their bigger named free agents. The Knights have to figure out their power play in order to be a real threat in the playoffs this year as that was the biggest reason they lost last year. Edmonton did not do enough to be able to out play the Knights for 82 games, so this is Vegas’ division to lose.
Dark Horse: Seattle Kraken
I will start this by saying the only team in this division with any chance to win it outside of Vegas is Edmonton, but I cannot consider the second best team in the division to be a “dark horse”. Seattle will not have the season that Vegas did their first year, but they will still be fun to watch and should compete. They have decent goal-tending in Grubauer and Driedger. They also have some other quality pieces in Jeremy Lauzon, Yanni Gourde, Joonas Donskoi, and Jordan Eberle. This team has enough skill to be competitive and potentially make the playoffs but they will need to prove a lot of people wrong to win this division. We will get to see exactly how good Grubauer is when he does not get to play behind a great defensive team. This team is going to play a very physical style of hockey. I am anxious to see how their first season plays out!
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