No team in the NHL is perfect, especially in the salary cap era. No matter how good it is, no matter how strong it looks on paper, no matter how many games it wins, there is always a question. We take a look at the biggest question for every NHL team for the 2021-22 NHL season.
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The Ducks are a team that has been stuck in that no-mans-land between contending and rebuilding for a couple of years now, refusing to choose a direction. It has resulted in some bad, boring hockey. But there is hope on the horizon with Mason McTavish, Trevor Zegras, and Jamie Drysdale on the roster. All three of them have big-time potential and offer some hope that better days are ahead. The question will be whether or not they take a big step forward this season to establish themselves as actual building blocks.
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The Arizona Coyotes spent their offseason selling off pretty much every veteran they could. Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Conor Garland, Darcy Kuemper, Christian Dvorak. It is a full-scale rebuild that has seen them try to accumulate every draft pick they can by trading their own players and taking on other teams’ bad contracts. The trades are almost certainly not finished. Phil Kessel is probably next given his expiring contract, but where will it stop? Will the Coyotes part ways with Clayton Keller as well? They have almost no long-term commitments anymore beyond him and Jakob Chychrun (probably the only untouchable on the roster).
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There are a couple of questions you could look at here, including the second-line center spot following David Krejci’s exit to the Czech Republic. But we are going to focus on goalie where rookie Jeremy Swayman and veteran free agent acquisition Linus Ullmark will be playing. It is a big change — and a big question — after years of consistent excellence from Tuukka Rask. Swayman has a lot of potential, but the Bruins are expecting to compete this season. Is he ready for that? Is Ullmark good enough for it? Will Rask still be a factor at a discounted salary cap number later in the season? All things to watch for.
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This might be the biggest question in the NHL right now. There is a major disagreement between the team and player on how he proceeds medically with his injury, he was stripped of his captaincy, and it seems likely that he will never play another game for the team. But it seems the situation has been fumbled so badly by Buffalo that it will never be able to get a fair return in a trade, which will only set this team back even further. This is almost certainly going to be the 10th consecutive season out of the Stanley Cup Playoffs with no end to that streak in sight.
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Gaudreau has been the Flames’ might dynamic player and best offensive player for seven years now, but they are in a tough spot with him regarding his contract. He is in the final year of his current deal, is a pending unrestricted free agent, and has a limited no-trade clause where he can pick the five teams he would be able to be traded to during the season. That severely limits the Flames’ options if they are not in contention, and creates a tough spot for the team. Can they re-sign him? Is there a trade to be made that he would be okay with? Do they let him walk for nothing at the end of the season? It is not a great spot to be in.
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A common question in Carolina over the years. The Hurricanes actually had one of the most productive goalie duos in the league last year with rookie Alex Nedelkjovic and veteran Petr Mrazek. They decided to get rid of both of them and bring in veterans Frederik Andersen and Antti Raanta. It was not that long ago that both goalies were in the top half of the league. But they have declined in recent years and run into some injury problems that make them a big question. The rest of the team is fantastic, though.
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The Blackhawks made a lot of moves this offseason and spent a lot of money. The most controversial of those moves was the trade for Seth Jones and the whopper of a contract they gave him. Jones has not produced great results the past two seasons but his name still carries a lot of clout around the league as a top defender. Chicago is betting on the fact he is still that. If he is not it not only seriously impacts the short-term outlook, but also the long-term outlook given that contract.
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He could be. He might be. But it is probably the only question that stands out right now with this team. Forwards? They are great. Defense? Might be the best in the NHL especially with the arrival of Bowen Byram. They also have Devon Toews waiting to return. Goaltending is really the only thing that seems even remotely questionable. Kuemper has been outstanding on some bad Arizona teams in recent years, and now he gets to play behind this powerhouse.
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The big in-season trade in the NHL last season was Columbus and Winnipeg swapping disgruntled young stars, with Pierre-Luc Dubois going to the Jets and Patrik Laine going to the Blue Jackets. The early returns were disappointing for everybody involved. Laine struggled to fit in with coach John Tortorella (what a shock, said nobody) and found himself benched on more than one occasion. The Blue Jackets need Laine to be a star because, well, they simply need a star and Laine has that ability. Laine needs to play like a star because he is a restricted free agent after this season and will want to boost his value as much as possible. The other question here is if Laine and the Blue Jackets are going to be a fit long-term.
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The Dallas Stars were extremely close to a Stanley Cup in 2019 and 2020, losing a double-overtime Game 7 in the Second Round in the former, and losing the Stanley Cup Final in the latter. They took a big step backward during the 2020-21 season and missed the playoffs entirely. They were still one of the best defensive teams in the league. Had good goaltending. They just did not score enough goals during 5-on-5 play. Having Tyler Seguin and Alexander Radulov for only 14 total games (and never the same game) definitely played a role in that decline. Both players are back and healthy this season and should be able to make an impact. Will that be enough to get them back to the playoffs? Another question to watch here is the John Klingberg contract situation. The top-pairing defender is an unrestricted free agent after this season.
