Not even goaltender John Gibson could save the Ducks in 2019-20, and it’s safe to say he is going to have his work cut out for him again in 2021. Players such as Rickard Rakell and Jakob Silfverberg once were seen as the future of the franchise, and that’s the organization’s biggest issue. The Ducks don’t have an elite forward on their roster, and the aforementioned wingers are nothing more than complementary pieces with no star at center to flank.
The Ducks are a young team, specifically up front, as Sam Steel and Max Comtois already have begun to make the jump. However, Trevor Zegras and other high-end prospects might not be ready to make an impact in the NHL for a few more years. Ryan Getzlaf is in the last year of his contract at 35 and seems likely to retire after the season.
Coach Dallas Eakins and his staff must rely heavily on their veteran forwards (and their back end) while they focus on coaching the young players they hope will be future stars. Free-agent signee Kevin Shattenkirk, 31, is a nice addition to the defensive unit, but the Ducks really should be trying to get younger.
Statistically, the Ducks rank as one of the worst teams, which shouldn’t be surprising. Some stats, like those that measure shooting and saves, might improve, but the team’s overall success will depend on the progress of their young players. The Ducks finished in the bottom 10 in Corsi and Expected Goals in 2019-20.
Even though the Ducks will struggle to score, Gibson probably will keep them out of the basement. However, the league and its teams are crunched financially because of the pandemic, and the Ducks are tight against the salary cap. So, as crazy as it sounds, even the 27-year-old goaltender could be trade bait. Stranger things have happened.
Even if there’s reason to believe the Ducks will exceed the expectations of the market, the uncertainty around a team like this should be enough to scare you away from betting on them to do so. There’s a lot more certainty betting on a team like this on a game-by-game basis.
By my estimation, the Ducks will finish with 56.6 points on average, which is a couple of points more than oddsmakers at Circa Sports have projected them to finish with, but like I said, it’s better to look for value throughout the season than tie a percentage of your bankroll up in this team for three months. The Ducks are projected to be the best of the three California teams, but not by much. Gibson and backup goalie Ryan Miller should give the Ducks an edge against their rivals.
Don’t expect the Ducks to make the playoffs in 2021, as I project it will only happen 22% (+ 354) of the time, which means their odds of missing should be around -354. The impossible can happen, though, as the Ducks actually finished first in the West Division in just under 1% (+ 11,528) of simulations.
Things got weird in Arizona last season. First, the Coyotes unexpectedly traded a bunch of prospects and draft picks to New Jersey for former MVP Taylor Hall. Then general manager John Chayka, who pulled off the trade, resigned just a few days before the team was set to head to Edmonton for the qualifying round. The Coyotes managed to squeak past the Predators in a best-of-five series but were quickly dismissed by the Avalanche in the first round. Predictably, Hall did not re-sign with the Coyotes because he never should have been traded there. The Coyotes were in no position to keep a player like that.
Besides emptying the cupboard to land Hall, the Coyotes also had to forfeit two draft picks because of a combine testing violation, and they came under fire for their first pick in 2020 because of revelations of bullying. In the end, all they did was hurt their organizational depth for no real gain, as they would not have made the playoffs as the 11th-place team if not for a one-off 24-team format.
Christian Dvorak, Connor Garland and Clayton Keller have just started to show the hockey world that they can do, and there might be an elite player or two in the bunch, but only time will tell. Hopefully, for the sake of the organization, the new general manager understands this. The Coyotes have great goaltending as Antti Raanta and Darcy Kuemper form one of the best tandems in the league. However, it might be tough to justify paying two starting goaltenders in the short term.
For a team that has always been in trouble financially, the Coyotes probably are feeling even more of a squeeze now. They lack cap space and might have to move players purely for financial reasons. It’s a tough spot for a team that just found out the hard way that it’s not a contender.
The Coyotes scored fewer goals than expected last season and did so at a below-average rate. Some have praised them for their defensive prowess (third-fewest goals against), but the underlying numbers suggest this was due mostly to goaltending. The Coyotes were middle of the pack in expected goals against.
Goaltending is the reason I project the Coyotes to finish with 60.2 points on average. They’ll make the playoffs 39.3% (+ 154) of the time, but they would be severely outmatched once they got there.
They are probably better than three teams from California, and they might be better than the Wild. They’ll have to be because they’ll have to finish ahead of those teams if they want to make it. They are almost certainly not better than the Blues, Golden Knights or the Avalanche, though.
Arizona only won the Central Division in 2.8% (+ 3,223) of simulations. Half the time the Coyotes made the playoffs, they did it as the fourth-best team in the division. There’s an eight-point gap between the Coyotes and the team that is projected to finish third overall in the Central.
The Bruins are a perennial contender with their Stanley Cup window still open, but there are a lot of questions looming about how the brass will run the team. They have a great core group, albeit one that’s aging, but there are paths management could choose in order to avoid a total teardown and rebuild.
After all, top goal scorer David Pastrnak is an elite winger entering his prime at 24, and 23-year-old Charlie McAvoy already is considered one of the best defensemen in the game. And while the writing is on the wall for veterans like David Krejci and Zdeno Chara, their core definitely isn’t all used up.
Patrice Bergeron still has a few good years left in him and will become the team captain with Zdeno Chara now in Washington. Brad Marchand is and will continue to be a high-end winger for the foreseeable future. In other words, don’t expect the Bruins to take their eye off of the prize anytime soon.
Overall, the Bruins still have one of the best forward groups in the league. Charlie Coyle and newcomer Craig Smith are only complimentary pieces, but they’re among the best at what they do. Don’t forget about Ondrej Kase and Jake DeBrusk either. They are high-end talents who could take a big step forward in 2021. The Bruins will need them to be better as both Marchand and Pastrnak are expected to miss some time at the start of the season after offseason surgery. Neither is expected to be out long, but there could be setbacks.
Things start to get shaky on the other end of the ice, which sounds odd given how good the Bruins have been defensively for the last decade. McAvoy is in desperate need of some help. Matt Grzelcyk is a very fine defenseman, but the overall group is average at best. With so much pressure on McAvoy, the Bruins would be wise to add depth on defense as they no longer have Chara there to take and dish out punishment. The Bruins are hoping 22-year-old Urho Vaakanainen can make the jump in 2021, and they likely will use the taxi squad to help them bring young players like him along.
In 2019-20, the Bruins were unstoppable and won the Presidents’ Trophy with relative ease. According to Evolving Hockey, they were fourth in expected goals at 5-on-5 and only Colorado had a better share of goals. The top line of Bergeron, Marchand and Pastrnak is arguably the best in the league as they outscored the opposition 43-23 at 5-on-5 last season. Tuukka Rask is one of the league’s best goalies, and while his long-term future may be unclear, in the short term he and Jaroslav Halak will provide the Bruins with good goaltending.
In the short term, this is still an elite team and should be grouped with other Stanley Cup contenders. With a projection of 70 average points, the Bruins have a 38.1% chance (+ 162) of finishing first in a very tough East Division. They might stumble out of the gate if they’re missing Pastrnak and Marchand, and their point projection should be tweaked as new information arises, but they’re built to withstand something like this for a little while. The Bruins should make the playoffs 85.8% (-605) of the time.
If you’re looking to add the Bruins to your futures portfolio, consider waiting. There’s really no value in betting them at the current odds, and you might be able to catch a great number just as their two biggest stars return.
When the Sabres signed Taylor Hall, it caught the hockey world off guard. Everyone knew it would be a tough market, even for a player of Hall’s caliber, but Buffalo? That’s the best he could do? It starts to make a little more sense the more you think about it. After all, they have Jack Eichel, an elite center in his prime, and they just added some leadership with the signing of Eric Staal. Add in what they already had in Sam Reinhart, Jeff Skinner and Victor Olofsson, and that’s a pretty good top six.
There will be times when the Sabres look like the best team in the league, especially if Eichel and Hall get a fair shake together on the same line, but things start to drop off after that. Dylan Cozens looks ready to make the jump, but there’s also good reason to be skeptical that he can contribute right away. A solid third line would help a lot, and the pieces might be there to make it happen, but it’s not a given.
In the end, everything rests on the performance of their goaltending tandem, Linus Ullmark and Carter Hutton, and that’s where my confidence starts to wane. Hutton is 35, and it’s hard to see enough things going right for him to backstop the Sabres all the way to the playoffs. It’s also unlikely that the Sabres have the goaltender they seem to think they do in Ullmark. He has only 97 games of NHL experience and could prove a lot of people wrong in 2021, but the odds are not in his favor. Add the fact that the team doesn’t have a bonafide top-four defenseman outside of 20-year-old Rasmus Dahlin and it’s easy to see how this could all go wrong for the Sabres.
From the perspective of shot differential at 5-on-5, the Sabres surprisingly didn’t get their doors blown off in 2019-20, allowing only roughly 2.5 shots more on a per-60-minute basis than they generated. In other words, about 49% of the shots were taken by the Sabres.
The problem is their share of expected goals was closer to 47% (25th). Hall and Staal should improve their ability to generate shots and chances, but there’s a decent chance their efforts could be undone by poor defense and goaltending.
Clearly management believes the time is now to compete for the playoffs, or at least knows its franchise player, Eichel, won’t have it any other way.
However, betting on the Sabres to have a successful season is betting on a lot of things to go right that probably won’t. Still, their chances of making the playoffs aren’t all that bad at 30.8% (+ 225) considering they’re in a very tough division. A division they won in 3.6% (+ 2,700) of the thousands of simulations I ran.
From a Stanley Cup futures perspective, if the Sabres do get to the playoffs, they better hope that it’s because Ullmark is actually good. It’s hard to see a road through the East playoff bracket without adequate goaltending.
