Hockey, you may recall, is a sport played on ice in which two groups of five skaters attempt to shoot a black frozen disc past goalies and into a net.
That little tidbit there is for fans of the seven teams who started their 2020-21 NHL training camps this past Thursday, nearly nine months since their favourite team had organized to officially play or even practice. Most hockey fans have had a tiny taste between March 2020 and now, but at most they’ve been awarded with two months of NHL hockey over a nine-month span.
In sum, we’re likely all a little rusty when it comes to keeping up with the NHL.
Maybe I don’t have to go back and re-explain the rules, but like… some actually are different. So, we’ll start there and then I’ll try to bring you back to speed on a few other things.
Did you know that when a player is dragging his toe to stay onside, it no longer has to stay in contact with the ice?
It’s now a “plane” up from the leading edge of that blue line, meaning if your toe is just held over the blue line, as opposed to touching it, you can be deemed onside. (Other lines work this way, remember, like a puck being shot into the net.)
The goal was to stop the impossible quibbling about whether a guy’s skate was a millimetre off the ice or touching it when the puck officially crossed the blue, which yes, was annoying. But I’ll admit I’m in the minority here, in that I don’t love this tweak. Dragging a toe wasn’t hard and the quibbles were few enough.
By sheer geometry it’s easier to just push your leg straight back rather than back-and-down in an attempt to stay onside, which to me opens up a whole other can of vague squinting and guessing about the millimetres of a skate’s position. I know if I’m trying to get to the net as fast as possible, I’m throwing a leg straight back in the air now, which brings about a different kind of quibble.
BUT ANYWAY, my opinion aside, that’s a rule now. And rules affect players, like…
Taylor Hall, who plays for the Buffalo Sabres now.
He does! I know, crazy right? He signed a one-year, $8-million deal to play alongside Jack Eichel, likely in hopes of lighting it up and earning a big deal this upcoming summer. (Make no mistake, the deal is less “play for the Sabres” and more “play with Eichel,” in another example of how great players help build teams.)
The Sabres meanwhile are auditioning to keep him in blue and gold, which hey, if things go well enough, why not?
Let’s do some more “weird player movement” ones...
Bobby Ryan agreed to a deal with the Detroit Red Wings
Ryan got sober towards the end of last season, and looked great upon his return. It’s impossible not to root for this guy. What he really needed next was an opportunity, which he’s gonna get in Detroit. He’ll play on the power play, play in the top six, and have the chance to earn another quality deal. It’s a chance to prove he’s got more in the tank at 33, a deal from which both sides stand to benefit.
I’m a big fan of guys taking deals that put them in favourable playing spots this year, not aiming for short term money. Guys like…
Mike Hoffman, who’s headed to St. Louis where he’s likely to sign a one-year deal for between $4–5 million.
I wrote about why that spot works so well for him earlier in the week here. While we’re talking about the Blues, you know who else plays for them now?
Torey Krug, who signed a seven-year deal to be a mainstay in Missouri.
Seven years at $6.5 million per. That contract was available, because…
Alex Pietrangelo signed a seven-year deal to play for Las Vegas, for $8.8 million per season.
Vegas! Pietrangelo! The top of that West Division with Colorado and St. Louis is going to be a blast. I’m guessing when he signed in Vegas the plan wasn’t to have to play the Blues eight times this upcoming season, but y’know, look around the world — things got a little weird out there.
Speaking of playing their old team eight times in a single condensed season…
Zdeno Chara signed with the Washington Capitals, which you probably heard given its recency. That one’s still hard to believe, particularly given his extremely affordable new deal.
It sounds like Boston wanted him to be OK with a pretty tiny role, which likely included being scratched some nights, and Big Z wasn’t ready to be reduced to that. My understanding is they wanted their kids to get more of an opportunity. This seems strange to me — isn’t Boston a peak 'win now' team? It’s 56 games then playoffs. Maybe this isn’t the time to fret about making room for OK young players?
This comes down to where you are on what Chara is at this point, and many Bruins fans think he’s done. Personally, I think they’d have benefitted from having his presence in the third pair killing penalties and playing 15 minutes a night at $1.5 million or whatever, rather than letting him walk to one of the divisional favourites.
In sum, big names changed teams all over the place. Joe Thornton and Wayne Simmonds signed with the Toronto Maple Leafs, as did TJ Brodie. Anthony Duclair signed in Florida.
