2021-22 Season Preview: Part 3

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This is part three of our team preview series, which we're releasing every Tuesday and Friday. You can view Part 1 here, and Part 2 here.

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VANCOUVER CANUCKS

2020-21 Record: 23-29-4 record, 50 Points.

Result: Seventh in North. Did not make playoffs.

Significant Gains: Jaroslav Halak, Conor Garland, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Jason Dickinson

Significant Losses: Alexander Edler, Braden Holtby, Nate Schmidt, Loui Eriksson

Strengths: Vancouver ranked 24th offensively with 2.64 goals per game last season, but even still their top two lines look like their biggest asset. Last season Elias Pettersson was out for more than half the campaign due to injury, but between getting him back, adding Conor Garland to their lineup, and the continued development of Nils Hoglander, the Canucks are looking strong up front. They also have Vasily Podkolzin, who’s making the transition from the KHL. He might not start the campaign in a top-six role, but he has a lot of potential and gives Vancouver yet another offensive weapon.

Weaknesses: Adding Oliver Ekman-Larsson could potentially be huge for Vancouver, but it’s not without its risks given his defensive struggles in recent years. What makes that a bigger deal for the Canucks is they have another defenseman who is likely to get huge minutes but struggled defensively last season in Quinn Hughes. Now it’s possible Ekman-Larsson will benefit from the fresh start and bounce back defensively and there’s also a chance that Hughes’ continued development will lead to him making progress defensively this season. There is absolutely a scenario where the Canucks’ blueline is among their strengths this season and that would almost certainly lead to Vancouver comfortably making the playoffs given their other assets. However, going into the season there are some big question marks on the Canucks’ blueline.

Player To Watch: As mentioned above, Vasily Podkolzin is making the transition from the KHL to North American hockey in 2021-22 and he could make the Canucks in either a second- or third-line role out of training camp. He had five goals and 11 points in 35 regular season games with St. Petersburg SKA, which isn’t great, but is still noteworthy given that he was just 19-years-old. Where he really stood out though was in the KHL playoffs, scoring six goals and 11 points in 16 contests. Taken with the 10th overall pick in 2019, he’s a high-end prospect joining a team that already has a number of young and talented skilled forwards. In other words, he could provide the Canucks with even more of a good thing.

VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS

2020-21 Record: 40-14-2 record, 82 Points.

Result: Second in West. Lost 4-2 to the Montreal Canadiens in the semifinals.

Significant Gains: Laurent Brossoit, Evgenii Dadonov, Nolan Patrick

Significant Losses: Marc-Andre Fleury, Cody Glass

Strengths: The Golden Knights weren’t hurting for offensive depth last season between Mark Stone, Max Pacioretty, Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson, Chandler Stephenson, and Alex Tuch, but they added more anyways. Getting Evgenii Dadonov was a risky move given that he was limited to 13 goals and 20 points in 55 contests, but he scored over 25 goals in each of his previous three years. It’s possible that Ottawa, where he played in 2020-21 after leaving Florida, ultimately wasn’t a great fit for him, especially given that he had to adjust during the weird pandemic season where he couldn’t be with his family and didn’t get to participate in preseason games to settle in with his new team before the campaign started. So perhaps he could bounce back, providing the Golden Knights with some power-play help and an overqualified winger on the third line. Nolan Patrick is even more of an X-Factor, but a very interesting one. He was taken with the second overall pick in 2017, but he never worked out in Philadelphia. It didn’t help that he couldn’t play at all in the 2019-20 campaign. For the Golden Knights, he’s a nice gamble to take. If he doesn’t work out, that’s okay because they aren’t counting on him to play a big role, but if he does take advantage of this fresh start, then Vegas’ forward core will get even deeper.