When the Canucks let starting goaltender Jacob Markstrom walk into free agency, the Flames were there to sign the 30-year to a six-year deal. While the deal might not look good when Markstrom is in the twilight of his career, it looks like a great signing for the Flames right now, and that’s all we as sports bettors should care about.
Markstrom was one of the best goaltenders during the 2019-20 regular season, and he raised his game in the playoffs. The team also signed defenseman Chris Tanev and forward Josh Leivo, quality players for any roster looking to compete for a playoff spot and beyond.
Matthew Tkachuk is a superstar who drives his opponents crazy. At 23, he’s now the face of the franchise. He is surrounded by a very good supporting cast, but that’s what’s keeping the Flames from being a true Stanley Cup contender. Tkachuk is their only elite winger, and they don’t have an elite center. Sean Monahan’s production dropped off big time in 2019-20, as did the contributions of winger Johnny Gaudreau. Monahan’s breakout in 2018-19 now looks like a one-off. Gaudreau, on the other hand, is a candidate to bounce back. If he does, the Flames shouldn’t have any trouble scoring goals.
The Flames lack defensive depth. Mark Giordano is a beast, but he’s getting up there in age. The Flames don’t have much cap space, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see them add a defenseman via trade, and they would be better for it. If they don’t improve their blue line, they’re going to need a full team effort on defense, and Markstrom will have to be great because right now the Flames’ defense is average at best.
The Flames owned almost 51% of the expected goals generated during 5-on-5 play last season, according to Evolving Hockey. However, they actually scored only around 47%. After being a top-five team in puck possession in 2018-19, the Flames took a huge step back in 2019-20, finishing with an average Corsi rating. They have a workman-like identity, and they are tough to play against, but other than that, they don’t do anything particularly well. They’re only a season removed from being a very strong possession team, but I don’t know that the pieces are here for that to happen again.
This is an improved hockey team because of Markstrom being a big upgrade in goal. They’re projected to finish third in the North Division with 63.6 points, right behind Montreal and just ahead of Edmonton. The Flames have a 12.6% chance (+ 692) of winning the division and a 66.1% chance (-195) of making the playoffs.
The Flames should have better Stanley Cup odds than the rival Oilers and quite a few other teams. They are slightly above average and have a pretty good road to the playoffs. Of all the Canadian teams, only Toronto has what it takes to be a true powerhouse, so the Flames might even be able to win a round or two. I would like a bigger number than what we’re seeing now, though, as it accurately represents their Cup odds and doesn’t really offer any value.
Loaded up front with one of the best young trios in hockey and bolstered on the back end with a top defensive pairing that is among the best in the league, the Hurricanes are primed to contend for the foreseeable future. The top line of Andrei Svechnikov, Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen leads the way, and it really wouldn’t be surprising to see all three set career highs in points.
A full season of Vincent Trocheck as the team’s second-line center should help them maintain the torrid pace at which they generated expected goals. Only the Golden Knights were better offensively, according to Evolving Hockey’s expected goals model. Trocheck didn’t get a whole lot of time to play with wingers Nino Niederreiter and Martin Necas in the playoffs, but the trio showed promise. Jordan Staal likely will center Warren Foegele and newly signed Jesper Fast. These are three solid lines that will help the Hurricanes bring their scoring efficiency in line with other top-10 teams.
Defenseman Dougie Hamilton is set up nicely to have his best season to date as well, and he has a great partner in Jaccob Slavin to help him do it. Hamilton was scoring at almost a point-per-game pace before missing the second half of last season with an injury. Their second pairing of Brady Skjei and Brett Pesce is tilted toward the latter in terms of skill, and things never seem to be boring when Jake Gardiner plays defense in his own end. The top pair will play a bunch of minutes, though, and that will help lessen the load for these other players who might not be up to the task.
Overall, the Hurricanes are a balanced team with a lot of potential. They’re no longer just the darling of the analytics crowd, they’re a team that’s exploding with talent and they’re ready to take on the league’s best. Goaltending is going to the area that worries a lot of people, but James Reimer and Petr Mrazek are a respectable pair.
The Hurricanes are a top-five team by expected goals, but Hamilton’s injury hurt their numbers a bit on both defense and offense. Expect this team to be top five by expected goals and Corsi (shot attempts) in 2021 now that their best player is healthy.
Realignment put the Hurricanes in a pretty good position to succeed. In fact, I bet them to win the Stanley Cup at 20-1 as soon as the changes were announced. Getting out of the Metropolitan Division and away from Washington, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia could be just what the Hurricanes needed. Even though they’re now in the same division as Tampa Bay, the Central Division is a much better place for them to be, and they have the second-best odds of winning it with a 29% chance (+ 245).
Carolina has a clear path to the playoffs with teams like Detroit and Chicago posing no real threat. Their chances of getting there are 89.1%, which equates to odds of -820. The next best team, Dallas, is projected to finish more than 8 points behind them. My projection for the Hurricanes is 71.3 average points.
Everyone is penciling in the Blackhawks as one of this year’s worst teams, and rightfully so. The team barely played break-even hockey last season, scoring slightly less than 50% of the goals. And now they no longer have goaltender Corey Crawford, who at 36 is still a borderline elite goalie. Patrick Kane can still contribute in a big way, but he’s 32 but he’s going to be in a tough spot without a top-line center to play with as both Jonathan Toews and Kirby Dach are out for the foreseeable future.
Dach injured his wrist in an exhibition game at the World Junior Hockey Championships in December and will miss at least a couple of months. This is an important year for general manager Stan Bowman to find out what he has in Dach, Alex DeBrincat and Alex Nylander, who is also injured. How Bowman runs the team will be dictated by whether or not the three young players step up into bigger roles. Dach is missing valuable experience and the organization is missing a great chance to evaluate him. Toews can still anchor a line in a top-six role, but he is 32 and suffering from an illness that may keep him out all season.
Centers play an important role in establishing team defense and forechecking. Not having Dach and Toews, who are both very good defensively, will put a lot of pressure on 37-year-old defenseman Duncan Keith, who will be aiding an inexperienced but talented partner in Adam Boqvist.
This was a slightly above-average team in terms of its ability to generate shots and goals in 2019-20. However, the Blackhawks are so bad on defense that it canceled out their solid offense. Without Crawford, the Hawks go from a team that allowed goals at an average rate to one that allows goals at a far worse rate.
Overall, this wasn’t a good hockey team, and things just got worse. Unless goaltender Malcolm Subban has something more than a career .899 save percentage up his sleeve, the Blackhawks are in trouble.
Before the injuries to Toews, Dach and Nylander, the Blackhawks’ high-end talent was projected to keep them above the Red Wings by about three points at 53.8 average points. Now the gap is about a half-point in the standings with the Blackhawks sitting at 52.
The division itself is weak, outside of Carolina and Tampa Bay, but the Blackhawks likely won’t be able to outscore their problems this time around. Even if they had a good goaltender like Crawford, it would be tough to see this team making any noise. The Blackhawks made the playoffs in 6.7% (+ 1,390) of simulations.
A favorite to win the Stanley Cup, the Avalanche check all of the boxes of a legitimate contender. Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen are one of the most dynamic duos in the NHL, and it doesn’t get much easier for the opposition as you move down the lineup. The Avs were an offensive juggernaut last season despite getting hit hard by the injury bug. Rantanen played in only 42 of 70 regular-season games, while Nazem Kadri, Andre Burakovsky, Gabriel Landeskog and Cale Makar all played 57 games or fewer.
There’s no guarantee that the team will remain healthy throughout the season, but it’s important to factor in these injuries or you might end up underrating a really good team.
According to Evolving Hockey’s expected goals model, the Avalanche generated goals at a much higher rate than expected. Typically, when a team does that it’s a red flag, but when it’s a team that has as much skill up front as the Avalanche have, it’s a bit easier to digest. We know the model does not take shooter talent into account, and this team has elite snipers. I expect the Avalanche to be just as formidable on offense in 2021 with the only difference being their peripherals will look just as good as their traditional stats do. On defense, however, that has not been an issue.
The Avalanche were a top-10 team in terms of their ability to suppress unblocked shot attempts during 5-on-5 play and ranked among the top five in terms of the goals they were expected to concede. Only three teams allowed fewer 5-on-5 goals per 60 minutes and no team scored goals at a higher rate.
Makar scored 50 points in 57 games in his rookie season, and while it’s important to remember he’s only 22, he has superstar written all over him. He’s already a favorite to win the Norris Trophy heading into his sophomore season and he has totally overshadowed Samuel Girard and Ryan Graves, two other good young Colorado defensemen. The team is stacked from top to bottom, and its defensive play probably doesn’t get talked about enough because even its best defenseman is an offensive machine.
The Avalanche have a young goaltending tandem that has shown a lot of promise, but both still have to prove that they can consistently perform at a high level over a longer term. Philipp Grubauer looked great in 35 games with the Capitals but has looked pedestrian in his two seasons with the Avalanche. Pavel Francouz had a great resume overseas, and outside of the playoffs, he saved more goals than an average goaltender would have, given the shots he faced in his first season in North America.
I still think both goaltenders have the ability to be starters. However, I have a lot more confidence in my ability to project how skaters will perform than I do goaltenders.
The sky’s the limit for this Avalanche team. They’re loaded with top-end talent and they already have a bunch of experience so they know what to expect and they look ready to take the next step.
With a projection of 73.1 average points, the Avalanche are the best team in the West, but the Golden Knights are projected to trail them only by two points, so there will be no letting up. The Avalanche made the playoffs in 93.4% (-1,413) of simulations and won the West Division 44.8% (+ 123) of the time and the Presidents’ Trophy 16.6% (+ 502) of the time.
COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS
John Tortorella and the Blue Jackets are heading into 2021 primed to stir the pot, and they just might have the tools to do it.
