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NHL preview 2021: Big questions, bold predictions, fantasy breakouts and a guide for all 31 teams

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Breaking down the toughest picks, rising stars on NHL top 100 list (3:47)

ESPN's Emily Kaplan and Greg Wyshynski present their toughest picks and players to watch in the NHL top 100 list. (3:47)

Big questions. Bold predictions. Top prospects. Strengths and flaws. Breakout fantasy candidates. This is what you need to know for every team for the 2020-21 NHL season.

The teams are listed here in alphabetical order in their new divisions; click through the link for each team to read the full guide to the season.

Jump to a team:
ANA | ARI | BOS | BUF | CGY | CAR | CHI
COL | CBJ | DAL | DET | EDM | FLA

LA | MIN | MTL | NSH | NJ | NYI
NYR | OTT | PHI | PIT | SJ | STL
TB | TOR | VAN | VGS | WSH | WPG

East Division

Boston Bruins

Has the championship window closed on this veteran group?

When the Bruins were eliminated by the Lightning in the 2020 playoffs, there was something wistful -- albeit realistic -- about the way the players spoke, realizing an aging core and tight salary cap may have caught up to a team that has been to the Stanley Cup Final three times since 2011.

"It just kind of hit me after the game that the core group, a few of us, we have one or two, three years left [on our contracts]," David Krejci said in September. "With the pandemic going on, you never know what's going to happen."

There are some young standouts like David Pastrnak and Charlie McAvoy, but the B's will be without Pastrnak for about the first month of the season as he finishes his recovery from offseason hip surgery. Read the full preview.

Buffalo Sabres

Can they make the playoffs?

The Sabres' playoff drought has reached a league-high nine seasons, and ownership, players and fans are getting antsy. There's no question this team is heading in the right direction under coach Ralph Krueger (despite going through yet another offseason GM change) and the one-year Taylor Hall deal adds a level of urgency. Read the full preview.

New Jersey Devils

Are they going to be big sellers this year?

New GM Tom Fitzgerald has been clear about his direction for the team: once Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier are ready, the Devils are ready to go all-in. That's probably not going to happen this season, so it means management will have to come to early decisions on pending free agents Nikita Gusev, Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac. Re-sign to be part of the future, or trade for future assets? Read the full preview.

New York Islanders

Is this team a contender?

Death, taxes, and everyone counting out the Islanders ... until they make the playoffs, and then even when they get there. New York has made the playoffs in each of Lou Lamoriello and Barry Trotz's two seasons in charge. The Isles upset the Penguins in 2019 and made it even further in 2020, losing to the Lightning in the Eastern Conference finals.

With largely the same roster returning, we're wondering if this team has an extra gear in them to take that next step. Read the full preview.

New York Rangers

Is the rebuild over?

The arrival of Artemi Panarin in 2019 free agency expedited the process. New York got another boost when it won the 2020 draft lottery and the right to select Lafreniere at No. 1 overall. The page has officially turned from the Rangers' last legitimate contender (Chris Kreider is the only roster player remaining from 2014), but are we ready to anoint this group of Blueshirts as the real deal or do they still have too many holes and players to develop? Read the full preview.

Philadelphia Flyers

What impact will a healthy Oskar Lindblom and Nolan Patrick have on this team?

Lindblom was on the verge of breaking out last season -- 11 goals in 30 games -- before a rare bone cancer diagnosis derailed his season. Lindblom served as an off-ice inspiration for the team, and after completing his chemotherapy last year, the 24-year-old is poised to return.

The Flyers are also hoping to welcome back Patrick, the No. 2 pick of the 2017 draft. Patrick missed all of last season dealing with a migraine disorder. In an ideal world, these two forwards add a boost to an already well-performing offense: the Flyers ranked seventh in the league last season with 3.29 goals per game. Read the full preview.

Pittsburgh Penguins

Have the Penguins surrounded Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin with enough talent?

