It’s time for Championship Sports Media’s NHL Season Preview! The NHL pre-season is in full swing, and the puck drops on the regular season October 12th. The return to an 82-game schedule, as well as fans returning to arenas is a welcome sight in our quest for “normal” in a world dominated by Covid-19. Going into the season, story lines abound. The return to a long schedule will make room for plenty more intrigue along the way.
Let’s take a look at some of the more intriguing storylines entering a much-anticipated 2021-2022 NHL season. Also, we have picks for all the major individual awards (Lady Byng and Mark Messier Leadership Award do not count). And we’ll close out with who our hockey staff thinks will take home Lord Stanley’s Cup.
Without further ado, let’s get to predicting!
What Amazing Things Will Connor McDavid Do This Time?
Hot take: Connor McDavid is good at hockey. Boom, next topic.
Seriously though, Edmonton Oilers mega-star Connor McDavid took the league by storm yet again. McDavid put up a mind-blowing 105 points in the abbreviated 56-game season. Extrapolated out to an 82 game schedule, McDavid was on pace to score (roughly) 150 points! We have not seen offense like that since the 1995-1996 season. In that season, we saw a couple of unknowns named Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr put up 161 and 149 points, respectively. Can McDavid keep that offensive output over the full 82-game season? Unsure, but damn will it be fun to watch him try.
The Jack Eichel Saga
The handling of Jack Eichel’s injury by the Buffalo Sabres, and the subsequent attempt to trade him, have been one of the ongoing storylines of the off-season. Unfortunately, it will be dragging into the regular season. Eichel has been stripped of his captaincy, and remains unable to play hockey due to a neck injury.
This situation has been a sad one to follow. Eichel, an American superstar in a league that desperately needs them, has not played since early last season. This hurts not only Eichel, but the NHL as a whole. The Sabres asking price in a trade has been too high for any interested team to pull the trigger. All parties can only hope that the situation resolves itself soon so Eichel can resume his career. It will be interesting to see where that might be. Speaking of poorly-run franchises…
Race To The Bottom
In what seems to be a complete throwback to 2015, the Buffalo Sabres and Arizona Coyotes have unapologetically torn down their rosters to ones barely resembling NHL teams. The Coyotes have exactly one goalie I’ve heard of (and I cover hockey!). The Sabres have traded away their top scorer and top defenseman from last season, as well as banished their franchise player to the Island of Misfit Toys.
Though there isn’t exactly a Connor McDavid as prize for winning the draft lottery, Shane Wright is well worth tanking for. He will be a foundational piece for whoever gets to draft him. In the meantime, fan bases of the Sabres and Coyotes are in for some tough hockey.
Toronto Choke Watch
Just when you thought the stars would align, the Toronto Maple Leafs found a way to choke. After tearing through the one-off Canadian division in the regular season, the Leafs choked away a 3-1 series lead to the Montreal Canadiens. And once again, the Leafs fail to make it out of the first round. That makes it 6 first round playoff exits in their last 6 playoff appearances. The Leafs have not won a playoff round since the 2003-2004 season.
It has become a yearly tradition to watch the Maple Leafs implode in spectacular fashion.nI would say 2021 set a new bar though. It does not matter what happens for this team in the regular season anymore. If the Leafs do not win a round, heads will roll in hockey’s epicenter. It will start with GM Kyle Dubas, and likely trickle down to one of the big 4 (Matthews, Marner, Nylander, or Tavares) being traded.
All that being said, it will be exciting to see how the Leafs choose to fail this time around.
Releasing The Kraken
The NHL’s 32nd franchise will kick off their season October 12th when they visit the Vegas Golden Knights. The Kraken will be on the road for their first 5 games before they open the newly-reconstructed Climate Pledge Arena October 23rd.
Since Vegas took the league by storm and reached the Stanley Cup Finals in their inaugural season, expectations for expansion teams have been changed. No longer are they expected to suck for a few years before showing improvement. Success is expected right out of the gate. The consensus is that Seattle’s expansion draft was pretty underwhelming, but that was the feeling about Vegas’s draft. Only time will tell how the expansion draft pans out. But damn, the Kraken’s jersey design will definitely ensure they look good.
ESPN, Turner Sports Take Over NHL Coverage
After a 15 year partnership, the NHL and NBC are parting ways. Two media companies will now split NHL coverage, with ESPN and Turner Sports both signing on for 7 years of broadcasting rights. 25 games will air on ESPN/ABC, with an additional 75 airing on ESPN’s streaming service, ESPN+. Turner will air 72 games, most likely on TNT and TBS. The two networks will also split playoff coverage, and alternate coverage of the Stanley Cup Finals. ESPN will air 4 finals, while Turner will air 3.
