Ted Kulfan’s 2021-22 NHL preview: Breaking down the top teams, positional stars to watch

Detroit News

Detroit — The NHL is back and it’s time to refresh ourselves with the best and worst teams, as well as the biggest stars to watch.

Playing through a pandemic last season, a season cut short for that matter, was good for everyone but in some ways fell flat with no fans allowed in many rinks.

But things appear well back to normal this season (fingers crossed), and with that excitement comes the usual expectations.

The Tampa Bay Lightning are going a third consecutive Stanley Cup. Connor McDavid skates toward another Hart Trophy. And the Buffalo Sabres continue to lose hockey games.

Here’s how The Detroit News’ Ted Kulfan sees the NHL being ranked, from a team and individual standpoint, with another season upon us:

Top Hart Trophy candidates 

Connor McDavid, Edmonton: There isn’t a more dangerous offensive player in the game today. He’s truly fun to watch on every shift. Unfortunately, the personnel around him isn’t good enough to compete for a Stanley Cup.

Auston Matthews, Toronto: He could be on a mission this season to carry the Maple Leafs past their first-round jinxes of recent years.

Aleksander Barkov, Florida: The Panthers appear ready to take a big step forward and their young star will be the one to lead them. Barkov doesn’t get the recognition he deserves.

Top five West forwards

Connor McDavid, Edmonton: The speed McDavid can play with isn’t matched by anyone.

Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton: On Edmonton’s monumental 1-2 punch, don’t forget the equally offensively powerful Draisaitl.

Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado: He’ll be in the Hart Trophy discussion because the Avalanche should be right there for Stanley Cup contention.

Mark Scheifele, Winnipeg: Another guy who’ll warrant MVP consideration given his Jets should be awfully good.

Anze Kopitar, Los Angeles: His consistency and ability to control the game at both ends are truly impressive, as the Kings begin to re-emerge from rebuilding.

Top five East forwards

Auston Matthews, Toronto: A 60-goal season is entirely possible, and maybe probable, given his ability and linemates.

Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh: Age isn’t slowing him down. Injuries have begun to cut into his time on the ice, though, and the Penguins are cooked if Crosby is out long.

David Pastrnak, Boston: He’s an explosive offensive player who is a key part of, arguably, the best line in the NHL.

Brad Marchand, Boston: It’s been fascinating watching Marchand transform his game over the years and become one of the truly elite players around.

Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay: You could easily put teammate Brayden Point here, too, but we’ll give the edge to Kucherov and his dazzling offensive ability.

More: Ted Kulfan’s 2021-22 NHL preview: Atlantic, Central divisions pack punch

Top five West defensemen

Cale Makar, Colorado: It still leaves you scratching your head how Makar just casually stepped into the NHL and began to dominate at a young age. He will challenge for Norris Trophy for a long time.

Miro Heiskanen, Dallas: The Stars have a terrific defensive group, but Heiskanen leads the way with his ability to control the game at both ends.

Seth Jones, Chicago: He had a bit of a hiccup last season in Columbus, but let’s see if Jones can return to elite status in his new home of Chicago.

Drew Doughty, Los Angeles: Doughty may not be at the very top of the list anymore, but he showed last season he’s still among the best defensemen out there.

Roman Josi, Nashville: Josi was one of the reasons the Predators unexpectedly surged into the playoffs last season. He’s really progressed over the years.

Top five East defensemen

Victor Hedman, Tampa Bay: The Lightning could lose many of their stars and still be a force, but if they were to lose Hedman for a long time, they’d be in trouble. He’s an annual Norris contender.

Charlie McAvoy, Boston: He’s growing into one of the best defensemen in the game. McAvoy is a terrific puck mover, passer, and is underrated defensively. He’ll be a star for a long time.

Adam Fox, New York Rangers: The reigning Norris Trophy winner burst onto the scene with a powerful offensive season. It’ll be interesting to see how Fox follows up that success this year.

Aaron Ekblad, Florida: Ekblad’s season-ending leg injury may have cost the Panthers a deep playoff run last season. He’s another young defenseman who has progressed into a major force.

John Carlson, Washington: Carlson has achieved a consistent level of production that’s been awfully impressive in recent seasons. He’s a highly valuable cog in the Capitals’ machine.

