B/R NHL Staff Roundtable: Predicting the Winners of Every Division This Season
After a truncated season in which normal divisional rivals were separated because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the NHL returns to its standard divisional setup for the 2021-22 campaign.
With the addition of the Seattle Kraken, all four NHL divisions will have eight teams, with the top three teams in the division earning a playoff berth.
Will the Maple Leafs shake off their playoff disappointment and surpass the Lightning to take the Atlantic Division crown? Which team is the standout squad in the Metropolitan? Are there any teams out in the Western Conference that can challenge the Golden Knights and the Avalanche?
Our NHL staff got to thinking and provided their takes on who will be the best teams after 82 regular-season games.
Don't agree with our team? Feel free to agree to disagree and submit your predictions on who will win their division in the comments below!
Abbey Mastracco: Why the Isles Are Head of the Class in the Metropolitan
The Metropolitan Division could be a slog, with the established teams beating the tar out of each other. It could also be a perfect division for some teams on the rise.
The Pittsburgh Penguins, Philadelphia Flyers and Washington Capitals are all capable of winning the division. Or they could all be staring down the barrel of rebuilds.
Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are both sidelined with injuries to begin the season, and almost no hockey club is built to be able to withstand injuries to its two top players in the salary-cap era. Years of being in win-now mode have left the farm system depleted.
The Caps have been disappointing since they won the 2018 Stanley Cup, and their core isn't getting any younger. The Flyers need Carter Hart to become the goalie he was over his first two seasons in the NHL when he posted a .915 save percentage.
The revamped New Jersey Devils have Dougie Hamilton and an improved Jack Hughes. What they don't have is secondary scoring, but if they find some, then it could be possible for the rebuilding club to challenge some of these other teams for a playoff spot. The New York Rangers have one of the best prospect pools in hockey and some are ready to graduate to the NHL.
But the Metro will likely come down two teams: The Carolina Hurricanes and the New York Islanders. The Hurricanes are the sexy pick, and they are the one of the most entertaining teams to watch in the Eastern Conference.
The Islanders are on the other end of the spectrum. It's not that they are unwatchable, but like all Barry Trotz-coached teams, it's all about the system. And that system gets results, which is why the Isles are my pick to win the Metro.
They have the high-end talent up front in Mathew Barzal, Anders Lee and Kyle Palmieri, secondary scoring from players like Jean-Gabriel Pageau and a defensive pair that stole the show in the 2021 Stanley Cup playoffs in Ryan Pulock and Adam Pelech. The goaltending is solid with rising star Ilya Sorokin and veteran Semyon Varlamov.
The Islanders also have a new arena opening up soon, and the place is sure to be rocking, much like the old barn was during their deep playoff run.
Lyle Richardson: Bolts Still the Best in the Atlantic
It's easy to pick a defending Stanley Cup champion to win their division, especially one coming off rare back-to-back Cup wins. That doesn't mean the Tampa Bay Lightning will have an easy time of it.
The Atlantic Division also features a rising Florida Panthers team led by Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau. Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak power a Boston Bruins club that's only two years removed from reaching the Cup Final. Meanwhile, the Toronto Maple Leafs feature young guns Auston Matthews, Mitchell Marner and William Nylander.
Those teams have the talent to contend for the Atlantic crown. What they don't have, however, is the impressive core of talent that was crucial to the Lightning's consecutive championships.
The Lightning possesses one of the league's elite goaltenders in Andrei Vasilevskiy, who won the Conn Smythe Trophy after backstopping his club to its second Stanley Cup in as many years. The 27-year-old is also a perennial Vezina Trophy Finalist who took home the award in 2019. None of their divisional rivals can boast that caliber of goaltending.
Patrolling the blue line is Victor Hedman, who won the Conn Smythe Trophy during their championship run in 2020. A five-time James Norris Memorial Trophy finalist who won the award in 2018, the 30-year-old remains among the NHL's top defensemen. He's abetted by Ryan McDonagh, Mikhail Sergachev and Erik Cernak, providing the Lightning with a deep, experienced defense corps.
Their forward lines feature captain and two-time Rocket Richard Trophy winner Steven Stamkos and 2019 Hart Trophy and Art Ross Trophy winner Nikita Kucherov, who led all scorers in each of the past two postseasons. Center Brayden Point, 25, has risen to prominence as a clutch two-way performer. Along with Alex Killorn, Ondrej Palat and Anthony Cirelli, they match up well against any club in the league.