Seth Jones and Zach Werenski are two of the best defensemen in the league, but you could argue they weren’t the best pairing on the team last season. David Savard and Vladislav Gavrikov were phenomenal together in 2019-20.
The Blue Jackets quietly have one of the best top-four defensive units in hockey. If Elvis Merzlikins is the real deal, this team is going to be very tough to score on. The potential is there for the 26-year-old Latvian to be an elite starting goaltender in the NHL but, it’s still too early to tell.
The Blue Jackets look to have something special up front in Pierre-Luc Dubois. He’s only 22 and looks ready to break out in a big way. Oliver Bjorkstrand has been around a little longer but has just started to come into his own. Cam Atkinson and Gustav Nyquist are established pros who can fill various roles and we know exactly what we’re going to get.
Boone Jenner is solid, and so are grizzled veterans Nick Foligno and Mikko Koivu, who joined the team via free agency, but they’re both pretty long in the tooth. The forward group could get a big boost if rookies Owen Tippett and Grigori Denisenko are ready to go on day one. Losing winger Josh Anderson will hurt the Blue Jackets’ organizational depth, but he hasn't been in the lineup regularly for a while, so the on-ice product probably won’t be affected much.
At 5-on-5, the Blue Jackets were very good. They owned almost 52% of the expected goals and generated more shots than their opponents on a per-60-minute basis. They did score more goals than their opponents at 5-on-5, but it was by a very thin margin.
The team underperformed its expected goals, and their goaltenders, albeit good by traditional standards, weren’t great outside of what they did in the playoffs. I don’t suspect we’ll see Joonas Korpisalo rise to the heights we saw him reach in the bubble again. The book is still out on Merzlikins, however, as he might just be elite.
Although the Blue Jackets are projected to win the Central Division only 4.9% (+ 1,952) of the time, it’s not because they’re not a good team. The Blue Jackets are a very good team, defensively. They just don’t have what it takes offensively to hang with teams like the Lightning and the Hurricanes, who are locks to make the playoffs. The Jackets do have a bit of cap space, and if they want to build on last season they should add some offensive weaponry.
Columbus will make the playoffs 52.8% of the time, which gives them odds of around -112 to do so, but they’re likely going to be in a dogfight with a bunch of other teams to get in. The Blue Jackets are definitely better than the Blackhawks and the Red Wings. They’re probably better than the Panthers, but they’re in a tier with the Predators and the Stars, and it’s not going to be easy.
On average, the Blue Jackets finish with 63 points. The Predators and Stars finish with 63.1 and 63.3, respectively. It should be a very tight race, and these teams are going to see a lot of each other.
A dark-horse pick once again, the Stars’ performance in the 2019-20 playoffs is still fresh in the minds of hockey fans and bettors. The Stars took out the best teams in the Western Conference — Colorado and Vegas — but they couldn’t get past Tampa Bay in the Stanley Cup Final.
It’s no surprise that many pundits, particularly in the gambling space, are suggesting the Stars should be among the teams with best odds to win the Cup this season. Most have cited a full season with Ben Bishop in goal as the main reason to see value in betting on another Stars run.
The problem is Bishop had surgery in late October and will miss at least the first two months of the season. Tyler Seguin also had surgery Nov. 2 and will miss roughly the same amount of time as Bishop. Seguin had a down season last year, but as a wise hockey fan once told me, when a good player’s production drops off without explanation, an injury is often the culprit. It’s a tough sport.
The Stars have some very good young players, specifically on the back end, but the core is getting older and they’re going to miss Seguin. For a team that has had trouble scoring, that will be tough to overcome. They’re also going to miss the stability in goal that a healthy Bishop would provide and for a significant portion of the season.
Anton Khudobin is great, but he was burned out by the end of the Stars’ playoff run. This is an above-average team, but after riding a hot goaltender to the Stanley Cup Final, they’re being placed one tier above where they belong.
The Stars, who ranked as an average team on the penalty kill and the power play last season, showed signs of being a very good 5-on-5 team. With a 52.7% share of 5-on-5 expected shares during the regular season, they ranked fifth overall, according to Evolving Hockey. However, the Stars aren’t a dominant puck-possession team, which is why I have trouble placing them among the top teams.
There are a lot of ways that this season could go for the Stars, but I don't believe things will go as smoothly as many in the betting public are predicting. The Stars are in a weak division, and a lot of people will see a clear path to the playoffs for them, but it’s going to be a fight.
They’re sandwiched between some good teams and some elite teams, and they made the playoffs in only 54.4% (-119) of simulations. Their odds of winning the Central Division with 63.3 average points are around + 1,916 or 5%.
DETROIT RED WINGS
If there was one team to just ignore this season, it would be the Red Wings. However, after a historically bad season, they can only go one direction, and that’s up. That’s not to say they won’t finish in last place again, because that’s certainly a possibility. It’s just really hard to see the Red Wings being worse than they were in 2019-20. General manager Steve Yzerman did a good job swapping out players who weren’t capable of playing in the NHL for players who are. Marc Staal will give Detroit fans headaches, but the rest of the players — Bobby Ryan, Vladislav Namestnikov and Jon Merrill — are positive additions to the club.
Thomas Greiss, another newly signed player, turns 35 this month, and that’s worrisome, but he’s still a serviceable goaltender. Jonathan Bernier was decent down the stretch last season, and his underlying numbers probably would surprise you. Both goalies will see their fair share of action.
Detroit was outscored 2.98-1.61 at 5-on-5, an astonishingly awful goal differential. Overall, the Red Wings were outscored 3.75-1.97 in all situations. They were awful by expected goals too. Opponents generated 5-on-5 expected goals at a rate of 2.6 per 60 minutes, while the Red Wings were closer to 2.0.
Adding some defensemen, such as Merrill and Troy Stecher, will help ease the burden on Patrik Nemeth and Filip Hronek, who have shown they can play tough minutes against the league’s best players. Another plus will be the return of Danny Dekeyser, who missed almost all of last season. The Red Wings could use the taxi squad to bring along some of their promising young defensemen.
Detroit’s top line of Dylan Larkin, Anthony Mantha and Tyler Bertuzzi is really good. Mantha played only 43 games last season, so his return will help immensely. If the Red Wings can get some secondary scoring from their newly signed players on the second and third lines, they might end up being a dog worth taking at various points throughout the season, but as of right now, the only team they have a chance of being a favorite against is the Blackhawks.
I hope no Red Wings fans got their hopes up because this team is still going to be bad, but at least they won’t be historically bad with a projection of 51.4 average points in 56 games. Last season they accumulated 39 points in 71 games. Luck alone probably will make them one of the most improved teams in 2021.
Still, the Red Wings have the lowest odds of any team to make the playoffs at 5.8% (+ 1,633) and won the division in only 10 of 10,000 simulations. The Red Wings finished last in the division 43.1% of the time.
Everyone knows the Oilers are led by Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. But the underlying reason for their success last season was several young players blossomed into regular contributors. The development of Ethan Bear and Caleb Jones, two young defensemen, will be even more important now that we know the team’s top back, Oscar Klefbom, is out for the season. Whether or not those players, along with forward Kailer Yamamoto, pick up where they left off will go a long way in determining how far the Oilers go as a team.
Forwards Jesse Puljujarvi, who returns to the team after a stint in the Finnish Elite League, and Dominik Kahun, who is sneaky good, are wild cards, and their addition could give the Oilers a decent third line.
Depth is a problem for the Oilers. They were propped up by their success on the power play and the penalty kill last season, but they’re going to have a hard time keeping up the act. The power-play success might be repeatable because of their high-end offensive talent, but replicating their penalty-kill success will be a lot tougher. The Oilers’ underlying metrics while short-handed were average, and their goaltending isn’t good. Dave Tippett is a good coach, but it will be very surprising if the Oilers rank among the top teams in both power-play and penalty-kill percentage in 2021.
At even strength, the Oilers struggled to outplay the opposition. Of course, they are usually at an advantage when McDavid is on the ice, but the team is going to have to improve its 5-on-5 play if it wants to take a step forward. Owning between 48-49% of the share of shots and expected goals at 5-on-5 won’t cut it because they were outscored 2.7-2.43 on a per-60-minute basis during 5-on-5 play last season.
Even if the Oilers figure it out and put all of that high-end talent to good use, there’s still the issue in goal. To the untrained eye, the Oilers looked well-positioned to walk over the Blackhawks in the qualifying round last season. However, sharp bettors knew that riding veteran goaltenders Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen into the playoffs was a recipe for disaster. The Oilers were the better team, which isn’t saying much, but they were undone by poor goaltending. General manager Ken Holland is taking a big risk by not upgrading. Smith turns 39 in March and Koskinen is an unproven goaltender entering his mid-30s.
Smith saved the Flames approximately 12.5 goals above expected in 2017-18, according to Evolving Hockey. In the last two seasons, however, he has given it all back, allowing a goal on every 10 shots he faced in his last 81 games of regular-season hockey.
McDavid and Draisaitl give the Oilers a shot in the North Division that they otherwise wouldn’t have. Based on the results of 10,000 simulations, the Oilers have a 56.4% chance (-129) to make the playoffs and an 8.6% chance (+ 1,066) to claim the top spot in Canada. At 62.24 points, they’re just behind their provincial rival in Calgary.
The Oilers could improve their chances if their play has improved since last season, but forecasting anything more than an average fourth-place finish and you’d be betting on magic beans, given the uncertainty surrounding some of their young players, not to mention their goaltending.
Sergei Bobrovsky was supposed to solve the Panthers’ goaltending troubles when he signed a seven-year, $70 million deal before last season. Nobody liked the contract for the Panthers, but most figured Bobrovsky would be good for the team in the short term. It didn’t happen. Bobrovsky had the worst season of his career, posting a .900 save percentage, and at 32 it’s safe to say he has peaked. His days of being a good bet to stop pucks at an above-average rate are behind him.
