B/R NHL Staff Roundtable: Stanley Cup Champion and Individual Award Predictions

Bleacher Report NHL StaffFeatured ColumnistOctober 11, 2021

B/R NHL Staff Roundtable: Stanley Cup Champion and Individual Award Predictions

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    Gerry Broome/Associated Press

    It's the Tampa Bay Lightning's league, and everyone else is looking to knock them off.

    Thirty-one other teams will attempt to knock the Bolts off their lofty perch this season and deny Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman and Nikita Kucherov the final stamp of approval for a modern-day NHL dynasty.

    Elsewhere, Connor McDavid has seized the crown as the NHL's best player, but can he follow up last season's monster 105-point season with a Hart-worthy encore in 2021-22?

    Adam Fox took home the Norris Trophy last year, but with up-and-coming defensemen on the horizon, such as Cale Makar and Charlie McAvoy, the Rangers' franchise blueliner will have elite competition to hold off in his attempt to retain his status as the league's best defenseman.

    The B/R NHL staff picked the winners of those awards, the Cup winners and more in our latest set of predictions on the eve of the 2021-22 campaign.

    Don't agree with our picks? Make your own prognostications in the comments below!

Lyle Richardson: Expecting Someone Else? Connor McDavid Will Win the Hart Trophy

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    It might seem a tad lazy to predict the defending Hart Memorial Trophy winner to win the award again this season. Superstars such as Colorado Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon and Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews could just as easily take home the honor.

    When you're talking about Edmonton Oilers captain Connor McDavid, however, you're referring to a generational talent who last season took his play to a level not seen since Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux were in their heyday in the 1980s and 1990s.

    At 24, McDavid became just the second player in the Hart's 97-year history to win it unanimously from the 100 ballots of the Professional Hockey Writers Association. Gretzky was the other, in 1981-82. With 105 points in just 56 games, his 1.88 points-per-game was the highest since Lemieux's 2.30 in 1995-96.

    That's the level of greatness McDavid is on now. The extra gear the Oilers' captain found in 2020-21 should carry him to further dominance this season as the NHL's most valuable player.

    McDavid's critics will point out those numbers he put up last season were against Canadian teams only. They will insist it will be a different story when he faces off against the rest of the league this season, conveniently overlooking he won it as a sophomore in 2016-17 playing against the entire league.

    Even if McDavid doesn't score at the same torrid pace, he's still the best player in the game. With all due respect to his teammate and 2020 Hart winner Leon Draisaitl, McDavid remains the straw that stirs the drink for the Oilers.

    McDavid performs his puck-handling wizardry at a high rate of speed that few players can match. His offensive proficiency enables the Oilers to overcome their weaknesses in goal, on defense, and at right wing during the regular season. He was humble when he thanked his teammates during his acceptance speech, but it's they who should be thanking him.

    Now entering his playing prime, McDavid isn't content to rest on his laurels. On Aug. 30, he told the Associated Press (h/t Sportsnet) he intends to improve his play without the puck and in his own zone. Building up his defensive game without sacrificing too much of his offense will make him a more complete player. It should also ensure another Hart for his trophy case next summer.

Franklin Steele: It's Another Vezina Trophy for Andrei Vasilevskiy

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    Look, choosing anyone besides Andrei Vasilevskiy as the Vezina Trophy favorite would be going against the grain just for the sake of doing so. While there are a handful of netminders who could challenge the 27-year-old for the hardware, we just don't see a clear-cut option we would comfortably pick ahead of him. Vegas has him pegged as the betting favorite and we're adding our names to the list of believers.

    He's arguably the best netminder in the NHL, and he's playing for arguably the best team in the league. The Tampa Bay Lightning did lose some talent over the summer, but they're still projected by The Athletic's Dom Luszczyszyn to safely clear 100 points this season. That means the former 19th overall pick will pile up a lot of wins, and we all know how much those matter when it comes to the Vezina Trophy.

    Vasilevskiy has been and will continue to be a huge part of Tampa Bay's success. Just look at his playoff stats from a year ago for proof of just how remarkable he is when he's dialed in.

    He started 23 games during the Lightning's Stanley Cup-winning run and posted an astonishing 26.6 GSAA. That means that, on average, in every single playoff game he appeared in, Vasilevskiy would prevent at least one goal that the average NHL backstop would have allowed. There's no reason to believe he won't be every bit as dominant in 2021-22. The reality is that Tampa rosters a top-five defense, so even when Vasilevskiy has an off night—which would be an outstanding evening for most goalies in the league—he still isn't going to be facing too many shots of the high-danger variety.

