The 2021-22 NHL season is being called a return to normalcy.
Last season was an unprecedented one for the NHL due to the COVID-19 pandemic: Four geographically realigned divisions, including one solely comprising Canadian teams; teams playing only opponents within those divisions; and a new playoff format that eschewed wild-card teams.
But it ended just like the previous season had inside the Edmonton bubble, with the Tampa Bay Lightning hoisting the Stanley Cup.
The Bolts will go for the three-peat in a season that’ll have 82 games in front of capacity crowds, interconference play and the same wild-card playoff format the league has had since 2014. The only big change: There are now 32 teams, as the Seattle Kraken have been released on the Pacific Division, forcing the Arizona Coyotes to relocate to the Central Division.
Here’s a look at all 32 teams for the upcoming season. We’ll cover the players added and lost, the best- and worst-case scenarios for each team, the player we most want to watch, the X factor that could make or break the season, and a bold prediction for every club.
Our season preview is also the first edition of our ESPN power rankings, which provide the order in which these teams are presented. The rankings were formulated through votes from ESPN hockey hosts, analysts and reporters, and will appear weekly on ESPN.com.
Note: Thanks as always to our friends at CapFriendly for salary and contract data. Advanced stats are from Hockey Reference, Natural Stat Trick and Evolving Hockey. Fantasy outlook for each team is courtesy of Victoria Matiash and Sean Allen.
Last season: 39-13-4, lost in second round
Key players lost: G Philipp Grubauer, LW Brandon Saad, C Carl Soderberg, LW Matt Calvert, RW Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, G Devan Dubnyk, D Patrik Nemeth, D Conor Timmins, D Ryan Graves, F Joonas Donskoi (expansion draft)
Most fascinating player: Cale Makar makes magic. He’s the most offensively creative defenseman to hit the NHL since the halcyon days of Erik Karlsson. Makar reached point-per-game status in 44 games last season. He finished second for the Norris and is the favorite for the award entering this season. Perhaps you’ve seen him on those highlight reels where the analyst yells “Now stop it right there!” so they can describe how Makar is about to deke an opponent out of his skates with a twirl at the blue line. And he’s only in his third NHL season.
Best case: The Avalanche win the Stanley Cup for the first time since 2001, and Nathan MacKinnon wins the Conn Smythe as playoff MVP. Because if this version of the Avs is going to break through and win the championship, we have to imagine the player who looked like he could no longer stomach postseason defeat last summer will be the one to lead it there.
Worst case: The Avalanche follow another outstanding regular season with another second-round exit, thanks to the inexperience of their depth players and the discovery that Darcy Kuemper isn’t Philipp Grubauer. This leads to the kind of rash reactions that teams unable to “get over the hump” make … like firing their head coach.
X factor: Where did the Colorado forward depth go? Brandon Saad (St. Louis), Joonas Donskoi (Seattle) and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare (Tampa Bay) are all playing elsewhere. Matt Calvert retired. Obviously there are impressive reinforcements, such as rookie Alex Newhook and Mikhail Maltsev, who came over from the Devils in the Ryan Graves trade. But this is a team with Stanley Cup aspirations. You’d want a few more players who are battle-tested to that end in your bottom six — or at least ones who have a bit more left in the tank than Darren Helm. Such is life when you’re suddenly spending $16 million against the cap for Makar and Gabriel Landeskog.
Fantasy outlook: With both MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen legitimate top-10 fantasy forwards, Landeskog rounds out the best top unit in hockey and serves as a steady fantasy presence worth grabbing in Rounds 7-10 in most conventional leagues. More on fantasy outlook
Bold prediction: The fourth time’s the charm for MacKinnon, who wins his first Hart Trophy in his fourth time as a finalist.
Last season: 36-17-3, won Stanley Cup
Most fascinating player: We last saw Nikita Kucherov delivering a shirtless, beer-soaked interview after the Lightning won their second straight Stanley Cup. (Personal favorite line: Him shouting “buy new microphone!” to a struggling Zoom interviewer.) He had a playoff-best 32 points in 23 games after missing the entire regular season following a hip labrum tear surgery, the rehab time for which was about five months (of open salary cap space). We haven’t seen Kuch ply his trade in the regular season since 2019-20. In his past two regular seasons, the 28-year-old Russian was second to Leon Draisaitl in total points (213) and captured the Hart Trophy as league MVP in 2018-19. Welcome back to the regular season, Kucherov. You were missed.
Best case: The Lightning give the NHL its first three-peat Stanley Cup champion in 40 years — and they’ve got a legitimate chance to do just that. Victor Hedman, Andrei Vasilevskiy, Kucherov, Brayden Point and Steven Stamkos are the foundation. Ryan McDonagh, Ondrej Palat and Alex Killorn are the load-bearing supports. But the key to Tampa Bay’s three-peat potential is that their past two championship seasons were 70 regular-season games and 56 regular-season games, respectively. It’s a lot of hockey, to be sure, and without traditional offseasons. But it’s not the full grind that other teams have experienced in chasing a dynasty.
Worst case: It turns out that the past two seasons were a grind, and the Lightning suffer significant injuries to key players at the wrong time of the season … rather than being able to stash them on long-term injured reserve and make do without them, as is tradition. But there are also changes in personnel for the Lightning that could alter their recipe enough to cost them when the games matter most.
X factor: If you ranked the top five on-ice reasons for the Lightning winning back-to-back Cups, the line of Gourde, Coleman and Goodrow would make the cut. Constructed in 2020 thanks to two aggressive trades by GM Julien BriseBois, the trio had the ability to shut down opponents while hitting the scoreboard themselves. The goals they generated were frequently the biggest in a series: Think Gourde’s Game 7 shorthanded goal against the Islanders or Coleman’s goal with two seconds left in the second period of Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final. The Lightning have to find another combination that gives them a viable third line because this group will be sorely missed.
Fantasy outlook: Don’t sleep on Palat, who somehow is always underrated in drafts. He was a top-50 fantasy play last season. More on fantasy outlook
Bold prediction: For the third straight season, the Lightning are the best team in the Atlantic Division, but they do not win their division.
The Tampa Bay Lightning look to become the first NHL team to three-peat since the Islanders in the early 80’s.
Last season: 40-14-2, lost in Stanley Cup semifinals
Most fascinating player: Robin Lehner has been one of the most talked-about players of the NHL preseason for what he has said: Protesting the Sabres’ treatment of his friend Jack Eichel, calling coaches like Philadelphia’s Alain Vigneault bullying “dinosaurs,” and accusing NHL teams of giving players pain medication without prescriptions.
But he’ll also be one of the most talked-about players of the regular season, as he’s tasked with leading the Golden Knights to a Stanley Cup championship. There’s no Fleury there as competition — or as a safety net. It’s the Robin Lehner Show now.
Best case: The Golden Knights win the Stanley Cup. They’re considered one of the favorites to hoist the chalice, having built a strong defense led by Alex Pietrangelo and Shea Theodore; two solid top lines, one led to Mark Stone and the other the “Golden Misfits” originals featuring Jonathan Marchessault, Reilly Smith and William Karlsson; and improved depth at forward with the additions of Patrick and Dadonov. Add in Lehner’s solid playoff performances, and the Knights finally break through to win owner Bill Foley his Cup.
Worst case: The Knights make the playoffs but simply can’t get over the hump to a championship. The depth at forward doesn’t come through. They end up missing Fleury. The center depth is exposed by conference rivals … unless, of course, they do the typically aggressive thing for the Knights and trade for Jack Eichel.
X factor: Trading for Nolan Patrick was a gamble worth taking. The Knights weren’t sold on Cody Glass, so they shipped him to the Predators for Patrick, whom Nashville acquired from Philadelphia in the Ryan Ellis trade. A battle with a migraine condition took a season away from the 2017 No. 2 overall pick. He was trending toward being a “bust” for the Flyers with just nine points in 52 games last season, his role limited by Vigneault.
But the trade to Vegas means a reunion with GM Kelly McCrimmon, who had him in the WHL with the Brandon Wheat Kings. Patrick turning his career around would be a great story. It would also help the Golden Knights’ center depth considerably as they chase the Cup.
