6 NHL Teams Ready to Take Huge Leaps Forward in 2021-22

Lyle Richardson@@SpectorsHockeyFeatured ColumnistSeptember 13, 2021

6 NHL Teams Ready to Take Huge Leaps Forward in 2021-22

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    NHL training camps are set to open later this month, and with preseason action starting Sept. 28, we could soon get an indication as to which teams made the most improvement over the course of the offseason.

    Some of last season's playoff teams, like the Florida Panthers, will attempt to make the leap toward Stanley Cup contention in 2021-22. There are those like the Philadelphia Flyers looking for a bounce-back season after missing the playoffs in 2020-21. Others, like the New York Rangers, are rebuilding clubs hoping to make a major step toward playoff contender status.

    Those teams are among the ones should be ready to take huge leaps forward this season. We'll examine the factors that should account for their anticipated improvement, including offseason trades, free-agent signings and development of young talent. You can weigh in with your thoughts on this subject in the comments section.

Detroit Red Wings

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    Over the past two seasons, Detroit Red Wings general manager Steve Yzerman has patiently continued the roster rebuild begun by his predecessor, Ken Holland. And his busy offseason may have brought in the final pieces of the puzzle.

    Yzerman's biggest additions were between the pipes and on the blue line. He acquired goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic on July 23 from the Carolina Hurricanes and signed him to a two-year, $6 million contract. A week earlier, the Wings GM brought in defenseman Nick Leddy from the New York Islanders.

    The 25-year-old Nedeljkovic was a Calder Memorial Trophy finalist last season. If he builds upon that promising effort, the Wings could finally have the reliable starter they have been lacking since Jimmy Howard backstopped them to their final postseason in 2015-16. Leddy, 30, brings puck-moving skills and experience to the Wings defense corps. He's expected to pair up with Filip Hronek, who emerged as their top blueliner over the past two seasons.

    Speaking of defensemen, promising Moritz Seider is expected to make his NHL debut this season. The Wings blue line will be much improved if the 20-year-old adapts quickly to the big-league game. Yzerman also brought back veteran shutdown rearguard Marc Staal on a one-year deal.

    The Wings will also get a full season from left wing Jakub Vrana, who was acquired at last season's trade deadline. The addition of free-agent Pius Suter should bolster their depth at center. Healthy seasons from captain Dylan Larkin and wingers Tyler Bertuzzi and Robby Fabbri will also increase their production. Promising winger Filip Zadina could have his much-anticipated breakout season.

    It's been a sometimes painful rebuild for the Wings in recent years. Yzerman's patience with his promising young players and his recent roster additions could have this team ready to move within striking distance of a playoff berth this season.

Florida Panthers

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    Last season was among the best in Florida Panthers history, finishing second in the Central Division and fourth overall with 79 points in 56 games. Although they were eliminated from the opening round of the 2021 playoffs in six games by the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Panthers are poised for bigger things in 2021-22.

    Led by center Aleksander Barkov and left wing Jonathan Huberdeau, the Panthers possess a powerful scoring punch, finishing fourth last season with 3.36 goals per game. Their offense was further augmented by the trade-deadline acquisition of versatile forward Sam Bennett and the offseason addition of right wing Sam Reinhart.

    The Panthers suffered from the absence of top defenseman Aaron Ekblad during their series against their archrivals from Tampa Bay. Sidelined by a fractured left leg in late March, Ekblad's return will bolster their blue line. The emergence of MacKenzie Weegar as a two-way rearguard provides an additional level of skill. They also brought back veteran Brandon Montour on a three-year deal.

    Goaltending will be the Panthers' wild card this season. Sergei Bobrovsky has been inconsistent in his previous two seasons as their starter. The emergence of Spencer Knight prompted management to part ways with Chris Driedger this summer. If Bobrovsky regains his Vezina Trophy form and Knight plays up to expectations, the Panthers will have a solid tandem in goal.

    Several other players could play interesting roles for the Panthers this season. Free-agent signing Joe Thornton could center their third line. Promising center Anton Lundell could crack the lineup this season, providing an additional measure of scoring punch, as could winger Grigori Denisenko.

    Guided by respected head coach Joel Quenneville, the Panthers have perhaps the deepest roster in franchise history. They have the talent to challenge for the top spot in the Eastern Conference and perhaps become a legitimate Stanley Cup contender.

New Jersey Devils

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    Another club that's undergone three seasons of rebuilding with young players while largely eschewing big investments in veteran talent, the New Jersey Devils made four significant offseason additions. Each move was an indication general manager Tom Fitzgerald expects his team to become a playoff contender this season.

    The biggest move was signing Dougie Hamilton. One of the top players in this summer's free-agent market, the 28-year-old defenseman inked a seven-year, $63 million contract with the Devils. A gifted puck-mover in the prime of his career, Hamilton will bring a significant level of experienced offensive skill.

    Fitzgerald turned to the trade market for a shutdown blueliner, acquiring Ryan Graves from the Colorado Avalanche. He praised the 6'5", 220-pounder's physical style, competitiveness and ability to play alongside young defensemen.

    The addition of winger Tomas Tatar via free agency brings some welcome experience to the Devils' scoring lines. Fitzgerald also brought some stability and depth to his goaltending by signing former Detroit Red Wings netminder Jonathan Bernier to be starter Mackenzie Blackwood's understudy.

    In addition to those veterans, the Devils will also look toward several of their promising youngsters to make major strides in their developments this season.

    The focus will be on former No. 1 picks Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes to lead the way as they center the Devils' top two lines. They will also look to wingers Janne Kuokkanen and Yegor Sharangovich to build upon last season's solid performances. Their overall depth could be helped further if prospects Alexander Holtz, Nathan Foote and Kevin Bahl crack the roster.

