NHL 2021-22 predictions: Awards, first coach fired, most underrated player

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The 2021-22 NHL season begins this week and we’re slowly getting back to normal. Over the next eight months we’ll see a regular 82-game schedule, outdoor games, All-Star Weekend, and (hopefully!) Olympic hockey featuring a true best-on-best for the first time since 2014.

As we wait for Opening Night on Tuesday, we begin with some predictions for the season about first NHL head coach fired, most underrated player and team, as well as who we think will take home gold in the men’s and women’s Olympic tournaments in February.

Pre-season predictions are fun way to get a sense of what people are thinking heading into a new season. There was plenty of changes around the league during the off-season.

Here’s what the PHT staff is thinking as we begin a new season.

Be sure to give us your picks in the comments!

FIRST COACH FIRED

James O’Brien, NHL writer: Dallas Eakins. For every gesture at rebuilding, the Ducks still show signs of being delusional about a rebuild — from overpricing their veterans at the trade deadline, to bringing back Ryan Getzlaf at age 36. Frankly, it was surprising both Eakins and Bob Murray kept their jobs after the 2020-21 season, and Murray might need a scapegoat.

Adam Gretz, NHL writer: Dallas Eakins. I just see the Ducks as a team stuck in no-man’s land and not making any significant step forward. Bob Murray seems untouchable there, but the head coach is not.

Michael Finewax, NBC Sports Edge Senior Hockey Writer/Editor: Dominique Ducharme. The Canadiens are going to get off to a slow start and the pressure in Montreal is going to be too great for GM Marc Bergevin to not look elsewhere.

Sean Leahy, NHL writer: Jeremy Colliton. Will all the additions GM Stan Bowman made over the summer there is the expectation of playoff hockey this season in Chicago. No one will mistake them for Stanley Cup contenders, but Colliton’s been there long enough that there should be a bigger step forward taken this season. His contract expires after the 2022-23 season, which puts even more pressure on delivering results.

Jake Abrahams, Managing Editor, NHL content: Jared Bednar. This is a difficult one because 2/3 of the league’s coaches have spent two or fewer seasons with their current team. So I’m immediately ruling out that group. I also can’t see this being a coach whose team does not have some level of expectations entering the season (otherwise a change would have been made in the offseason). That brings me to Bednar. As unlikely as it seems, would Joe Sakic consider making a change if the Avs struggled out of the gate?

UNDERRATED PLAYER

Jake Abrahams, Managing Editor, NHL content: Adam Pelech, Islanders. He might not last much longer in the underrated category (if he even still qualifies). Making Canada’s Olympic team would guarantee he graduates into the “properly-rated” sphere.

Michael Finewax, NBC Sports Edge Senior Hockey Writer/Editor: Dylan Larkin, Red Wings. He had a tough 2020-21 season with the injury to linemate Tyler Bertuzzi and an injury late in the season. Playing with Bertuzzi and Lucas Raymond will make him a huge addition this season.

James O’Brien, NHL writer: Sam Reinhart, Panthers. The Panthers have been a haven for underrated players, with MacKenzie Weegar and Carter Verhaeghe already flourishing; heck, there was another Sam (Bennett) who looked renewed in Sunrise. Sneaky-good with the Sabres, Reinhart may thrive enough with the Cats that he lands on every opponents’ radar.

Adam Gretz, NHL writerVincent Trocheck, Hurricanes. It seems like sometimes we all forget that he plays here now, but he is an outstanding player when healthy and has been a 30-goal, 70-point player in the past and was scoring at that pace this past season. Carolina is going to be a Stanley Cup contender this season (my pick in the Eastern Conference) and Trocheck is going to play a huge role in that success.

Sean Leahy, NHL writer: Jared Spurgeon, Wild. He drives play, stays out the penalty box, and his skating ability helps create solid positioning in the defensive zone. He won’t wow you with big stats but he’s productive and through nearly a decade in the league, consistent.

UNDERRATED TEAM

Adam Gretz, NHL writer: Los Angeles Kings. Maybe I am a year early on this, maybe their defense still stinks, but I see a lot of potential here. They have outstanding center depth with Anze Kopitar, Philip Danault, and Quinton Byfield, Viktor Arvidsson should have a big bounce back year, and their young talent is as good as any other team in the league. They also play in a lousy division where a playoff spot is ripe for the picking. I can see them sneaking in a year early here.

Michael Finewax, NBC Sports Edge Senior Hockey Writer/Editor: Calgary Flames. They are in the weak Pacific Division and I am looking for a comeback season from Sean Monahan after a couple of poor seasons. This is also a contract year for Johnny Gaudreau and that will help the Flames.

Sean Leahy, NHL writer: Calgary Flames. There will be lots of points to gobble up in Pacific Division this season with the Golden Knights expected to compete with the Oilers for the top spot. But the Flames are right behind. Sean Monahan will be returning and Johnny Gaudreau wants to have a big year as he potentially hits the UFA market next summer. The blue line could hinder any big steps forward, however.

Jake Abrahams, Managing Editor, NHL content: Los Angeles Kings. In terms of pure net improvement to the roster, the Kings may have had the best offseason of any team in the league. Will that be enough to push them into the playoff conversation?

James O’Brien, NHL writer: Dallas Stars. Really, you can extend a COVID mulligan to plenty of teams, but the Stars are up there. Just about everything that could go wrong, did go wrong for the Stars last season (aside from a Joe Pavelski here and there). This team isn’t as good as that 2020 Stanley Cup Final run would indicate, but even with all of that bad luck, they barely missed the playoffs last season.