Fantasy outlook: Defenseman Alec Martinez will be challenged to reproduce his unprecedented combo of 0.6 points/game and 3.17 shots/game. If drafted too high, Martinez might disappoint fantasy players hoping for a carbon-copy showing. More on fantasy outlook
Bold prediction: Theodore is a Norris Trophy finalist.
Last season: 32-17-7, lost in Stanley Cup semifinals
Most fascinating player: Parise is 37 years old and had 18 points in 45 games last season. His time as a game-breaking left wing is over. But there’s just something about this long-awaited reunion between Parise and the general manager who drafted him, Lou Lamoriello, that’s intriguing. The Islanders have him skating with center Jean-Gabriel Pageau on the third line, which is certainly indicative of the team’s depth this season.
Best case: The Islanders win the Stanley Cup for the first time since the 1980s dynasty. This was a team that lost a one-goal Game 7 to the Lightning in the Stanley Cup semifinals last season. This is a better team than that one, if only because Anders Lee is back and healthy. The veteran additions Parise and Chara blend well with what’s already here. It’s a veteran team with the best coach in the NHL in Barry Trotz, and one that has a lane to win the Cup this season.
Worst case: Trotz’s teams have a floor. They’ve made the playoffs for seven straight seasons, including all three seasons he has been with the Islanders. But they might also have a ceiling, in that the Islanders have made the conference final in consecutive seasons but haven’t been able to get through the Lightning to play for the chalice. The Islanders are a playoff team, and anything short of that would be a major disappointment. Worst case? They bump their heads on that ceiling again.
X factor: The opening of UBS Arena this season is an X factor on two fronts. While the arena is being completed, the Islanders begin the season with 13 games on the road, including swings through the U.S. southwest and Canada. How they react to that stretch could set the tone for the rest of the season. But there’s also the arena itself. Anyone who attended an Islanders playoff game last season understood how the energy of Nassau Coliseum was like having an extra attacker on the ice. We’ve seen the Islanders in buildings where the vibe wasn’t good — cough, Brooklyn, cough — so what will the new barn contribute to the effort?
Fantasy outlook: There is no doubt Ilya Sorokin and Semyon Varlamov could cancel out each other’s fantasy potential by splitting time. While Varlamov was awesome to start last season, Sorokin was the better goalie late in the season and into the playoffs. More on fantasy outlook
Last season: 33-16-7, lost in second round
Most fascinating player: Linus Ullmark. Picture an actor who’s the best thing in a string of terrible movies who suddenly gets cast to lead a Marvel franchise. That’s basically Ullmark, 28, who improved every season in Buffalo even as the Sabres were devolving into primordial ooze. Well-respected in the goalie analytics community, Ullmark was given a four-year deal worth $5 million annually and gets a chance to shine behind one of the NHL’s most consistent defensive machines. If things don’t click? The B’s have Jeremy Swayman, 22, challenging for playing time, and free agent Tuukka Rask rehabbing from hip surgery, ready to rappel from the rafters midseason if the opportunity arises.
Best case: The Bruins overcome some key personnel losses, get peak performances from their forwards and challenge for the Stanley Cup again while defiantly refusing to let the window close on their time as a contender.
Worst case: The losses of David Krejci and Rask are too dramatic to overcome, the bottom six can’t find chemistry and the Bruins miss the playoffs in a competitive division. And then Patrice Bergeron decides to retire rather than sign a new contract. Indeed, the darkest timeline.
X factor: Finding a No. 2 center who can do a reasonable percentage of what Krejci did. Krejci was an essential ingredient in the Bruins’ secret recipe, giving solid performances in the regular season before transforming into Playoff Krejci every postseason. (His 35 goals tied him for 10th in the playoffs since 2010.) With Krejci leaving to play in his native Czech Republic, the Bruins are looking for Charlie Coyle to ascend to the No. 2 center spot, flanked by Taylor Hall and Craig Smith. But as Coyle has healed from offseason knee surgeries, rookie Jack Studnicka has gotten a look there in the preseason. Neither can replace Krejci, but one of them (or someone else) has to fill the void as best as possible.
Fantasy outlook: Charlie McAvoy dominated as a power-play quarterback in the playoffs (best points per 60 minutes on PP) and should finally take that mantle in the regular season. With David Pastrnak in his prime, and both Bergeron and Brad Marchand still looking strong, the sky is the limit for McAvoy this season. More on fantasy outlook
Bold prediction: McAvoy wins the Norris Trophy. The 23-year-old finished fifth last season for the award. The only drag on his candidacy has been his point production, which has been stellar at 5-on-5. He’ll get more power-play reps this season, and as a result, he’ll have the numbers to go along with his status as one of the best all-around defensemen in the NHL. Plus, a Norris win would certainly come at the right time, what with Charlie Mac needing a new contract and all.
Last season: 35-14-7, lost in first round
Most fascinating player: No one has scored more goals (88) in the past two seasons than Auston Matthews. The 24-year-old center has entered his dominant, scoring-at-will years, validating those comparisons to Mario Lemieux that he earned in his early NHL seasons. But obviously what makes Matthews fascinating — besides his style-icon, Justin Bieber-adjacent off-ice life — is that his statistical dominance is overshadowed by his team’s lack of postseason success, and that Matthews has contributed to that dearth. He’s first in the regular season (0.72) and 68th in the postseason (0.25) in goals per game. Heavy is the head that wears the crown, especially when one is left staring at their skates after another opening-round elimination.
Best case: The Toronto Maple Leafs get championship performances from their star players, favorable playoff matchups, a combination of great team defense and competent goaltending, and a lot of luck to win their first Stanley Cup championship since 1967.
Worst case: The Toronto Maple Leafs get underwhelming playoff performances from their star players, are bounced in the first round, and the pressure finally fractures the Leafs’ “core four” players.
X factor: There comes a time for every “cursed” franchise when the team either overcomes its self-defeating mental obstacles or it doesn’t. It’s not diminishing the play of an opponent to say that the Toronto Maple Leafs will go as far as the Toronto Maple Leafs will allow themselves to go. As assistant coach Paul MacLean recently said on the Amazon Prime “All Or Nothing” docuseries: “They got demons in their heads. They got them in their car. They got them under their beds. Everywhere they turn, there’s a demon. The biggest obstacle this team has right now is itself.”
Fantasy outlook: You know Matthews and Mitchell Marner are fantasy stars, but the question is who joins them and benefits? Ritchie looks like the early candidate to replace Hyman on the top line, and he fits the mold nicely for a potential breakout. More on fantasy outlook
Bold prediction: If the Maple Leafs fail to advance past the first round, then this will be GM Kyle Dubas’ last season in Toronto. Rightly or wrongly.
Last season: 37-14-5, lost in first round
Key players added: F Sam Reinhart
Most fascinating player: Spencer Knight, 20, is the Panthers’ goalie of the future. But it’s an odd future that also includes 33-year-old Sergei Bobrovsky, who has a nearly untradeable contract ($10 million AAV, five years remaining, full no-movement clause). Knight showed in very limited time last season that he has the potential to be a dynamic NHL goaltender. How often do we see him in 2021-22? Can he supplant Bobrovsky as the primary starter as a rookie? And if so, then what?
Best case: The Panthers are even more of an offensive juggernaut than they were in 2020-21, get better defense with a healthy Aaron Ekblad in front of Bobrovsky and Knight, win the Atlantic and challenge for their first Stanley Cup Final appearance since 1996.
Worst case: An injury to either Aleksander Barkov or Jonathan Huberdeau, a regression from No. 2 center Sam Bennett and mediocre goaltending leave the Panthers outside the top three in the Atlantic — and outside the wild-card bubble.
X factor: The Sams could turn a very good Panthers team into a great one. Bennett, acquired at the trade deadline last season, had 15 points in 10 games for Florida, earning him a four-year contract extension. He clicked well with Huberdeau on the second line, and the Panthers helped balance out that offense by acquiring Reinhart from the Sabres to play on Barkov’s wing. He has broken 20 goals in five of his past six NHL seasons. If Bennett builds on last season — and helps improve the Panthers’ penalty kill, which was 18th in 2020-21 — and Reinhart thrives on the top line … look out.
