With a brand new NHL season comes a clean sheet of ice and a fresh batch of storylines ready to unfold.
And questions. Many questions. Every year, a lot of the same ones appear — questions like, Whose rebuild will take the biggest leap forward? and How many trades might we see? and Who’s left standing at the end of it all? and, of course, We’re all about to underestimate the New York Islanders again, aren’t we? (Just me? Oh. Sorry.)
That’s what’s so much fun about a brand new season of NHL hockey. Parity reigns, always. Windows of contention bust wide open and others slam shut. Anything can happen. With this year being our first 82-game schedule since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the upcoming campaign brings all at once the feeling of a return to normalcy as well as an ever-present uncertainty.
Some players will be crowned Olympic champions by season’s end, with the NHL slated to break for the Games this winter after not participating in 2018.
This year brings a historic first, too: a 32nd franchise, as the Seattle Kraken make their long-awaited debut in the Pacific Division while the Arizona Coyotes are shuffled into the powerful Central.
Some of our questions will be answered. Others will inevitably just prompt more queries. Let’s dig in, enjoy the ride, and learn a thing or two along the way.
1. Can the Tampa Bay Lightning pull off the three-peat?
The last team to win back-to-back-to-back championships was the Al Arbour-led New York Islanders, who matched Montreal’s four straight Stanley Cups to close out the 1970’s with four of their own to open up the ‘80s in equally dominant fashion.
If Tampa Bay is to earn its third consecutive Cup, they’ll have to do so without the clutch third line of Yanni Gourde, Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow, whose excellent play in Tampa priced them right out of town (or, in Gourde’s case, caught the eye of Seattle).
2. How much closer can Ovechkin get to Gretzky’s 894?
Sixteen seasons into his incredible career, Alex Ovechkin has 730 regular season goals to his name. That’s 164 more than the next current NHLer on the all-time list (Patrick Marleau, sitting 50th, has 566) and it just so happens that he needs 164 more if he’s to catch Wayne Gretzky’s historic tally of 894 for the NHL’s all-time goals record.
Currently sitting sixth on that list, a healthy Ovechkin would be poised to move up the ranking pretty quickly over the course of the next 82 games: One more goal ties him with Marcel Dionne for fifth all-time; 10 more after that, and he shares fourth place with Brett Hull. A 37-goal season – which, let’s be honest, would feel like a low output considering Ovi’s track record — would be enough to leapfrog Jaromir Jagr and finish 2021-22 in sole possession of third all-time behind just Gordie Howe (801) and The Great One.
But, for the first time in those 16 illustrious seasons, injuries just might play a factor. The 36-year-old Capitals captain left his team’s pre-season finale against Philadelphia on Friday night with a lower-body injury and is set to be examined further Saturday.
If the issue doesn’t sideline him for a significant stretch of the season, the countdown will be on for Ovechkin to hunt down history (and, of course, another Stanley Cup or two). An average of 33 goals per season until he’s 40 would get him there.
3. How will COVID shape this season?
This will be the third NHL season affected by COVID, and the first time since the start of the pandemic that the league is scheduling a full 82-game duration.
The NHL’s excellent vaccination rates bring the best chance of keeping everyone safe and healthy and able to focus on hockey. By deputy commissioner Bill Daly’s count in September, it’s expected the league will have fewer than 15 unvaccinated players. No players opted out of the season.
COVID concerns will be front-and-centre as we near Jan. 10, which is the deadline for the NHL opt out of Olympic participation.
4. How (and when) will the Sabres-Jack Eichel saga end?
From Elliotte Friedman’s latest edition of 32 Thoughts:
“More difficult to answer is whether or not he is traded first or gets surgery, returns to health and plays games for the Sabres to regain his trade value. No one will go on record, but there is a growing belief there are teams willing to accept Eichel’s preferred disc replacement. However, you have to be able to make the trade first. There’s definitely a push to get him healthy — which should be the number-one priority.“
5. What will we learn from the Chicago Blackhawks investigation?
While we all draw our attention to the action on the ice, the ongoing investigation into the abuse allegations made against former coach Brad Aldrich in 2010 — as well as who knew what at the time of the abuse — will remain one of the most important stories in the game. Its ripple effects are far-reaching beyond a single organization, and its findings will point to broken places in the game that must be made right. (Read the latest here.)
