2021-22 NHL previews

Winnipeg Jets: 2021-22 NHL Season Preview

Winnipeg Jets: 2021-22 NHL Season Preview
Darcy Finley/NHLI via Getty Images

The 2021-22 NHL season is coming and it’s time to take a look at all 32 teams. We’ll examine best- and worst-case scenarios, looking at the biggest questions, breakout candidates, and more for each franchise. Today, we preview the Winnipeg Jets.

2020-21 Season Review

• Record: 30-23-3 (63 points), finished third in North.
• Postseason: Swept in second round by Canadiens (after Jets swept Oilers).
• Offensive leaders: Mark Scheifele (21 goals, 42 assists for 63 points in 56 games).

• Free Agent Additions: Nate Schmidt (trade from Canucks), Brenden Dillon (trade from Capitals), Riley Nash.
• Free Agent Subtractions: Laurent Brossoit (Golden Knights), Mathieu Perreault (Canadiens), Mason Appleton (Kraken expansion draft), Trevor Lewis (Flames), Derek Forbort (Bruins), Nate Thompson (Flyers), Tucker Poolman (Canucks).

Biggest question for Jets

• Will an improved defense on paper translate to a better one on the ice?

Since losing Dustin Byfuglien and Jacob Trouba, the Jets defense sunk like a stone. Sometimes, their defense boiled down to hoping Connor Hellebuyck fixed things.

During this offseason, the Jets made substantial moves to turn that around. They traded for a steady defenseman in Brenden Dillon. The Jets hope they get Golden Knights Nate Schmidt, instead of the failed Canucks version.

It’s not nice to say that waving goodbye to Tucker Poolman and Derek Forbort is “addition by subtraction.” It could be accurate, though.

Speaking of additions and subtractions, the Jets also dodged a bullet at the expansion draft. To the Jets’ relief, they avoided losing underrated blueliner Dylan DeMelo.

[PHT’s offseason trade tracker]

So, yeah, the 2021-22 Jets look better on defense. At least, they do on paper.

Truly, the 2021-22 season could be quite the test for longtime Jets coach Paul Maurice. Credit it acumen, a gift for gab, or other factors, but the fellow has a knack for hanging around.

Of course, one of the common defenses of Maurice’s longevity is that he’s lacked proper personnel. That argument could ring hollow with the 2021-22 Jets.

Much could hinge on a holdover, and a new face.

Since Jacob Trouba left town, Josh Morrissey simply hasn’t been the same. Morrissey’s descent parallels the Jets’ defensive dropoff, overall. Consider this SPAR (Standing Points Above Replacement) chart for his career, via Evolving Hockey:

Winnipeg Jets: 2021-22 NHL Season Preview Morrissey SPAR Evo
via Evolving Hockey

And, while one can imagine Nate Schmidt being a shot in the arm, it’s not a guarantee.

Recent renditions of the Canucks boasted the sort of lousy team defense the 2021-22 Jets hope to avoid. What if Schmidt fares no better with Winnipeg than he did with Vancouver?

It’s also fair to mention that the 2021-22 Jets’ defense faces some losses.

Avoiding losing DeMelo was worth it, but Mason Appleton could be missed. And, while Mathieu Perreault’s getting older, he’s still an analytics darling.

The biggest worry might be that the Jets lost a Connor Hellebuyck insurance plan in Laurent Brossoit. What if, right as the Jets get better on defense, Hellebuyck hits a wall in 2021-22?

[Jets bet on defense making life easier for Hellebuyck]

Since 2017-18, Connor Hellebuyck played by-far the most games of any goalie (233). Andrei Vasilevskiy ranks second at 212, and only six goalies played 200+ games. Those weren’t leisurely strolls, either. Hellebuyck easily faced the most shots (7,230), with Vasilevskiy again a distant second (6,630). Only six goalies faced 6,000+ shots since 2017-18, too.

Ideally, the Jets make life easier for Hellebuyck, who remains dominant in 2021-22. (After all, he’s just 28. And, worries or not, he’s my Vezina pick.)

Overall, the Jets do look improved on defense in 2021-22. There’s plenty of work to do, however.

What’s the salary cap situation?

