The new season officially starts on Wednesday—that is if everyone can stay healthy. The Stars had 6 players and 2 staff members test positive, the Penguins canceled practices yesterday and today as a precaution, and 19 Blue Jackets didn’t practice because of COVID protocol. It’s not looking like a hot start to the 2021 NHL season.
Nevertheless, I have to be optimistic; hockey is all I have to look forward to at this point. So let’s assume that all 10 teams are able to take the ice on Wednesday. I feel like we’ve all learned our lesson on predicting how entire years or seasons, so I’ll start one night at a time. Here’s how I think opening night will go.
Flyers v. Penguins
The East has chosen quite a rivalry to open the season with. The cross-state rivals have been a lot more equal in skill in the last couple of years than it may seem. The Flyers may not have Crosby, but their roster is solid and they are tenacious. There hasn’t been a ton of news coming out of their training camp, though they did broadcast their intrasquad scrimmage on NBCSN. There are plenty of veterans who are consistent and reliable. Lindblom has been healthy and seems eager to get back on the ice. Their depth is unproven, but if they bring the same attitude they brought to the Bubble in August, it will definitely be an interesting game.
The core Penguins roster we’ve all gotten used to in the past few years hasn’t changed much, so we know what we’re going to see there. What has changed is some of the depth. Zucker, Ceci, and Kapanen are question marks for now since they both came from teams with minimal success. Another question mark is goaltending. The Pens have Jarry, but as a starter he’s unproven, and their backup prospects aren’t notable. My guess is they go with DeSmith, but he, along with D’Orio and Lagace is fairly green. The oldest among them is 29, very young by goalie standards.
Factoring all of these things, I expect it to be a very close game with the Flyers edging them out by 1 goal, and maybe an empty-netter. (This is assuming the Penguins are all back to playing by the time Wednesday rolls around.)
Maple Leafs v. Canadiens
Uh, so this one feels like kind of a sad game. The Canadiens still don’t really have anything going for them. Yeah, they got Toffoli, and Suzuki is promising, but it takes more than a handful of players to make a competitive team. They might score, but Price would have to stand on his head for 60 minutes straight for them to have a chance.
The Leafs aren’t the team they really should be with the names on their roster. But, again, the Canadiens really do suck, so the clear choice here is the Leafs. To give a brief overview of them, they gained Wayne Simmons and TJ Brodie. Oh, and Joe Thornton. That part will be interesting.
Side note, this is going to be a terrible year for the Canadiens if they can’t get their act together, considering how many times they have to play each team.
Oilers v. Canucks
On the other end of the spectrum, this game will be very interesting. The Canucks have made some big moves since last season and it seems like they believe this is their year to win the Cup. They got Schmidt and Holtby in the last few months. Those two, in addition to the powerhouses they already have (Pettersson, Boeser, Hughes) and the young players starting to shine (Virtanen, Demko) are going to make the Canucks a formidable team to play. (Side note, the Canucks uploaded a full PDF of their training camp roster…nice.)
Maybe I just wasn’t paying attention before, but looking at the Oilers training camp roster, it doesn’t look as deep as I remember. I’m excited to see Puljujarvi again, hopefully, he matured and learned in Europe in the meantime. But again, beyond the first 2 lines, I don’t really see many familiar names. Again, maybe it’s just me, but I’m not sure Edmonton has as much depth as Vancouver. So, in that case, my pick is the Canucks.
Lightning v. Blackhawks
The Blackhawks have had an interesting start to their training camp with Toews out for a mysterious medical issue. It seems that they’re making do without for now, with Dylan Strome centering DeBrincat and Kane. Kubalik, Wallmark, and Suter have also been turning some heads opposite them. The backend doesn’t have quite as many notable names, but it’s also not very different from last year. Goaltending will be a big consideration, however. Malcolm Subban, at 27 is the oldest of the 4 currently at Chicago’s training camp. He’s been back up for Fleury and Lehner but never started on his own before. Delia only played 16 games last season, so he’s not any better. It’s a concern for them, especially going up against the reigning champions.
Tampa Bay really hasn’t changed much at all since October. Stamkos is back full time, seeming to have fully recovered from his reinjury during playoffs. The one big bummer for them is that Kucherov is out for the season, having surgery on his hip. Even still, the Lightning have more than enough elite players and elite prospects to be successful this season.
As far as the first game goes, I really can’t bet against the Lightning.
Avalanche v. Blues
If there’s one thing that’s become clear in the last year, it’s that Colorado is a wagon. They’re still without Erik Johnson, but yesterday Landeskog, Saad, and Grubauer returned to practice. Even if they weren’t a factor, the Avs have talent and depth for days. Andre Burakovsky has blossomed into a top-line player, having been slotted in with McKinnon and Rantanen in training camp. Kadri has evolved past hired muscle to center for Landeskog on the second line. The third line has Compher and Jost, while the fourth has Bellemare. Their offense is pretty good.
Toews has seemed to settle into Colorado nicely, having been practicing beside Makar on the top pairing. Girard and Timmons seemed to have secured a spot as the second pair, and Cole is anchoring and mentoring on the third. Like I said, depth for days.
Meanwhile, St. Louis has a lot more work to do. They do have some really good players (Perron, Schenn, O’Reilly, Binnington, etc.), but it seems that after the first 2 lines, the Blues fall off far faster than the Avs. I don’t mean that they’re bad, don’t get me wrong. I just don’t see Krug, Faulk, and Parayko being able to hold off Colorado for a full 60 minutes.
Bottom line here is that the Avalanche are winning their first game, no doubt.
With the divisions changed the way they are, I think some teams are going to thrive, like the Lightning, and some are going to drown, like the Canadiens. I think the East is going to be the most competitive, but Buffalo and New Jersey are going to get pounded all season. I think the West is going to be a cakewalk for the Avalanche and Knights, but that will make it more difficult for them come playoffs. The Canadian division will have the most heated rivalries, which will make it the most entertaining if you exclude all of Montreal’s games. The Central may be the most dynamic, with the reigning Stanley Cup Champions and the worst team in the league (Detroit).
I would love to do predictions for Thursday night’s games as well, but I think adding another 18 teams to this would be a little much. So this will do for now, and we’ll have to wait to see how this season shapes up.
-Heidi Thomas (@DamselOnDrums)
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