12 key NHL storylines to watch for in 2022, on and off the ice

Donnovan Bennett recounts Canada's triumphs in sports in 2021. Despite hardships through the COVID-19 pandemic, Canada's stars shined on the global stage.

After looking like we might just make it out of 2021 on the upswing, a late run of postponements, rising case numbers and a new variant has thrust a fresh thorn into our collective side.

And as we leave behind this tumultuous, unpredictable year, that final turn leaves plenty of questions on the table for what the hockey world will look like in 2022. Those hazy ones come alongside the more familiar questions we usually have on the lighthearted stuff — the records, awards and championship dreams. And then there's the larger question of all that has been exposed about hockey's flawed culture over these recent years, and what steps will be taken to find genuine progress, to make real change.

All that considered, here's a look at our top NHL storylines to watch for in 2022:

What impact will the COVID-19 pandemic have on the NHL in 2022?

For the third straight season, the NHL has seen its campaign disrupted by the unending unpredictability of the pandemic. First came the suspended (and later restarted) 2019-20 season, then the realigned 2020-21. Now, after a fairly normal start to 2021-22, a new highly transmissible variant has led to rising case numbers and a rash of postponed games.

While the hope is the pandemic subsides slowly and steadily over the next year, it’s impossible to know what exactly the situation will look like. And with NHL players more immersed in the public than they were a year ago, it’s unclear what impact the pandemic will continue to have on the league and the need to hit pause if the risk of spreading the virus becomes too great.

So, where will that leave us by the end of 2021-22 — will the current campaign stretch a full 82 games, or will the interruption we’re currently seeing force another on-the-fly adjustment to the season? How many fans will be permitted to safely fill arenas by the time that final game of the year rolls around? Amid a season that seemed to be a return to normalcy, only to become a reminder that we aren’t out of the woods yet, will 2022-23 be the cookie-cutter, 82-game season of familiarity we’d hoped for?

Beyond the basic structure of this season and the next, there’s also the question of how the league’s financial situation will be affected by the pandemic’s continued impact. In December, commissioner Gary Bettman said he believed the salary cap would continue to rise by $1 million each year moving forward and would spike again a few seasons after this current one. Does the new string of postponements and revenues lost in attendance restrictions change that prediction?

What will the 2022 playoffs look like?

Coming off two years of altered playoff pictures, what exactly will we see from the 2022 post-season?

The 2020 iteration was the most significant format divergence brought on by the pandemic, the league opting for a 24-team tournament with a Qualifying Round, played in two hub cities. Last year’s marked a return to the traditional 16-team tourney with best-of-seven series, but one that featured four realigned divisions to deal with cross-border travel restrictions.

Given what’s transpired throughout the league over the past few weeks, a post-season that seemed set to be a simple affair has become far more complicated. If circumstances force the league to wrap the season before hitting a full 82 games, how does determining the rightful entrants affect the format — does another Qualifying Round come into play? With games recently postponed due to complications around cross-border travel, will we see realignment or an altered format that takes travel restrictions into account?

At some point down the line, this will all be history. But for now, the new normal is waiting to see what changes the pandemic forces, and how the league adjusts. Hopefully 2022 is the last year in which that’s the case.

Who goes to Beijing for the Olympic men’s hockey tournament?

After a summer of excitement at the prospect of a Team Canada squad led by Sidney Crosby, Connor McDavid and Nathan MacKinnon, the Olympic men’s hockey tournament was dealt a significant blow with the news that NHL players won’t be in attendance. The big-league best-on-best dreams have been dashed for another four years. But that leads to another handful of questions.

With only a month to go before the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing begin, who is called upon to fill out the men’s squads that would’ve been chock full of NHL all-stars? Do established-but-teamless veterans like Eric Staal and Tuukka Rask go the Olympic route with that lane now open, or focus on getting back to the big leagues? (That option seems more likely for the former than the latter, with Rask seeming likely to return to the Bruins).

And what will the interest level among fans look like in the wake of a 2018 Pyeongchang tournament similarly without NHL-calibre names, and after months of expecting to see the biggest stars in the sport taking the ice for their countries?