The Jets enter 2021-22 as a team nudging against the salary cap ceiling. Looking at their roster, there’s an interesting mix of good and bad.

The good

  • Some core forwards are on very nice deals — especially Nikolaj Ehlers and Kyle Connor, but also Mark Scheifele.
  • All above quibbles about workload aside, Hellebuyck is a steal at $6.1667M. Honestly, it probably deserves more mentions among the NHL’s best contracts. (Also, uh, $6,166,666 sure is an … interesting number.)

The bad

  • At 35, Blake Wheeler‘s $8.25M cap hit isn’t ideal, and it runs through 2023-24.
  • Morrissey can turn things around; he’s merely 26. Until then, his long-term deal evokes cringe emojis.
  • Bryan Little‘s contract looked bad in 2017, and keeps getting worse.

The unclear

  • Between Morrissey, Schmidt, DeMelo, Neal Pionk, and Dillon, the Jets are investing almost $25M in cap space on defensemen. None of those five contracts are shorter than three seasons. Overall, it’s an upgrade — but could we be getting lured in by any hint of an improvement, based on just how bad they’ve been? Those investments could look far less impressive if the group trends closer to “meh.”
  • How good is Pierre-Luc Dubois, really? The Jets seek answers in 2021-22, as his $5M salary cap hit expires. He’s a pending RFA, and arbitration eligible. That could become a tricky situation.

[PHT’s 2021 NHL Free Agent Tracker]

Credit the Jets for constructing a competitive roster in a market that’s not exactly Bryzgalov-approved. Lesser front offices would ice a roster full of desperate, ugly contracts.

Still, a lot of this team is locked-in. If the Jets underwhelm in 2021-22, that oulook won’t be as sunny.

Here’s to the Jets rebounding in 2021-22, instead. Wouldn’t it be nice if a team once on the rise found its wings once more?

Breakout Candidate

• Nikolaj Ehlers

Typically, this is a spot for a younger, less-proven player. But, in Ehlers’ case, we celebrate that critically acclaimed indie band finally topping the charts and selling out arenas.

The charts don’t just explain that hipster-style love. Frankly, just watch Nikolaj Ehlers. Chances are, his speed and daring will leave you entranced. He aces “the eye test” as much as he racks up robust fancy stats.

Now we just need the Jets to believe their eyes.

Last season, he only ranked fifth among Jets forwards in power-play ice time. Even worse, Ehlers only managed the sixth-highest average for ice time overall (16:55). Honestly, some of the Paul Maurice doubt lingers because of a relative reluctance to truly embrace Ehlers.

Expect those rumblings to turn into a roar. In 2021-22, the Jets and the rest of the hockey world can finally realize just how special Ehlers is.

(Cole Perfetti would be the more traditional breakout choice, but he may not be a full-time member of the 2021-22 Jets.)

Best-Case Scenario for 2021-22 Jets

All of those defensive improvements don’t just boost the Jets in their own zone. Suddenly, Jets forwards don’t have to do so much legwork, and their all-around play improves. Behind a sturdier defense, Hellebuyck removes all doubt that he is the best goalie in the world. With a strong playoff push, the Jets regain their status as a team on the rise.

Worst-Case Scenario for 2021-22 Jets

Those defensive changes don’t amount to much. And, this time, Hellebuyck can’t save the day. Years of red flags about all-around play end up being grim, accurate prophecies. Worse yet, a long-standing front office faces no real consequences, and doesn’t learn any meaningful lessons. The Jets miss the playoffs, and don’t even get a high first-rounder for their trouble.

PointsbetWinnipeg Jets Stanley Cup odds

+4000 (PointsBet is our Official Sports Betting Partner and we may receive compensation if you place a bet on PointsBet for the first time after clicking our links.)

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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    Washington Capitals 2021-22 NHL Season Preview

    ovechkin gretzky
    Rob Carr/Getty Images

    The 2021-22 NHL season is coming and it’s time to take a look at all 32 teams. We’ll examine best- and worst-case scenarios, looking at the biggest questions, breakout candidates, and more for each franchise. Today, we preview the Washington Capitals.