    If we were going against the grain and pick someone else just to do it, though, it would be Connor Hellebuyck. Luszczyszyn's projection model (which is generally considered to be one of the best models available to the public) actually has the Winnipeg Jets starter ranked as the No. 1 goalie in the league. If Vas gets injured or sees his game slip for even a few weeks, Hellebuyck could give him more of a run than pundits are expecting.

    And if you want a real dark horse, look no further than Juuse Saros. We aren't sure how good the Nashville Predators will be this season, but the 26-year-old was lights out last season. Still, the Vezina Trophy is Vasilevskiy's to lose this year, and we can't see him slipping to the point of not being perceived as the league's best netminder.

Lyle Fitzsimmons: Spencer Knight Will Be Your Calder Trophy Winner

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    Here's the space where we like to go contrarian.

    While much of the hockey predicting world was quick to anoint No. 1 overall pick, Alexis Lafreniere, as rookie of the year before the 2020-21 season began, we went against chalk and confidently cast our lot with imported Russian winger Kirill Kaprizov as the best of the first-year player bunch.

    Ask any Minnesota Wild fan how that one turned out.

    So this year, while offensive-focused heads turn toward Montreal's Cole Caufield or Anaheim's Trevor Zegras because of their late impacts last season, we're looking to the other end of the ice.

    There, Florida goaltender Spencer Knight is the player to watch.

    Just 20, Knight wrapped up his sophomore season at Boston College in the spring and signed on with the Panthers in time to record four wins and a 2.32 goals-against average in four regular-season appearances. He later started Game 5 of a first-round playoff series with the Tampa Bay Lightning and made 36 saves in a 4-1 victory before dropping a season-ending 4-0 decision two nights later.

    The field competing for the starting job was trimmed by one when Chris Driedger went to Seattle in the expansion draft, leaving only Knight and high-priced veteran and former Vezina winner Sergei Bobrovsky. The latter turned 33 in September and has five years left on a deal paying him $10 million annually.

    Bobrovsky was 19-8-2 with a 2.91 goals-against average last season and has been statistically outplayed by his teammate this preseason, with Knight posting a 2.25 goals-against average in three games compared to his 3.09 in two games. The youngster is also outpacing him in terms of save percentage with a .925 against Bobrovsky's .878.

    "I can speak for [coach Joel Quenneville] and one thing that we've been trying to work toward is the best players play, so on any given night Q's going to address the lineup, and he said this time and time again: 'I'm going to try to win hockey games,'" Panthers general manager Bill Zito told the Miami Herald.

    "There's a lot of factors that go into many things, so we're going to get with the goaltending department, and we'll figure it out."

    We'll make it simple. Knight is the man, and he'll win the Calder.

Lyle Richardson: Cale Makar Will Take Home the Norris Trophy

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    Cale Makar is among a new generation of young, puck-moving defensemen quickly moving up the ranks of the NHL's elite players. Those abilities should carry the 22-year-old Colorado Avalanche blueliner to the James Norris Memorial Trophy.

    Since making his debut with the Colorado Avalanche during the 2019 playoffs, Makar has displayed poise and puck-handling skill beyond his years. He won the Calder Memorial Trophy in 2019-20, finishing second among rookie scorers and second among Avalanche skaters with 57 points in 50 games. Limited by injuries to 44 games last season, he tallied 44 points and was runner-up to the New York Rangers' Adam Fox among Norris Trophy voters.

    At 5'11" and 187 pounds, the 22-year-old lacks the size of the archetypal NHL defenseman, but that isn't essential for his style of play. His effortless skating and puck-moving skills enable him to control the flow of the game. He can join the rush or quickly return to his zone to break up opposition plays. Thanks to his maneuverability, he's a crucial part of the Avalanche's transition game.

    That control allows Makar to act like a fourth forward for the Avalanche. His 1.00 points-per-game last season led the league among defensemen with at least 20 games played. Finishing just four points behind Fox for the scoring lead among blueliners, he might have taken the crown had he been healthier.

    Capable of logging big minutes, Makar's 24:19 of time on ice per game last season was second-highest among Avalanche skaters. He also led them in power-play ice time with 4:11 per game.