New York Rangers

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    Earlier this year, the New York Rangers made considerable changes in their front office and behind the bench. On May 5, they replaced general manager Jeff Gorton and team president John Davidson with Chris Drury. Head coach David Quinn lost his job a week later, and Gerard Gallant was hired as his successor on June 16.

    Gallant coached the Vegas Golden Knights to the Stanley Cup Final during their inaugural season. That garnered him the Jack Adams Award as the NHL's coach of the year in 2017-18. He has the experience and know-how to turn the Rangers into a playoff team.

    Drury wasted little time injecting some grit and toughness into the Rangers lineup. He traded restricted free-agent winger Pavel Buchnevich to the St. Louis Blues for winger Sammy Blais, acquired and signed forwards Barclay Goodrow from the Tampa Bay Lightning and Ryan Reaves from the Golden Knights and inked free-agent defensemen Patrik Nemeth and Jarred Tinordi.

    The Rangers' added muscle should make them tougher to play against. Nevertheless, it's their skill players who will lead the way this season.

    Superstar winger Artemi Panarin and former 40-goal scoring center Mika Zibanejad will once again provide the offensive punch, abetted by veterans Chris Kreider and Ryan Strome. Expect improved performances from promising forwards such as Alexis Lafreniere, Kaapo Kakko and Vitali Kravtsov.

    The defense corps will be anchored by Adam Fox, who took home the James Norris Memorial Trophy as a sophomore last season. Minute-munching defenseman Jacob Trouba will handle the duties as their second-pairing right-side blueliner, while the 21-year-old K'Andre Miller looks to build upon his strong 2020-21 rookie campaign.

    Igor Shesterkin and Alexandar Georgiev return as their goaltending tandem. Shesterkin earned a substantial raise coming off his entry-level contract, inking a four-year deal worth an annual average value of $5.67 million.

    With their mix of skilled stars, additional veteran grit and promising youth, the Rangers appear poised for substantial improvement. If everything comes together as hoped, they should clinch a postseason berth.

Ottawa Senators

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    Like the Detroit Red Wings and New Jersey Devils, the Ottawa Senators have undergone a significant roster overhaul over the past three years. According to general manager Pierre Dorion, his club is ready to take the next step. During a Sept. 7 appearance on TSN 1200 Ottawa (h/t The Score's Kayla Douglas), Dorion said he believes "it's time to win."

    Fueling Dorion's optimism is the Senators' encouraging improvement during last season. They proved to be a difficult opponent in the all-Canadian North Division, finishing with a respectable 51 points in 58 games to sit eight points out of the final playoff spot. They were also 23rd in the league standings, a significant improvement over 30th the previous season.

    Leading the way were several 24-and-younger players who have established themselves as key players on the cusp of stardom. Among them are forwards Brady Tkachuk, Josh Norris, Tim Stutzle and Drake Batherson and defenseman Thomas Chabot. They finished among the Senators' top six scorers last season, providing a welcome boost to the club's production with the promise of much more to come.

    Chabot anchors a defensive corps that still needs improvement in its own zone. Artem Zub could be part of that solution. He handled his first NHL season well, earning a two-year contract extension. Up-and-comer Erik Brannstrom could benefit from more ice time this season.

    Goaltending was a concern last season as injuries limited starter Matt Murray to just 27 games, and a healthier campaign on his part should improve their stats. They'll also need Anton Forsberg and Filip Gustavsson available to ensure Murray doesn't shoulder too much of the burden.

    The Senators still have concerns in goal and on defense, but last season's performance showed this club has the potential for better things going forward. Reaching the playoffs this season isn't a certainty, but it also isn't outside the realm of possibility.

Philadelphia Flyers

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    After finishing fourth in the Eastern Conference in 2019-20 and reaching the second round of the 2020 postseason, the Philadelphia Flyers missed last season's playoffs after struggling through a difficult campaign. Thanks to several offseason deals by general manager Chuck Fletcher, they should be poised for a solid bounce-back performance in 2021-22.

    Fletcher's biggest move was acquiring defenseman Ryan Ellis from the Nashville Predators in exchange for blueliner Philippe Myers and center Nolan Patrick. A well-respected two-way rearguard, Ellis will address last season's glaring need for a right-side defense partner alongside Ivan Provorov on the Flyers' top pairing.

    Shipping left winger Jakub Voracek back to the Columbus Blue Jackets for right winger Cam Atkinson was another major deal by Fletcher. Atkinson won't replace Voracek's playmaking skills, but his goal-scoring abilities will be invaluable to the Flyers after finishing 18th last season in power-play percentage.

    Other moves by Fletcher included shipping Robert Hagg and two draft picks to Buffalo for defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen, peddling Shayne Gostisbehere to the Arizona Coyotes in a cost-cutting deal and signing goaltender Martin Jones and defenseman Keith Yandle.

    The Flyers will look to Carter Hart to rebound from his disastrous performance last season. Jones, who backstopped the San Jose Sharks in 2016 to the Stanley Cup Final, should help the 23-year-old regain his promising form by acting as the young goalie's backup and mentor.

    Fletcher also made two solid investments in his club's future, signing center Sean Couturier and left winger Joel Farabee to long-term contract extensions. Both should play key roles in the Flyers' turnaround efforts this season. Right winger Travis Konecny tallied 61 points in 2019-20 and will be expected to have a bounce-back performance after managing just 34 points in 50 games last season.


    Stats via NHL.com. Contract info via CapFriendly.