    2020-21 Season Review

    • Record: 36-15-5 (77 points) second place in NHL East Division
    • Postseason: Lost in First Round to Boston Bruins in five games
    • Offensive leader: Nicklas Backstrom (55 games, 15 goals, 38 assists, 53 points)

    • Free Agent Additions: Matt Irwin
    • Free Agent Subtractions: Brenden Dillon (trade to Winnipeg), Zdeno Chara, Michael Raffl

    Biggest question facing the Washington Capitals?

    • Will Ilya Samsonov take a big step forward?

    Nicklas Backstrom’s hip is a concern. The overall age of the team is something to keep in mind. Anthony Mantha beinng worth the price they paid is a legitimate discussion. All of those are big questions. But none of them will do more to impact the success or failure of this team more than what happens in goal with the duo of Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek. It is the same duo the Capitals went with a year ago while getting mixed results.

    Vanecek was not even supposed to be a factor on the team last year but had to take over the primary backup role when Henrik Lundqvist had to miss the season.

    Then when Samsonov went out of the lineup he had to take over the starting duties. He did okay given the circumstances, but Samsonov is the player the Capitals need to emerge here. He has been their goalie of the future for years, is the most talented player of the two, and still has the most upside. But after a promising rookie campaign his 2020-21 season was a bit all over the map. He was in and out of the lineup due to COVID protocols, only appeared in 19 games, had a disappointing .902 save percentage, and followed that up with a brutal showing in the playoffs.

    It is hard to evaluate too much and put too much stock into that performance given how little he played and the COVID factor, but the Capitals definitely need him to be better this season.

    What’s the salary cap situation?

    Like most long-time Stanley Cup contenders with superstar players they are nearly capped out. They have a little bit of wiggle room at the start of the season, but not much. Most of the team’s core is locked in place long-term, while the only major pending unrestricted free agents after this season are on defense with Justin Schultz, Nick Jensen, and Matt Irwin being eligible.

    Both goalies, however, are restricted free agents. Their play this season will go a long way toward determining what their next contracts will look like, and if the salary cap remains flat that could create the need for a move somewhere else on the roster.

    Nic Dowd and Daniel Sprong are the only two forwards on the roster not currently under contract for at least the next two seasons.

    Breakout Candidate

    Connor McMichael

    McMichael is one of the Capitals’ top prospects and is in a camp battle with 2020 first-round pick Hendrix Lapierre to make the opening night roster as the team’s third-line center. He is coming off of a strong professional debut in the American Hockey League a year ago, leading the team in scoring as a 19-year-old. If he McMichael is able to secure that spot over Lapierrre he could open the season playing between T.J. Oshie and Conor Sheary, which is a pretty good spot for a rookie center to be put in. He is the one young player ready to make an impact on a roster that is one of the oldest in the league.

    Best-Case Scenario

    The best-case scenario here is that the Capitals are still a legitimate Stanley Cup contender, even after three consecutive First Round exits. There is a path for that. That path includes Samsonov taking that big step forward, Mantha being the player they hoped he would be when they acquired him (I think he will be), Evgeny Kuznetsov bouncing back, Backstrom being healthy, and a player like McMichael having a breakout season. While the roster is older it is still very talented, and still has a hockey legend (Alex Ovechkin) at the top of it doing his thing. That may seem like a lot of things that have to go right (and it is) but many of them are reasonable.

    Worst-Case Scenario

    On the opposite side of this, what happens if Samsonov struggles? And Kuznetsov is finished being an elite player? And Backstrom’s hip becomes a season long issue? Well, then you have some problems. Enough problems to keep them out of the playoffs? That might be a stretch, but the Metropolitan Division is looking like one of the most competitive in the league with two Stanley Cup contenders in Carolina and New York at the top, Pittsburgh still lurking around, Philadelphia looking better, and the Rangers ready to make a big jump. Competition for those three automatic playoff spots is going to be fierce between those six teams. Maybe they do not miss the playoffs entirely, but maybe it is another First Round exit.

    PointsbetWashington Capitals Stanley Cup odds

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    Vegas Golden Knights: 2021-22 NHL Season Preview

    Vegas Golden Knights
    Jeff Vinnick/Getty Images

    The 2021-22 NHL season is coming and it’s time to take a look at all 32 teams. We’ll examine best- and worst-case scenarios, looking at the biggest questions, breakout candidates, and more for each franchise. Today, we preview the Vegas Golden Knights.

