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NHL Power Rankings: Top storylines for 2021-22 season (Part 1)

nhl schedule update

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - MAY 16: Vegas Golden Knights fans cheer during the second period in Game One of the First Round of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs against the Minnesota Wild at T-Mobile Arena on May 16, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/NHLI via Getty Images)

NHLI via Getty Images

In this week’s edition of the NHL Power Rankings we begin counting down the 30 biggest storylines to watch across the league for the 2021-22 season.

We will look at 10 storylines over the next three Mondays, counting down toward the NHL’s biggest storylines.

We begin today with Nos. 30-21 including the Devils, Elvis Merzlikins, the Stars, divisional alignments, and the return of fans.

What stories make the list this week?

To this week’s NHL Power Rankings!

30. Devils taking another shot. Say this for the Devils: They are not afraid to try. A couple of years ago they were one of the NHL’s busiest teams and attempted to load up with big acquisitions like P.K. Subban, Nikita Gusev, and Wayne Simmonds coming into join Taylor Hall, Nico Hischier, and top pick Jack Hughes. It did not really work. At all. And a lot of the players from that team are now gone. But armed with a ton of salary cap space this offseason the Devils were again fairly busy, making one of the biggest free agent splashes of the summer with Dougie Hamilton while also adding Tomas Tatar, Ryan Graves, and Jonathan Bernier to the roster.

Will that be enough to make a difference in a tough Metropolitan Division? A lot will depend on how big of a jump they can get from Hughes, Hischier, and Mackenzie Blackwood in goal.

[Related: Every free agent signing by all 32 NHL teams]

29. Elvis Merzlikins wants to win Vezina. The Blue Jackets were rocked by tragedy this summer when goalie Matiss Kivlenieks died in a fireworks accident on July 4. Goaltender Elvis Merzlikins credited Kivlenieks for saving his life during the incident and has made it his goal to win a Vezina Trophy in his friend’s honor.

“I don’t want to make any promises, but I can tell you … my plan is to win a Vezina Trophy,” Merzlikins told The Athletic earlier this offseason. “I’m gonna win a … Vezina for him. We can’t make promises because this is hockey and we don’t know how the season can go, but this is my goal. I believe I’m going to reach it.”

Merzlikins is also honoring Kivlenieks with a new mask design.

28. Old division alignments and playoff format. After a one-year break the NHL is returning to its normal divisional alignments and playoff format for the 2021-22 season. That means no more all-Canadian division, the return of the wild cards, and no more play-in rounds.

The 2019-20 playoff format and the 2020-21 season produced some wildly unexpected results that almost certainly would have never taken place in a normal season, from the Blackhawks’ appearance in the 2020 postseason to the Canadiens’ stunning run to the 2021 Stanley Cup Final. The only major change taking place this season is the Coyotes shifting from the Pacific to the Central Division and being replaced out west by Seattle. That is bad news for Arizona (the Central is far tougher) and good news for a Kraken team trying to make an immediate impact in the NHL.

Calgary Flames v Vancouver Canucks

Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images

NHLI via Getty Images

27. What direction are the Canucks going? One of the more confusing teams in the NHL right now. They have a sensational young core to build around and they did make some intriguing additions this offseason with Jason Dickinson and Conor Garland, as well as the arrival of Vasili Podkolzin. But the defense still has some major questions, and the depth is still a question. They play in the weakest division in the NHL which should give them a shot at the playoffs, but their ceiling still seems to be a mystery as does their overall plan.

26. Can Dallas rebound? The Stars were knocking on the door of the Stanley Cup during the 2018-19 and 2019-20 postseasons, even reaching the Cup Final in 2020. And then things fell apart this past season with a fifth place finish in the modified Central Division, keeping them out of the playoffs entirely. Injuries played a huge role in that as Tyler Seguin and Alexander Radulov both missed almost the entire season, completely robbing them of a significant portion of their offense. They lost 14 games in overtime or shootout (most in the NHL) and missed the playoffs by four points.

The defense is there, they have the goaltending, and they are getting back a healthy Seguin and Radulov. The playoffs should be the expectation at a minimum.

Winnipeg Jets v Toronto Maple Leafs

Getty Images

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25. Hurricanes goalie swap. The biggest question with the Hurricanes always seems to be their goaltending situation. Last year they had one of the top team save percentages in the league and a Calder Trophy finalist in Alex Nedeljkovic. They responded this offseason by completely swapping their goalies, trading Nedeljkovic, letting Petr Mrazek walk, and bringing in Frederik Andersen and Antti Raanta.

It was not that long ago that Andersen and Raanta would have been one of the NHL’s best goalie duos. But are they still capable of that level of play? The Hurricanes are a Cup contender, and the play of Andersen and Raanta will play a big role in what they are capable of.

24. Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith in Pittsburgh. With Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang another year older the Penguins window for contention is inching shut. They are not in a position to waste any of their remaining seasons. The 2020-21 season has the feeling of a missed opportunity given the way they lost in the playoffs with Jarry completely melting down in the playoffs. Instead of making changes to the position, or bringing in somebody to push Jarry, they are sticking with the same goalie duo that was not good enough a year ago. The good news is Jarry can not possibly play as poorly as he did in the playoffs over a full season. He will be better. He is capable of being better. But how much better will he be, and will it be good enough?

23. Robin Lehner takes over as No. 1 in Vegas. It seems this is the result the Golden Knights have wanted since acquiring him at the 2020 trade deadline. They made him the starting goalie that postseason, re-signed him to a massive contract that offseason, and seemed prepared to move on from Marc-Andre Fleury right then and there. Even though Fleury came back and reclaimed his starting job and won his first ever Vezina the Golden Knights still dumped him in a salary cap clearing trade, leaving Lehner is the unquestioned starter in Vegas. The Fleury-Lehner duo was the league’s best, and now it all falls on Lehner as he takes over for the most popular player on the team. On a Cup contender that is a lot of pressure and attention.

22. What is the future of the Wild? The Wild emerged as one of the league’s most exciting teams during the 2020-21 season, due in large part to the arrival of Calder Trophy winner Kirill Kaprizov. But contract talks with him have been slow, while the Wild are set to begin a three-year stretch where buyouts leave them with a significantly reduced salary cap number compared to the rest of the league. Can they get Kaprizov signed? Can they build a competitive around him? Are they positioned to be contenders for the long-term, and how does the front office juggle the salary cap situation?

21. Fans back in most buildings. While some buildings had fans for a portion of the 2020-21 season, and some even at full capacity, that should be more of the norm across the league this season. It will be a drastic change after having no fans in the bubble and no fans (especially in Canada) around the league for most of the 2020-21 season.