Weaknesses: Vegas doesn’t really have any glaring weaknesses going into the season. Their offense is deep, their defense is capably led by Alex Pietrangelo, Shea Theodore, Alec Martinez, and Brayden McNabb, and while they did trade away the Vezina Trophy winner in Marc-Andre Fleury, they still have Robin Lehner, who is more than capable of leading the team in goal. Plus they added Laurent Brossoit, who is a solid backup and shouldn’t look out of place if he has to serve as the starter for short stints should Lehner get hurt. The only real question is if it’s all enough. Vegas having a great team is old hat at this point. They didn’t reach the Conference Finals (technically semifinals in 2021) in three of their first four seasons by accident. That said each time they’ve fallen just short and not necessarily by teams that were better than them, but teams that were hotter than them. Dallas and Montreal were something of Cinderella Stories who eliminated Vegas in each of the last two years. In both cases, they had a great goaltender who was hot and a team who could take advantage of the situation to stifle Vegas’ skilled offense. That’s not to suggest the Golden Knights got unlucky. Dallas and Montreal were both beatable teams, as Tampa Bay proved each time, but it does demonstrate that even a team that has no glaring holes is still potentially vulnerable when the stakes are as high as the Stanley Cup.

Player To Watch: It would be unfair to suggest that Robin Lehner is entering this season with something to prove. He finished third in Vezina Trophy voting in 2018-19 and excelled in the 2020 playoffs for Vegas with a 1.99 GAA and .917 save percentage in 16 starts. Even last season, though outshined by Marc-Andre Fleury, he still posted a 13-4-2 record, 2.29 GAA, and .913 save percentage in 19 starts. There’s a reason why Vegas feels comfortable going forward with Lehner in the starting role, but even if it’s unfair to Lehner, he will be inevitably compared to Fleury, especially after the season Fleury had and what he meant to the early years of Vegas’ franchise. The Golden Knights’ decision to trade Fleury wasn’t up to Lehner, but all eyes are on him after that move and it will be interesting to see what happens next.

CAROLINA HURRICANES

2020-21 Record: 36-12-8 record, 80 Points.

Result: First in Central. Lost 4-1 to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the second round.

Significant Gains: Derek Stepan, Brendan Smith, Antti Raanta, Tony DeAngelo, Ethan Bear, Frederik Andersen

Significant Losses: Jani Hakanpaa, Dougie Hamilton, Warren Foegele, Petr Mrazek, James Reimer, Jake Bean, Alex Nedeljkovic

Strengths: Losing Dougie Hamilton hurts a lot and signing Tony DeAngelo to give them a new offensive defenseman is questionable to say the least. While I’m not going to completely dismiss the possibility of DeAngelo actually taking advantage of the latest chance he’s been given, it’d be safer not to factor him in at all. Still, even without him the Hurricanes are left with a strong blueline core in Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce, and Brady Skjei. None of them match Hamilton offensively, but they do combine to provide Carolina with a strong defense. They also have Ethan Bear, who showed promise with the Oilers in 2019-20 before taking a step back in 2020-21. If he bounces back, he’d be able to fill that vacant top-four spot. The presence of Ian Cole and Jake Gardiner also provide the Hurricanes with plenty of blueline depth even before you start considering DeAngelo. So Carolina’s defense can still be counted as one of their strengths.

Weaknesses: But what happens with the shots that do make it through? Alex Nedeljkovic looked like the Hurricanes’ goaltender of the future with a 15-5-3 record, 1.90 GAA, and .932 save percentage in 23 starts, but Carolina traded him away over the summer. Gone too are their veteran options of James Reimer and Petr Mrazek. In their place, the Hurricanes signed Antti Raanta and Frederik Andersen. It’s not fair to say that duo is an outright weakness, but they are the team’s biggest X-Factor. Raanta and Andersen both struggled last season, so Carolina is hoping at least one of them bounce back. In Raanta’s case, he looked like a capable starter for the most part during his time in Arizona and was an excellent backup with the Rangers before that, but his biggest problem has been his health. Raanta frequently ends up on the sidelines so if history is any guide, Carolina can’t count on getting anything close to a full season out of him. In Andersen’s case, he looked fantastic back in Anaheim and was a stabilizing force in Toronto during a time when the team desperately needed good goaltending to make up for its struggling defense. However, Andersen took a step back in 2019-20 with a 2.85 GAA and .909 save percentage in 52 starts and then really struggled last season with a 2.96 GAA and .895 save percentage in 24 contests. To his credit, Andersen acknowledged his struggles last season and is aiming to bounce back. If he can stay healthy after dealing with a knee injury last season, that’d certainly contribute to his resurgence. So the Hurricanes’ goaltending has potential even if it also could end up being a bad roll of the dice if recent trends simply continue.

