It’s game day, folks.
In keeping with pretty much every other aspect of our lives from the past year, the 2021 NHL season will be unlike anything we’ve seen before. With a 56-game schedule, the significantly compressed campaign will leave little room for error while generating an all-out war just to make the playoffs.
The season will be complicated. Will teams need to reschedule games for later in the year? Will the league be forced to shut down if COVID-19 cases in North America continue to grow out of control? Needless to say, there could easily be shake ups league-wide.
But look at the bright side. The season is still on and, for the most part, everything has gone to plan thus far. The Dallas Stars were the first team required to reschedule games due to the pandemic but the rest of the league has been able to move on as planned, despite a large increase in positive cases.
So let’s have some fun. Here are my preseason picks for each of the major NHL awards (and the Stanley Cup) in 2021:
Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche
Connor McDavid is often referred to as the best overall player in the NHL, but Nathan MacKinnon continues to force himself into the conversation. MacKinnon was on pace to hit the 100-point mark for the first time in his career last season before the shutdown, and he had a whopping 48-point advantage over Andre Burakovsky, who ranked second on Colorado’s scoring charts. MacKinnon’s linemates – Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen – both missed considerable time with injuries, so imagine what MacKinnon’s numbers could have looked like had they remained healthy.
MacKinnon doesn’t even need to put up big numbers to be effective, since he’s so tough to play against due to his physical frame and smart decision-making when rushing the puck. He’s a possession-driving machine and it seems like just about everyone he plays with benefits from his presence in some way. If the Avalanche finish as one of the league’s top clubs again, MacKinnon will be a big reason why.
- Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers
- Jack Eichel, Buffalo Sabres
Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers
Had McDavid not been injured last season, it would have been hard to take the MVP title away from him. Few players can be as explosive in bursts as No. 97 (just watch how he performed in the playoffs against Chicago) and the Oilers have surrounded him with more offensive help. It may seem like a cop out to select the player most consider to be the best in the world, but he’s about to show us all why once again.
McDavid has twice won the Art Ross Trophy – back in 2017 and 2018 – and he wasn’t far off from Nikita Kucherov in 2019. Like many other elite players, McDavid has never needed to produce the most points to be considered the best player in the league, but it certainly helps. Maybe watching his buddy Leon Draisaitl weave his magic a year ago will be the motivation for McDavid to play the best hockey of his career to date, still at just 24 years old.
- Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers
- Auston Matthews, Toronto Maple Leafs
Carter Hart, Philadelphia Flyers
A bit of a bold call here, you say? Hart is one of the game’s top young goaltenders. After making it full-time at 21, he’s finally given the Flyers some hope they’ve found the long-term starter they’ve been seeking for over 20 years. Hart will now be in his third season, having gone through the ups and downs that any young goaltender has to experience. The Flyers are the team to beat in the East Division and, perhaps, a true Stanley Cup contender if everything falls into place for them.
I fully believe in Hart’s abilities here. He had a fantastic run during the Stanley Cup playoffs and, at 22, he’s ready to show why he’s one of the league’s best young goaltenders in quite some time. I’m giving Hart the advantage over Andrei Vasilevskiy and Carey Price simply because I think he’ll lift Philadelphia to the top of the East Division and, while Vasilevskiy should produce similarly impactful results in Tampa, I think Hart’s performance will just be a tick ahead.
- Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay Lightning
- Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens
Victor Hedman, Tampa Bay Lightning
It’s crazy to think that Hedman has just one Norris Trophy to his credit, given his dominance on the blueline over his many years as a finalist. With the loss of Nikita Kucherov (hip surgery) upfront for Tampa this season forcing everyone to step up their game, Hedman will be the beneficiary. There already wasn’t much more that he could have done in his fight for the Norris last year. Roman Josi just happened to be a bit better.
Hedman won the Conn Smythe Trophy (playoff MVP) last season en route to Tampa Bay’s second Stanley Cup in franchise history. His offensive game continues to be a highlight and he has only gotten more confident when shooting the puck, but most importantly, it’s a complete pain in the butt to go head-to-head with this 6-foot-6 monster. That alone is what makes him feared and tough to play against.
- Roman Josi, Nashville Predators
- Dougie Hamilton, Carolina Hurricanes
Igor Shesterkin, New York Rangers
Being a rookie goaltender is the easiest way to have your Calder Trophy hopes squashed before the season even begins. Evgeni Nabokov (2001), Andrew Raycroft (2004) and Steve Mason (2009) are the only goaltenders to win the award in the current century, but that could change in 2021.
Shesterkin isn’t your average rookie netminder. He had a 12-game stint with the Rangers last year, registering a 10-2-0 record and even getting a chance to ply his craft in the playoffs. Since turning pro in 2014, Shesterkin hasn’t lost more than six games in any season at any level. It’s hard to be more qualified than one of the greatest goaltenders to ever dress for a KHL game. All Shesterkin does is win, and as the new undisputed starter in the Big Apple, he’ll be given the reins for a team that’s still a few years away from being a threat for the Stanley Cup. He’ll have to steal some of the spotlight away from teammate Alexis Lafreniere, but if New York makes the post-season, I feel confident that Shesterkin will be one of the biggest reasons why.
- Alexis Lafreniere, New York Rangers
- Kirill Kaprizov, Minnesota Wild
Tampa Bay Lightning
I’ve never, ever predicted that a team would win the Stanley Cup in consecutive years. If we’ve learned anything in the salary cap era – with just one back-to-back champion (Pittsburgh in 2016 and 2017) since the league moved to its new financial format back in 2005 – it’s that winning the title almost certainly ensures a team will fail to repeat the following year.
Add in a season-ending injury to Nikita Kucherov – one of the NHL’s most dominant forwards – and the odds dip even further. But I still feel confident in Tampa Bay because this is a group that has had no issue rallying around missing stars to steal victories. Steven Stamkos played just one period in the playoffs last season and his absence didn’t slow the team after all. Despite a brutal cap crunch this off-season that made signing Mikhail Sergachev and Anthony Cirelli a nightmare, the Lightning made it work via trade and the dumping of Kucherov’s salary on long-term injured reserve. The team still features much of the same core that won the Cup in convincing fashion last season.
I’ll give them the edge against my favorite to finish as a finalist – the Colorado Avalanche – simply because of goaltending. Both teams have fantastic depth up front and on the blueline, but the Lightning have one of the best goaltenders in the league in Andrei Vasilevskiy. Philipp Grubauer will need to find a way to play the best hockey of his career to beat Vasilevskiy, although we have seen weaker goalies come up huge in the playoffs more than a few times in recent years.
- Colorado Avalanche
- Vegas Golden Knights
For award predictions from a betting perspective check out our guide from Ian Cameron here.