B/R Staff Roundtable: Award Predictions and Stanley Cup Champion
Get ready, hockey fans. The curtain is about to be raised on the 2020-21 NHL season.
Navigating the new campaign will be a significant challenge for all involved as the league tries to delicately manage its strategy of playing games during the COVID-19 pandemic. Fan attendance will be sporadic at best with the majority of teams playing their games behind closed doors. Teams based in Canada will only play against each other during the regular season.
It will be a mad 56-game dash to the postseason, and the league will need to answer many difficult questions before the dust settles.
Despite all this, our Bleacher Report NHL staff is ready, willing and able to make some award predictions, as well as their prognostications for the winner of Lord Stanley's Cup.
So sit back, relax, take notes on our writers' predictions and leave your comments in the B/R App to share your feedback.
Lyle Richardson: Nathan MacKinnon Will Win the Hart Trophy
The Colorado Avalanche's first-line center and franchise player, Nathan MacKinnon is a two-time finalist (2018, 2020) for the Hart Memorial Trophy. He was also the 2020 winner of the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy as the league's most gentlemanly player.
MacKinnon carried the injury-depleted Avalanche to the Western Conference's second-best record last season while sitting fifth among the league's leading scorers with 93 points. He was also dominant during the 2020 playoffs, finishing fourth with 25 points in just 15 games.
The 25-year-old center is in the prime of his career, coming off his third consecutive 90-plus-point campaign. If not for the pandemic derailing the 2019-20 regular-season schedule, he likely would've reached the 100-point plateau for the first time.
Entering this season, the Avalanche should be considered among the favorites to win the Stanley Cup. The biggest reason is MacKinnon. A dazzling, highly skilled forward, he is a dangerous scoring threat whenever he's on the ice. He's established himself as an NHL superstar in his own right.
More importantly, MacKinnon has grown into a leadership role with the Avalanche. That was evident in his performance throughout last season. He's vital to their quest for their first Stanley Cup championship since 2001.
After he was a finalist two of the last three seasons, this is MacKinnon's year to take home the Hart.
Abbey Mastracco: Andrei Vasilevskiy Will Win the Vezina Trophy
While most teams are moving toward a 1A and 1B system with a condensed, 56-game schedule this season, the Tampa Bay Lightning have a goalie who regularly plays more than 50 games in a season.
Andrei Vasilevskiy hasn't played fewer than 50 games since the 2015-16 season, back when he was 21 years old and learning from Ben Bishop. But since he took over the starting duties in net, he's been a workhorse. Just 26 years old, he shows no signs of slowing down as he enters the prime of his career.
Vasilevskiy's size and mobility are what makes him so good. At 6'3", 225 pounds, he covers a lot of net, and his strength allows him to cover even more.
The skaters in front of him are also effective at limiting high-danger chances. Salary-cap issues have forced the Lightning to part with a few members of their 2020 Stanley Cup team, but he's still an elite goalie with an elite defense in front of him. The Lightning remain loaded, and he does have perennial Norris Trophy candidate Victor Hedman playing in front of him.
Vasilevskiy will have some competition from goalies like Connor Hellebuyck, who is also capable of handling a large workload, and a young goalie like Carter Hart could emerge, as well. But the 2019 Vezina Winner is the favorite as the season opens.
Lyle Fitzsimmons: Kirill Kaprizov Will Win the Calder Trophy
Sometimes you've just got to go against chalk.
While every prognosticator worth his or her credential is suggesting Alexis Lafreniere as the logical winner of the Calder Trophy, I decided to make it a little more interesting.
Make no mistake, Lafreniere was selected first overall for a reason, and he's an excellent bet to have a wonderful career that may even include a Stanley Cup parade or two down Broadway.
But I like me some Kirill Kaprizov.
It's been an achingly long wait for Kaprizov in Minnesota Wild country since he was drafted in the fifth round of the 2015 NHL draft, but he finally became an official member of the organization when he signed an entry-level deal in July.
He scored 30-plus goals in each of his last two seasons in the KHL and produced better than a point per game last year with 62 in 57 contests against world-class professionals.
