NHL Power Rankings: Stanley Cup contender tiers as 2021-22 season begins

In this week’s edition of the NHL Power Rankings we take a preseason look at the top Stanley Cup contenders for the 2021-22 season.

We put all 32 teams into different tiers based on what the level of expectation should be for this season.

Where does your team sit at the start of the season?

To this week’s NHL Power Rankings!

The Top Contenders

1. Tampa Bay Lightning. They lost a lot this offseason but they still have the same core in place. And that core has been the best team in the league for the past seven years and has won back-to-back Stanley Cups. You can not count them out from winning a third in a row.

2. Colorado Avalanche. Perhaps the most talented team in the NHL on paper. They have to break through the Second Round, but if they stick with it and trust the talent they will get there. Talent eventually wins.

3. Vegas Golden Knights. The big question will be center depth and if Robin Lehner plays at a Stanley Cup level all season as the No. 1 goalie. Great team with huge expectations and a ton of pressure.

4. Carolina Hurricanes. Losing Dougie Hamilton hurts and they have some questions in goal but they should absolutely be one of the best teams in the league. Their time has arrived.

5. New York Islanders. Here is how this is going to go: They will win 10 games in a row at some point, probably as part of a 15-or 16-game point streak, stumble along for the rest of the season, everybody will question how good they actually are, and then they will shut everybody down in the playoffs and be playing in the Eastern Conference Final. Just accept it.

It is possible if some things go right

6. Florida Panthers. This might be the first time this team has entered the season with real expectations. The game-changer here could be Spencer Knight. If he overtakes Sergei Bobrovsky and plays to his potential, this team will be tough to beat.

7. Boston Bruins. The goalies are a question right now (maybe Tuukka Rask comes back?) and the second-line center spot is a concern, but that top line and Charlie McAvoy will take them far.

8. Toronto Maple Leafs. They should be in this tier. Whether or not they do anything to validate that preseason belief remains to be seen. At some point they have to actually, you know, do something.

9. Minnesota Wild. They have some questions at center, but Marco Rossi could be a game-changer there. They were one of the most exciting teams in the league last year. That is a sentence that has never been said about the Minnesota Wild.

10. St. Louis Blues. A lot of this depends on if the good version of Jordan Binnington makes an appearance and if the defense is a little better.

11. Washington Capitals. A lot of this depends on if Evgeny Kuznetsov and Ilya Samsonov bounce back. Not going to bet against them or this core making one more run.

12. Pittsburgh Penguins. They need Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin to be healthy come playoff time and for Tristan Jarry to not self destruct. But like the Capitals, am not going to bet against this core making one more run.

13. Dallas Stars. With a healthy Tyler Seguin and Alexander Radulov they make the playoffs a year ago. They should both be healthy this season.

14. Winnipeg Jets. They gave one of the best goalies in the league a little more help defensively. Combined with their top line forwards this could be an interesting team.

The complete wild cards

15. Philadelphia Flyers. If Carter Hart is good this team will be very tough to beat. If Carter Hart is not good this team will struggle again.

16. New York Rangers. You will hear a lot about their offseason moves but the deciding factor in this team will be the progress and development of Alexis Lafreniere, Kaapo Kakko, Vitali Kravtsov, and Igor Shesterin. The pressure is on. But the upside is immense.

17. Edmonton Oilers. With Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl in their primes and as good as they are they should be in the top tier. But the rest of the team is, quite honestly, not great. That defense and goaltending are problems.

18. Calgary Flames. They are not contenders, they are not a clear lottery team. They just exist in a perpetual state of mediocrity.

The mystery teams

19. Seattle Kraken. They should have good goaltending and play in a weak division. Those two things should keep them in it.

20. Chicago Blackhawks. They spent a ton of money this offseason and are getting Jonathan Toews back, but nearly every addition carries some risk and the team itself is still not that great on paper.

21. Montreal Canadiens. They lost a lot from last year’s team, Shea Weber is not going to play, and Carey Price‘s situation is unknown. They also do not get to play in the North Division.

22. New Jersey Devils. They made all of the right moves this offseason and Jack Hughes is ready to become a superstar but they play in the wrong division to make a big jump.

23. Vancouver Canucks. They have a great young core of talent, but can their defensive play be trusted? Or their depth? Feels like a team that should be better.

24. Los Angeles Kings. Do not count them out as a potential playoff team. Great center depth and a weak division could help them arrive a year early.

Likely lottery teams

25. Nashville Predators. They will go as far as Juuse Saros can take them. Losing Ryan Ellis and Viktor Arvidsson from an already flawed team is not going to help.