    2020-21 Season Review

    • Record: 40-14-2 (82 points), finished second in West, lost tiebreaker for Presidents’ Trophy.
    • Postseason: Eliminated by Canadiens in six games (Third Round).
    • Offensive leaders: Mark Stone (21 goals, 40 assists for 61 points in 55 games).

    • Free Agent Additions: Evgenii Dadonov (trade from Senators), Laurent Brossoit, Nolan Patrick (trade from Flyers/Predators), Brett Howden (trade from Rangers)
    • Free Agent Subtractions: Marc-Andre Fleury (trade to Blackhawks), Nick Holden (trade to Senators), Tomas Nosek (Bruins), Cody Glass (trade to Predators), Ryan Reaves (trade to Rangers)

    Biggest question for Golden Knights

    • Are they really better off without Marc-Andre Fleury?

    From Paul Stastny to Nate Schmidt, the Golden Knights haven’t been shy about shedding big contracts to make even bigger splashes. If there’s been a theme to those moves, it was always to push more chips into the middle of that poker table. Even if it meant being messy about it.

    Yet, after the smoke cleared following the end of the Marc-Andre Fleury era, did it all really increase the Golden Knights’ chances of winning a Stanley Cup?

    To an extent, it sure feels like the Golden Knights spent their “Flower money” on … Evgenii Dadonov, and maybe Laurent Brossoit? Throw in Nolan Patrick, too, if you want. It’s still a puzzling direction for a team with such bold ambitions.

    [PHT’s offseason trade tracker]

    Over the last week, Robin Lehner made waves in ways that transcend on-ice play. Ideally, having such tough discussions won’t leave Lehner drained heading into the 2021-22 Golden Knights season.

    Ignoring off-the-ice discussions, there were questions about how Lehner might deliver as the unquestioned No. 1 goalie for the 2021-22 Golden Knights.

    • As a rule, goalies are simply difficult to predict, in general.
    • Lehner struggled, at least relatively, last season. While Fleury stunned with a Vezina run, Lehner appeared in 19 games, earning a respectable .913 save percentage. “Respectable” is a step down from Lehner’s recent work, as he flirted with elite status starting with his 2018-19 Islanders breakthrough.
    • That said, Lehner’s rarely served as a true workhorse goalie. During the past three seasons, Lehner played 19, 34, and 43 games. His peak workload years came with the Sabres: 53 GP in 2017-18, and 59 in 2016-17. One year was sneaky-strong (.920 save percentage in 2016-17); the other not so much (.908 in 2017-18).

    For a team investing so much in the present, was it really that wise to move on from MAF? Yes, Laurent Brossoit has been a competent backup. Yet, if Lehner struggles and/or gets injured, would you rather hinge your championship hopes on Brossoit or Fleury?

    [PHT’s 2021 NHL Free Agent Tracker]

    All due respect to Dadonov — who was effective early in his Panthers run — but his addition doesn’t ease the tension of Vegas ridding themselves of a goalie who came in very handy last season.

    Most of the Golden Knights’ moves felt like a team striking when the iron was hot. In moving away from Fleury, this smells more of overthinking things.

    Maybe the Golden Knights just got tired of the sword-in-the-back memes.

    What’s the salary cap situation?

    You know the saying “You get what you pay for?” That hasn’t always been so true for NHL teams. In plenty of cases, teams pay big to contend, only to get sunk with a chest full of fool’s gold.

    So, credit the Golden Knights for not just going on big heists, but unearthing actual treasures. At least in the short term. From Max Pacioretty to Mark Stone and Alex Pietrangelo, the Golden Knights received boosts from their bold investments.

    Even so, look up and down their roster.

    In a dream scenario, the Golden Knights’ older star players age like Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron in Boston. Considering the hockey IQ of a Mark Stone, it’s not totally unthinkable.

