The offseason flew fast. The Central and Pacific divisions are back and that means analysts choose which eight teams have the best shot at making the playoffs. Despite growth and better play by teams in both divisions, none went to the Stanley Cup Finals last season. Some have great rosters such as the Vegas Golden Knights and Colorado Avalanche. They just didn’t perform well in later playoff rounds than expected. Minnesota, Vancouver and Winnipeg are in the right direction. The Edmonton Oilers and Dallas Stars are locks to at least make the playoffs. Other teams in this conference need to step up and play better under pressure. It’s time to break down which four in each division can make the push to the playoffs for 2021-22.
#1 Vegas Golden Knights
Unlike the central, this division is easier to pick which four teams can make the playoffs. Vegas traded their original star Marc-Andre Fleury to Chicago clearing salary cap space. 1B goaltender Robin Lehner will be the regular starter.
The Golden Knights retained most of last year’s core players. While they’ll face more quality opponents, almost none will be in their division, ensuring another title and top three seed.
#2 Vancouver Canucks
Looking back, it made sense why Vancouver landed last in the Scotia North. Like Dallas, the team played tired and out of rhythm after a deep playoff run not even six months before the 2021 season began. The final blow was almost everyone contracting COVID-19 during a crucial stretch to sneak into the playoffs.
General manager Jim Benning addressed the roster issues this offseason. Backup goaltender Jaroslav Halak is an upgrade over a mediocre year of Braden Holtby. The signings of Phillip de Giuseppe, Luke Schenn and Travis Hamonic help the defense and fourth line scoring, something not addressed since 2019. Benning hit it big when he traded for rookie of the year Jason Dickinson and traded older players with bad contracts to Arizona for stars Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Conor Garland.
Coach Travis Green proved he’s the best hire the Canucks made since Alain Vigneault over a decade ago. Vancouver’s re-vamped roster management shows they’re a favorite to land second place in the Pacific.
#3 Edmonton Oilers
In a division where four teams are in a build/re-build process, the Oilers should fare well with two league MVPs on their roster. General manager Ken Holland re-signed goalie Mike Smith and added veteran defensemen Duncan Keith and Cody Ceci to help.
Holland wanted more center and forward depth trading for Warren Foegele and signed Zach Hyman from Toronto. The team may have learned from previous playoff failures where both league MVPs were shut down and no one stepped up.
Unless Edmonton’s star players are injured most of the season, there’s no reason why coach Dave Tippett’s team can’t make the playoffs. The power-play is top three and the penalty kill should improve. Their playoff series will reveal if they’ve made real improvements.
#4 Seattle Kraken
Despite the hard-headed and terrible expansion drafting by inaugural general manager Ron Francis, Seattle has a good chance of reaching the playoffs. None of the California teams can contend and the Calgary Flames are in disarray after a forgetful season. The Kraken even drafted Calgary’s long-time captain Mark Giordano, creating a void in leadership.
The Kraken assembled one of the best defensive fronts a team could want. They landed Vezina finalist Philipp Grubauer from the Colorado Avalanche and wanted 1B goalie Chris Driedger. Outside of Giordano, Jamie Oleksiak, Adam Larsson, Vince Dunn, Jeremy Lauzon, Carson Soucy and Haydn Fleury are the defensemen. Star-studded offenses led by Alexandar Barkov and Connor McDavid will have fits trying to gain scoring chances or goals tallied against this unit.
The defense should be enough for Seattle to sneak into the playoffs. The offense might hold them to lower seeding. The first line includes Jordan Eberle, Yanni Gourde and Jaden Schwartz. Not bad but it’s not a true first line especially facing deep roster teams such as Tampa Bay or Colorado. It’s up to coach Dave Hakstol to bring the best out of Joonas Donskoi, Calle Jarnkrok, Mason Appleton, Alex Wennberg and Morgan Geekie.
#1 Colorado Avalanche
In one of the deepest divisions in the NHL, the Colorado Avalanche are heavy favorites. Despite offseason losses of Grubauer and Donskoi, the Avs were able to retain most of their depth and add some players. Darcy Kuemper arrives in a trade from Arizona to be the 1A starter. If Kuemper can’t stay healthy, the return of Pavel Francouz is a boost. Francouz didn’t play much of last season but he can take strides to become better than his predecessor Grubauer.
Colorado should excel in the regular season. After the first round of the playoffs is where interest will rise regarding their further development past the second round.
#2 Dallas Stars
Unlike last winter where they only had a few months off and Tyler Seguin didn’t play most of the season, this year is filled with promise and hope for a deep playoff run. While rookie of the year Jason Dickinson and Jamie Oleksiak are on other teams, the Stars have most of the cup contending team back and added some players to stay ahead of timing and injuries.
The signings of Braden Holtby, Ryan Suter and Luke Glendening weren’t splashy but they help in a full season. Holtby’s a cup winning goalie who can fill in for Anton Khudobin should he tire. Ben Bishop is likely to play some point this season but Dallas can’t rely on the duo yet. Suter’s the veteran presence needed to ensure the younger defensemen (Miro Heiskanen for example) take the next steps to become elite. Glendening is a solid fourth line center who can lead the Stars to goals or scoring chances in front of the net, giving the team a spark if the top two lines can’t produce.
The Stars should be ecstatic to the start of this season. The Coyotes and Blues are in decline and Minnesota, Chicago and Nashville are question marks. Dallas has to use this opportunity with everyone back fully healthy to make another deep playoff run. Lucky for them there’s no Florida teams nor Carolina in this division.
#3 Winnipeg Jets
The Mark Scheifele suspension in the playoffs deflated what could’ve been a fun series against the Montreal Canadiens. The Jets proved last season despite the talent in the Scotia North they’re a quality team even at their lowest. Merged back into the central, Winnipeg can assert their claim for another playoff series if they show consistency on defense and depth scoring on offense.
While Laurent Brassoit left in free agency, the Jets signed Brendon Dillon and retained their top defensemen. They made fewer moves than the Dallas Stars but as long as Paul Maurice is coaching, Winnipeg should find a way to make the playoffs and cause headaches in the first round.
#4 Chicago Blackhawks
I’m personally unsure if Minnesota will replicate last season’s success. No one thought they’d be fun/good to watch. Cam Talbot and team star Kirill Kaprizov should have highlight years, but questions remain on the third and fourth lines continuing production. Chicago meanwhile was a competitive team most of last year despite playing in the hardest re-aligned division. Kevin Lankinen is as good if not better than Alex Nedeljkovic among last year’s rookie goaltenders. The additions of Seth Jones and Marc-Andre Fleury are too big to ignore this team as a playoff contender.
General manager Stan Bowman didn’t stop there. They traded for Tampa Bay’s Tyler Johnson and snuck in space for Jujhar Khaira and Seth’s brother Caleb in the Duncan Keith trade to Edmonton. They re-signed Adam Gaudette in free agency, a forward needed on the third line.
Their defense gets a boost with the Jones brothers, Calvin de Haan and Connor Murphy back healthy. A goalie tandem of Fleury and Lankinen will give even quality teams like the Colorado Avalanche fits. Finally, the return of captain Jonathan Toews gives Chicago the leadership and discipline missed the second half of last season.
2021 West and Central division picks record: 6-2