26. Ottawa Senators. The only concern right now is getting the Brady Tkachuk contract situation resolved. There is talent here, but can you trust ownership to take advantage of it and build something? Probably not.

27. Detroit Red Wings. Losing Jakub Vrana for more than half of the season is a loss they could not afford.

28. San Jose Sharks. An aging core, some bad contracts, the Evander Kane situation, and questionable goaltending is going to make for a long season.

29. Anaheim Ducks. The good news is Trevor Zegras and Jamie Drysdale might be real long-term building blocks to offer some real hope for the future.

30. Columbus Blue Jackets. On paper they look like the worst team in a tough Metropolitan Division. Elvis Merzlikins might be able to keep them competitive on most nights, and Patrik Laine could bounce back, but there are a lot of questions here.

31. Arizona Coyotes. They are clearly building for the future and trying to stockpile as many draft picks and future assets as they can. This will not be a good team this season.

32. Buffalo Sabres. These fans deserve better than this lousy product being thrown at them every year.

Robin Lehner decided he didn’t want to burn down the NHL after all

Let’s be clear. Lehner absolutely put his future prospects in jeopardy, as organizations will be reluctant to sign someone who may blow the whistle on them and air the league’s dirty laundry. It takes a lot of courage to step up and speak out about such things, and there’s no doubt the league pointed out that it was hurting his future employment options.

It’s also clear that he’s upset with how teams deal with mental illness and physical injuries, as he called out Buffalo’s treatment of Jack Eichel. Eichel, who asked for a trade in the offseason, was stripped of his captaincy and remains on injured reserve for a herniated disk in his neck. The team wants Eichel to get fusion surgery, while Eichel would prefer to get disk replacement surgery — which has never been performed on an NHL player but gives him a higher chance of avoiding further procedures.

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He also called for Philadelphia Flyers coach Alain Vigneault to be fired, calling him a dinosaur. It appeared that his stream-of-consciousness tweets connected Vigneault to the pill-pushing, but Lehner later clarified that wasn’t the case.

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Vigneault, who has never coached Lehner, held a press conference on Monday denying he was involved in distributing drugs, saying, bizarrely, “I don’t need another income.” Lehner has previously made comments regarding Flyers goalie Carter Hart, tweeting on Aug. 13 that he was a “great goalie with another example of an old school coach making it more difficult to perform.”

Now Lehner is convinced that going all Joker isn’t the most productive way to go about his business.

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“I don’t want to fight with the league. I want to implement change. There are different ways to do it, but I’m doing what I believe in, and I’m willing to give up my public voice about these matters to implement change, and I think that’s the way to do it.”

It remains to be seen if the NHL will address any of Lehner’s concerns. This is a league that has denied a link between hockey and CTE. A league that’s doing it’s best to close its eyes and hope a sexual assault scandal involving the Chicago ’Hawks goes away. The NHL promised Akim Aliu that it would investigate his allegations of racial violence at the hands of junior hockey teammate and former NHLer Steve Downie and discrimination from former coach Bill Peters. That was two years ago.

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Standing up to sports leagues for the rights of players or for social and racial justice has never really worked out for players. See Curt Flood, Colin Kaepernick, and Eric Reid. So it’s hard to blame Lehner for, after much reflection, to reverse course and opt for a less public action. But we can assume the NHL will do its best to sweep as many scandals under the rug as possible until proven otherwise.

Vegas goalie Robin Lehner in stunning Twitter attack on Vigneault, Flyers

Vigneault has never coached any of Lehner’s teams, but obviously a longtime NHL coach and a goalie who’s been in the league since 2010 have plenty of mutuals, including the Golden Knights’ new center, Nolan Patrick, a foreigner No. 1 pick of the Flyers. It’s not clear what beef there is between Vigneault and Lehner, but this isn’t the first time the netminder has made it clear he doesn’t think highly of the Philadelphia coach. In August, Lehner blamed Vigneault for stunting Flyers goalie Carter Hart’s development.

What is clear is that Lehner has had enough of what he sees as shoddy treatment of hockey players, doing everything to keep them on the ice, at the expense of long-term health. Specifically, Lehner has been tweeting a lot in recent days about Jack Eichel, stripped of the captaincy of the Buffalo Sabres, who don’t want him to get artificial disk replacement surgery.