    But the worries linger. Pietrangelo’s already 31, and costs $8.8M for six seasons. Keeping Alec Martinez ($5.25M through 2023-24) could backfire, as he’s somehow 34. Lehner, Reilly Smith, and Jonathan Marchessault are all 30, while Stone is 32. The “youngest” core members are Shea Theodore (26) and William Karlsson (28).

    Right now, it’s worth it for the Golden Knights to go for broke. They have to hope that this expensive vehicle doesn’t break down too fast, then.

    Breakout Candidate

    Peyton Krebs

    When the Golden Knights hoarded draft picks during their expansion draft, people pictured a robust farm system in the making.

    Instead, that pile of draft picks mostly helped them land players like Mark Stone. In a way, trading Cody Glass felt symbolic: most of the team’s value came from the present, rather than those futures.

    Even so, the 2021-22 Golden Knights could have at least one ace prospect up their sleeves: Peyton Krebs. Krebs’ mix of playmaking and two-way acumen could be a boon for Vegas.

    That said, Krebs might not start the 2021-22 season with the Golden Knights, instead beginning in the AHL. We’ll see soon enough. Beyond Krebs, Nolan Patrick is another interesting breakout candidate. From Karlsson to Chandler Stephenson, we’ve seen centers flourish in this simplified system. Could Patrick show that second overall stuff after a (some might say, controversial) change of scenery?

    Best-Case Scenario for 2021-22 Vegas Golden Knights

    Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty dominate as a duo even more this season. Lehner gives the 2021-22 Golden Knights another Vezina-caliber season from a goalie. New pieces chug along, with Dadonov and Patrick looking revitalized. It all comes together for that Stanley Cup win.

    Worst-Case Scenario for 2021-22 Vegas Golden Knights

    Lehner stumbles as a No. 1 goalie, and the Golden Knights struggle to score with their quantity-over-quality approach. All the while, Fleury flourishes once more. New pieces like Dadonov don’t move the needle. The Golden Knights make the playoffs in 2021-22, but no longer look like a true contender. Even though they’ll be stuck spending like one.

    PointsbetVegas Golden Knights Stanley Cup odds

    +600 (PointsBet is our Official Sports Betting Partner and we may receive compensation if you place a bet on PointsBet for the first time after clicking our links.)

    James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

    Vancouver Canucks: 2021-22 NHL Season Preview

    Vancouver Canucks
    Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images

    The 2021-22 NHL season is coming and it’s time to take a look at all 32 teams. We’ll examine best- and worst-case scenarios, looking at the biggest questions, breakout candidates, and more for each franchise. Today, we preview the Vancouver Canucks.

    2020-21 Season Review

    • Record: 23-29-4 (50 points), finished seventh in North.
    • Postseason: Missed playoffs, traded first-round draft pick
    • Offensive leaders: Brock Boeser (23 goals, 26 assists for 49 points in 56 games).

    • Free Agent Additions: Conor Garland (trade from Coyotes), Oliver Ekman-Larsson (trade from Coyotes). Jason Dickinson (trade from Stars), Jaroslav Halak, Brad Hunt, Phillip Di Giuseppe, Justin Dowling, Tucker Poolman, Luke Schenn
    • Free Agent Subtractions: Nate Schmidt (traded to Jets), Alex Edler (Kings), Braden Holtby (Stars), Kole Lind (Kraken expansion draft), Jalen Chatfield (Hurricanes), Antoine Roussel (traded to Coyotes), Loui Eriksson (traded to Coyotes), Jay Beagle (traded to Coyotes).

    Biggest question for Canucks

    • Can they play some defense — or at least overcome that weakness?

    To some extent, the Canucks’ bold offseason feels a lot like a desperate quarterback lobbing a last-second Hail Mary pass. And Jim Benning is no Aaron Rodgers.

    When most people picture the Canucks succeeding (in 2021-22, and generally), it’s largely based on a combination of explosive offense and hot goaltending. That formula fails more often than it works in the modern NHL, though. For the 2021-22 Canucks to succeed, they at least need to improve on defense.

    As promising as Thatcher Demko‘s breakthrough was, they need to rely less on him in 2021-22.

    [PHT’s offseason trade tracker]

    For many of us, Conor Garland is the most exciting part of the Canucks’ big trade with the Coyotes. Even so, the Oliver Ekman-Larsson gamble is still the most important part of that deal for the 2021-22 Canucks.

