THE 22 PEOPLE WHO WILL DEFINE THE 2021-22 NHL SEASON

By Luke Fox
THE 22 PEOPLE WHO WILL DEFINE THE 2021-22 NHL SEASON
By Luke Fox

A t the core of every good (and bad and ugly) hockey story, you’ll find people. Supreme on-ice talents and front-office giants. Combustible coaches and charismatic commentators. Embarking on its first full 82-game schedule (fingers crossed) in three years, the National Hockey League — now with real live fans! — will lean on all of the above to keep our attention throughout the winter and deep into spring.

This is a huge year for a two-nation league that stickhandled through a pandemic as best it could, emerging bigger than ever. The NHL is welcoming its 32nd franchise, two fresh American TV partners, and flying its best people to the Olympics for the first time since 2014.

Here are the 22 newsmakers and game-breakers likely to define the 2021-22 NHL season — ranked in order of importance.

WHEN TURNER SPORTS reached a seven-year broadcast deal worth north of $1-billion with the NHL in late August, TNT basketball analyst Charles Barkley began hounding his good friend The Great One with a TV pitch: “This will be fun for you.”

Eventually, Gretzky and his wife, Janet, looked around their empty nest and figured, Why not? Why not join Chuck at TNT and become the greatest hockey player to take a perch as a full-time desk analyst?

Just don’t expect Barkley’s goofy irreverence from No. 99.

“There’s only one Charles Barkley, right?” Gretzky told Hockey Central at Noon. “You have to be yourself.

“I’m the most positive person in the world. I love everything about our game. And I told everyone at Turner and Charles: ‘Look, I’m not a controversial guy. I’m not going to be that guy that’s going to be so negative about players. I’m the exact opposite. So, if you’re looking for that guy, I’m not the right guy.’ ”

TNT’s $225-million-per-year investment complements the NHL’s new ESPN deal and should, eventually, help jolt revenues past pre-pandemic levels. The network is banking big-time that Gretzky’s brand will draw a wide audience. But skeptics wonder if Gretzky the Analyst might be too diplomatic for our hot-take times.

WHAT THE FINNISH sniper lost in production last season (slinking to a career-low 12 goals and spending time on the fourth line) he did not lose in confidence.

“I don’t think I need to prove anything anymore,” Laine said at the outset of camp. “I think I’ve proved already what I could do in this league, scoring over 40 [goals]. It’s not an everyday thing for a lot of guys in this league. I know. I’ve done that already, so I don’t think I’m in that position anymore where I have to prove anything to anybody.”

Having accepted his $7.5-million, one-year qualifying offer from the Columbus Blue Jackets, Laine is once again on track to become a restricted free agent in 2022. This time, however, he’ll hold the arbitration hammer, and Laine is pushing all-in on his own talent.

Columbus has a tortured history of not being able to hang onto its stars long-term, and the Jackets underachieved big-time last season.

The Jackets’ fate and Laine’s are tied.

IN THE SUMMER of 2012, Minnesota Wild owner Craig Leipold inked hockey’s two most prized free agents, Ryan Suter and Zach Parise, to identical 13-year, $98-million contracts. In the summer of 2021, Minnesota GM Bill Guerin had to convince Leipold to finally wave the white flag; to buy out the final four seasons of those monster commitments after minimal playoff success; to start fresh.

Guerin has installed a fresh leadership group and called Calder winner Kirill Kaprizov’s KHL bluff. By locking in the explosive star with a five-year, $45-million deal, the GM is spicing up the image of the Minnesota Mild.

Guerin is making bold and expensive moves in a hockey-mad state that had been previously mired in a hockey-sad state.

THE CULLING IN New York City came with a fresh mandate for those who survived: Play hard. Don’t back down.

Yes, the reset Rangers have all kinds of skill, from Artemi Panarin to Mika Zibanejad to 23-year-old Norris winner Adam Fox. But they underachieved and underwhelmed last season. Jobs were slashed. Rugged skaters like Ryan Reaves and Barclay Goodrow were hired.

