With new divisions, a flat salary cap, condensed schedules and expanded rosters, fans should go into the 2021 NHL season expecting the unexpected. The hockey world will be thrown into a whirlwind over the next seven months, and with so many unanswerable questions, making predictions is even more futile than in the past. With that in mind, here are 10 bold predictions for what promises to the wackiest season the NHL has ever seen.
1. The Florida Panthers win the new Central Division
Due to the way they went out at the end of last season, people forget that when the NHL shut down last March, the Panthers were eighth in the league with 30 regulation wins. They did that despite having goaltending that was among the worst in the league. They lost a couple of big offensive threats in Mike Hoffman and Evgenii Dadonov, but with one of the best coaches in the league behind the bench in Joel Quenville, Florida takes the next step on the back of a rebound season from Sergei Bobrovsky.
2. Andrei Svechnikov will win the Rocket Richard Trophy
After a breakout 2019-20 season, the Hurricanes’ Svechnikov is going to establish himself as one of the biggest stars in the league this year. Part of that will be leading the league in scoring and winning the Rocket Richard trophy. He will end the season with 36 goals in 56 games—more than Auston Matthews, Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.
3. The Chicago Blackhawks will trade Duncan Keith
The Blackhawks are not being shy about the fact that they are in a full rebuild. They are running with two AHL goalies in net and will be without Kirby Dach, Alex Nylander and Jonathan Toews for most of the season. There were rumblings this past offseason that Patrick Kane would be open to a change of scenery as he is on the back-9 of his career and the full rebuild might not be finished while he still has gas in the tank. However, it won’t be Kane that gets traded this season—it will be the other former superstar, Duncan Keith. Trading Keith will not only be easier from a financial perspective—he’s owed $5.54 million on the cap for two more seasons after this one—but it will also be the trade that brings back the most in return for the rebuild. Teams will be lining up at the deadline to add a player like Keith, and a deal could land Chicago a huge haul.
4. The Dallas Stars won’t make the playoffs
After catching fire in the bubble, the Dallas Stars pushed the Tampa Bay Lightning to Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals. Now, the defending Western Conference Champions are without their best player, as Tyler Seguin underwent hip surgery that will keep him out for the majority of the season. With Ben Bishop still on the mend as well, what was already a top-heavy lineup has become even more shallow coming into the 2021 season. Add to that the fact that the team has already had its schedule condensed due to COVID restrictions and the Stars will find themselves on the outside looking in—even in the new, weaker Central Division.
5. MacKenzie Blackwood will be the breakout star of the season
A week ago, it looked as though the New Jersey Devils would be going into the season with a tandem of Blackwood and Corey Crawford. After a sudden retirement by the veteran Crawford, Blackwood will now be relied upon to do the heavy lifting for the Devils. The 24-year-old is coming off of a season in which he played very well behind a very bad Devils team. This year, the team is still expected to be near the bottom of the standings—particularly in the deep East Division—though they should take a step forward in their development. If Nico Hischier can get on the ice soon, the Devils could surprise some people this season, and a lot of it will have to do with Blackwood, who will finish the year top five in league save percentage.
6. John Tortorella will be fired before April
The Columbus Blue Jackets could be really bad this season. That’s not exactly the best situation for Torts and his volatile personality. He’ll be the first coach to get the ax in 2021. Unfortunately it won’t be enough for Pierre-Luc Dubois to rescind his trade request.
7. The San Jose Sharks will make the playoffs
Last season, the San Jose Sharks were the worst team in the Western Conference. Many are picking them to be near the basement again this year, but despite not making any big moves over the offseason, the Sharks will bounce back thanks to a resurgence from veterans like Erik Karlsson, Logan Couture and Brent Burns. With Vegas, Colorado and St. Louis, the clear-cut top three in the West, prognosticators are having a hard time picking who will grab the fourth playoff spot—it’s going to be the Sharks.
8. Cam Talbot will be a Vezina nominee
Once thought to be the heir-apparent to Henrik Lundqvist in New York, Cam Talbot has tuned into a journeyman veteran who many forget led the NHL in wins back in 2017. Now, playing for his fifth NHL organization, Talbot will be tasked with backstopping a Minnesota Wild team that is lacking a lot of offensive talent. As a result, many believe the Wild plan to play a very boring, very defensive style this season—even more so than normal. That is the perfect recipe a goalie who finished 11th in NHL save percentage last season. With the loss of Alex Stalock, the Wild will be counting on Talbot to be their workhorse, and he is going to take that opportunity to remind the league how good he can be.
9. Erik Johnson will finish second on the Avalanche in points by a defender
Yes, he’s going to have a late start to the season, and no, he is not going to see as many offensive opportunities as he has in the past, but Erik Johnson is going to prove he’s far from washed up and finish second on the team in points from a defender— first being Cale Makar of course.
10. At least one team won’t play all 56 games
The Dallas Stars have already had the start to their season postponed because of COVID protocol. They now have to play 56 games in 110 days, leaving almost no wiggle room for more delays. This shines a spotlight on just how small the window for the 2021 season truly is. All it will take is two separate shut downs for a team to run out of time to get every game played. With the pandemic still running out of control in North America, the odds are high that the NHL will see multiple positive tests. At least one team will run out of time and have its season shortened to 52-ish games, forcing the NHL to use win percentage for the standings to make up for the discrepancy—the way the MLB was forced to in its 2020 season.