The Panthers’ strength lies in the one-two punch of Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov up front. They are elite forwards in their prime, but even they’re not enough to propel a team out of mediocrity.
Patric Hornqvist was acquired in the offseason, likely to add some perceived toughness at forward. He is known for being a net-front presence, but at 34, he isn’t the player he once was. Center Alex Wennberg also was signed with the hopes of proving that he can still be a top-six forward. Rookie Owen Tippett could make the team and make an impact, but we’ll have to wait and see. Forward Anthony Duclair was signed in the offseason after having a really good year in Ottawa and might find himself on the top line with Barkov and Huberdeau.
While the Panthers haven’t been good defensively, it’s not because their blue line is bad. The team doesn’t have an elite defender, but Aaron Ekblad has turned into a pretty good one after a bit of a rocky start to his career. They shouldn’t get caved in, but they’re just not good enough. Joel Quenneville is rightfully considered one of the greatest coaches of all time, but he has his work cut out for him this season.
As far as team stats go, the Panthers are not above average in any category. They generated goals at a below-average rate at even strength and on the power play. They surrender goals at an above-average rate on the penalty kill and at even strength. Once considered early adopters of analytics, the team ditched that philosophy, and it shows.
It’s very unlikely that the Panthers are as bad as the Red Wings and the Blackhawks, but it’s also not fair to put them ahead of any of the other teams in the division. That’s why the Panthers miss the playoffs more often than not in simulations. They still make it 42.9% (+ 133) of the time, and they even have a 2.9% chance (+ 3397) of winning the division with an average of 61.3 points.
Huberdeau and Barkov project to be in the top 30 scorers, giving the Panthers something not many teams have. But it really comes down to whether Bobrovsky has one great season left in him. That looks less and less likely with each season. But this isn’t a normal season, and the Panthers do have quite a bit of cap space.
LOS ANGELES KINGS
It would be easy to write off the Kings as a cellar dweller. However, it’s possible this team pulls itself out of the basement and moves up a level to mediocre. There is a world in which Jonathan Quick and Cal Petersen combine to make a solid goaltending tandem, and if that happens the Kings might not be all that bad. Now, there’s still a pretty good chance they will be bad, but it’s all probabilities, right?
Quick was one of the league’s best goaltenders up until a couple of seasons ago, and the team apparently has been working with him heading into this season. He’s a good bet to come in and provide average goaltending. Petersen is in line to be Quick’s successor, and early signs (7.9 GSAx) point to him being a solid goaltender. Still, Petersen has fewer than 20 games of NHL experience under his belt.
On offense, we know exactly what we’re going to get from Alex Iafallo, Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown — a great effort defensively but not much in the scoring department. We also know what to expect from Jeff Carter, who is in decline as he approaches the end of his career. Martin Frk is a quality player who should be among the Kings’ biggest contributors, but things get much more uncertain as we move down the lineup and into the defensive unit.
Gabriel Vilardi, a bit of a dark horse to win the Calder Trophy, could turn out to be ready for the show. If he and some of the other Kings prospects find their way, they might actually have some secondary scoring. They also have questions on the blue line. Will Tobias Bjornfot’s game translate to the NHL? Will Sean Walker and Matt Roy take a step forward now that they’re used to being full-time pros? Does Drew Doughty have anything left?
Through the lens of modern hockey statistics, the Kings are an above-average team, or at least they were in 2019-20. At 5-on-5, they owned 51% of the expected goals and more than 52% of the shot attempts. The Kings should have had a positive goal differential at 5-on-5, according to the model, but ended up scoring about 25 goals fewer than expected. Sure, some of it likely was bad luck, but the team definitely lacks shooting talent. At 5-on-5, the Kings had the second-worst shooting percentage in the league behind the Red Wings. It can change in a hurry, though. Dallas had the third-worst 5-on-5 shooting percentage during the regular season and ended up with the fourth best during the playoffs.
The Kings could have adequate goaltending. They’re not set up as well as the Ducks are, but they’re in better shape than the Sharks. Their underlying metrics are good, but they’re almost certainly going to have trouble scoring. If the playoffs seem far away for this team, it’s because they are, but they’re not totally out of reach. Even the worst team in the league has a better than 5% chance of making it.
While they’re not protected to make the playoffs with only a 16.5% chance (+ 508), the Kings aren’t the worst team in the league, though they could very well finish last. In fact, more than 29% of the time they finish last in the West in simulations. The Kings win the division only 60 times out of 10,000 (+ 16,293) and, on average, finish with 55.3 points.
Cam Talbot and his play in goal likely will determine how the season plays out for the Wild. But whether or not Kirill Kaprizov can bring his game over from the KHL will also play a big role. Kaprizov was very impressive in the KHL, scoring 230 points in 293 games, and his totals look even better if you exclude his first season. It’s reasonable to project the 23-year-old to top 50 points barring an injury or other setback.
Kevin Fiala is also on his way to becoming a household name, but he and the Wild’s other young wingers could be held back by their lack of an elite player at center. Heading into a game with Marcus Johansson as your top-line center is a bad idea, let alone an entire season, yet that’s what the Wild seem intent on doing. Nick Bonino was a nice add, but it obviously doesn’t make up for the loss of Eric Staal.
Defensively, the Wild are in pretty good shape. Ryan Suter and Jared Spurgeon are both very good, even elite, defenders. The same goes for Matt Dumba and Jonas Brodin. The Wild were just an average team in terms of keeping pucks out of their own net during 5-on-5 play. Talbot is an upgrade in goal and likely will help the team get over that hump.
Year in, and year out, the Wild are a top team, according to expected goals models. However, while the models are a great tool, and you should consider them accurate and valid, it’s a matter of garbage in, garbage out. There is enough evidence to suggest that the outputs of said expected goal models are distorted because of scorekeeping bias. For a bettor, any possibility that the data you’re using isn’t good is worrisome.
The Wild scored 5-on-5 goals at a very high rate in 2019-20. In fact, they outperformed their expected goals by more than 30. It seemed very unsustainable, and it’s going to be hard to mirror that performance in 2021. The Wild have been relying on the same seemingly optimal approach for the last number of years. After being handled quite easily by the Canucks in the qualifying round and looking poor by expected goals in the process, it will be interesting to see how this new-look Wild team approaches this season and how their peripherals are affected.
If Talbot can come in and provide stable goaltending, the Wild will have a chance in the West Division. They’re up against a few powerhouses in the Avalanche, Blues and the Golden Knights, but the rest of the division isn’t that strong. With a projection of 60.9 average points, they’re in a tier with the Coyotes, one above the three California teams. Give the Wild a 3.1% chance (+ 3,095) of winning the West and a 43.3% chance (+ 131) of making the playoffs.
Heading into every hockey season, there’s always at least one team that looks to be in line for positive progression. This season, it’s the Canadiens. The Habs are a very strong possession team that was unlucky, both at 5-on-5 and on special teams, in 2019-20. They don’t have an elite center, but they have a really talented lineup and deserved a better finish in the standings last season.
At 5-on-5, they were generating about 10 more shots than their opponents on a per-60-minute basis. Only the Golden Knights and the Lightning had a better share of the expected goals at 5-on-5. Those are repeatable skills and if they continue, the goals will come.
Tyler Toffoli is a nice addition who should chip in around 15 goals and 30 points. Josh Anderson could prove to be exactly what the Canadiens need. He has been pegged as injury-prone despite really having only one injury (shoulder), and he’s only 26. Anderson is a great bet to be a 25-goal, 50-point player in 2021. Don’t forget about Corey Perry, either. The veteran forward will add some sandpaper to the lineup as a net-front presence. He proved he can still be a useful player with the Stars last season.
They will join Brendan Gallagher, the team’s best forward, and Tomas Tatar in the top six. Montreal has always been a tough place to play when things aren’t going well as the fans will get on you. Luckily for center Nick Suzuki, there likely will be no fans in attendance this season. At least not in Quebec. Suzuki has a lot of pressure on him after a strong performance in the playoffs because the Habs and their fans are expecting big things this season. The club could use a resurgence from 25-year-old Jonathan Drouin. The former No. 3 pick has not lived up to expectations, but there is offensive upside to his game. A bounce-back season from center Jesperi Kotkaniemi also would be big. Like Drouin, Kotkaniemi is also a former No. 3 pick, but he is only 20.
In goal, Carey Price finally gets the backup help he has so desperately needed in veteran Jake Allen. Allen lost his starting job in St. Louis to Jordan Binnington, but he should have some good hockey left in him. Allen is probably eventually bound for the expansion draft and a season or two in Seattle, but he should be able to help Price manage the workload in the short term.
Shea Weber and Jeff Petry are the team’s two best defensemen, so they’re in good shape on the back end. Assuming they’re split up and are paired with either Ben Chiarot or Brett Kulak, the Habs’ defensive posture should be well-established throughout each game. The addition of Joel Edmundson on defense doesn’t really move the needle.
With 66.8 average points, the Canadiens are projected to finish about four points behind the Maple Leafs. The Canadiens don’t have the high-end talent of some of the other North teams, but they’re a very good team that got better during the offseason. The Canadiens won the division in 21.9% of simulations, which means fair odds are about + 356. They made the playoffs 78% (-354) of the time. Their road to the playoffs looks a lot clearer now that they no longer have to deal with Boston or Tampa Bay.
Most NHL general managers would sell their souls to have either Roman Josi or Ryan Ellis on their blue line, and the Predators have both. Along with Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson, the Predators have a pretty good core that also includes Matt Duchene.
