21 people who will define the NHL's 2020-21 season

Elliotte Friedman joins Sportsnet Central to discuss how much wiggle room the NHL has if it needs to alter the schedule due to COVID protocols.

At the core of every good (and bad and ugly) hockey story, you’ll find people.

Here are the 21 newsmakers and game-breakers likely to define the thrilling 56-game sprint that will be 2020-21 NHL season — ranked in order of importance.

21. Owen Power

Power, our early favourite to go No. 1 in the 2021 draft, is one of a handful of promising 18-year-old defencemen (Carson Lambos, Simon Edvinsson, Luke Hughes, Brandt Clarke) ready to crowd the top of the entry class. As with every NHL season, the temptation to shed NHL bodies for picks and increase your lottery odds will be there for organizations obviously reloading for the future (Detroit, Ottawa, L.A., Chicago, et al.). Just ask Jeff Gorton or Pierre Dorion how a high pick can stoke the fan base’s hope. Prizes like Power define the season by the moves made to secure them.

Bonus: Power, who is patrolling the University of Michigan blue line, will actually be playing games — something that cannot be said for all top prospects in this unique year.

20. The Brothers Hughes

OK, we’re cheating a bit here, squeezing in a three-for-one.

The eldest Hughes brother, Vancouver’s Quinn, has played just a single season and is already being touted in some corners as the most dynamic D-man of the Canadian division. He’s already the type of game-breaker who could drive his club and its wicked power-play into the post-season.

More compelling will be the sophomore campaign of Jack, often overwhelmed as a slight NHL rookie. All Jack did during quarantine was pack on 14 pounds of muscle (weighing in at 180 pounds) and invest in his own confidence boost. “I'm ready to have a breakout year,” he proclaims.

Toss in Jim and Ellen’s youngest son, six-foot-two draft bait Luke — whose physical maturity and hockey IQ are turning scouts’ heads — and the next seven months could be Hughes.

19. Kendall Coyne Schofield

Ever so slowly, women are breaking into the old boys’ club. The Leafs hired Hayley Wickenheiser and Noelle Needham. Seattle made Cammi Granato the league’s first female pro scout and added strategist Alexandra Mandrycky. And for 2020-21, the Blackhawks made Coyne Schofield their first-ever female development coach.

The year 2021 began with Team USA assistant Theresa Feaster slipping on a world junior gold medal. We’re certainly not proclaiming the NHL’s glass ceiling broken, but cracks are starting to form.

All Coyne Schofield does these days is bust barriers with a smile on her face. Whether it’s swiping the spotlight at the men’s all-star weekend, joining the San Jose Sharks broadcast team, or playing an integral role in the Blackhawks’ rebuild.

“This might be the first time some of these players have a woman as a coach,” Coyne Schofield said. “But I know through my talent, through my experiences, through my work ethic, I can provide these players with the skills to help them get to the next level. And that level is the NHL with the Chicago Blackhawks.”

18. Marc-Andre Fleury

He’s the affable posterboy for a carefree franchise starring in iPhone commercials and securing a $21-million commitment. No. He’s a No. 2 netminder skewered by the blade of evil coach Pete DeBoer. No. He’s cool with sharing a $12-million crease with fellow No. 1 Robin Lehner, because you totally need two bona fide starters to thrive in 2021’s compacted schedule. No. He’s still totally available for trade if you want to ring up Kelly McCrimmon.

The Flower is still rooted in Vegas — a Cup contender — but even his bubbly presence won’t distract from the Golden Knights' cap issues. Or the inevitable analysis over which great goalie deserves the next start.

17. Jacob Markstrom

Picked and paid ($36 million) to stabilize a Flames crease that has been searching for a bona fide No. 1 since Miikka Kiprusoff hung up his blocker, Markstrom is the king piece of these Calgary Canucks. He and his elite save percentage on high-danger shots have the power to make Brad Treliving’s overhauled blueline and new bench boss look great. Should the Flames falter, however, the time limit on this general manager’s core may be up. (P.S. We have no doubt Agitator of the North Matthew Tkachuk will put his stamp on 2021, too.)

16. Dr. Anthony Fauci

Safely executing an entire sporting season across two countries over seven months in the swirl of an unrelenting pandemic is a different beast than hunkering down in two locations for a 24-team tournament.

There will be obstacles we don’t see coming. So, it is both wise and telling that Commissioner Bettman has been in consult with the United States’ foremost COVID-19 authority in pulling this show off. Some teams (Florida and Arizona, for example) will open with fans inside a closed roof. Others will want to follow suit. Every decision the NHL makes during this navigation must be made with health in mind. Already, outbreaks in Dallas, Columbus and Pittsburgh have reminded that the virus is still dictating things.

15. Joe Thornton

“I need to win a Stanley Cup,” the oldest NHL forward declared after leaving San Jose, probably the hardest hockey decision of his life. “This team is ready to win now. I’m ready to win.”

