The New Year is now officially upon us and with it comes a new Hockey season. With the return of the NHL coming this evening, I decided to make some way too early predictions for the 2021 season, including how the Stanley Cup Playoffs will go. This year, each of the NHL's re-aligned divisions will have its top four teams qualify for the playoffs, with those teams all playing their way out of those divisions (kind of like how the league was back in the 80's) before facing their Conference Final opponent. So, with all that said, let's get into the picks!
Scotia North Division: ALL THE CANADA
(1) Toronto Maple Leafs: The Leafs simply cannot afford to miss the Playoffs this season. Missing out on an opportunity with this roster would be an absolute nightmare and the worst case scenario for a Leafs team that's trying to cement itself as a legitimate threat in this League. John Tavares needs to shake off the jitters and come out swinging this season. Tavares, Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner have a shot to be the best trio in the league, yet they don't play with the consistency that they need to in order to accomplish this goal. The Leafs have a real shot at going pretty far this year with the Bruins being out of their division.
(2) Vancouver Canucks: Despite Loui Eriksson being the team's highest paid player and his contract being something no other team will touch, the Canucks have managed to build a solid roster nonetheless. After last year's run, they'll only have more experience, chemistry and moxy with each other. A slow start by Braden Holtby could prompt a goalie change and the Canucks would then have to fight their way back into the top 4 but, like we'll cover with Calgary, they're just too talented to miss the playoffs. I believe the Canucks are honestly the second best team in this division and I expect them to place there, too.
(3) Winnipeg Jets: The return of Paul Stastny adds another element to this Winnipeg team, but his addition could also mess with the chemistry of their lines. It's kind of hard to see where he fits in right now, with Scheifele being the top center; if Bryan Little returns, it only messes things up more. Stastny seems to be insurance in case Little is unable to play, however. Connor Hellebuyck needs to prove that he's not just a good regular season goalie, but rather that he can go on a Playoff run, too. Overall, the Jets seem too deep to not make the Playoffs.
(4) Calgary Flames: The Flames have a good defensive core with veteran Marc Giordano leading the way, while newcomer Jacob Markstrom and David Rittich make a pretty decent duo in net. When you take into account their offensive firepower, there's just too much talent for this squad not to not make the Playoffs. However, they're definitely not division front runners and it'll be a fight for them to get in. I expect the Flames to round out the bottom of the playoff field and claim that 4th seed behind the Canucks, Leafs and Jets.
Team(s) that'll miss the playoffs: Edmonton Oilers, Montreal Canadiens
Edmonton's goaltender situation isn't viable long-term and, as long as Mike Smith is their starter in net, they don't have a chance to compete for a Cup. In this case, this season's division realignment will screw them out of Playoffs entirely.
The Habs are a young team that really overachieved last season. The 24 team play-in format back in August helped them get to the playoffs and they somehow knocked off Pittsburgh, which still shocks me. This team is make or break, as I still consider them in the rebuilding phase. Should be about a year or two before they start to make their run.
Honda West Division: Most Predictable Division Ever
(1) Las Vegas Golden Knights: Marc-Andre Fleury and Robin Lehner form the best goalie tandem in the league, but it may not stay that way. This team is in win-now mode and Lehner proved to be more than capable of being the number one. This team is vying for a Cup and may need one more piece to set it over the edge. I wouldn't be shocked to see MAF traded, along with a couple picks, for another winger; I also wouldn't be surprised if he sticks around, I guess it depends on what the team values more once the Playoffs approach. At the end of the day, though, Vegas is still the best team in the West and might be the best in the League.
(2) Colorado Avalanche: It should come as no surprise at this point that I consider myself a stickler for good goaltending; I love teams that have good goalies. In my opinion, Philipp Grubauer isn't one of them. He's not consistent enough for my liking and can be like Swiss cheese in net at times. He looks like the best goalie in the league one night, only to turn into Rick DiPietro after signing that 15-year contract the next. Bringing in Brandon Saad was an okay move in my opinion, but there's just something about this team that I don't like. Regardless, they will squeak their way into the second spot here and make the Playoffs.
(3) Anaheim Ducks: This team is going to be sneaky good this season, to the surprise of a lot of people. The depth that they have at center is pretty crazy and Ryan Kesler's return only adds more fuel to that fire. John Gibson might have his hands full this year in net, but he's more than capable of stealing a few games here and there. This is my 2021 surprise team.