Lehner, a two-time Jennings Trophy winner and the 2019 Masterton Trophy winner after returning from rehab, has been open about his struggle with addiction. He also got some backup on Saturday night from prominent agent Allan Walsh, best known in Lehner’s career for when he tweeted an image of his client, Marc-Andre Fleury, with a sword in his back after Lehner supplanted Fleury as the Golden Knights’ starter. Former NHL enforcer Daniel Carcillo also sounded the alarm for hockey, as he has been for years, in another Twitter thread.

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Clearly, this is bigger than just the folks involved, and any light that can be shone on hockey’s issues with painkillers and other substances is a good and welcome thing. The sport already has lost too many men, too young, most notably Derek Boogaard due to an accidental mix of painkillers and alcohol in 2011, but also others who became addicts during their playing days as they sacrificed their bodies to the game.

Philadelphia Flyers: 2021-22 NHL Season Preview

The 2021-22 NHL season is coming and it’s time to take a look at all 32 teams. We’ll examine best- and worst-case scenarios, looking at the biggest questions, breakout candidates, and more for each franchise. Today, we preview the Philadelphia Flyers.

2020-21 Season Review

• Record: 25-23-8 (58 points); sixth place in East Division
• Postseason: Missed playoffs, moved first-rounder in Rasmus Ristolainen trade.
• Offensive leaders: Claude Giroux (16 goals, 27 assists), James van Riemsdyk (17 goals, 26 assists), and Jakub Voracek (nine goals, 34 assists), all at 43 points.

• Free Agent Additions: Ryan Ellis (trade from Predators), Rasmus Ristolainen (trade from Sabres), Cam Atkinson (trade from Blue Jackets), Martin Jones, Keith Yandle, Nate Thompson, Derick Brassard, Adam Clendening.
• Free Agent Subtractions: Jakub Voracek (trade to Blue Jackets), Nolan Patrick (traded, eventually ended up with Golden Knights), Shayne Gostisbehere (trade to Coyotes), Philippe Myers (trade to Predators), Robert Hagg (traded to Sabres), Brian Elliott (Lightning), Carsen Twarynski (Kraken expansion draft).

Biggest question for Rangers

• Will goaltending derail all the changes?

Glance up at the additions and subtractions above, and you risk becoming dizzy from all of the movement.

If nothing else, you can’t accuse Flyers GM Chuck Fletcher of sitting idly by after a disappointing season. Instead, the Flyers are a very different team in 2021-22.

Will they be better in a way that truly matters? To an extent, that hinges on some of those changes. Was a tough season all about injuries for Ryan Ellis, or could his decline be more permanent (and rapid)? Are the Flyers right (and the charts are wrong) about Ristolainen?

Either way, it’s fascinating, and it harkens back to the Paul Holmgren era.

But, for all of the changes the Flyers made, they’re still primed to sink or swim with Carter Hart.

[PHT’s offseason trade tracker]

By most advanced metrics, the Flyers were a respectable team last season. They weren’t really showing signs of being a juggernaut, but a brief playoff appearance wouldn’t have been out of order. Unfortunately, they suffered from the worst goaltending in the NHL.

Hart’s Goals Saved Above Average (-22.57) was by far the worst in the NHL last season. Second worst? Well, that would be his now-former creasemate Brian Elliott (-14.01).

You don’t need to scroll far at Hockey Reference to see Elliott’s replacement. With a -11.71 GSAA, Martin Jones ranked fifth-worst in the NHL last season.

With Hart, the Flyers can hope that he merely puts last season behind him, and regains his form in 2021-22. A rebound isn’t out of the realm of realism.

Still, between Jones and Hart, there’s a lot of wishful thinking. The Flyers must be thinking “Carter Hart can’t be this bad again in 2021-22.” In the case of Jones, they have to hope that Jones wasn’t this bad — it was just about the Sharks.

Goalies are unpredictable, so who knows? But Martin Jones has been wallowing for years now. That ugly -11.71 GSAA is actually his highest mark from the last three seasons. With so much on the line, the 2021-22 Flyers might regret the dubious insurance policy they took out in net.

What’s the salary cap situation?

Would it be a bold Flyers offseason without spending to the salary cap? In that Holmgren spirit, it’s not clear if the Flyers will get what they’re paying for. But they’re not being shy about opening up that wallet.

Some moves look more promising than others.

It’s tough to blame the Flyers for signing Sean Couturier to a contract extension. In the early years of an extension that kicks in next season, Couturier should be well-worth that raise to $7.75 million.

And, for all of Carter Hart’s struggles, it’s not hard to understand the $4 million investment in the 23-year-old. (If it doesn’t work out, the contract expires after 2023-24. If it does, the Flyers retain RFA leverage.)

