A new NHL season is about to begin, and it comes after one unlike any other in the history of the league. After the coronavirus pandemic forced the NHL to pause for nearly five months, the 2019-20 season resumed play inside two bubbles in Canada, with the Tampa Bay Lightning exorcising some pretty nasty demons in the playoffs and emerging as Stanley Cup champions.
And it wouldn’t be a bizarre hockey season without labor drama, which we got in the offseason when league owners lobbied players for extra financial concessions — despite the fact that the two sides had seemingly agreed to the terms of a new deal just months earlier. The players union held its ground — but the battle almost sank the ship.
And yet, here we are at the beginning of a new, albeit shortened,1 NHL season. It will almost certainly be a weird one, with teams playing in realigned divisions, which, among other things, separate the Canadian teams from the rest of the league. Against that backdrop, who looks good, who looks bad and who has an outside shot at lifting the Stanley Cup?
The champs are still good … but they’re weaker
The Lightning probably should have been lifting their second consecutive Stanley Cup in September, but their historic unravelling in the 2018-19 playoffs kept them from getting the first of what might have been a pair. One Cup is still better than no Cups, however, and Tampa must have liked its chances to repeat in 2021 … until it discovered that star forward Nikita Kucherov would miss the entire regular season (at least) with a hip injury that required surgery.
Losing any player to injury is a blow for a locker room and a headache for a coaching staff, but a player of Kucherov’s caliber is nearly impossible to replace because there aren’t many (or any) players of Kucherov’s caliber that aren’t named Kucherov. According to goals above replacement (GAR),2 which estimates the total net goals added or saved by each skater and goalie based on their box score stats, Kucherov has been the best player in the NHL over the past three seasons — even better than Edmonton Oilers sensation Connor McDavid, if just barely.
|Goals Above Replacement*|
|Artemi Panarin||LW||CBJ, NYR||44.8||13.9||0.0||58.7|
Add in the loss of star defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk — who accounted for more GAR than Erik Karlsson and as much GAR as Brent Burns a season ago, for context — and a dearth of consequential offseason signings, and the Bolts have bled quite a bit of value since lifting Lord Stanley’s bowl three and a half months ago. That said, there’s still quite a bit of talent left on Tampa’s roster,3 between dangerous forward Brayden Point,4 defending Conn Smythe Trophy winner Victor Hedman, former Vezina Trophy-winning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy and captain Steven Stamkos, who is finally healthy after missing all but one playoff game last season.
Losing Kucherov is a tough pill to swallow, but Tampa just won the Stanley Cup without the services of Stamkos, who is arguably the best player in franchise history. The Lightning clearly know how to handle adversity, and they’re entering the new season with enough of their championship-winning roster intact to be scary.
Beware the Avalanche … and Maple Leafs?
The Colorado Avalanche finished the 2019-20 regular season tied with the Lightning for third in points percentage, and they were tied with the Capitals as the league’s third-most-prolific goal scorers. According to GAR, the Avs enter the new season with the most talented roster in the NHL. Center Nathan MacKinnon is a big reason for that; he had the fifth-most GAR5 of any skater in the NHL a season ago (better than Kucherov, even). Second-year defenseman Cale Makar will look to build on his Calder Trophy-winning season from a year ago. Add Stanley Cup winner Brandon Saad to the mix and consider that Colorado’s goaltenders combined for one of the league’s best save percentages a season ago, and it’s clear why the Avs enter the new season with the best betting odds to lift the Stanley Cup.
Perhaps surprisingly, the Toronto Maple Leafs also rank near the top of the Cup odds, trailing only the Avalanche, the Lightning and the Vegas Golden Knights. Nothing has changed in Toronto in terms of silverware: The Leafs remain the only Original Six team to not win a Stanley Cup since expansion began in 1967. But their new crop of stars — led by American wunderkind Auston Matthews, who was the fourth-best skater in the NHL a season ago according to GAR, and buttressed by veterans like John Tavares and Joe Thornton (!) — could have something to say about that this season, particularly since Toronto has the league’s sixth-best team in terms of GAR talent. It feels like Thornton has been chasing a Stanley Cup for as long as the Leafs have, so perhaps a victory is written in the stars.
Offseason winners and losers
Each new offseason goes mostly like the previous one: Some teams make signings that change the trajectory of the franchise, some teams part ways with beloved icons, and some teams do next to nothing. This offseason was no different (well, aside from the fact that it was substantially shorter than usual).
To help judge how much each team improved its veteran talent over that period, we can use GAR6 to measure the expected value a team gained from acquiring new players and lost from players who departed since the previous regular season. By that measure, the Detroit Red Wings and New Jersey Devils had the best offseasons — though you could argue there was almost nowhere to go except up for two of the NHL’s worst teams from a year ago.
|Weighted GAR* from…||Overall Rank|
|Team||Incoming Players||Rk||Outgoing Players||Rk||Sum of Ranks||Rk|
Among teams that might actually make some noise in the playoffs, the Golden Knights, St. Louis Blues and Washington Capitals added some very intriguing talent. The Knights traded veteran centerman Paul Stastny and defenseman Nate Schmidt over the break, but they also signed free-agent defenseman Alex Pietrangelo away from St. Louis. Pietrangelo, who turns 31 next week, has been in the Norris conversation (even if only as a whisper) almost every year since his second full season in the league, and he was the offseason’s biggest pickup according to GAR.