Top five West goalies

Connor Hellebuyck, Winnipeg: The Commerce Township native is generally, and rightfully, the next best goalie in the NHL after Andrei Vasilevskiy. Hellebuyck could be the key piece on the Cup-contending Jets this season.

Marc-Andre Fleury, Chicago: It seems like we’ve been waiting for Fleury to take a step backward in his career for some time — and we keep waiting. He could have a big impact on the maturing Blackhawks.

Juuse Saros, Nashville: Saros showed he was more than ready to replace Pekka Rinne in net and was a key reason the Predators made the playoffs. He’s not the biggest goalie around, but he stops a lot of pucks. A lot.

Philipp Grubauer, Seattle: Grubauer has developed into a premier goalie. Playing behind a strong Kraken defense, he’ll post some real good statistics and keep the expansion team close.

John Gibson, Anaheim: Gibson gets lost in the discussion because the Ducks are struggling, but he’s one of the best around for sure.

Top five East goalies

Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay: He’s the Tom Brady of goaltenders. Now this guy is definitely the guy the Lightning can’t afford to lose.

Carey Price, Montreal: He shows every postseason how good he is and can affect an opposing team with his skill level. Price is so technically sound.

Igor Shesterkin, New York Rangers: If Shesterkin plays up to his ability, the Rangers have a chance to be a playoff threat.

Elvis Merzlikins, Columbus: It seems like Merzlikins gives the Blue Jackets a chance to win every time he’s in the crease. He’s a terrific young talent.

Carter Hart, Philadelphia: Forget last season. Hart has exciting young talent and will rebound with a big season.

Top five rookies

Cole Caufield, Montreal: Caufield showed in the playoffs last season he has the makings to be a special, goal-scoring force. He has fantastic instincts on the ice.

Spencer Knight, Florida: Don’t be surprised if this young player takes over for high-priced Sergei Bobrovsky sometime soon. Knight could be the missing piece for the Panthers on their Cup chase.

Trevor Zegras, Anaheim: On a young Ducks roster, Zegras might be the best and most exciting of the bunch. He’ll be a two-way force for a decade.

Moritz Seider, Detroit: As the season progresses, and Seider becomes accustomed to the NHL, he’ll grow into the force he’ll be for a long time in this league.

William Eklund, San Jose: Eklund edges out fellow Swede, Wings forward Lucas Raymond, though both could have surprising offensive seasons.

Five coaches on the hot seat

Paul Maurice, Winnipeg: The Jets took a nice step forward last season, but in that market, the heat is always on.

Jared Bednar, Colorado: Another market where if the Avalanche don’t win a Stanley Cup, it might be considered a disappointing season.

Peter Laviolette, Washington: He’s only in his second season with the Capitals, but it seems like it’s been a rocky ride and the Caps might be on the decline here soon.

Travis Green, Vancouver: The Canucks are coming off a bad season but there were many plausible reasons. They can’t have another one.

Pete DeBoer, Vegas: The Golden Knights’ window is closing slowly, and they want a championship.

Five championship contenders

Tampa Bay: The two-time defending champions have been gutted because of the salary cap, but the Lightning are still extremely deep and talented.

New York Islanders: After two Final Four losses to the Lightning, the Islanders may actually be better than ever.

Florida: This Panthers roster has the look of a team that could go an awfully long way.

Winnipeg: The Jets don’t have many weaknesses and could be at the right age to mature to greatness.

Colorado: Have the Avalanche learned from recent playoff disappointments?

Three dark horses

Boston: It’s difficult to call the Bruins a dark horse, but some people are concentrating too much on age and a few defections. This is still a real good roster.

New York Rangers: Probably a year away, but this roster has some eye-opening young talent.

Edmonton: If the goaltending is good enough, McDavid and Draisaitl will keep the Oilers in games offensively.

Five bottom feeders

Buffalo: We’ll go from the bottom upward. The Sabres will be the worst team in the league. The roster, on paper, is truly weak.

Arizona: In what potentially could be the Coyotes’ last season in Glendale, the team will be typically near the bottom of the standings.

Anaheim: The Ducks are stuck in the beginning stages of a rebuild. They’re not going to win much.

San Jose: The Sharks will continue to grow old together.

Columbus: Like last season, the Blue Jackets will have a point less than the Red Wings, in what will be an exciting race for better odds in the draft lottery.

ted.kulfan@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tkulfan

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