    Makar's performance has steadily improved in his short NHL career, and he's yet to reach his playing prime. If he can remain healthy throughout the coming season, he could reach 70 points. His remarkable ability to dominate play through his puck-possession skills in all three zones is carving a path for similarly skilled defensemen to follow.

Franklin Steele: Why Joel Quenneville Will Win the Jack Adams Award

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    Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

    The Jack Adams Award might be the trickiest NHL trophy to predict. It generally goes to the head coach who seems to get his club to outperform expectations—the ones who did more with less award, as it were. Last season, Rod Brind'Amour won it after nearly pushing the Carolina Hurricanes to a Presidents' Trophy. We expected the Canes to be good, but we didn't project them among the league's elite. Brind'Amour played a big role in Carolina's rise and took home the Jack Adams Award as a result.

    The year prior, Bruce Cassidy did something similar for the Boston Bruins. Again, this was a team most pundits expected to be solid, but they turned out to be the only 100-point club in the NHL that season, so Cassidy added the trophy to his case.

    There are a few teams that could take a similar step in 2021-22. We can only pick one best coach, though, so we're going with Joel Quenneville. It's somehow been 21 years since he won a Jack Adams (trust us, we triple-checked). How is it fair that Coach Q and Patrick Roy have the same number of Jack Adams Awards on their resumes? The Hockey Universe must correct this, and we think 2021-22 will be the season it happens.

    Quenneville's Florida Panthers are situated similarly to Carolina last year and Boston the season before that. They are projected to be strong, but we can see a reality unfolding where they win the Atlantic Division. Evolving-Hockey projects the Atlantic to be the toughest group in the NHL. Evolving-Hockey also has Florida finishing outside of the playoff picture because of that degree of difficulty. If the Panthers can overachieve just a bit, with any of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Bruins or Toronto Maple Leafs taking a small step back, then the Panthers could end up fighting for their first division banner since 2016.

    This is undeniably the best team that Florida has ever iced. That comes with an added degree of pressure, though, and it will be on Quenneville to help this up-and-coming powerhouse manage those expectations. This could be the year the Aleksander Barkov finally earns respect as one of the game's truly elite centers among the NHL's more casual fans. And if the Panthers can get solid goaltending from either Sergei Bobrovsky or Spencer Knight, watch out.

    The Panthers are beginning their climb into the league's upper echelon. We think Quenneville will be a focal point of attention, which could earn him his second Jack Adams Award.

Lyle Fitzsimmons: Twice Is Nice for Barkov in the Selke Race

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    It's already been a big run for Aleksander Barkov.

    The Florida center was a point-per-game player (58 points in 50 games last year) for the second time in three seasons and added some hardware in June when he was awarded the Selke Trophy for being the forward who best excels in the game's defensive aspects.

    But he's not done yet.

    Barkov entered the high-rent district earlier in October by signing an eight-year contract extension that will pay him $80 million through 2029-30, and it's no stretch to suggest that—even after 465 points in parts of eight seasons—his best hockey might still be in front of him.

    And given that the Selke tends to have multi-time winners, why not make it a double for the Finn?
    No fewer than nine players have captured at least a pair of Selkes since it was first awarded after the 1977-78 season, led by four apiece for Hall of Famer Bob Gainey and veteran Boston Bruins star Patrice Bergeron.
    Guy Carbonneau, Jere Lehtinen and Pavel Datsyuk won it three times each, with Sergei Fedorov, Michael Peca, Rod Brind'Amour and Anze Kopitar getting it twice.

    Only nine players in the league took more faceoffs last season than Barkov's 1,026, and his record of 563 faceoff wins was better than those of all but seven players.

    Two of those seven, Bergeron and Kopitar, are already multiple Selke winners, so if Barkov and his newly raised profile can maintain the pace, he will add another to his mantel too.

    Points in every game. 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.

B/R NHL Staff Stanley Cup Predictions

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    Phelan Ebenhack/Associated Press

    Lyle Richardson: Tampa Bay Lightning

    The last team to win three consecutive Stanley Cups were the New York Islanders in 1982. It's fitting, therefore, that the Tampa Bay Lightning will accomplish that achievement 40 years later.

    It's difficult in today's game for teams to win three straight Cups. Just ask the Pittsburgh Penguins, who won two straight in 2016 and 2017 but fell short in the second round of the 2018 playoffs.

    Losing third-liners Barclay Goodrow, Blake Coleman and Yanni Gourde during the offseason through trade, free agency and the expansion draft, respectively, will make winning a third championship even tougher. They were key players whose skills and experience won't be easy to replace. The shortened offseasons could also take their toll.