    This isn’t the first time the Canucks rolled the dice with a defenseman. It didn’t work out with Tyler Myers, and the Nate Schmidt experiment was short-lived. OEL ranks as the biggest gamble yet, and it sure feels all-or-nothing.

    At some point, Travis Green needs to find some answers, though, right? No, Benning isn’t providing perfect ingredients for a gourmet meal. Still, the NHL’s brightest coaches resemble especially spry cooks on “Chopped.” At some point, you need to show that you can make the best of less-than-ideal situations.

    The 2021-22 Canucks either need to make fewer mistakes than recent Vancouver teams, or create so many solutions on offense that it all works out. It’s all possible, but is it plausible?

    What’s the salary cap situation?

    For better and mostly worse, Jim Benning doesn’t just sit idly by. Every offseason, it feels like the salary cap should leave the Canucks stuck. Instead, they tend to make splashy moves, even if it mostly translates to treading water.

    On the (very) bright side, Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes signed for about $15 million combined. Those are promising deals, even if the 2021-22 versions of those two look a lot like last year’s players who were letdowns for the Canucks.

    Would it be more comforting if Pettersson was locked down for more than three years? Sure. Did it feel like Benning’s salary cap mismanagement opened the door for these bargains, making Benning feel like hockey’s Mr. Magoo? Maybe a bit.

    In the salary cap era, don’t blame the Canucks for just taking a W or two.

    [PHT’s 2021 NHL Free Agent Tracker]

    Especially when you look at recent L’s, and how history could repeat itself.

    If things go sour, the Oliver Ekman-Larsson trade could combine the mistakes of Benning’s past (Beagle, Roussel, Eriksson) with gaffes of the present. Even with Garland being a nice find, the Canucks are taking a massive swing at OEL turning his career around at age 30.

    Overall, the Canucks’ salary cap outlook reeks of sloppiness. You won’t see many team buying out a player who only signed a two-year contract, but Vancouver did that with Braden Holtby.

    Should the 2021-22 Canucks really scrape the salary cap ceiling? Heading into 2022-23, Cap Friendly estimates the Canucks spending $65.8 million on just 14 roster spots. About $13.3 million in projected cap space goes fast; could that force Brock Boeser out next offseason? What about Bo Horvat (26, $5.5 million) after the 2022-23 season?

    Maybe the Canucks keep those players. After all, the Canucks wiggled out of salary cap jams before … at least in the short term. Big-picture-wise, they’ve stacked mistakes on top of mistakes. Perhaps those errors won’t force top players out. It might clog things up enough that the Canucks simply can’t surround Pettersson, Hughes, and other top talents with enough talent to actually contend, though.

    Breakout Candidate

    Nils Hoglander

    Along with Boeser, Pettersson, and Hughes, Nils Hoglander exemplifies one thing the Canucks frequently did right under Benning: drafting. (Is it possible that’s over after Judd Bracket left town? Maybe.)

    Hoglander already showed promise last season, collecting 27 points in 56 games. That should just be the tip of the iceberg.

    Ideally, the 2021-22 Canucks will boost Hoglander from last season’s 15:27 TOI average. Even if that’s largely unchanged, Hoglander’s likely to spend that ice time with superior players. Most likely, Hoglander will line up with Bo Horvat and Conor Garland. There’s a chance he’ll get some reps with Pettersson and Boeser, though, and that’s where business could really pick up.

    Either way, the skill’s there for a breakthrough.

    If you think Hoglander already broke through, there’s also Vasily Podkolzin.

    Best-Case Scenario for 2021-22 Canucks

    Getting out of Arizona unlocks Norris-era Ekman-Larsson. Pettersson knocks on the door for the Hart, while Demko earns serious Vezina consideration. A dazzling, talented team makes up for any mistakes — and more. Benning’s vindicated with a deep playoff run.

    Worst-Case Scenario for 2021-22 Canucks

    It turns out Ekman-Larsson’s just never going to return to that prior elite form. Demko caves under intense pressure from a garbage defense. Pettersson and Hughes absorb the blame that should go to Benning and Green. The 2021-22 Canucks end up just as bad as last year’s debacle of a team.