Enter Gallant, a no-nonsense players’ coach who demands respect and hard work.

The man who motivated the expansion Golden Knights all the way to the Cup final in Year One — and spent the past year on P.E.I. waiting for another shot — could be the coach that pushes the Blueshirts back to the postseason.

Capitals power forward Tom Wilson is sure to find himself at the centre of controversy at some point this year. (Rob Carr/Getty Images)

DON’T BELIEVE FOR a millisecond that it was just a coincidence the New York Rangers went out and grabbed the tough-as-nails Reaves this summer in advance of their opening night tilt versus Wilson and the Washington Capitals.

No player’s name starts trending faster than Wilson’s after a massive hit. Since the power forward entered the league in 2013, no one has been penalized more. Wilson has been suspended five times and fined twice by player safety, and many would argue he’s gotten off lightly.

On-ice villains are few and far between in the ultimate good-guy sport, and Wilson knows only how to play on the edge.

Every hit he launches this season will be under the microscope.

OPERATING BEHIND THE scenes, the CAA superagent has his fingerprints all over the business side of this season. Smoothly negotiating new contracts in Vancouver for both Quinn Hughes and Elias Pettersson, Brisson set up Pettersson, in particular, for a massive qualifying offer down the road. He has been instrumental in swaying leverage towards the game’s young stars.

Brisson’s name is attached to $1.12 billion worth of active player contracts, according to PuckPedia.com. The eight-year, $76-million whopper he negotiated for new Blackhawk Seth Jones jolted the defence market heading into this season. And the long-term futures of stars like Pierre-Luc Dubois, Claude Giroux and Jack Hughes are all on the docket.

So, it should not have been a surprise when Jack Eichel switched agencies and turned to Brisson when the Buffalo star felt his own predicament needed a fresh perspective.

DO IT FOR BERGY.

That could well be the motto for a Boston Bruins roster undergoing a serious shift. David Krejci is off killing it in the Czech league. Zdeno Chara is now two teams removed. Tuukka Rask is more concerned with rehabbing the torn labrum in his hip than he is with his next contract. And now Captain Bergeron is entering the final year of his deal.

The perennial Selke finalist should be paired on a veteran line with Sidney Crosby in Beijing, and his leadership will be critical for Boston, a team trying to elevate young talent and suddenly lacking experience in goal.

Bergeron hasn’t committed to playing beyond 2022 — “I’m going to play out this year, and then talk about that after,” he says — so appreciate his subtle genius while you can.

CAREY PRICE IS known for his unflappability, for his poise under the stormiest conditions, and for a heart that ticks like a metronome.

But just because the future Hall of Famer, gold medallist and recent Stanley Cup finalist looks impenetrable under the brightest of lights doesn’t mean he’s not human like the rest of us.

For Price, his most stellar playoff run led to a surprise availability in the Seattle expansion draft led to trepidatious training camp, as concerns over the goaltender’s physical health had Montreal worried about his readiness.

But it’s Price’s mental health now of chief concern. Price enters the Player Assistance Program — for unspecified reasons and with his wife’s encouragement — and won’t be seen for at least the first month of the season. Maybe longer.

Sources say Price was set to be picked, again, as Team Canada’s backbone in Beijing. But life trumps hockey, and the story of Carey Price this year should supersede the story of the Canadiens or Canada’s crease. 

“No matter what is on the line,” Price’s wife, Angela, wrote on Instagram, “we hope we can communicate the importance of putting your mental health first not just by saying it, but by showing up and doing the work to get better.”

With someone as revered as Price admitting he needs help, the goalie will be saving others from the stigma.

HOW CAN CONNOR McDavid — that fast, fearless face of the game — not draw a single penalty in an entire playoff round? Particularly when the puck is on his blade half the time he’s on the ice?

That question, to say nothing of the Tim Peel makeup-call fiasco, has fans jumping  all over the officials for their inconsistency, and the gap between how the playoffs and the regular season are called.

In a league trying to promote offence, power plays fell to an all-time low, 2.89 per team per game, in 2020–21 (per hockey-reference.com, which tracks the stat back to 1963-64).

