NHL Power Rankings: Top storylines for 2021-22 season (Part 1)

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

We will look at 10 storylines over the next three Mondays, counting down toward the NHL’s biggest storylines.

We begin today with Nos. 30-21 including the Devils, Elvis Merzlikins, the Stars, divisional alignments, and the return of fans.

What stories make the list this week?

To this week’s NHL Power Rankings!

30. Devils taking another shot. Say this for the Devils: They are not afraid to try. A couple of years ago they were one of the NHL’s busiest teams and attempted to load up with big acquisitions like P.K. Subban, Nikita Gusev, and Wayne Simmonds coming into join Taylor Hall, Nico Hischier, and top pick Jack Hughes. It did not really work. At all. And a lot of the players from that team are now gone. But armed with a ton of salary cap space this offseason the Devils were again fairly busy, making one of the biggest free agent splashes of the summer with Dougie Hamilton while also adding Tomas Tatar, Ryan Graves, and Jonathan Bernier to the roster.

Will that be enough to make a difference in a tough Metropolitan Division? A lot will depend on how big of a jump they can get from Hughes, Hischier, and Mackenzie Blackwood in goal.

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

29. Elvis Merzlikins wants to win Vezina. The Blue Jackets were rocked by tragedy this summer when goalie Matiss Kivlenieks died in a fireworks accident on July 4. Goaltender Elvis Merzlikins credited Kivlenieks for saving his life during the incident and has made it his goal to win a Vezina Trophy in his friend’s honor.

“I don’t want to make any promises, but I can tell you … my plan is to win a Vezina Trophy,” Merzlikins told The Athletic earlier this offseason. “I’m gonna win a … Vezina for him. We can’t make promises because this is hockey and we don’t know how the season can go, but this is my goal. I believe I’m going to reach it.”

Merzlikins is also honoring Kivlenieks with a new mask design.

28. Old division alignments and playoff format. After a one-year break the NHL is returning to its normal divisional alignments and playoff format for the 2021-22 season. That means no more all-Canadian division, the return of the wild cards, and no more play-in rounds.

The 2019-20 playoff format and the 2020-21 season produced some wildly unexpected results that almost certainly would have never taken place in a normal season, from the Blackhawks’ appearance in the 2020 postseason to the Canadiens’ stunning run to the 2021 Stanley Cup Final. The only major change taking place this season is the Coyotes shifting from the Pacific to the Central Division and being replaced out west by Seattle. That is bad news for Arizona (the Central is far tougher) and good news for a Kraken team trying to make an immediate impact in the NHL.

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27. What direction are the Canucks going? One of the more confusing teams in the NHL right now. They have a sensational young core to build around and they did make some intriguing additions this offseason with Jason Dickinson and Conor Garland, as well as the arrival of Vasili Podkolzin. But the defense still has some major questions, and the depth is still a question. They play in the weakest division in the NHL which should give them a shot at the playoffs, but their ceiling still seems to be a mystery as does their overall plan.

26. Can Dallas rebound? The Stars were knocking on the door of the Stanley Cup during the 2018-19 and 2019-20 postseasons, even reaching the Cup Final in 2020. And then things fell apart this past season with a fifth place finish in the modified Central Division, keeping them out of the playoffs entirely. Injuries played a huge role in that as Tyler Seguin and Alexander Radulov both missed almost the entire season, completely robbing them of a significant portion of their offense. They lost 14 games in overtime or shootout (most in the NHL) and missed the playoffs by four points.

The defense is there, they have the goaltending, and they are getting back a healthy Seguin and Radulov. The playoffs should be the expectation at a minimum. 

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25. Hurricanes goalie swap. The biggest question with the Hurricanes always seems to be their goaltending situation. Last year they had one of the top team save percentages in the league and a Calder Trophy finalist in Alex Nedeljkovic. They responded this offseason by completely swapping their goalies, trading Nedeljkovic, letting Petr Mrazek walk, and bringing in Frederik Andersen and Antti Raanta.

It was not that long ago that Andersen and Raanta would have been one of the NHL’s best goalie duos. But are they still capable of that level of play? The Hurricanes are a Cup contender, and the play of Andersen and Raanta will play a big role in what they are capable of. 

24. Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith in Pittsburgh. With Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang another year older the Penguins window for contention is inching shut. They are not in a position to waste any of their remaining seasons. The 2020-21 season has the feeling of a missed opportunity given the way they lost in the playoffs with Jarry completely melting down in the playoffs. Instead of making changes to the position, or bringing in somebody to push Jarry, they are sticking with the same goalie duo that was not good enough a year ago. The good news is Jarry can not possibly play as poorly as he did in the playoffs over a full season. He will be better. He is capable of being better. But how much better will he be, and will it be good enough?

23. Robin Lehner takes over as No. 1 in Vegas. It seems this is the result the Golden Knights have wanted since acquiring him at the 2020 trade deadline. They made him the starting goalie that postseason, re-signed him to a massive contract that offseason, and seemed prepared to move on from Marc-Andre Fleury right then and there. Even though Fleury came back and reclaimed his starting job and won his first ever Vezina the Golden Knights still dumped him in a salary cap clearing trade, leaving Lehner is the unquestioned starter in Vegas. The Fleury-Lehner duo was the league’s best, and now it all falls on Lehner as he takes over for the most popular player on the team. On a Cup contender that is a lot of pressure and attention.

