Well, welcome to the 2021 NHL season.
For the third time in about 25 years, hockey has dropped the puck in the dead of winter. You now know the exercise; four groups of four, inter [insert ad here] division only plays and 56 games for each club to prove it is playoff worthy.
The 1995 New Jersey Devils kicked off a sort of dynasty with their title that year, while the 2013 Chicago Blackhawks distanced themselves from the one-time winner world by winning their second Cup in four years this spring. These two teams have played 48-game schedules that started in January thanks to labor disputes. The stakes outside of hockey are much higher this time around, but the return of the game marks more opportunities for small breakouts during this global pandemic.
It also signals the start of the discussion about who’s better than who, so with this sprint about to leave the blocks, here are Sportsnet’s preseason power rankings.
1. Tampa Bay Lightning
“One day, neighborhood children carried my mother’s groceries home. You know why? It was out of respect. Goodfellas logic applies to the defending champions, who still have the green light to start right here with Nikita Kucherov out for the regular season. Plus, Lord knows which organization’s fourth round is about to become a star.
2. Avalanche du Colorado
A quick whirlwind on the internet tells you that this is the consensus choice to go all the way. Say this, though: The heat is building in Denver as the Avs make the sometimes tricky transition from all cute, hairy expectations to those of big boys.
3. Vegas Golden Knights
Only one from Colorado, Vegas and St. Louis comes out of the West Division, so two teams with legitimate title hopes are going to be gravely saddened.
4. Maple Leafs de Toronto
Talent can’t be ignored, adjustments have corrected weaknesses and the kids have four years of experience – and playoff disappointment – under their belt. Frederik Andersen also starts this year with a competent substitute in Jack Campbell.
5. Philadelphia Flyers
While the Flyers lack the recent success of some of their Eastern Division foes which we’ll get to shortly, there is potential for a leap forward for this youth-led team that has achieved the fourth-best percentage in the game. NHL points (0.690) from New Day of the Year, 2020 to March break last year.
6. St. Louis Blues
Losing captain Alex Pietrangelo hurts, but new additions Torey Krug and Mike Hoffman can really help attacking in different ways. The 2019 champions still have a mix that could make it happen.
7. Bruins de Boston
Every year I watch the Bruins roster and think “Meh” and every year they go out and play like the best hockey team for months at a time. We all know the infrastructure is built to withstand anything, but Charlie McAvoy and Jake DeBrusk have to show that the under-25s on this team are ready for huge roles.
8. Carolina Hurricanes
Clearly and simply, can they find a goalie solution? If so, there is no weak spot on this list.
9. Pittsburgh Penguins
It’s season 15 of the Sid and Geno Show. Many believed his run was over in 2015 before the Penguins came out and won back-to-back Cups. There is no shortage of question points on the list, but are you confident enough to switch channels again?
10. Washington Capitals
Team International will play several nights with only one Canadian – Tom Wilson – among their 12 forwards. He also has a top-six defense corps that has as many men in their forties (Zdeno Chara) as 20-year-olds (Dmitry Orlov, 29) and two inexperienced goalkeepers. The zero playoff series wins since the start of 2018.
11. Flames de Calgary
This is surely the last kick to the box for the Flames as we know them. I liked the signing of Jacob Markstrom and still think it could be a team in the final.
12. Nashville Predators
The Preds may be slipping into this area where everyone has become dismissive enough that they are actually underrated. If Juuse Saros plays like a true No.1, there is a clear path to the playoffs.
13. Stars de Dallas
The Stars enter this bizarre season with Ben Bishop and Tyler Seguin in the long run and no Western conferences to defend. Last year’s finalists have a long way to go to repeat what they accomplished in the bubble.
14. Islanders of New York
Mathew Barzal is in the fold and the Islanders can start to be brave again. It’s almost confusing to think of how this club hasn’t missed the post-season since John Tavares left.
15. Vancouver Canucks
How are they going to follow a season in which the young ‘Nucks appeared to arrive a year ahead of schedule? It’s easy to tie them up for a pullback, but if Thatcher Demko and Braden Holtby’s new duo succeed, this team will be very competitive.
16. Montreal Canadiens
The Habs don’t really have a player who, when they touch the puck, causes the opposing team’s supporters to squeeze vital parts of their anatomy. From top to bottom, however, it’s a solid team that should receive some excellent goalkeepers from the league’s most expensive tandem.
17. Oilers d’Edmonton
We know Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl could finish 1-2 in the NHL; the question is, where will Mikko Koskinen and Mike Smith’s drums be located?
18. Winnipeg Jets
Connor Hellebuyck’s Vezina Trophy-winning season kept Winnipeg competitive last year. Defense will be improved in front of him, but this rich forward side will likely be defined by their ability to defend and whether Hellebuyck can maintain their stellar game.
19. Blue Jackets de Columbus
Why can things never be easy for hard-working jackets? Pierre-Luc Dubois’ status within the club will be a dark cloud until the situation is resolved. As always, however, opponents will work for whatever they get against John Tortorella’s club.
20. Rangers of New York
It will be a tough task for the Blueshirts to squeeze into the top four in the Eastern Division. Around the same time next year, however, the Rangers could be trailblazers.
21. Buffalo Sabers
From Taylor Hall to Jack Eichel’s future to all the Buffalo-ness of the losing situation, there are a lot of things we tend to focus on with the Sabers before we recognize they have the one. of the best young defenders of the match. Perhaps Rasmus Dahlin’s bumper season in his third campaign indicates a stronger than expected performance in western New York.
22. Florida Panthers
Much of the optimism that surrounded this club over the past two years has died down. That said, Sergei Bobrovsky cannot be as bad in year 2 as he was in year 1.
23. Arizona Coyotes
As the Coyotes reset under new general manager Bill Armstrong, the strong structure of coach Rick Tocchet remains in place. If starter Darcy Kuemper’s injury chance improves, this team – although still challenged offensively – is going to be tough.
24. Sharks of San Jose
A neglected subplot in the league: What if the Sharks are awful again? They have five players – Evander Kane, Logan Couture, Erik Karlsson, Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic – on serious long-term deals with some form of trade protection. The youngest of this group is Kane, 29. What options are there even in Northern California if it stays south?
25. Minnesota Wild
Bill Simmons, “The Podfather,” always talks about the NBA League Pass teams – you know, those sometimes bad but entertaining clubs that you watch on a random Wednesday night. On the other end of that spectrum, I’d bet there’s a chance no one outside of “the state of hockey” has ever said, “Hey, get back to the Wild game.”
26. Diables du New Jersey
I had the Devils as my surprise team before the news of Corey Crawford’s retirement broke. I still think they will be improved a lot. There is plenty of room to grow up after one year of hell.
27. Los Angeles Kings
Fact: One of the Coyotes, Sharks, Kings, Wild or Ducks will make the playoffs. Would you bet your savings against the Kings, with a group of kids who could simultaneously take a step forward?
28. Canards d’Anaheim
This team writes too well to be too long near the bottom. It’s the downcycle chasm, however, and even John Gibson can’t save them.
29. Ottawa Senators
A great example of a team that can be fun to watch without winning a lot. It will be interesting to see how the Senses balance playing the NHL pros and creating opportunities for the myriad youngsters in the organization.
30. Blackhawks de Chicago
I still think it’s worth arguing that being awful is the second best thing about being awesome. Start making your lottery dance project now, Hawks fans, and hopefully next fall the optimism will come back in full force.
31. Red Wings de Detroit
Every update on the performance of Wings leads around the world makes it easier to believe in CEO Steve Yzerman’s plan. It will just take a while to get there.