6. Can McDavid keep scoring at last season’s pace?
Since he joined the league in 2015-16, no one has registered more points than Connor McDavid. Last year’s total was his most impressive haul yet, racking up 105 points – his fourth season posting triple digits – in just 56 games. Should he keep up that 1.88 points-per-game pace for a full 82, that would get him to a whopping 154 points in 2021-22, a total we haven’t seen since Mario Lemieux posted 161 in 1995-96. (Super Mario did that in just 70 games, by the way. Wow.) Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky are the only two players to ever hit that 160-point plateau, and if anyone in today’s game can join them, it’s McDavid… right?
7. Is there a contender classification beyond ‘win-now’?
…Asking for a friend in Colorado. And Vegas.
8. Can the Coyotes resolve their arena situation?
…Asking for a friend in Quebec.
(Kidding… sort of.)
On the ice, things aren’t looking too promising for the rebuilding Coyotes this year. The ice itself is now also in doubt. In 2016, the Glendale City Council voted to opt out of the long-term deal between the franchise and Gila River Arena, where the team has played since 2003. The NHL club has been leasing the rink on a yearly basis since then and now that is ending, too, with the city announcing in August that they would not renew that agreement beyond 2021-22.
Coyotes owner Alex Meruelo has said his plan is to keep the Coyotes in Arizona, and the organization submitted a bid to build new arena in the city of Tempe. Even if that plan moves forward, a temporary home will still be required in the meantime.
9. Will Marc Bergevin sign an extension with the Canadiens?
Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin is entering the 2021-22 season with a team that looks and feels a lot different from the one that ran all the way to the Stanley Cup Final just a few months ago. Some of that is due to his own actions — his damaging missteps in the draft, bold expansion and offer sheet gambles that had everyone guessing, and strategic spending to fill in roster gaps. Other hurdles have been more difficult and emotional to navigate, such as the uncertain health status of captain Shea Weber and the courageous decision by Carey Price to step away from the team to address his health.
Over the course of this season, as he faces the many challenges of 2021-22, one of the biggest questions is about Bergevin himself. The longtime GM is due a new deal, and said earlier this week he won’t be negotiating with ownership during the season. So, we’ll have to wait a while yet for this answer.
10. Robin Lehner spoke up about NHL teams’ medical practices. Will other players follow suit?
Earlier this month, Robin Lehner caught the attention of the hockey world with a series of tweets forcing a spotlight on several issues, including teams’ alleged use of sleeping pills and pain relievers without proper medical consultation.
The NHL reached out to the Golden Knights netminder, who said he is now in communication with the league and players’ association to bring about change moving forward.
“This weekend was a cry for help from this league, the league that I love, that has given me so much,” Lehner said. “I’m just looking to protect the younger players, and the only way to affect change in my mind is to do it in a non-public fashion. I feel very encouraged about the talks that we might have and we are going to have moving forward.”
11. Where do Kane and the Sharks go from here?
Last month, Evander Kane was cleared of allegations made by his estranged wife that he had bet on NHL games — including his own. However, the announcement of the probe’s conclusion included information about two additional investigations.
Per NHL.com, the league is looking into “serious accusations relating to his past behaviour toward Ms. Kane and the other involving allegations of inappropriate behaviour potentially jeopardizing the health and safety of Club members.”
Kane did not join the Sharks for training camp.
12. Who are the Seattle Kraken?
The Vegas Golden Knights’ run all the way to the Stanley Cup Final in their inaugural season is an impossible act to follow. Seattle’s success out of the gates was hindered by trade-hesitant GMs still licking their wounds from deals gone wrong with Vegas, and it’s clear the Kraken are valuing cap space above all as they build from the ground up.
13. How long will it take to get Tkachuk back on the ice in Ottawa?
Tkachuk is the last RFA standing, and as indicated by reports (or lack thereof), the two sides don’t exactly seem close. Considering how crucial Tkachuk is to this team’s future, both on the ice and in the locker room, these negotiations feel like an early litmus test for how Ottawa emerges from its rebuild and what the club’s other young stars can expect.
