A brand new NHL season is about to start, and it comes after one in contrast to another within the historical past of the league. After the coronavirus pandemic forced the NHL to pause for practically 5 months, the 2019-20 season resumed play inside two bubbles in Canada, with the Tampa Bay Lightning exorcising some pretty nasty demons within the playoffs and rising as Stanley Cup champions.
And it wouldn’t be a bizarre hockey season with out labor drama, which we received within the offseason when league homeowners lobbied players for extra financial concessions — although the 2 sides had seemingly agreed to the phrases of a brand new deal simply months earlier. The players union held its ground — however the battle almost sank the ship.
And but, right here we’re at the start of a brand new, albeit shortened, NHL season. It’ll nearly definitely be a bizarre one, with groups taking part in in realigned divisions, which, amongst different issues, separate the Canadian groups from the remainder of the league. In opposition to that backdrop, who seems good, who seems unhealthy and who has an out of doors shot at lifting the Stanley Cup?
The champs are nonetheless good … however they’re weaker
The Lightning most likely ought to have been lifting their second consecutive Stanley Cup in September, however their historic unravelling within the 2018-19 playoffs saved them from getting the primary of what might need been a pair. One Cup continues to be higher than no Cups, nevertheless, and Tampa will need to have preferred its probabilities to repeat in 2021 … till it found that star ahead Nikita Kucherov would miss the entire regular season (no less than) with a hip harm that required surgical procedure.
Shedding any participant to harm is a blow for a locker room and a headache for a training workers, however a participant of Kucherov’s caliber is almost inconceivable to switch as a result of there aren’t many (or any) gamers of Kucherov’s caliber that aren’t named Kucherov. In accordance with targets above alternative (GAR), which estimates the full web targets added or saved by every skater and goalie based mostly on their field rating stats, Kucherov has been the very best participant within the NHL over the previous three seasons — even higher than Edmonton Oilers sensation Connor McDavid, if simply barely.
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Add within the lack of star defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk — who accounted for extra GAR than Erik Karlsson and as a lot GAR as Brent Burns a season in the past, for context — and a dearth of consequential offseason signings, and the Bolts have bled fairly a little bit of worth since lifting Lord Stanley’s bowl three and a half months in the past. That mentioned, there’s nonetheless fairly a little bit of expertise left on Tampa’s roster, between harmful ahead Brayden Level, defending Conn Smythe Trophy winner Victor Hedman, former Vezina Trophy-winning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy and captain Steven Stamkos, who’s lastly wholesome after lacking all but one playoff game final season.
Shedding Kucherov is a troublesome tablet to swallow, however Tampa simply gained the Stanley Cup with out the providers of Stamkos, who’s arguably the very best participant in franchise historical past. The Lightning clearly know easy methods to deal with adversity, and so they’re getting into the brand new season with sufficient of their championship-winning roster intact to be scary.
Beware the Avalanche … and Maple Leafs?
The Colorado Avalanche completed the 2019-20 common season tied with the Lightning for third in points percentage, and so they had been tied with the Capitals because the league’s third-most-prolific objective scorers. In accordance with GAR, the Avs enter the brand new season with essentially the most gifted roster within the NHL. Middle Nathan MacKinnon is an enormous purpose for that; he had the fifth-most GAR of any skater within the NHL a season in the past (higher than Kucherov, even). Second-year defenseman Cale Makar will look to construct on his Calder Trophy-winning season from a yr in the past. Add Stanley Cup winner Brandon Saad to the combination and take into account that Colorado’s goaltenders mixed for one of many league’s best save percentages a season in the past, and it’s clear why the Avs enter the brand new season with the best betting odds to carry the Stanley Cup.
Maybe surprisingly, the Toronto Maple Leafs additionally rank close to the highest of the Cup odds, trailing solely the Avalanche, the Lightning and the Vegas Golden Knights. Nothing has changed in Toronto when it comes to silverware: The Leafs stay the one Authentic Six staff to not win a Stanley Cup since growth started in 1967. However their new crop of stars — led by American wunderkind Auston Matthews, who was the fourth-best skater within the NHL a season in the past in response to GAR, and buttressed by veterans like John Tavares and Joe Thornton (!) — may have one thing to say about that this season, significantly since Toronto has the league’s sixth-best staff when it comes to GAR expertise. It appears like Thornton has been chasing a Stanley Cup for so long as the Leafs have, so maybe a victory is written within the stars.
Offseason winners and losers
Every new offseason goes principally just like the earlier one: Some groups make signings that change the trajectory of the franchise, some groups half methods with beloved icons, and a few groups do subsequent to nothing. This offseason was no completely different (nicely, except for the truth that it was considerably shorter than normal).
To assist decide how a lot every staff improved its veteran expertise over that interval, we will use GAR to measure the anticipated worth a staff gained from buying new gamers and misplaced from gamers who departed because the earlier common season. By that measure, the Detroit Purple Wings and New Jersey Devils had the very best offseasons — although you could possibly argue there was nearly nowhere to go besides up for two of the NHL’s worst teams from a yr in the past.
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Amongst groups that may truly make some noise within the playoffs, the Golden Knights, St. Louis Blues and Washington Capitals added some very intriguing expertise. The Knights traded veteran centerman Paul Stastny and defenseman Nate Schmidt over the break, however in addition they signed free-agent defenseman Alex Pietrangelo away from St. Louis. Pietrangelo, who turns 31 subsequent week, has been within the Norris dialog (even when solely as a whisper) nearly yearly since his second full season within the league, and he was the offseason’s largest pickup in response to GAR.