    PointsbetVancouver Canucks Stanley Cup odds

    +6000 (PointsBet is our Official Sports Betting Partner and we may receive compensation if you place a bet on PointsBet for the first time after clicking our links.)

    James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

    Toronto Maple Leafs 2021-22 NHL Season Preview

    auston matthews
    Claus Andersen/Getty Images

    The 2021-22 NHL season is coming and it’s time to take a look at all 32 teams. We’ll examine best- and worst-case scenarios, looking at the biggest questions, breakout candidates, and more for each franchise. Today, we preview the Toronto Maple Leafs.

    2020-21 Season Review

    • Record: 35-14-7 (77 points) first place in North Division
    • Postseason: Lost in First Round to Montreal Canadiens in seven games.
    • Offensive leader: Mitch Marner (55 games, 20 goals, 47 assists, 67 points)

    • Free Agent Additions: Ondrej Kase, David Kampf, Michael Bunting, Petr Mrazek
    • Free Agent Subtractions: Zach Hyman (Edmonton Oilers), Joe Thornton (Florida Panthers), Frederik Andersen (Carolina Hurricanes), Alex Galchenyuk (Arizona Coyotes)

    Biggest question facing the Toronto Maple Leafs?

    • Is Jack Campbell for real?

    Campbell took over the Maple Leafs’ crease late last season and put together a 17-3-2 run to close out the regular season and then played great in their First Round loss to the Canadiens. He played so well that Toronto was content to let Frederik Andersen leave in free agency (Hurricanes) and will go ahead with Campbell and Petr Mrazek (signed from Carolina) in goal. Both goalies will play a lot, but there is a great deal of pressure for Campbell to at least come close to repeating what he did a year ago.

    He has shown flashes of potential throughout his NHL career but is entering his age 30 season and never been more than a backup.

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

    If he can consistently play at that level the Maple Leafs will be in good shape when it comes to contending. If he does not it creates a pretty big question mark at the most important position. Mrazek is a solid safety net, but they might need more than just him.

    What’s the salary cap situation?

    It is pretty well known that Toronto’s salary cap situation is tight given the major contracts to their core players — Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, and John Tavares. They are pressed to the cap ceiling and have to find ways to piece together complementary players around them. That sort of salary cap structure can absolutely work, and has worked on pretty much every Stanley Cup winning team in the salary cap era.

    They have three $10 million players in Matthews, Marner, and Tavares. Nylander makes just over $6 million.

    Their next big contract is going to have to be defenseman Morgan Rielly, if they want to keep him. That might take some maneuvering to get him re-signed. If the Maple Leafs lose early in the playoffs again you can be certain that at least one member of the core is going to be traded, so that would certainly create some additional room if it gets to that point.

    Breakout Candidate

    Rasmus Sandin

    The Maple Leafs are not really a young team anymore and most of their young players have already had their breakout season. Sandin seems like the next logical candidate if he can secure a spot on the blue line. The 2018 first-round pick has appeared in 37 games so far in his career and still has a ton of potential. The hope is that he can blossom into a top-four defender in short order to not only help improve the defense, but perhaps be a long-term replacement for Rielly if the Maple Leafs can not get him re-signed.

    Best-Case Scenario

    It is simple. The best-case scenario here is Campbell and Mrazek are able to solidify the goalie position and everything comes together for them in the playoffs and they finally accomplish something and win a round, something they have not done since the 2003-04 season. Time is running out for this core, coaching staff, and front office and it can no longer be acceptable to simply make the playoffs and lose in the First Round. They are now more than six years into this thing with this group and all they have to show for it is five First Round exits. That is ridiculous given the talent level of this team. They have to do something meaningful.

    Worst-Case Scenario

    Honestly, it would be doing what they always do — finish in third place in the Atlantic Division and lose in the First Round of the playoffs. That might be a boring analysis, but this is the last thing Maple Leafs fans — or the Maple Leafs front office and organization — wants to see.

    PointsbetToronto Maple Leafs Stanley Cup odds

    +1100 (PointsBet is our Official Sports Betting Partner and we may receive compensation if you place a bet on PointsBet for the first time after clicking our links.)