At 41, the sure-shot Hall of Famer has accomplished everything a player can in this game. Except the most important thing. Like poetry, Thornton’s lifelong pursuit aligns with the mission of the tortured Toronto Maple Leafs, who haven’t lifted sport’s shiniest trophy since the NHL invited a seventh team. We’ll know in July (or sooner) if this marriage has a fairytale ending or ends in tragedy. But with Thornton getting a shot alongside top-line stars Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, he’ll be must-see TV regardless.

14. Bill Armstrong

“I didn't come all the way to the desert to get a tan. I came here to win a championship,” Armstrong proclaimed upon assuming the reins in Arizona.

The GM inherited a mess. No first-round picks for two drafts. No cap space. And a captain with a no-move clause that wanted out but held all the leverage. The Coyotes were left in a bad way, but Armstrong has attacked his first GM job with purpose.

He’s made efforts to patch up the organization’s relationship with icon Shane Doan. He already traded Derek Stepan to Ottawa and should look to move more of his eight(!) impending UFAs during this ambitious rebuild. (The reverse retro Kachina sweaters are dope, too.) Patience will be the order of the day, as much as Yotes fans won’t want to hear it.

13. Donald Fehr

The NHLPA honcho knows that just because a memorandum of understanding between his constituency and the owners was signed in July, that doesn’t mean the negotiating is over and done with. As obstacles arise, gambling and player tracking get implemented and the vaccine rolls out, Fehr must protect the interests of a union whose middle class and youngest members are getting squeezed. Fehr says he expects “a dramatic return to the international stage” after negotiating player participation in the Olympics — and growing the game and its personalities is his responsibility, too.

11. Josh Anderson

Anderson scored one more NHL goal than you did in 2019-20, and Marc Bergevin rewarded him with a seven-year, $38.5-million commitment upon trading for him in the off-season. The power forward is coming off a significant shoulder injury (hence the lone goal) and hasn’t dressed for a hockey game in 13 months. He is not the type of player you add unless you truly believe your roster has a legit shot. Anderson personifies this meaner, deeper Habs image — one built for grudge matches and the post-season grind. The risk: He also could represent one of Bergevin’s last big swings. Montreal hasn’t won a playoff round in five years, and no one in that organization is predicting mediocrity.

11. Tom Renney

The CEO of Hockey Canada will invest a great portion of his year assembling the pieces charged with defending the crown. The last two times NHLers were invited to participate in the Olympic Games (2010, 2014), the Canadian men left with gold dangling from their necks. But an eight-year gap and an influx of new national heroes has set the stage for great turnover heading into 2022. (Just ask Drew Doughty how he feels about passing torch.)

Will serial winner Mike Babcock return as head coach? Or will a fresh face like Jon Cooper or Jared Bednar run the bench? Smith will assemble the brass that will assemble arguably the most hotly anticipated superteam of this generation (Connor McDavid and Sidney Crosby on the same power-play!). Low-key, the 2021 season is a tryout. And every decision Smith and his group makes will be doused in scrutiny.

10. Peter Laviolette

The star-studded Washington Capitals went out with whimper in 2020, looking like a shadow of their 2018 public-fountain-partying selves. Word is, they got too cozy. The loss of longtime goalie Braden Holtby is one jolt. The arrival of no-nonsense veteran head coach Laviolette is another one entirely.

Laviolette has a Cup ring and track record of getting results early when he steps behind a new bench, but how he motivates such an established core and so many healthy egos will be intriguing. Toss in the fact captain Alexander Ovechkin is entering a contract year and new/old guy Zdeno Chara will be looking for all the ice time he can get, and the dynamics within the Capitals’ room should be dynamite to follow.

9. Alexis Lafreniere

Jeff Gorton’s New York Rangers were already off to a promising rebuild, and then they went and won a cotdamn lottery. Held back from Team Canada at the world juniors so he could prep for NHL life in the Big Apple, 2020’s No. 1-overall pick joins Artemi Panarin, Adam Fox and Igor Shestyorkin. He bolsters the Blueshirts’ bid to become a young, exciting playoff team in the league’s deepest division. How quickly 19-year-old Lafreniere adjusts to the man’s game will affect both his Calder chances and New York’s shot at becoming the city’s best hockey team.

8. Tuukka Rask

We’re not sure if it’s the 2021 Bruins who have a Last Dance vibe about them. Or if, in hindsight, the 2020 Presidents’ Trophy winners already performed the final tango? Captain Zdeno Chara is off to a division rival. Power-play QB Torey Krug joined the very organization that crushed Boston’s soul in the final game of 2019, without much of a bidding war. And now, the two greatest cap hits on the roster — Rask and underrated pivot David Krejci — are embarking on the final seasons of their deals.