Walkom, NHL VP and director of officiating, has the unenviable task of policing the guys who enforce the rules.

The early buzz is that the stripes are out to crack down on excessive cross-checking, particularly in front of the net.

The players we’ve spoken to don’t mind the crackdown, but they’re still in believe-it-when-we-see-it mode. Above all, they’re demanding consistent whistles period to period, team to team, night to night.

If he can stay healthy, Leafs star Auston Matthews is a safe bet to take home a second consecutive Rocket Richard Trophy. (Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images)

“HE’S A TKACHUK. That’s how we do it.”

That would be older brother (and part-time agent) Matthew speaking on 32 Thoughts: The Podcast about younger brother Brady’s contract stalemate with the Ottawa Senators.

Nope, Matthew doesn’t need to be on the ice to stir things up.

Brady is projected to be the next captain in Ottawa. The Senators are a young group with nothing to lose, and one, according to GM Pierre Dorion, that is ready to flip the switch and take a run at the playoffs. That won’t be possible without Brady in uniform, and his absence from training camp is a dark cloud hanging over the capital.

Meanwhile, Matthew’s own career in Calgary is speeding toward a critical juncture of its own. The combustible winger is set to make $9 million this season, and he hardly played up to his price tag last winter. Fan attendance should help fuel an emotional athlete like Matthew, but the West’s most notorious instigator is an RFA all over again next summer, and the Flames are desperate to regain their swagger.

He’ll drive a hard bargain. He’s a Tkachuk. That’s how they do it.

THE BIG FINN enters the final year of his value contract ($5.9 million cap hit) with a Selke Trophy on his mantle and long list of prognosticators predicting a monster performance by his Florida Panthers.

Barkov loves Sunrise, and the Panthers would’ve been foolish not to lock up the franchise’s best-ever player. If Barkov had hit the open market, the bidding war for his services would be on par with the John Tavares sweepstakes in 2018.

So, GM Bill Zito stepped up just days before the season opener and blessed his No. 1 centre with a max-term, $80-million extension (tax free!).

Nothing would prove Zito right faster than Barkov leading the Cats deep into the playoffs. Florida hasn’t won a single playoff round since that rat-chucking run of 1996, and it’s taken a toll on the gate.

If this hipster Stanley Cup pick is to break the spell, Florida’s new $10-million man will need to be front and centre. Which shouldn’t be an issue since former teammate Keith Yandle says Barkov’s talent is beyond ridiculous: “Honestly, it looks like he has to play down to everybody else’s level because he’s that much better.”

COASTING INTO RETIREMENT, the commissioner is not.

After awarding two Stanley Cups through a pandemic and ensuring labour peace for the near future, Bettman is looking for the NHL to make a serious splash in 2021–22. The return of a full 82-game schedule and the league’s players to the Winter Games are both on deck. So are a slew of new revenue streams that should help bump the salary cap for the first time since the virus shut out fans.

The Seattle Kraken debut with their slick new sweaters; two lucrative U.S. TV rights deals, with ESPN and TNT, should push the sport in front of more eyeballs; and full stadia for the Winter Classic, All-Star Weekend and the Draft should boost the league’s buzz.

Meanwhile, Bettman must monitor health and border issues, dive into Robin Lehner’s claims of pill pushing, and (hopefully) make the right calls when it comes to ongoing investigations with the Blackhawks and with Evander Kane.

PROVIDED HE ENJOYS a smooth recovery from summertime wrist surgery, the Maple Leafs’ No. 1 centre has a legit shot to become the first 60-goal scorer in a decade (Steven Stamkos, 2012) and just the third of this century.

Over his past 82 regular-season games, Matthews has scored 62 times. His goals per game have increased in each of his five seasons, from 0.49 as a rookie to 0.79 in 2021, when he terrorized the rest of Canada.

Health allowing, there’s no reason why Rick Vaive’s 54 won’t be downgraded in the franchise record book or why Matthews won’t become the first repeat Rocket Richard Trophy winner not named Alex Ovechkin.