That's been the existential question for the Penguins in recent seasons, as GM Jim Rutherford has been on a years-long quest to tweak the roster and strike the right chemistry. Time is ticking for the Pens to win another cup with this duo. Crosby is 33 and Malkin is now 34, with a contract expiring after the 2021-22 season. Read the full preview.

Washington Capitals

Can Peter Laviolette reignite the fire?

The Capitals fired Todd Reirden after just two seasons because they were stuck in a post-championship malaise. Veteran leaders, including Alex Ovechkin, wanted a coach that would help keep them accountable.

Washington got that in Laviolette, who has a reputation for being demanding. They also brought in longtime Bruins captain Zdeno Chara on an incentive-laden deal to add jam to the blue line, and accountability to the locker room. Will that translate to regular season success -- and more importantly, can it help them back over the playoff hump? Read the full preview.


Central Division

Carolina Hurricanes

How much of a story will Dougie Hamilton's expiring contract be?

The Canes have developed a clear identity under coach Rod Brind'Amour. They have young stars to build around and have impressed in each of their past two playoff runs, showing that they're ready for more.

However, one of their top defensemen, Hamilton, is entering the final season of the six-year, $34.5 million contract he signed with Calgary in 2015. Can the Canes agree to keep him long term (and are they willing to shell out the going rate for a top-tier defenseman in his prime, which is far more than the $5.75 million he's getting this season)? Or could he potentially be traded for assets -- or walk away for nothing this summer? Stay tuned to this lingering storyline. Read the full preview.

Chicago Blackhawks

Just how bad are the Blackhawks going to be?

GM Stan Bowman finally admitted the obvious this offseason: Chicago is in a rebuild. And the process may not be that pretty.

The Blackhawks didn't re-sign Corey Crawford, instead turning to an unproven trio of youngsters in net. They traded Brandon Saad (21 goals last season), are without two of their top young forwards in Kirby Dach (wrist surgery) and Alex Nylander (knee surgery) for most of the season, and captain Jonathan Toews (60 points last season) isn't reporting to camp as he tries to get to the bottom of a medical mystery. It's going to get a lot worse before it gets better. Read the full preview.

Columbus Blue Jackets

Will Pierre-Luc Dubois be on this team all season?

Oh no, not this again. Just two years after the Blue Jackets dealt with the looming departures of Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky, Columbus has another star that might want out. Pierre-Luc Dubois, who continues to develop as the team's No. 1 center, signed a deal for just two years this offseason. Dubois reportedly told management he didn't want to commit to the organization long term.

This gives GM Jarmo Kekalainen two seasons to strike on Dubois' value and initiate a trade -- or see if the 22-year-old may have a change of heart. Coach John Tortorella and captain Nick Foligno have experience dealing with this dynamic in the past (see: Panarin, Bobrovsky) but this is less than ideal. Read the full preview.

Dallas Stars

Can they get off to a strong start?

We often talk about Stanley Cup hangovers, but it can be just as hard for the runner-up. Dallas, for example, is beginning the season without Tyler Seguin and Ben Bishop, who are both recovering from offseason surgeries. The Stars know how arduous it is to climb back from a slow start, after going 2-7-1 to start last season. And in a condensed, 56-game season, there's less margin for error. Read the full preview.

Detroit Red Wings

Is this the last season of misery?

Steve Yzerman took control of the Red Wings in April 2019. The GM refuses to put a timetable on his rebuilding plan, and for the last 20 months it has felt like Detroit has just been biding time until bloated contracts expire and enough prospects develop. The Red Wings were tough to watch in 2019-20, finishing with a league low 39 points -- 23 fewer than the Ottawa Senators -- with an absurd minus-122 goal differential.

Yzerman made several depth signings to make the Red Wings more competitive. The question is: just how competitive (and watchable) are they now? Read the full preview.

Florida Panthers

Who are the Panthers?

Sure, it's an existential question -- but that's what everyone in the league is asking. Florida might be one of the toughest teams to peg at this juncture.

