10 bold NHL predictions for 2021

Toronto Maple Leafs' Auston Matthews (34) celebrates his game winning goal against the Columbus Blue Jackets with teammate William Nylander (88) during overtime NHL Eastern Conference Stanley Cup playoff action. (Frank Gunn/CP)

Did you know a year in advance that Braden Holtby would be changing teams, that the Maple Leafs would redo a chunk of their D corps, that Alex Pietrangelo would be departing St. Louis, and Peters DeBoer and Laviolette would find themselves behind new benches?

We did.

We’re not guaranteeing all of these 10 NHL predictions for 2021 will come to pass in the next 365 days, but if you want to become a very rich fan, feel free to place a prop bet or six based on our supreme clairvoyance.

1. Auston Matthews captures the Rocket, and his Maple Leafs finally win a round (or two)

Injuries and a pandemic have thwarted the Toronto Maple Leafs super sniper’s dogged pursuit of the 50-goal plateau, and last season Matthews (47 goals) came one red lamp away from tying co-winners David Pastrnak and Alex Ovechkin for the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy.

Ovechkin is still awesome, but he is also 35. Pastrnak underwent off-season hip surgery and will miss the start of the season. (Also, the Bruins’ power play will take a step backward without Torey Krug quarterbacking things.)

This is Matthews’ year, and he’s gearing up for it by sharpening his blade alongside Connor McDavid.

The centreman will be a significant reason the Leafs finally get over the hump, winning their division, drawing a weaker Round 1 opponent and, yes, capturing their first post-season series victory in 17 years.

2. Four! More! Years! Of Ovechkin in Washington

The reigning Rocket Richard winner and No. 1 impending free agent will negotiate his own extension and remain with the only NHL franchise he’s known.

Here’s betting Ovechkin even accepts a slight pay cut and signs on through 2024–25, matching centreman pal Nicklas Backstrom’s term and coming in at a comparable $9.2 million cap hit (heavy on signing bonuses and backloaded, of course, to limit pandemic claw-backs).

The pursuit of Wayne Gretzky’s 894 lives.

3. Taylor Hall explodes offensively… but still leaves Buffalo

The 2018 MVP’s decision to join the NHL franchise with the longest active playoff drought after speaking so passionately about how much he wants to win was a curious one.

But Hall will thrive alongside the über-talented Jack Eichel, the type of elite playmaker who will get the 29-year-old back to an 80-point pace, and the Sabres will be a more consistent outfit night in and night out.

That said, let’s remember that Hall’s one-year, $8-million contract was also a shrewd business move to take another run at UFA status in 2021 — when his stats should be much more flattering.

A lack of team success based largely on the Sabres’ failure to address their mediocre goaltending will have Hall’s team coming up short again — and prompt the player to chase his Cup dreams elsewhere.

4. Rumours become reality: Patrik Laine gets traded

If you think the Winnipeg Jets are up against the flat cap now (projected space: $0), wait until the 2021 off-season, when key RFAs Laine, centre Andrew Copp and top-four defenceman Neal Pionk are all due raises.

As wonderful a talent as Laine is, core wingers Kyle Connor and Nikolaj Ehlers are locked up long term on team-friendly deals, and there aren’t enough dollars to keep Laine happy.

This feels like Jacob Trouba all over again, and the trick GM Kevin Cheveldayoff faces is trading away a 22-year-old 40-goal scorer and not losing that trade too badly.

But it’s going to happen in 2021.

5. Ottawa loses No. 1 goalie Matt Murray to Seattle

That the spendthrift Ottawa Senators made a $25-million commitment to Matt Murray after the goalie’s sub-.900 performance in 2019-20 caught us by surprise.

Upon closer inspection, however, Murray may not be long for the nation’s capital.

Sens GM Pierre Dorion would be wise to expose Murray in the Seattle expansion draft and instead protect 22-year-old Filip Gustavsson, who’s shining in Sweden and whose prime will align with that of Ottawa’s emerging core.

Not unlike Vegas in 2017, Seattle will get a proven, name-brand starting goalie with Stanley Cups on his resumé — and the team its plucking from will save some dough.

6. Dougie Hamilton leaves Raleigh as most coveted D-man

The Hurricanes traded for Hamilton, in part, because they liked his cost certainty. Well, in a few months, the price tag for the top defender in 2021’s UFA class won’t be so certain.

Traded twice already, a 28-year-old Hamilton will finally have a say in where he plays.

He’ll be due for a significant raise the same off-season as Carolina’s breakout star forward Andrei Svechnikov (RFA), and the Hurricanes already have four other D-men signed long-term at $4 million-plus per year. Worth noting: Carolina does not have an NHL goalie under contract for 2021-22.

“It makes more sense to get to it sooner than later,” GM Don Waddell commented this fall of Hamilton’s extension.

So far? Crickets.

The Hurricanes, traditionally, are not a cap team, and only gave a monster contract to Sebastian Aho when pushed by an offer sheet. He’s not on Alex Pietrangelo’s level defensively, but the point-producing, minutes-logging Hamilton should be able to cash in elsewhere.

We bet he’s either traded or walks on his own.

7. Tyson Barrie piles up points, rings cash register in Edmonton

Oscar Klefbom is injured. Barrie signed a humbling, one-year prove-it deal. And the Edmonton Oilers’ power play was the best in hockey last season (29.5%).

All the ingredients are on the table for a reinvigorated Barrie to quarterback a lethal 5-on-4 unit, cuing up McDavid and Draisaitl to spin their magic.

Placed properly in a position for his offensive instincts to shine, Barrie returns to 50-point form and — with fellow right shot Adam Larsson coming off the books in 2021 — earns himself a nice raise to remain in Alberta.

8. Patrick Marleau makes history, barely

A 56-game NHL season will give a healthy San Jose Sharks icon Patrick Marleau (knock wood) a grand total of 1,779 games played. Or 12 more GPs than current all-time record-holder Gordie Howe (1,767).

An incredible accomplishment, and one that sees Daddy Marleau sail off into the California sun at age 41.

9. A goalie wins the Calder for the first time in 12 years

Not since Columbus’s Steve Mason captured the NHL’s Rookie of the Year honours in 2009 has a netminder claimed the award.

New York Rangers phenom Igor Shesterkin — a.k.a. the reason Henrik Lundqvist was bought out — ends that streak with a stellar campaign and further establishes himself as the heir to the King’s throne.

Shesterkin, 24, will build upon his 10-2, .932 performance toward the end of 2019-20 and earn more votes than Calder finalists Alexis Lafreniere (also Rangers) and Kirill Kaprizov (Wild).

10. Nathan MacKinnon steals pretty much every trophy that isn’t tied down

The NHL crowns its 13th different Hart Trophy champ in 13 years: MacKinnon.

The best bargain in hockey leads his Colorado Avalanche to a Stanley Cup championship, taking the Ted Lindsay and Conn Smythe trophies in the process. He probably ends up on the cover of NHL 22 to boot.

Turns out, it’s MacKinnon’s world, and we’re just living in it.

Bonus predictions: Core forwards Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (Edmonton) and Gabriel Landeskog (Colorado) re-sign with the franchises that drafted them…. Montreal’s Phillip Danault, however, gets squeezed by younger centres in the system and finds work elsewhere…. Respected defender Johnny Boychuk lands an off-ice job with the New York Islanders…. Erik Karlsson and the Sharks bounce back from a disastrous 2019-20 and steal a wild-card spot…. Tuukka Rask calls it a career…. Oliver Ekman-Larsson expands his trade list and exits the desert…. Hockey journalists continue to throw too many wild predictions at the wall, hoping something, anything sticks.

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