Joe Bartnick’s NHL picks | Pro Hockey News

The 2021 NHL season is here. The regular season will be a war. Teams will play 56 games in three months all within the newly realigned divisions.

The compressed season puts a premium on depth, especially at goaltending.

Toughness will be a significant factor because teams will see each other too many times not to build up animosity. Familiarity breeds contempt.

Familiarity also means coaching will be more important than ever will because teams will need to make adjustments. Teams will need veteran experience to navigate these unchartered waters and young legs to play so many games in such little time.

The Picks

The North (Canadian) Division winner will get bragging rights in the Great White North for a year and should get one year of unlimited coffee from Tim Hortons. The realignment guarantees a Canadian team will be in the Stanley Cup Semi Finals.

  1. Toronto Maple Leafs

Toronto has run out of excuses. The Big Four (Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares and William Nylander) will have one more run at Lord Stanley’s Cup. Joe Thornton and Wayne Simmonds were added for toughness and leadership up front. Cup winner Zach Bogosian was added to provide both of those things to backend. The Leafs hope T J Brodie can be a reliable partner for Morgan Rielly. Frederik Andersen is a topnotch regular season goaltender. Jack Campbell is a better than average backup.

  1. Vancouver Canucks

Center Elias Pettersson has become superstar. JT Miller and Brock Boeser give Vancouver a killer number one line. Bo Horvat is a perfect mix of talent and character at 2nd line center. Quinn Hughes is already good but can get better partnering with newly acquired Nate Schmidt. The Canucks hope Travis Hamonic can provide the physicality lost with Micheal Ferland’s injury. Thatcher Demko was amazing in net in the playoffs and Cup Braden Holtby was signed incase Demko falters.

  1. Calgary Flames

The Flames took Jacob Markstrom away from the Canucks and solved their goaltending woes. Steady defenseman Chris Tanev also came over from Vancouver to help the Flames aging blue line leader Mark Giordano. Matthew Tkachuk has become the leader for the Flames up front. Mikael Backlund and Andrew Mangiapane will be counted on to provide offense because Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan shrivel under pressure. Sam Bennett and Milan Lucic are more than equipped to handle the physicality of the rough and tumble north.

  1. Montreal Canadiens

The Canadiens improved more than anybody in the offseason. The Canadians got tougher, more offensive and Carey Price finally has a legitimate backup in Jake Allen. Physical former Stanley Cup champion defenseman Joel Edmundson comes in and gives the Habs a big 4 on the blueline joining Shea Weber, Jeff Petry and Ben Chiarot. Tyler Toffoli gives the Habs a grade A scoring winger and Josh Anderson gives them throwback power forward. If centers Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi can grow off their playoff experience this team can realistically make it out of the Canadian Division.

  1. Winnipeg Jets

Paul Stastny returns to the Jets and fills the hole at 2nd line center the Jets never filled after he left. The Jets had five 20 goal scorers last season Blake Wheeler, Mark Scheifele, Patrik Laine, Kyle Conner and Nikolaj Ehlers in their top lines. Adam Lowery is  great 3rd line center but the bottom two forward lines are below average. Number one defenseman Josh Morrissey played better when he was surrounded by better defensemen. Fortunately, even though the defense has not been upgraded Vezina winner Conor Hellebuyck is in net.

  1. Edmonton Oilers

The Edmonton Oilers have 2 of the best 5 forwards on earth and have had no team success. Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl can only do so much. Ryan Nugent Hopkins is going on a decade of no success. Dominik Kahun will give the Oilers’ superstar centers help at wing. Kailer Yamamoto needs to prove he wasn’t a flash in the pan. Oscar Klefbom’s injury weakens an already suspect blueline. Last season he led the Oilers in points and minutes from the blueline. How many minutes can Darnell Nurse play? Hall of Fame GM Ken Holland chose not to upgrade the Oilers goaltending tandem Mikko Koskinen and Mike Smith. It will prove to be a horrible mistake.

  1. Ottawa Senators

The Senators made it a point this off season to get tougher and they did, acquiring Erik Gudbranson and Austin Watson. They made a point to get more offense and they did by signing Evgenii Dadonov and drafting Tim Stuetzle. Two-time Stanley Cup winner Matt Murray will provide years of stability in net. The Senators are a better team than they were last year but last year they were awful.The East Division is the toughest. If this was World Cup soccer they would call this division The Division of Death. Two good teams will not make the playoffs.