Fantasy outlook: It’s easy to want rookie Knight to get his chance and run with it as the goaltender for the Panthers, but there are 10 million reasons (in dollars) that Bobrovsky can’t be ignored completely. More on fantasy outlook
Bold prediction: Reinhart breaks 30 goals for the first time in his career, skating with Barkov and helping the Panthers’ power play improve from 15th overall in 2020-21 to the top eight in the NHL.
Last season: 36-12-8, lost in second round
Most fascinating player: The 2019-20 season felt like the dawn of Andrei Svechnikov. He had 24 goals in 68 regular-season games and four goals in six playoff games before an injury ended his time in the bubble. Not coincidentally, the rest of the Hurricanes left soon after as well. Maybe it was injury rehab or the weirdness of a pandemic season, but Svechnikov regressed in 2020-21 (including a career-low 10.2% shooting percentage). Creating chances isn’t the problem for him; finishing them has been the issue. He has seen time with Jordan Staal as his center this preseason, which is not good. He has also seen time with Sebastian Aho, which is ideal. This is a superstar in waiting, and admittedly we’re getting impatient.
Best case: The Hurricanes are often mentioned with the New York Islanders as the two teams with the best chances of making the playoffs out of the Metro. Rod Brind’Amour‘s teams have never finished with less than a .596 points percentage, which translates to around 97 points. If the personnel changes don’t sour the chemistry — on and off the ice — that has defined his teams in Carolina, this team could emerge from the Metro and reach the third round of the playoffs for the first time since 2019.
Worst case: The team’s offseason bets on its defense and goaltending all go bust, and the Hurricanes find themselves just outside the playoff bubble in a tightly packed division.
X factor: For a player whose positive analytics have defined him in the NHL, it’s hard to quantify exactly what the loss of Dougie Hamilton will mean to this team. The Canes had the 10th-best power play in the league with Hamilton running point for the past three seasons. He was ninth in points per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 in that span (1.26). How much does his loss affect Jaccob Slavin, his primary defensive partner? While his off-ice behavior overshadows his ability, Tony DeAngelo will make up for some of that offensive loss. But for many reasons, he’s not Dougie Hamilton.
Fantasy outlook: Hamilton leaves behind some massive potential for fantasy points on the blue line. You can’t help but think DeAngelo has the right skills to step in, but you have to overlook the off-ice stuff from the past couple of years. More on fantasy outlook
Bold prediction: Andersen puts up the best numbers of any goaltender on the Hurricanes, Red Wings or Maple Leafs.
Last season: 36-15-5, lost in first round
Key players added: G Vitek Vanecek
Most fascinating player: Evgeny Kuznetsov is still a member of the Capitals, which is a bit of a surprise. He had a terrible 2020-21 season: 29 points in 41 games, marred by two bouts with COVID-19. He was one of the players who was suspended for breaking COVID-19 protocols. Please recall in September 2019, he was suspended three games by the NHL for testing positive for cocaine while representing the Russian national team at the world championships. All of this led to trade speculation, but he remains with Washington.
“It was a hard year for him. Things didn’t go his way in a number of areas, and he wants to show people a response year,” Capitals GM Brian MacLellan said. “I think everybody expects more. Teammates, management, ownership. We know there’s a really good player in there. He was given a good contract and played well. He just had a bad year.”
Best case: The Capitals make the playoff cut, Nicklas Backstrom plays through his hip issues to the best of his abilities, and Washington ends its string of first-round postseason exits. Alex Ovechkin hits 50 goals again, continuing his pursuit of Wayne Gretzky’s all-time record.
Worst case: The Capitals miss the playoffs with a roster that’s past its prime and over-compensated, as goalies Ilya Samsonov and Vanecek play below-average hockey behind a leaky defensive team.
X factor: Anthony Mantha, 27, arrived from the Red Wings in the Jakub Vrana trade and had eight points in 14 games with the Capitals last season. He’s a tenacious forechecker and should slot in with Ovechkin on the top line and on the team’s top power-play unit. Could he end up as the team’s second-leading scorer?
Fantasy outlook: How much faith should we have in a leading trio on offense in which each member will turn 34 or older this season? That’s a key question when it comes to Ovechkin, Backstrom and T.J. Oshie. They should be fine for another season, but it would not be a shock to start seeing a drop in what has been elite production for the better part of 15 years. More on fantasy outlook
Bold prediction: The Capitals miss the playoffs.
Last season: 35-19-2, lost in first round
Most fascinating player: There hasn’t been a more maligned transaction this offseason than the Oilers acquiring Keith from the Blackhawks. Keith had 15 points in 54 games last season. The last time he received votes for the Norris Trophy was in 2016-17. Analytically, he was one of the worst players in the NHL in 2020-21, with a league-low minus-7.8 goals scored above average. The fact that he has been paired with Ceci this preseason feels like an attack on the advanced stats community.
Best case: Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl are the top two scorers in the NHL for the third straight season and carry an uneven roster to a playoff spot, despite glaring inefficiencies on the Oilers’ back end. Free-agent addition Hyman adds a net-front presence and north-south game that enhances the top six. Keith somehow finds some of his old game while skating second-paring minutes. Goalie Mike Smith finishes with a save percentage above .920.
Worst case: Not even McDavid, Draisaitl, Hyman, Jesse Puljujärvi and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins are enough to overcome the Oilers’ depth issues on defense, and their goaltending finally turning into a pumpkin.
X factor: This offseason featured a goalie carousel that saw 18 teams make a change to their tandems. The Oilers were not one of those teams, as they ran it back with Mikko Koskinen and Smith, the latter of whom turns 40 in March. Smith was inexplicably excellent last regular season, with 15.8 goals saved above average, a .923 save percentage and .633 quality start percentage. Koskinen (.899, minus-2.2 goals saved above average) was not. The Oilers have been on borrowed time with this duo, and many are expecting it’ll run out this season. Then again, many said the same thing last season.
Fantasy outlook: Defenseman Tyson Barrie is of exceptional value in leagues that count power-play points at a premium — he fell one short of Victor Hedman for the blue-line lead in that category last season. More on fantasy outlook
Bold prediction: Connor regresses from his 1.88 points-per-game average in the North Division last season and posts only 120 points for a career high.
Last season: 37-16-3, lost in first round
Most fascinating player: Sidney Crosby, 34, enters his 17th NHL season needing 14 goals to reach 500 in his career. He’s also seeking to win a playoff round for the first time since 2018. That drought is not due to any lack of impact from Sid, who has been a point-per-game player in every season of his career and finished fourth in the MVP voting last season. He’s going to miss the start of the season after wrist surgery, but will be back within the first month.
Best case: The Penguins do what they do best, which is manage to make the postseason despite injuries to significant players. Case in point: They were 21-11-1 with Evgeni Malkin in the lineup last season. Very impressive. Without him? They were 16-5-2. Crosby will miss a few games. Malkin could miss two months after knee surgery. But Pittsburgh has always managed to play through this adversity, looking inward for solutions and defying those expecting that their time as a contender is over. So the best case is to make the playoffs, hope for good health in the postseason and really hope for better goaltending than what they received in the first round last season.
Worst case: Either one of two things happen. The Penguins could make the playoffs again after a promising regular season, only to have Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith unable to provide the kind of goaltending you need to win a playoff series. Or the Penguins get off to a rough start and can’t recover in a competitive division, missing the playoffs ahead of the most critical offseason in recent memory as Malkin, Kris Letang and Bryan Rust all hit unrestricted free agency.
X factor: The Penguins scored 36 power-play goals last season, and their 23.7% conversation rate was fourth best in the NHL. The problem is that their penalty kill, the fifth worst in the NHL, gave up 35 of them. This was an unexpected change for the Penguins, who ranked ninth on the PK (80.8%) in the two preceding seasons combined. The good news is that the penalty kill improved as the season progressed. They’ll miss Tanev, who is now in Seattle, but players like Brian Boyle and McGinn could continue to turn the unit around.
Fantasy outlook: Letang remains one of the best at his position when healthy — and he was last season. That said, he’s now 34 and the absence of Crosby and Malkin will take some juice out of the power play that pads his stats. More on fantasy outlook
Last season: 27-20-9, lost in first round
Most fascinating player: Vladimir Tarasenko asked for a trade earlier this year because he was displeased with the way his multiple shoulder surgeries were handled by the Blues. Trust between player and team was fractured because of it. But the offseason passed with no trade, and Tarasenko remains a member of the Blues. He arrived in camp in good shape, with a positive attitude, hoping to contribute more than just the 34 regular-season games he has played over the past two seasons combined because of shoulder problems.