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The Red Wings’ big offseason move was to acquire goalie Alex Nedelkjovic from the Carolina Hurricanes. Given that Nedelkjovic was in the running for the Calder Trophy as the league’s rookie of the year it was a surprising trade, but there are some concerns despite his great 2020-21 performance. The main concern is that production was an obvious outlier from the way he has played at any other level in any other season. Did he finally just put it all together in his mid-20s to be a top-tier starting goalie? It is certainly possible. Stranger things have happened. Especially with goalies. But it is a question.
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Edmonton Oilers: Can they stop wasting Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl?
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This is more of a big-picture question. But how do you have two of the best offensive players in the world, in the prime of their careers, watching them alternate scoring titles and MVP wins every year, and only have one postseason series win to show for it all in six years? They could not even win a single playoff game against a good, but not great Winnipeg Jets team a year ago. The defense and goaltending are major, major question marks for this team.
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The Florida Panthers have real Stanley Cup expectations this season, and they are not unreasonable. This is an excellent team with talent all over the roster. The big question is going to be in goal. Sergei Bobrovsky is currently the starter and has the major contract that still has five years and $50 million remaining on it. But he has not played to expectations in his first two years with the team, while they have the top goalie prospect in hockey waiting in the wings with Spencer Knight. Knight got a little cup of coffee in the NHL a year ago and it is only a matter of when, and not if he takes over the starting job.
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This is an intriguing team. The Kings have one of the best prospect pools in the league, some really good talent at forward especially after the additions of Phillip Danault and Viktor Arvidsson this offseason, a potential Calder Trophy winner in Quinton Byfield, and what should be a solid goalie in Calvin Petersen (if they stick with him over Jonathan Quick). They also play in a weak division where at least one of the three guaranteed playoff spots is there for the taking. The question will be whether or not the defense is good enough to allow them to take that step. That is the one big Achilles heel on this team right now that might hold them back this season.
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The Wild were one of the biggest surprise teams in the league last season, not only for their success but also because they were one of the most exciting teams in the NHL. Not something we usually say about them. Their salary cap situation is going to be a miss in the future hereafter the Zach Parise and Ryan Suter buyouts, but there is some talent here. The question will be at the center position and if they have enough there. Rookie Marco Rossi is the big hope at the position, but he missed an entire year of his development due to COVID complications. He is also still a rookie. Do they have enough to help him out?
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The Canadiens were a stunning Stanley Cup Final team a year ago thanks in part to a dominant playoff run from starting goalie Carey Price. But Price is starting the year sidelined for personal reasons, while Shea Weber — one of their top defenseman — is out for the season. They also lost Philip Danault, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, and Tomas Tatar from last year’s team. They did bring in Mike Hoffman, Christian Dvorak, and David Savard from the outside, but all of that overhaul seems like a net loss at the moment, especially for as long as Price and Weber are out of the lineup.
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Weird team here. At the halfway point of last season, they looked broken and in need of a rebuild. Then Juuse Saros dominated the second half and carried them to a playoff spot, as great goaltending tends to do. But they had to know it was mostly a mirage, and part of their offseason plans point to that with the trades of Ryan Ellis and Viktor Arvidsson for future assets. But then they re-signed 31-year-old Mattias Ekholm to a long-term deal. What is the direction here? What they do with Filip Forsberg (a pending unrestricted free agent) might offer a window into what their plan is. Keep him? Still trying to contend. Trade him? Might be a rebuild.
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There are actually a lot of questions here with Blackwood and the Devils. Will he rebound from a down year? What will his availability be as one of the NHL’s small number of unvaccinated players? Also, what is going on with his heel injury? The Devils need him to be a corer player and available but nobody knows when he will be or what he will be capable of this season.
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The New York Islanders have been one of the best playoff teams in the league the past three years and have been so close to the Stanley Cup Final, just falling short against the Tampa Bay Lightning the past two years. One thing they have to watch for is avoiding a slow start as part of their season-opening 13-game road trip as they wait for their new arena to be finished. That sort of a road trip has to be exhausting and any kind of a slow start in a tough Metropolitan Division could put them in a hole that will be difficult to climb out of.
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The Rangers made a lot of changes this offseason in the front office, behind the bench and on the roster. None of them will matter if their young players do not take big steps forward. That includes recent top picks Alexis Lafreniere and Kaapo Kakko, as well as top goalie Igor Shesterkin. Those are the players that will be the foundation of a potential championship team in New York. The Rangers have missed on some recent first-round picks. They can not miss on No. 1 (Lafreniere) and No. 2 (Kakko) overall picks.
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Say this for the Senators: They have accumulated some really interesting young players on this roster and if you really look close you can see some serious long-term potential here. But they are a couple of years into this rebuild and still keep sitting near the bottom of the standings. They will not be a playoff team this season (most likely) but it is probably time to see them take a step forward toward getting a little closer.