(4) Arizona Coyotes: The Yotes' chemistry is so messed up right now, it's not even funny. I couldn't begin to imagine the tension in that locker room when your own Captain doesn't even want to be there. I wouldn't be shocked if they don't make the playoffs, as this team is hanging on the verge of combustion. However, as currently constituted, they're better than the Sharks, Kings and Wild. It's hard choosing them over that team that shall not be named, but the loss of Pietrangelo will mess the Blues up a bit. Edge: Yotes.
Team(s) that'll miss the playoffs: St. Louis Blues, Minnesota Wild
I think the Blues struggle with the loss of Alex Pietrangelo and Jordan Binnington isn't going to fare any better this season than last. The Blues still have the potential to make the Playoffs, but Binnington will need to play out of his mind like he did in 2019 in order for them to do so. I don't think he's capable of that, 2019 was a flash in the pan.
The Wild have a decent chance to return to the Playoffs, but that's about it. There really isn't a lot to love about this roster, but the addition of Marcus Johansson adds Center depth that they desperately needed. Cam Talbot is a good signing as well to replace Devan Dubnyk, but that's not a high bar to clear. Maybe Minny proves me wrong.
Discover Central Division: They Will NOT Treat You Like You'd Treat You
(1) Tampa Bay Lightning: They're the reigning champs, but they had to move a few pieces around to navigate the salary cap. They sold their souls for a title last year and might struggle a bit in 2021. The loss of Nikita Kucherov is going to be devastating for this team, but if Steven Stamkos (a guy I thought they could have traded in the offseason) can get healthy and be his old self again, they'll survive. They're still the best team in this division; it's theirs to lose.
(2) Dallas Stars: The Stanley Cup winner and runner-up are in the same division the next season -- how weird. This team needs Ben Bishop back and healthy, which he isn't at the moment. Anton Khudobin can only do so much. He's referred to as a 1B for a reason; he isn't good enough to be a number one but he's also better than a backup. I don't foresee him playing out of his mind like last year; I'm not crapping on him either. The Stars also happen to be the second best team in this division, so them making the Playoffs is a forgone conclusion. If Tyler Seguin can get hot when guys like Jamie Benn and Alexander Radulov do, watch out.
(3) Columbus Blue Jackets: It'll be a cold day in hell when a Torts-coached team doesn't at least make the Playoffs. Elvis Merzlikins and Joonas Korpisalo will be a two-headed monster for this Columbus team and the addition of Max Domi only adds more power to their punch. This Jackets team could very well steal the division if the Stars and Lightning both start slow.
(4) Carolina Hurricanes: "BUNCHA JERKS!" This team is too charismatic to miss the Playoffs, but goaltending is their biggest issue. James Reimer (you bum) and Petr Mrazek need to bring their A games this year. Chicago is going to be pressing the Canes for that fourth spot and the Canes will only go as far as Mrazek can take them (even with a strong defense headed by Dougie Hamilton and Jacob Slavin). Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen need to consistently stay hot, because I feel like Carolina will find themselves in a lot of high scoring games. This team might play too streakily to make the Playoffs -- we'll just have to see.
Team(s) that'll miss the playoffs: Chicago Blackhawks, Nashville Predators
I so badly wanted to put Chicago in the Playoffs. Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews (if healthy) are too good to not make it. Dominik Kubalik and Dylan Strome are young studs for this team and their wingers are incredible. That's about where the good stuff ends, as a weak goalie tandem and very old defensive corps will be their downfall. Trading Olli Maata was a shocking move, but it's because of Brent Seabrook's contract.
What a fall from grace the Preds had. Three years ago, they were gunning for a Cup and now they won't make the Playoffs. A team with Matt Duchene and Ryan Johansen should, on paper, be in the mix. It doesn't help that Pekka Rinne just doesn't have it anymore. A defensive corps that lacks behind Roman Josi and Ryan Ellis won't help.
MassMutual East Division: Wish Isle Knew How To Quit You!
(1) Philadelphia Flyers: Carter Hart is poised to get a massive raise after this season, but he'll need to keep up his dominance to ensure that. Just like with the Bruins, this is the last shot for this team's core. Some names are likely going to have to leave town after this season with Hart's extension coming down the road. They'll benefit from a likely slow start from the Bruins and grab that top spot; If they catch fire at the right time like they did last year, look out.
