Every season, the NHL is hard to predict, and the 2020-21 season has been no exception. Many teams or players have overachieved, and likewise, we have seen some teams fail to live up to expectations. Fans and experts alike entered this season with preconceived theories or predictions for what the season would look like, and already, we have seen some of these theories disproven or wrong. Most, if not all, the teams in the league have already played more than half their regular-season games, and we are starting to see which teams or players are truly living up to the billing that the hockey world had for them and which ones are not.
The Sabres Are a Playoff Team
There was truly a strong belief that the Sabres built a playoff team in the offseason. Signing Taylor Hall and the expected continued growth of Jack Eichel was intended to give the team a great top line. And with a supposedly deep roster, the Sabres looked poised to make it back to the playoffs for the first time since the 2011-12 season. Fast forward to now, and the team has not only looked like the worst team in the East Division but the NHL, costing head coach Ralph Krueger his job only halfway through the season. It’s safe to say that any belief in a playoff berth died around two weeks in or once the team returned from its absence at the beginning of February when they lost three games in a row.
Canadiens Are a Cup-Caliber Team
The Montreal Canadiens were one of the more active teams in the offseason, and it appeared that the front office built a roster that had depth and all the necessary tools to compete for the Stanley Cup. To start the season, it looked like the Canadiens were going to fulfill that promise and bring the historic franchise its 25th Stanley Cup championship and the first one since 1993. The team won 7 of its first 10 games and was displaying a deep offense, a defense led by a pair that had two Norris Trophy candidates in Jeff Petry and Joel Edmundson, and a goaltending duo in Carey Price and Jake Allen that finally took the pressure off Price and gave the roster depth.
Unfortunately, things started to unravel for the Canadiens, and the roster started to show problems as the season has progressed. Price hasn’t looked like his usual dominant self in goal, the back end of the defense started to struggle, and the rest of the North Division started to adapt to their roster. The Canadiens lost five games in a row to cost their head coach Claude Julien his job as they closed out the month of February. It’s safe to say the Stanley Cup beliefs started to fade around then. Moreover, with the team currently fighting for the final spot in the playoffs in the division, not many fans are convinced in the slightest that this team looks worthy of making a playoff run of any variety.
Blackhawks Are Rebuilding and Not Ready to Compete
It was easy to believe entering this season that the Blackhawks were in a rebuilding phase. That argument only became more valid with both Kirby Dach and Jonathan Toews out for a significant time, leaving the roster significantly less talented. The Blackhawks only barely made it to the playoffs the year before, and despite the upset against the Oilers to advance to the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, it was easy to believe that the team wasn’t ready to compete in a tough Central Division with a roster that appeared to worsen in the offseason.
By the end of February, the hockey world was in a state of shock as they saw a Blackhawks team that was not only still winning but looking competitive. The Blackhawks have been led this season by 32-year-old veteran Patrick Kane, who is having a Hart Trophy-caliber season with 30 assists, third-most in the NHL. In addition, young skaters like 24-year-old Pius Suter and 23-year-old Alex DeBrincat have stepped up and helped form a formidable top line. While currently in fourth place in the Central Division, with the Stars and Blue Jackets right behind them, it’s possible that the surprise team doesn’t make the playoffs, but they have certainly exceeded preseason expectations.
Panthers Are Going to Fall Off
The Florida Panthers were expected to improve upon last season, but few thought they’d look like one of the best teams in the Central Division and the NHL. Moreover, after the hot start, when they won 5 of their first 6 games, it was easy to assume the Panthers would have a drop-off at some point as they appeared to be overachieving with what seemed like an easy schedule.
By the beginning of March, it was clear that the strong start to the season was anything but a fluke. The Panthers have looked like one of the most complete teams in the NHL and look like a legitimate Stanley Cup contender. With six skaters scoring 10 goals or more on the season, and the defense playing great in all their shifts, it’s clear that head coach Joel Quenneville has a roster that is ready to compete this season and will be a tough team come playoff time.
Islanders Are Overrated
The Islanders took off in February, winning 8 of 12 games to catapult them to the top of the East Division. It was easy to declare the team overrated, as they played an easy schedule and were riding a hot streak. Moreover, it was hard to say whether the team was genuinely good or just peaking early. As the Islanders kept winning, building a nine-game winning streak at the end of the month of February and into this month, it became clear that the team wasn’t just overachieving but rather had all the pieces to win the competitive East Division. While the doubt is back again with Anders Lee being placed on long-term injured reserve with a torn ACL, the great defensive play and goaltending duo of Semyon Varlamov and Ilya Sorokin has impressed many hockey fans who believed the team was good but not as good as their record.
Bruins Defense Doesn’t Need Chara & Krug
The Bruins entered this offseason with the hope of continuing to look like one of the best teams in the NHL, as they have the previous three seasons, but by becoming a younger and more salary cap-friendly team. As a result, the Bruins let defensemen Torey Krug and Zdeno Chara leave in free agency with the hopes that the younger defensemen could step up this season. It was understandable to let both star defensemen go, as Krug signed a seven-year, $45.5 million contract. And while Chara only signed a one-year, $795,000 contract with the Washington Capitals, at 44 years old, it was time to move forward.
Initially, the defense didn’t appear affected by the two losses from the offseason, with Charlie McAvoy emerging as their top defenseman and the young unit playing well for a Bruins team that was once again among the best teams in the NHL. Unfortunately, once the team started to slide in the East Division, losing 7 of 10 games earlier in the month of March, it was easy to see how missing star defensemen like Krug and Chara, who both are having excellent seasons in their new locations, would only add insult to injury. The back end of the defense has struggled, and the Bruins not only could use depth on the unit but impact players like the two they let leave in the offseason.
What Else Has Surprised Experts and Fans Alike?
One of the big surprises for anyone has to be the rise of the Minnesota Wild, who have looked like one of the best teams in the West Division with Kirill Kaprizov and a young core suddenly turning the roster into a potent one. Likewise, it’s surprising to see how the Tampa Bay Lightning, after winning the Stanley Cup, are not only the top team in the Central Division but are able to play as well as they are despite a shortened offseason. The 2020-21 NHL season is only reminding us once again how difficult the game is to predict and how easy it is for a team or player to surprise even the greatest hockey minds.
Mike Fink joined The Hockey Writers in November 2020 and covers the New York Islanders. In addition to covering the Islanders, Fink writes about the NHL at large and contributes as a weekly guest to The Hockey Writers Podcast. Follow Mike on Twitter @Finks_thoughts for more Islanders and general hockey insights.