On the other side of that coin, what does the league do for the host of disgruntled NHL stars who are seeing their chance at international glory slip through their fingers once again?

Said McDavid recently of the NHL withdrawing from Olympic participation: "The whole thing is so disappointing. It's hard to really put into words what I think a lot of guys are feeling, especially the guys that haven't gotten to go before. Now, we're missing it for the second time in a row. We can't dwell on it.

“We do have to find a way to get a best-on-best tournament at some point here. We can't go six, seven, eight years without playing best-on-best.”

The last World Cup of Hockey was held in 2016 in Toronto. With the Olympics out of the picture, do we see new World Cup plans hammered out in 2022?

Will the Canucks continue their unlikely march to the playoffs?

No club saw its momentum halted as abruptly by the league’s recent pause than the Canucks, who’ve gone on a tear in the wake of a coaching change that saw Travis Green ousted and Bruce Boudreau handed the reins.

The ‘Bruce There It Is’ era in Vancouver has amounted to seven wins in eight games since Boudreau’s arrival. The club sat at 8-15-2 when the former Capitals, Ducks and Wild coach arrived, with the Canucks well out of the playoff picture at the time. Now, they’re up to 15-15-3, and just a few points away from a wild-card spot.

A march from the conference basement back into the playoff picture would be no small feat — we only have to look as far back as the St. Louis Blues in 2019 to get a sense of how a run like that can galvanize a team, and the Canucks seem to have enough raw talent to do something unpredictable if everything falls their way.

With the Canucks resuming play, and finally enduring their first loss under Boudreau, can they pick up where they left off and continue their resurgent climb up the standings?

Will anyone be able to end the Oilers’ Art Ross reign?

The Edmonton Oilers’ two-headed monster has wreaked havoc on the scoring race over the past half-decade, with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl claiming four of the past five Art Ross trophies (three for McDavid, one for Draisaitl). They’ve snagged the past two consecutively, and currently sit first (McDavid) and second (Draaisaitl) in league scoring this season.

The only player who’s been able to interrupt that stretch is Nikita Kucherov, who put up an absurd 128 points in 2018-19, but the Russian phenom has been sidelined with injury this year, taking him out of the equation. Alex Ovechkin is the closest to the Oilers duo at the moment, sitting a handful of points behind the pair, with Steven Stamkos, Nazem Kadri and Jonathan Huberdeau close behind.

Will one of the two Oilers pivots claim the league’s scoring crown for the third straight year — and the fifth time in the past six seasons? And, more importantly, will Edmonton be able to turn that regular-season scoring dominance into some form of meaningful post-season progress?

How close will Ovechkin get to Gretzky’s goal-scoring record in 2022?

Speaking of Ovechkin, with the Washington Capitals captain having claimed his Stanley Cup and enough Rocket Richard trophies to cement his legacy as one of the best to ever take the ice in the NHL, the focus on the Russian sniper has shifted to one thing and one thing alone: The Great Eight’s pursuit of The Great One.

As it currently stands, Ovechkin sits at 752 career goals, good for fourth-most all-time, and 152 back of Wayne Gretzky’s all-time mark, 894. Depending on where you fall in your belief of Ovechkin’s historic skill, he’s either got a strong chance of topping Gretzky’s mark, or it’s inevitable. Either way, the question for No. 8 each year for the next few will be how close he manages to get to that lofty total.

The general line of thinking was that if Ovechkin (now 36 years old) could keep up a 20-goal pace for his twilight years, maybe he’d stick around long enough to do it. But he already has 22 goals just 32 games into the season, putting him on pace for just shy of 60 goals by the season’s end (if the pandemic allows for a full 82 games).

If he gets to 60 this season — an unrealistic hypothetical for some, maybe, but the nine-time Rocket Richard winner’s topped out at 65 before and has hit 50 seven other times — that would move Ovechkin’s all-time total to 790, good for third all-time behind only Gretzky and Gordie Howe, and just 104 behind the top spot.

