Column: NHL predictions: The Lightning will stay hot, the Kraken will be competitive and more

Seattle Kraken defenseman Adam Larsson looks forward during an NHL preseason game
Seattle Kraken defenseman Adam Larsson (6) and his teammates should be competitive during their debut NHL season.
(Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)

First, a confession.

Based on the Tampa Bay Lightning’s late-season slump and forward Nikita Kucherov being on long-term injured reserve after hip surgery, I picked the Lightning to lose in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Conveniently for Tampa Bay, Kucherov recovered just as the regular season ended and the salary cap was lifted. He led all playoff scorers in assists (24) and points (32) as Tampa Bay won a second straight championship.

So, no more predictions here against the Lightning, who are trying to become the first team to win three straight Cup titles since the New York Islanders won four straight starting in 1980.

Tampa Bay Lightning right wing Nikita Kucherov (86) hoists the Stanley Cup in 2021
Tampa Bay Lightning right wing Nikita Kucherov (86) hoists the Stanley Cup after beating the Montreal Canadiens in Game 5 of the Final on July 7 in Tampa, Fla.
(Phelan M. Ebenhack / Associated Press)

Here are some random predictions for the 2021-22 NHL season, which opens on Tuesday with the Seattle Kraken (rhymes with hackin’) as the NHL’s 32nd member.

  • The Toronto Maple Leafs gave filmmakers behind-the-scenes access for the Amazon Prime Video docuseries “All or Nothing.” If goaltenders Jack Campbell and Petr Mrazek don’t perform well, the Leafs will get the “or nothing” part of that deal. Top-line forward Auston Matthews might not be ready for the opener after undergoing wrist surgery. The Arizona-bred Matthews was among the first players nominated to the men’s U.S. Olympic hockey team for Beijing 2022.
  • Edmonton’s Connor McDavid will win the scoring title again and will be in the running for the Hart Trophy as MVP again— and the Oilers will exit the playoffs early again. Adding fading 38-year-old Duncan Keith to an already iffy defense won’t help unless their strategy is to win every game 8-6. They will have a few of those, but not enough.

    Edmonton Oilers’ star Connor McDavid has a special burden as the best player in the NHL trying to get his team to playoff glory, much like Mike Trout.

    Dec. 5, 2019

  • The first coach fired could be Dallas Eakins of the Ducks, though general manager Bob Murray deserves most of the blame for a tedious and unimpressive rebuild in Anaheim. They’ve stocked up on kids but don’t have a potential difference-maker. Former Calgary coach Geoff Ward and longtime NHL assistant Newell Brown were hired to punch up the power play, but one of them could take over if the Ducks have a weak start and Murray tries to buy himself time by dismissing Eakins.
  • Retired NBA star Charles Barkley will appear on games aired by TNT, one of the NHL’s new broadcast partners, and he will be a roaring success. He’s a big hockey fan and will instantly enliven TNT’s telecasts with the humor he brings to the network’s “Inside the NBA.” Entertainment is good; sour-toned lecturing is bad. NBC never grasped that. ESPN’s return also is welcome, with all of the resources it can throw at hockey.
  • The Kraken will be enormously popular. They’ll also be competitive because they got the same generous expansion terms as the Vegas Golden Knights, who reached the Cup final in 2018. They probably won’t replicate the Golden Knights’ success but they have some good pieces. Defenseman Mark Giordano, former captain of the Calgary Flames, brings leadership and they should get decent goaltending with Philipp Grubauer.
    Seattle's Jaden Schwartz skates past cheering fans after scoring during a preseason game against Edmonton.
    Seattle’s Jaden Schwartz skates past cheering fans after scoring during a preseason game against Edmonton on Oct. 1 in Everett, Wash.
    (Elaine Thompson / Associated Press)
  • NHL players and teams will play an important role in reducing the stigma often attached to mental health issues. The empathy shown to Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price, who left the team last week to enter the NHL/NHL Players’ Assn. assistance program, was heartening. No one need fight that battle alone.
  • The league will keep a close eye on the investigation into allegations that former Blackhawks video coach Bradley Aldrich sexually assaulted a player during the team’s 2010 Cup run and that club executives knew but did nothing about it. The Blackhawks hired a former federal prosecutor to conduct the investigation and said they will release the results.
  • The crackdown on crosschecking this season will be grumbled about in the early going when it’s called often, but players eventually will adjust. They always do. And scorers will benefit from the tougher enforcement.

    NHL players will participate in the 2022 Beijing Games, per an agreement by the league, NHL Players’ Assn. and the International Ice Hockey Federation.

    Sept. 3, 2021

  • A prominent player will be injured at the Beijing Winter Olympics, reopening the debate over whether the NHL should pause its season and allow players to compete in the Games. Players want international exposure and believe it will lead to new revenues; Commissioner Gary Bettman doesn’t think the league profits enough to make it worthwhile, though the International Ice Hockey Federation has granted the NHL the right to use video and still photos of its players on the league’s media platforms. The NHL can still withdraw from the Games if COVID-19-related conditions change for the worse, though the exact threshold for that is unclear.
  • Bettman will be booed in his next appearance at a league event. Hardly a bold prediction, but one you can count on in a world where little is certain.