Rask memorably and understandably bowed out of the 2020 playoff bubble early due to family concerns. He has publicly pondered retirement. When he’s on his game, however, Rask is one of the very best at his position. Even at 33.

In 2021, he could lead the Bruins on another deep run or win another Vezina or throw on a new sweater or quietly retreat from the sport.

7. Taylor Hall

Under consult with agent Darren Ferris and encouragement from supreme communicator Ralph Krueger, Hall did what no top UFA in hockey’s cap era has done: He took a juicy one-year contract ($8 million). Often expressing his desire to (finally) align with a contender, Hall is betting on himself and… the Buffalo Sabres.

Problem is, the Sabres own the longest playoff drought in the league and now find themselves in the realigned East Division of Death. Can Hall and MVP candidate Jack Eichel pull this group out of the cellar? Moreover, will Hall’s novel approach to free agency have a trickle effect next off-season?

6. Evander Kane

Kane is finding his voice. Granted, sometimes he uses it to challenge the TikTok twins to boxing matches. Mostly — and most importantly — the San Jose Sharks star has used his platform to push for long-overdue change.

A rare active NHLer brave enough to not only speak out but activate, Kane co-heads the Hockey Diversity Alliance with Akim Aliu. Matt Dumba, Wayne Simmonds, Nazem Kadri, Joel Ward, Chris Stewart, Anthony Duclair and Trevor Daley are all on board. Operating independently of the NHL, the group is on a mission to eradicate systemic racism and intolerance in hockey.

Too many events of 2020 and 2021 underscored what a challenge they’re in for — and how important it is for the HDA to take it on. A formal alliance with the NHL fell through. May they remain undeterred and be supported by significant corporate backing.

5. Patrik Laine

“I’m here, aren’t I?”

Indeed, the Finnish sniper has been present and accounted for during Winnipeg Jets camp after an off-season curdling with trade requests and rumours of a move. Like Jacob Trouba before him, Laine may not be long for Manitoba. But he’s under club control and it will serve all involved parties for Laine to light it up alongside centre Paul Stastny in his contract year. Come July, the bridge is over.

“Patrik Laine today, he practised like a man. He was hard, he was fast, he was as good as I've ever seen him practice. So, I'll judge that,” coach Paul Maurice said on Day 1 of camp. “He was here. He was in a good mood. He was fun to watch. He's committed.”

To the Jets? To pumping his own trade value? To both? Get your popcorn.

4. Connor McDavid

Last season, McDavid scored his sweater number in points — 97 — despite playing only 64 games. But that wasn’t good enough to earn the Oilers captain a Hart or Ted Lindsay nomination. Not even a spot on the NHL’s Second All-Star Team. Edmonton bowed out in the qualification round to a ho-hum Chicago squad, and McDavid is still stuck at one playoff series victory over five years.

The all-Canadian division will give the entire country reason to tune in regularly to McDavid’s otherworldly rushes, and the fastest star player a greater spotlight for his talents. Whether he and that other Oilers MVP, Leon Draisaitl, are enough to drive Edmonton to greatness will be fascinating.

3. Nathan MacKinnon

MacKinnon has never won a Hart, Conn Smythe or Art Ross trophy; it only feels that way. The biggest bargain in hockey is far and away the best player on his team, if not the planet. Last time we saw this beast, he was piling up 25 points in 15 playoff games, turning each shift into must-see TV. And — on paper — his Colorado Avalanche have never looked so legit. With key pieces on expiring contracts (Gabriel Landeskog, Brandon Saad, Ian Cole, Philippe Grubauer), it’s no stretch to imagine 2021 as the Avs’ best shot at a title in the Nate Dogg era.

2. Gary Bettman

The commissioner has scaled a mountain (awarding a ’20 Stanley Cup come hell or high water) only to look up and stare at an even steeper one. As he navigates COVID-19, fan-free arenas and a closed border, Bettman is squishing the schedule, flattening the salary cap, redrawing the divisions, and flipping over the couch cushions in search of every morsel of hockey-related revenue.

The divisions have corporate names, the helmets have corporate logos, Lake Tahoe is hosting outdoor games that matter, and the gambling game is a priority. Oh, and then there are the small matters of launching a 32nd franchise and negotiating a critical new U.S. broadcast deal to help the sport get back in the black.

1. Ron Francis

A superspy will be lurking in the shadows throughout the 2021 campaign, secretly scouting and quietly rerunning his Seattle Expansion Draft Simulator to the brink of carpal tunnel syndrome. Much like George McPhee in 2017, Francis can’t wait to get his roster construction crackin’ (sorry).

Yes, his peers will be leery of getting fleeced by the general manager of Franchise 32, but in a flat-cap world, $81.5 million in breathing room opens up a world of possibilities. Every trade, extension and transaction the Original 30 sign off on will be made with Francis’s greedy palms in mind. They don’t want to be responsible for turning the 2021-22 Kraken into a monster.

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