The Blues would miss their former captain if they hadn’t also signed a marquee free-agent defenseman during the offseason. Former Bruin Torey Krug was the second-best blue liner available this offseason, behind Pietrangelo. He’s every bit as good on the offensive side of the ice as Pietrangelo — and probably better at quarterbacking the power play — and he’s both younger and cheaper. The Blues had the third-best power play percentage in the league in 2019-20; Krug might make it the best. St. Louis also signed sharpshooting forward Mike Hoffman, who’s been a lock for at least 22 goals during each of the past six seasons. According to GAR, he was the fourth-best signing of the offseason.
The Capitals have never been darlings in the betting odds, even after winning it all in 2018, and they are tied with the Hurricanes and Blues as 20-to-1 shots going into this season. Washington probably merits better treatment after losing little of consequence — save for the poorly performing Braden Holtby in net — from last year’s roster, and adding a few useful parts over the offseason (even after it was announced that Henrik Lundqvist would miss the season with a heart condition). If pickups like Zdeno Chara and Conor Sheary have anything in the tank, and if young Ilya Samsonov can improve on last year’s Holtby-fueled No. 28 ranking in goaltending GAR, the Caps could have another run left in them.
And a couple of last season’s Canadian playoff teams also rank among the most improved for 2021. Montreal lost winger Max Domi — a big departure — but added goalie Jake Allen and improved its weakness on the blue line with Tyler Toffoli and Joel Edmundson. And the Oilers picked up some fresh talent (headlined by D-man Tyson Barrie) to go with their two generational talents in McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. Yes, this is a franchise that’s notorious for wasting generational talents, but maybe splitting the pair up and divvying up their abilities more evenly across the first and second lines will help an offense that ranked just 12th in goals last year.
Meanwhile, the Boston Bruins lost some of the most established talent of any contender this offseason. With former captain and franchise heart and soul Chara now playing his hockey in D.C., it will be on 23-year-old Charlie McAvoy to lead the defensive unit. And the Bruins said goodbye to the lynchpin of their power play when they let Krug walk, which means they must be betting that Matt Grzelcyk is ready to make the leap. They will also be without David Pastrňák for at least the first month of the season, after the reigning Rocket Richard Trophy winner underwent hip surgery in September. Despite all of that, the Bruins still have the second-most-talented roster in the league according to GAR, but Boston’s fate probably depends on how well it can cope with the many changes this offseason brought.
Young players to watch
Hockey is blessed with a wealth of talented young players right now, including Pastrňák, McDavid, Matthews and Jack Eichel at forward, and Makar and Columbus’s Zach Werenski on the blue line — all of them 24 or younger. Beyond them, Hurricanes winger Andrei Svechnikov and D-men Adam Fox of the Rangers, Quinn Hughes of the Canucks and Rasmus Dahlin of the Sabres should only get better after impressive seasons in 2020. And keep an eye on a pair of 21-year-old centers — Robert Thomas of the Blues and Nick Suzuki of the Canadiens — who should build on their ahead-of-the-curve performances. Last season, 33 percent of leaguewide value was generated by players aged 24 or younger, part of a three-year trend that has seen that figure reach its highest levels since 1990.
|Goals Above Replacement*|
Of course, all eyes will also be on the 2020-21 rookie class. No. 1 overall pick Alexis Lafrenière will get regular duty right away for the New York Rangers, and the 19-year-old is already impressing teammates with his skill level. At age 23, former KHL standout Kirill Kaprizov is poised to make an instant impact in his NHL debut with the Minnesota Wild. And Rangers goaltender Igor Shesterkin is still officially a rookie after excelling in spot duty late last season. Widely viewed as the heir to legendary N.Y. goalie Lundqvist, the 25-year-old led all goalies in save percentage (with a minimum of 400 shots faced) last year; if given the chance to start permanently, Shesterkin could be one of the league’s best breakout candidates in net this season.
What will realignment bring about?
Because of the ongoing pandemic — and perhaps specifically because travel is still restricted at the U.S.-Canadian border — the NHL split its divisions in a new way for this season. It isolated all teams north of the border in their own, aptly named North Division, while scattering the rest of the league across three other divisions in vaguely geographic fashion. The new configuration (which is likely a one-and-done plan) will revive some old rivalries gutted by modern realignment, such as the Red Wings and Blackhawks — who will play eight times in 56 games this season — and create some interesting new ones involving the Jets, who usually don’t get to face their cross-country rivals from Ontario much during a normal season.
The all-Canadian division should also be a good, mostly balanced group from top to bottom. Save for the Senators, every team in the North is a legitimate threat to grab one of the four available playoff spots — and to vie for the conference-final slot guaranteed to the division’s last team standing, an important stepping-stone on the path to ending Canada’s Stanley Cup drought. Among the other divisions, the West is an even mix of good and bad, the East is stacked with perhaps an unreasonable number of Cup hopefuls — Philadelphia, Boston, Washington and Pittsburgh, plus the two New York clubs — while the Central will be weak if the Stars take a step back after some key injuries and regression to the mean take their toll.7
Just like the previous season, the 2020-21 NHL campaign is sure to be unusual. Despite an uncommonly chalky outcome from last year’s bubble, the defending champs are weaker now — with a wide-open field of challengers coming for their crown. The offseason’s chaotic calendar helped set the tone for the short 56-game sample that will now determine each team’s destiny. (As if hockey needed more randomness.) All of the ingredients are there for a downright wild season on ice, and we can’t wait for the puck to drop.