The divisions have been adjusted back, there’s no chance of a Stanley Cup rematch and hockey is starting in October again. Yes that’s right it’s time for the 2021–22 NHL season. Leave the all-Canadian division and the play-in round in the past to welcome a full slate of games and a predictable season without disruptions that will definitely go exactly as planned.
Just kidding, we all know that chaos will still ensue; it’ll just (hopefully) be more of the standard chaos that makes hockey the beautiful game that it is. And there’s plenty of room for fun this year. The NHL’s return to the Olympics, a new team of mystical cephalopods, the Ovi goal counter and more await us so let’s get to it. Here are some of the top story lines this season has in store.
Back to Normal
After two pandemic-shortened seasons and all the weirdness that entailed, the NHL is going back to the standard 82-game schedule. COVID-19 still looms over the globe and there are a handful of players who are unvaccinated, but the league has estimated 98% is fully vaccinated. This should theoretically take away a lot of the disruption and unknowns that have clouded the last couple of seasons.
We will also see fans back in arenas across the league. Although some teams had home crowds (some even at max capacity) last year, filled seats will be the norm again, making for a drastic change in atmosphere.
The Tom Brady effect has spread throughout Tampa. Shortly after the star quarterback started his seventh championship-winning campaign with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Lightning went on to win not one, but two Stanley Cups. Coincidence? Probably. But there sure have been a lot of boat parades in Florida recently.
The Bolts will aim to make it a third consecutive championship this season, a feat that hasn’t been accomplished since the Islanders won four straight in the 1980s (and haven’t returned to the finals since). Tampa Bay lost a few key pieces—including the entire third line—in the offseason, but is bringing back the core that has been instrumental in those two championship runs.
Releasing the Kraken
After almost 50 years, professional hockey is making its return to Seattle. The Kraken hit the ice for their regular-season debut on the road against the NHL’s last expansion team, the Golden Knights. The sophomores are welcoming in the freshmen to round out the Pacific Division (displacing the Coyotes to the high-octane Central Division) but can Seattle put on as great of an opening act as Vegas did in 2017–18?
The Kraken should have some solid goaltending from Philipp Grubauer, who was a Vezina Trophy finalist with the Avalanche last season, and the defensive presence should be solid as well. On the other end of the ice, however, what the Kraken will be able to generate offensively is still as mysterious as what happens when one makes eye contact with the Pacific Northwest’s mythical beast. The top scoring line of Jared McCann, Jordan Eberle and Jaden Schwartz was consistent in the preseason, but the trio made up for about half of the team’s goals and will need some secondary scoring if the Avs want to make an inaugural splash.
Shaking the Playoff Rut
The Canadiens shocked many in the hockey world by cruising to the Stanley Cup Final last season in the rare feature of two Eastern Conferences teams battling for the championship. Repeating that magic in a full season will not be easy. Montreal changed up its roster in the offseason, with Tomas Tatar, Phillip Danault and Jesperi Kotkaniemi all gone. Plus, Shea Weber is out and Carey Price won’t be available to start the season, leaving many to wonder if last year was just a glitch in pandemic hockey or if the Canadiens are still a legit playoff contender.
Elsewhere in Canada there are teams trying to level up in this year’s postseason. Can the Leafs finally get past the first round unlike the last five years, or will this be the final ride with the core group intact? And then there’s Edmonton out West. Connor McDavid has firmly established himself as the best offensive player on the ice right now and Leon Draisaital certainly likes to tag along with him for that ride. The Oilers were busy in the offseason trying to add support for the duo, but will it be enough?
Meanwhile, the Avalanche will try to get past their playoff hump of recent years after dominating in the regular season only to struggle to carry that momentum deep into the postseason. Colorado was ousted in the second round for three straight years due to a lack of secondary scoring. The top line of Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen is lethal, but is there enough depth to keep them going this season?
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Old Faces in New Places
The Jack Eichel saga has been a great source of whiplash in the last year, and there are likely still a few twists and turns before this situation is resolved. After missing the end of the season with a herniated disc, Eichel said he and the team’s doctors had different views on how to approach surgery. As the disconnect between the team and its star player apparently worsened, Eichel was stripped of his captaincy last month and has gone from Buffalo’s darling to a likely trade candidate. Given the uncertainty with his impending surgery and recovery, finding the right trade partner who is both willing to wait and is comfortable with Eichel’s preferred surgery will likely take some time.
Things are also a bit mysterious in St. Louis, where Vladimir Tarasenko requested a trade during the summer, but is starting the season in a Blues uniform. There don’t seem to be any hard feelings on either side, at least not publicly, and the star forward is finally healthy after dealing with shoulder injuries. For now it appears Tarasenko is fine with staying put, but if the Blues still struggle on the ice again this season, the winger could resubmit that request.
As those two wait to see where (or if) they will be dealt, other stars have already found a new home. Chicago will have a few notable names on its roster this year after acquiring veteran goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury from the Knights, star defenseman Seth Jones from the Blue Jackets and recent two-time Stanley Cup champion Tyler Johnson from the Lightning. And after losing to the Bolts in the last two Stanley Cup Finals, Corey Perry has joined Tampa Bay on a two-year contract.
Ovechkin Goal Counter
After signing a five-year contract extension with the Capitals in the offseason, Alex Ovechkin will continue to climb the mountain that is Wayne Gretzky’s goal record. Sitting at sixth all-time with 730 career goals, Ovechkin has a chance to move up several spots in the rankings: Marcel Dionne is fifth with 731 followed by Brett Hull with 741 and Jaromir Jagr with 766. Last year’s shortened season slowed Ovechkin’s pace a bit with just 24 goals, but he scored 48 or more for six of the seven seasons before that. The summit of Gretzky’s 894 is still a ways away, but jumping into third place isn’t out of the question for Ovi.
In a major win for the players while negotiating the latest CBA, the NHL is returning to the Olympics after skipping the 2018 PyeongChang Games. As many stars head to Beijing in 2022, the league is combining its All-Star break with the Olympic break, pausing from Feb. 3–22. This will be a significant chunk of time for teams to heal up and regroup before a playoff push in the spring, but it also means an added grind to many of the sport’s best. The NHL still has the option to withdraw participation if conditions surrounding the pandemic worsen, but for now players are scheduling trips to Beijing as Olympic rosters begin to trickle out.
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