NHL ’21-22 Season Preview: Storylines to Follow

A day into a new season following a good return to hockey for ESPN featuring one of the most iconic themes and the cool story behind it told by Justin Bieber, we get the introduction to the NHL On TNT tonight. It features a highly anticipated game between bitter rivals, pitting the Rangers against the Capitals in DC. Will there be fireworks 🎆🎇 between Ryan Reaves and Tom Wilson or is Jarred Tinordi going to have a rematch after avenging former Boston teammate Brandon Carlo last season? Hopefully, there will be good hockey too for Wayne Gretzky to analyze.

The bigger storyline is the Lightning. They already lost last night to the Crosby and Malkin less Penguins, who spoiled the fun of a nice Stanley Cup banner ceremony by winning 6-2. It still was memorable for the fans, who patiently waited two years to witness the first back-to-back champion since the Pens (’16 & ’17). Before that, you have to go all the way back to the Red Wings (’97 & ’98). Now, the Bolts aim for the first three peat since the Islanders dynasty. They won four straight from 1980 to 1983. Speaking of which, the current Islanders have unfinished business after coming so close to dethroning the Lightning last Spring. They’ll have captain Anders Lee back and the game’s oldest player in Zdeno Chara.

If the Lightning can win three in a row, they’ll have to accomplish it without the superb third line of Yanni Gourde, Barclay Goodrow and Blake Coleman. Some new faces will be asked to step up including former Hab veteran Corey Perry. The stars remain with a core that features Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman, Andrei Vasilevskiy, Ondrej Palat, Ryan McDonagh, Anthony Cirelli and Alex Killorn. Most teams would kill to have half that nucleus. They’ll be in contention again with serious challenges coming from the Islanders, Panthers, Hurricanes, Maple Leafs and possibly the Bruins and Canadiens if they can succeed without Carey Price and Shea Weber. Big if.

There are up and coming teams such as the Rangers, who feel with key additions Goodrow, Sammy Blais and Reaves, can help make them a more complete team that’s ready to compete. It’ll still depend on the improvement from kids Kaapo Kakko, Filip Chytil, Alexis Lafreniere and K’Andre Miller with Igor Shesterkin a huge key. If you’re looking for potential surprises, maybe the Red Wings will be more competitive thanks to adding Nick Leddy and Alex Nedeljkovic. Keep an eye on Lucas Raymond. I’m not suggesting they’ll make the postseason, but they could be a bit improved. So should the Devils thanks to landing big fish Dougie Hamilton along with Ryan Graves to help their blue line. Is Dawson Mercer ready for prime time? Jack Hughes will need to have a breakout year while Nico Hischier stays healthy. We’ll see what happens with Mackenzie Blackwood, who still isn’t vaccinated. Jonathan Bernier was brought in for goalie help.

Out West, it looks like a two horse race between the Golden Knights and Avalanche, who still must prove they can overcome their second round woes. Colorado has a new starting goalie in Darcy Kuemper with Philipp Grubauer leaving for the brand new expansion Seattle Kraken. They gave Vegas a game last night even coming back to tie the game before losing 4-3 on an unlucky bounce. That’s hockey. It was a nice introduction with the Golden Knights putting on the fantastic show that makes it Vegas prior to opening puck drop.

Already, Nathan MacKinnon has COVID and won’t play in the Avalanche’s first game later. Even though the league is almost 100 percent fully vaxxed with only four players remaining to get the shot, there’ll still be positive cases throughout a full 82-game schedule. We know vaccinated can get it. Especially when they’re around so many people. In this case, teammates and opponents along with coaches and trainers. What at least is known is how to handle these cases so there isn’t a repeat of what happened between the Devils and Sabres. Asymptomatic cases shouldn’t be as bad as long as there isn’t a spread.

What can Cale Makar do over a full season? Ditto for Adam Fox, who won the Norris over 56 games last season. How excited are we to see what Oilers superstar tandem Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl can do? Will one or both get 50 goals and how many points can McDavid reach? Is 150 possible? Edmonton will be exciting and should be a playoff lock in a weak division with only Vegas ahead of them. Who else makes it?

The Avalanche play in a better division featuring contenders Dallas, Winnipeg, Minnesota, St. Louis and Chicago, who should be improved with the additions of Marc-Andre Fleury and Seth Jones. Don’t forget captain Jonathan Toews is back. Add that to Patrick Kane and Alex DeBrincat and they have an exciting roster. Colorado is the class of the Central featuring MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog, Mikko Rantanen, Makar and wildcard Nazem Kadri. Will he again do something boneheaded to hurt his team? This is a very competitive division with only the lowly Coyotes looking like they’ll be very bad despite a few good players. Have you seen the goalies? Expect a good year from Eeli Tolvanen of Nashville, who are hoping Juuse Saros can carry the load in net.

Which of these teams can take third and fourth in the Northwest?Calgary with Jacob Markstrom looking for a bounce back season while the future for Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk look cloudy? The Canucks, who wisely got both Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes signed. It’ll depend largely on netminder Thatcher Demko, who has a better backup with Jaro Halak supplanting Braden Holtby. Bo Horvat remains an underrated center, who can do a bit of everything. They need Brock Boeser healthy. He isn’t to start the season. If he ever was 35 to 40 goals is possible. What about the promising Kings, who signed Phillip Danault and boast Arthur Kaliyev and Alex Turcotte to go with Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty, Dustin Brown and Jonathan Quick, who could be at the end. LA will be interesting. So should Anaheim despite looking not ready to return to the postseason. Trevor Zegras will turn heads and compete for the Calder Trophy along with the Habs’ Cole Caufield, Panthers goalie Spencer Knight and perhaps Vasili Podkolzin of Vancouver.

The Kraken have an experienced group led by Mark Giordano and Jaden Schwartz with a good goalie duo in Grubauer and Chris Driedger. The question will be scoring. They’ll rely on Jared McCann and a few others to surprise like Vegas had in ’17-18. The Sharks aren’t expected to do much. Not that they’ll be bad. They have proven performers like Logan Couture, Brent Burns, Erik Karlsson, Tomas Hertl, Timo Meier. But Evander Kane is under NHL investigation for a host of issues off the ice. He’s a good power forward. Right now, he’s not on the roster. They’re prepared to move forward without him. Can Adin Hill and veteran James Reimer keep enough pucks out of the net? Don’t bank on it. This could be a team that sells at the trade deadline with Hertl an unrestricted free agent next summer.

Is anyone worse than the Sabres? They did compete hard towards the conclusion of last year without former injured captain Jack Eichel. Eichel remains a headache for Buffalo fans with the star center wanting to be traded anywhere at this point. It’s a touchy issue with Eichel due to his neck injury. He wants to get a different surgery while the Sabres team doctors don’t. Whoever acquires him better hope he gets what he wants and can be ready to go by the second half. My bet is on either Vegas or Los Angeles. I honestly don’t expect him to play. This could be another Eric Lindros situation. Their starting goalie is Craig Anderson. It’s gonna be a long year in Western New York.

So, who will make the playoffs which unfortunately go back to the silly top three in each division and the two wildcards without reseeding. They need to change it back or adjust it. We’ll have rankings and playoff picks and more coming up later.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of Hudson administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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