Seattle won’t get an inaugural playoff visit
There’s a lot to love about an NHL team finally returning to Seattle (jersey collectors no doubt await a revival of the Golden Seals kit), if for no other reason than to give the Vancouver Canucks a true regional rival – even if their jerseys are, annoyingly, almost indistinguishable on TV. Still, the Kraken’s expansion draft might not prove as fruitful as that of the Vegas Golden Knights a few years ago. Jordan Eberle, Mark Giordano, Jamie Oleksiak, and – perhaps above all – Philip Grubauer, will certainly provide a good base to work with. But it doesn’t feel like the team is deep enough to get them out of a difficult division with the Avalanche and Golden Knights, or even past the Flames and Oilers.
More teams will adopt a relaxed dress code
The NHL’s game-day dress code isn’t just tradition, it’s written into the Collective Bargaining Agreement between the league and the players’ association. Paragraph 5 of Exhibit 14 stipulates that players are “required to wear jackets, ties and dress pants to all Club games and while traveling to and from such games unless otherwise specified by the Head Coach or General Manager.” Enter the Arizona Coyotes, the first team to relax the code, thanks to a prompt from their brand manager. This is likely why other teams will follow, uh, suit (sorry). While the players may see it as a chance to show off their fashion bona fides, owners will probably recognize the marketing and sales opportunity. This summer, the Maple Leafs collaborated with Justin Bieber’s clothing line, Drew House and, surprise, it’s not a bunch of suits and ties.
Connor McDavid – and Oilers fans – will be disappointed again
There are few more frustrating storylines in the NHL than McDavid’s. The guy’s a wizard alien. He’s a freak. The fastest kid alive. The NHL’s best player. And yet perennially unfulfilled. Last year was no different. The Oilers didn’t just lose their first-round series against the Winnipeg Jets last spring – they got swept, 4-0. It’s difficult to pinpoint a single cause, but that they were outscored 14-8 in the series, with not just McDavid but Leon Draisaitl as well, might be it. Obviously goaltending was also a factor, and remains one. Adding Zach Hyman is a positive step. But Duncan Keith feels like an answer to a question nobody asked – unless it was one about anti-vaxxers. McDavid may have to be satisfied with Olympic gold in February. That is, unless…
The Americans win gold in Beijing
If there was ever a moment for the United States to win Olympic gold in men’s hockey, this is it… I think? Let’s see. So far, the US has named three players to its Olympic roster: Auston Matthews, Seth Jones, and Patrick Kane. Seems like a good start! Who else might make the cut? Cole Caufield, the Canadiens’ wunderkind/playoff saviour may do. How about Jack Eichel (assuming he’s healthy)? Who else is on this list? Johnny Gaudreau, Brock Boeser, Kyle Connor, John Carlson, Ryan Suter, Connor Hellebuyck, Ben Bishop… yeah, these guys are stacked. Let’s be honest, Canada will most likely ice a solid squad, too. Beyond McDavid, Sidney Crosby, and Alex Pietrangelo already named to the team, Canada’s options include Nathan MacKinnon, Mitch Marner, Jonathan Huberdeau, Brad Marchand, Mat Barzal and Cale Makar – a solid group! But it feels like the Americans might have the edge now. Unless it’s actually Finland? Or maybe Russia? Should be a good tourney.
The Maple Leafs won’t lose to the Canadiens in the playoffs
The good news for Leafs fans is that it’s unlikely they’ll see a repeat of last spring’s brutal playoff exit to Montreal. But that’s only because the Canadiens won’t make the playoffs this year. Is that dismissive of a team that went all the way to the Finals just a few months ago? Yes. But the return to the regular divisional format in 2021-22 means the Habs are in much tougher company than when they faced just the North (against whom they frankly struggled). The Bruins, Panthers, and Lightning will be too challenging. Same story for the Leafs. While they’ll likely make the post-season again, Toronto will likely need to get past either the Bolts, Bruins, or Panthers to advance – and that’s only if Matthews and Marner start to actually put up points, which they don’t tend to do in the playoffs. The Leafs going far is possible, but… yeah, I dunno, probably not?
