Can a west team be the best team in hockey this year? Every team in the 2021 Honda NHL West Division wants to prove their worth by dominating their regional rivals. All the while striking fear into the rest of the league in this unusual 2021 regular season. With contenders like the Colorado Avalanche, the St. Louis Blues, and the Vegas Golden Knights looking to put on clinics for the West Coast Road Trip and the rest of the division, this preview will show how the West will be unlike anything we’ve ever seen before from this mix of American teams belonging to the (formerly) NHL Pacific and Central.
This team is deep with leadership and depth. There’s absolutely no way to describe the excitement around this Avs roster for 2021 after coming off their successes in the bubble, despite falling to the Dallas Stars. 2020 Lady Byng award winner Nathan MacKinnon, former NHL All-Star Mikko Rantanen, and captain Gabriel Landeskog will continue to lead the charge for an avalanche of offense. The defense has the likes of Calder Memorial award winner Cale Makar and new addition Devon Toews. The team will continue to be backstopped by Philipp Grubauer and Pavel Francouz.
General Manager Joe Sakic won’t let you forget how much depth he added to this roster. With newly acquired Brandon Saad joining Joonas Donskoi, Nazem Kadri, Valeri Nichushkin, Matt Calvert, Andre Burakovsky, Pierre-Édouard Bellemare, and Ian Cole as veteran “value” players who established themselves in the NHL with other organizations. In addition, there are other unsung heroes like the league Plus-Minus leading defenseman Ryan Graves. Graves will bring consistency and stability to the roster.
Expect this team to go all in on a Stanley Cup run in the NHL playoffs for 2021.
Vegas Golden Knights
Vegas is in a very similar situation to Colorado. They have a talented roster that fell just short of a Cup appearance in the bubble to the Dallas Stars. Their major acquisition from free agency this year was defenseman Alex Pietrangelo from the St. Louis Blues who looks to bring veteran leadership to this Vegas roster. Vegas has one of the best goaltending tandems in the league in Marc-Andre Fleury and Robin Lehner and their core team identity remains largely unchanged from seasons past. It will be interesting to see how head coach Peter DeBoer leads this Vegas team in his first full season with the organization having replaced Gerard Gallant in January of last year (time flies, right?).
Expect to also see Vegas as a major contender this season. Having one of the NHL’s remaining enforcers in Ryan Reaves on the fourth line on top of the overall skill of the roster will make any game against them look like a rivalry matchup.
St. Louis Blues
The St. Louis Blues still maintain an extremely talented roster. Though it’s impossible to forget how they went winless in the bubble Round Robin and fell in an embarrassing manner to the Vancouver Canucks in round one. Offensive production was lacking during the bubble and it’s going to be especially difficult with Vladimir Tarasenko healing and ailing from his shoulder woes. Hopefully the forwards, like new captain Ryan O’Reilly, Tyler Bozak, David Perron, and Jaden Schwartz, can turn the burners back on this season. Over the off-season they lost veteran defensive leadership in Jay Bouwmeester to injury-related retirement and Alex Pietrangelo to the Vegas Golden Knights in free agency. However, I believe that newly acquired Torey Krug from Boston will be a major help on top of having defensive superstars Colton Parayko and Justin Faulk.
Expect to see the Blues put their nose to the grindstone this year. I don’t believe they will go too far in the playoffs, but will make it in and won’t make it easy for their opponent(s).
The Arizona Coyotes are the team everyone wants to see succeed to some capacity. Especially after the many, many years of pain and suffering their fanbase in the desert had to go through. They ended one of the longest playoff droughts in NHL history last season (keep in mind the last time they were in the playoffs Shane Doan was the captain, they were called the Phoenix Coyotes, and Nik Hjalmarsson still had hair). Although they quickly fell to the Colorado Avalanche in the first round.
The team identity once again remains largely unchanged with stars like Phil Kessel, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Clayton Keller, and Darcy Kuemper still leading the charge. Although, I do have major concerns about how the team will play with the departures from key players Taylor Hall and Derek Stepan. As well as the front office turmoil relating to their draft procedures and handlings including the controversial draft selection Mitchell Miller. One can only hope it doesn’t bleed into the quality that this Coyotes team can produce on the ice.
Expect to see the Coyotes be a fringe playoff team this year.
San Jose Sharks
I firmly believe that San Jose will be the team to beat on the West Coast Road Trip this year. Is that an accomplishment? Not particularly. Though I do believe that their 2021 is full of promise with their strong top six forwards, Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic, and the Jones/Dubnyk goaltending tandem leading the way. They lost Joe Thornton to free agency. Though they were able to reacquire some familiar faces in Patrick Marleau and Matt Nieto. I have strong concerns about their forward roster depth. It’s most definitely weaker than what we’ve seen in years past. I’m not entirely sure their production can keep up in a league where the best team has strong players across the board.
Expect the San Jose Sharks to narrowly make or miss the playoffs this year.
This season for the Minnesota Wild is a continued reflection of the team’s General Manager Bill Guerin having to pick up the pieces for when Paul Fenton nearly drove the organization into the ground. There is a ton of young talent still to be developed and harnessed in players like Marco Rossi (out indefinitely due to injury as of January 11th), Kirill Kaprizov, Jordan Greenway, Joel Eriksson Ek, and others. The veteran leadership is most definitely there with players like new captain Jared Spurgeon, Ryan Suter, Matt Dumba, Zach Parise and Marcus Johansson occupying roster slots despite losing Eric Staal to Buffalo in exchange for the aforementioned Marcus Johansson and former captain Mikko Koivu to Columbus in free agency.
The problem with this team lies in their production. Every veteran player has had flashes of brilliance at some point of their careers (often multiple times). In 2019-20 I just couldn’t see it. Consistency will be a thing this team needs to work on this season.
Expect the Wild to use this season as a rebuild year.
Coming off of back to back missed postseasons is the Anaheim Ducks. This is a team that always looked amazing on paper during the back half of this decade. Yet, when the going got tough they never had any finish. I’m excited to see all their new acquisitions join the likes of Ryan Getzlaf, Jakob Silfverberg, Rickard Rakell, the Gibson/Miller tandem, and the rest of the Ducks mainstays. Though I just can’t see this being a great year for them in the West if they can’t create a combination of production and consistency for yet another season. The Reverse Retros are pretty cool though.
Expect Anaheim to use this season as a rebuild year.
Los Angeles Kings
The Los Angeles Kings are the roster that never grew up from 2014. There is a lot of potential for this team in the future with young guns like Quinton Byfield and Arthur Kaliyev, who demonstrated excellence during this year’s World Juniors. Though, this is a team who refuse to either move on or significantly compliment their aging identity of Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Jeff Carter, Drew Doughty, and Jonathan Quick. It will hopefully buy them a few more years of solid draft picks. I expect them to be serious contenders later this decade in the West or the Pacific. This season, though, is a learning experience for the young guys and a rebuild for the organization.
Expect the Kings to use this season as a rebuild year.
My name is Aaron Fesh and I am a contributor to West Division NHL content for Belly Up Sports. I spent the 2019-20 season with the National Hockey League as a member of their NHL Power Players Youth Advisory Board. I am proud to be a member of Belly Up Sports for this upcoming 2021 season. Please follow @AaronFesh and @BellyUpHockey on Twitter for more content like this!