A new NHL season is upon us, with all the excitement, storylines and intrigue that come with it. It all gets started Tuesday with a doubleheader on ESPN. At 7:30 p.m. ET, the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning take on the Pittsburgh Penguins, then at 10:15 p.m., the Vegas Golden Knights will host the expansion Seattle Kraken in their first NHL game.
To get you ready for the 2021-22 campaign, we asked some of our NHL experts -- Stanley Cup champion Mark Messier, ESPN.com reporters Emily Kaplan and Greg Wyshynski, ESPN fantasy hockey writer Victoria Matiash and NHL on ESPN host Arda Ocal -- what they're expecting to see, including whether the Lightning can pull off a three-peat as Stanley Cup champs, what to expect from the Kraken, what teams will be the biggest surprises, what players will have a breakout season and who will win it all when the Cup is finally raised.
What needs to happen for the Lightning to three-peat?
Mark Messier: I think they have a great chance to win three in a row. I don't think the regular-season standings and finishing first will be as big of an objective for them as in past years. They've played a lot of hockey over the past few years, so staying healthy ahead of the playoffs could be the biggest objective. Another question will be whether they can make up for some of the players they lost -- Yanni Gourde, Blake Coleman, Tyler Johnson, Barclay Goodrow, David Savard and Luke Schenn, to name a few. All are very underrated players who will be hard to replace in those depth positions.
Emily Kaplan: The new-look third line needs to be almost as effective as the former third line of Gourde, Goodrow and Coleman. That was a high-energy trio that could hunt down pucks with the best of them, win battles along the walls and get quick plays to the net. Look for new additions Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Corey Perry to fill those roles. While they won't have exactly the same identity, they come with their own skill set -- Bellemare is amazing defensively, while Perry is pesky and has a knack for the net. And their biggest impact will be felt in the postseason.
Greg Wyshynski: The Lightning's core remains intact for this season, which means the potential for a three-peat is closer to probability than possibility. There isn't another team in the league that boasts six players with the abilities and accomplishments of Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point, Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh and Andrei Vasilevskiy. But to win No. 3, the Lightning need three things to happen. The first is to continue to play to their identity in the postseason. Tampa figured out how to win in the playoffs by fundamentally understanding that defense paves the path to the Cup. The second, related to that, is a healthy Vasilevskiy, who has a streak of five straight elimination games with a shutout. They can absorb other losses in the lineup, but not that one. Finally, more so than finding another version of their checking line -- which is something that frankly can't be recreated -- they need to have those moments when someone outside the core scores a critical goal. The lone goal in Game 7 against the Islanders came from Gourde, now with the Kraken. Coleman scored a critical goal in Game 2 against Montreal. They have players who have similarly stepped up: Pat Maroon had the first goal in their elimination game against Florida and Ross Colton scored big goals in the elimination game against Carolina and the Stanley Cup clinching game against Montreal. But what separates Tampa from the field is that it isn't reliant on the core to win big games. Well, outside of Vasilevskiy.
Victoria Matiash: Winning one Stanley Cup is difficult enough, never mind two straight. With so many other quality NHL squads, three in a row feels nearly impossible. But if the Lightning are to have a shot, the additions of agitator Perry and Bellemare will have to make up for the loss of one the best depth lines in recent memory, along with improved play from Colton and Mathieu Joseph. (I also like the blue-line addition of Zach Bogosian.) And the best netminder in the league will have to be his elite (healthy) self when it matters most next spring. The top six will continue to do their bit; it's the new-look bottom sextet that concerns me.
Arda Ocal: I love the addition of Perry to this team -- he was a force on both the Dallas and Montreal Stanley Cup finalist teams. One other thing he will add is the hunger to win the Cup. I'm not saying the players on the Lightning aren't eager to three-peat, but the other teams around the league are certainly hungry, so adding a player who has been to the dance twice in a row but come up short is a surefire way to remind the room of what's at stake come playoff time. There is definitely a good chance that the Lightning go far again this season.
How far will the Kraken get in their first season?
Messier: I think the GMs around the league learned a lot from the last expansion draft. Vegas did a great job leveraging the picks and the players that were available to turn themselves into an instant contender. I think the GMs this time around were smarter, which made it a lot more difficult for the Kraken. The bar for an expansion team was set high by the Knights, but it's a little unfair to expect the Kraken to be able to match that in their first season.