However, the team lost some valuable players in Craig Smith and Nick Bonino and did not replace them. There’s hope that Eeli Tolvanen can fill a top-six role, but there’s not as much buzz around Tolvanen as there was when he was drafted in 2017.
Goaltender Pekka Rinne just turned 38 and he cost the Predators more than 20 goals in 36 games, according to Evolving Hockey. There’s good reason to be skeptical that Rinne can turn the clock back. That leaves Juuse Saros, who has shown a lot of promise but never really got a fair shake until last season. He performed well in the regular season and was named the starter in the team’s qualifying series against the Coyotes. The Predators were eliminated in four games, though, thanks to a lack of scoring and Saros failing to come up big when the team needed him most.
Although the Predators were slightly above average in their ability to generate shots and chances at a higher rate than their opponents, it’s easy to envision them taking a step back in 2021. Smith and Bonino were both big-play drivers, so they will be missed.
The Predators scored about 20 more 5-on-5 goals in the regular season than they should have, according to Evolving Hockey, and their underlying metrics aren’t good enough to back that up. It’s hard to see the Predators repeating as a top-10 team on offense given that they downgraded their forward group. Erik Haula might be able to score 20 goals, but he’s such a drag on defense that he cancels most of it out. Nick Cousins is a fine player, but he doesn’t add much offense.
The Predators have a bunch of cap space to work with, and because they have a good group of core players still in their prime, savvy general manager David Poile could pull the trigger on a big-time player. He’s done it plenty of times. For now, though, this is a middling team that got slightly worse on paper, and that probably will translate to the ice.
With 63.1 average points, the team from Music City is likely going to be playing musical playoff spots with the Blue Jackets, Stars and Panthers. The Predators have a 53.1% (-113) chance of being seated in a playoff spot when the music stops. If Saros can turn into the starting goaltender that Rinne used to be, this team could do great things. Their core is good enough, but depth is a big issue. The Predators have a 5% (+ 1,892) chance of winning the Central Division.
NEW JERSEY DEVILS
The Devils, who are building for the future, made a smart move by bringing in goaltender Corey Crawford to back up Mackenzie Blackwood. Blackwood is an up-and-comer, while Crawford is a veteran who is still borderline elite. It’s really more of a 1A, 1B situation, but Crawford wasn’t brought in to steal Blackwood’s thunder. He’s there to provide stable goaltending so the team doesn’t get blown out when the youngster has a night off.
The Devils don’t have any elite skaters, but they have players with that type of potential. At just 21, Nico Hischier will be under a microscope as the team’s top-line center. Devils management wants to see if the former No. 1 overall pick can develop into an elite player. This is going to be a good test for Hischier. At 0.65 points per game, Hischier is going to have to step it up if he wants to live up to his contract.
Kyle Palmieri is one of the most consistent players in the game, scoring at about a 25-goal pace five seasons in a row. He’s 29, though, so don’t expect him to be anything more unless Hischier finds another gear. Jesper Bratt, 22, is also expected to flank Hischier on the top line but is unsigned at the time of this writing. Bratt is pretty consistent himself, having scored 30 points or more in each of his first three seasons. Hischier, Palmieri and Bratt are all fine skaters and belong in the top six, but the lack of an elite forward really shows here.
Speaking of the top six, everyone is waiting to see if Jack Hughes, the No. 1 overall pick in 2019, is of the same ilk as fellow Americans Auston Matthews and Patrick Kane who were selected at the top of their draft class. The 19-year-old center posted 21 points in 61 games in his rookie season and will be expected to take a big leap forward in 2021 as the team’s second-line center. Longtime Devils center Travis Zajac is around to provide backup, but he’s 35, so the kids need to take over.
On defense, the team is led by Damon Severson and Ryan Murray, who project to be the top pair. Severson and Murray are quality players, but like the top forward line, they’re probably going to be in over their heads playing against the top lines in the East Division. Will Butcher is also a quality player, but he’s likely going to have a liability on his right side in P.K. Subban. Subban is by far the biggest name of the bunch, but he’s the worst defenseman projected to play in the Devils’ top four.
According to Evolving Hockey, the Devils allowed more goals (2.88, 30th) than expected goals (2.61, 30th) and scored fewer (2.21, 26th) than expected (2.27, 25th). New Jersey was one of the worst teams in the league by Corsi, as well, owning only 46% of the shots. The Devils have a lot of cap space, so they could improve via trade or pick up some of the useful free agents still on the mark, but I don’t expect them to do anything extreme.
The East Division is tough, so the Devils finished last in 37% of the simulations. They won the division 1.3% of the time, which equates to odds of 78-1. They finish with 55.4 points on average, roughly four fewer than the next best team, and make the playoffs only 16.4% (+ 508) of the time. It still all seems a little generous for a team that doesn’t have a first line or a top defensive pair and has poor underlying metrics. But having two good goaltenders gives them a chance.
NEW YORK ISLANDERS
Since coach Barry Trotz arrived in Brooklyn, the Islanders have morphed into one of the toughest teams to play against. The effort and teamwork that the Isles display is second to none. However, the team’s underlying metrics suggest that their goaltenders have been doing a lot of heavy lifting. Semyon Varlamov and Thomas Greiss were arguably the best one-two punch in the league in 2019-20.
Varlamov and Greiss aren’t world beaters, though, and they’re both in their mid-30s. Luckily, for the Islanders, they have what they hope is an ace up their sleeve. Ilya Sorokin is an elite goaltender from Russia who has been dominating the KHL for several seasons who will make his NHL debut in 2021. Sorokin might be just what the Islanders need to stay afloat in a very tough East Division.
Mathew Barzal will have a big say in whether or not the Islanders are a playoffs team. The 23-year-old broke into the league as a rookie in 2017-18 in a big way, scoring at a point-per-game pace. He came close to doing it again last season, but based on Evolving Hockey’s Goals Above Replacement, he’s half the player he was that first season. Anthony Beauvillier might not be as skilled as Barzal, but he has game and as he has continued to progress. Beauvillier is turning into a fine NHL player. If he and Barzal can both step up in a big way, the Islanders can be a legitimate threat.
Their top six is fine, although they’re still missing an elite forward. The bottom six is where things get worrisome. How much longer can Leo Komarov, Cal Clutterbuck and Matt Martin play at the pro level? My guess is not much longer. Trotz likely will be able to plug in players to fill roles, but I am not very optimistic that the Islanders’ third and fourth lines will be as successful as they have been.
What worries me most about the Islanders, though, is that their peripherals are average. Through 68 games, their shot share was slightly above 46% at 5-on-5. Only the Red Wings and the Devils were worse. The team has some high-end forwards and their top defensive pairing of the borderline elite Ryan Pulock and Adam Pelech is very good. They traded Devon Toews, which will hurt a bit, but basically we’re looking at the same team as last season. They’re a middling team that has to grind for every goal and every win, and they’ll likely rely on their goaltenders to carry the load once again. That’s not necessarily a good thing.
There are many differences between the Islanders and their biggest rival, the Rangers, but they are projected to be separated by less than a point in the standings. The Islanders have a projection of 61 average points and they made the playoffs in 40.9% (+ 144) of simulations. Trotz has a 5.8% chance (+ 1,618) of coaching this team to an East Division title.
The adage of hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard is true, but as we saw in the playoffs, it’s a tough strategy to employ night in and night out over a long stretch of games. When the Islanders reached the semifinals, they were really no match for the Lightning, a truly elite team. Unless Barzal has been playing possum, the Islanders just don’t check enough boxes to be labeled a contender.
NEW YORK RANGERS
Back in July, the Rangers were a trendy pick to move past the qualifying round and maybe even go on a bit of a playoff run. The Hurricanes had other plans, however, and the Rangers were the first team to be sent packing. In what was goaltender Henrik Lundqvist’s last hurrah as a Ranger, it was fitting that the team hung him out to dry one last time. It might have been different had Igor Shesterkin, heir apparent to King Henrik’s throne, been in goal for all three games, but an injury kept the goaltender out of action until Game 3. The Rangers were on the ropes, though, and the odds were insurmountable.
The silver lining, though, was the Rangers won the 2020 draft lottery and selected Alexis Lafreniere No. 1 overall. He and Shesterkin are co-favorites to win the Calder Trophy, and there’s little doubt that Lafreniere can contribute as a rookie. If Kaapo Kakko, the No. 2 pick in 2019, can break out, the Rangers will be in a much better position to succeed. Kakko did not have a good rookie season (23 points in 66 games), but he was one of the few Rangers who looked ready for playoff hockey in the summer.
Luckily for the Rangers’ young stars, the team has some forwards who can carry the load. Hart Trophy (MVP) finalist Artemi Panarin is an elite winger who elevates the play of everyone around him. They don’t have an elite center, but they have enough high-end forwards in Chris Kreider, Mika Zibanejad and Pavel Buchnevich that they can probably survive without. Only four teams — Tampa Bay, Washington, Colorado and Toronto — scored goals during 5-on-5 play at a higher rate than the Rangers. They were also top 10 in generating expected goals at 5-on-5. Their lack of depth at center is something that will eventually need to be addressed, though.
Defensively, the Rangers are still a mess. At 5-on-5, the team allowed 2.61 goals per 60 minutes (21st). Only the Blackhawks allowed expected goals at a worse rate, and it would have been even worse if not for good goaltending.
The team does have some very good defensemen, though. Adam Fox made a name for himself as a rookie in 2019-20, scoring 42 points in 70 games from the blue line. Tony DeAngelo tallied 53 points in 68 games while quarterbacking the top power-play unit. Both players fit the team’s identity of being a powerhouse on offense.
This is probably an above-average team, but they look like a below-average team in the East Division. Are they better than the Devils and the Sabres? Almost certainly. What about the Islanders? Maybe, but they still have to worry about the Bruins, Penguins, Capitals and Flyers. Only four teams in each division make the playoffs.
