Pre-season Power Rankings: Who has the edge heading into NHL's 2021 sprint?

Maple Leafs' Auston Matthews discusses his excitement and his expectations within the North Division, says it's a tough division with a lot of teams that improved over the offseason and have something to prove this year.

One incredibly inconsequential thing I’ve always liked about Major League Baseball is that, unlike the other three major pro sports circuits in North America, its entire run occurs within one calendar year. There’s something neat and tidy about not having a hyphen in the middle of your season.

Well, welcome to the 2021 NHL season.

For the third time in about 25 years, hockey is dropping the puck in the dead of winter. You know the drill by now; four groups of four, inter [insert ad here] division play only and 56 games for each club to prove itself playoff-worthy.

The 1995 New Jersey Devils kicked off a dynasty of sorts with their title that year, while the 2013 Chicago Blackhawks distanced themselves from the world of one-off winners by claiming their second Cup in four years that spring. Both of those teams played 48-game schedules that began in January thanks to labour strife. The stakes outside hockey are much higher this time around, but the game’s return marks more opportunities for small escapes during this global pandemic.

It also signals the start of arguing about who is better than who, so with this sprint about to leave the blocks, here are Sportsnet’s pre-season Power Rankings.

1. Tampa Bay Lightning
“One day some neighbourhood kids carried my mother’s groceries all the way home. You know why? It was out of respect.” The Goodfellas logic applies to the defending champs, who still get the nod to start here even with Nikita Kucherov out for the regular season. Plus, Lord knows which fourth-rounder in the organization is about to become a star.

2. Colorado Avalanche
A quick twirl around the Internet tells you this is the consensus pick to go all the way. Say this, though: The heat is getting cranked up in Denver as the Avs make the sometimes-awkward transition from all cute and furry to big-boy expectations.

3. Vegas Golden Knights
One only of Colorado, Vegas and St. Louis is coming out of the West Division, so two teams with legit title hopes are going to be severely saddened.

4. Toronto Maple Leafs
The talent can’t be ignored, the tweaks addressed weaknesses and the kids have four years’ worth of experience — and playoff disappointment — under their belt. Frederik Andersen also starts this year with a capable backup in Jack Campbell.

5. Philadelphia Flyers
Though the Flyers lack the recent big-time success of some of their East Division foes we’ll get to shortly, there’s leap-forward potential for this youth-driven team that had the NHL’s fourth-best points percentage (.690) from New Year’s Day, 2020 to the March pause last year.

6. St. Louis Blues
Losing captain Alex Pietrangelo hurts, but new additions Torey Krug and Mike Hoffman can really help drive offence in different ways. The 2019 champs still have a mix that could get it done.

7. Boston Bruins
Every year I look at the Bruins roster and think, “Meh” and every year they go out and play like the best team in hockey for months at a time. We all know the infrastructure is built to withstand just about anything, but the likes of Charlie McAvoy and Jake DeBrusk need to show the under-25s on this team are ready for huge roles.

8. Carolina Hurricanes
Plain and simple, can they find a goalie solution? If so, there’s not a soft spot on this roster.

9. Pittsburgh Penguins
This is Season 15 of the Sid and Geno Show. Many thought its run came to an end in 2015 before the Penguins went out and won back-to-back Cups. There are no shortage of questions marks dotting the roster, but are you confident enough to change the channel yet?

10. Washington Capitals
Team International will play many nights with a single Canadian — Tom Wilson — among its 12 forwards. It also has a top-six defence corps that features as many guys in their 40s (Zdeno Chara) as 20s (29-year-old Dmitry Orlov) and two inexperienced goalies. Zero playoff series wins since going all the way in 2018.

11. Calgary Flames
Surely this is the last kick at the can for the Flames as we know them. I liked the Jacob Markstrom signing and still think this could be a final-four team.

12. Nashville Predators
The Preds are possibly slipping into that zone where everyone has become dismissive enough of them that they’re actually now underrated. If Juuse Saros plays like a real No. 1, there’s a clear path to the playoffs.

13. Dallas Stars
The Stars enter this strange season with Ben Bishop and Tyler Seguin out long-term and no Western Conference to defend. Last year’s finalists have a long road to repeat what they achieved in the bubble.