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This is going to be the big question for the Pittsburgh Penguins this season as long as all of their key players are healthy and in the lineup. Jarry is the biggest question mark on the team and the most unknown. He has shown flashes of being a quality starting goalie, and he was good enough to help the Penguins win a tough Eastern Division a year ago, but he also had a total meltdown in the playoffs that probably kept them from advancing to the Second Round against the New York Islanders. Which version will they get this season? That will determine whether or not they still have another potential Stanley Cup run with this current group.
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Or perhaps more accurately, the goalie they hope he is. The Flyers have been anticipating that Hart will finally solve their long-term problem in goal and for the first two years of his career looked like he was well on his way toward doing that. Then everything fell apart for him during the 2020-21 season in what was an absolutely dreadful performance. It seems like no player is more important to their team’s short-and long-term success right now than Hart. Will they get the version they saw in the first two seasons or the version they saw in the third season?
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San Jose Sharks: Do Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns have anything left?
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The Sharks situation is looking rather bleak in the short-term and long-term. The team itself is not all that talented, while their best and most expensive players are getting older and declining. That starts with Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns. It was not that long ago that they were constant Norris Trophy contenders (and winners) and among the best players in the world. But father time has started to catch up with both of them. If the Sharks are going to stay competitive and hang in the playoff race they need them to find the fountain of youth this season.
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The Vegas Golden Knights set an unreachable bar for any expansion team that enters the league. Seattle probably will not have that same level of immediate success, mostly because the NHL’s other 30 general managers learned their lessons from the Golden Knights’s expansion draft. Still, this team has some real talent for an expansion team including two really good goalies. They also play in a miserable division that should still have a wide-open race for a playoff spot. Do they have a good enough roster to get one of those three playoff spots in the Pacific Division?
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It was just a few years ago that Vladimir Tarasenko was the face of the Blues franchise and their most dynamic and important player. Injuries, however, have seriously limited him the past two seasons and then he requested a trade this offseason. The trade never happened, at least not yet, and he is still in St. Louis. Where does this go for the Blues? Does he still want a change? And if not, will he be healthy enough to still be an impact player?
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Tampa Bay Lightning: How much will they miss the third line?
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The line of Blake Coleman, Yanni Gourde, and Barclay Goodrow was a key cog for the Lightning during their past two Stanley Cup runs, forming one of the best and most productive lines in the league. It gave them three dominant scoring lines and made them a matchup nightmare for every team. This season all three of them are playing elsewhere as the salary cap, free agency, and the expansion draft all caught up to them at the same time. Coleman signed a long-term deal in Calgary, Goodrow’s free-agent rights were traded to the New York Rangers (where he also signed a long-term deal), while Gourde was taken by the Seattle Kraken in the expansion draft. The Lightning always have a great pipeline of talent but do they have enough to replace three important players (plus Tyler Johnson who was traded to the Chicago Blackhawks in a salary cap move?).
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It is the only question that matters in Toronto. This core has gone five consecutive postseason appearances without winning a single series. The organization has not won one since the 2004 playoffs. They are now at the point where simply making the playoffs is not good enough. They have to progress beyond that and win something, or else some major changes might actually come to this core and organization.
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The Canucks have an outstanding young goalie in Thatcher Demko and an impressive group of young forwards led by Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser, Bo Horvat, J.T. Miller, Conor Garland, Nils Hoglander, and Vasili Podkolzin. What they are lacking right now is defense. Quinn Hughes is a star offensively, but his defense is a work in progress after some regressions a year ago. Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Tyler Myers have huge contracts, but they are not the players they were a few years ago. The Canucks should be able to score goals. But is their defense good enough to get them back in the Stanley Cup Playoffs and help out Demko enough?
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Vegas Golden Knights: Enough playmakers at center?
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If the Golden Knights have had one Achilles heel the past couple of years it has been a lack of impact talent at center. They have everything else that a Stanley Cup contender needs. A good starting goalie. Strong defense. Great two-way wingers. But they really lack playmaking talent at the center position and it is one of the things that has held them back deeper in the playoffs when offense is harder to create. Can Nolan Patrick become what he was supposed to be with a fresh start and a change of scenery? Good gamble for the Golden Knights to take.
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Nicklas Backstrom‘s injury and Evgeny Kuznetsov had a rebound season are big questions, but the goaltending is the make-or-break situation here. Ilya Samsonov still has the talent and potential, but he had a miserable 2020-21 season. Vitek Vanecek was solid in his unexpected role, but is he a goalie you can win a Stanley Cup with? If the Capitals are going to be that sort of contender it seems like Samsonov would have to be that player.
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Winnipeg Jets: Did they make enough improvements to the defense?
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Winnipeg has a strong collection of impact forwards led by Kyle Connor, Nikolaj Ehlers, Mark Scheifele, and Pierre-Luc Dubois. They have one of the best goalies in the league in Connor Hellebuyck. The one thing they have been lacking is quality depth on defense beyond Neal Poink. They attempted to address that this offseason with the addition of Nate Schmidt from Vancouver, hoping for a bounce-back season, and Brenden Dillon, a steady defensive-defenseman, from the Washington Capitals. If Schmidt rebounds this could be the makings of a solid defense with him, Dillon, and Poink. If they get an improved defense this could be a contending team.