Realignment has definitely been unkind to the Rangers, but they are probably a year or two away from having a real chance to compete for a Stanley Cup anyway. With a projected point total of 60.3, the Rangers have a 37.2% chance (+ 169) of making the playoffs, which means they should be -169 to miss. They have a 4.9% chance (+ 1,928) of winning the East.
The chances of this team being defensively proficient are slim. The Rangers have a bunch of offensive weaponry, but so do a lot of teams in their division, and those teams aren’t bad defensively. Everything hinges on Shesterkin and whether he can stand on his head for the better part of a 56-game schedule.
A prime candidate to be the punching bag of the North Division, the Senators are a team with an eye on the future with no chance of competing in 2021. That’s a good thing for those of us making long-term forecasts. Although the organization has been a tire fire in recent years, the Senators’ brass will exercise patience as they allow their young players to adapt to the pro game.
General manager Pierre Dorion was a busy man during the offseason, but it’s very unlikely that any of the players he brought in will be able to change anything. The Senators added Evgenii Dadonov, and he’ll provide some offense, but he doesn’t have a high-end center to play with like he did in Florida. They also added Matt Murray to be their starting goaltender, and although there were worse bets that the team could have made, Murray has been below average in two of the last three seasons, and this is a tough spot for a goalie.
This is all in an effort to build around winger Brady Tkachuk, of course. The younger of the Tkachuk boys is a fine young player, and he might turn into a superstar like his brother, Matthew, but that remains to be seen. Colin White is a good player but not the type of center Tkachuk needs to truly thrive. Tim Stutzle, one of the Senators’ highly touted prospects, might be the right man for the job, but he’s just 18 years old.
Thomas Chabot is an excellent defenseman, and he could step out in a big way this year, but I’m not sure he’s on the trajectory the hockey world thought he was a couple of seasons ago. Outside of Chabot, there aren’t a lot of positives on a team that has Nikita Zaitsev and Erik Gudbranson on the same blue line.
It’s scary to think what the Maple Leafs will do to the Senators defense when they play them a whopping nine times. Auston Matthews and Co. are going to have a field day. Really, all of the other Canadian squads have what it takes to overwhelm the Senators in their zone on a nightly basis. Murray is going to face a lot of shots.
With 51 average points, the Senators are expected to finish last in the North Division 53.4% of the time and win it less than 1% (+ 28,471) of the time. The Sens squeak into the playoffs approximately 8.4% (+ 1,085) of the time in the only division that doesn’t have eight teams. This is a very young team with a defensive group that grades out as the worst in the league. Don’t expect to see them as a favorite in any of the 56 games unless there is some sort of COVID-19-related problem.
A lot was made of the fact that the Flyers were winning games at a 60% clip in 2020. The team won 20 of its last 26 games, which included a nine-game winning streak, before the league was shut down in March. I wasn’t sold, though, and received a lot of flack for my skepticism, especially after the Flyers clinched the top spot in the round robin. Entering a series with the 12th-place Canadiens, the optimism surrounding the team was at an all-time high. However, even though the Flyers managed to win a round, they were outplayed by the Canadiens before getting beaten by the Islanders. It seemed like everyone started to see things my way.
It’s not that the Flyers aren’t a good team. They’re just not among the league’s best. They don’t have an elite defenseman, and although their top-six forward group is pretty good, Sean Couturier is their only elite player. Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek are fine players, but their best years are likely behind them. Travis Konecny had a breakout season, producing roughly a point per game in 2019-20, and he has been a consistent goal scorer since his sophomore season, but he will have to repeat his performance from last season if he hopes to be a top-line winger.
Carter Hart looks ready to take the next step in goal, but he should feel the pressure this year. With 74 games of regular-season hockey and a pretty strong performance in the playoffs under his belt, Hart is a favorite pick to win the Vezina Trophy as the league’s best goaltender. The 22-year-old has shown a lot of promise, but that’s a small sample of games, and he wasn’t great as a rookie. Hart projects to be an above-average goaltender, but I’m pumping the brakes on labeling him as elite.
Philadelphia had the 13th-best expected goal share at 5-on-5 during the 2019-20 regular season and the fifth-best share of actual goals. However, less than a percentage point separated the Flyers from being a below-average team in terms of expected goals generated for and against. They’ll have to improve in order to live up to the 2021 hype.
The Flyers have some young defensemen who haven’t quite developed yet and they’re going to be under more fire this season after veteran defenseman Matt Niskanen retired. They look up for the challenge, but Ivan Provorov will have to prove he can carry a top pairing. He spent the majority of his ice time with Niskanen in 2019-20 and will have a new partner. The Flyers have limited cap space, but they would be wise to find someone to complement Provorov.
Although they’re average in quite a few places, the Flyers look ready to take a bit of a step forward in 2021 because of the anticipated growth of some of their young players and the emergence of Hart. How big a step, though? It’s tough to say. They are a top-10 team, but their place in that group is not secure. Giving this team the fifth-best odds of winning the Stanley Cup is quite a reach.
With 65.4 average points, the Flyers’ most likely landing spot is third in the East Division behind the Bruins and Penguins. Philadelphia’s chances of winning the division are 16.3% (+ 513) and they’ll make the playoffs 66.1% (-195) of the time
Who would’ve thought Matt Murray would be out as the Penguins’ goaltender within a few years? Probably not many. We’re talking about a two-time Stanley Cup champion who should be entering the prime of his career at 26. Apparently, the Penguins saw what a lot of other people saw, though. They started him in the playoffs and it went just like many figured it would.
Murray wasn’t good. And over the last three seasons, he allowed about 21 more goals than an average goaltender would have, according to Evolving Hockey. The Penguins now turn to 25-year-old Tristan Jarry to carry the load. Jarry hasn’t been outstanding, but he hasn’t been bad either. It seems like the right time for the franchise to roll the dice on a goaltender like Jarry now. The team locked him up to a short-term deal during the offseason.
It might not seem like it, but Sidney Crosby has been around for 15 seasons. Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang have been in Pittsburgh for 14. All three players have a lot left to give, though. This is still a very good hockey team, and bettors would be well-served to forget that they technically didn’t even make the playoffs in 2019-20. Malkin and Crosby are still capable of carrying a team when healthy.
Based on average time on ice for skaters, no team was affected more by injuries in 2019-20 than the Penguins. They lost 298 man games to injury and illness. Only Columbus and Winnipeg lost more. Crosby, Malkin and Bryan Rust all missed a significant time, but the biggest hit was the injury that kept forward Jake Guentzel out of 30 games.
Winger and net-front presence Patric Hornqvist is out and talented Kasperi Kapanen is in, but he doesn’t provide any grit, so the Penguins will have a different look up front. Crosby has made it work with a lot of different linemates, though, which is why Kapanen likely will be sought after in fantasy drafts.
Defenseman Mike Matheson was acquired from Florida in the Hornqvist trade, and he’ll likely be on the third pair with Cody Ceci. Hopefully coach Mike Sullivan uses that duo sparingly. Other than that, we’re looking at a really solid group on defense. Letang likely will be partnered with Brian Dumoulin who played only 28 games last season. And it looks like the Pens might have something in John Marino and Marcus Pettersson, who were really good as a second pairing in about 300 minutes of ice time.
Despite all the injuries and shoddy goaltending last season, the Penguins managed to score goals at a higher rate than all but nine teams and conceded goals at a league average rate at 5-on-5. According to Evolving Hockey’s expected goals model, they were a top-10 team on offense and defense.
The Penguins were on track to be one of the eight teams to make the playoffs in the East and had to feel a little bit cheated when they found out they had to qualify all over again against Carey Price and the Canadiens. Expect this team to regroup. Pittsburgh is the second-best team in the East behind the Bruins — at least until there’s reason to believe otherwise. The Pens will win the division roughly 22.4% (+ 346) of the time and have a 74.6% chance (-293) of making the playoffs with an average of 67.1 points.
SAN JOSE SHARKS
In 2018-19, they were rated as the third-best team through the lens of expected goals. A year later, however, and the Sharks were just about at the bottom of the tank at 24th, according to Evolving Hockey. For a team that gave up a lot of assets to acquire Erik Karlsson in order to win now, it’s not a very good sign. This team is not the contender it was only a couple of seasons ago, and it’s easy to see why.
The Sharks have been in win-now mode for so long, they probably didn’t spend enough time thinking about what comes next. Logan Couture and Evander Kane are top-line players, but neither is elite at his position, and they’re both getting up there in age. Timo Meier and Tomas Hertl are solid NHL players, but it’s doubtful that either player can carry a team, let alone a line.
San Jose let Joe Thornton leave on his quest for the Stanley Cup and brought back Sharks legend Patrick Marleau, but he’s 41, so it’s almost as if they’re just hoping people tune in and feel nostalgic. Ryan Donato is another new face in the forward ranks, but his ceiling isn’t as high as it seemed when he broke in with the Bruins a few years ago.
Karlsson and Brent Burns still have a bit to give from the blue line, but they are not the players they were even just a few years ago. The team was 23rd in expected goals against per 60 minutes and only the Devils and Red Wings allowed goals at a higher rate. The Sharks were bad, and there’s good reason to think it’s going to get worse.
Devan Dubynk was signed in the offseason to form a goaltending tandem with Martin Jones. Since 2016-17, an average goaltender would have saved the Wild about 70 goals more than Dubnyk did. It’s hard to see what the Sharks see in the 34-year-old, but the team has stuck with Jones who has sunk some pretty good Sharks teams. Jones has cost his team about 25 goals over the last two seasons and has shown no signs of improvement. The Sharks have the worst goaltending in the West Division.