Joel Farabee could easily be a steal when his $5 million kicks in during the 2022-23 season. (That said, it seemed like Travis Konecny was a big steal. Then he ended up a fixture in Alain Vigneault’s doghouse.)

[PHT’s 2021 NHL Free Agent Tracker]

Plenty of GMs risk the future in hopes that long-term deals will pay off in the present. The Flyers have to hope that Chuck Fletcher’s big swings pay off where they didn’t make contact often enough with the Wild.

There are still some lingering decisions, however.

  • Claude Giroux (33, $8.275M cap hit) enters a contract year. The Flyers are wisely taking a wait-and-see approach. Will they make the right call?
  • Rasmus Ristolainen (26, $5.6M) also heads toward a pivotal contract year. Will the Flyers make the right call here if it’s clear he simply isn’t worth a big contract? If he turns things around, how much will he cost? Tricky stuff.
  • With two years remaining at $7M, James van Riemsdyk’s future is also unclear.

Overall, the Flyers’ salary cap situation is a mix of good and bad. If there’s one undeniable thing, it’s that this isn’t a cheap operation. Don’t be surprised if patience dries up along with this team’s cap space.

Breakout Candidate

Morgan Frost

Let’s assume that Joel Farabee’s already broken out. His advancement might sneak up on people, but not Flyers management. You don’t get a $5 million extension based on potential alone.

Where Farabee feels safe to the point of cheating, betting on a Morgan Frost breakout is a gamble.

That’s not meant to insult the player. Instead, there’s apprehension about what he’s gone through. A shoulder injury derailed a key developmental season for Frost. While there’s an opening with Kevin Hayes recovering from surgery, it may be tough for Frost to hit the ground running.

The talent’s there, whether Frost breaks out for the Flyers in 2021-22, or needs more time.

Best-Case Scenario for 2021-22 Flyers

Carter Hart enjoys a brilliant rebound, and Jones regains his confidence enough to be a solid backup. Those big changes translate into a dynamic defense. Vigneault pushes all the right buttons, including rekindling what was once a deadly power play. The Flyers make a legit push to win their division, and rank as a dangerous playoff opponent.

Worst-Case Scenario for 2021-22 Flyers

Hart and Jones are basically as porous as they were last season. The Flyers regret ignoring the red flags with Ristolainen. Injuries greatly limit Ellis, who was once borderline-elite. Remember those meltdowns against the Rangers? That happens far too often, and against far too many foes. The Flyers fail in 2021-22, and then make a bunch of panic moves as a result.

PointsbetPhiladelphia Flyers’ Stanley Cup odds

+3000 (PointsBet is our Official Sports Betting Partner and we may receive compensation if you place a bet on PointsBet for the first time after clicking our links.)

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

NHL Power Rankings: Top storylines for 2021-22 NHL season (Part 2)

In this week’s edition of the NHL Power Rankings we continue counting down the 30 biggest storylines to watch across the league for the 2021-22 season.

We are looking at 10 storylines each Monday until the start of the season. We continue today with storylines 20-11, including looks at the Philadelphia Flyers, Montreal Canadiens, the top rookies, pending free agents, the salary cap, and new Stanley Cup contenders.

[You can read Part 1 here]

What stories make the list this week?

To this week’s NHL Power Rankings!

20. The Philadelphia Flyers offseason. Now this is the type of offseason you expect from the Flyers. Big moves! Bold moves! Maybe even crazy moves! The trades for Ryan Ellis and Cam Atkinson have the potential to be huge additions, but the Rasmus Ristolainen trade is a little difficult to figure. Do they think they can turn his career around? Of course, all of these moves will be rendered pointless if Carter Hart does not play better in goal this season.

19. What do the Montreal Canadiens do for a repeat? The Canadiens shocked the NHL by making a stunning run to the Stanley Cup Final. Carey Price found the fountain of youth and helped lead them to upsets over Toronto, Winnipeg, and Vegas before running into the Tampa Bay Lightning buzzsaw.

They are bringing back a very different roster, however. Phillip Danault and Jesperi Kotkaniemi are gone, Tomas Tatar left in free agency, Shea Weber will not play this season, while Mike Hoffman, Christian Dvorak, and David Savard join the team. They are also getting Jonathan Drouin back after he missed most of the 2020-21 season and all of the playoffs. They also have potential breakout seasons for Nick Suzuki and Cole Caulfield to look forward to. But is this roster good enough to even get back in the playoffs in a tough division?

