NHL·Preview

NHL set for return to 'a little more of a normal season'

Fans in the stands, road trips to the U.S., and bonding with teammates away from the rink were just some of the casualties as hockey manoeuvred through COVID-19 with numerous health and safety restrictions set against a backdrop that was in an almost constant state of flux.

Return to full schedule, 1,312 regular-season games begins Tuesday night

Canada's seven franchises were walled off in a one-and-done North Division last season, while the league's 24 U.S.-based clubs also played in regional circuits to cut down on travel and potential exposure until the third round of the playoffs. (Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)

Mark Scheifele is ready for the NHL to feel normal again.

And after 19 months living in a global pandemic, very different at the same time.

Fans in the stands, road trips to the U.S., and bonding with teammates away from the rink were just some of the casualties as hockey manoeuvred through COVID-19 with numerous health and safety restrictions set against a backdrop that was in an almost constant state of flux.

The players got to compete for the Stanley Cup and earn a living — they're grateful for that — but it wasn't close to the same.

And not only the obvious was missed.

"Being able to take a sauna and not having to wear a mask," said Scheifele, a centre for the Winnipeg Jets. "Little things like that you weren't able to do because of the certain protocols. Having a certain amount of guys in the training room, being able to show up [to the arena] at whatever time you want.

"All that stuff, it seems so simple and then it got taken away from you. Now going back to it's like, 'Whoa, this is so awesome.' When you look at it from that side of things it's that much better."

The NHL pulled off the conclusion to the 2019-2020 campaign inside its summer bubble before playing last season's shortened 56-game schedule that consisted of 31 teams battling in four self-contained divisions based on geography and coronavirus border regulations.

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Canada's seven franchises were walled off in a one-and-done North Division, while the league's 24 U.S.-based clubs also played in regional circuits to cut down on travel and potential exposure until the third round of the playoffs.

Now it's time to get back to business when the games start to count Tuesday.

"I'm looking forward to playing more than six teams and travelling around everywhere again," Toronto Maple Leafs star Auston Matthews said.

"It'll be a little more of a normal season."

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It'll also be one with some significant change.

The league has welcomed the expansion Seattle Kraken as its 32nd franchise and agreed to take part in the 2022 Olympics in Beijing that will see stars like Matthews and Edmonton Oilers captain Connor McDavid participate for the first time, while a new, lucrative television deal south of the border with ESPN — the gold standard of U.S. sports broadcasting — is set to begin.

"It means a lot," Matthews added of playing at the Olympics. "It's not something I take lightly. From everybody that I've talked to [about] the Olympics, there's nothing like it.

"I'm really looking forward to the opportunity."

The Tampa Bay Lightning will be looking to become the first team to win the Cup three years running since the New York Islanders lifted hockey's holy grail four springs in a row in the early 1980s, while clubs north of the border are once again hoping to end a Canadian title drought that stretches back to 1993.

Colorado sits as the betting favourites heading into the new season, followed by some combination of Vegas, Tampa, Carolina, Boston and Toronto.

"No nights that are easy," said Ottawa Senators defenceman Thomas Chabot, whose team returns to the uber-competitive Atlantic Division. "There's no nights that you get out there and it's just a free night."

That's the way the players — and the league — want it.

"There's a lot of great teams," Leafs winger Mitch Marner. "A lot of great things happened this off-season.

"It's exciting times ahead."

Beijing bound

Seattle's addition not only balances out the conference and divisions — not to mention a massive influx of cash at a time when the pandemic caused financial hardship across the league — the Kraken also provide the Vancouver Canucks with a regional rival for the first time in their history. The short flight south is another bonus. "We have some pretty long travel trips," Canucks goalie Thatcher Demko said. "It'll be a nice little changeup to have a team so close. I think the rivalry will really flourish."

Having skipped the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, after participating in every Games since 1998, the NHL is heading to China in February.

The players pushed hard for the deal, and the league delivered on its promise made during negotiations for an extension to the current collective bargaining agreement before the summer bubble. Despite the agreement to go to Beijing, the NHL and the NHL Players' Association will still have the option to withdraw if pandemic circumstances warrant.

Sidney Crosby (wrist) and Evgeni Malkin (knee) won't be in the Pittsburgh Penguins' lineup on opening night because of injury, while it remains to be seen if Matthews (wrist), who led the league with 41 goals last season, will be good to go when Toronto raises the curtain on its season.

And the Montreal Canadiens will be minus Carey Price until at least early November after he was voluntarily entered the NHL/NHLPA player assistance program last week.

Chasing Gretzky

Wayne Gretzky's 894 career goals has for a long time been one of hockey's hallowed numbers, record that would never be broken with scoring in the NHL so different now.

But great players will keep coming after the "Great One." Alex Ovechkin is ready to take his shot.

Ovechkin starts a new five-year contract with the Washington Capitals with 730 goals, 165 away from passing Gretzky. The Russian superstar is 36 and would need to score at a pace never before seen from an older player to approach that mark by the time his contract is up.

"You never know," Ovechkin said after signing the $47.5 million deal. "I'm going to try [my] best. That's why I want to play five more years. To have a chance to catch the `Great One,' why not?"

Age and health are his biggest obstacles. Ovechkin has been absurdly durable during his career, especially for a 6-foot-3 power forward who's not afraid to throw his body around, but the seven games he missed to injury late last season are more than the previous decade combined.

The hard-shooting Russian suffered a lower-body injury in Washington's exhibition finale, though coach Peter Laviolette hopes his captain plays in the opener and does not expect him to be out long term.

No matter how long the absence, it's the kind of thing Gretzky thinks Ovechkin will need to avoid.

"You've got to get a little bit lucky in the sense that you want to stay away from injuries as much as possible," said Gretzky, who will get a front-row seat for Ovechkin's chase as part of TNT's new studio team covering the NHL. "And I don't just mean missing game injuries. I'm talking about nagging injuries where your knee is sore or your ankle's sore or your shoulder's sore, but you play through that. If he can stay healthy, I think this is the greatest thing for the game."

With files from The Associated Press

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