The Sharks’ first home game is scheduled for Feb. 1, but there’s no guarantee that they’ll be able to play at the SAP Center as public health orders currently prohibit such activities in Santa Clara County. It’s unclear how this might affect them in such an unusual season, but it’s worth noting.
The Sharks will be lucky if anyone besides Couture finishes as a top-100 scorer. This lineup is rough. At 55.9 average points, they’re sandwiched tightly between the Kings and the Ducks. There’s a lot more to be optimistic about in Los Angeles and Anaheim than in San Jose, when talking about the future, but in the short term, all three teams have very similar chances of making noise in 2021.
The Sharks made the playoffs in 18.8% (+ 432) of simulations and their chances of winning the division are less than 1%. They were a good team before their disastrous 2019-20 campaign, but maybe more than any other team, they should have their sights set on drafting high. One California team could make the playoffs. There’s a 57% percent chance that it will happen.
ST. LOUIS BLUES
After their historic run to the Stanley Cup, nothing really felt right with the Blues during the 2019-20 season despite the fact they were atop the Western Conference standings. They were eliminated from the playoffs by the Canucks, and not long after, captain Alex Pietrangelo signed with the Golden Knights. This would have left a huge hold in the Blues defense had the team not signed Torey Krug right away.
Krug can quarterback the top power play and, despite his small stature, he’s a physical player who should fit nicely into the Blues system. He has a lot of experience and should add a new perspective to the leadership group, which is headed by new captain Ryan O’Reilly. Colton Parayko and especially Vince Dunn are important pieces on the blue line, and each regularly affects the game in a positive manner. Justin Faulk, not so much.
With a formidable top-six forward group, full of skilled, tenacious players, the Blues’ identity will still be that of a skilled team that is very tough to play against. They might be without star forward Vladimir Tarasenko at the start of the season as the winger had offseason surgery after playing only 10 games in 2019-20. When he returns, the Blues will be better, but they’ve shown they can survive without him. The addition of Mike Hoffman surely will help fill the void as well.
Be on the lookout for 21-year-old Robert Thomas to have a big year at center. He has continued to grow as a player, and if he takes another step or two in 2021, the Blues could find themselves with a better chance to win night in and night out.
Goaltender Jordan Binnington has been great since debuting just two years ago, and he has saved the team approximately 13.5 goals in his 82 regular-season games. This is a strong puck-possession team that outscored its opponents by about a half-goal at 5-on-5 last season. The Blues aren’t as good by expected goals as they were a season before, but they haven’t dipped all that much and their shooting and saving numbers are pretty consistent.
Although the Blues don’t really have elite offensive talent up front, this is a pretty solid roster with a good starting goaltender. They have a very good power play and a good penalty kill, which is an indication that they have a good coach in Craig Berube. They should be able to compete with the top teams in their division assuming they stay healthy and get adequate backup goaltending.
The Blues are involved in a good triple-threat match with the Avalanche and the Golden Knights for the top spot in the West Division. Of course, there’s the possibility of outside interference from one of the other four teams in the division, but you can count on the Avalanche, Golden Knights or the Blues winning it more than 75% of the time.
The Blues have the lowest odds of the three, however with a 14.7% chance (+ 582) of winning the West because they just aren’t on the same level as the others. St. Louis will make the playoffs about 76.4% (-324) of the time with an average of 67.1 points.
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
What can be said about this team that hasn't already been said? The Lightning are one hell of a hockey team, and they look ready to compete for another title despite Nikita Kucherov, their biggest contributor on offense, missing the entire regular season with an injury.
But it’s all rather convenient, really. The Lightning would have faced some major issues trying to retain some of their most promising young players, but now that Kucherov’s massive contract is off the books for the time being, the team was able to sign players such as Anthony Cirelli and Mikhail Sergachev to sweetheart deals. It has really been a master class in how to run a franchise.
Steven Stamkos will be back, full time, in the Lightning lineup. The superstar center was injured last season but accompanied the team during the playoffs and chipped in with a goal in just 2:47 of ice time during the Stanley Cup Final. While losing a player like Kucherov would be a death blow to a lot of other teams, the Lightning might not miss a beat.
Stamkos was the Lightning’s second-leading scorer despite playing nine fewer games than Brayden Point, who was third. Point is probably the better all-around player, but points are king and Stamkos should produce a lot of them in 2021. Point probably should have received the Conn Smythe Trophy as the MVP of the Stanley Cup playoffs. This team is stacked.
You can expect this team to own about a 55% goal share, but probably bet on them to exceed that number as they have over the last three seasons. On the power play, the Lightning scored goals at a rate of 8.1 per 60 minutes (7th) and have the skill to do it again. Flip over to the penalty kill, and you’ll see that only one team allowed fewer goals on a per-60-minute basis.
Team defense was good, as the Lightning had the fifth-best expected goals against on the penalty kill and the fourth best during 5-on-5 play. Jon Cooper is a very good coach who does a good job managing all of the Lightning’s stars. It also doesn’t hurt that the Lightning have a great goaltender in Andrei Vasilevskiy. The Russian was good in the regular season, but he was even better in the playoffs. Vasilevskiy was a Vezina Trophy finalist in 2019-20 and is a favorite to win the award in 2021.
Stanley Cup hangover or not, the Lightning are still the best team in the league. The loss of Kucherov hurts, but they’re in a very weak Central Division, with the Hurricanes projected to be the only other above-average team. With 74.9 points, the Lightning are projected to win the President’s Trophy 24.9% (+ 311) of the time and the Central Division approximately 53% (-113) of the time.
Making the playoffs should be a breeze, and their chances of doing so are around 95.2% (-1,996) as the team finished with the most points in the league in 24.9% (+ 311) of simulations. At Westgate’s open, the Lightning were priced at -300 to make the playoffs. This is clearly always going to be a niche sport.
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
Expectations are high in Toronto and rightfully so as the Maple Leafs are the best team in the North Division because they have the best collection of talent in Canada. Now the only question is, will they waste this golden opportunity? The Maple Leafs have been projected to do great things before and have failed, but 2021 seems like a fresh start. They played very well under coach Sheldon Keefe after Mike Babcock’s firing, and if you watched them play the Blue Jackets in the qualifying round, you’re probably wondering how they didn’t move on.
Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and John Tavares all project to be among the league leaders in points, and William Nylander shouldn’t be far behind. There’s no doubt that this is one of the best core forward groups in the league, but they’re backed up by a not-so-stellar group of bottom-six forwards. Joe Thornton and Wayne Simmonds would have been huge signings in the previous decade, but this is the beginning of a new era and the Leafs will be lucky if both players don’t end up being a drag on the team. The same goes for Jimmy Vesey, another new addition.
Offense is not an issue for the Leafs, though. The team was fourth in expected goals and eighth in scoring at 5-on-5. The year before, they were third and second in those categories. The Canucks, Oilers and Senators were among the worst teams defensively last season, so the Maple Leafs should have no problem scoring goals. However, Toronto was also a bottom-10 team on defense, at least on the surface. Only five teams allowed 5-on-5 goals at a higher rate than Toronto (2.71), but a lot of that can be attributed to poor goaltending, including the lack of a quality backup until late in the season. That’s reason enough to throw the Maple Leafs’ poor record in back-to-back situations out the window.
According to Evolving Hockey, an average goaltender would have saved the Maple Leafs approximately 10 goals more than starter Frederik Andersen did. That was in 52 games. Michael Hutchinson, the backup at the time, cost the Leafs almost eight goals in only 15 games, compared with what they would’ve gotten from a league-average goalie. It was an uncharacteristic season for the 31-year-old. That and the fact that the team has a good backup in Jack Campbell is why we should expect the Leafs to keep more pucks out of their net in 2021.
I’m also not ready to call the Maple Leafs a bad team defensively because they were average by expected goals and they have some pretty good players at the position. Jake Muzzin and Morgan Rielly are very good, and the addition of T.J. Brodie is a big one. If you believe the team will receive average goaltending this season, which I do, then you have to believe they’re the best team in the North, because no other team in the division can match them offensively. Opponents would be wise to avoid putting this team on the power play.
At 70.4 average points, the Maple Leafs are the best team in the North Division by about four points in the standings. They aren’t a lock to win the division, but they did so in 42.2% (+ 137) of simulations. Making the playoffs, however, does look extremely likely. They made the playoffs 89.2% (-827) of the time.
This team underwent some peculiar changes in the offseason, and it’s unclear how the Canucks will be affected by them. But clearly there isn’t as much optimism surrounding the Canucks as there was at the end of their playoff run because they downgraded in goal and shed quite a bit of their depth. Jacob Markstrom was swapped for Braden Holtby in a trade of goaltenders, making Vancouver worse at the position. Thatcher Demko was phenomenal in the playoffs against the Golden Knights, but his numbers were pedestrian before that.
If their goaltenders are going to rely on defense, the Canucks might be in trouble. They were a bottom-10 defensive team last season. This according to goals against per 60 minutes during 5-on-5 play, and Evolving Hockey’s expected goals model. They also conceded the fifth-most shot attempts per 60 minutes. These goaltenders are going to get peppered.
Nate Schmidt is a nice add on defense, but he’s not going to help in that department. Offense is his game. The same goes for Quinn Hughes. The 21-year-old lefty is a stud on the blue line, but his mind is mostly on moving the puck up the ice and generating offense. Alex Edler is a fine player, but he’s 34 years old. Tyler Myers often gets overwhelmed.
It’s all about the offense, and Elias Pettersson will be asked to lead the charge. Even though he has been a point-per-game player in his two NHL seasons, some still scoff at the thought that Pettersson belongs in the same class as Connor McDavid and other top players. This year will go a long way toward determining if he is. Including Bo Horvat, J.T. Miller and Brock Boeser, the Canucks have a great core forward group. However, as is the story with so many teams, the Canucks’ third and fourth lines aren’t very good.
