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!


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?


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.


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.

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    Flyers trade Pride-night boycott defenseman Provorov in 3-team deal

    flyers trade
    Dennis Schneidler/USA TODAY Sports

    PHILADELPHIA — The Philadelphia Flyers have traded Ivan Provorov, sending away the defenseman who boycotted the team’s Pride night as part of a three-team trade that included the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Los Angeles Kings.

    The seventh overall pick of the 2015 draft, the 26-year-old Provorov lands in Columbus and is set to enter the fifth season of a $40.5 million, six-year contract. He was the centerpiece Tuesday of the first major move under new Flyers’ leadership.

    There were plenty of moving parts in the three-team deal.

    — Philadelphia traded Provorov and forward Hayden Hodgson to Los Angeles in exchange for goalie Cal Petersen, defenseman Sean Walker, defenseman Helge Grans and the Kings’ 2024 second-round pick. The Kings lost in the first round of the playoffs.

    — Columbus acquired defenseman Kevin Connauton from Philadelphia in exchange for a 2023 first-round pick (22nd overall) and a conditional second-round pick in either the 2024 or 2025 NHL Draft. Columbus acquired Provorov from Los Angeles in exchange for Connauton.

    The Flyers already hold the No. 7 pick in this season’s draft and now also have the 23rd pick as they start accumulating key assets for long-range success in what is expected to be a deep draft.

    Flyers general manager Danny Briere had said no player was untouchable after the Flyers missed the playoffs for the third straight season and went to work with the Stanley Cup Final still underway. The Flyers named broadcaster Keith Jones team president last month and he is still working the Final for TNT. But it’s clear the overdue rebuild is underway for a franchise that hasn’t won a Stanley Cup in 48 years.

    “We felt that the picks and the direction that we wanted to go in, it was really enticing, very exciting,” Briere said. “We have a chance to really start building the team the way we wanted. The right way.”

    Briere said the Flyers are “open for business” this summer and that included potentially listening to offers for No. 1 goalie Carter Hart. Coach John Tortorella, Briere and Jones have all tempered offseason expectations for any fan looking for a quick fix. The trio all insist the Flyers have a cohesive plan for the future.

    Provorov had 65 goals and 217 points in 532 career games with the Flyers. The Russian was widely criticized in January when he cited his Russian Orthodox religion as the reason he did not participate in pregame warmups when the Flyers wore Pride-themed jerseys and used sticks wrapped in rainbow Pride tape.

    “I respect everybody’s choices,” Provorov said after the game. “My choice is to stay true to myself and my religion.”

    Now, he’s traded during Pride month.

    Briere said the backlash over Pride night had nothing to do with trading Provorov.

    The Blue Jackets, who missed the playoffs this season, were ready to take a flier on a defenseman seemingly with many productive years ahead.

    “Improving our blue line has been a priority for us and acquiring Ivan gives us an established left-shot defenseman who is still a young player with his best seasons in front of him,” Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said. “He immediately improves our group on defense as he is durable, has great skill, skates well, is an excellent passer with an accurate shot and can effectively play at both ends of the ice.”

    Provorov said at the end of the season he wasn’t necessarily happy the Flyers planned to rebuild but understood the decision. Briere declined to say if Provorov wanted out of Philadelphia.

    “I wouldn’t say it’s the most positive news you can hear, but there’s a bright future here, and there’s a lot of great players that can keep growing,” Provorov said in April. “Obviously, it depends on how quick everybody gets better and how quickly the team game gets better. I think that’s what determines the length of the rebuild.”

    Turns out, the potential success out of the haul the Flyers got for Provorov just may determine the length of the rebuild.

    Golden Knights take 2-0 lead in Stanley Cup Final with 7-2 win over Panthers

    Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

    LAS VEGAS — No team in over 25 years has been more dominant than the Vegas Golden Knights through the first two games of a Stanley Cup Final.

    They have outscored the Florida Panthers by eight goals, including a 7-2 victory in Game 2 that put the Knights two wins from the first championship in the franchise’s short six-year history.

    It will take a rare rally for the Panthers to come back as the series shifts to Florida for Game 3 on Thursday. Teams that took a 2-0 series lead in the Stanley Cup Final are 31-3 in the expansion era, but the Panthers opened the playoffs by storming back from 3-1 down to beat the heavily favored Boston Bruins.

    Florida will have to significantly up its level of play to beat a Vegas team that won by three goals on Saturday and then five in this game. The last team to win the first two games of a Cup Final by more than eight combined goals was the 1996 Colorado Avalanche – who outscored the Panthers by nine.

    “I think our depth has been a strength all year,” Vegas coach Bruce Cassidy said. “It is the biggest reason we are still here, why we beat Winnipeg, Edmonton, Dallas. I just feel that we have the best team from player one through 20.”

    Jonathan Marchessault scored twice for the Knights and started an early blitz that chased Sergei Bobrovsky, the NHL’s hottest postseason goalie.

    Marchessault also had an assist to finish with three points. His 12 postseason goals set a Golden Knights record, with all of them coming after the first round. The only player with more following the opening round was Pavel Bure, who scored 13 for Vancouver in 1994.

    “They want to set the tone with being undisciplined like Game 1 and we set the tone back,” Marchessault said. “It was scoring that first goal there. But we’re still pretty far from our goal here.”