Tyler Toffoli left the Canucks and signed in Montreal to play for a Canadiens team who also traded Max Domi for Josh Anderson, and got Jake Allen to back up Carey Price.
Jake Allen takes us somewhere useful here actually. Because goalies boy, goalies played some musical chairs this off-season...
First off, Braden Holtby wasn’t re-signed by the Washington Capitals, so he left to sign a two-year deal with the Vancouver Canucks. (You’re likely familiar with the follow-up here, which is that Henrik Lundqvist actually signed there to back-up young prospect Ilya Samsonov, but has instead had to step aside to get open heart surgery. We wish Hank well in his recovery here.)
So, Holtby to Vancouver. The Canucks, you remember, had a very good goaltender in Jacob Markstrom. Well, funny story, Markstrom signed a six-year deal in Calgary worth six mill a pop.
The Flames used to have Cam Talbot in net, remember him? Yeah he went to Minnesota. There was an opening there because the Wild traded Devan Dubnyk to San Jose, who had goaltending issues of their own (this is some bet on a bounce-back by the Sharks, as Dubnyk was one of three goalies who had a worse save percentage than Martin Jones last season out of the 54 who started at least 24 games).
When Chicago traded Robin Lehner to Vegas last season, they essentially decided to move on from goaltending experience period. While Vegas is left with All The Goalie Experience in Marc-Andre Fleury and Lehner, Chicago is going with none of it, allowing Corey Crawford to walk and sign with the New Jersey Devils for two years at a cap hit of $3.9 million per season.
Malcolm Subban is the remaining Blackhawks goalie with the most experience, at 66 games. Meanwhile, Cory Schneider is an Islander, if you’re wondering why there’s an opening in New Jersey.
Still with me?
Oh, here’s one: did you remember that the California teams last season were third-last, second-last and last in the West at last season’s pause? Isn’t that insane? The dreaded 'California trip' was finally a vacation for NHL teams. But don’t rule out something of a bounce-back there.
The Sharks have Erik Karlsson, Brent Burns, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Evander Kane, Logan Couture, Timo Meier, Tomas Hertl — I mean, just boatloads of skill. The word from those in the know is that the Sharks were full of nagging injuries last season which nag no longer. So, do you feel comfortable betting they’ll be Conference-worst awful again? I sure don’t.
A few more reminders on our way out the door:
Oliver Ekman-Larsson kind of asked for a trade this summer, but only green-lit two teams: Vancouver and Boston. Both teams made plays for the Coyotes captain, but weren’t willing to give up everything Arizona was asking. At some point, the conversations passed an arbitrary OEL-set deadline and nothing happened.
As I see it, both Vancouver and Boston have high expectations, and could very well fall short of those based on off-season moves. The Coyotes look... if I may just come out and be honest here, they look awful. They’re gonna need all-world goaltending to sniff playoffs. If any or all of these possibilities become realities — these three teams struggling versus internal expectations — could an OEL deal be brought back to life? I don’t see why not.
There are some exciting, exciting young players in the NHL this year, courtesy of this past-summer’s not-at-all rigged draft that saw the brightest star to come into the league in years head to the New York Rangers (I kid, I kid). Alexis Lafreniere, Quinton Byfield, and Tim Stuetzle headline a class of players sure to not just play, but contribute in their first seasons.
In all, that should get you as up to speed as you need to be start getting back engaged here. All games are divisional this year, and the divisions have been realigned as such:
You love to see it.
What do you think of the realigned divisions for the 2020-21 NHL season? pic.twitter.com/tMbrAB5nZn
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) December 20, 2020
Four teams from each division will make playoffs, then play series of 1 vs. 4 and 2 vs. 3, meaning you have to play your way out of your division and into the league semifinals. (Meaning, yes, there will be a Canadian team remaining come the league semifinals.)
The best part is the divisional winners will then be re-seeded to play 1 vs. 4 and 2 vs. 3 at that point (there are no conferences), meaning the Bruins could play, oh I don’t know, say, Toronto, in the Cup Final if things shook out strangely enough.
Oh, and new news: Colorado and Vegas, Boston and Philadelphia are going to play outdoor games in Lake Tahoe in April.
All the rest comes down to how much you stayed in touch with the game while it was away. Regardless, hopefully you feel more informed or at least refreshed than you did a few minutes ago back at the top of this piece.
If you feel I missed anything important, well then by all means please share it in the comments below. Let’s get everyone back on the same page as we scream towards what will likely be one of the strangest seasons in NHL history.