Chris Peters: My 2021 NHL playoff awards and early 2022 futures
With the 2020-21 NHL season now over, Chris Peters hands out his postseason awards and looks ahead to next year.
Two of the weirdest seasons the NHL has ever had ended the same way – with the Tampa Bay Lightning hoisting the Stanley Cup. That’s two championships in nine months for the Lightning, a feat that is unlikely to ever be topped in the NHL.
Through all of the trouble of the ever-present concern of COVID-19, the many protocols to follow, empty buildings, compressed schedules, a repetitive divisional regular season, Tampa Bay stands atop the league once again after beating the Montreal Canadiens in five games.
All four postseason series the Lightning played ended with a shutout by Andrei Vasilevskiy, who was brilliant enough throughout the playoffs to earn the Conn Smythe Trophy as the MVP, besting teammate Nikita Kucherov for the award. If Kucherov was disappointed, he sure didn’t show it during his shirtless press conference following the victory, saying repeatedly that he told Vasilevskiy that he was the MVP the whole way.
Though Kucherov did not take home the hardware, he did cap off a second consecutive postseason with more than 30 points, joining Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky as the only three players to have achieved that in consecutive playoffs. Over the last two runs to the Stanley Cup, Kucherov played in 48 total games, scoring 66 points. When you consider the playoffs are a lot harder to play in than the regular season and scoring is supposed to be more difficult, Kucherov has made the last two postseasons look easy.
Just to put it in a little more context, Kucherov was scoring at a 114-point pace for a full 82-game season. The only player to have topped 114 points in a regular season in the last five years was also Kucherov, who had 128 in 2018-19. The Russian superstar is simply ridiculous when it comes to putting up points.
Sure, a lot of fans will cry foul that he missed the entire regular season and was fresher than anyone in these playoffs, but he did the same thing last year in the bubble after having played the whole year, and he was also playing hurt. He’s one of the game’s greats right now and he was only a second-round draft pick back in 2011.
As we close the book on this season, I thought I’d hand out some playoff awards and also look ahead to the 2021-22 campaign which we hope will be a fully normal season with 82 games, no disruptions and buildings full of fans.
My 2021 Stanley Cup playoff awards:
MVP - Andrei Vasilevskiy | Tampa Bay Lightning
He won the Conn Smythe by vote of the select media tasked with picking the MVP and I think they got it right.
Vasilevskiy had five shutouts in the playoffs, four of which came in series-clinching games including the Cup clincher. Vasilevskiy put up a .937 save percentage overall.
Kucherov’s production was remarkable, but Vasilveskiy was the backbone. He staked his claim as the best goalie in the world – the guy you absolutely want if you’re in a must-win situation. With Vasilevskiy, the Lightning were never out of it.
Best defenseman - Ryan McDonagh | Tampa Bay Lightning
I don’t know if there was a more impressive player in all situations for the Lightning than McDonagh, who did everything for his team. Victor Hedman had more points, but McDonagh had the toughest defensive assignments which shows in his numbers.
The Lightning didn’t always have the best possession numbers when McDonagh was on the ice, but he made an impact at both ends. McDonagh finished with eight assists, but he also blocked 46 shots.
If there was a situation where the team needed a stop, McDonagh was getting the nod. His overall impact cannot be overstated.
Best rookie - Cole Caufield | Montreal Canadiens
Caufield will still be eligible to win the NHL’s rookie of the year award next season as he didn’t meet the threshold of regular-season games played, and you’d think he’ll be the favorite.
Caufield joined the Habs after his college season at Wisconsin where he won the Hobey Baker Award as the NCAA’s top player. He appeared in 10 regular season games, sat out the first two playoff games and then once he got back in the lineup he was a difference-maker.
Caufield scored four goals in the series against the Vegas Golden Knights and assisted on three overtime game-winners. He finished with 12 points in 20 games and showed why so many people are excited about the undersized budding star.
Coach of the playoffs - Barry Trotz | New York Islanders
Do more with less has been Trotz’s calling card since he entered the league and coached the Nashville Predators for more than 15 years. He had a great team when he won the Cup with the Washington Capitals, but I think he’s really shown his value as a coach with the Islanders.
The Isles have good players, but they’ve gotten better since Trotz arrived. Look at how Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock have become an elite shut-down pairing, and how the team’s fourth line has become an integral part of their identity.
Trotz is one of the best coaches in the game today and getting the Islanders within a game of the Stanley Cup Final in a season like this was especially impressive.
Breakout star of the playoffs - Nick Suzuki | Montreal Canadiens
The 21-year-old is the No. 1 center that the Canadiens have been searching for, for a long time. Acquired in a trade with the Vegas Golden Knights that sent captain Max Pacioretty the other way, Suzuki has more than lived up to the value.
He finished with seven goals and 16 points, and in some games was the best player on the ice for either team. The best is yet to come for Suzuki as he gains strength and experience because the skill level and work ethic are there. The future is bright in Montreal.
2021-22 Stanley Cup contenders
It's looking like we’re going to get closer to a normal season in 2021-22, which is great news for a lot of fans that have been sitting around with their teams eliminated for a bit.
The early odds for Stanley Cup favorites are already out, and right at the top is the Colorado Avalanche , a team that has looked to be on the cusp of being a legit contender for the last two years now.
The Avs and Lightning both have the same odds at the moment to compete for Lord Stanley.
If I were picking between those two teams, I’d lean towards the Avs only because the Lightning are going to have to shed salary and slim their roster down a bit to be cap complaint. As everyone knows, they were $18m over the NHL’s salary cap, which does not apply to the playoffs, so there’s going to be some significant roster churn going into next season.
Meanwhile, Colorado has one of the best players in the world in Nathan MacKinnon, one of the best defensemen in the game today in Cale Makar and, if they can keep players like Gabriel Landeskog while perhaps adding a little more to the lineup, they’re going to contend.
Other teams of note:
Vegas Golden Knights
The Golden Knights have one of the best rosters around. They have veteran talent all throughout their lineup, but they will have some roster decisions to make as the salary cap looms over their head.
Will they keep Vezina-winning goalie Marc-Andre Fleury? It’s hard to know at this point. Will they have to do their annual purge via trade just to make some room? Will owner Bill Foley demand a big splash to get this team over the hump?
They’ve been one of the final four teams in three of their first four seasons, so you know they’ll be in the hunt. They currently have the third best odds.
Toronto Maple Leafs
They’ve been humbled in the first round every year and they can’t seem to get over the hump. How much is that going to fuel them going forward?
They currently have the fourth-best odds to win the Cup. I don’t know if they’re there yet, but if they don’t get there soon we could see a lot of changes in Toronto.
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