Will Ovechkin slow down and (somehow) land closer to 30 by the end of the 2021-22 season, keeping the doubt alive? Or hit 50 or 60 goals and make it all but inevitable that he claims the throne within the next few seasons?

Will the contenders finally contend?

The hierarchy of quality clubs in the NHL has shaken out fairly clearly over the past couple seasons, at least on paper. The Bolts have looked the part and have made good on that potential with rings and banners. Past that, we’ve seen a few clubs look like bona fide contenders for years now, but continue to come up short of a real run.

We’re a half-decade into the Toronto Maple Leafs putting together progressively more regular-season promise, only to be ousted in the first round of the post-season. The Colorado Avalanche have made it as far as the second round in each of the past three years, but even that has seemed a meagre result given they boast one of the game’s undeniable best in Nathan MacKinnon, and a spoil of riches when it comes to the rest of their talent up front and on the back end. The Golden Knights have looked close since they first came into existence, and they’ve only added more all-stars to their roster with each passing year — that’s led them to back-to-back trips to the third round the past two years, but there’s a sense they’ve left progress on the table.

All three appear to have new reason for belief in 2022. The Maple Leafs reeled off a string of 15 wins in 17 games from late October to early December, and have seen their star pivot blossom into a Rocket Richard Trophy winner. The Avalanche have a career-best season from Kadri to add to the mix, the depth centre currently sitting fifth in league scoring and piling up points faster than he ever has. And the Golden Knights, who’ve added all-stars like Mark Stone and Alex Pietrangelo in recent years, will throw Jack Eichel into the mix at some point in 2022, just for good measure.

The potential is there for all three — is 2022 the year we see one of these contenders take the next step and go on a deep run, if not win it all?

Can the Bolts claim the elusive three-peat and cement dynasty status?

Coming off back-to-back Cup wins, the Lightning — whose 47 points are tied for tops in the league at the moment — remain well-stocked, well-coached and very capable of running it back. But that three-peat is a tough mountain to climb, even for the best of teams.

The last club to get a crack at it was the Pittsburgh Penguins, who went back-to-back in 2016 and 2017 — they fell in the second in round the next year, to the eventual Cup winners. The Red Wings won in ’97 and ’98, and then similarly fell in the second round one year later. Before that, it was the Pens again in ’91 and ’92, and again a second-round exit a year later.

All of those squads were just as star-studded as these Bolts — that recent iteration of the Pens led by Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the older group by Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr, while those Red Wings had Steve Yzerman and Nicklas Lidstrom doing their thing — but they couldn’t claim that elusive third ring.

The last squad to put together a three-year reign over the league was the New York Islanders, their early '80s run spanning four straight seasons, cementing them as an undeniable dynasty (Gretzky’s late-'80s Oilers couldn’t get the three-peat either, but earned dynasty status with a decent four Cups over five years).

There’s something special about these Bolts, that much is clear. Now, the question is whether they can separate themselves from the other back-to-backers and make even more history in 2022, moving from an elite present day champ to a bona fide dynasty.

Who will win the Shane Wright sweepstakes ahead of the 2022 NHL Draft?

On the far other end of the spectrum are the Ottawa Senators, Montreal Canadiens, and Arizona Coyotes — the three clubs occupying the bottom three spots in the league standings. With the halfway mark of the 2021-22 season approaching, the focus for the trio is likely already directed at the 2022 NHL Draft and likely No. 1 pick Shane Wright, the Kingston Frontenacs centreman who’s put up 30 points through 22 games in the OHL so far this season.

All three clubs would be intriguing landing spots for the Burlington, Ont., native.

In Ottawa, a slowly but steadily growing crop of blue-chip talent has the Senators faithful seeing promise on the horizon, even if it isn’t quite here yet. Adding Wright to a group highlighted by Brady Tkachuk, Tim Stützle and Thomas Chabot — not to mention a number of other talented young pieces — would line up perfectly with where Ottawa’s at now and where they hope to be a couple years down the line.