Best case: The Blues do as the Blues do: get contributions from throughout their lineup, with stars Ryan O’Reilly and David Perron shouldering most of the offensive load. The deep defense, led by a healthy Colton Parayko, drives play with strong skaters like Justin Faulk and Torey Krug; and goalie Jordan Binnington has another solid regular season for a playoff team.
Worst case: The Blues remain staggeringly average. Their goals per game last season: 2.98. Their goals against per game last season: 2.98. Their power play was good. Their penalty kill was not. But the true worst case is that they make the playoffs and watch Binnington struggle in the postseason again, where he has lost nine straight games.
X factor: The personnel changes at forward. Schwartz was signed by the Kraken, ending a 10-season run in St. Louis. Hoffman, Zach Sanford and Blais are all in new environs. Coming aboard are Buchnevich, the offensive play driver from the Rangers; Saad, late of the Avalanche, who brings consistent offense on the wings; and prospect Jake Neighbours, a tenacious forechecker, who earned his spot during training camp.
Fantasy outlook: In their present state, the Blues are one of the league’s tougher teams to scrutinize through the fantasy microscope. Outside of the top forward pairing of Ryan O’Reilly — who provides a high-impact fantasy punch in leagues that celebrate more than just scoring — and last season’s overachieving David Perron, their lineup is shuffled around more than most. More on fantasy outlook
Bold prediction: Robert Thomas stays healthy and finally has the breakout offensive season for which the Blues have been yearning.
Last season: 30-23-3, lost in second round
Most fascinating player: Connor Hellebuyck is either the first- or second-best goalie in the NHL, depending on how one feels about how Andrei Vasilevskiy benefits from what’s in front of him in Tampa. The Jets are 55-39-8 with him in net over the past two seasons. They’re 12-12-1 when he doesn’t play. The takeaway here might be that he plays a lot, and that would be true: Hellebuyck has led the league in games played in three of the past four seasons. But you want your best player to appear as much as possible, right? His profile is only going to grow as the potential starter for the U.S. at the 2022 Winter Olympics.
Best case: The additions of Dillon and Schmidt solidify a defense that has been shaky for two seasons. They get peak performances from their top line — Kyle Connor, Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler — and see continued progression to star status from Nikolaj Ehlers. Hellebuyck does the rest, and the Jets end up a surprising conference title contender in the West.
Worst case: The Jets’ defense is only moderately better, regression hits Ehlers, and the top line starts showing its age. Or Hellebuyck gets hurt, in which case they better just pack up the tents and move on to next season.
X factor: After looking like a No. 1 center in the bubble playoffs for the Blue Jackets, Pierre-Luc Dubois couldn’t build on that performance last season. He wanted out of Columbus but was traded to Winnipeg, and his season never really came together thereafter, with 20 points in 41 games. If he finds his stride playing behind Scheifele to give Winnipeg two potent lines, they could really make some noise in the Western Conference.
Fantasy outlook: From a fantasy view, your 2021-22 Jets are fairly similar to the 2020-21 version. Top-line forwards Blake Wheeler, Mark Scheifele and Kyle Connor — watch him score 40 this year — are tried, tested and true assets you can take to the proverbial fantasy bank. More on fantasy outlook
Bold prediction: Ehlers is the real deal, and hits the 35-goal mark.
Last season: 27-23-6, missed playoffs
Most fascinating player: Mika Zibanejad, 28, followed his best NHL season (1.32 points per game) with a solid 50 points in 56 games last season. Artemi Panarin drives one scoring line, and Zibanejad is tasked with driving the other. But there are some interesting wrinkles to the center’s season. He lost his primary winger in Buchnevich, who was traded to the Blues. He has one year left on his contract before unrestricted free agency, and the possibility of him remaining with the Rangers could be tied to the Jack Eichel sweepstakes.
Best case: New head coach Gerard Gallant gets the Rangers to play playoff-caliber defense in front of goalies Igor Shesterkin and Alexandar Georgiev, and New York makes the playoff tournament for the first time since 2017.
Worst case: The Rangers improve but miss the playoffs again, as the additions they made to add toughness are actually an anchor on the team’s upward mobility in the standings. Worst of the worst case: Shesterkin struggles with injuries again after signing the second-richest contract for a goalie in NHL history.
X factor: Alexis Lafrenière and Kaapo Kakko were drafted first and second overall in 2020 and 2019, respectively. The sky’s the limit on their potential. But Kakko, 20, hasn’t scored more than 10 goals in a season yet, and Lafrenière, who turns 20 on Oct. 11, had 21 points in 56 games during his rookie season. If either player, or both, level up significantly this season, so could the Rangers.
Fantasy outlook: Per Natural Stat Trick, Shesterkin led all NHL starters in high-danger save percentage and looks ready to challenge for the fantasy equivalent of the Vezina Trophy. More on fantasy outlook
Last season: 35-16-5, lost in first round
Most fascinating player: One of the offseason’s most overrated dramas was Kirill Kaprizov‘s contract negotiation with the Wild, which ended with him signing a five-year deal with a $9 million annual cap hit. He was always coming back. The Wild were always going to pay him. He even said there was “no chance” he was going to follow through on the threat to play in the KHL, with GM Bill Guerin quipping, “You shouldn’t answer that. You’re going to blow it for the next contract negotiation.” Putting this all behind us, “Dolla Dolla Kirill Y’all” had 51 points in 55 games to win rookie of the year honors, and infused the Wild with a jolt of enthusiasm in the same way a young Alex Ovechkin did for the Capitals 16 years ago.
Best case: The Wild continue to build on their impressive 2020-21 season, which saw their offense (3.21 goals per game) produce more than expected, and their defense play well in front of goaltending that often didn’t (2.84 goals against per game). Kaprizov graduates from the Calder race to the Hart race, forming a formidable line with Joel Eriksson Ek and Mats Zuccarello, and the rest of the forwards play well enough for another playoff berth.
Worst case: Kaprizov has a sophomore slump, goalies Cam Talbot and Kaapo Kahkonen once again can’t match the defensive effort in front of them, and the Wild get swallowed up in a competitive Central Division to just miss the playoff cut.
X factor: Matthew Boldy and Marco Rossi are both top names in the Wild prospect pool, and could really make an impact for a team that’s left wanting for a little more help at the center spot (Hence those Jack Eichel rumors from last season. Are they still interested?). Boldy, a Boston College product, got 14 games in the AHL last season to cut his teeth. He’s a fast, point-producing skater. Rossi had his rookie season derailed by COVID-19-related symptoms. An outstanding playmaker, he was in the mix to make the team in the preseason. If either earn the chance, they could be transformative for the Wild this season.
Fantasy outlook: The most appealing fantasy pair might be Kevin Fiala and rookie Rossi. That under-the-radar combination of speed, playmaking talent and scoring skill could reap substantial rewards for the Wild and fantasy managers alike. More on fantasy outlook
Bold prediction: The Eriksson Ek hype train pulls into the station, and he walks away with the Selke Trophy.
Last season: 23-19-14, missed playoffs
Most fascinating player: Jason Robertson has an incredible backstory. He’s the third NHL player of Filipino descent and the second Filipino American. He was a captivating interview at the NHL players’ media tour, it’s clear he’s an outstanding ambassador for the game. It also helps that he’s really good at this hockey thing: blazing fast, with a great transition offense and creativity in the offensive zone. He was second in the rookie of the year voting last season. His line with Joe Pavelski and Roope Hintz could end up as one of the NHL’s best this season. Absolutely one to watch.
Best case: Step one is the Stars getting great goaltending, whether it’s from Anton Khudobin, free-agent pickup Braden Holtby, a healthy Ben Bishop or young Jake Oettinger. It starts there, and adding Suter to their blue line will help the defense in front of them. Next is to have their best players producing at an elite level (like Jamie Benn) and healthy for the majority of the season, like Alexander Radulov and Tyler Seguin, who appeared in 14 games combined last season. If that happens, they can get back to the offensive levels they had in 2019-20 (2.35 expected goals per 60 minutes) and be a dark-horse contender in a stacked division.