22. What is the future of the Wild? The Wild emerged as one of the league’s most exciting teams during the 2020-21 season, due in large part to the arrival of Calder Trophy winner Kirill Kaprizov. But contract talks with him have been slow, while the Wild are set to begin a three-year stretch where buyouts leave them with a significantly reduced salary cap number compared to the rest of the league. Can they get Kaprizov signed? Can they build a competitive around him? Are they positioned to be contenders for the long-term, and how does the front office juggle the salary cap situation?

21. Fans back in most buildings. While some buildings had fans for a portion of the 2020-21 season, and some even at full capacity, that should be more of the norm across the league this season. It will be a drastic change after having no fans in the bubble and no fans (especially in Canada) around the league for most of the 2020-21 season.

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    Maple Leafs’ Matthews out at least 3 weeks with knee injury

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    Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews will miss at least three weeks with a sprained knee.

    The team announced the reigning MVP’s anticipated absence Friday, two days after Matthews was injured in Toronto’s victory against the New York Rangers.

    Matthews is expected to miss at least six games and could be out for a few more. The timing of the injury coinciding with the NHL All-Star break and the Maple Leafs bye week prevents this from costing Matthews more time out of the lineup.

    After being voted an All-Star by fans, Matthews is now out of the event scheduled for Feb. 3-4 in Sunrise, Florida. The league announced Aleskander Barkov from the host Florida Panthers will take Matthews’ place on the Atlantic Division All-Star roster.

    Matthews, who won the Hart Trophy last season after leading the NHL with 60 goals, has 53 points in 47 games this season.

    Caufield opted for surgery with Habs out of playoff race

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    MONTREAL — Montreal Canadiens winger Cole Caufield said Friday he wouldn’t be having season-ending surgery on his right shoulder if the team were in playoff contention.

    But with the Canadiens near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, the 22-year-old Caufield said he decided to have the surgery to protect his long-term health. The procedure is scheduled to be performed by Dr. Peter Millett on Wednesday.

    “I didn’t want to stop playing,” Caufield said. “I had a couple tests done to look at it more clearly but, in the end, like it could’ve been one more fall and it could have been even worse.”

    Caufield, who leads the Canadiens with 26 goals in 46 games, had three different medical opinions on his shoulder before concluding that his season was over.

    “I think they’ve seen a lot more than I have and they know the differences and what they like or don’t like about it,” he said about the medical opinions. “Long term, I think this is what’s best but for sure it was tough to sit out that game against Toronto on Saturday night.”

    Caufield initially felt the injury in an awkward fall during Montreal’s 4-2 loss at Dallas on Dec. 23. He said his right shoulder popped, and he replaced it himself.

    Caufield felt it again in the Habs’ 4-3 loss at Nashville on Jan. 12. The club announced on Jan. 21 that Caufield would miss the rest of the season.

    Caufield is nearing the end of his three-year, entry-level contract and will be a restricted free agent this summer.

    All-Star Matty Beniers to miss next 2 games for Kraken

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    SEATTLE — Seattle Kraken rookie All-Star Matty Beniers will miss the team’s final two games before the All-Star break after taking a big hit from Vancouver’s Tyler Myers earlier this week.

    Seattle coach Dave Hakstol said after morning skate Friday that Beniers would not play Friday night against Calgary or Saturday against Columbus. Hakstol did not speculate on Beniers’ availability for next weekend’s All-Star Game in Florida.

    The team has not specified what kind of injury Beniers sustained from the hit. He was barreled over by Myers away from the play early in the second period in Wednesday’s 6-1 victory over Vancouver. Myers was penalized for interference on the play. Beniers returned briefly for one shift later in the period but did not play in the third period.

    Beniers is Seattle’s lone All-Star selection this season. He leads all rookies in goals (17) and points (36), and is fifth in total ice time for rookies.

    Seattle also placed defenseman Justin Schultz on injured reserve and recalled forward Max McCormick from Coachella Valley of the AHL. Hakstol said Schultz is improving but there’s no timeline on his return.

    Kuzmenko signs 2-year extension with Canucks

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    VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Forward Andrei Kuzmenko signed a two-year contract extension with the Vancouver Canucks on Thursday.

    The deal has an average annual value of $5.5 million.

    The 26-year-old Kuzmenko has played in 47 games for the Canucks this season with 21 goals and 22 assists, four penalty minutes and a plus-4 defensive ranking.

    Kuzmenko ranks second on the team in goals and power-play goals (nine) this season.

    His 43 points are also tied for third on the team in overall scoring, while his 32 even-strength points (12 goals, 20 assists) are second on the Canucks.

    Kuzmenko leads all Vancouver skaters in shooting rate (24.7%) and ranks third in the NHL in that category (minimum of 20 games).

    He leads all first-year NHLers in almost every offensive category, including goals, assists, points, points per game (0.91), power-play goals, and power-play points.

    He has also had 14 multi-point games so far this season (second most on the Canucks), highlighted by his first-career NHL hat trick and season-high four-point game against Anaheim on Nov. 3.

    A native of Yakutsk, Russia, Kuzmenko spent his first eight professional seasons in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) with CSKA Moscow and SKA St. Petersburg, getting 200 points (85-115-200) in 315 regular-season games. He set career highs in goals (20), assists (33), and points (53) last season, ranking second in the league in scoring.

    Kuzmenko has also represented his country on the international stage on multiple occasions, totaling 16 points (10-6-16) and six penalty minutes in 37 games played. He was originally signed by Vancouver to a one-year, entry-level contract on July 13, 2022.