14. New York Islanders
Mathew Barzal is in the fold and the Islanders can resume being their plucky selves. It’s almost disorienting to think about how this club has not missed the post-season since John Tavares left.

15. Vancouver Canucks
How will they follow up a season in which the young ’Nucks seemed to arrive a year ahead of schedule? It’s easy to peg them for a fall back, but if the new duo of Thatcher Demko and Braden Holtby get it done, this team will be very competitive.

16. Montreal Canadiens
The Habs don’t really have a player who, when he touches the puck, causes fans of the opposing team to clench vital parts of their anatomy. Top to bottom, though, this is a solid squad that should receive great goaltending from the most expensive tandem in the league.

17. Edmonton Oilers
We know Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl could finish 1-2 in NHL scoring; the question is, where will the battery of Mikko Koskinen and Mike Smith rank?

18. Winnipeg Jets
Connor Hellebuyck’s Vezina Trophy-winning season kept Winnipeg competitive last year. The defence will be improved in front of him, but this forward-rich team will likely be defined by how well it can defend and whether Hellebuyck can keep up his stellar play.

19. Columbus Blue Jackets
Why can’t things ever be easy for the hard-working Jackets? Pierre-Luc Dubois’ status with the club will be a black cloud until the situation is resolved. As always, though, opponents will work for everything they get against John Tortorella’s club.

20. New York Rangers
It’s going to be a tough slog for the Blueshirts to squeeze into the top four in the East Division. By this time next year, though, the Rangers could be pace-setters.

21. Buffalo Sabres
From Taylor Hall to Jack Eichel’s future to the whole Buffalo-ness of the losing situation, there’s a lot we tend to focus on with the Sabres before acknowledging they have one of the best young defencemen in the game. Maybe a standout season from Rasmus Dahlin in his third campaign cues a stronger-than-expected showing in Western New York.

22. Florida Panthers
The optimism that surrounded this club the past couple years has largely dried up. That said, Sergei Bobrovsky can’t be as bad in Year 2 as he was in Year 1.

23. Arizona Coyotes
As the Coyotes reset under new GM Bill Armstrong, coach Rick Tocchet’s solid structure remains in place. If the injury luck of starter Darcy Kuemper improves, this team — though still offensively challenged — is going to be a tough out.

24. San Jose Sharks
An overlooked subplot in the league: What if the Sharks are awful again? They have five players — Evander Kane, Logan Couture, Erik Karlsson, Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic — on serious long-terms deals with some form of no-trade protection. The youngest among that group is 29-year-old Kane. What options even exist in Northern California if this stays south?

25. Minnesota Wild
Bill Simmons, ‘The Podfather,’ always talks about NBA League Pass teams — you know, those sometimes bad-but-entertaining clubs you watch on a random Wednesday night. At the other end of that spectrum, I’d wager there’s a chance no one outside the 'State of Hockey' has ever said, “Hey, flip over to the Wild game.”

26. New Jersey Devils
I had the Devils down as my surprise team before news of Corey Crawford’s retirement broke. I still think they’ll be much improved. There’s lots of room to grow after a year from hell.

27. Los Angeles Kings
Fact: One of the Coyotes, Sharks, Kings, Wild or Ducks will make the playoffs. Would you bet your life savings against the Kings, with a cast of kids who could simultaneously take a step forward?

28. Anaheim Ducks
This team drafts too well to be near the bottom for too long. This is the pit of the downcycle, though, and even John Gibson can’t save them.

29. Ottawa Senators
A prime example of a team that can be fun to watch without winning a whole lot. It will be interesting to see how the Sens balance playing NHL pros with creating opportunities for the organization’s myriad youngsters.

30. Chicago Blackhawks
I still think there’s a case to be made that being awful is the next-best thing to being awesome. Start doing your draft lottery dance right now Hawks fans and hopefully, by next fall, optimism returns in a big way.

31. Detroit Red Wings
Every update on how Wings prospects are performing around the world makes it easier to believe in GM Steve Yzerman’s plan. It’s just going to take some time to get there.

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