21 local sports predictions for 2021

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Jason Franson/The Canadian Press via AP

Vegas Golden Knights’ Shea Theodore (27) is congratulated for his goal against the Vancouver Canucks during the second period of Game 5 of an NHL hockey second-round playoff series, Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2020, in Edmonton, Ontario.

Las Vegas gets a stronger hold on the sports world every year as our number of teams and events constantly seems to grow. The momentum should continue in 2021, and many of the reasons why are listed below—our 21 predictions for 2021 across a wide spectrum of Las Vegas sports, presented roughly in the order we project them to occur.

1. The Raiders’ archrival Kansas City Chiefs are denied in their quest to become the first back-to-back Super Bowl champions in 15 years with a shocking loss in the AFC playoffs. The Chiefs have been the favorites to win another championship all year, but their penchant for getting into close games and the diminished capacity at Arrowhead Stadium prove to be their undoing.

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The Henderson Silver Knight AHL team reveals its uniform Monday Nov. 09, 2020. Photos courtesy: Henderson Silver Knights

2. The Henderson Silver Knights start strong in their first season in the American Hockey League, giving fans a chance to follow future Golden Knights more closely. Forwards Lucas Elvenes and Jack Dugan are the two prospects presumably ticketed to Orleans Arena this year as construction continues on the club’s new Henderson Event Center.

3. Canceled fall prep sports take place in a condensed format from March 5 to April 10, and spring sports follow from April 22 to May 22. Winter sports and state playoffs remain a coronavirus casualty. That’s all according to a Clark County School District proposal to return to in-person learning, one that hopefully sticks for the sake of the athletes.

4. Defending NASCAR Cup champion—and future of the sport—Chase Elliott wins the Pennzoil 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on March 7. The 25-year-old Chevrolet driver has three top 10s in his first seven races locally and will soon be an annual fixture near the top of the leaderboard on the 1.5-mile track.

5. Nevada sportsbooks break the state record for betting handle in the month of March, as action on the first NCAA Tournament in two years eclipses the $596.8 million wagered in March 2019. Watch parties will be less full because of social distancing, but sports betting volume has only gone up during football season, and basketball’s biggest event will follow the same blueprint.

6. The Raiders will trade their top pick in April’s 2021 NFL Draft. Las Vegas’ defense was a disaster in 2020, and the best way to avoid a similar fate is to load up on draft picks by trading down and amassing more chances to hit on long-term difference makers.

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The Las Vegas Aviators, formerly the Las Vegas 51s, take on the Sacramento River Cats during the opening of the Las Vegas Ballpark in Summerlin Tuesday, April 9, 2019.

7. Minor League Baseball finds a way to resume, so the Las Vegas Aviators can finally defend the division title they won in their maiden season at Las Vegas Ballpark in 2019. The pandemic will limit crowd sizes, but interest will remain high for the Oakland A’s Triple-A affiliate.

8. Former Golden Knights first-round pick Peyton Krebs will make his NHL debut as a 20-year-old. The uncertainty around the WHL, Krebs’ junior league, and the NHL’s creation of a new taxi squad allows the organization to play their top prospect up to six games without burning a year on his contract.

9. The Las Vegas Lights return to Cashman Field, despite a short delay, for a full United Soccer League season in May. The team currently has no coach and only one player—local forward Blake Frischknecht—but ownership rallies to build a team that can compete for the first playoff appearance in the four-year history of the franchise.

10. Golden Knights fourth-year winger Alex Tuch will have a breakout year, scoring 20 goals in the shortened 56-game season. Tuch was a monster in the playoffs last season and will feast on favorable defensive matchups this year while playing down the lineup.

11. The Golden Knights will get back to the Stanley Cup Final, as this year’s team is built to play for hockey’s ultimate prize. They’ll face stiff competition—and perhaps some resulting speed bumps—during division play, but Vegas is too stacked not to figure it out in time for the playoffs.

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Las Vegas Raiders defensive end Maxx Crosby (98) sacks New England Patriots quarterback Cam Newton in the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Sept. 27, 2020, in Foxborough, Mass.

12. Raiders edge rusher Maxx Crosby will out-sack Khalil Mack in the 2021 season, closing the door on the latter’s controversial trade to the Chicago Bears once and for all. Since the Raiders drafted Crosby in 2019, he has recorded 16 sacks, while Mack—the team’s former star—has totaled 16.5 with the Bears.

13. The Raiders will again come up just short of missing the playoffs in their second season in Las Vegas, finishing 8-8. It’s going to take more than one offseason to build the defense into a postseason-caliber unit.

14. A’ja Wilson will earn her second straight WNBA Most Valuable Player award by increasing the averages of 20.5 points and 8.5 rebounds she put up in this season’s bubble in Bradenton, Florida. She might even become the first player in league history to win three in a row in 2022. Wilson is that good.

15. Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield will renew their rivalry by completing a trilogy fight 23 years after their last meeting on the Las Vegas Strip. For better or worse, the 54-year-old Tyson seems likely to continue his exhibition boxing career after a fight with Roy Jones Jr. last November in LA did big business.

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UNLV Rebels running back Charles Williams (8) finds a hole in the Fresno State Bulldogs defense during a game at Allegiant Stadium Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020.

16. Led by returning running back Charles Williams, UNLV’s football team will win at least one game in 2021 after going 0-6—and looking mostly uncompetitive—in 2020. The school has a winnable game against Eastern Washington scheduled for September 2 to open the season at Allegiant Stadium.

17. Patrick Cantlay, currently the No. 9-ranked golfer in the world, will win the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open for the second time on October 10. The former UCLA star has TPC Summerlin figured out, with a victory and two second-place finishes on the course in the past four years.

18. Bryce Hamilton will return to the UNLV basketball team for his senior season, despite some advising him to declare for the 2021 NBA Draft after a hot start to this season. Hamilton will ultimately delay his professional career in favor of trying to make an NCAA Tournament run.

19. Bishop Gorman will regain its claim to being Nevada’s best high school football team. The fall season will go off as planned, and Gorman, with its roster of blue-chip college prospects, will beat Liberty in the state championship to avenge a 2019 loss that snapped a streak of 10 straight titles.

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UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov listens to UFC Dana White during a news conference for UFC 249 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas Friday, March 6, 2020. Nurmagomedov will defend his title against Tony Ferguson, former interim lightweight champion, in UFC 249 on April 18, 2020 at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York.

20. Led by dogged efforts from Dana White, the UFC will stage the first fight at Allegiant Stadium near the end of the year. White will either load up millions to coax lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov out of retirement or find another opponent for reinvigorated top contender Conor McGregor.

21. The revamped Las Vegas Bowl will live up to the hype, with its first game at Allegiant Stadium falling right before New Year’s Eve and featuring big-time programs USC and Nebraska. With capacity restrictions lifted, a crowd of nearly 70,000 will fill the venue and make for a sea of two different shades of red.

This story appeared in Las Vegas Weekly.