The best games will be in the Central Division
Keep your eyes on the Central. Colorado will be looking to redeem themselves after their second-round playoff loss to Vegas. Dallas will be hunting for a playoff berth and a repeat of their 2020 Stanley Cup Final berth – before everyone gets too old. Meanwhile, Winnipeg remains a threat and the Blues and Predators will likely be stiff competition for the wildcard spot. As for Chicago? The Blackhawks over-delivered on expectations for much of the truncated 2021 season but faltered down the stretch and missed the playoffs. With Marc-Andre Fleury between the pipes now and Seth Jones on the blue line, Chicago may now have what it takes to slip into the postseason. This will be a competitive division with deepening rivalries and the highest potential for meaningful midseason match-ups.
We’re going to talk more about what happens off the ice
The NHL continues to reckon with some of its darkest demons. During the summer, TSN reported that a former Chicago Blackhawks player alleged that he’d been sexually assaulted by the team’s then-video coach in 2010, and that the team did nothing after he spoke up about the alleged abuse. The coach has denied the allegations, and the Blackhawks are expected to release a report on the incident soon.
More recently, Golden Knight’s goalie Robin Lehner levelled allegations of a different kind. Lehner tweeted about a disagreement between the Buffalo Sabres and Jack Eichel over the proper treatment for his herniated disk injury (the team wants Eichel to get fusion surgery, but Eichel favours disk replacement surgery – the disagreement has led to the Sabres stripping Eichel of his captaincy and his requesting a trade). Lehner tweeted a story about Eichel, commenting “Better to have pain for the rest of their lives… At least they will supply the pain meds… same old shit.” He then accused the league of endorsing irresponsible prescription drug and sleeping pill distribution to players. Lehner has since spoken to both the NHL and NHLPA and said he’s “excited about the potential change that can be made to protect the younger generation.” More to come, as they say.
And then there’s Carey Price. Montreal’s surprising Cup run last spring would not have happened without Price between the pipes – and certainly not without him being, by all appearances, so zoned-in as to be in an almost trance-like state. We don’t know what happened since then, nor is it our business. But last week, Price voluntarily joined the NHL’s player assistance program, which helps players with mental health or substance abuse issues. Maybe we’ll find out more, maybe not. In any event, Price’s decision is a good one – both for himself and his family, and for hockey more broadly. It’s OK to ask for help.
The playoffs will unfold like this…
The league has yet to confirm the 2022 playoff format, but assuming it returns to pre-pandemic form, here’s how it could look: In the East, Tampa, Florida, Boston, and Toronto will make the postseason, along with the Islanders, Carolina, Washington, and Philadelphia. Out west, the weaker Pacific division will see only three teams go to the playoffs, Vegas, Edmonton, and Calgary. Five teams from the Central will make it through – Colorado, Dallas, Winnipeg, with St. Louis, and Chicago taking the wildcard spots. The Islanders will beat Toronto to face Tampa in the second round, while Florida will advance to face Carolina. Calgary will better Edmonton to play Dallas, and Vegas will meet Colorado. This will mean that…
The New York Islanders will make the Final
Post-Olympics, the biggest question in the NHL will probably be: Who can take down Tampa? Friends, it’s the New York Islanders. They came very close to doing it last year, after all, losing just 1-0 in Game 7 against Tampa Bay in the semifinals. It was virtually the same story in 2020. For Tampa, the road to the Stanley Cup seems always to lead through Long Island. And while the Lightning may not three-peat the Cup itself, it seems likely that a third semifinal between the two teams is likely. Tampa still feel like a championship team, but if anyone can end that, it’s the Islanders. Captain Anders Lee will return after injuring his ACL last season. Mat Barzal should be in his usual form. And the Semyon Varlomov-Ilya Sorokin combo in net is one of the best, if not the best, goalie duo in the league. The end result?
The Stanley Cup will leave Florida
Look, Florida can be fun. And Lord Stanley’s cup has clearly enjoyed itself there, despite the head injury. But come on, you can’t stay in Florida forever (OK, maybe in the Keys). Tampa will fall to the Islanders, finally. The Panthers will try to keep the Cup in-state, but against the Islanders they won’t prove quite ready. A lengthy Final series will see the Islanders raise the Stanley Cup.