Other notes include Turner airing the Winter Classic, the NHL’s annual marquee event. Also of note, ESPN+ will take over as the exclusive streaming partner. They will replace NHL.TV for US customers to stream live out-of-market games.
This is exciting because it brings a ton more visibility to the league. The NHL will start to receive more air time on popular programs like SportsCenter, as well as gain mentions on TNT’s popular Inside The NBA. Further, it will be fun to watch the new and innovative ways these networks cover the NHL. ESPN and Turner recently announced their broadcast teams, and there are some fun names included. Turner boasts the Great One himself, Wayne Gretzky, as a studio commentator. In addition, Paul Bissonette, former NHL enforcer and co-host of the popular Spittin’ Chiclets podcast, will be another studio personality. ESPN boasts women’s hockey superstar Hilary Knight as part of their in-studio crew.
Crackdown On Cross-Checking
Every year, the NHL picks one rule to enforce heavily, and this year it’s cross-checking. How cross-checking is called has always received criticism, but that criticism reached a crescendo last season. Numerous star players were injured with cross-checks that went unpenalized. Cross-checks delivered in front of the net or in puck battles along the boards have always been considered “part of the game”. But this year, those cross-checks will result in a 2-minute minor penalty.
The funny part (or sad part) about these rule crack-downs is that it only lasts for a couple months before the league decides it has established its standards. After that, it’s back to business as usual. That’s not to mention once the playoffs start, where the rulebook is completely tossed out the window. Regardless, it will be interesting to see how the players adapt to the new “standard”.
The Decline Of Pittsburgh
The Pittsburgh Penguins have been a staple of the playoffs for almost 15 years. That streak may come to an end this year. The Penguins will be without star players Sidney Crosby and Evegeni Malkin for significant time to start the season. Without much depth on the roster and major goaltending questions, this may be the beginning of the decline in Pittsburgh.
Hart Trophy (league MVP)- Connor McDavid. This needs no explanation. McDavid is the best hockey player on the planet, and the Oilers are nothing without him. Staff picks: Anthony Del Trecco- Nathan MacKinnon. JD Holler- Connor McDavid
Calder Trophy (best rookie)- Cole Caufield. There is a good chance that someone comes out of the blue to take this one, but early money is on Montreal’s young sniper. Staff picks: Del Trecco- Cole Caufield. Holler- Cole Caufield
Vezina (best goalie)- Andrei Vasilevskiy. Vasilevskiy is the most dominant goalie in the game, playing behind one of the best teams in hockey. He gets the nod over Winnipeg’s Connor Hellebuyck. Staff picks: Del Trecco- Marc-Andre Fleury. Holler- Vasilevskiy
Norris (best defenseman)- Cale Makar. Makar is one of the most exciting players to watch. The offense has been there, but he also defends at an elite level. The award is Makar’s to lose.
Selke (best defensive forward)- Mark Stone. Vegas’ Stone has the best defensive stick in the game. Add that to his value to the Knights and his offensive production, this to me is a no-brainer.
Rocket Richard (most goals)- Auston Matthews. I was so tempted to pick Caufield, but Matthews gets the edge here. He is probably the most prolific pure goal-scorer in the game, and the Leafs are on a mission this year. Staff picks: Del Trecco- Alexander Ovechkin. Holler- Auston Matthews
Art Ross (most points)- Connor McDavid. See above. Guy is the best in the business. Staff picks: Everyone picked McDavid. As they should. Next.
Jack Adams (best coach)- Rod Brind’Amour. This award is never given to the same coach two years in a row. Usually, it goes to the coach that has the most success with the crappiest team. But what Brind’Amour does with the Hurricanes every year cannot be ignored, and I think he will end up the most deserving. Staff picks: Del Trecco/Holler- Barry Trotz.
Stanley Cup Predictions
Let’s take a look at who the Championship Sports Media staff thinks will take home the most famous trophy in pro sports:
JD Holler: New York Islanders vs Colorado Avalanche. Cup Champ- Islanders in 6
Anthony Del Trecco: New York Islanders vs Colorado Avalanche. Cup Champ- Avalanche in 4
Exactingeditingadvantage: New York Islanders vs Vegas Golden Knights. Cup Champ- Islanders in 6
New York Islanders vs Colorado Avalanche
The Islanders can strangle the life out of a hockey game. And they have talent too. However, Colorado is too deep. And I can see MacKinnon taking the series over. Avs in 6.