Some reckless (and not so reckless) predictions for the 2021 NHL season

Justin Cuthbert
·6 min read

Ready, set, sprint! It will be far from a traditional NHL season, but despite the restrictions, the concerns, the financial ramifications, the variables, and the fact we won’t have the opportunity to even blink over the next four months, it sets up to be one of the most fascinating, most exciting stretches of hockey imaginable. How it’s all going to shake down is anyone’s guess, but it wouldn’t be preview season without some reckless predictions. So here we go.

Connor McDavid wins the Rocket

It feels like this should be a very special season for the Edmonton Oilers captain, who just seems to always rise to the occasion in all-Canadian matchups, having scored comfortably over a point per game so far in his career versus every team he’s eligible to play against this regular season.

Able to perform under what might be ideal conditions the entire season should set up McDavid to do what he does best, which is to rack up point totals at an unmatched rate. But what it also might do is allow McDavid to accomplish something that has been outside his capabilities to do this point: challenge for the goal-scoring title. Auston Matthews, Patrik Laine, Elias Pettersson and teammate Leon Draisaitl will have the benefit of those same conditions, also competing in what’s expected to be a track meet each and every night in the North Division, but this is the year McDavid breaks out from a goal-scoring perspective, adding a brand-new piece of hardware to the collection (while likely adding another Hart Trophy as well).

EDMONTON, ALBERTA - AUGUST 07: Connor McDavid #97 of the Edmonton Oilers warms up before Game Four of the Western Conference Qualification Round at Rogers Place on August 07, 2020 in Edmonton, Alberta. (Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)
Is there a new trophy in McDavid's future? (Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

Colorado will regret not adding a netminder

Colorado leveraged its position beautifully this offseason, basically poaching an immensely valuable defenseman and solid offensive contributor in separate deals. But while Devon Toews and Brandon Saad might be important additions in filling out what’s growing into a crazy-talented roster, it doesn’t fix what hurt them in the bubble: a damaging lack of goaltending depth. It will again be the tandem of Philipp Grubauer and Pavel Francouz responsible for holding things down in net for the team many experts and oddsmakers have pegged as the Stanley Cup favorite. While the Avs do deserve that distinction, at least partly, the Joe Sakic-led management team may regret not allocating assets to bring in a netminder that could push Grubauer — or at least be there if he can’t.

Bruins win the NHL’s best division

There’s a reasonable argument for six teams to win the NHL’s toughest division following the required realignment due to restrictions on cross-border travel, but let’s not overthink this one: Boston is still a force and are worthy favorites in the East Division. Yes, things are a little different with Zdeno Chara and Torey Krug not patrolling what is a diminished blue line, but Charlie McAvoy should be ready to take another step forward with ownership of the unit. And honestly, it may not matter all that much with a forward group as deep as ever. But what sets up Boston for success in a condensed schedule more than anything is the goaltending tandem of Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak. Who can feel more comfortable with the goaltending matchup night in, and night out, than the Bruins?

Montreal makes the conference final

How different would the Montreal Canadiens’ offseason have looked if they weren’t gifted a spot in the NHL’s summer restart? It was not a good team at all, all season, but those short weeks seemed to provide tremendous value to the management team which saw, like everyone else, a window into what the roster could be with a play-in win over the Pittsburgh Penguins and a competitive loss to the Philadelphia Flyers. Seeing the progress in Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi and the capabilities that remain with Shea Weber and Carey Price, Bergevin aggressively pursued improvements to the roster, in some ways bringing in the personnel to fit the demands of oil in a division defined by water. Josh Anderson, Tyler Toffoli and Jake Allen will make this team better under the circumstances straight away, but this unit is better set up for success in the postseason, when everything tightens up and things get nasty. That might be enough in a division where every team has everything to prove when the postseason rolls around.

Hart wins the Vezina

TORONTO, ONTARIO - SEPTEMBER 05: Goaltender Carter Hart #79 of the Philadelphia Flyers walks back to the locker room after warm-up before Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Second Round of the 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Playoff between the New York Islanders and the Philadelphia Flyers at Scotiabank Arena on September 05, 2020 in Toronto, Ontario. (Photo by Chase Agnello-Dean/NHLI via Getty Images)
Cart Hart should be a workhorse in 2021. (Photo by Chase Agnello-Dean/NHLI via Getty Images)

Perhaps more than it has before, workload should mean something in the discussion around the Vezina Trophy. And no netminder seems to be in a better position to embrace and manage a considerable load than Philadelphia’s Carter Hart. Just 22 years old and the undisputed starter for a Philadelphia team capable of frustrating opponents, Hart continues on his upward trajectory and bags a major award to assist in negotiations on his first contract out of entry level.

Lafreniere wins the Calder

Is it a hot take to predict the No. 1 overall selection to win the Calder Trophy? Maybe, considering the amount of hype other rookies are receiving. Lafreniere is special, and he outperforms his rookie teammate Igor Shesterkin, and other candidates like Kirill Kaprisov, Tim Stuetzle, Nils Hoglander, Quinton Byfield, Trevor Zegras and Ilya Sorokin. Now is the time to take advantage of rare value with a legitimately special No. 1 overall selection.

Chicago finishes last

How the mighty have fallen. Jonathan Toews and Kirby Dach likely do not make the Blackhawks a postseason team, but they would at least help keep them competitive on most nights as part of one of the more dangerous offensive units. The Blackhawks want to rebuild — just look at their goaltending duo. It could be barren, in the basement, by the end, with Chicago having every reason to sell off assets in preparation for an upswing.

Tampa does it again

TAMPA, FLORIDA - SEPTEMBER 30: Alexander Volkov #92 and Nikita Kucherov #86 of the Tampa Bay Lightning hold the Stanley Cup above their head during the 2020 Stanley Cup Champion rally on September 30, 2020 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images)
Plan another parade? (Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images)

Why wouldn’t it break the way of the Tampa Bay Lightning? Listen, it’s not ideal to lose Nikita Kucherov for the entire season, I get that. But the fact that they have such a deep understanding of the former MVP’s injury, enough so that they can set an exact timeline for return, his injury actually works in Tampa’s benefit. Assuming they will survive one of the weakest divisions without a superstar (something they did under far more oppressive circumstances throughout their entire Stanley Cup run), the Lightning will have delayed their unfortunate and inevitable disbandment by one season, engineering an opportunity to ice a roster that exceeds what should be allowed under the rules that govern the game at a time when it matters most. Tampa’s division is manageable, their path is incredibly friendly, they will be back and stronger than ever if they do indeed have this solid of a handle on Kucherov’s injury. The Lightning should be the clear favorites to repeat as Stanley Cup champions.

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