British Columbia, caravan driving, and an undying love for the Maple Leafs. Steve McConnell returns to give unabashed opinions on the second BEARD Hockey season.
I once was a young man. Some of you may remember me. I found the old <redacted by management> in a random drunken search for Toronto Maple Leafs fan sites back in 2002, when I was a young lad.
I offered those GM's unbiased (and often harsh) predictions totally unsolicited. It became a bit of a tradition. I even managed to follow some of them to the new <redacted by management>, and then to Skyward Hockey. And I still contributed - for reasons no one but Jack Daniel really knows (least of all, me).
Fast forward to 2021. The old man is back.
No need to revisit my undoubtedly spot-on predictions from last year. It's cool. Just give me the credit I know I deserve. But enough about me. Well, one more tidbit...
I drove a caravan into BC last week and ended up on a 5-day bender.
Don't ask for the details - even I can't remember them.
Thomas got with me and asked if I could spend a few days producing some more predictions for you crazed GM's. I told him I would - for $10,000 USD. He laughed, I cried, and after he countered me down to $5 CDN and a bottle of Bim Jeam's, I acquiesced.
I spent every waking hour these past few hungover-filled days pouring over rosters, game reports, and using my patented skills as a researcher and writer to come up with the most can't-miss predictions in hockey history.
Or I'm just winging it. I'll let you decide.
Wait, where the heck is <name redacted by management>? Has my END TIMES PREDICTION COME TRUE?!? I TOLD YOU ALL! I was so sure he would <remainder of diatribe, which was 18 pages long and included possibly highly classified government information, has been redacted by management>.
Alright, I've settled down. I'm done, for sure this time. I still think those aliens out on Sauntauri X owe me a beer. Anyway, I'll let Thomas format this sucker into something legible.
Here we go. Again.
#1: Ottawa Senators (43-31-8, 94 pts, 3rd in Atlantic)
This team is better than last year's squad, and they weren't half bad. You could say GM Mike Bell improved the roster somewhat, but I say some natural building upon the foundation was to be expected. In any case, it bodes well for the Senators, who claim the Atlantic crown.
#2: Montreal Canadiens (47-25-10, 104 pts, 1st in Atlantic)
Though not as impenetrable as they were last year, GM Lennart Westman and his Habs head into the new campaign with most of the same cast of characters in tow. The regular season matters less to me for this club - it's all about what happens in May (and maybe June?).
#3: Buffalo Sabres (43-33-6, 92 pts, 4th in Atlantic)
The Sabres backslid hard after the trade deadline last season, eventually being bounced by Montreal without too much fuss. This year, it's a much-improved defense (at the top end) and largely the same offensive unit, sprinkled with young guns and Cam Talbot. How long before Ryan Miller takes over and becomes the feel-good story of the year? I give it 5 games.
#4: Detroit Red Wings (43-29-10, 96 pts, 2nd in Atlantic)
The top four clubs here stay the same with some jockeying amongst them. The Red Wings have some depth and punch, but is Juuse Saros the answer in net? If this club gets hot, it can win the division. If they get cold, they could miss the playoffs entirely.
#5: Florida Panthers (38-40-4, 80 pts, 8th in Atlantic)
The Panthers look vastly improved from the basement dwellers of last season. While a playoff berth might still be another year away due to the sheer amount of competitive teams in the middle of the Eastern pack, GM Trevor Cook has the long-game in mind here.
#6: Tampa Bay Lightning (42-37-3, 87 pts, 7th in Atlantic)
New Bolts GM Wes Mucyk has put his stamp on Tampa Bay in short order, but much of the top-end of this club remains the same. Auston Matthews will need to carry this club offensively for the Lightning to have any chance this year, but the future is bright.
#7: Toronto Maple Leafs (41-34-7, 89 pts, 6th in Atlantic)
The enigma that is Big TO still has Alex Ovechkin and some decent depth pieces. But this is definitely a step-back year for GM Sean Hanley. The aged D-corps and average goaltending just isn't equipped to fight the firepower that exists ahead of them. A blow-up could be just what the doctor ordered here.
#8: Boston Bruins (39-32-11, 89 pts, 5th in Atlantic)
This is a club in transition as the youth get their seasoning in Providence. Some journeymen veterans sprinkle the pro lineup but fans in Beantown are in for a long season. How long will John Gibson hold up the fort before 19-year old phenom Yaroslav Askarov takes the reins?