Kaplan: There's a good chance the Kraken make the playoffs given how weak the Pacific Division is. Seattle's strengths are its goaltending and blue line. The Kraken will win a bunch of 2-1 games and should get clutch scoring. I wouldn't be shocked to see some of their highest point producers come from the blue line, such as Mark Giordano or Vince Dunn on the power play. While anything can happen once you get in the playoffs, I just can't envision a Golden Knights-esque run to the Stanley Cup Final. Then again, in October 2017, nobody was predicting that for Vegas, either.
Wyshynski: The Kraken are going to be a playoff team with more than 90 points. The Golden Knights had some things going for them that will prove unrepeatable for the Kraken, from that "Golden Misfits" chemistry to the palpable bond with a sports-starved city. While the Kraken didn't come away with the same bounty that Vegas did because teams smartened up to the expansion draft process over the past four years, they did build an impressive veteran group that is exponentially better than the dreck we used to associate with first-year teams. They also share another thing: goaltending. Vegas came out of the gate with Marc-Andre Fleury backstopping them to a division title. The Kraken have the third-best goalie tandem in the NHL in Philipp Grubauer and Chris Driedger. Factor in the decrepitude of the Pacific Division, and you've got a first-year postseason berth ... but probably not much beyond that.
Matiash: I have them finishing fourth, if not fifth, in the Pacific. There just isn't enough firepower in play to make a stronger charge. As currently constructed, the Kraken will be tougher to score against than most. But they still have to put the puck in the net themselves. There isn't enough depth or talent in that department. Not yet. This isn't Vegas 2.0.
Ocal: I'm saying they're in the playoffs, but one and done. I love Driedger -- he is one of the best backup goalies in the league, though he was essentially a starter for parts of last season with the Florida Panthers. They have a strong defensive corps, and when Yanni Gourde returns, they can use him to help answer the question marks around offensive production. On paper, I say the Kraken make the postseason. We could see some movement at the trade deadline as well, especially if there are further questions up front.
Most pleasant surprise team? Biggest disappointment?
Kaplan: Surprise team: Philadelphia Flyers. I could see them running the table in the Metro Division. I liked their offseason; the throughline of their moves was adding competitive spirit. I especially like how they addressed the blue line by adding Ryan Ellis (an overall stud defenseman), Rasmus Ristolainen (who desperately needed a change of scenery) and Keith Yandle (who might just make Philly's power play fun to watch). That all should help protect Carter Hart, who is poised to bounce back in a big way.
Disappointment: St. Louis Blues. I'm just having a hard time getting excited about the Blues this year. I wouldn't be shocked if they missed the postseason.
Wyshynski: The Anaheim Ducks have been penciled in as the worst team in the Pacific Division, but I think there's a chance they're best of the California teams if John Gibson cooperates in goal. The Los Angeles Kings have been chasing that sweet spot where the young prospects and the veterans all click at the same time. Anaheim might actually be the one on that timeline with Trevor Zegras, Jamie Drysdale and potentially Mason McTavish making an impact on a roster that still sports names like Hampus Lindholm and Rickard Rakell. Failing all of this: They trade for Jack Eichel and still finish better than expected.
Most disappointing team: It feels like the hockey world has been internally debating whether the Pittsburgh Penguins or the Washington Capitals are going to miss the playoffs this season. My love for all things Alex Ovechkin makes this difficult to admit, but it's going to be the Capitals on the outside of the Eastern Conference playoff bubble.
Matiash: The Chicago Blackhawks are going to surprise all of us by leapfrogging everyone but the Avalanche in the Central. Jonathan Toews is healthy and looks great. Same goes for young Kirby Dach. Former Lightning forward Tyler Johnson provides some extra depth down the middle. New defenseman Seth Jones is ready to erupt, 325 miles away from Columbus. Jake McCabe is another nice add on D. Vezina winner Marc-Andre Fleury brings some star power to the crease. Jeremy Colliton's club is going to be a lot of fun.
On the flip side, I think the Pittsburgh Penguins will have trouble treading water in a tough Metropolitan Division this year.