Like the rest of Matthews’ team, however, Leaf Nation will take little solace in regular-season heroics if they’re not tagged by playoff success.

The best bargain in hockey, Nathan MacKinnon is surrounded by the depth necessary to once again make Colorado a Cup contender. (Michael Martin/NHLI via Getty Images)

SPORTSNET PROSPECT GURU Sam Cosentino has projected Wright to be “a must-see for years.” And it’s difficult to imagine the Burlington, Ont., native not going first overall this July in Montreal — the NHL’s first live draft in three years.

All Wright did with his exceptional-player status in 2019–20 was break Connor McDavid’s OHL record for points by a rookie, racking up 66 in 58 games. Now the Frontenacs centre — set to lead Canada’s hopes at the 2022 world juniors — has sent rebuilding NHL clubs scurrying into tank mode to increase their odds of landing a franchise player.

As if it’s 2015 all over again, Buffalo and Arizona are in it to lose it. Anaheim and Detroit are right there, too. With so many “Pain for Shane” campaigns in effect, expect to see a few teams sell off players at trade deadline in order to get on the (W)right track.

MACKINNON, A NOTED In-N-Out burger consumer, was done a solid in the off-season by his GM, Joe Sakic, who kept captain Gabriel Landeskog in the fold and gave Cale Makar the bag. With some key contributors still on team-friendly contracts (Darcy Kuemper, Nazem Kadri, Andre Burakovsky), budget-conscious Colorado is once again a legitimate Cup contender.

The window for the electric and demanding MacKinnon — a lock for Team Canada and his first Olympic appearance — is now. Because once the best bargain in hockey is due a raise, it’ll be that much more difficult to surround him with so much depth.

Sakic and MacKinnon ($6.3 million cap hit) can start talking about an extension in July.

THE INVESTIGATION LED to an investigation.

A lightning rod throughout his NHL career, Kane has seemingly debunked his estranged wife’s accusations that he gambled on his own sport. (Leading all Sharks in goals and assists may have helped his case.) But now the league is investigating claims that Kane violated its COVID protocol. (Reports of Kane using a fake vaccination card surfaced the week before San Jose’s season opener.)

Kane sat out training camp hoping his name would be cleared. But even if he returns to the Sharks, there’s no guarantee he’ll be welcome in the dressing room. Reports surfaced over the summer that several San Jose teammates don’t want him back and that GM Doug Wilson attempted to trade the final four seasons of his $49-million contract.

Kane is an elite talent and an outspoken personality. With Wilson facing pressure from his aging stars to dress a competitive roster and star centre Tomas Hertl in the final year of his deal, how this all shakes out in Silicon Valley will be fascinating.

AFTER THREE CONSECUTIVE first-round postseason exits in which they won a grand total of three games, the once unstoppable Pittsburgh Penguins looked damaged heading into this season even before the injuries piled up. If 2021–22 isn’t precisely the Last Dance for an aging core more than four years removed from its back-to-back title wins, it may well be Last Chance.

Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Bryan Rust, Jeff Carter and Casey DeSmith all enter the season on expiring contracts. Malkin (knee) and Sidney Crosby (wrist) begin the campaign on the shelf. Top-six winger Jake Guentzel tested positive for COVID during camp. And the general manager isn’t exactly overflowing with coveted futures to trade for the now.

If Pittsburgh loses ground in the ultra-competitive Metropolitan Division, Hextall could get desperate to keep the dream alive. Or he could sell off Malkin and/or Letang, start a rebuild, and play kingmaker to a contender.

GARY BETTMAN SAYS Lehner doesn’t need to tweet to grab the league’s attention, but, boy, was taking his truth public an effective way to steal it fully.

The Vegas Golden Knights (now undisputed) starting goaltender appears just as interested in starting conversations about mental health and players’ rights.

Never one to bite his tongue, Lehner has been outspoken in his support for former teammate Jack Eichel. He also dropped a social-media bomb in early October when he charged that some NHL teams hand out Ambien and benzodiazepines to players without prescriptions, and called for old-school Flyers coach Alain Vigneault to be fired because he treats people like robots.

