The race for one of the biggest trophies in sport is set to begin on October 13 with the NHL 2021-22 season reverting back to an 82-game season, with divisions returning to a more familiar look.
Of course, the coronavirus pandemic forced dramatic changes to last season’s campaign, teams playing just 56 games for one, while divisions were revamped to more localised groupings for another – with all seven Canadian teams forming the North Division as a prime example.
However, this time around the regular season will have a pre-pandemic feel about it with one notable exception – the Seattle Kraken will be taking to the ice for the first time, with the expansion team slotting into the Pacific Division in the Western Conference to make it eight teams in each of the four divisions, and 16 teams in both conferences.
After last season’s play-off play-in, qualification for the post season will revert back to what has been the norm since 1979-80, with 16 teams qualifying for the play-offs, 12 of which will be the top three from each division, along with two wildcards in each conference.
Lightning Looking to Three-Peat
Although last season saw much change, some things stay the same as Tampa Bay Lightning made it back-to-back Stanley Cup wins by easing to a 4-1 victory over Montreal Canadiens in the final, having beaten Dallas Stars in six games the previous season.
So what of the two-time defending champions completing the hat-trick this season? Well, the odds suggest that they have a good chance as they are priced at
27/4 in the outright betting, although they are not the favourites for Cup glory – perhaps because no team has enjoyed three successive Stanley Cup wins since the New York Islanders completed the treble in 1982, before making it four on the bounce a year later.
It is last season’s Presidents’ Trophy winners who head the betting for Stanley Cup glory with the Colorado Avalanche priced at
19/4, having topped the market going into the play-offs last term.
Avalanche the Favourites, Again
Ultimately, the Avs disappointed in the post-season, throwing away a 2-0 lead in the second round, losing four successive games against the Vegas Golden Knights to bow out in six games.
The Golden Knights – an expansion team that joined the NHL in 2017-18 – did tie with Colorado in terms of points in the last regular season, and have reached the play-offs in each of their four seasons so far, their best run being their first when they lost the Stanley Cup Finals in five games to Washington Capitals in 2018.
Unsurprisingly, Vegas are also up there in the betting as third favourites at
7/1 and having largely retained the squad that saw them reach the Stanley Cup semi-finals last term – surprisingly beaten 4-2 by Montreal Canadiens – there will be plenty expecting them to improve on that this time around.
Habs to Repeat Fairytale Run?
The Habs were the Cinderella story of last season, squeezing into the play-offs on the back of a five-match losing streak, finishing with the lowest points total of all teams that made the post-season.
However, in the play-offs they were a different beast, overcoming a 3-1 deficit to beat North division winners Toronto Maple Leafs 4-3, before sweeping Winnipeg Jets 4-0 and upsetting the odds to claim the scalp of Vegas to reach the finals.
No-one expected them to go that far and it would appear that there is a similar expectation going into this season as they are on offer at
50/1 to lift the trophy.
Given that they are back in a division that includes the likes of Tampa Bay, Toronto and Boston Bruins, the Canadiens may find it tough to reach the post-season, having missed out in three of the four seasons prior to their play-in success in the 2019-20 campaign.
Islanders and Hurricanes Could Surprise
Regular visitors to the post-season, Boston, will tempt a few at
12/1, although the Metropolitan Division offers a little more value outside the big hitters, Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals, with the New York Islanders and Carolina Hurricanes priced at
Like most teams, a lot may depend on how the squads settle after the draft and free agency, but the Islanders arguably gave the champions their toughest battle last term, pushing the Lightning to a Game 7 in the semi-finals, losing 1-0 in the decider.
The Hurricanes also topped the Central Division last season, finishing five points clear of the Lightning, and might outrun their odds in what is traditionally a tough division.
The defending champions have the honour of opening up the new season in a glamour clash with the Pittsburgh Penguins on October 13, while the Kraken do not have to wait for their big league debut as they take on the Golden Knights on the same night.
*All odds correct at time of writing.