Management clearly built the bottom half of this forward group with the hope that they would be sent out and thrive in defensive situations, but that’s not really the case with players like Jay Beagle, Tyler Motte and Adam Gaudette. And Brandon Sutter certainly isn’t the player management thought he was.
The Canucks exceeded expected goals on offense because of the high-end skill of their top players, but they weren’t able to maintain a positive goal differential during 5-on-5 play because they underperformed their expected goals on defense. You could pin this on goaltending, but the fact that Markstrom was able to finish the year saving a combined 9.6 goals (regular season and playoffs) above what an average goaltender would is remarkable. The Canucks didn’t deserve him.
It’s going to be a battle in the North Division, and the Canucks will be in the thick of it. However, at least four of the teams are better positioned in goal. This gets them 61.5 points on average, about 10 ahead of the Senators and in a tie with the Jets for the fifth spot in the division. The Canucks make the playoffs 50.7% (-103) of the time. They were crowned Canada’s best team in 7.1% (+ 1312) of the simulations I ran.
VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS
Alex Pietrangelo is out as Blues captain only a couple of seasons after hoisting the Stanley Cup. Now he looks to form an elite one-two punch with Shea Theodore that surely will put Vegas over the top, right? Not so fast. While this iteration of the Golden Knights is improved in some ways, they’re now lacking down the middle, and that’s important. They relied too much on their defensemen in the playoffs, particularly against the Stars, and I suspect a big reason was the team’s lack of an elite center.
William Karlsson is a capable top-line player, but he isn’t on par with Nathan MacKinnon of the Avalanche or Ryan O’Reilly of the Blues. Chandler Stephenson will very likely be outmatched if he’s put on the first line, and Cody Glass has a ton of potential, but it’s not easy to come in and anchor a top line at 21 with only about 40 games under your belt. It might sound like nitpicking, but these things matter when you’re talking about a three-way division race, and that’s what we have in the West. Outside of that, however, this is an elite hockey team with no real holes. Mark Stone’s greatness still isn’t appreciated from coast to coast, and Max Pacioretty doesn’t get the credit he deserves either. Reilly Smith, Jonathan Marchessault and Alex Tuch are fine players as well. This team is stacked.
Theodore was great last season and in the playoffs, and he should benefit from not having to be the guy now that Pietrangelo is in town. He probably will lose some power-play time to the newcomer, but that remains to be seen. In terms of expected scoring efficiency at 5-on-5, the Golden Knights were ninth on defense, allowing only 2.2 expected goals against while being the top team on offense, generating 2.85 expected goals. The Knights scored goals at a rate of only 2.6 per 60 minutes, though. In other words, they were scoring about one goal less than expected every four to five games.
On defense, the team conceded more goals than expected, but that was thanks to Marc-Andre Fleury’s poor play. This is Robin Lehner’s team now, though, and things have been stable in the crease since his arrival. Fleury might still be able to provide value, but the gaffes likely will be more frequent in his 16th season at 36.
The lack of an elite center and depth at the position are the only things holding the Golden Knights back from being the best team in the West Division, but it’s close. The Avalanche are projected to finish less than two points ahead of them, and there are a number of factors that could change that during the season.
A full season of Lehner will be huge for a team that has always seemed a little unlucky. Sure, that’s odd to say about a team that was seemingly gifted a contending team in the 2017 expansion draft, but some big changes have been made to that original group, and the Knights have underperformed their expected goals since that magical first season.
Vegas wins the division 32.5% (+ 208) of the time with an average of 71.4 points. They were good enough to win the Presidents’ Trophy in 10.7% of simulations; only three other teams accomplished the feat more. The Knights have been in win-now mode since the second the puck dropped back in 2017-18, and they won’t be taking their foot off the gas anytime soon. This is a true Stanley Cup contender despite the lack of a top-tier center.
The Capitals made some minor moves outside of letting longtime goaltender Braden Holtby sign elsewhere, so you’re looking at pretty much the same team from last season. Whether that’s a good thing or not is what we have to find out.
While the Capitals have four players who will almost certainly find themselves among the league’s top 50 scorers at the end of the season, the team’s act is kind of tired. That’s probably why general manager Brian MacLellan fired coach Todd Reirden and replaced him with Peter Laviolette, but I’m not sure that will change anything.
What’s more important is that the team has goaltender Ilya Samsonov in the crease for all of 2021. The 23-year-old was nothing special in 2019-20, but he performed as expected and because he is a highly touted prospect, so far so good. He looks to be just one more in a string of Russian goaltenders taking over the league. And like the rest, Samsonov appears to have elite skill too. There’s nobody standing in his way now that Holtby is gone. Henrik Lundqvist was signed to back up Samsonov, but Lundqvist won’t play in 2021 because of a heart condition.
Alex Ovechkin, 35, is looking for his 10th Rocket Richard Trophy as the league’s leading goal scorer in what will be his 16th season. Nicklas Backstrom, 33, returns to dish out the puck for another season. For all the talk about what winger Tom Wilson brings to the table, supposedly an ability to deter players from taking out the Capitals’ most important players, it didn’t stop Anders Lee from cleaning Backstrom’s clock in the playoffs. Hopefully for the Caps’ sake, Backstrom is back to full strength and has no lingering effects. Despite being five years older than Evgeny Kuznetsov, Backstrom is the team’s best center.
Kuznetsov is awful defensively, probably one of the worst centers in the league in that respect, and whenever he was paired with Ovechkin and Wilson — about 230 minutes of 5-on-5 ice time — he sank the line to a 41% expected goals ratio. When Backstrom was with Wilson and Ovechkin — more than 350 minutes — the trio enjoyed more than a 55% share of the expected goals. The most impressive forward of all, however, is Jakub Vrana. The 24-year-old winger has three full seasons under his belt and has gotten better each year. The Capitals are a better team when he is on the ice.
Offensively, the Capitals generated expected goals at a higher rate than all but four teams, and only the Avalanche and Lightning scored more goals per 60 minutes than the Capitals. That’s some good company. However, the Capitals were 19th by expected goals on defense. That’s a problem.
Defenseman John Carlson, 30, is a favorite to win the Norris Trophy again after being a runner-up with 75 points in 69 games last season. Zdeno Chara signed just before training camp and is arguably the Capitals’ second-best defenseman. The Capitals are thin on the blue line, but there might be help coming. Alexander Alexeyev, a 2018 first-round pick, and Martin Fehervary, a second-round pick the same year, are slated to play some games in 2021 and could very well be brought along as part of the taxi squad. It’s something to keep an eye on.
These are not the same players that hoisted the Stanley Cup in 2018. They’re still good at what they do, but it just might not be enough to compete with the top teams in the very competitive East Division. The Capitals project to be slightly better than the Islanders and Rangers with 62.2 average points, but that's a pretty fragile projection given how much is riding on their goaltender. Craig Anderson isn’t going to save their season if Samsonov goes down.
Strong goaltending could put the Caps ahead of any team in the division since they have the offense needed to compete, but they’re justifiably projected behind the Bruins, Penguins and even the Flyers. They’re a relatively strong possession team, but it doesn’t seem to translate to the Capitals getting much better opportunities than the opposition they face. They won the division in 7.6% (+ 1,219) of simulations while making the playoffs 48.1% (+ 108) of the time. That’s because they’re not far enough ahead of the teams below them.
At the end of each season, 31 general managers cast their votes to award the Vezina Trophy to the goaltender they deem to have been the best at the position that year. In 2019-20, it would have been a crime had Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck not won it. He saved the Jets roughly 20 goals above what an average goaltender would have given them, according to Evolving Hockey’s expected goals model, the next best goalie saves his team approximately nine. Hellebuyck is a favorite to win the award again in 2021 for obvious reasons.
Winnipeg was the worst team by expected goals and although there were signs the Jets were starting to fall off last season, this was extreme. If not for Hellebuyck, the team probably would have gotten the wake up call it needed. The Jets just aren’t the contender that we all seemed to think they were a couple of seasons ago. Still, they have some very high-end shooting talent and they’re bound to outperform expected goals models by quite a bit because these models don’t account for individual shooter talent.
What we saw happen in the playoffs, though, tells us everything we need to know. When the Jets lost a couple of key players in top-line center Mark Scheifele and sniper Patrik Laine to injuries early in the playoffs, they didn’t have an answer. Blake Wheeler is a fine player, but he didn’t have much help. Nikolaj Ehlers was struggling and Kyle Connor wasn’t going to save them. The team just wasn’t deep enough to take on the Flames, who really weren’t that deep either.
Paul Statsny is back for a second stint in Winnipeg after a brief one in 2017-18. He will provide much-needed depth at center and although he is 35, his offensive and defensive numbers at even strength are well above average over the last three seasons. Don’t expect the team to make any major additions in the future, though. The Jets don’t have any cap space and don’t really have assets to trade either.
The biggest issue plaguing the Jets is defense. Specifically that they don’t have a No. 1 defenseman. Former 13th overall pick Josh Morrissey was thought to be the guy when he was signed through the 2027-28 season, but the 25-year-old defenseman looks in over his head as do the rest of the Jets defensemen.
Because of division realignment, the Jets’ odds of making the playoffs are that of a coin flip at 51.2%, and their chances of winning the North Division sit at 7.3% (+ 1,279) with 61.5 points. The Canucks probably have better top-six forwards than the Jets, but the Jets have superior goaltending, so the two grade out very similarly.
There’s a chance that expected goals models don’t underrate this team as much as I estimate they do, however, and they actually are as bad as they were last season. If that’s the case, and they rely on Hellebuyck as much as they did last season, it’s unlikely that it will go as well as it did.