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.

New York Islanders 2021-22 NHL Season Preview

The 2021-22 NHL season is coming and it’s time to take a look at all 32 teams. Over the next month we’ll be examining best- and worst-case scenarios, looking at the biggest questions, breakout candidates, and more for each franchise. Today, we preview the New York Islanders.

2020-21 Season Review

• Record: 32-17-7 (71 points) fourth place in Eastern Division
• Postseason: Lost in Conference Final in seven games to Tampa Bay Lightning
• Offensive leader: Mathew Barzal (55 games, 17 goals, 28 assists, 45 total points)

• Free Agent Additions: Richard Panik (trade with Detroit Red Wings), Zach Parise, Zdeno Chara
• Free Agent Subtractions: Nick Leddy (trade with Detroit Red Wings), Andrew Ladd, Jordan Eberle (Seattle Kraken), Travis Zajac (retirement)

Biggest question facing the New York Islanders?

• Will Zach Parise and Zdeno Chara have enough left to help put them over the top?

The Islanders are bringing back largely the same roster from the past couple of seasons, and it is a roster that has had its share of success. While the regular season results have not always been great, they have been good enough to get in the playoffs, and once they get to the playoffs they have caused havoc for almost every team in the Eastern Conference.

Since the start of the 2019 playoffs they have won five postseason series and 28 total playoff games, the second most in the league behind only the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The Lightning, of course, being the team that has stood between them and the Stanley Cup Final the past two seasons.

This Islanders roster doesn’t have a ton of star power beyond Mathew Barzal, but it also does not really have a weakness. Every line can contribute. There are no true liabilities on defense. Both goalies are sensational when healthy.

But they still just need a little more to get by teams like the Lightning. Their biggest offseason moves saw them bring in Zach Parise and Zdeno Chara. If this was 2016 those additions would seem significant. Now? It is a matter of whether or not they can fit into complementary roles and make an impact. The Islanders do not need them to be superstars. But anything they have left could be potentially significant. Add in a full season of Kyle Palmieri, the return of a healthy Anders Lee and it is a fairly deep roster.

What’s the salary cap situation?

The Islanders are pressed against the upper limits of the salary cap, even after shedding Andrew Ladd’s salary to Arizona.

They do not have any really mega contracts, but they have a lot of significant contracts in the $5-8 million range.

Ryan Pulock is going to need a new deal after this season as a pending unrestricted free agent, while Mathew Barzal only has two years left on his current bridge deal before he is due a mega contract. So there is some work to be done here and not a lot of long-term flexibility under a mostly flat cap.

Breakout Candidate

Oliver Wahlstrom

Wahlstrom did not have a huge role with the Islanders for most of the 2020-21 season, but he did show a ton of promise and make quite an impact when he got an opportunity. Despite playing just 12 minutes per game he still scored 12 goals in 44 games and posted strong possession numbers in his first real taste of NHL action. He is still only 21 years old and is the best young player on the team outside of Barzal and has a real chance to be a top-line scorer given his talent and shot. A breakout season from him could be a game-changer for an Islanders team that needs another impact player.

Best-Case Scenario

At this point we should know what to expect from this Islanders team. They are going to get strong goaltending, they are going to be tough to score against, and they are going to frustrate a lot of teams on their way to 3-2 and 3-1 wins. The best case is that they keep doing what they do, get back in the playoffs, get a breakout from Wahlstrom, Parise and Chara find the fountain of youth, and they finally get the best of Tampa Bay in a seven-game series. This is a Stanley Cup contender. The expectation should be to go far.

Worst-Case Scenario

If anything happens to the goalies, injury or sudden lack of performance, that would be a problem for a team that is fairly dependent on them. They do not score a ton of goals and while they are great at limiting chances, they do have a tendency to give up a fair number of shots. Any slip in goaltending could be the difference between home ice in the playoffs or an earlier than expected playoff loss. It is hard to envision this team missing the playoffs at this point, but it is a competitive division with a lot of really good teams that are not separated by much.

PointsbetNew York Islanders Stanley Cup odds

+2000 (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.)

Minnesota Wild: 2021-22 NHL Season Preview

The 2021-22 NHL season is coming and it’s time to take a look at all 32 teams. Over the next month we’ll be examining best- and worst-case scenarios, looking at the biggest questions, breakout candidates, and more for each franchise. Today, we preview the Minnesota Wild.

2020-21 Season Review

• Record: 35-16-5 (75 points); third place in West Division
• Postseason: Lost to Golden Knights in Game 7 of First Round.
• Offensive leader: Kirill Kaprizov (55 games, 27 goals, 24 assists).