Worst case: The injury bugs swarm around Dallas again, the Stars struggle to score, they stick with middling veteran goalies for too long and they’re edged out by division rivals for a playoff spot.
X factor: This could very well be the last ride for this group. Pavelski, Radulov and defenseman John Klingberg will all be unrestricted free agents next summer. “I think there’s a certain finality,” Seguin told ESPN earlier this year. “All the guys on our team know in the back of our minds that we got guys whose contracts are coming up.” We’ve seen what this Dallas team can do when the chemistry clicks, the goaltending is strong and the players are healthy — the Stars were in the Stanley Cup Final in 2020, after all. Last season they were beset by injuries and off-ice issues, from COVID-19 to a winter storm in Texas, and the Stars want nothing more than to find redemption before some core veterans might leave.
Fantasy outlook: There’s much to mine fantasy-wise from this healthy and inspired corps of forwards (Seguin, Radulov, Hintz), especially after all the hardships suffered January through May. And most will be available in mid to late rounds of your draft. More on fantasy outlook
Bold prediction: Coach Rick Bowness is fired during the season.
Last season: 24-21-11, lost in Stanley Cup Final
Most fascinating player: Cole Caufield. We’d say he’s one to watch, but that would assume your eyes can track a player this fast. He’s instant offense, with five points in his first 10 NHL games, and then 12 points in 20 playoff games. He plays defense like a 20-year-old, but the league’s current style of play means a 5-foot-9 winger can step in and thrive, especially if he’s got a center like Nick Suzuki, who could propel Caufield into Calder front-runner status this season.
Best case: The Canadiens’ run to the Stanley Cup Final wasn’t an aberration. They’re able to overcome the short-term loss of Carey Price, who voluntarily entered the NHL/NHLPA player-assistance program, and the long-term loss of Weber, who will miss the season with a combination of injuries. Their forward depth and veteran back end propels them into the division’s top three and beyond.
Worst case: The Canadiens finish worse than their .527 points percentage last season due to regression from their young star players and a lack of quality center depth. The interruption in Price’s season proves too much for their goaltenders to shoulder, and the loss of Weber has a significant impact on and off the ice.
X factor: David Savard isn’t Shea Weber, but squint hard enough and he might be able to fill in for the injured captain, who will miss the season because of multiple injuries. More pressing for the Canadiens is the replacement for their entire second line. Danault is in Los Angeles. Tatar is in New Jersey. Brendan Gallagher is likely to start down the lineup. In their place: Dvorak, acquired from the Coyotes, who is expected to begin the season centering winger Josh Anderson (17 goals) and a returning Jonathan Drouin, who had 23 points in 44 games before leaving the team last April due to insomnia caused by his anxiety. Dvorak has looked great in the preseason, and this line could be dynamite if it clicks.
Bold prediction: The great regression hits Tyler Toffoli‘s shooting percentage (17.7% last season), while Anderson (13.6%) avoids that and finishes with more goals than Toffoli.
Last season: 25-23-8, missed playoffs
Most fascinating player: It’s Carter Hart, and it’s not particularly close as far as the Flyers’ most compelling player. The season rests on his shoulder pads. If he’s the goalie who looked like he was progressing toward Vezina Trophy contention in the 2019-20 season, Philadelphia can be a playoff team. If he’s the goalie who ranked near the bottom in both traditional and analytic metrics last season — .877 save percentage, 3.67 goals-against average, minus-16.7 goals saved above average — then the Flyers might have a problem that goes beyond this season.
Best case: The Flyers’ goaltending stabilizes, their defense improves and their goal-scoring ticks up into the top 10, earning Philadelphia a playoff spot in a very competitive division.
Worst case: Remember how the Canadiens made a bunch of veteran additions before last season and they added up to a Stanley Cup run for Montreal? The worst-case scenario for the Flyers is having done a similar thing and then getting the complete opposite result. Oh, and if the goaltending stinks.
X factor: The Flyers changed their defense corps in a dramatic way in the offseason. Gone are Gostisbehere, Hagg and Myers. Arriving are Ellis, Ristolainen and Yandle, who was bought out by the Panthers. Ellis could fill the hole that was left by Matt Niskanen‘s sudden retirement before last season. Yandle is Yandle. The mystery is Ristolainen, whose reputation with the Sabres left many scratching their heads about the Flyers giving up so much for him. Is that subtraction by addition?
Fantasy outlook: It might be difficult to give Hart a mulligan for last season’s dismal showing, but it’s a wise choice. The Flyers are giving him the chance to shake it off and, from a pure talent perspective, he remains primed to become one of the league’s best netminders. More on fantasy outlook
Bold prediction: Travis Konecny has a big bounce-back season as a goal-scorer, setting a career high. More importantly, he scores neither 11 goals nor 24 goals, one of which has been his final total in each of his five NHL seasons. That’s some arithmophobia right there.
Last season: 24-25-7, missed playoffs
Most fascinating player: The last time we saw Jonathan Toews play a meaningful game was Aug. 18, 2020, when the Blackhawks lost Game 5 of their first-round bubble series to the Golden Knights. Toews missed all of last season with what he reported as chronic immune response syndrome. The 33-year-old captain had put together his two strongest offensive seasons since 2013-14 for the Blackhawks before opting out. His return improves their depth chart considerably, but what does his game look like a year removed from his last campaign?
Best case: Marc-Andre Fleury plays at a Vezina level behind an improved defense that swapped out Duncan Keith and brought on Seth Jones. The Blackhawks’ young players hit their marks, while Patrick Kane puts up an MVP-level point total and Toews leads by example. Chicago claims a playoff spot in the Central Division, ahead of teams with better championship odds.
Worst case: Fleury can’t save his way out of a dreadful defensive system in front of him. The team’s lack of depth is exposed in a competitive division. Chicago enters an offseason searching (again) for a starting goalie … and with Toews and Kane entering the final years of their contracts.
X factor: If Chicago is going to will itself back into contention, Fleury is the way. The reigning Vezina winner agreed to a trade out of Vegas and to the Blackhawks, where he’ll be tasked with stealing games behind a defense that was 27th in goals against per game (3.29) and 30th in expected goals against at 5-on-5 (2.56). The 36-year-old remains a glowing congeniality beacon — within an organization that’s embroiled in a sexual assault investigation — and should bolster what was the weakest aspect of last season’s team.
Fantasy outlook: This improved Blackhawks squad is riddled with attractive fantasy options from the net out. Fleury has plenty left in the tank in tending net for a defensively improved squad. The 36-year-old might not start 60 games, but he’s likely to play 55. More on fantasy outlook
Bold prediction: With expectations high and the pressure on, the Blackhawks fire Jeremy Colliton, who is signed through the 2022-23 season.
Last season: 31-23-2, lost in first round
Most fascinating player: Filip Forsberg is a canary in a coal mine for the Predators. He’s entering the final season of his contract. If Nashville decides to re-sign him — and Colorado’s Gabriel Landeskog has been seen as a potential comparable contract — then that signals the Predators believe they remain a contender with their current group. If they decide to let Forsberg walk, and move him before he does, then it’s a signal they want to retool. Perhaps we got a hint of that direction when the team traded Arvidsson to the Los Angeles Kings, a deal to which Forsberg famously gave a thumbs-down on Instagram.
Best case: The Predators get an unexpected uptick in offense from either Ryan Johansen or Matt Duchene after being unable to unload them in the offseason; great breakout performances from young players, like center Cody Glass, whom they acquired in the Ryan Ellis three-way trade, winger Eeli Tolvanen and winger Philip Tomasino; and another year of strong goaltending to break through the muddle of the Central Division to claim a playoff spot for the second straight season.
Worst case: The Predators are the second-worst team in the Central thanks to a lack of goal production and a regression from goalie Juuse Saros. Forsberg and defenseman Mattias Ekholm are moved at the trade deadline as the rebuild begins.
X factor: Saros had a couple of motivating factors last season. The first was to outplay Rinne for the Predators’ starting job. The second was to earn a significant new contract in the process. That motivation led to a career year (.927 save percentage) that saw him lead Nashville to the playoffs and earn votes for the Vezina and the Hart. But now he has that contract, a four-year extension worth $20 million. He has the starting job, with Rinne retired and Rittich as the clear backup. What does a season without those carrots dangling in front of him look like?