Montreal, meanwhile, finds itself in a devastating position just months after making a grand return to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in nearly three decades. That progress was all but wiped out by the loss of a long list of key contributors up and down the lineup. The only hope now is that Jeff Gorton brings the same luck he had in New York and lands Montreal a lottery pick in 2022.

And then there’s Arizona, mired again in endless arena issues, with a few other controversies in the not-so-distant past. After following up a rare playoff appearance with another post-season miss in 2021, the Coyotes find themselves once again treading water. They need direction, and excitement — two things a No. 1 pick could help bring to the desert.

Where will the Coyotes play in 2022? What happens with the Flames’ arena plans?

On that Coyotes’ arena note, there’s a key question there that will need to be answered in 2022 — where will the team play after this current season? The City of Glendale is terminating the team’s Gila River Arena lease after the 2021-22 campaign — the Coyotes say they’re committed to keeping the team in Arizona, but where exactly that will be is unclear. Do they find a new building to call home, or does relocation come into play?

And if the league goes down the latter route, will it be Houston, Quebec City, or somewhere else altogether?

Elsewhere in the arena world, the Flames have their own situation to sort out — after years of tumult to get a plan for a new arena inked, and an agreement finally coming to fruition two years ago, construction on the club’s new venue was set to begin in 2022. Instead, the plan has hit yet another snag, with the team appearing to have withdrawn from the agreement due to rising costs and disagreements with the city about who should take on those costs.

Will the two sides return to the table and find a way to salvage the plans for a new arena in Calgary, or is the deal truly dead? If it’s the latter, a new long-term plan will need to be sorted out for the Flames, whose current building ranks as the second-oldest in the league.

Which front-office changes will we see around the league in 2022?

Multiple teams around the league will bring new general managers into the fold in 2022.

The Canucks are searching for the next GM after bringing aboard Jim Rutherford as president of hockey operations. The same goes for the Montreal Canadiens, who brought in Jeff Gorton as vice president of hockey operations. Both veteran managers are filling the GM role for the time being, but have spoken openly about the search for their eventual long-term replacements.

The Anaheim Ducks and Chicago Blackhawks currently have interim managers running things after disturbing situations came to light regarding both organizations — longtime GM Bob Murray resigned from the former due to an investigation into allegations of verbal abuse directed at players and staff, while Stan Bowman resigned from the latter after the conclusion of an investigation into sexual assault allegations made against former assistant coach Brad Aldrich, and the club’s failure to properly address those allegations.

Who fills those latter two roles, where new leadership is crucially needed, will be an essential question. As for the roles in Vancouver and Montreal, both Rutherford and Gorton have spoken about their desire to make their front offices more diverse, to bring new perspectives to their organizations. Which direction will the two veteran executives ultimately go when all is said and done?

Will we see genuine, tangible change in the culture of the game?

It’s been a brutal year for the hockey community. After a tumultuous 2020 that saw BIPOC players around the game implore the hockey world to meaningful address systemic racism in the sport, the spotlight continued to shine on hockey culture’s deep flaws in 2021. The trauma that Kyle Beach was forced to endure, and the failure by so many who had the opportunity to protect him, or at the very least speak up once they became aware of the situation, stands as a poignant indicator of where the culture of the sport is at.

After two years of seeing these problems begin to be laid bare, the question remains: What will be done to meaningfully address these flaws?

In December, Kim Davis — the NHL’s executive vice president of social impact, growth initiatives and legislative affairs — outlined an extensive plan to Gary Bettman, Bill Daly and other key decision-makers on how to move forward. It was “unanimously endorsed” by the group, according to the commissioner. Part of that plan involves the league partnering with Sheldon Kennedy’s Respect Group, with all NHL personnel set to receive training from the Group on how to prevent bullying, discrimination, harassment, sexual abuse, substance abuse, suicide and violence.

That training will begin in March 2022, according to Davis, to be completed by the end of the season. It’s a start, but there’s much to be done before real progress can be judged. Among all the on-ice stories we’ll be watching for in 2022, the most important ones will be those off the ice, and what tangible steps forward we see from the NHL and the sport at large.

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