“I’ve made crazy amount of mistakes. But lying about what I’ve seen for 12 years not one of them. I don’t care what they say, I don’t lie about these things,” Lehner wrote.

“Watch now when nhl will try cancel me. [Good] luck whatever lie you come up about me. I don’t care.”

Following his Twitter storm, Lehner announced he’ll be working behind the scenes with the NHL and the PA on solutions: “Lives matter more than the Cup for me.”

Can Connor McDavid, the first unanimous Hart Trophy winner in 39 years, propel the Oilers to meaningful team success, or will he have to settle for individual fireworks alone? (Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

ARMED WITH A brand-new, four-year contract extension in St. Louis, Armstrong has been tasked with what is at once the most fun and most scrutinized and dissected task in hockey: selecting Team Canada’s Olympic men’s team.

Thus far, Armstrong has knocked his decisions out of the park: It’s impossible to frown upon the inclusion of assistant Roberto Luongo to help select the goalies, and a deep coaching bench guided by two-time champion, full-time motivator Jon Cooper should be up for the challenge. But filling out the complementary pieces for Connor McDavid’s first five-ring foray will have us outsiders screaming “Snubbed!”

When he’s not making Canada’s most important decisions this side of Justin Trudeau’s office, Armstrong will be trying to manage (or trade) the mystery that is Vladimir Tarasenko and prove that 2019 wasn’t a one-off for his Blues.

WHAT A GONG SHOW.

The saga of Jack Eichel v. Buffalo Sabres feels never-ending. One of the most talented players on the planet hasn’t played a hockey game since Jan. 14 due to an ugly game of chicken over which surgical procedure would best fix his neck: spinal fusion (the club’s choice) or artificial disc replacement (Eichel’s preference).

A change of agents, a stripping of the team’s captaincy, a failed physical… and still a trade has yet to materialize.

No one is a winner here. Fans are getting cheated out of a superstar. The Sabres are sagging. The Pegulas are under fire. Team USA might miss out on one of its most dangerous weapons. And the league and its PA are taking lumps for allowing an organization to control an individual’s health decision.

Eichel is staying in shape in case a deal emerges. Should he get fixed and find another NHL team, he could be a difference-maker. Until then, the stalemate remains as infuriating as it is fascinating.

RETAINING GM POSTS for both the Chicago Blackhawks and Team USA’s 2022 Beijing squad despite his club’s ongoing investigation for sexual assault, Bowman has fallen under intense scrutiny. Child USA, an American think tank that studies child sexual abuse and prevention, has petitioned the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee to suspend Bowman from his Olympic duties while he faces allegations that he helped cover up the sexual abuse of two Blackhawks players in 2010.

Regarding matters on the ice, Bowman will be welcoming back captain Jonathan Toews after his season-long sabbatical for health reasons; dressing happy-go-lucky Marc-Andre Fleury after a stunning summer trade; delivering a market-rocking raise to Seth Jones (taking the defenceman to $9.5 million per year); and, in his spare time, working to assemble an American roster deep and talented enough to win Olympic gold for the first time since 1980’s Miracle on Ice.

WHAT WILL THE first unanimous Hart Trophy winner in 39 years conjure for an encore?

After erupting for a ridiculous 33 goals and 105 points in 2020–21’s truncated 56-game season, and gaining a workhorse left-winger in Zach Hyman, a 50-goal, 150-point campaign now seems perfectly reasonable (health permitting, of course).

There’s no disputing McDavid’s status as the best at his craft. Yet for all his jaw-dropping highlights, true team success has slipped through his grasp since he turned pro six years ago. His Oilers were swept by Winnipeg last spring, and doubts surrounding Edmonton’s ability to surround a superstar with the proper supporting cast persist.

If not in Alberta, perhaps it’ll be in China where McDavid reaps his glory. The prime is now.

Photo Credits
Getty Images (3); Rob Carr/Getty Images; Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images; Michael Martin/NHLI via Getty Images; Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images. Design by Drew Lesiuczok.