Player To Watch: I hate picking Tony DeAngelo as the team’s player to watch, but there is no bigger question mark on the squad. He had such a strong 2019-20 campaign with 15 goals and 53 points in 68 contests only to ruin it the next season due in large part to his locker room and just in general off-ice issues. The incidents involving DeAngelo are numerous enough to make it seem wrong to call this just his “second” chance. He’s been given multiple chances and is getting yet another in Carolina. Can Hurricanes coach Rod Brind'Amour keep DeAngelo in line? Can DeAngelo stay out of his own way? Will he even be good enough on the ice even if he manages to have a drama-free season? Or will this all end up blowing up in Carolina’s face? We’ll find out.

COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS

2020-21 Record: 18-26-12, 48 Points.

Result: Eighth in Central. Did not make playoffs.

Significant Gains: Jakub Voracek, Adam Boqvist, Jake Bean

Significant Losses: Michael Del Zotto, Cam Atkinson, Seth Jones

Strengths: The Blue Jackets basically struggled across the board last season and they’ve lost their best defenseman over the summer in Seth Jones, so they don’t have a clear strength. What they do have is a fair amount of offensive potential. Max Domi struggled last season and isn’t expected to play in 2021-22 until December due to a shoulder injury and Patrik Laine’s play left plenty to be desired in 2020-21. However, they have a ton of offensive upside and new head coach Brad Larsen might be able to get them going. If he can, then the combination of those two along with Jakub Voracek and Oliver Bjorkstrand suddenly gives the Blue Jackets two solid scoring lines. They also have Liam Foudy, who recorded just four assists in 24 games last season, but still has plenty of potential and could end up taking a big step forward this season. At very least, there’s reason to be hopeful about the Blue Jackets’ offense.

Weaknesses: The Blue Jackets still have Zach Werenski and that will be true for a long time after locking him to a six-year, $57.5 million contract, but beyond that their defense is pretty meh. Keep in mind that in addition to Jones being gone, Columbus also traded away David Savard back in April, so after Werenski the rest of their top-four could be Vladislav Gavrikov, Adam Boqvist, and Jake Bean. Boqvist and Bean in particular will need to take significant steps forward if that’s going to work and even if they do, the Blue Jackets’ defense isn’t looking inspiring.

Player To Watch: Patrik Laine has had such an up-and-down career. He had 36 goals in his rookie season and followed it up with 44 goals as a sophomore, making it look like he would be the league’s next elite scorer. However, he struggled in 2018-19. While he did end up with 30 goals, that was only due to an incredible hot streak from Nov. 1-29 where he scored 18 goals in 12 contests. Beyond that, it was a pretty quiet campaign for him. He followed that up with a good 28 goals and 63 points in 68 contests in 2019-20 before being traded to Columbus early in 2020-21 and ultimately having the worst season of his career to date with 12 goals and 24 points in 46 contests. After the season he complained about former Columbus coach John Tortorella not giving him enough freedom to create offense, so the coaching change might do him some good. He’s still just 23-years-old and is one of the best raw scoring talents in the league. He should be pretty motivated too given that he’s on a one-year contract after accepting his $7.5 million qualifying offer.