Fantasy outlook: The true potential fantasy diamond in Nashville for 2021-22 is Saros, who is set to make the No. 1 job thoroughly his own with Rinne basking in retirement. Through 36 appearances in this past truncated campaign, Saros posted a 2.28 GAA, .927 SV% and 21-11-1 record. Those are top-10 fantasy netminder numbers. More on fantasy outlook
Bold prediction: A member of our general manager hot seat ranking, David Poile, is kicked upstairs and the Predators have their second GM in franchise history for the 2022-23 season.
Last season: 26-27-3, missed playoffs
Most fascinating player: Let’s make it “players” for the Flames. The most interesting aspect of the team is its top line, with Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk flanking Elias Lindholm. This line was put together last season, and it absolutely rolled: 59.37% expected goals percentage, getting over 56% of the shot attempts and averaging 4.71 goals per 60 minutes at 5-on-5. Hopefully coach Darryl Sutter has the good sense to keep this trio intact. Gaudreau was reinvigorated, and now he’s in the last year of his contract, looking to end on a statistical high note. As for Tkachuk, he’s reached the next stage of his evolution: agitating other teams during their offseason contract talks with his sibling.
Best case: The Flames do as average NHL teams do every season. They play well enough to position themselves around the playoff bubble and get in by virtue of playing in arguably the weakest division in the league, creating just enough offense with their forward group and getting above-average goaltending from Jacob Markstrom, who starts 60 games.
Worst case: The defensive corps and dressing room feel the loss of captain Giordano, Markstrom is middling and the Flames see their playoff bubble burst by finishing outside the top three in the Pacific and having both wild cards come from the Central.
X factor: Sutter coached 30 games for the Flames last season, after a stunning return to the bench to replace Geoff Ward. They were decidedly average, going 15-15-0 with him at the helm. They didn’t really look or play like a Darryl Sutter team as we’ve come to know them, so it’ll be interesting to see whether that has changed in his first full season in Calgary. His L.A. Kings teams had the lowest goals-per-game average (2.28) of any team in the NHL during his six seasons there. A better team defense in Calgary would be better news for Markstrom, who had a ho-hum first season with the Flames after being the 2020 offseason’s free-agent goalie prize.
Fantasy outlook: There’s reason to consider shying away from going all-in on Markstrom with new backup Vladar lurking about. Despite playing in only five regular-season games last spring, Vlader is attracting a fair bit of in-the-know praise this preseason, and there is potential for him stealing starts in net from Markstrom. More on fantasy outlook
Bold prediction: Gaudreau is playing in the Metropolitan Division at some point in 2022.
Last season: 21-28-7, missed playoffs
Most fascinating player: Drew Doughty is fed up. He’s tired of the rebuild in Los Angeles, and he’s encouraged that there seems to be some light at the end of that tunnel. He’s tired of being a legacy, rather than being an elite player in the present. While his offensive output remains solid, he’s a minus-64 combined in the past three seasons. “Everything I’ve done has been in the past. I’m not happy with where I’m at in my present. So I need to get back to that,” Doughty told ESPN this preseason.
Best case: The Kings start really turning the corner in their rebuild. Players such as Gabriel Vilardi and Michael Anderson take the next step. Newcomers, like former Canadien Danault (signed as a free agent), winger Arvidsson (acquired from Nashville) and KHL import Vladimir Tkachev make an immediate difference. Their top prospects hit the roster with positive impact. Oh, and Calvin Petersen rewards the Kings for their faith in him, having signed the goalie to an extension.
Worst case: The Kings are still clearly a year away from turning the corner and don’t contend for a playoff spot. Trust us when we tell you that the majority of the league would kill to have the Kings’ problem, which amounts to waiting a little longer for the best and deepest collection of prospects in the NHL to mature.
X factor: The broken ankle suffered by Quinton Byfield, the No. 2 overall pick in 2020, in a preseason game was a real bummer. Not because it dramatically impacts the Kings’ opening night roster, but because it impacts his continuing maturation as a top prospect. The X factor for the Kings is how many of those prospects can hit their roster this season and contribute to their success. Byfield still needs some seasoning. So do forwards Arthur Kaliyev, Tyler Madden and Alex Turcotte, who are all currently tabbed for the AHL. (Rasmus Kupari was still in the mix for an NHL spot late in training camp.) This is the next wave. These are the names that will help define the Kings for the next several seasons. When will they be ready?
Fantasy outlook: Up front, Anze Kopitar endures as a steady and reliable fantasy presence (2018-19 was somewhat of a blip) that we’ve grown to appreciate. Above and beyond scoring, the Kings’ captain ticks other fantasy boxes, such as faceoffs won, shifts and average time on ice. More on fantasy outlook
Bold prediction: With two years left on Jonathan Quick‘s contract, but only $5.5 million in salary, the Kings finally find a trade partner for the veteran goalie.
Last season: 19-30-7, missed playoffs
Most fascinating player: Hamilton’s free-agent availability didn’t exactly sync up with the Devils’ timeline as a rebuilding team. But he agreed to join them anyway for seven years and $63 million, and it’s going to be enthralling to see what kind of impact he can have on them. There’s no way their power play finishes 28th (14.2%) in the NHL again. Watching Hamilton feed the team’s collection of fast, young skaters at 5-on-5 will be fun.
Best case: The Devils locate enough goal-scoring on their roster from Tatar, Yegor Sharangovich, Miles Wood, Jesper Bratt and the totality of their defense corps. They pair that with above-average goaltending and improved special teams, and sneak through a crowded pack of teams in the Metro into their first playoff appearance since 2018.
Worst case: The Devils see continued improvement from franchise standard-bearers Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier, get another year of experience for a talented supporting cast, then really make that sharp turn back toward contention next season with top prospect Alexander Holtz and oodles of cap space with which to play.
X factor: The Devils had the second-lowest team save percentage in the NHL last season (.891) because Mackenzie Blackwood‘s season was derailed by COVID-19, and GM Tom Fitzgerald‘s plan to pair him with a veteran goalie was subverted by free-agent pickup Corey Crawford‘s decision to retire. So Fitzgerald is running it back with another veteran goalie: Bernier, late of the Red Wings. If the Devils are to contend for a playoff spot, this tandem will have to excel at an above-replacement level — and they could. But there’s an X factor within the X factor: Blackwood has chosen not to get vaccinated against COVID-19 as of time of publishing, so his availability for games in Canada remains in question.
Fantasy outlook: Jack Hughes remains packed with potential to be among the superstars of the game, but will come at a massively discounted cost after having failed to erupt during his first two seasons. More on fantasy outlook
Bold prediction: Hughes scores the winning goal in Team USA’s gold-medal victory in men’s hockey at the 2022 Beijing Games. Hey, you wanted bold, right?
Last season: 23-29-4, missed playoffs
Most fascinating player: For two years, Elias Pettersson was tracking toward mega-star status. The 2019 rookie of the year had 132 points in his first 139 NHL games, with no less than Wayne Gretzky endorsing his offensive game. But last season was a struggle with injuries, and Pettersson was limited to 21 points in 26 games. He has a big, new bridge contract — three years and $22.05 million — that carries with it the expectation that a healthy Pettersson can get back on track to MVP status and lead the Canucks’ turnaround.
Best case: The Canucks are healthy and use a combination of their dynamic top two lines and strong goaltending to paper over shortcomings in their lineup to return to the playoffs after last season’s hiccup. Pettersson is a point-per-game player. Garland meshes with Bo Horvat to create a strong secondary scoring line.
Worst case: Injuries befall key offensive players, and the team’s offensively promising but defensively challenged defense corps gets cratered by conference opponents. Thatcher Demko can’t save the day, and Vancouver finishes out of the playoffs — which could mean both its GM and coach are finished, too.
X factor: The Canucks were the worst defensive team in the NHL at 5-on-5 last season based on expected goals against (2.65). Even with the addition of Ekman-Larsson, their defense corps leaves much to be desired. So it falls to Demko to be the last line of defense and the difference-maker on many nights for Vancouver. He’s up to the task: Demko had 23.7 goals saved above average last season, and added around four wins to the Canucks.