  1. New York Islanders

The New York Islanders not only have the best lineup top to bottom in the division they have arguably the beat playoff coach Barry Trotz. This season is one big playoff.The Islanders have the best center depth in the division, Mathew Barzal, Brock Nelson, Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Casey Cizakas. Islanders winger can score like Anthony Beauvillier, play rough like Cal Clutterbuck or do both like Anders Lee. Ryan Pulock and Adam Pelech are the division’s steadiest defensive pair and they also add some offense. Semyon Varlamov will get more starts in net with Thomas Greiss gone but Ilya Sorokin can win a few games.

  1. Washington Capitals

The Washington Capitals are poised to make a comeback after a disappointing 2019-20 season. The Capital have a new HC Peter Laviolette. Lavy’s teams always see a huge bounce when he takes over. Stanley Cup winners Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Tom Wilson and TJ Oshie are still in the nation’s capital. Lavy will need to light a spark under Evgeny Kuznetsov who dramatically underachieved last season. The Capitals defense is led by John Carlson who looked like the Norris winner halfway thru last season but tailed off like the whole team. Dmitry Orlov is underrated. Justin Schultz needs to put his last two horrific seasons in Pittsburgh behind him. Any question marks about the Capitals defensive depth were answered when they signed Bruins legend Zdeno Chara. Ilya Samsonov is the man in the crease but they need to find a backup since Henrik Lundqvist retired. The Capitals have overwhelming star power and toughness and its Cup or bust as the window is closing on this group.

  1. Pittsburgh Penguins

Did the window close on the Penguins? The Penguins have the best top 10 players in the division. The top six forwards include  Hall of Fame centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, highly skilled speed wingers Jake Guentzal, Bryan Rust, Jason Zucker and Kasperi Kapanen. The top 3 defensemen Kris Letang, Brian Dumoulin, John Marino and All-star goaltender Tristan Jarry keep the window open. The question in Pittsburgh is can the bottom six forwards and bottom three defensemen go through the window.  The Penguins play the least number of back to back games in the league which is good because Casey DeSmith has yet to prove he’s an adequate backup. As always though the Penguins will go as far as the Hall of Famers can take them.

  1. New York Rangers

The New York Rangers advantage in this shortened season is the dynamic young duo of Igor Shesterkin and Alexandar Georgiev in the crease. Both are capable of being a number one goalie and carry the load. They also have the dynamic duo of Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad on their top line. Number one draft pick Alexis Lafreniere adds to the scoring power. Kaapo Kakko has a year under his belt. Chris Kreider chose to stay in the Big Apple. The Rangers defense is not the stingiest, but Jacob Trouba, Adam Fox and Anthony DeAngelo add offense and aren’t afraid to get involved physically.

  1. Philadelphia Flyers

The Philadelphia Flyers are the hip pick to win this division but take away their pre-Covid19 win streak and their wins in the bubble’s glorified scrimmages and they are the same old Flyers albeit with better goaltending. It will be interesting to see how Carter Hart does seeing these powerhouse Eastern teams eight times.  Sean Couturier and Kevin Hayes are a very good 1-2 center combo but wingers Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek and James Van Riemsdyk are more disappointing every year and only getting older. Travis Konecny and Oskar Lindblom need to be given more responsibility and ice time. Ivan Provorov is a franchise defenseman, but the rest of the defense core is average. They will sorely miss Matt Niskanen because Erik Gustafsson may replace his points and minutes, but he won’t replace his attitude.

  1. Boston Bruins

The Boston Bruins will not make the playoffs. Two thirds of the best line in hockey Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak are out with injuries. That is a lot of points for the aging Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci to make up. Jake Debrusk is healthy but the two Anaheim imports Ondrej Kase and Nick Ritchie played horribly for the Bruins after they were acquired. Boston’s defense has been decimated. The Bruins lost their Captain Zdena Chara. He was THE big, bad Bruin. They also lost their best defensemen Torey Krug.Charlie McAvoy is great but he is still very young. Matt Grzelcyk has shown potential, but Brandon Carlo has regressed. Is Tuuka Rask ready to play this season because Rask’s backup Jaroslav Halak proved at his age he cannot handle a big work load. Boston needs to sort things out fast because this is not a division to start slow in.

