Tampa Bay Lightning forward Nikita Kucherov celebrates a goal
(Screenshot/ @NHL on Youtube)

The 2020-21 NHL season has come to an end, which means it’s time to start thinking about which player deserves the cover of EA Sports’ NHL 22. Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin earned the cover of NHL 21 after scoring 48 goals in 68 games during 2019-20.

Ovechkin occupied the cover for the second time in his career, so it’s unlikely EA Sports will choose a previous cover athlete for NHL 22. There’s a strong possibility we’ll be looking at a fresh face on the latest installment of the hockey video game franchise.

NHL 22 will be released in fall 2021 and will be available on Xbox One, Xbox Series X, PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 5. There have been rumours that NHL 22 won’t be available on the older-gen consoles, but that isn’t the case.

The NHL played a shortened 56-game season in 2020-21, but there’s no shortage of deserving candidates, especially when you take the playoffs into consideration. Tampa Bay repeating as Stanley Cup champions means it’s very likely a player on the Lightning will get the cover.

Although the Lightning have dominated the NHL in recent years, there’s also a strong list of deserving candidates from other teams across the league. It’s surprising just how many current NHL superstars have yet to occupy the cover of the EA Sports’ video game.

Considering Tampa Bay’s dominance and a growing list of deserving candidates, who will be on the cover of NHL 22? Here’s a list of the five most likely candidates.

5. Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins

As long as people continue asking why superstar Sidney Crosby has never been on a video game cover, he’ll keep appearing on lists like this. Pittsburgh’s franchise player has surprisingly never been on the cover of the EA Sports’ NHL video game despite becoming one of the greatest hockey players of all time. Crosby makes sense as the NHL 22 cover athlete because EA Sports sometimes rewards players who have been consistently great for many years. Take Ovechkin in NHL 21 as an example. He didn’t win the Cup that year, but he led the league in goals for the sixth time in seven years. EA Sports putting the greatest goalscorer of the century on their cover was something nobody could complain about.

Much like Ovechkin in 2021, EA Sports choosing Crosby for the NHL 22 cover is something that would please most people. Ovechkin and Crosby were drafted one year apart and have very similar career production. Is it really fair Ovechkin has gotten the cover twice without Crosby even being featured once? Now would be the time for a Crosby cover considering he just finished top-10 in scoring at age 33. Many believe Crosby is on the decline, but Sid silenced his haters with a very productive 2020-21 season that saw him record 24 goals and 62 points in 55 games. EA has received plenty of criticism for not featuring Crosby on a cover yet, which is why #87 is a strong candidate for the NHL 22 cover.

4. Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche 

There might not be a more explosive player in the NHL right now than Colorado Avalanche forward Nathan MacKinnon.The Avs’ superstar is due to be on an EA Sports video game cover after taking steps forwards in each of the past few seasons. MacKinnon is arguably the second-best player in the world behind Connor McDavid. Nate grabs the attention of both viewers and opposing players whenever he takes the ice. His explosive skating, nasty deking and terrific shot match the direction the EA Sports NHL franchise has been trending in.

MacKinnon has 354 points in 273 games over the past four seasons, which puts him behind only McDavid and Leon Draisaitl in that span. It’s hard to see EA Sports putting either of those Oilers players on the cover considering how disappointing their playoff run was. You also have to remember McDavid was just on the cover of NHL 18. MacKinnon has been a playoff monster the last two years, racking up 17 goals and 40 points in 25 postseason contests. The 25-year-old simply elevates his game when it matters most. He’s also playing on arguably the most exciting team in the NHL. MacKinnon makes a great deal of sense for the NHL 22 cover.

3. Victor Hedman, Tampa Bay Lightning 

Is 2022 the year a defenseman graces the cover of the EA Sports NHL video game? Tampa Bay blueliner Victor Hedman is a prime candidate to become the first defenseman to occupy the NHL cover since PK Subban in NHL 19. Hedman has consistently been one of the NHL’s best defensemen for several years and would be a safe choice for the NHL 22 cover. He’s been a Norris Trophy finalist for five straight seasons, winning in 2018. He also played a pivotal role in back-to-back Lightning Cup runs, capturing the Conn Smythe Trophy in 2020.

Hedman is everything EA Sports is looking for when it comes to defensemen on their video game covers. Recent blueliners who have occupied the cover like Subban and Dion Phaneuf are exciting offensive-minded rearguards who aren’t afraid to dish out the body. At 6’6″ and 241 lbs, Hedman is a beast who towers over opposing forwards. He’s consistently among the NHL leaders in average ice time and finished third among all defensemen in scoring in 2020-21 with 45 points. Not to mention, his playoff production has been absurd. Hedman ranks fourth in playoff scoring over the past two years despite being a defenseman. His physical traits and explosiveness make him a great potential NHL 22 cover athlete.

2. Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning 

Nikita Kucherov being on the cover of NHL 22 would be a tad controversial, but the stats don’t lie. What Kucherov did in back-to-back playoff runs for the Lightning was incredible. The Russian superstar led the playoffs in scoring in both of the team’s Stanley Cup runs in 2020 and 2021. Kucherov’s 64 points over the last two playoffs put him behind only Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux for the most total points over two NHL postseasons.

Kucherov being the NHL 22 cover athlete would be controversial because he missed the entire 2020-21 regular season due to injury. Some believe the Lightning circumvented the salary cup by leaving him on LTIR all season. This meant Tampa Bay was significantly over the salary cap come playoff time. The Bolts didn’t break any official rules, however, and you can’t argue with how clutch Kucherov has been.

This Tampa Bay team is very resemblant to the Chicago Blackhawks team that dominated the NHL from 2009-2015. Patrick Kane got the NHL 10 cover and Jonathan Toews got the NHL 11 cover. Both players appeared on the NHL 16 cover together. Given how dominant Tampa Bay has been over the past few seasons, you can bet a player on the Lightning will get the NHL 22 cover. EA Sports recognizes when a team is far better than everyone else and should reward the Lightning accordingly.

1. Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay Lightning 

Once in a decade, there’s an NHL goalie who comes along that EA Sports simply can’t ignore. This is a goalie who is simply far superior to anyone else playing his position at the time. There’s not much debate Andrei Vasilevsky is the best goaltender in the NHL right now. A recent NHLPA poll saw Vasilevskiy receiving a whopping 55% of the votes for best goalie in the league. No other goalie even received eight percent of the votes from his peers. Vasi is set up nicely to be the first goalie cover athlete since Martin Brodeur in NHL 14.

Vasilevsky is very deserving of the NHL 22 cover after leading his team to back-to-back Stanley Cups in 2020 and 2021. Kucherov also played a huge role in that success, but he didn’t play the 2020-21 regular season like Vasi. The Russian netminder has been a Vezina finalist for four straight seasons, winning in 2019 and almost repeating in 2021. He received just nine fewer voting points than Golden Knights’ goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. Many analytics experts will tell you Vasilevskiy deserved the 2021 Vezina over Fleury.

Over the last four regular seasons, Vasilevskiy leads all NHL goaltenders with an outstanding .921 save percentage. His playoff numbers are even better. Vasilevskiy led all NHL goaltenders in the 2020 Playoffs with a .927 save percentage and did it again in the 2021 Playoffs with a superior .938 save percentage. Only five goalies have ever been featured on the cover of the video game, but when the right candidate comes along, EA Sports isn’t afraid to pull the trigger. There simply isn’t a more deserving NHL 22 cover athlete than Andrei Vasilevskiy.