Ocal: Biggest surprise team: New Jersey Devils. They haven't sniffed the playoff race in a while, but there is a lot to be optimistic about, especially if Jack Hughes has himself a year. If New Jersey can get good goaltending from Mackenzie Blackwood, with Dougie Hamilton anchoring the blue line, this could be a team that turns some heads and becomes competitive in the Metro, especially in the hunt for a wild-card spot.
Disappointment: Pittsburgh. This team hasn't missed the playoffs since Sidney Crosby's rookie year in 2005-06. What a run! But whether it's a combination of age or confidence in net (Tristan Jarry was fourth in wins last season but with a .909 save percentage), I wonder where this team will land this season.
Name one player who will get traded by the deadline.
Kaplan: Jack Eichel. I see him being traded sometime in the next three weeks. While the stalemate over his neck procedure has lingered on far too long, there has been some movement behind the scenes. The NHL and NHLPA have intervened to help push things along, and Eichel is now able to share his medical files with potential teams. I see someone like the Anaheim Ducks, Calgary Flames, Vegas Golden Knights or Minnesota Wild stepping in. A team trades for Eichel while agreeing to let him get the procedure he prefers, he recovers for six weeks, gets back on the ice this season and there's catharsis all around.
Wyshynski: It's a Catch-22 in San Jose. Tomas Hertl probably isn't signing an extension there if the Sharks aren't on the upswing toward being a contender, but that upswing can't happen unless they reload with assets that trading a player like Hertl could provide. The 27-year-old center could be a game-changer for a contender, as a big body who can produce offensively. He has only a $5.625 million cap hit in the final year of his deal before hitting unrestricted free agency. A change would do both the player and team good.
Matiash: Deadline? Phil Kessel could be dealt before I finish typing this sentence. He has asked for a trade to a contender, the rebuilding Coyotes have zero reason not to play ball, and the veteran's real-life take-home paycheck of $1 million (cap hit: $8 million) is highly affordable for teams not up against the ceiling. There's no reason this can't happen soon.
Ocal: John Gibson. Whatever Anaheim's struggles are, and they seem to be continuing this season, Gibson won't be the reason. There are plenty of playoff contenders who could use an upgrade in goaltending to push them over the edge, so to me it's not a matter of if, but of how many calls the Ducks receive from GMs around the league for Gibson's services.
Who is your breakout player for 2021-22?
Kaplan: Spencer Knight. He's just 20 and technically saddled on the depth chart behind the second-highest-paid goalie in the league, Sergei Bobrovsky. But from everything I've seen from Knight, and more importantly, everything I hear behind the scenes, he's poised to thrive under the spotlight. He'll be playing for one of the best teams in the league this year and will earn a big share of the workload. This season, we'll be talking about him as one of the fastest-rising stars in the NHL.
Wyshynski: Yegor Sharangovich had a strong rookie season with the Devils that was overlooked because, well, it was easy to overlook the Devils last season. He's primed for a huge year. The 23-year-old forward is expected to once again skate with Jack Hughes and could have offseason signee Tomas Tatar on the opposite wing to form a potent offensive trio. His goals per game average from last season projects to around 25 goals in a full season, and I think he'll hit that total in 2021-22 -- and maybe surpass it.
Matiash: Vince Dunn is in for a good time after breaking away from St. Louis' glut of gifted defensemen. As discussed above, the Kraken aren't going to score a ton, but the 24-year-old and Mark Giordano will still contribute more than their fair share from the blue line. I also like Dunn to take over the anchor position on the top power play full-time before the season is through. While the four-year veteran has yet to post 40 points in a full NHL season, he breaks out for 50 this year. With ease.
Ocal: Kaapo Kakko. He was great in the preseason for the Rangers, he had a marked improvement defensively for the Blueshirts last season, and now it feels like he is ready to break out and produce points. I've been saying that if the Rangers get good years from Kakko, Alexis Lafreniere and Igor Shesterkin in net, this is a playoff team with a good run in them. Kakko is a big part of that and seems primed to honor his end of the bargain.
What is your Stanley Cup Final matchup and who wins?
Messier: Lightning vs. Avalanche. Lightning win in 7.
Kaplan: Lightning vs. Golden Knights. Knights in 6.
Wyshynski: Islanders vs. Golden Knights. Knights in 6.
Matiash: Panthers vs. Avalanche. Avs in 6.
Ocal: Isles vs. Avalanche. Isles in 7.