  1. Buffalo Sabres

You have to feel sorry for the Buffalo Sabres. The made huge offseason moves bringing in Taylor Hall and Eric Staal and looked poised to make a run in the Atlantic. Unfortunately, the Sabres are now in the Eastern division. Jack Eichel has to feel cursed by now. The Sabres need high priced winger Jeff Skinner to play like youngsters Sam Reinhart and Victor Olofsson. Rasmus Dahlin and Rasmus Ristolainen enable the Sabres blueline to corner the market on Rasmuses. Dahlin is a good puck mover and is still young. Ristolainen is huge and has figured out how to get more consistency in in game. Linus Ullmark will start the season as the number one goalie. Last season’s number one Carter Hutton says his sight problem which bothered him last year is fixed. Only the Sabres can have a goalie with vision problems.

  1. New Jersey Devils

The New Jersey Devils are picked last but they will competitive unlike most of last season. They have a new Head Coach Lindy Ruff who is criminally underrated. They have two young centers of high pedigree Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes. Travis Zajac and Kyle Palmieri are solid veterans who have never quit on this organization. Ruff needs to get more production out of Miles Wood, Pavel Zacha and newly acquired Andreas Johnsson. On defense PK Subban needs to play better to at least be possible trade bait. Goaltender Mackenzie Blackwood signed a new deal and it will be his net because Corey Crawford retired.The Central is the weakest division in the NHL. It only has two true Stanley Cup contenders, the two teams the that played in the Final last year. The Champion Tampa Bay Lightning and the runner up Dallas Stars. The Carolina Hurricanes and Columbus Blue jackets hope to take advantage of leaving the brutally tough Metro behind for easier Midwestern pastures.

  1. Tampa bay Lightning

The Tampa bay Lightning have the NHL’s best goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy. They have the NHL’s best defenseman Victor Hedman. The Lightning have the best chance to repeat has Stanley Cups champions since the Red Wings dynasty at the beginning of the century. No one expected the Penguins to go back to back in 2016 and 2017. The Bolts don’t even have salary cap issues after putting Nikita Kucherov on LTIR. They don’t even need a superstar like Kucherov to make the playoffs in this easy division. Kucherov will be back for the playoffs. They don’t need Kucherov in the regular season because they have Brayden Point, Steven Stamkos, Anthony Cirelli, Ondrej Palat and more up front. Last season’s acquisition of Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow addressed toughness. The blueline besides having Hedman has warrior Ryan McDonagh and Hedman lite Mikhail Sergachev. Only complacency can stop the Lightning and Head Coach Jon Cooper won’t let that happen.

  1. Dallas Stars

The Dallas Stars lost to Tampa Bay in the Stanley Cup Final last year and now they share a division with them. This year they will see each other earlier in the playoffs. Hopefully Dallas won’t be decimated by injuries. Dallas’s veterans Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, Alexander Radulov and Joe Pavelski still have good hockey in them. Young Stars (no pun intended) Denis Gurianov and Roope Hintz give the Stars many scoring options. The Stars have the best young defense in the NHL. Miro Heiskanen is a stud. If he played in Canada he’d be a Norris finalist. He’s so good John Klingberg is put in the background. Esa Lindell and Jamie Oleksiak round out the top 4. Anton Khudobin proved he can handle the number goalie duties when the often-injured Ben Bishop can’t.

  1. Carolina Hurricanes

No one benefitted from division realignment more than the Carolina Hurricanes. Instead of slugging it out on mean streets of the Northeast in the old Metro the Hurricanes are now skating in the friendlier Midwest and sunny Florida. Sebastain Aho, Teuvo Teravainen and Andrei Svechnikov are as good as any top line in the NHL. Vincent Trocheck and Jordan Staal slot perfectly in the pivot and give Carolina strength down the middle. Carolina’s defense led by underrated Jaccob Slavin is better than most. Dougie Hamilton, Brett Pesce and Brady Skjei aren’t the most physical group but they excel at moving the puck. Carolina’s question mark is in net where Petr Mrazek and James Reimer haven’t proven to be championship quality.