    Brett Howden scored twice for the Knights, who also got goals from Alec Martinez, Nicolas Roy and Michael Amadio. Six players had at least two points for Vegas, all 18 Knights skaters were on the ice for even-strength goals and their nine goal scorers through the first two games are a Stanley Cup Final record. The Knights’ seven goals tied a franchise mark for a playoff game.

    It was too much for Bobrovsky, who was removed 7:10 into the second period down 4-0. It was the fifth time in 12 games the Knights have chased the opposing goalie.

    Bobrovsky, a two-time Vezina Trophy winner, carried Florida through the Eastern Conference playoffs. Coming into the Stanley Cup Final, he had won 11 of his past 12 starts with a 1.95 goals-against average and .942 save percentage during that stretch. But he’s given up eight goals in 87 minutes against Vegas, compiling a 5.52 GAA and .826 save percentage in the series.

    “We can be a little better in front of our goaltender,” Panthers coach Paul Maurice said. “I got him out to keep him rested.”

    Matthew Tkachuk and Anton Lundell scored for Florida.

    Adin Hill continued his stellar play in net with 29 saves for the Knights. Hill once again brought his feistiness as well as his A-game. He stopped Carter Verhaeghe on a breakaway in the first, and later that period hit Tkachuk, who was in his net, with his blocker and then slashed him with his stick.

    “He’s been unreal for us,” Vegas forward William Carrier said. “He’s been unbelievable.”

    A group of four fans behind one of the nets wore sweaters that spelled out his last name, and Hill has often received the loudest cheers from Knights fans, reminiscent of when Marc-Andre Fleury was in goal for Vegas in its first three seasons.

    “It’s probably the most fun I’ve ever had playing hockey,” Hill said. “I’m just enjoying it, cherishing every day. It’s been awesome to be part of the journey with this team.”

    The Knights were dominant early, taking a 2-0 lead in the first period on goals from Marchessault and Martinez. It was Vegas’ third game in a row with a power-play goal, its first such stretch since Christmas week.

    The Panthers lost their biggest, toughest defenseman early in the game when Radko Gudas was injured on a hit by Vegas forward Ivan Barbashev. Gudas left 6:39 in and did not return.

    That was one of several big hits by Barbashev, the Golden Knights’ biggest trade-deadline acquisition, a Stanley Cup champion with St. Louis in 2019. Barbashev broke the sternum of Colorado defenseman Samuel Girard during the playoffs last year, also on a clean hit.

    Vegas had its own scare late in the second period when Jack Eichel was nailed in the right shoulder by Tkachuk. Eichel returned in the third and set up Marchessault’s second goal for his second assist of the game.

    “We did a good job managing momentum tonight,” Eichel said. “And we got some timely goals.”

    Ducks hire former Leafs, Islanders assistant Greg Cronin as head coach

    Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

    ANAHEIM, Calif. — The Anaheim Ducks have hired veteran NHL assistant and AHL head coach Greg Cronin to be their new head coach.

    Ducks general manager Pat Verbeek announced the decision to hire the 60-year-old Cronin, who will be a first-time NHL head coach.

    Cronin has 12 years of experience as an NHL assistant with the Toronto Maple Leafs and in two stints with the New York Islanders. The Massachusetts native has been the head coach of the AHL’s Colorado Eagles since 2018, and he spent six years as a collegiate head coach at Northeastern.

    Verbeek called Cronin “the ideal fit” to take over a young, rebuilding team.

    “I felt we needed a teacher of the finer points of the game, and someone who has worked extensively over time with talented young players, helping them develop into successful NHL players,” Verbeek said. “Greg has done all that and more.”

    Cronin replaces Dallas Eakins, whose contract wasn’t renewed in April after the Ducks finished their fourth consecutive losing season of his tenure. Anaheim finished in last place in the overall NHL standings at 23-47-12.

    The Ducks never finished higher than sixth in the Pacific Division during Eakins’ four years in charge. They’ve missed the playoffs in a franchise-record five straight seasons, and Anaheim was the NHL’s worst defensive team of the 21st century by several measures during the just-completed season.

    Cronin takes over a struggling team that is still loaded with young talent, including the No. 2 overall pick in the upcoming draft and a wealth of farm prospects seemingly ready to break into the NHL. Anaheim has a solid long-term base with playmaking center Trevor Zegras, two-time All-Star Troy Terry and promising forward Mason McTavish.

    Cronin has never led an NHL bench, but he interviewed for the Boston Bruins’ vacancy a year ago.

    He becomes only the Ducks’ fourth permanent head coach since Henry and Susan Samueli bought the franchise from Disney in 2005, joining Randy Carlyle, Bruce Boudreau and Eakins.

    Canadiens sign Cole Caufield to 8-year, $62.8 million extension

    David Kirouac-USA TODAY Sports

    MONTREAL — The Montreal Canadiens signed Cole Caufield to an eight-year, $62.8 million contract extension.

    The deal, which will pay the 22-year-old winger an average annual salary of $7.85 million, runs through the 2030-31 season.

    Caufield scored 26 goals and added 10 assists in 46 games in 2022-23 before he underwent season-ending surgery on his right shoulder in February.

    Despite missing nearly half the season, Caufield led the Canadiens in goals for the second consecutive season, tied with Nick Suzuki.

    Montreal selected Caufield in the first round (15th overall) of the 2019 draft.

    Since making his NHL debut in 2020-21, the forward has 84 points (53 goals, 31 assists) in 123 NHL games.