Fantasy outlook: Look for J.T. Miller to return to his previous point-per-game pace, including a solid tally garnered on the power play. And while second-line center Bo Horvat won’t wow you in the production department, he outshines most in fantasy leagues that count faceoffs won, average time on-ice or shifts. More on fantasy outlook
Bold prediction: Garland leads the Canucks in goals.
Most fascinating player: In the unending comparisons to their recent brothers of expansion, the Vegas Golden Knights, many have wondered which member of the Seattle Kraken will be their version of William Karlsson, who went from being a depth player with the Blue Jackets to a 43-goal revelation in the Knights’ inaugural season.
The current favorite is Jared McCann, a six-year NHL veteran with the Canucks, Panthers and Penguins (and, although he didn’t play a game there, Toronto). He’s an analytics darling who is expected to be the team’s top-line center between Jaden Schwartz and Jordan Eberle. Now he just needs a nickname as awesome as “Wild Bill” is for Karlsson.
Best case: The Kraken use the NHL’s generous expansion draft rules to create a playoff-bound roster, getting enough goal-scoring up front and from defensemen Mark Giordano and Vince Dunn to win games in front of an outstanding goaltending tandem of Philipp Grubauer and Chris Driedger.
Worst case: The initial reactions to the Kraken roster prove accurate, as a team that left a considerable number of “name” players swimming in the expansion draft pool can’t generate enough goals and falls short of the postseason. Which, in the end, might be part of the long-term plan anyway.
X factor: The Golden Knights were a sensation in Year 1 because they drafted stronger players than we anticipated, and leveraged the draft to acquire even more of them. The Kraken had to go in a different direction as teams prepared better for their expansion draft, instead going after some unrestricted free agents — including Grubauer, whom they obviously hope can be their Marc-Andre Fleury.
But the secret to the Knights was their chemistry. Whatever motivated it — their bond with the community after the tragic shootings on The Strip in Oct. 2017 or the “Golden Misfits” rebellious vibe — they jelled in a way no one thought a first-year team could. Can the Kraken all get on the same page to create a cohesive, playoff-caliber team?
Fantasy outlook: The Kraken’s most enticing fantasy commodity to start is the ever-consistent Grubauer. He boasts an impressive résumé dating back to his first real season in Washington (2013-14), and this Kraken team is built to keep pucks out of the net. More on fantasy outlook
Bold prediction: The first All-Star representatives in Kraken history are Giordano and Grubauer.
Last season: 18-26-12, missed playoffs
Most fascinating player: Patrik Laine is the definition of “fascinating.” (OK, and also “frustrating” and “vexing” and “perplexing.” He contains multitudes.) Laine scored the sixth-most goals in the NHL (110) during the first three seasons of his career from 2016-17 to 2018-19. He’s 50th in that category over the past two seasons. The Blue Jackets traded Pierre-Luc Dubois for him last season, in the hopes that the 23-year-old winger could recapture the magic. They’ve now added Jakub Voracek to his line, in the hopes the veteran playmaker can help get Laine there. It’s a critical season for the player and the team, as Laine is in the last year of his contract, with a $7.5 million cap hit.
Best case: The Jackets get a mix of strong goaltending from Elvis Merzlikins and Joonas Korpisalo, and unexpectedly great rookie seasons from the likes of Yegor Chinakhov and Cole Sillinger, to push near the playoff bubble this season. That might not serve them well from a draft perspective, but it would at least indicate that they’re on the right path.
Worst case: The team finishes last in the Metro because the kids aren’t ready, the veterans are ineffective and the franchise is much more “rebuild” than “reload,” which is GM Jarmo Kekalainen‘s preferred description.
X factor: This is the first time since 2014-15 that someone other than John Tortorella has coached the Blue Jackets. In that time, they made the playoffs in four straight seasons, challenged for a playoff spot in every campaign, and embodied the blue-collar aesthetic preached by their head coach. What is a Brad Larsen team? We’re about to find out.
Fantasy outlook: Can you find the fortitude to take Laine ahead of your fantasy competition? It’s a risk, but one that could pay off in spades if a new coach helps unleash his offense. More than fantasy outlook
Bold prediction: Bean has one of the NHL’s biggest breakout seasons as Zach Werenski‘s new defense partner.
Last season: 23-28-5, missed playoffs
Most fascinating player: Tim Stützle was eased into his first NHL season by the Senators, and responded with a campaign that wasn’t Calder-worthy (29 points in 53 games) but showed flashes of the ability that made him the third overall pick in 2020. It’s hard to believe Ottawa isn’t going to throw him into the deep end of the pool and see how he swims in his second NHL season: Somewhere around 18 minutes per game sounds right. They need more from him on the power play (nine points last season), and one assumes Stützle can provide it.
Best case: With a pesky young forward group that features Stützle, Brady Tkachuk and Josh Norris, improved special teams and goaltending that’s at least competent, the Senators are a surprise wild-card contender.
Worst case: The goaltending is below average, the team’s depth issues are glaring — losing Colin White for four to six months with a dislocation in his shoulder certainly doesn’t help — and the Senators are ground up by the top five teams in the Atlantic Division, unfortunately proving GM Pierre Dorion’s “the rebuild is done” proclamation was a fallacy.
X factor: The Senators are going to go as far as Matt Murray will allow them. He’s in the second campaign of a four-year contract that Dorion handed him as the team’s primary goaltender. His first season was an abject disaster: 10-13-1, .893 save percentage and a 3.38 goals-against average, to go along with a negative-3.5 goals saved above average. The last stat is the key for Ottawa. They don’t need Murray to be Dominik Hasek. They just need goaltending that isn’t going to be a below-replacement-level liability. The question is whether Murray can still provide that after back-to-back clunkers with Pittsburgh and the Senators; among goalies who have played at least 60 games over the past two seasons, Murray has the fourth-worst save percentage (.896).
Fantasy outlook: Aside from Tkachuk, there aren’t any must-haves among the Senators. Norris and Drake Batherson have the potential to be fantasy contributors this season, but neither is a lock yet. More on fantasy outlook
Bold prediction: The Senators finish better than their .455 points percentage last season in the North Division and place sixth in the Atlantic.
Last season: 21-28-7, missed playoffs
Most fascinating player: The Sharks would like to keep Tomas Hertl around. He’s a consistent offensive performer, with 43 points in 50 games last season, and is only two years removed from a 35-goal campaign. He’s the kind of big-bodied center you build around, and he’s entering his prime, turning 28 this season. Also, he’s the human embodiment of a puppy playing on a sunny afternoon. But Hertl is an unrestricted free agent after the season and is taking a wait-and-see approach with the Sharks. If it looks like he’ll walk, San Jose has to move him. And the Sharks will get a nice bit of value coming back for a game-changing center.
Best case: The Sharks’ infusion of young talent in players like William Eklund and Jonathan Dahlen pairs with healthy, resurgent seasons from the team’s returning veterans like Logan Couture, Timo Meier, Hertl, Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns to make the Sharks much better than expected. They find a way to remedy their porous team defense in front of improved goaltending.
Worst case: The Sharks remain a team well past its expiration date as a contender, a collection of bloated and immovable contracts handed to players on the downside of their primes. The goaltending improvements from offseason acquisitions Reimer and Hill are minimal, and the team struggles to keep pace in the Pacific Division while stubbornly refusing to totally rebuild.
X factor: Evander Kane is one of the Sharks’ best offensive players, two years removed from a 35-goal season and having posted 43 points in 50 games last season. He was also just cleared in an investigation regarding allegations he bet on NHL games; continues to be investigated by the NHL on the domestic assault allegations made by his estranged wife in a recent divorce filing; and is also being investigated for allegedly submitting a fake vaccination card to the Sharks and the league. There’s also continuing bankruptcy litigation involving Kane that could end with his NHL contract being voided. The 30-year-old was absent from Sharks camp while all of this was ongoing, and there’s no indication yet when he’ll rejoin the team.
Fantasy outlook: Veteran defender Erik Karlsson is both a shadow of his former self and still better than his 22-point haul in 2020-21 suggests. Don’t reach for Karlsson, but if he’s available later in drafts, the gamble makes sense. More on fantasy outlook
Bold prediction: Hertl is traded to the Bruins as a David Krejci replacement. Now that’s bold and specific.