18. The salary cap situation in the NHL. We are still looking at a situation in the league where salary cap increases are going to be minimal in the coming years. There are obvious ramifications for contending teams close to the cap and with pending free agents to sign. It could also make more players available in trades and allow teams with excess salary cap space to utilize that in trades.

17. Potential unrestricted free agents. A lot of significant players are entering the final year of their contracts this season with Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Alexander Barkov, Filip Forsberg, Tomas Hertl, John Klingberg, Johnny Gaudreau, Morgan Rielly, Ryan Pulock, Patrice Bergeron, Claude Giroux, Mattias Ekholm, P.K. Subban, Marc-Andre Fleury, Darcy Kuemper, and Mika Zibanejad leading the way. Many of those players will re-sign with their current teams. Some might even retire (Fleury? Bergeron?). But there are a few players that they could end up changing teams, including Forsberg, Hertl, Gaudreau, and maybe even Rielly.

16. The rookie of the year race. Always one of the more intriguing individual award races because it highlights new stars coming into the league. This year’s favorites have to include Caufield in Montreal, Spencer Knight in Florida, Moritz Seider in Detroit, Quinton Byfield in Los Angeles, and Vasili Podkolzin in Vancouver.

[NHL Power Rankings: Calder Trophy candidates for 2021-22 season]

15. Can Islanders break through to the Stanley Cup Final? It has been three decades since the New York Islanders played in a Cup Final, but they are getting closer every year. They just can not seem to get over the final hurdle that is the Lightning, having lost to them two years in a row in the Eastern Conference Final/Semifinal round. They are bringing back mostly the same roster, but will have a full season of Kyle Palmieri, a returning Anders Lee, and the offseason additions of Zach Parise and Zdeno Chara. Not to mention one of the league’s best coaches and a sensational goalie duo with Semyon Varlamov and Ilya Sorokin.

Their regular season performances never look impressive. But they are probably one of the last teams you want to see in a best-of-seven series in the playoffs.

14. New York Rangers changes. The Rangers’ rebuild was not going fast enough for ownership, so a lot of changes were made this offseason in the front office, coaching staff, and even on the roster. Chris Drury takes over for Jeff Gorton in the GM chair, Gerard Gallant replaces David Quinn behind the bench, and the team attempted to get tougher this offseason by trading Pavel Buchnevich, while also acquiring Ryan Reaves, Patrik Nemeth, and Barclay Goodrow. It is the Tom Wilson impact. The Rangers can say it is not all about Wilson all they want, but it is pretty clear that is what this is about. Is that the right step for a team that has a Hart Trophy candidate (Artemi Panarin), a Norris Trophy-winning defender (Adam Fox), and an impressive collection of young talent? We are about to find out.

In the end, though, the success or failure of this season will depend on the development of Alexis Lafreniere, Kaapo Kakko, Vitali Kravtsov, and Igor Shesterkin. If that quartet becomes impact players, the Rangers will be very good. If they do not, the Rangers’ rebuild will remain stuck in neutral.

13. Panthers becoming a Cup contender. This might be the first time ever that the Florida Panthers are entering a season with real, championship level expectations. This is a really good roster with a couple of All-Stars at the top of it (Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau) coming off the best regular season in franchise history They also added Sam Reinhart to the mix this offseason. If Spencer Knight can take over the goaltending job and play to his potential this could be a sleeper Cup team.

12. Can Avalanche get through Second Round ceiling. On paper the Colorado Avalanche might have the best team in the NHL. They are loaded from top to bottom with a deep, talented group of forwards, an excellent defense with young stars, and a strong goalie with the offseason addition of Kuemper. They have been Cup contenders and favorites for a couple of years now. But they remain stuck in the Second Round, having lost their three years in a row.

When a team like this can’t get through a particular round, or can’t take that next step, it is easy to get frustrated and think that some kind of change needs to happen. We heard it constantly with the Washington Capitals and how they needed to change and who they needed to trade. We heard it all the time with the Lightning. Eventually talent breaks through and wins. The Avalanche have the talent to get there. They just need to be patient and stick with the process and talent they have. It is championship caliber, and still has its best days ahead of it.

11. Can the Oilers finally take advantage of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. McDavid and Draisaitl are the two best offensive players in the world. They are both league MVPs, winning the award in three of the past five seasons. Most teams will go decades, maybe even their entire existence to this point, without getting one player like this, let alone two of them together at the exact same time. You can not waste that luck. The Oilers are wasting it. Badly.

