NHL surprises in 2021 and predicting what to look for in 2022

Faizal Khamisa & Iain MacIntyre discuss the turnaround the Canucks have made under head coach Bruce Boudreau and whether the team can make the playoffs.

So, 2021 mostly stunk.

Credit where it’s due though -- the NHL did its darndest to plow forward despite the many challenges, playing a shortened schedule, handing out a Stanley Cup and launching another season (which had its own complications, but let’s trundle on here).

Because of the league’s commitment to good ol’ fashioned gettin’ ‘er done (for the sake of the almighty dollar), we actually had hockey to talk about, which is very much my preference over talking about … *gestures broadly in every direction*.

So let’s talk about the stuff that actually happened on the ice from this 2021-22 season, by looking at the surprises that have come from the first half, and our expectations/predictions for the second. It’s been a year, man. Here’s to a better 2022.

Surprises from the 2021 NHL season

The Wild are worth watching and not just because of Kirill Kaprizov

Weird place to start maybe, but that’s how surprised I am by how watchable they’ve become. They’re big and fast. The whole joke about the Wild not being very much fun to watch usually centred around one thing for me: they were the very definition of average, of mediocre, of just … fine. At least the teams going the other way were crashing spectacularly, offering a train wreck element that was worth rubbernecking over. The Wild were some generic Ford sedan kept neatly between the lines and going the speed limit.

It’s easy to say this changed because of Kirill Kaprizov, who is dynamic and flashy and is currently second in the NHL in even strength points, ahead of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. Of course, he’s a legit showstopper, and must-see TV. But the team is third in the NHL in goals-for per game behind only Colorado and Florida. They’re physical, they’ll fight, they’re competitive. You can see why the coaching staff was extended -- when you’re skimming through games to watch at night, they should get regular visits.

Unstoppable Ovi (even strength)

Your shock level at Ovi’s start may vary depending on what your expectations for him this season were. Mine were decidedly not … whatever this is.

I count myself as someone who’s been a “beat Gretzky’s record” doubter for years, not because I don’t think Ovi’s the greatest goal scorer to ever live (he is) but because of circumstances. Players age, the game speeds up, injuries happen. If a decline had started at all one, two or three years ago when I started waiting for it, Ovechkin getting to Gretzky’s record wouldn’t have been possible. But when I get new information I change my opinion, and this season has changed my mind. I do think he’s going to catch Wayne. And the pace Ovechkin’s started on this season is what’s shoved me across the line.

It’s not just goals, though. I mentioned Kaprizov is second in even strength points ahead of McDavid and Draisaitl. Ovi is first. And he is six points ahead of Kaprizov leading the way with 38 even strength points. His overall point total is 50, just two and three behind the Oilers' big two stars in the Art Ross race. And this has happened largely without Nicklas Backstrom. An absurd start to the season.

Montreal, all of it

During last year’s post-season, like many analysts, I found myself giving predictions on camera. I was an outspoken Montreal doubter, despite Carey Price’s ability. I’ll wear it: I was wrong, over and over, as they took it all the way to the Cup Final. This season, I had to recalibrate my Montreal opinions. I still didn’t think they were great, or really all that good, but I definitely thought they were average. Even without Price, I would’ve guessed average.

Welp, one team in the NHL has fewer points than the Habs, and that’s the Coyotes, who are actively trying to lose. The list of reasons -- or excuses? -- for the Habs' spectacular failing this season may be long, but whatever is on yours, this outcome had to have been a huge surprise to you too. As the calendar changed to 2022, Montreal looks back at 2021 as the year they went to the Stanley Cup Final, and then headed into New Year’s Eve in 31st place with a minus-50 goal differential. That’s one heck of a swing.

GMs and coaches: no sympathy in 2021

Maybe I’m a bleeding heart, but I expected coaches and GMs in 2021 to get a little bit of a pass when things didn’t go well -- circumstances were not what one would expect. The year asked more of them, demanded they be more flexible and creative, and some were exposed. So again, I thought they may get a pass until things settled down. But they did not.

Montreal made managerial changes, the Canucks changed just about everyone, and lo and behold, the longest tenured coaches in Canada are Dave Tippett and Sheldon Keefe, who stretch all the way back to … 2019. It’s a results-based business, and when the results weren’t there, NHL coaches and GMs still got punted at about the same rate as always.

