By: Brennen Krikorian
If you were to tell someone in 2019 what the NHL would look like just two years later, they would without a doubt call you insane. Fans will again be able to attend games in full capacity, Buffalo refuses to let Jack Eichel become healthy, an expansion team has made its way to Seattle and it’s not the SuperSonics and we get to hear the ESPN hockey music on a daily basis for the first time in over 15 years.
If you came for an in-depth look at the biggest news in hockey, however, you might as well click off now.
Here are my five hottest takes for the 2021-22 season:
Joel Eriksson Ek Will Have a 30-Goal Season
For years, there hasn’t been a more forgettable team than the Minnesota Wild. With a superstar in the making in Kirill Kaprizov and a loaded defense group highlighted by Jared Spurgeon and Matt Dumba, the forgotten team narrative seems to be coming to an end.
Despite the talents that those guys have, no one on the team is set up better for a breakout season than Joel Eriksson Ek.
Now unless you’re a diehard hockey fan, you probably clicked off of this to go look up who he is, but let me tell you, the 24-year-old is the real deal.
The 2015 first-round pick has gotten better and better every year he steps onto the ice. His TOI has increased by roughly two minutes and is now projected to reach the 20-minute average this season. Now entering his first season after signing an eight-year, $42 million deal to stay in Minnesota, he will have every opportunity to truly break out as an elite center.
Playing alongside Kevin Fiala and Kaprisov is going to be a massive boost to Ek’s scoring opportunities and the preconceived notion that the Wild will be filtering young guys in and out at center only improves his chances to make an impact and solidify himself as an elite center in this league.
John Gibson Will Be Traded to Pittsburgh this Season
This is a take I have been keeping in my back pocket ever since Matt Murray got dealt to Ottawa, and it makes a lot of sense.
I don’t think I’m bursting anyone’s bubble by saying the Anaheim Ducks are probably not going to make the playoffs this season. This will most likely be their fourth consecutive time packing their bags without a playoff berth, and with Ducks general manager Bob Murray fully immersing himself in a rebuild, it might be smart to trade a 28-year-old goalie to avoid the risk of age becoming a factor once they are competitive.
I have always believed that John Gibson was the most underrated goaltender in the league, and while his stats last season were pretty poor, it only lowers his trade value and allows for a bounce back with a new team. Pittsburgh can be that team.
The Penguins are counting down the minutes until the door closes on their current core and it seems clear that general manager Ron Hextall is going to do whatever it takes in order to get one more Stanley Cup run out of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang. With goaltending being the major weak spot of this Penguins roster, Hextall should look to make a buy-low move by acquiring the 28-year-old Pittsburgh native.
Miro Heiskanen Will Win the Norris Trophy
People who know me are going to see this take and discredit the idea out of my biased fandom for the Stars blue liner, but allow me to truly put you on notice of just how good Miro Heiskanen is, and can be.
Last season, the former third overall pick averaged 24:58 TOI, which ranked ninth in the league, and he seems to have taken over the role of the Stars top powerplay defenseman from John Klingberg, increasing his chances of putting up points in a big way.
While some of his stats may have had a slight dip last season, a lot of it had to do with the injury bug that plagued the Stars throughout the season. Heading into this season, the Stars look much healthier and look to rebound. Heiskanen also has some extra urgency to perform after signing a massive eight-year contract extension holding an average annual value of $8.45 million, which ranks eighth amongst defensemen.
A lot of people in the world of hockey talk about guys like Cale Makar, Quinn Hughes and Adam Fox as the young studs on the defensive end, but if you take the time to watch Heiskanen’s smooth skating and vision on the ice, it seems very possible that he will end this season atop the list of best NHL defenseman.
Mathew Barzal Eclipses 90 Points
Speaking of under appreciated young studs in the NHL, let’s talk about the Islanders star, Mathew Barzal.
Barzal bursted onto the scene in 2017-18, posting 85 points and walking away with the Calder Trophy. Since then, Barzal seems to have plateaued around the .80 points per game mark, but has raised his play during the playoffs and led the Islanders to back-to-back conference finals appearances.
To me, it seems like people may have forgotten about just how dynamic Barzal can be in the regular season. With the Islanders being the projected favorite to win the Metropolitan Division, I find it to be very possible that the former 16th overall pick can surpass a point per game once again.
Barzal finished last season fourth among forwards in expected goals for and finished in the top 50 in point shares. A full season getting to play alongside Anders Lee (who was out last season with a lower body injury) and deadline acquisition Kyle Palmieri is going to present Barzal with more scoring opportunities than he has ever had in his career.
Vancouver Will Finish Second in the Pacific Division
In an article full of bold predictions, one belief that I would be in the majority in is that the Pacific Division is the worst division in hockey. This is good news for an up-and-coming Vancouver Canucks team, who I believe will finish behind only Vegas in the division standings.
Canucks general manager Jim Benning is fighting for his job, and it was apparent this offseason. The Canucks managed to acquire restricted free agent Conor Garland (who then signed a five-year deal with Vancouver) and depreciating star Oliver Ekman-Larsson from the Coyotes. They also signed forward Jason Dickinson, defenseman Tucker Poolman and goalie Jaroslav Halak.
While those are beneficial additions, the best moves that Benning made this offseason came from within the team. Restricted free agents Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes both re-signed with the team at 3×7.35AAV and 6×7.85AAV, respectively.
This team has quietly been able to build through the draft and has grown to be a team with one of the brightest futures in the league. With guys like Pettersson, Bo Horvat, J.T. Miller and Hughes leading the charge and the potential impacts of rookie Vasily Podkolzin and the former Coyotes as depth scoring, this team has the pieces to be a contender in the playoffs.
The X-factors for this team will be Brock Boeser (who will start the season injured) and Thatcher Demko. If Boeser can return to his old self and if Demko can prove to be a true workhorse starter in the league, look out for Vancouver to be the dark horse this season and create the potential for a Montrealesque run in the playoffs.
Cover photo via: Devin Manky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images files
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