Last season: 19-27-10, missed playoffs
Most fascinating player: We’re going to disqualify Jakub Vrana from this category because he’ll miss around four months thanks to shoulder surgery. Otherwise, watching Jake the Snake slither around the offensive zone for the Wings would have been the pick. Instead, we’ll go in the other direction: Moritz Seider, the team’s 20-year-old rookie defenseman. The German-born sixth overall pick in 2019, Seider got a professional season under his belt in 2020-21 while playing for Rogle in the Swedish Hockey League. He’s been paired with Nick Leddy in the preseason, giving him a solid veteran on whom to rely. One of those Red Wings prospects whose arrival on the main roster portends the eventual end of this rebuild.
Best case: The slow, steady pace of GM Steve Yzerman‘s rebuild extends for another season, one that sees Detroit’s younger players show sparks of potential and the Red Wings get a top-three pick for the first time since drafting Keith Primeau at third overall in 1990.
Worst case: The Red Wings somehow generate more offense than last season (2.23 goals per game, 30th in the NHL) with Vrana out of the lineup, get solid goaltending and are a shock contender for a wild-card spot — thus delaying the progress of their build.
X factor: The Hurricanes felt that Nedeljkovic hadn’t shown enough beyond three great months — great enough to earn him a Calder Trophy nomination, mind you — to warrant an investment as their goaltender. The Red Wings swooped in, traded for him and handed the restricted free agent a two-year deal. Detroit has gotten incrementally better defensively in the past couple of seasons, which will benefit Nedeljkovic. But it’s on him to show that months like April 2021 (5-1-1, .941 save percentage and a 1.72 GAA!) weren’t notes from a one-hit wonder.
Fantasy outlook: Keep an eye on rookie defenseman Seider. He has the skill — and the Red Wings will present him the opportunity — to become a fantasy factor on the blue line. More on fantasy outlook
Last season: 17-30-9, missed playoffs
Most fascinating player: Jamie Drysdale is 19 years old and technically still a rookie, having played 24 games last season. He had eight points and was a minus-12, but it’s the kind of first-season teeth-cutting that you want for a young defenseman discovering the subtle difference between defending for the OHL’s Erie Otters and an NHL team. He’s the latest on the conveyor belt of young offensive defensemen entering the league. (Remember when Cam Fowler rolled off the line?) Hopefully the preseason pairing with Hampus Lindholm carries over into the regular season.
Best case: The Ducks hit that sweet spot where the kids — led by Drysdale and Trevor Zegras — and the veterans on the roster all perform at an exceptional rate. That means bounce-back seasons from players like Jakob Silfverberg and Josh Manson, along with the expected performances from players like Lindholm and Rickard Rakell — two players who, like Manson, are currently headed toward unrestricted free agency next summer.
Worst case: The Ducks remain a year from really turning the corner, and GM Bob Murray finally wises up and trades away some of his valuable veterans in their walk years to get even younger.
X factor: John Gibson has made mediocre Ducks teams win more games than they had any right to win. He has 17 goals saved above average over the past two seasons (86 games), which weren’t nearly among his best campaigns in the NHL. On paper, Anaheim appears primed for another season near the bottom of the division and counting its lottery odds. But 60 above-average games from Gibson could certainly change that math.
Fantasy outlook: The only question that should concern fantasy managers about future top center Zegras and defender Drysdale, the potential No. 1 power play anchor, is whether the two young skaters are ready to sparkle at the NHL level now or in a few months time. Either way, both dynasty/keeper gems should be monitored in all but the shallowest of redraft leagues. More on fantasy outlook
Last season: 24-26-6, missed playoffs
Key players added: D Conor Timmins, D Shayne Gostisbehere, LW Andrew Ladd, LW Antoine Roussel, LW Loui Eriksson, C Jay Beagle, C Travis Boyd, G Carter Hutton, D Ben Hutton, LW Dmitrij Jaskin, LW Ryan Dzingel, D Anton Stralman
Key players lost: G Darcy Kuemper, D Oliver Ekman-Larsson, RW Conor Garland, D Niklas Hjalmarsson, D Alex Goligoski, G Antti Raanta, LW Michael Bunting, C Frederik Gauthier, C Michael Chaput, LW Dryden Hunt, C John Hayden, D Jordan Oesterle, D Tyler Pitlick (expansion draft), F Christian Dvorak
Most fascinating player: Shane Wright. Just kidding! Even so, it’s undeniable that the most fascinating aspect of the Coyotes’ season is going to involve lottery balls and the chance to draft the Canadian phenom. Failing that, it’s Jakob Chychrun. The 23-year-old defenseman has quickly become the face of the franchise in many ways, thanks to an outstanding 41 points in 56 games last season that put him in the Norris Trophy conversation for the first time. He’s the new “best thing about a bad team,” a seemingly annual tradition in Arizona.
Best case: Carter Hutton and Josef Korenar are multitudes better than expectations, which currently have them as the worst goalie tandem in the NHL entering the season. The offense produces better than the 2.68 goals per game it did last season. New head coach André Tourigny unlocks something in this roster that isn’t evident at the moment, finding a chemistry that exceeds its potential on paper. But even then, the Coyotes’ move to the Central Division means a logjam of better teams ahead of them.
Worst case: The Coyotes finish last and then have to move into their parents’ basement because Glendale evicted them.
X factor: This roster is basically a neighborhood hardware store for the rest of the league. The Coyotes have — and this is not a typo — seven players under contract for the 2022-23 season. You want a veteran offensive player on the decline? How about pending UFAs Phil Kessel or Loui Eriksson, assuming they’d waive their trade protection? How about a veteran for your fourth line? Pending UFAs Jay Beagle, Antoine Roussel and Ryan Dzingel are here for you. Need a veteran defenseman on the right side? May we interest you in Anton Stralman and his expiring contract? The X factor here is when, not if, some of these players are shipped out to help restock the draft coffers.
Fantasy outlook: Boiling over with draft picks for a hefty rebuild, the Coyotes aren’t endearing themselves to fantasy managers competing in the now. But the one true fantasy star, ranked 33rd overall, is Chychrun. He’ll shoot a ton, he’ll score a bunch, he’ll play a pile of minutes, he’ll block a good number of shots. More on fantasy outlook
Bold prediction: Gostisbehere is given a chance to cook and puts up his best offensive numbers in three seasons.
Last season: 15-34-7, missed playoffs
Most fascinating player: Casey Mittelstadt. The eighth overall pick in 2017 finally showed potential as a breakout offensive player for the Sabres, with 22 points in 41 games last season. The 22-year-old center excelled playing with linemates who are still in Buffalo — Rasmus Asplund, Tage Thompson, Jeff Skinner — rather than having his numbers juiced by those who have been traded or remain in limbo. In fact, the departures of those players from the lineup will give him the best opportunity he’s had to produce offensively: He could open in between Skinner and Victor Olofsson.
Best case: An offensively gutted team with aggressively mediocre goaltending finishes last in the Atlantic Division, Buffalo wins the draft lottery and the start of the Shane Wright era is a balm that soothes the end of the Jack Eichel era.
Worst case: New head coach Don Granato grinds enough wins out of this roster to hurt its draft position while keeping it a country mile from the wild card. The Eichel soap opera moves from the court of public opinion to the court of contract law.
X factor: The Eichel situation looms over everything, from the Sabres’ season to the franchise’s future. The abridged version: Eichel injured his neck last season. The team wants him to get a traditional fusion surgery. Eichel wants artificial disk replacement, which he believes will be beneficial later in life. Already dissatisfied with the team’s lack of success, Eichel requested a trade because of the impasse, and the Sabres have been shopping him. Given his $10 million annual salary-cap hit, any Eichel trade will bring NHL-rostered players back to Buffalo. His absence defines their season. His departure will reshape the team in the short and long term.
Fantasy outlook: If you go through your whole draft without selecting a member of the Sabres, that is arguably a good move. If I’m throwing darts at the end of a deep draft, one or two might hit Dylan Cozens or Skinner. More on fantasy outlook
Bold prediction: The Sabres deal away half their defense corps by the trade deadline, with Colin Miller getting the most attention from suitors.