  1. Columbus Blue Jackets

If this season will be a war the Blue Jackets have the NHL’s best general in Head Coach John Tortorella. Pierre Luc Dubois has emerged as a true number center, so of coarse he wants to leave Columbus. Oliver Bjorkstrand and Cam Atkinson are healthy and ready to contribute on the wings. Max Domi will be given another shot with yet another team to be a top 6 center. Columbus has the best defensive pairing in hockey. Seth Jones and Zach Werenski each could win a Norris. Columbus’ goalie combo of Elvis Merzlikins and Joonis Korpisalo gives the Jackets at chance to win in net every night.

  1. Nashville Predators

The Nashville Predators have made underachieving an art form.  High priced forwards careers go to Nashville there to die. The Predators shipped out some dead weight Kyle Turris, Nick Bonino to name a few but Ryan Johansen and Matt Duchene remain. Filip Forsberg and Viktor Arvidsson are very good wingers but they’re rarely healthy or clicking on all cylinders at the same time. The Nashville defense is overrated. How Roman Josi can be a Norris finalist on the team with a tied for 28th penalty kill is mind boggling. Ryan Ellis and Mattias Ekholm are also living off past performance. Mark Borowiecki was brought into fight. Juuse Saros is finally taking the number one spot in net from Pekka Rinne. Nashville is an up-and-coming city in everything but NHL hockey.

  1. Florida Panthers

The Florida Panthers are talented enough to always just miss the playoffs. Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau get their points, and everyone can get in 18 holes or some beach time. Will hockey’s ultimate warrior Patric Hornqvist change the culture? Maybe five years ago he could. Radko Gudas has been brough in to toughen up a soft defense. Sergei Bobrovsky needs to play better. How could he play any worse than he did last season? Hall of Fame Head Coach Joel Quenneville must wonder why he left retirement for this. He must love the lifestyle too.

  1. Detroit Red Wings

Detroit Red Wings legend and current GM Steve Yzerman is turning Detroit into a winner slowly but surely. Dylan Larkin Anthony Mantha and Tyler Bertuzzi are a good and maturing top line. Veterans Vladislav Namestnikov and Bobby Ryan were brought in so kids like Filip Zadina and Joe Veleno don’t drown in the deep end of the pool. On defense Marc Staal and Troy Stetcher were acquired to help Filip Hronek and Moritz Seider learn the position. Danny DeKeyser is healthy and that also helps. The biggest help will be the newly signed free agent goaltender Thomas Greiss. He is a major upgrade over Jimmy Howard. Detroit could scare some teams in this division if the kids develop fast.

  1. Chicago Blackhawks

The Chicago BlackHawks brass flew up the white flag and their 3 time Cup winning Hall Of Fame veterans Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith didn’t believe them. The brass then traded Brandon Saad and let goaltender Corey Crawford walk in free agency. Promising youngsters Kirby Dach and Alexander Nylander are hurt. Dominik Kubalik back from his 30-goal rookie season is a bright spot. The nail in the Chicago coffin is Malcolm Subban is their probable stating goalie. Jonathan Toews is missing the beginning of the season with an undisclosed reason. It may be depression.The Western Division is top heavy like the Central but the West has three legitimate Stanley Cup contenders Colorado,St Louis and Vegas. The California teams have nowhere to go but up.

  1. Colorado Avalanche

The Colorado Avalanche have the best player in the world Nathan MacKinnon. The best line west of the Mississippi MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen. They have the best young defenseman in hockey Cale Makar. They added two time Cup winner Brandon Saad to their forward group. Devon Toews was added to the defense core. The only question mark in Colorado is in net. Phillipp Grubauer and Pavel Francouz have only proven they can get hurt.

  1. St. Louis Blues

The St Louis Blues lost their captain Alex Pietrangelo and replaced him on the blue line with Torey Krug. Colton Parayko will also be given more ice time fill Pietrangelo’s big skates. Ryan O’Reilly will wear the C as he centers the top line. Vladimir Tarasenko and Alexander Steen won’t be in the lineup due to injury and retirement, but youngsters Robert Thomas, Zach Sanford and Sammy Blais are ready to fill the void. Kyle Clifford will fit right into coach Craig Berube rough style of hockey which will be even more ramped up this season dues to the schedule. If Jordan Binnington could rebound from a subpar season the Blues can beat anyone.

