The 2019-20 NHL season concluded with a fairly predictable champion in the Tampa Bay Lightning.
That doesn’t mean anything this season will play out as expected.
So much is going to be different for the league in 2021. The divisions are new. The format is fresh. And teams will be trying to navigate a pandemic while hopping from city to city playing games.
That means this unpredictable sport could be more fickle than ever this season. That said, here are one hockey writer’s picks.
(Last season’s record in parentheses)
1. Colorado Avalanche (42-20-8)
The Avalanche added a top-six forward in Brandon Saad and a top-four defenseman in Devon Toews to an already-formidable roster. They’re one of the clear Stanley Cup favorites.
2. Golden Knights (39-24-8)
The Knights signed the crown jewel of the free agent class in defenseman Alex Pietrangelo. They sacrificed depth to do so, and they’ll need more from younger players such as Cody Glass to reach their championship goal.
3. St. Louis Blues (42-19-10)
The Blues hope that replacing Alex Pietrangelo with free agent Torey Krug won’t result in a drop-off on their blue line. St. Louis also needs goaltender Jordan Binnington to rebound from a disappointing postseason.
4. Minnesota Wild (35-27-7)
The Wild aren’t flashy, but they’re solid in a lot of areas. The blue line is great. New goaltender Cam Talbot is dependable. Wings Kirill Kaprizov and Kevin Fiala are promising. There’s enough talent for them to make the playoffs.
5. San Jose Sharks (29-36-5)
The Sharks crashed hard after reaching the 2019 Western Conference Final. A rebound might not come quickly. The team’s depth and goaltending are issues, and many key players aren’t getting any younger.
6. Arizona Coyotes (33-29-8)
The Coyotes are stuck with an expensive but middling roster after 2018 Hart Trophy winner Taylor Hall signed with Buffalo. New general manager Bill Armstrong has a lot of work to do.
7. Anaheim Ducks (29-33-9)
The Ducks had an anemic offense last season, and their defense and goaltending couldn’t pick up the slack. The roster hasn’t changed much outside of the addition of defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, so expect more of the same.
8. Los Angeles Kings (29-35-6)
The Kings’ rebuild is on track after they selected center Quinton Byfield with the No. 2 pick in the 2020 draft. Their goals should be developing their prospects and flipping veterans for more assets.
1. Boston Bruins (44-14-12)
The Bruins won the Presidents’ Trophy last season and have another stellar roster. Their first line is elite, their goaltending tandem is great, and they should be one of the best teams in an excellent division.
2. Pittsburgh Penguins (40-23-6)
General manager Jim Rutherford fiddled with his roster after a second straight disappointing postseason, bringing in new blood for Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin to play with. Whether that gets them close to another Cup remains to be seen.
3. New York Islanders (35-23-10)
The Islanders continue to impress under coach Barry Trotz after making the Eastern Conference Final last season. There’s no doubt this team will find a way to be competitive again because of its excellent defensive structure.
4. Washington Capitals (41-20-8)
The Capitals hired coach Peter Laviolette to squeeze more out of their aging core, but he has his work cut out for him. Legendary goaltender Henrik Lundqvist won’t play because of a heart condition, leaving the net to 23-year-old Ilya Samsonov.
5. Philadelphia Flyers (41-21-7)
The Flyers had the fourth-best points percentage in the Eastern Conference last season and should be competitive again. But they’re in a tough spot in a division with so much star power. Goaltender Carter Hart, 22, will have to be on his game.
6. New York Rangers (37-28-5)
The Rangers are one of the NHL’s most exciting teams with No. 1 overall pick Alexis Lafreniere joining forwards Artemi Panarin, Mika Zibanejad and Kaapo Kakko. The defense might not be great, but this is a team on the rise.
7. Buffalo Sabres (30-31-8)
The Sabres added Taylor Hall and center Eric Staal in the hopes of being competitive, but their division is daunting. The depth around star center Jack Eichel still isn’t where it needs to be.