He has a creative offensive skill set, is a smart and patient player and is frequently able to hold the puck for an extra instant or split-second that allows a dangerous play to develop.
Kaprizov will finally be in a Minnesota uniform when the 2021 season begins, and it says here that he'll be the league's best first-year player, setting up a reboot of the Russia-Canada rivalry with Lafreniere that's made Alex Ovechkin vs. Sidney Crosby must-see TV for more than a decade.
Abbey Mastracco: Jared Bednar Will Win the Jack Adams Award
The Colorado Avalanche have a chance to do something special this season with Jared Bednar at the helm.
Their biggest star, Nathan MacKinnon, is predicting a Stanley Cup for the Avalanche, and Bednar is a key reason why. He's a calming presence behind the bench for Colorado, which is quite the contrast from his predecessor, the fiery Patrick Roy. (Anyone remember that time he tried to break down the partition to fight with Bruce Boudreau on the other bench?)
Sure, Bednar has immense talent on his roster between MacKinnon, captain Gabriel Landeskog and 2020 Calder-winning defenseman Cale Makar, but it's how he uses his stars that makes him effective as a head coach.
Bednar has been described as a player's coach, and a coach who can communicate with young talent is crucial when trying to develop players like Makar—and when some of the youngest players are the most important players on the team.
Of course, coaches like the Tampa Bay Lightning's Jon Cooper will be in the mix for the Jack Adams Award. If Bruce Cassidy can get the Boston Bruins to the top of the stacked East Division, then he could claim the award for the second year in a row.
Colorado has reached the Stanley Cup Playoffs in each of the last three seasons, and it needs to build on that postseason experience in the regular season. If it can do that, Bednar would have a great chance to win the award given annually to the NHL's top coach.
Lyle Richardson: Seth Jones Will Win the Norris Trophy
The Columbus Blue Jackets have long known they have a blue-line star in Seth Jones. However, the 26-year-old defenseman has often been overshadowed by his more well-known peers.
Jones' performance in the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs was a coming-out party. Appearing in 10 postseason contests, he led all players in time on ice per game with a whopping 32 minutes and 40 seconds. He also set an NHL record (65:06) for most time on ice in one game.
Acquired from the Nashville Predators midway through 2015-16, Jones quickly established himself as a core member of the Blue Jackets. He had three consecutive seasons with 42 or more points from 2016-17 through 2018-19, including a career-best 57 in 2017-18. The 6'4", 209-pounder plays a strong all-around game at both ends of the rink.
Jones is now the linchpin of the Jackets' defense corps. They struggled during the final weeks of last season when he was sidelined by ankle surgery, and his return was a big factor in their upset elimination of the Toronto Maple Leafs in the qualifying round.
Entering the prime of his career, Jones will play a crucial role in the Jackets' pursuit of the Stanley Cup. He should come into his own this season as one of the NHL's top defensemen. No longer overlooked, he'll be rewarded with his first James Norris Memorial Trophy.
Lyle Fitzsimmons: Patrice Bergeron Will Win the Selke Trophy
OK, so we're not exactly stretching the envelope here.
Suggesting a 35-year-old forward with intermittent injury issues as a major NHL award winner could be considered tenuous. But once you realize said forward is Patrice Bergeron, it's not quite so risky.
Bergeron, after all, plays for the team—the Boston Bruins—that had more regular-season standings points than any other in 2019-20. And, oh yeah, he's already won the award.
Indeed, the 2003 second-round draft choice has long been one of the NHL's best when it comes to two-way forward play, earning recognition as the league's best in 2012, 2014, 2015 and 2017 to equal the four times the award was won by the Montreal Canadiens' Bob Gainey from 1978-81.
Still a point-producing threat, Bergeron has scored 30 or more goals six times with the Bruins, including each of the last three seasons, and he was one of three finalists for the Selke in 2019-20 before losing out to the Philadelphia Flyers' Sean Couturier.
He's likely to carry even more of the early offensive load in Boston this season as injured stars David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand miss time. He'll also be upping his leadership game given the exit of stalwart defenseman Zdeno Chara via free agency, which led to his elevation to team captain.