14. Do the Maple Leafs have a winning core?
Lots of talk in Toronto about new additions, including a new goalie tandem in Jack Campbell and Petr Mrazek, but the big storyline to follow here is what didn’t change. After another dismal first-round defeat last spring, the club held firm that its core-four of John Tavares, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander is the right group to get the job done. Last season, it was All or Nothing. This time, it feels like now or never.
15. Might this be the Penguins’ last dance?
The Penguins are starting this season without both Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, who are recovering from injuries. Last year, the question for GM Ron Hextall and president of hockey operations Brian Burke upon their hiring back in February was about where exactly this team was headed. One playoff push and another early post-season exit later, we still don’t know.
The list of players set to be UFAs after this year is long, headlined by Malkin and Kris Letang. But as long as Crosby’s still in Pittsburgh, you’re contending… right?
16. How will embracing betting impact NHL revenues? (And the way we watch games?)
With single-game betting now legal in Canada, we could be entering a whole new era of hockey consumption.
17. Will the Oilers trade for another netminder by the deadline?
Considering Edmonton’s flurry of off-season adjustments and urgency to contend following back-to-back flat post-season outings, it felt like a sure thing Oilers GM Ken Holland would capitalize on the busy goalie market this off-season. Nope. He enters the season with the same duo of Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen, while health concerns have put third-stringer, Alex Stalock, in jeopardy of missing the season. Will there be a new face in the crease come playoff time?
18. Now back at home in the Pacific, can Calgary and Vancouver bounce back?
Last fall’s free agency shopping was a sign of Calgary’s intentions to get out of the murky middle and back into contention. Instead, the Flames looked less like the club that finished atop the Pacific in 2018-19 and more like the one that was ousted by Colorado that spring.
Captain Mark Giordano is now in Seattle, Johnny Gaudreau headlines Calgary’s long list of pending UFAs, RFA-to-be Matthew Tkachuk is due a new deal next summer, and the clock starts ticking on Sean Monahan next July as a 2023 UFA. The only forward signed beyond 2023-24 is Blake Coleman.
The Canucks, meanwhile, are in a similar situation as far as the need for a rebound goes. Derailed by bad injury luck and a devastating COVID outbreak last season, no team needs a fresh start like Vancouver. (Okay, maybe Dallas does… but let’s focus!) GM Jim Benning got top marks for (finally) re-signing young stars Quinn Hughes and Elias Pettersson to fair contracts, and wheeled and dealed his way through the summer in an effort to reinvigorate this club for serious playoff contention two years after their Cinderella story bubble run.
Now out of the high-scoring North and back home in the Pacific, it’s bounce-back-or-bust for both.
19. Can Hart get his groove back?
The Philadelphia Flyers were among the busier teams on the trade market this past off-season, but the biggest key to success is already in-house. After emerging as the league’s most promising young netminder, Carter Hart struggled mightily in 2020-21. The Flyers’ 3.52 goals allowed per game was the NHL’s worst, and Hart’s poor play led to him losing hold of the No. 1 job.
Now equipped with a new three-year extension, a clean bill of health, and a strong training camp, his ability to bounce back will be crucial if the Flyers are to finally seize their window to win. Also, what does he need to do to land a spot on Canada’s Olympic squad?
20. Can this year bring the fresh start Dubois needs to thrive in Winnipeg?
Between the mandatory 14-day quarantine upon his arrival last January and a pair of injuries that plagued him throughout the campaign, Dubois’ transition from Columbus to Winnipeg after requesting a trade didn’t go as smoothly as anticipated. The 23-year-old registered just eight goals and 20 points — both career lows by a pretty wide margin — and didn’t score in seven playoff games. He even admitted afterwards that he never felt comfortable during the shortened season.
Now, after a full off-season of training and settling in to his new surroundings and plenty to prove in a contract year, it feels like the real fresh start begins now.
21. Could this be Fleury’s final season?
Asked about whether this season might be his last, the Penguins legend-turned-Golden Knights favourite-turned-Blackhawks beloved backstop told 32 Thoughts: The Podcast that it “could be.”
Regardless of whether this is, in fact, Marc-Andre Fleury’s swan song, 2021-22 should be a pretty special season for everyone’s favourite netminder. The reigning Vezina Trophy winner is just eight wins away from making NHL history as the third goalie to reach 500 regular season wins. Martin Brodeur is the winningest goalie of all time, at 691, followed by Patrick Roy’s 551 and Fleury’s 492.