8. New Jersey Devils (28-29-12)
The Devils are rebuilding around centers Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes and goaltender Mackenzie Blackwood. This season will be about development, not wins and losses.
1. Toronto Maple Leafs (36-25-9)
The Maple Leafs must be thankful for finally escaping from the division with the Bruins and Lightning. The team reworked its depth in the offseason and still has as much star power as any other team.
2. Calgary Flames (36-27-7)
The Flames made one of the splashiest moves of the offseason by grabbing goaltender Jacob Markstrom out of Vancouver. That should help a team that was competitive most of last season.
3. Montreal Canadiens (31-31-9)
The Canadiens are a team to watch because of the emergence of young centers Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi. The additions of wings Tyler Toffoli and Josh Anderson should help the two youngsters continue to grow.
4. Vancouver Canucks (36-27-6)
The Canucks have a promising group of young forwards, but losing Markstrom to a division rival stings. The team has to hope its new tandem of Thatcher Demko and Braden Holtby will be enough to cover up its defensive warts.
5. Edmonton Oilers (37-25-9)
The Oilers boast two of the NHL’s best offensive players in Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. The question is where will the defense come from, because neither Edmonton’s blue line nor its goaltending inspires.
6. Winnipeg Jets (37-28-6)
The Jets reached the play-in round last season because of the Herculean efforts of goaltender Connor Hellebuyck, the Vezina Trophy winner. The team probably hasn’t done enough to compete in this division unless Hellebuyck repeats his performance.
7. Ottawa Senators (25-34-12)
The Senators look like the clear bottom-dweller as they continue to rebuild. They’ve amassed plenty of talent in recent drafts, so the future looks bright.
1. Tampa Bay Lightning (43-21-6)
The reigning champions still look absolutely frightening. Keep in mind they won the Stanley Cup with little postseason help from injured captain Steven Stamkos, who was one goal from his seventh 30-goal season last year.
2. Carolina Hurricanes (38-25-5)
The Hurricanes have an exciting young core headlined by center Sebastian Aho and right wing Andrei Svechnikov. The only question is their ceiling under the current goaltending tandem of Petr Mrazek and James Reimer.
3. Dallas Stars (37-24-8)
Last year’s Western Conference champions are bringing back almost the exact same roster from a year ago. Look for defenseman Miro Heiskanen to take a step forward after an incredible postseason.
4. Columbus Blue Jackets (33-22-15)
The Blue Jackets aren’t the most talented team, but they get results under coach John Tortorella. The team also has an outstanding young goaltending tandem in Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins.
5. Nashville Predators (35-26-8)
The Predators keep backsliding after their run to the 2017 Stanley Cup Final, and general manager David Poile did nothing to improve the team in the offseason. More is needed from highly paid forwards Matt Duchene, Filip Forsberg and Ryan Johansen.
6. Florida Panthers (35-26-8)
The Panthers had the NHL’s 26th-ranked save percentage last season despite sporting the highest-paid goaltender in Sergei Bobrovsky. They better hope that was a fluke; otherwise, it’s tough to see them keeping pace.
7. Chicago Blackhawks (32-30-8)
The Blackhawks are rebuilding. They will start the season with Colin Delia (3.65 career goals-against average) and former Golden Knight Malcolm Subban (2.97 career GAA) as their two main goaltenders.
8. Detroit Red Wings (17-49-5)
The Red Wings were abysmal last season and tried to at least add competent NHL players. It might not result in a lot more wins, but it should at least be a little easier on their fans’ eyes.
NHL playoff predictions
West champion: Colorado Avalanche
East champion: Boston Bruins
Central champion: Tampa Bay Lightning
North champion: Toronto Maple Leafs
Semifinal 1: Maple Leafs over Lightning
Semifinal 2: Avalanche over Bruins
Stanley Cup Final: Avalanche over Maple Leafs