Faux starts

The Leafs started the season 2-4-1, and the panic in Toronto was real. But we were given tons of weird starts this season. As of Halloween, the Buffalo Sabres were second in the Atlantic at 5-2-1, Vegas was scuffling in the bottom half of the Pacific, the Penguins were last in the Metro, and Chicago hadn’t yet won a game, at 0-7-2. The first few weeks of a season typically let us know who’s good and who isn’t, but this is a reminder that even good rules have plenty of exceptions.

Predictions for the 2022 half of the season

Choppy hockey ahead

We get ugly hockey at the start of every season, and by “ugly,” I mean entirely from a coach's standpoint. Players aren’t yet sound in their positions, defensive plans have holes in them, and breakdowns happen a lot. Guys are also energized about the new year and have fresh legs, so it’d be tough defensively at the best of times. Scores are usually a little higher. But as the season finds its rhythm, and the excitement fades away, defences prevail more frequently.

Since the long break around Christmas for the COVID pause, there have been some bananas scores, partially due to teams dressing line-ups held together with clothespins and chewing gum. But there’s also varying levels of conditioning and rust and motivation. On the first day back, San Jose and Arizona played a game that finished 8-7. Then Florida hung nine on the defending Cup champs. Four teams on Saturday night scored six or more goals (with two more scoring a measly five). On Sunday the Penguins beat the Sharks 8-5 (you OK, San Jose?). The breakdowns are back, the rested legs are back, only now with an infusion of AHL players. I’d expect some wild outcomes in the weeks ahead.

Canucks make it interesting

The last thing you wanna do when you make a prediction is to see it start poorly, bail on it too soon, only for it to eventually swing around and come true. Then you’re wrong twice. I had the Canucks as a playoff team at the start of the season, and given plenty of opportunity to bail on Halford and Brough’s Vancouver radio show each week, I held strong. The Canucks have gone on an unsustainably hot run since Bruce Boudreau arrived, but they don’t need to sustain “nearly unbeaten” to find their way into the playoff race. Heck, they’re in it now.

I’m a big Thatcher Demko guy. I like several of their offensive pieces. I know their D core is, ahem, suspect (though they can move the puck pretty well), but this team is better than some that they’re chasing. They sit behind San Jose, LA and Anaheim in the division and, if we’re looking at the wild card, Nashville -- all of whom could be caught with a solid second half.

We’ll see if Vancouver's awful start was too awful to overcome.

Cale Makar scores 30-plus goals

At this point it doesn’t seem remotely bold to make that prediction, I know, but when you zoom out, it kind of is. In the past 30 years only two defencemen have scored 30 times in a season, and one was Kevin Hatcher in 1992-93. The other was Mike Green in 2008-09, who scored 31. D-men getting 20 barely happens, let alone 30.

Makar’s got 13 in 24 games so far this season. The way he moves off the blue line, with that dynamic pop in his step and the offensive bent to his thinking, is no fluke. I bet if he’s reasonably healthy he gets to 35 goals. He’s the best-scoring defenceman we’ve seen in a generation.

We get down-to-the-wire divisional races

Sometimes the best teams are so obviously the best teams we know the No. 1 seeds weeks or even months in advance. But this year is shaping up for some killer races down the stretch.

A handful of points separate Florida, Toronto and Tampa Bay in the Atlantic. St. Louis, Colorado and Minnesota seem destined for a close race. Vegas is playing well, but both Calgary and Edmonton feel capable of reeling them in. Even the Metro -- with Carolina, Washington and the Rangers separated by two points -- feels undecided (with a shoutout to the Penguins who’ve won eight straight and are climbing).

I expected teams like Vegas and Colorado to have staked their divisional claims by now, but it looks like those races are going to be decided much later than expected.

And finally,

A busy trade market in 2022

We keep hearing about these GMs complaining that with a flat cap and everyone jammed up against it no one can do anything, then last year at the deadline, stuff… still happened. Plenty of trades, actually. And while we know it’s challenging, they just had to get more creative.

I expect more of the same this year, particularly tied to that last section. With so many teams still in “believer” mode while chasing division crowns, without clear dominant favourites to squash the simply “very good” teams, I think you’ll see a lot of teams in “go for it” mode, which should make for some great finishes at the tail end of the 2021-22 regular season.

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