The Blues would miss their former captain in the event that they hadn’t additionally signed a marquee free-agent defenseman throughout the offseason. Former Bruin Torey Krug was the second-best blue liner accessible this offseason, behind Pietrangelo. He’s each bit pretty much as good on the offensive facet of the ice as Pietrangelo — and doubtless higher at quarterbacking the ability play — and he’s each youthful and cheaper. The Blues had the third-best power play percentage within the league in 2019-20; Krug would possibly make it the very best. St. Louis additionally signed sharpshooting forward Mike Hoffman, who’s been a lock for at least 22 goals throughout every of the previous six seasons. In accordance with GAR, he was the fourth-best signing of the offseason.
The Capitals have never been darlings in the betting odds, even after successful all of it in 2018, and they’re tied with the Hurricanes and Blues as 20-to-1 shots going into this season. Washington most likely deserves higher therapy after shedding little of consequence — save for the poorly performing Braden Holtby in web — from final yr’s roster, and including just a few helpful elements over the offseason (even after it was introduced that Henrik Lundqvist would miss the season with a coronary heart situation). If pickups like Zdeno Chara and Conor Sheary have something within the tank, and if younger Ilya Samsonov can enhance on final yr’s Holtby-fueled No. 28 rating in goaltending GAR, the Caps may have one other run left in them.
And a few final season’s Canadian playoff groups additionally rank among the many most improved for 2021. Montreal lost winger Max Domi — an enormous departure — however added goalie Jake Allen and improved its weak point on the blue line with Tyler Toffoli and Joel Edmundson. And the Oilers picked up some recent expertise (headlined by D-man Tyson Barrie) to go together with their two generational talents in McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. Sure, this can be a franchise that’s notorious for wasting generational talents, however possibly splitting the pair up and divvying up their talents extra evenly throughout the primary and second traces will assist an offense that ranked just 12th in goals last year.
In the meantime, the Boston Bruins misplaced a few of the most established expertise of any contender this offseason. With former captain and franchise coronary heart and soul Chara now playing his hockey in D.C., will probably be on 23-year-old Charlie McAvoy to guide the defensive unit. And the Bruins mentioned goodbye to the lynchpin of their energy play after they let Krug stroll, which implies they have to be betting that Matt Grzelcyk is ready to make the leap. They can even be with out David Pastrňák for at least the first month of the season, after the reigning Rocket Richard Trophy winner underwent hip surgical procedure in September. Regardless of all of that, the Bruins nonetheless have the second-most-talented roster within the league in response to GAR, however Boston’s destiny most likely is determined by how nicely it could address the numerous adjustments this offseason introduced.
Younger gamers to look at
Hockey is blessed with a wealth of gifted younger gamers proper now, together with Pastrňák, McDavid, Matthews and Jack Eichel at ahead, and Makar and Columbus’s Zach Werenski on the blue line — all of them 24 or youthful. Past them, Hurricanes winger Andrei Svechnikov and D-men Adam Fox of the Rangers, Quinn Hughes of the Canucks and Rasmus Dahlin of the Sabres ought to solely get higher after spectacular seasons in 2020. And keep watch over a pair of 21-year-old facilities — Robert Thomas of the Blues and Nick Suzuki of the Canadiens — who ought to construct on their ahead-of-the-curve performances. Final season, 33 p.c of leaguewide worth was generated by gamers aged 24 or youthful, a part of a three-year development that has seen that determine attain its highest ranges since 1990.
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After all, all eyes can even be on the 2020-21 rookie class. No. 1 overall pick Alexis Lafrenière will get regular duty immediately for the New York Rangers, and the 19-year-old is already impressing teammates together with his talent stage. At age 23, former KHL standout Kirill Kaprizov is poised to make an instant impact in his NHL debut with the Minnesota Wild. And Rangers goaltender Igor Shesterkin is still officially a rookie after excelling in spot responsibility late final season. Widely viewed because the inheritor to legendary N.Y. goalie Lundqvist, the 25-year-old led all goalies in save percentage (with a minimal of 400 pictures confronted) final yr; if given the chance to start permanently, Shesterkin could possibly be one of many league’s greatest breakout candidates in web this season.
What is going to realignment result in?
Due to the continued pandemic — and maybe particularly as a result of journey is still restricted at the U.S.-Canadian border — the NHL cut up its divisions in a brand new means for this season. It isolated all teams north of the border in their very own, aptly named North Division, whereas scattering the remainder of the league throughout three different divisions in vaguely geographic trend. The brand new configuration (which is likely a one-and-done plan) will revive some previous rivalries gutted by fashionable realignment, such because the Purple Wings and Blackhawks — who will play eight instances in 56 video games this season — and create some attention-grabbing new ones involving the Jets, who normally don’t get to face their cross-country rivals from Ontario a lot throughout a traditional season.
The all-Canadian division must also be a very good, principally balanced group from high to backside. Save for the Senators, each staff within the North is a legit risk to seize one of many 4 accessible playoff spots — and to vie for the conference-final slot assured to the division’s final staff standing, an vital stepping-stone on the trail to ending Canada’s Stanley Cup drought. Among the many different divisions, the West is a good combine of fine and unhealthy, the East is stacked with maybe an unreasonable variety of Cup hopefuls — Philadelphia, Boston, Washington and Pittsburgh, plus the 2 New York golf equipment — whereas the Central might be weak if the Stars take a step again after some key injuries and regression to the mean take their toll.
Identical to the earlier season, the 2020-21 NHL marketing campaign is bound to be uncommon. Regardless of an uncommonly chalky end result from final yr’s bubble, the defending champs are weaker now — with a wide-open discipline of challengers coming for his or her crown. The offseason’s chaotic calendar helped set the tone for the brief 56-game pattern that may now decide every staff’s future. (As if hockey needed more randomness.) All the components are there for a downright wild season on ice, and we will’t await the puck to drop.
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