#1: Carolina Hurricanes (39-32-11, 89 pts, 4th in Metro)
The defense still leaves a lot to be desired. But there's no doubt that Carolina has the firepower to match pretty much anyone in BEARD Hockey. With Carey Price back for another solid season and continued improvement from the depth parts, the Canes look good to go deep this year.
#2: Pittsburgh Penguins (41-37-4, 86 points, 5th in Metro)
There's just something about this team that makes it feel better than it is on paper. Maybe it's my undying love of the name Swackhammer. Swack...hammah. Competent where they need to be, the excitement is in the young guns. Cody Glass, Brett Howden, Kaapo Kakko, Miro Heiskanen, and defending Norris Trophy winner Cale Makar seem set for even more of a breakout this year. Dark horse candidate to make a huge splash.
#3: New Jersey Devils (44-29-9, 97 pts, 2nd in Metro)
Loaded for bear with arguably the best goalie going right now in Darcy Kuemper, the Devils look strong yet again heading into a new season. They do seem a bit thinner though on defense, though newcomer K'Andre Miller looks quite special and may help fill in the gaps on the backend.
#4: New York Hockey Rangers (37-37-8, 82 points, 8th in Metro)
Perhaps one of the most improved clubs in the league without making many trades, the Rangers look to be on the brink of being another surprise team to make waves. GM Sean McAndrews has his youth positioned for a break out, and with key stars like Leon Draisaitl, Roman Josi, and Semyon Varlamov in the lead, it looks like all the tools are there for just that.
#5: Washington Capitals (53-19-10, 116 pts, 1st in Metro)
The surprise team of the previous season isn't going to surprise anyone this season. GM Shawn Davis was faced with replacing many key parts of the club that earned 53 regular-season wins in the 2020-21 campaign. The defense is held together by bailing wire and Petr Mrazek seems poised for a letdown year.
#6: New York Islanders (43-31-8, 94 pts, 3rd in Metro)
This is a solid, well-built team. New GM Joe Bubanj has taken a slow and steady approach here, and it would surprise me none if this club actually competed for the division title. The issue is the level of competition. Someone has to end up here.
#7: Columbus Blue Jackets (34-34-14, 82 pts, 7th in Metro)
The youth movement is strong and alive in Columbus, where GM Tommy Barr has his kids ready to take on prime roles for the Islanders. With that comes some hiccups and headaches for Isles fans. But don't worry - it won't be long before the Jackets are among the competitive teams.
#8: Philadelphia Flyers (39-36-7, 85 pts, 6th in Metro)
A new GM with the coolest name, Flyers GM Stefan "Chef's" Kiss came into a situation where much work was and remains to be done. Stefan has been patient, but it's evident this isn't the club that will take Philly to the promised land. Some long nights are in store, but Kiss aims to rectify that, and soon.
#1: Winnipeg Jets (49-25-8, 106 pts, 2nd in Central)
Trying to decipher the best team in the Central is like trying to find the lost city of Atlantis using a decoder ring from a Cracker Jack box. But the Jets find themselves on the top of the heap due to the utterly hilarious depth they possess at every position. This is a team built for the playoffs, too.
#2: Arizona Coyotes (50-23-9, 109 pts, 1st in Central)
The Coyotes find themselves just shy of a second division title here, but it's only by a little. With goaltending for days, an offense led by all-everything Brayden Point, Anze Kopitar, and Max Pacioretty, and a defense that plays well at both ends of the ice, GM Colin Small has himself a true contender here.
#3: Dallas Stars (42-34-6, 90 pts, 4th in Central)
Scoring, defense, and adequate goaltending. Nothing flashy here in Big D, but GM Marc-Andre Laberge is building a team that can compete year in and year out. If this was any other division, Dallas would probably be in the lead. But alas, it's the Central, and finishing third here is no small feat.
#4: Chicago Blackhawks (38-36-8, 84 pts, 6th in Central)
Hahahahahaha. Fourth place you say? Yeah, it might be a bit high considering the competition. But there's a lot of offense in Chicagoland, and while the defense is sound, the goaltending is questionable at best - for now. Spencer Knight is the heir apparent, but he's going to be fed to the wolves sooner rather than later with Alex Nedelikokadeliovicilambdaphikavich as the de-facto starter.
#5: Colorado Avalanche (43-23-16, 102 pts, 3rd in Central)
The Avs got by last season winning a ton of nail biters. 16 overtime or shootout wins means this club could have just as easily had 86 points and a playoff miss. Since Colorado is currently rudderless without a GM, I'm guessing once a new one finally is installed, some changes will be coming. And in this division, the smart play is to play for tomorrow.