    However, the Lightning enter this season with their core of talent remaining intact, with most in their playing prime or approaching it. Those players will be the key to a third straight Stanley Cup.

    It starts between the pipes with Andrei Vasilevskiy. Winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy last season, the Vezina Trophy in 2019 and a finalist for that award in 2018, 2020 and 2021, the 27-year-old is the best goaltender in the world.

    The defense corps is led by Victor Hedman, winner of the James Norris Memorial Trophy in 2018 and a four-time finalist since 2016-17. He's joined by skilled veteran Ryan McDonagh, rising star Mikhail Sergachev and the underrated Erik Cernak, providing the Lightning with a solid blue line few clubs can match.

    Up front, the Lightning's scoring punch is powered by the 2019 Hart Memorial Trophy, Art Ross Trophy and Ted Lindsay Award winner Nikita Kucherov, who also led all playoff scorers in 2020 and 2021. The 28-year-old right winger remains among the league's deadliest scorers.

    Brayden Point is climbing the ranks of the NHL's best two-way centers, while team captain Steven Stamkos remains a reliable sniper. In addition, they still have a solid supporting cast of forwards, including center Anthony Cirelli and wingers Ondrej Palat, Alex Killorn and Patrick Maroon, plus offseason addition Corey Perry.

    Put them together, and that's still a formidable roster, one with an excellent shot at raising the Cup for a third straight time next June.


    Franklin Steele: Colorado Avalanche

    While it's tough to vote against a Lightning three-peat—that we're even talking about it as a serious possibility is a testament to how well run that organization is—the Colorado Avalanche appear to be just too damn good to not pick.

    Evolving-Hockey's model projects the Avs to finish with 120 points. The Lightning, of course, were the last team to be that dominant. It was the 2018-19 season, and they famously were bounced in the first round by the Columbus Blue Jackets—via a sweep, no less.

    So Colorado being fantastic during the regular season carries no guarantee of postseason success.

    It's Cup or bust for the Avalanche this year, though, and Evolving-Hockey's model isn't the only one that is projecting a monster campaign in Denver. Dom Luszczyszyn over at The Athletic gives them a 25 percent chance of finishing in the winner's circle. That's about as good as odds get in a game as random and hard to predict as hockey. The longtime analyst also wrote that his model has never thought as highly of a team as it does the Avalanche.

    Both the numbers and eyes suggest that this is the team to beat. They're going to be your 2021-22 Stanley Cup champions as a result.


    Lyle Fitzsimmons: Edmonton Oilers

    The Lightning have won it twice. The Avalanche are the preseason chalk.

    So it's hardly hyperbolic to suggest either of my learned colleagues have it correct.

    But there's something in the air in northern Alberta this fall.

    Perhaps hearing the clock ticking on Connor McDavid's patience for being a spectator to the league's biggest games, Edmonton general manager Ken Holland got busy in the offseason, adding talent to complement his multiple-time MVP and scoring champion.

    He already had a top-five world talent in Leon Draisaitl, a top-10 Norris vote-getter in Darnell Nurse and the league's highest-scoring defenseman in Tyson Barrie. Holland continued to stockpile talent by adding a versatile top-six winger in Zach Hyman, quality bottom-six forwards in Warren Foegele and Derek Ryan and a championship-winning locker-room presence in ex-Chicago Blackhawks superstar Duncan Keith.

    The Oilers went 6-1-1 in the preseason, with McDavid and Draisaitl combining for 16 points in eight games played, but the reality remains that the team—which finished second to the Toronto Maple Leafs in the North Division before an inglorious four-game playoff exit against the Winnipeg Jets—will go as far as goaltending takes it.

    Veterans Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen stopped a perfectly respectable 139 of 147 shots—a .946 save percentage—in the preseason, but you have got to believe Holland, who helped build the Detroit Red Wings' dynasty in the late 1990s/early 2000s, will be working the phones around trade deadline time to add whatever high-profile goaltender might be available for the stretch drive.

    It's a blueprint that at least subtly resembles 2005-06, when the mid-tier Oilers already had an MVP candidate in Chris Pronger but brought in Dwayne Roloson from Minnesota at the deadline in a deal that fueled an eighth-seeded team's run to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final. If Holland can add that kind of piece to the burgeoning puzzle he's already assembled, expect McDavid to secure that final victory.


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