It's the second straight offseason of massive changes, and new GM Bill Zito is trying to maximize the roster around the team's three centerpieces: captain Aleksander Barkov, goalie Sergei Bobrovsky and coach Joel Quenneville. Did he do enough to find a salvageable winning combo or is this team destined to underperform again this season? Read the full preview.

Nashville Predators

Can this team score enough goals?

The Predators had a middling offense last season, scoring one or fewer goals in nearly 20% of the team's games. Defenseman Roman Josi led the scoring with 65 points, and no forward posted more than 50 points. What's more, the Predators said goodbye to Nick Bonino and Craig Smith, who each scored 18 goals -- second to only Filip Forsberg (21) on the team.

GM David Poile brought in some fresh faces and left some lineup spots open for young players; can anyone break through and help this offense out? Read the full preview.

Tampa Bay Lightning

How big of a loss is Nikita Kucherov?

The 27-year-old Kucherov has scored 398 points over the last four seasons, which trails only Connor McDavid for most in the league. The 2019 MVP has been a huge part of the Lightning's recent success -- including a team-high 34 points in the 2020 Stanley Cup run -- but will be sidelined the entire season after undergoing hip surgery.

The Lightning are as deep as any team in the league. How will they adjust the long term loss of Kucherov, and does the complexion of this team help? Read the full preview.

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2:14

Breaking down the unique possibilities in this year's Stanley Cup playoffs

Greg Wyshynski explains how this year's unique Stanley Cup playoffs format could produce some intriguing matchups.

West Division

Anaheim Ducks

Can the real John Gibson come back?

From 2017-18 through 2018-19, Ducks goalie John Gibson earned his reputation as an analytics darling, adding over 14 wins above replacement to Anaheim during that span, per Evolving Hockey. Last season, he added just 1.2 wins above replacement in his worst NHL season, finishing with a .904 save percentage and a 3.00 goals-against average.

If the Ducks are getting within a wing and a prayer of the playoff bubble, it'll be because of a resurgent Gibson. Read the full preview.

Arizona Coyotes

Can goaltending deliver a playoff berth?

Last season, the Coyotes added big names like Phil Kessel and Taylor Hall to their roster in an effort to bolster one of the weakest offenses in the NHL. The result saw an uptick of just 0.16 goals per game, which moved them from 29th to 23rd in the league.

Arizona's .529 points percentage could be credited to the other side of the ice, where Darcy Kuemper (.928 save percentage) and Antti Raanta (.921) were one of the best tandems in the NHL. That great goaltending continued into the postseason, where the Coyotes found themselves thanks to the 24-team playoff bubble expansion. Kuemper delivered a qualifying round win over Nashville, before the Coyotes were humbled by Colorado.

Can the goalies give them a second straight playoff appearance, something the team hasn't had since 2012? Read the full preview.

Colorado Avalanche

If healthy, is this the Stanley Cup champion?

When they were eliminated by the Stars in Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinal, the Avalanche were missing captain Gabriel Landeskog, forwards Joonas Donskoi and Matt Calvert, defenseman Erik Johnson and -- most crucially -- their first- and second-string goaltenders Philipp Grubauer and Pavel Francouz, as Michael Hutchinson got the start. At full strength, do the Avalanche win that series and end up facing the Lightning for the Stanley Cup? Perhaps.

At full strength this season, with a team anchored by star players and well-cast role players, can the Avalanche win the Stanley Cup? Absolutely. Read the full preview.

Los Angeles Kings

Is this the sweet spot?

The Kings have cultivated the deepest collection of prospects in the NHL. Quinton Byfield (the No. 2 pick in the 2020 draft) leads a group of forwards that also includes Alex Turcotte, Arthur Kaliyev and Gabriel Vilardi; the defense group is highlighted by Tobias Bjornfot, Kale Clague and Mikey Anderson. All of them could have roles this season.