#6: St. Louis Blues (39-33-10, 88 pts, 5th in Central)
This is a good team, but they are simply no match for the clubs ahead of them - yet. GM Frank Todd Snider sounds like he should be doing commercials for the Hurtline, but he's in charge in St. Louis and he's doing a great job. Now, about that applying to move to some other division so he can actually have a shot at the playoffs...
#7: Minnesota Wild (34-41-7, 75 pts, 8th in Central)
This club is the "Hyde" in Jekyll and Hyde. Hyde was the one who couldn't make the playoffs, right? Anyway, GM Josh Rose went out and spent him some dough, bringing in Brady Skjei, Evander Kane, and Devon Toews to try to improve his Wild. He managed to get a decent netminder in David Rittich for a song, too. It's just lipstick on a stegosaurus, though, as Minney ain't got a shot in this Frankenstein of a division.
#8: Nashville Predators (33-38-11, 77 pts, 7th in Central)
There's some talent in Smashville. The problem is that with no one at the helm, the key areas needed to be improved upon never were. With that can kicked down the road a season, it's going to be another song of woe for the country lovers in Music City...or Music State - whichever yocal thing it is.
1. Los Angeles Kings (44-25-13, 101 pts, 2nd in Pacific)
Sure, I'll take the Kings. Honestly, you could probably throw a dart at a wall with any 6 of these clubs and insert them anywhere in the top six of this division. Any club with Sidney Crosby and Victor Hedman is going to be near the top, and with their decent forward depth and adequate, if not spectacular, defense and goaltending, it's as good a pick as any to take the Pacific regular season crown.
2. Anaheim Ducks (36-35-11, 83 pts, 5th in Pacific)
This might be - nah, it is - my most crazy lunatic out-of-left-field pick by a country kilometer. The Ducks on paper are a work in progress at best. Second in the division? Well, take a look at the division! Plus, I'm betting that GM Michael Stafford is going to be far more active in improving his club during the season, especially when he gets off to a great start.
3. Edmonton Oilers (41-33-8, 90 pts, 4th in Pacific)
The defending champs were never the best team in the regular season. Hell, they barely made it in. But the Oilers proved that ANYTHING can and will happen in the playoffs, and no matter what happens now, they'll always be able to call themselves the first-ever BEARD Hockey Stanley Cup Champions. Sweet belt too, bro.
4. San Jose Sharks (37-36-9, 83 pts, 6th in Pacific)
Another club that could be a surprise contender, but probably lacks the depth throughout the lineup. They'll battle for a playoff spot because Connor McDavid isn't going to tolerate losing for long. He takes this club on his back and gets them close - but they fall just short in the end.
5. Vancouver Canucks (51-23-8, 110 pts, 1st in Pacific)
Surprise #2. The Canucks have one of the more stout clubs in the league as things sit right now. But I've studied (IE: took a cursory glance at something someone said once, in passing) Vancouver GM Shaun Young. Using my analytical mind, I can say for certain that there's little chance he will sit on this club of riches for long. And once he makes his mark, it may be a while before the sun comes out in BC again.
6. Calgary Flames (42-28-12, 96 pts, 3rd in Pacific)
This is a feisty team, and as such has the ability to play greater as a unit than the sum of their parts. That's why there's plenty of room to interpret here - the Flames could end up in the top 3, or right here where I have them. GM Theo Pepper isn't going to sit idle and watch the team fade, though. So look out - Calgary could be a surprise.
7. Vegas Golden Knights (31-46-5, 67 pts, 8th in Pacific)
There's reason for optimism in Vegas, but the Golden Knights are still a long way from the train station. Why they need a train is anyone's guess, but stick with me here. Some sprinkled talent mixed in with the ageless Mike Smith could make some waves. But it feels like GM Neil Loughran has a longer-term vision in mind here.
8. Seattle Kraken (36-36-10, 82 pts, 7th in Pacific)
GM David Springgay released his Kraken and fought a valiant fight, reaching hockey .500 and being competitive most nights. This is a team built for tomorrow, so fans at the immaculate Climate Pledge Arena can enjoy seeing their team grow - at about the same pace as a tree. Or maybe a plant. A dandelion? What's something that takes a few years to grow? A dog?
In classic sign-off fashion, I shall simply leave you and say...