10 expectations for the 2021-22 NHL season

Montreal Canadiens’ Cole Caufield skates during an NHL hockey game. (Graham Hughes/CP)

Remember what a totally normal hockey season is like? No really, do you, because I could use someone to remind me what’s supposed to happen. It’s been a long time.

I was trying to get my head around what to expect, and my meandering brain took me in a few places. Come with me, won’t you, and let’s discuss some possible things we might see in the year ahead.

Cross-checking penalties will be annoying for about three weeks

When the NHL aims to crack down on something -- as they are with cross-checking in the season ahead -- there’s a fairly predictable cycle. It gets called at a previously unforeseen rate, to the point players and fans alike start begging for mercy “OK fine, we get it, WE GET IT.” Then the players change their behaviour by some small percentage, and the refs get tired of calling fringe plays penalties, and we all revert back to the way things were before, hopefully with the behaviour in focus curbed by 10 per cent.

That’s fine, and the hopeful outcome, but brace yourself for cross-checking penalties in the first few weeks. That’s been a staple of defending, and some D-men just won’t know how to turn it off.

We’ll see more trades, with Seattle being involved

When teams get jammed up against the salary cap we often hear that the trade market is quiet because nobody has any room to do anything. I think this off-season changed how we look at that -- teams either seem to be up against the cap and desperate to find creative ways to improve, or they’re recognizing it’s not a season where they’re likely to go deep in the playoffs, and they’re interested in helping the cap-strapped teams for a price.

I don’t remember the NHL having so many teams so clearly not pushing to win even before the season started.

From this list of the bottom-10 teams from last season, how many of the GMs are hoping they win a bunch of games this season? Vancouver, New Jersey, maybe Columbus and LA? Ottawa likely wants to, but surely recognizes it’s not a playoff-push year just yet. Either way, it seems like there’s a number of teams that would help others facilitate trades for some prospect help. Willing trade partners are all the cap-strapped teams need.

I mention Seattle in the header because we’ve heard about their ambitions to “weaponize their cap space.” Well, we haven’t seen it yet, and they still have some, so maybe they’ve got grander plans with that room to come.

Fighting stays way down

Fighting in the NHL has been winnowing down for years now, as evidenced by this graph from a fivethirtyeight article on the topic:

It ain’t coming back, either. Games and seasons are decided by too narrow a margin to waste a roster spot on a player who specializes in enforcing, and so now what’s left are talented players who are willing to fight, but aren’t there to exclusively do that. And a little secret even among the fight-willing: most would prefer not to if they didn’t have to.

Tough to see this trend reversing in any meaningful way, and it’s not impossible to see fights per game continue to decline.

Attendance issues mid-season

For a variety of reasons, teams have had some trouble matching their season ticket commitments from before the COVID pause. Part of that is people being less comfortable in crowds for now, part of that is some being financially hurt by the mass shutdown of businesses, and part of it is people have found other ways to spend their entertainment time and dollars in the absence of their old routines.

When the season starts back up, I’d bet on packed buildings. I myself can’t wait to get back to a hockey game. But I felt like that about flying on an airplane too, and after having done that, I was reminded of all the frustrations that come with being around a bajillion people again. I imagine everyone will rush to get back to a game, then be like “OK, been there done that,” and be less eager to head back in.

By January I wouldn’t be shocked to see some concern about filling certain buildings around the league, and not just the usual ones. (Desperately hope I’m wrong here.)

Tough COVID-luck teams see bounce backs

It’s hard to know which teams were most affected by whatever the heck the past couple seasons were (protocols and jammed schedules and all the rest), but if my memory serves me correct Dallas, Carolina, Vancouver and Montreal were dealt particularly challenging schedules and circumstances because of COVID-related issues last season.

I could see a couple of them (I’m looking at Dallas mostly, particularly with a healthy Tyler Seguin) having a surprisingly good year simply because they’re dealt a more playable hand.

Florida is gonna be really good

For a while it’s felt like the Atlantic was Tampa Bay, Boston and Toronto, with Florida and Montreal existing a tier below. It finally feels like the Cats have joined that trio of teams as an “Anyone could win this division” squad. They’re tough, they’re talented, and if one of Spencer Knight or Sergei Bobrovsky can have a year, it’s not hard to see them winning the division outright.

Connor McDavid will continue last season’s dominance (and the Oilers will reap the rewards)

The best player in the world was the best player in the world last year, and not like “arguably.” He lapped the next-best players on the planet, it was Tiger Woods in his prime. Brad Marchand finished third in the league in scoring over a 56-game shortened season, and if you had spotted him 35 more points he still wouldn’t have caught McDavid, who put up 105 points in 56 games.

It’s not at all unreasonable to think McDavid is going to hit 150 points this season if he stays healthy. The Oilers got a little better in the off-season, and their division isn’t great. There are rumours they still want to improve in the crease, which would go a long way too.

Great players don’t just have great years and miss playoffs on repeat until they retire, they almost always break through. This feels like a year McDavid pulls the Oilers into more meaningful hockey.

The Predators' lack of offensive teeth costs them playoffs

The opposite of the Dallas prediction is aimed at Nashville, a team that benefitted from the Stars' struggles last season. I see a solid roster without game breakers, as their two highest paid names up front -- Matt Duchene and Ryan Johansen -- feel like names among the league’s good, not the elite. Nashville was 17th in the league in goals two years ago, 22nd last season, and it’s tough to see how that’s going to get better.

It’s not like they don’t have players -- Roman Josi won a Norris in 2019-20 -- but everyone has players. The Predators feel destined for the mushy middle, which can start a years-long cycle of the same.

Cole Caufield wins the Calder, Montreal fans are annoyed they have to hear Michael Bunting’s name

I can’t watch Cole Caufield shoot a hockey puck without thinking “Man that kid is going to shoot a lot of hockey pucks into the hockey net this season.” There are tons of great young players vying for the title -- Trevor Zegras in Anaheim should give him a legit push -- but being in Montreal versus Anaheim likely pushes him over the hump.

I also think it’s hilarious that Michael Bunting qualifies as a rookie, but barely:

Imagine Bunting plays top six on the Leafs and gets PP time. It’s not impossible to see him getting to 25 goals. Given the other aspects of his game (he’s physical with some pest abilities...and plays in Toronto), if he’s able to do that, someone will at least mention his name as a contender for the trophy, which will likely (and rightly) make Habs fans go nuts.

And finally,

The league’s high vaccination rate allows for a comparably normal season

There will be breakthrough cases, and players will miss games with COVID this season. They’re still humans who exist on Earth in the years 2021-22. But because so much of the league is protected, we should see hockey as we used to know it. And I don’t know about you, but I am awfully excited about that.

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