5 Bold Predictions for the Rest of the NHL Season
The 2021 NHL season is nearing a close. The fact that the NHL staged a season this year after labor disagreements and the COVID-19 pandemic is a victory itself. All parties involved pulled off a season unlike any we've ever seen.
The divisions realigned temporarily and teams played a division-only schedule in an attempt to cut back on travel. However, there were still coronavirus outbreaks and teams endured long shutdowns and schedule changes. The Las Vegas Golden Knights were coached by their own general manager, Kelly McCrimmon, at one point and the New York Rangers called up the coaching staff of their American Hockey League affiliate when COVID-19 exposures forced the staff to quarantine.
These teams are sick of each other. The Rangers and the New Jersey Devils played four straight games against each other last week. It would have been a fun rivalry series any other year, but with limited fans in the stands and the teams' standings in the East Division, it didn't feel as heightened as those rivalry series usually do.
But the Stanley Cup Playoffs bring a heightened intensity no matter the situation. As teams gear up for the stretch run and jostle for postseason positioning, the intensity will pick up. Anything can happen over the final month of regular-season play, so here are five predictions for the rest of the season.
Adam Fox Will Win the Norris Trophy
The Rangers will be good in the coming years. They have one of the best prospect pools in hockey, a talented young core and star winger Artemi Panarin. Defenseman Adam Fox may soon be a star on par with Panarin.
Jacob Trouba might be a key leader on the blue line, but Fox has emerged as the Blueshirts' No. 1 defenseman this season. In just his second season, the Harvard product is not only the Rangers' best defenseman, he's one of the best in the NHL.
Fox plays at nearly a point-per-game pace. He has the second-most points among all defenseman (41) behind Victor Hedman and John Carlson (42 each), he averages nearly 25 minutes of ice time per game, plays and excels in all situations, with 2.230 points per 60 minutes, the fourth-best mark for all defensemen in the league.
Fox can stay on the ice because he avoids penalties. He's been in the box for only 12 minutes this season. He also draws tough assignments and typically shuts down his opponents. A true shutdown defenseman who can also put up points at a rate like that is extremely valuable.
Drafted by the Calgary Flames in the third round of the 2016 draft, his signing rights were traded to the Carolina Hurricanes in the Dougie Hamilton deal, but the Long Island native who grew up watching Rangers legend Brian Leetch leveraged a trade to his hometown team, and he's thrived ever since. Fox should win the Norris Trophy.
The St. Louis Blues Will Miss the Playoffs
The 2019 Stanley Cup champs are one point away from a playoff spot in the West Division, but they have some problems to fix, and they're running out of time to fix them.
Vladimir Tarasenko has not found his scoring touch after undergoing his third shoulder surgery in September. He has only three goals and is shooting at a career-low 5.5 percent. Brayden Schenn has gone 17 games without a goal. One year after scoring 22 goals, Jaden Schwartz has scored only four.
This could be because the Blues are giving up more high-danger scoring chances (361) than they're getting (301), according to Natural Stat Trick. This is a big, heavy team that has the power to get into the dirty areas to score, but it is not a high shot-volume team. They're good at limiting scoring chances on the other end of the ice, and they're a physical team in an era of fast, skilled skaters. But at some point, the Blues have to be able to score as well.
The Blues should be able to hold off the San Jose Sharks, and they should be able to overtake the Arizona Coyotes, the West's fourth-place team. The Coyotes may not have the firepower to reach the postseason.
But the Blues aren't looking like the same team that won the Cup two years ago, so this may be a down year for St. Louis.
The Nashville Predators Will Make the Playoffs
Earlier this season, it was looking like the Predators needed to blow it up and rebuild. But they've won 14 of their last 20 (14-0-0) to claw back into playoff contention.
The most impressive part of that stretch might be that the Preds did it without center Matt Duchene and defenseman Ryan Ellis. Duchene was injured on March 4 (lower-body) and returned over the weekend for the push to the playoffs. Ellis (upper-body) was out from Feb. 28-April 11.
The Predators hung on to Mattias Ekholm at the trade deadline, believing they had a shot at making the postseason. The 6'4" defenseman skates like he's much smaller, and in a weak trade market, there was a chance Nashville could have seen a big return for the 30-year-old with another year on his contract at an affordable $3.75 million.
But a bigger return will be a deep playoff run.
The schedule is favorable: The Preds have two more games against the Chicago Blackhawks, two more against the Columbus Blue Jackets and one against the Dallas Stars. The Stars, only three points behind Nashville in the Central Division standings, could pose a challenge, but the bigger challenges will come from two games each against the Florida Panthers and Carolina Hurricanes.
Auston Matthews Will Score 40 Goals
Maybe this isn't a bold prediction. Maybe this is a safe prediction, because Matthews is one of the most prolific scorers in the NHL. But he's already at 33 goals with 10 games left to play, so he's locked up the Maurice "Rocket" Richard trophy. Mikko Rantanen of the Colorado Avalanche is the league's second-leading scorer with 26 goals. No one will catch Matthews.
Now we wait to see whether he can reach the 40-goal mark. It seems well within reach for a player producing 1.32 points per game.
A 40-goal season is difficult enough during an 82-game season. But if Matthews has seven more left in him in the regular season, it will qualify as one of his more impressive feats on a list of impressive feats in his five-year NHL career.
He scored 47 last year in 70 games, scoring the 47th in the final regular-season contest before the COVID-19 shutdown. The first time he scored 40 goals in one season was during his rookie campaign, and he scored No. 41 in game 81, so 40 in only 51 games is a ridiculous pace.
He was scoring at an even higher rate earlier this season. Matthews was on pace for 50 goals at one point. The Toronto Maple Leafs are the best team in a bad division, so Matthews has been able to beat up on teams like Ottawa Senators all season, but it shouldn't take away from what could be a historic achievement.
Taylor Hall Will Regain His Confidence
The 2018 Hart Trophy winner recently admitted to having lost some confidence as of late. His time with the Buffalo Sabres was a disaster, which is understandable considering the Sabres are a disaster. A former first overall pick and league MVP has clearly been humbled by three trades and stints with five teams.
But he seems to be doing well with his fifth team, the Boston Bruins. The snakebitten Hall scored only two goals in 37 games with Buffalo and has already matched that total in five games with Boston. The Bruins needed secondary scoring, and it looks like Hall is giving them that.
He also brings speed and the ability to carry the puck. The winger has fit well on a line with David Krejci and Craig Smith and drawn high praise from other teammates, with David Pastrnak saying his skill set is "elite."
Hall has been an elite player in the league for a long time, but bouncing around and playing on losing teams can take a toll. Hall said he wanted to sign with the Bruins so he wouldn't have to be the "focal point" of the team. He wanted to play and have a chance at a deep playoff run. He's only been to the playoffs twice in his career and has never come close to a Stanley Cup.
Hall will need to find the necessary confidence to play deep into the playoffs, but it appears as though he's starting to find it.