(2) Boston Bruins: A war with the Flyers is imminent. With Pastrnak and Marchand possibly not being able to start the season, the Bruins will need to rely on more than their 'Perfection Line' to win. A team that looked to be on the verge of a Stanley Cup a year ago arguably got screwed over by the pandemic. Regardless, their second line is still a question mark right now. Who will step up? Ondrej Kase, Craig Smith or Jake DeBrusk??? Who knows, but the Bruins need to figure it out quickly. Tuukka Rask is back so there's no questions in net. I firmly believe that this is the main core's last chance to compete for a Cup. It's now or never.
(3) New York Islanders: I just love this team and I don't know why. Anders Lee and Jean-Gabriel Pageau are two of my favorite players in the League, so I might have some bias with this pick. But they need Mat Barzal to step up big time. The Islanders are good enough to make the Playoffs. Semyon Varlamov and Ilya Sorokin are good enough to get the Islanders in position and their wingers are good enough to close the deal. It's only a matter of doing it.
(4) New York Rangers: The Alexis Lafrenière era in New York is going to kick off with a bang. This team is being slept on and I don't like it. A healthy Chris Kreider, along with Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad, are good enough to get the Rangers to the Playoffs. Jacob Trouba leads a sneaky good Rangers defense that'll hinge on the success of Alexandar Georgiev and Igor Shesterkin. Weird that the Lundqvist era is actually over (get well soon!)
Team(s) that'll miss the playoffs: Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Capitals
*WARNING: BOLD PREDICTION*
I hated the Matt Murray trade. Hated it with a passion. I'm sorry, but Tristan Jarry is not the guy you want going forward, he's like a 1B at best. The Kasperi Kapanen trade might have been the best move they made in the offseason. This team needs a rebuild or a rebrand, as they're stale and boring. Plus, their collapse against the Habs all but proved to me that this team isn't as big of a threat as the League wants you to believe.
Who's your goalie? Is it Ilya Samsonov? Will King Henrik be able to return and help once healthy? These are questions that need answering. This team is older and it just keeps getting older (i.e. Signing a 43-year-old Zdeno Chara). Alex Ovechkin is on the last year of his deal and this is a core that I'm not sure will be able to fight off the new guys over in New York. It'll be a dog fight for sure, one that I think the Caps ultimately lose.
Stanley Cup Playoffs: Division Play - Round One
North Division - (1) Leafs v. (4) Flames: Leafs in 6
North Division - (2) Canucks v. (3) Jets: Canucks in 7
West Division - (1) Golden Knights v. (4) Coyotes: Knights in 4
West Division - (2) Avalanche v. (3) Ducks: Ducks in 7
Central Division - (1) Lightning v. (4) Hurricanes: Lightning in 6
Central Division - (2) Stars v. (3) Blue Jackets: Jackets in 7
East Division - (1) Flyers v. (4) Rangers: Flyers in 6
East Division - (2) Bruins v. (3) Islanders: Bruins in 5
Stanley Cup Playoffs: Division Play - Round Two
North Division - (1) Leafs v. (2) Canucks: Canucks in 5
West Division - (1) Golden Knights v. (3) Ducks: Knights in 6
Central Division - (1) Lightning v. (3) Blue Jackets: Jackets in 6
East Division - (1) Flyers v. (2) Bruins: Bruins in 7
2021 Conference Finals
Western Conference Finals - Knights v. Canucks: Knights in 7
Eastern Conference Finals - Bruins v. Jackets: Bruins in 5
2021 Stanley Cup Final
Stanley Cup Final - Knights v. Bruins: Flip a coin
I honestly can't decide a winner, but I'm positive this will be the Cup Final matchup. I also like a Canucks v. Flyers Cup Final, or even Knights v. Lightning. Even though the Bruins will get off to a slow start, they were the best team in the League last year for a reason. Their main core returns and if some depth pieces can step up, they have a real shot at reaching the Final for the second time in three seasons. The Knights are almost too easy to put in the Final and I honestly don't know if anyone can beat them. Vegas is my favorite to win the Cup or at least make it out of their Conference. Anticlimactic, I know, but I seriously can't commit to a winner right now. When I revisit these predictions halfway through the season, I'll commit to a Cup Champion. Until then, let's just enjoy Hockey being back. Best of luck to all your teams!
- Jake (@JakeyPooBear1)