The 2021-22 NHL season is drawing near. Training camps will be opening in the next few weeks and the usual favorites will take center stage.
The Colorado Avalanche, Vegas Golden Knights, and Tampa Bay Lightning lead the pack of top Cup contenders. They are followed by teams like the New York Islanders, Toronto Maple Leafs, and Carolina Hurricanes to name a few.
But which teams could surprise hockey fans this season? Let’s take a look at five who may just step up and impress.
New York Rangers
The Rangers will certainly be tougher, but will they be better? On top of firing coach David Quinn and hiring Gerard Gallant, the Rangers traded for Barclay Goodrow (from Tampa Bay) and Ryan Reaves (Vegas), which certainly adds grit. They did also had to trade RFA, Pavel Buchnevich to the St. Louis Blues for more cap space, so that’s a big offensive weapon gone.
New York has some high-end talent in Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad at forward and defenseman Adam Fox, but sorely need their young talent to produce secondary scoring. They also have plenty of cap space to add a top line forward if they choose.
If Igor Shesterkin, who just signed a 4 year extension plays to his potential, the Rangers have enough talent to make the playoffs and do some damage.
The Blackhawks have been active this offseason. Not only do they expect to have captain Jonathan Toews back after missing all of last season, they remade their roster.
With Brent Seabrook essentially retired, they traded his contract to Tampa Bay to acquire forward Tyler Johnson, netted goalie Marc-Andre Fleury from Vegas, signed free-agent defenseman Jake McCabe and forward Jujhar Khaira and dispatched veteran Duncan Keith to Edmonton to acquire defenseman Caleb Jones. But the big move was acquiring rising star defenseman Seth Jones — Caleb’s older brother — from Columbus to become a cornerstone player.
The real key for this group will be Toews returning to form and Marc-Andre Fleury in goal. If this group can find cohesion early, they could very well climb the Central standings.
First, the good news; Taylor Hall, who was excellent for them after being acquired from the Buffalo Sabres, signed a long-term contract. Now the bad news for Boston. David Krejci left to return to Czech after 15 seasons and it’s uncertain whether goalie Tuukka Rask will re-sign once he recovers from hip surgery.
The Bruins also lost goalie Jaroslav Halak, which means newly acquired Linus Ullmark is the de-facto starter. Adding Nick Foligno, Derek Forbort, Erik Haula and Tomas Nosek adds up to nearing non-playoff status.
Including Boston on this list will likely draw criticism, but the Atlantic Division has several really good teams that have surpassed the B’s. The Lightning, Panthers, and Leafs are ahead of them. You also can’t discount the Canadiens who went to the Finals.
The key for the Bruins lies in goal with the 27-year-old Ullmark. He was 9-6-3 with a 2.63 goals-against average and .917 save percentage in 20 appearances for the Buffalo Sabres last season. He spent six seasons with the Sabres and went 50-47-13 with a 2.78 GAA and .912 save percentage.
It was a great addition, since Ullmark may be one of the more underrated goalies in the league because he played for the Buffalo Sabres.
The Canucks have made some sweeping moves with the boldest being the acquisition of Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Conor Garland from Arizona for a trio of depth forwards. They also added Jason Dickinson.
On defense, Nate Schmidt was dealt away after just one season and Alex Edler left via free agency, with newcomers Tucker Poolman and Luke Schenn hoping to take up the slack. Goalie Jaroslav Halak inked to serve as backup to Thatcher Demko.
Pressing is the need for RFAs Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes to sign a new contracts. If they can get those two in the fold, this team should be better than last season with something to prove.
The Kraken aren’t the collection of castoffs akin to the expansion clubs we saw in the distant past, nor do they look like a Vegas success story in the making.
Seattle made astute moves by signing via free agency goalie Philipp Grubauer and forwards Jaden Schwartz, Alex Wenneberg and Marcus Johansson after claiming the likes of Giordano, Larsson, Jordan Eberle and Yanni Gourde. Even so, they will be in tough to be in the top half of the division, let alone reach the playoffs.
Ron Francis’ team will be very good defensively but need more scoring up front. If he can swing a deal for a top six forward, Seattle could certainly make the playoffs in a weak Pacific division.
-Field Level Media contributed to this report.