Five games kicked off the 2021-22 season with some interesting results that will draw attention to the intensity within the newly formed NHL divisions. Ushering in this shortened season has already seen some schedule wavering, as the Dallas Stars postponed their season opener due to COVID concerns. Fluidity in the schedule is a must this season, with cancelations and delays potentially wreaking havoc with game preparations. Hopefully there aren’t many more situations like in Dallas and the games can proceed as they’re now organized.
Plenty of days/nights will have a fairly heavy rotation of games during the tight, compacted schedule, with five games per night dominating the schedule 18 times during the season – including last night’s opening of the regular season.
Twice there’s a 15-game schedule and four instances with a single game.
Divisional matchups are featured in the openers, with a wild 6-3 opening between the Penguins and Flyers and a contrasting 5-1 loss to the Lightning by Chicago. It’s highly unlikely we see many games with a scoreless Connor McDavid, so the Edmonton Oilers 5-3 loss to the Canucks can be ascertained to be an entertaining contest, making history with a play-by-play by a person of colour.
The Toronto/Montreal rivalry – which we will look at closer shortly – resumed in a high event, though sloppy affair that saw the Habs take the lead and never relinquish it until the final overtime goal to make it 5-4 as the Leafs came back to tie the game after amassing a two-goal deficit. This surreal action sets the stage for nine more games against each other.
The entertainment value was never in question between these two clubs either. They put on a show almost every game, regardless of team skill level or circumstance; but the ‘where’ is a striking difference this season. NHL realignment may have put some teams into more advantageous situations, such as the Maple Leafs likely to be one of the greatest recipients of moving out of the East Division and away from the likes of the Boston Bruins and Stanley Cup Champions Tampa Bay Lightning.
They’ll take the Ottawa Senators and Montreal Canadiens along with them up north of the border to face the other five Canadian Teams in a newly christened North Division – sponsored by Scotia as the NHL looks to expand its revenue stream in the wake of a global pandemic.
With the realignment comes new challenges, like where will teams end up at the end of the regular season?
Silver Seven Sens writer, Colin Cudmore consolidated some of the public model point projections, showing the differentiation between models in a nice neat package, including an interactive Tableau viz.
Here's how public models are predicting the upcoming 2020-21 NHL season:
— Colin Cudmore (@CudmoreColin) January 12, 2021
For context I’m going to use team point projections from two different stats sources, Micah Blake McCurdy from Hockeyviz.com and the twins from Evolving Hockey. Both sites offer their services through Patreon (HV Patreon and Evolving Hockey Patreon) and with the widespread economic hardships we’ve experienced as a society are well documented, it’s important to support this work to assure public debate and moving the ideas forward. If you can and have the ability, contribute.
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We re-ran our projections and have attempted to "bake-out" home team advantage for next season. This resulted in minimal changes to the previously posted projections.
Here are our actual final team point projections for the 20-21 NHL season. pic.twitter.com/KAD9auFhsP
— EvolvingWild (@EvolvingWild) January 11, 2021
🎆🎲🏒 HOCKEYVIZ 2020-2021 SEASON PREVIEW 📊🗝️🏁https://t.co/Nisbesk7pM
Standings points, playoff chances, special teams, goaltending, coaching, fatigue, prospects (thanks to @HockeywthHannah), first overall pick chances, and estimates for every team. pic.twitter.com/6EjhJYGgCT
— Micah Blake McCurdy (@IneffectiveMath) January 4, 2021
Division Rivals and First Overall
It’s difficult to envision a scenario where the Leafs and Canadiens aren’t finishing at the top of the division at season’s end. Toronto seemed to be the clear favorite among many pundits, analysts and fans, but as the model from Evolving Hockey shows, the Canadiens are not that far behind and with the regular season opener still fresh, they will be competitive hard fought games. The final season series late in the regular season could be the difference between finishing first overall in the division.
Addressing their biggest weakness – a lack of scoring – Montreal supplemented some offensive ability for character and skill, trading Max Domi for Josh Anderson (two goals in game one), while bringing in Tyler Toffoli, to augment the emergence of the talented Nick Suzuki. Giving their all-star goalie and mobile blueline the chance to get pucks up to a more talented forward group will go a long way – as long as they don’t take foolish penalties and get caught giving up power play goals.
Toronto has lived through the opposite problem, with a leaky defense relying heavily on stalwart performances from goaltender Frederik Anderson for the better part of three seasons. They brought in Mikko Lehtonen and signed T.J. Brodie to shore up their defensive game – and changed the forward group up front, jettisoning Kasperi Kapanen and Andreas Johnsson for the likes of Jimmy Vesey (scored in his Leafs regular season debut) as a reclamation project, and veteran Joe Thornton – to add an emotional and nostalgic element of adding a Stanley Cup to his illustrious hockey career.
This is likely to be a very heavily watched series, with some of the Leafs/Habs hatred being amplified by other fans that don’t care for either team, but want to see them both crash and burn. Aside from the on-ice product, there’s storylines for fans of all kinds to grasp and get behind.
Colorado bulldozed their way to the Western Conference Finals before being derailed by goaltender injuries, and bowing out to the Dallas Stars. A clear Stanley Cup favorite, seeing them dominate the division, however, like the 4-1 loss to the St. Louis Blues, it’s probably best not to sleep on the Missouri club to compete hard for the division crown. Troubled California teams could catapult the Avs to dominate their division, but for true contention, visions of a Presidents Trophy should also be within grasp. Goaltending will be the focus for the trio of Philipp Grubauer, Pavel Francouz and Hunter Miska will be relied upon to give the team a chance for regular season and playoff glory.
The East could be the most difficult to pronounce a first division winner, with Boston being a favorite, but there’s stiff competition in the likes of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Head to head play will have a determination in the division winner. The rotation of first overall is likely to change day to day as well - get ready for the roller coaster ride.
Stanley Cup Champions, Tampa Bay will have the Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings to beat up on, and pile up the points, a bunch of difficult situations in Dallas due to COVID, and Columbus with trade chatter surrounding playoffs standout, Pierre Luc-Dubois. Carolina has the second overall spot with a mushy middle made up of Columbus, Florida, Dallas and Nashville.
Enjoy the start of the regular season, and I look forward to sharing this season’s journey here every week, studying the numbers and providing context to what we are all witnessing on the ice.
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Stay safe and healthy.