They made some significant changes this offseason with the additions of Zach Hyman, Warren Foegele, Duncan Keith, and Cody Ceci. But even with that depth still looks suspect, as does this defense (largely due to the changes there with an aging Keith and Ceci replacing Ethan Bear and Adam Larsson), and they are counting on a 39-year-old Mike Smith to have another strong year when he has only had one good season in the past three seasons. Still a lot that can go wrong here, even with two megastars at the top of the lineup.

The biggest X-factor for every NHL team: Eastern Conference edition

Every team has a handful of players that could significantly alter the course of their season.

They are the X-factors.

Not necessarily the best player, or even a new player, but somebody that could make-or-break how things go based largely on their own individual performance. Maybe they are taking on a new role, or an increased role, or trying to fill a spot vacated by a departing player. Or maybe it is just somebody that is ready to take a significant leap forward in their development or career.

Let’s talk about the biggest such player for each team, including a couple of potential breakout stars, some goalies (always an X-factor), and some returning players that missed significant portions of the 2020-21 season.

We start here with the Eastern Conference teams. You can find the Western Conference X-factors here.

Boston Bruins: Charlie CoyleWith David Krejci now playing in the Czech Republic the Bruins have a major hole on their second line between Taylor Hall and Craig Smith. Coyle will probably get the first crack at that role. If he can handle it, that would give the Bruins the complete second line they need (and seemingly had with Krejci, Hall, and Smith).

Buffalo Sabres: Rasmus DahlinWith Jack Eichel‘s future in doubt and Owen Power still at least a year away Dahlin is now the face of the Sabres franchise. And they still do not fully know what they have in him because he has had three different coaches who have tried to use him three different ways.

Carolina Hurricanes: Frederik Andersen. The Hurricanes completely overhauled their goaltending position with two veterans who have been injured in recent years. Big gamble for a Stanley Cup contender. Could be a good one, though. If it works.

Columbus Blue Jackets: Patrik Laine. Are they going to get the potential 40-goal scorer that puts the fear of God into opposing goalies, or the player that struggled and was benched at times after the trade? They need the former. Desperately.

Detroit Red Wings: Moritz Seider. If he is as good as the Red Wings think he can be that would be quite the immediate boost to their rebuild. The perception of this pick has rapidly changed in two years.

[Related: Every free agent signing by all 32 NHL teams]

Florida Panthers: Spencer Knight. The best goalie prospect in hockey and the future of the position in Florida. How much do they really trust Sergei Bobrovsky at this point? The sooner Knight takes over that spot, the better.

Montreal Canadiens: Christian Dvorak. The Jesperi Kotkaniemi offer sheet forced the Canadiens’ hand into making a trade. The funny thing is that Dvorak is probably the better player right now. So it might be an upgrade.

New Jersey Devils: Jack Hughes. Hughes took a massive step forward in his second season, and if he can take a similar step this season the Devils will have a superstar on their hands.

New York Islanders: Oliver WahlstromThe Islanders are rock solid from top to bottom, but they could really use another impact forward to make it so all of that pressure does not fall on Mathew Barzal. Wahlstrom is one player that has the potential to be that. He showed flashes of it last year.

New York Rangers: Alexis Lafrenière. Expectations are high in New York and the pressure is on for this entire group. They need Lafreniere to take a Hughes-like step in his second season.

Ottawa Senators: Matt Murray. He counts $6.25 million against the cap for another three seasons. He plays the most important position on the ice. If they want to improve they need more. Way more.

Philadelphia Flyers: Carter HartThere might not be a single player in the NHL that will play a bigger role in determining the success or failure of a team.

Pittsburgh Penguins: Tristan JarryGoaltending is the single biggest reason the Penguins 2020-21 postseason ended in the first round. They are bringing back the same goalies with a thinner roster in front of them. Let’s see how that works out.

Tampa Bay Lightning: Alex Barre-BouletThe Lightning have a non-stop supply of talented players coming through their system that just have a way of fitting in and producing. With the entire line of Blake Coleman, Yanni Gourde, and Barclay Goodrow moving on they are going to need that internal talent pipeline to keep flowing.

Toronto Maple Leafs: Jack Campbell. He was great last year when he took over the starting job. Was it a fluke? Or something that he can come close to repeating? There is immense pressure on this team this season to do something, and Campbell is going to have to play a big role in that.

Washington Capitals: Anthony Mantha. They paid a steep price for him, but his style fits the Capitals perfectly and he really is an outstanding player. He played better than his box score numbers would indicate after the trade.