But as the next wave of Kings arrive on the roster, can they mesh with the mainstays to return the team to the playoffs? Read the full preview.

Minnesota Wild

Is this a playoff team?

The Wild were roped into the postseason through the 24-team tournament expansion last summer; otherwise, their .558 points percentage wasn't enough to make the cut. But this Minnesota team, coached by last year's interim boss Dean Evason, should be better than that edition. The Wild added offense to a group that has a rising star in Kevin Fiala; and, in Cam Talbot, have improved their goaltending in back of a defense whose analytics were some of the best in the league last season.

The West Division has at least one playoff spot that's up for grabs, and the Wild could be the ones to own it. Read the full preview.

San Jose Sharks

Is the window closed?

By any measure, last season was a disaster. The Sharks went from an appearance in the Western Conference finals to their lowest points percentage (.450) since 2002-03 -- and Ottawa owned their first-round draft pick, too! Coach Peter DeBoer was fired 23 games in, replaced by new head coach Bob Boughner. Injuries ravaged the lineup, while most of the healthy players saw their stats decline. They played bad defensively in front of putrid goaltending.

Is there any reason for hope in 2020-21? With better health, better team defense and a supporting cast that's a year older and better, maybe. But playing their first season since 2005-06 without either Joe Thornton or Joe Pavelski on the roster, it's worth asking if the Sharks' time as a contender is over. Read the full preview.

St. Louis Blues

What does Torey Krug offer, and what did Alex Pietrangelo take with him?

The massive change for the Blues this offseason was the departure of Pietrangelo to the Golden Knights -- the Blues refused to give him a no-movement clause in a new deal, among other factors -- and the arrival of his replacement Torey Krug from the Boston Bruins, as the latter signed a seven-year, $45 million free-agent deal.

Pietrangelo had his most productive offensive season in 2019-20 (0.74 points per game), while remaining a solid defender in all situations. Krug is a better offensive player, and an elite power-play quarterback, who isn't a defensive liability but also isn't Pietrangelo's equal on that end of the ice. They also lost a team captain in Pietrangelo, but found an exceptional replacement in Ryan O'Reilly. Read the full preview.

Vegas Golden Knights

Is function more important than fun?

The "Golden Misfits" stormed into the league in 2017-18 as a fun-love group of expansion castoffs. Vegas made the playoffs in its first three years of existence, including last summer's loss in the Western Conference finals. But the Misfits are all grown up. Coach Gerard Gallant getting fired and replaced by Pete DeBoer was the first step. Then there was the trade for Robin Lehner to supplant Marc-Andre Fleury as starting goalie, followed by the trades of center Paul Stastny and defenseman Nate Schmidt to open cap space for the signing of free-agent prize Alex Pietrangelo.

The chemistry and vibe have changed. That might not be a bad thing, but it's certainly a different dynamic in the desert. Read the full preview.


North Division

Calgary Flames

Were the struggles of Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan temporary or a downward trend?

The Flames' top two offensive stars -- with due respect to Matthew Tkachuk -- had career years prior to the 2019-20 season, and then slipped off the peak. Both Gaudreau (0.83) and Monahan (0.69) had their lowest points-per-game averages since their rookie seasons, leading to trade speculation after Calgary was ousted by Dallas in the first round of the playoffs. The Flames need their stars producing at levels befitting of the label. Another down year offensively, and changes could be afoot, given Gaudreau is an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2022 and Monahan is up after the 2022-23 season. Read the full preview.

Edmonton Oilers

Can the Oilers defend at a championship level?

Last season, the Oilers had the most potent power play the NHL had seen in 40 years. They were second on the penalty kill. Special teams were not the problem. Even-strength most certainly was the problem: They were minus-10 in goal differential in the regular season, and then gave up 12 even-strength goals in four games in their qualification-round upset loss to the Chicago Blackhawks.

Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl are dominant offensively and non-factors defensively. While Mikko Koskinen is a capable goalie, crease-mate Mike Smith had a minus-7.71 goals saved above average. Coach Dave Tippett's teams used to punch above their weight defensively when he was in Arizona. This one has yet to prove it can defend well enough at 5-on-5 to contend for a championship. Read the full preview.

Montreal Canadiens

Has Chef Marc Bergevin finally perfected the recipe?

Bergevin has been the general manager of the Canadiens since 2012. There have been times when Montreal looked like an appetizing contender. Other times, they looked half-baked, missing a few ingredients or occasionally rancid (2017-18 ... woof).

But Bergevin kept cooking, looking for the right mix around his aging main dishes, goalie Carey Price (age 33) and defenseman Shea Weber (35). The Canadiens showed some promise last season, and then rolled over the Penguins in the qualification round before losing to the Flyers in the first playoff round in six games. Bergevin went on a supermarket sweep in the offseason, adding some key new players. On paper, the recipe looks delectable. But how is it going to taste? Read the full preview.

Ottawa Senators

Is Matt Murray a franchise goalie?

The biggest change for the Senators is in goal. Craig Anderson's decade-long run in Ottawa has ended with the arrival of Matt Murray via a trade with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Four years ago, Murray won his second Stanley Cup and then took the crease from Marc-Andre Fleury. But he was never able to deliver on that promise, going 20-11-5 with an .899 save percentage last season. Pittsburgh moved on and Ottawa moved in, signing him to a four-year, $25 million extension. He'll get a fresh start with respected goalie coach Pierre Groulx; and at 26 years old, he could be the netminder if and when Ottawa rounds the corner to contention. Or, if his downward trajectory continues, he could be Seattle expansion draft bait. Read the full preview.

Toronto Maple Leafs

Is this the year?

Asking this question has been an annual tradition for 54 years. It's usually about the Stanley Cup. It's still about the Stanley Cup this season, but it can also apply to another query about the Maple Leafs: Is this the year they get out of the first round of the playoffs? That hasn't happened since 2004, as Toronto currently has a four-season streak of opening-round eliminations.

The Leafs have surrounded John Tavares and their dynamic young core with some veteran players, as GM Kyle Dubas deftly maneuvered under the flat salary cap. Whether it's winning the first round or winning the last round, the big question remains: Is this the year? Read the full preview.

Vancouver Canucks

Have the Canucks lost their safety net?

Jacob Markstrom finished 15th for the Hart Trophy last season, and there's an argument he should have been higher. The goalie posted a .918 save percentage in 43 games for Vancouver, winning 23 of them. He was the last line of defense for a team still learning how to play defense at a championship level. Markstrom took his talents to Calgary as a free agent, as his contract demands were too lofty and lengthy for Vancouver.

Former Capitals goalie Braden Holtby, whose numbers have slid since the second of his Vezina Trophy nominations in 2017, replaces him, alongside incumbent (and brief playoff sensation) Thatcher Demko. The Canucks can't be as reliant on that duo as they were on Markstrom. They have to be a better all-around defensive team. Read the full preview.

Winnipeg Jets

What's up with Patrik Laine?

The Canadian border might be the only thing that keeps Laine in Winnipeg this season. After last season, agent Mike Liut suggested that the Jets trade Laine, who was reportedly unhappy with his role in the lineup. GM Kevin Cheveldayoff didn't exactly defuse that bombshell in the offseason. When asked his status with the team, Laine told local reporters, "Well, I'm here, aren't I?"

The 22-year-old winger is in the last year of his contract ahead of restricted free agency, and had 63 points in 68 games last season. He has 138 goals in his first 305 games. Assuming he's in Winnipeg this season, the Jets found him someone to play with: Paul Stastny, with whom Laine clicked when the Jets acquired the veteran center at the trade deadline in 2018, before Stastny left as a free agent. By far, the Patrik Laine drama is the most intriguing aspect of the Jets this season. Read the full preview.