Thirty or so goals. Prudent play in all three zones. A high-profile position on a contending team.
Put it all together and it spells another summertime trophy pose.
Predictions: Who Will Win the Stanley Cup This Season?
Lyle Richardson: Colorado Avalanche
Since bottoming out in 2016-17, the Colorado Avalanche have rebuilt themselves into one of the NHL's top teams. This season will see them march on to championship glory.
The Avalanche possess one of the league's top lines in superstar center Nathan MacKinnon and wingers Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog. Nazem Kadri, Andre Burakovsky and offseason acquisition Brandon Saad provide a robust secondary scoring punch.
Colorado's defense corps features 2020 Calder Memorial Trophy winner Cale Makar, big all-around defenders Erik Johnson and Ryan Graves and underrated puck-mover Samuel Girard. They're also bolstered by last fall's acquisition of Devon Toews from the New York Islanders while promising Bowen Byram and Conor Timmins wait in the wings.
Injuries to goaltenders Philipp Grubauer and Pavel Francouz derailed the Avalanche in their second-round series against the Dallas Stars last summer. When healthy, however, the duo helped Colorado finish the regular season with the sixth-best goals-against per game (2.71).
Thanks to general manager Joe Sakic's handiwork building up the roster, the Avalanche have made tremendous strides in recent years. With a potent first line, reliable second-line scorers, impressive blue-line depth and solid goaltending, this is a powerhouse that cannot be denied.
This is the year it all comes together. Expect the season to end with the Avalanche celebrating their first Stanley Cup championship since Sakic captained them in 2001.
Abbey Mastracco: Colorado Avalanche
According to DraftKings, the Avalanche are a league-best +650 to win the Stanley Cup. After three straight playoff appearances, they are poised to be one of the top teams in the NHL.
They have high-end talent, a strong supporting cast and the right coach to get them deep into the postseason. General manager Joe Sakic has been patient throughout the building process, supplementing his stars with talented young players. Through some shrewd maneuvering, the Avalanche are doing fine when it comes to the salary cap, which means their window for success will be open past this season.
But this season is the one in which it all comes together.
There isn't one glaring weakness in Colorado's game. They can score goals in bunches with Nathan MacKinnon, one of the world's best players and a perennial Hart Trophy candidate, leading the charge. Calder winner Cale Makar had 50 points in 57 games last season, and goalie Pavel Francouz had a breakout campaign. The Avalanche are great at limiting high-danger chances in front of him and Philipp Grubauer.
Injuries hit the Avs hard in the postseason bubble last year. Otherwise, they may have gone further than the Western Conference semifinals. They lost to the eventual Western Conference champions, the Dallas Stars, in Game 7.
If healthy, the Avs should be the team to beat out of the West.
Lyle Fitzsimmons: Vegas Golden Knights
It may be a source of locker room friction, and it may be a salary-cap nightmare.
But in terms of the problems you could offer an NHL coach, having two legitimate No. 1 goaltenders isn't exactly the worst, particularly with a compressed schedule loaded with back-to-back games.
That's precisely where Peter DeBoer finds himself with the Vegas Golden Knights this season.
The team has been one of the best in the Western Conference since arriving as an expansion unit in 2017-18 and going all the way to the Stanley Cup Final. It was expected to follow suit last season as the conference's top playoff seed before an upset loss to the third-seeded Dallas Stars.
All the Knights have done since is sign No. 1 goalie Robin Lehner to a long-term deal, keep multi-Cup winner Marc-Andre Fleury in the fold alongside him and add a hulking three-time All-Star on the blue line in front of them in the form of ex-St. Louis Blues stalwart Alex Pietrangelo.
If you think that sounds like a championship recipe, you're right.
The Golden Knights will take that final step this season not only because of the aforementioned trio in the back, but also thanks to the consistent and continued production up front from the likes of wingers Max Pacioretty (32 goals in 2019-20), Reilly Smith (27 goals) and Mark Stone (21 goals), center Jonathan Marchessault (22 goals) and others
Bottom line: They're deep. They're good. They're hungry.
And that spells trouble for the rest of the NHL.