  1. Vegas Golden Knights

What happened in Vegas is no one seems to be staying in Vegas except defenseman Alex Pietrangleo who signed a huge deal as a free agent and forward Mark Stone. Every forward not named Stone has been in a trade rumor to help Vegas get under the salary cap. All of the good karma on this team has vanished leaving only a team of good forwards but no great ones.  Defense Nate Schmidt was moved for that reason. After Pietrangelo and Shea Theodore the Vegas defense is either too slow or too young. The Vegas goaltending saga remains. Robin Lehner will be the number one man in net, but Vegas chose not to move Marc-Andre Fleury because they needed a positive story. Vegas is lucky this division is dramatically weaker than the other three because this team’s chemistry is volatile and could blow up in their face.

  1. San Jose Sharks

When you look at the West division bottom feeders the San Jose Sharks have too much talent to crawl on the ocean floor with the rest of those teams.  Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson, both of whom had plenty of team to heal and rest will lead the Sharks back to respectability. Captain Logan Couture, Evander Kane, Tomas Hertl and Timo Meier also are well rested and have the pedigree to score bunched of goals. In net Devan Dubnyk and Martin Jones cannot be as dismal as Jones was last year. The Sharks should sneak into the playoffs as the best of the worst in the West.

  1. Arizona Coyotes

The Arizona Coyotes did not score enough goals last year and they chose not to resign Taylor Hall. Desert Dogs Clayton Keller, Phil Kessel, Christian Dvorak and the clutch youngster Conor Garland need to bury more pucks and still play Head Coach Rick Tocchet’s defense first game plan. The Coyotes defense is exactly the same as last year which is a good thing. Arizona has a very low GAA and a very good penalty kill. While the defense is solid goaltenders Darcy Kuemper and Antti Raanta deserve a bulk of the credit for those stats. They were sublime at times last season.

  1. Los Angeles Kings

The Kings played well down the stretch last season including a seven-game win streak but by then it was too late. That’s how bad the beginning of the season was. Captain Anze Kopitar had a resurgence, but it wasn’t enough. Do Jeff Carter and Dusty Brown, holdovers from the Cup teams have enough in the tank for another King run? The Kings do have a bunch of talent youngsters either in LA or 30 miles east in Ontario. Adrian Kempe, Gabe Vilardi and Blake Lizotte are in LA. Alex Turcotte and Quinton Byfield will be sooner than later. Hall of Fame defenseman Drew Doughty loses focus be should be more interested this season playing with newly acquired two-time Cup winner Olli Maatta. Two-time Stanley Cup winner Jonathan Quick is good, but he used to be great and young.  Cal Petersen maybe ready to take over full time if Quick can be traded.

  1. Minnesota Wild

Minnesota Wild GM made a lot of changes over the off season, but did the Wild get any better? Guerin did the equivalent of moving deck chairs on the Titanic. Captain Mikko Koivu and Stanley Cup winner Eric Staal were sent packing replaced by Nick Bonino and Nick Bjugstad. Marcus Johansson a middle line winger is forced to play number one center. On defense Ryan Suter is still there to eat minutes and salary cap space, Jared Spurgeon is steady if not spectacular. Matt Dumba is spectacular but far from steady. Cam Talbot was signed to be the number one goaltender. He can’t play any worse than Devan Dubnyk did last season.

  1. Anaheim Ducks

The best Ducks player is goaltender John Gibson. He looks like Ken Dryden at the beginning of the year but by the end of the year he’s worn down by getting hit by too much rubber. Captain Ryan Getzlaf can still play Superman on occasion, but Metropolis is in shambles. Adam Henrique bucks the underachieving trend in Anaheim, but Rickard Rakell and Jakob Silferberg don’t. Ultra-talented kids Sam Steel, Troy Terry and Max Comtois need to put together a full season and not just a few flashy games. The Anaheim defense is either becoming chronic underachievers or they just were not that good in the first place. Kevin Shattenkirk joins them in maybe the oddest off season free agent signing. Tough guy forward Nicolas Deslauriers’ fights maybe the only thing to cheer for in Anaheim once Gibson hits his usual fatigue wall.