Everything you're about to read can change in a cough.
That's the reality of the 2021 NHL season, which is being played inside (mostly) empty arenas during the COVID-19 pandemic. The league released the names of 27 players who began the season with a "COVID Protocol Related Absence," and that's not including the 17 members of the Dallas Stars who tested positive.
There are going to be players who suddenly disappear from lineups. There are going to be games that are rescheduled to dates later in the season. The NHL has structured this season to be as safe as possible while accommodating the shared desires of owners and players not to reenter the bubble, but everybody understands the unpredictability that comes with it.
So, with that established, here are my predictions for the 2021 season. Enjoy!
MassMutual NHL East Division
1. Washington Capitals (Full preview)
2. Philadelphia Flyers (Full preview)
3. Pittsburgh Penguins (Full preview)
4. Boston Bruins (Full preview)
5. New York Islanders (Full preview)
6. New York Rangers (Full preview)
7. Buffalo Sabres (Full preview)
8. New Jersey Devils (Full preview)
There might not be a more underappreciated team achievement in the NHL than the Capitals' run of five straight division titles. In the past 13 seasons of Alex Ovechkin, the Capitals have won their division 10 times. It's what they do. Yet despite this, Peter Laviolette is going to win the Jack Adams because he'll have them "playing harder than they did in the bubble" or some nonsense, but mostly because he's one of the few new head coaches this season and that's how the award works. The key to this prediction: That a deep and revamped defense corps plays as well as it can in front of Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek, who have potential if not my utmost confidence.
The Flyers finished one point in back of the Capitals last season and it wouldn't stun me to see a margin like that again. Carter Hart is going to have a career year and win the Vezina Trophy, because his atrocious road jitters are immaterial when he's playing in empty-to-near-empty barns all season. The Flyers have a versatile group of forwards, and I love that Oskar Lindblom-Sean Couturier-Travis Konecny troika. I'm a little concerned about the impact from Matt Niskanen's sudden retirement as a blue-line glue guy, but not as concerned as I am about what Gritty might do with an entire empty arena at its disposal every game. I'm imagining elaborate music numbers involving confetti cannons.
Look at the Penguins' roster from 2017-18 and then look at it now. The slow trickle of talent and personality from the team's mid-decade apex has finally caught up with Penguins, yet it's hard not to cede a playoff seed to them based on the quality of their coach and the continued relevance of Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby, who gets Jake Guentzel back on his wing. But good lord, it's not a championship team. I'm not sure who needs to hear that, but let's state it for the record.
Hey, did you guys hear that Torey Krug wasn't brought back as a free agent and Zdeno Chara aged out of the Bruins' lineup? Because I truly don't understand the default placement of Boston atop this division by many pundits, despite this turnover on defense and lack of replacement. That's not to say the Bruins can't be a playoff team built on the backs of their top line, Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak.
It appears we'll be spared another postseason of Islanders anti-hockey, a practiced art that has become only more coma-inducing now that Ilya Sorokin upgraded their goalie tandem. A completely average team with one exemplary skill player in Mathew Barzal. I'll be interested to see if Jean-Gabriel Pageau is still a 0.63 points-per-game player under the blanket of a six-year contract extension.
I desperately wanted to find a way to get the Rangers into the playoffs, and they might have made it in the traditional Metro standings. But they're still so young and so defensively challenged (2.74 expected goals against last season at 5-on-5, second worst in the NHL). Unless Igor Shesterkin wills them to the postseason, in which case he wins the Calder Trophy and the Vezina.
The Buffalo Sabres. Sweet, sweet Buffalo. There should be an NFL Red Zone channel dedicated to showing us every line shift of Jack Eichel and Taylor Hall so we don't have to wait through the Cody Eakin and Kyle Okposo one to see them. The Sabres are high on some people's list of surprise teams, which makes sense in a 56-game sprint: 20 good games at the start, and maybe they maintain it? But while they filled some holes up front, they didn't upgrade their defense or the goaltending that had a .900 team save percentage last season. There's a much better chance that the Sabres are trading Hall to a playoff team than being one themselves this season.
Any chance the Devils had to outkick their coverage walked out the door with Corey Crawford. Another season in the tank, but not one without intrigue: What are the chances Travis Zajac, Kyle Palmieri and/or Nikita Gusev move at the deadline, as all of them are in their walk years? (The Devils have $39 million in cap space open for next summer. That is not a misprint.)