• Free Agent AdditionsFrederick Gaudreau, Alex Goligoski, Jon Merrill, Dmitry Kulikov, Jordie Benn
• Free Agent Subtractions: Zach Parise (buyout, Islanders), Ryan Suter (buyout, Stars), Carson Soucy (Kraken expansion draft), Nick Bonino (Sharks), Brad Hunt (Canucks), Ian Cole (Hurricanes).

Biggest question for Wild

• Was last season a sign of a team on the rise, or a mirage?

Aside from the most devoted fanatics, most people weren’t expecting much from the Wild last season. A team in transition enjoyed a surprisingly strong season, even if it ended in Game 7 heartache against the mighty Golden Knights.

Truly, Kaprizov’s thrilling season, and the Wild’s general competence, made it easier to accept the team’s reluctance to truly tank.

That said, sometimes a team wins a few bets, then assumes luck will keep going that way. Is it possible that the Wild might renew their cycle of being good-but-not-quite-good-enough?

[PHT’s offseason trade tracker]

Glance up and down the Wild’s 2021-22 roster, and you can talk yourself into a number of outcomes.

Even the “fancy stats” can leave you scratching your head. The Wild were weak-to-bleak when it came to volume stats like scoring chance percentage, and Corsi For. The Wild checked the “quality-over-quantity” boxes, though, including being a top-five team in high-danger chances for (55.41-percent).

Realistically, it’s tough to picture the Wild easily topping all NHL teams at even-strength shooting percentage (11.5) again in 2021-22. Their forward group has promise … but doesn’t really scream that level of shooting skill.

To some, the signs still pointed to investing more in the future, rather than focusing on the present. Instead, the Wild seem like they’re aiming to do both. They want to bring along young players, but don’t seem committed to goosing their 2022 NHL Draft Lottery odds.

If the Wild’s 2021-22 season looks a lot like the last one, they’ll look reasonably smart walking that tightrope. That’s easier said than done, however.

What’s the salary cap situation?

In one of the most stunning decisions of an NHL offseason filled with swerves, the Wild bought out both Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. In an ideal world, those buyouts would put those fraught contracts in the past.

In the reality of the NHL’s salary cap, the relief is limited.

According to Cap Friendly, the Parise – Suter buyouts will look like this on the Wild’s salary cap:

2021-22: $4,743,588 million ($10.3M savings)
2022-23: $12,743,588 million ($2.3M savings)
2023-24: $14,743,588 million ($0.3M savings)
2024-25: $14,743,588 million ($0.3M savings)
2025-26: $1,666,666 million (-$1,666,666 savings)
2026-27: $1,666,666 million (-$1,666,666 savings)
2027-28: $1,666,666 million (-$1,666,666 savings)
2028-29: $1,666,666 million (-$1,666,666 savings)

[PHT’s 2021 NHL Free Agent Tracker]

Did the Wild open up that 2021-22 cap space mainly to sign Kirill Kaprizov? Was the goal to sign Kaprizov, but also do something bold, like trade for Jack Eichel?

Even after the Wild finally signed Kaprizov on Tuesday, the answers aren’t 100% clear. It’s possible that a move or two fell through. Or maybe the Wild are trying to compete while cutting certain costs?

Overall, it’s still a pretty messy salary cap situation. Cap Friendly estimates that the Wild have about $52.5 million devoted to 12 roster spots for 2022-23. For every bit of relief the Wild can anticipate (one more year of Victor Rask at $4 million), there’s a cost that could go up (Kevin Fiala‘s value can skyrocket after 2021-22). Goaltending figures to get more expensive. They’ll also need to make tough decisions with the likes of Fiala and Matt Dumba.

Is Bill Guerin skilled enough as a GM to make this all work? It certainly doesn’t look easy, at least during the most expensive years of the Suter/Parise buyouts (2022-23 through 2024-25).

Breakout Candidate

Marco Rossi/Matt Boldy

If the Wild make their way out of these messes, expect Boldy and Rossi to be a big part of that climb. Before Kaprizov finally arrived, the Wild shrewdly drafting those two forwards inspired a bump in optimism.

Considering the scary-sounding challenges Rossi endured with COVID, the Wild would be wise not to force things with him in 2021-22. As exciting as he is as a prospect, there could be additional growing pains.

Whether the leaps happen sooner or later, both Rossi and Boldy give the Wild quite a bit to be excited about. The team’s lost enough pieces to open the door for fresh faces to make an impact. If Rossi and/or Boldy can make a difference for the Wild as early as 2021-22, that’d be crucial.