The Lightning's checking lines were depleted by the offseason departures of Blake Coleman, Barclay Goodrow and Tyler Johnson because of salary-cap constraints. While that could make a Cup three-peat more difficult, they still possess sufficient depth to take the Atlantic Division crown.
Adam Herman: It's Avalanche or Bust in the Central Division
Fans have reason to be less confident in the Colorado Avalanche this season than in 2020-21, when they won the Presidents' Trophy.
The biggest question mark comes in goal. Philipp Grubauer, the team's starting goaltender the past two seasons, made a stunning move to the Seattle Kraken in free agency. Colorado scrambled and acquired Arizona's Darcy Kuemper as a replacement.
Kuemper, 30, was fantastic for Arizona in 2018-19 and 2019-20, ranking third among all NHL goaltenders by Goals Saved Above Expected, per Evolving-Hockey. But Kemper was average last season and has started more than 30 games in a single season once in his NHL career (2018-19).
The Avalanche also lost multiple players over the offseason. Joonas Donskoi headed to Seattle, Brandon Saad left for division rival St. Louis in free agency and defenseman Ryan Graves was a cap casualty sent to New Jersey via trade.
The Central Division will also present some challenges this season. The Dallas Stars and St. Louis Blues both underachieved last season. They are now healthy and made substantial additions (Ryan Suter in Dallas, Pavel Buchnevich and Saad in St. Louis). The Winnipeg Jets also reinforced their defense by adding Brenden Dillon and Nate Schmidt.
However, it's still Colorado's division to lose. Though they lost players, those most integral to the franchise remain. Gabriel Landeskog was re-signed to play alongside Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen. Cale Makar, Devon Toews and Samuel Girard remain arguably the best defensive trio in hockey.
They'll be integrating some youth to cover for lost players. Top prospect Bowen Byram, who played 19 games last season, is a year more mature and should be a lineup regular. So too will Alex Newhook, who did not look out of place in eight playoff games last season.
Even if the Avalanche see a slight dip in form, as long as the goaltending holds up, they shouldn't have much trouble winning their division for the second consecutive season.
Lyle Fitzsimmons: Vegas Is Still Golden in the Pacific Division
Sometimes, it's best to not overthink things.
Though the Pacific Division is flush with contenders that include a two-MVP team with nearly no playoff success, a team trying to recover from a COVID-19-ravaged disaster of a season and the newest entry into the league's now-32-team framework, it's also home to a proven elite-level commodity.
Ladies and gentlemen, we present the Vegas Golden Knights.
Now the NHL's second-youngest franchise behind the newborn Seattle Kraken, the Nevada desert-dwellers have been a model of success since arriving on the scene, expansion style, in 2017-18.
They finished first in the Pacific and added 13 playoff wins in their inaugural season, advancing all the way to the Stanley Cup Final before a five-game loss to the Washington Capitals.
The three seasons since have yielded a second Pacific Division title, three more playoff berths and four series wins but also final-four losses to the Dallas Stars (in 2019-20) and Montreal Canadiens (2020-21).
So to suggest the Knights are still hungry is a sizable understatement.
And to say they are the Pacific favorites is just as big of one.
Still, it will be a new look of sorts in 2021-22 for the Golden Knights, who traded Vezina Trophy goalie Marc-Andre Fleury to Chicago and sent veteran winger Ryan Reaves to the New York Rangers while adding forwards Evgenii Dadonov and Nolan Patrick via respective deals with Ottawa and Philadelphia.
"Our job is to do the best things we can for the organization to help our team win," general manager Kelly McCrimmon told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. "Our fans like winning hockey teams.
"We've done a lot of that in our four-year existence in Las Vegas. We do what we can to put the best team on the ice, make the best decisions with our personnel."
What it all means is It's a Vegas division to lose.
Unless the Golden Knights hit a wall and the Edmonton Oilers break through one.
The NHL's northern Alberta residents boast a Hart Trophy-Art Ross duo in Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl but have won precisely one playoff series in 15 years.
GM Ken Holland was uber-busy throughout the summer, though, engineering deals and signings that brought in veteran defenseman Duncan Keith (from Chicago) and rugged winger Zach Hyman (from Toronto), and kept forward Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and defenseman Tyson Barrie in the fold.
If all goes well, the Oilers could mount a challenge. But it's more likely they will get the silver.
As for the rest, it's a big collection of meh.
Calgary, Vancouver and even the new-kid Kraken figure to chase the Pacific's bottom two playoff spots, with the youngsters from Anaheim and Los Angeles and the transitional group from San Jose battling to stay out of the basement.