Best-Case Scenario for 2021-22 Wild

Kaprizov shows that his rookie season was really just the tip of the iceberg. Joel Eriksson Ek continues to rise much like Sean Couturier did with the Flyers. This team mixes stingy defense, competent goaltending, and sneaky-dangerous offense to rank as the second-best team in the Central Division. From there, they make the sort of playoff run we haven’t seen since the days of Marian Gaborik breakaways.

Worst-Case Scenario for 2021-22 Wild

Losing Parise, but especially Suter and Soucy, really throws off the Wild’s balance. As hot as the Wild were during the month of April last season, their underlying numbers fell dramatically. What if this team falters in a big way, and lands once again in purgatory? If the Wild missed the playoffs, but also settled for a middling 2022 NHL Draft pick, last season’s heightened optimism would go ice cold. It would be especially bad if $9M ended up looking too rich for Kaprizov, as well.

PointsbetMinnesota Wild Stanley Cup odds

+2500 (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.

Zdeno Chara signs 1-year contract with Islanders

Zdeno Chara is going back to where his NHL career started.

The New York Islanders announced on Saturday morning that they have signed the veteran defenseman to a one-year contract. Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed.

Chara, 44, began his career on Long Island back in 1997 and spent four years with the team before he was traded to the Ottawa Senators in the Alexei Yashin trade. Since then he blossomed into one of the most dominant defenders in the league and put together a Hall of Fame career with Ottawa and Boston. He also spent the 2020-21 season as a member of the Washington Capitals.

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

He joins an Islanders team that has been in the semifinals/Eastern Conference Final round in back to back years and is looking to get over that hump and get back to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since the early 1980s.

Chara is no longer a player that you are going to rely for 25 minutes a game, but the Islanders do not really need him to be that. With Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock they already have their shutdown, top-pairing and are mainly just looking for depth to round out the defense. Chara should be able to provide that.

Along with Chara, the Islanders have also added Zach Parise and Richard Panik to the roster this offseason.

What does Zach Parise bring to the Islanders?

It has been believed for weeks now that the New York Islanders and Zach Parise have had a contract agreement in place and have simply been waiting to announce it to the world. On Friday, they are going to officially introduce their new forward and finally end what has been one of the league’s most poorly kept secrets.

Given the history between Parise and Islanders general manager Lou Lamoriello going back to their New Jersey days it is not a surprise to see Parise end up on Long Island, especially after the Islanders nearly traded for him at the deadline a couple of years ago.

Parise was a free agent this offseason after the remainder of his contract was bought out by the Minnesota Wild.

So now that Parise is in the mix, let’s take a look at what this means for the Islanders.

Another potential scoring option

If the Islanders have had a question mark the past couple of years it’s been their goal scoring. Even with all of their postseason success they have been in the bottom half of the league offensively and don’t really have a lot of gamebreakers outside of Mathew Barzal.

What they have is a solid lineup from top-to-bottom that doesn’t really have any weaknesses.

Parise’s addition, as well as the eventual return of Anders Lee and a full season of Kyle Palmieri, not to mention a potential step forward from Oliver Wahlstrom, should help add some additional scoring punch and perhaps make up for the loss of Jordan Eberle to the Seattle Kraken.

The question is just how much will it add.

At 37, Parise is clearly not the player he was in his prime, and based on what we saw a year ago he is probably not even the same player that he was a two or three years ago. The 2020-21 season was the worst, least productive year of Parise’s career and even saw him end up as a healthy scratch at times.

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

The thing is, a lot of his drop in production last season can be attributed to a sharp decline in ice time, especially on the power play.

His 5-on-5 play on a per minute basis not only remained solid, it would have placed him among the leaders of the Islanders.

His 0.81 goals per 60 minutes would have placed him fourth on the Islanders behind only Eberle, Barzal, and Anthony Beaulivier.

The 1.75 points per 60 would have been fifth behind only the aforementioned trio and Josh Bailey.

His 8.15 shots on goal per 60 would have been second behind only Eberle.

So there is still a little something there, and given how much the Islanders’ power play struggled at times last year maybe he gets a look back in that role and can rebuild some of his production.

What is remaining for the Islanders

With Palmieri, Casey Cizikas and Ilya Sorokin re-signed and Parise added into the mix, probably the only thing remaining on the Islanders’ offseason shopping list is another left defenseman to round out their blue line. The free agent market, though, is extremely thin for that. Zdeno Chara remains unsigned, but there is a significant drop off after him. A trade might make the most sense if the Islanders still feel that is something that needs to be addressed.