What to know for this (finally) (hopefully) (mostly) normal NHL season
The pandemic may not be over, but hockey is back to business as usual
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The NHL season starts tonight
After two pandemic-marred campaigns, the NHL is eyeing a return to (mostly) normal as the puck drops on the 2021-22 season tonight with a pair of splashy matchups: Pittsburgh at Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay (7:30 p.m. ET) and the expansion Seattle Kraken at Vegas (10 p.m. ET). Here are some things to know for 2021-22:
The pandemic is still going, but the NHL seems over it. The last regular season was shortened to 56 games as teams played in reconfigured divisions (including the all-Canadian North) to minimize travel. Now we're back to the conventional 82-game, full-travel slate and the old divisions — with the exception of expansion Seattle joining the Pacific and Arizona shifting to the Central to make room (reminder: the top three in each division make the playoffs, plus two wild cards in each conference). After playing in front of empty and/or partially filled arenas last season, every team except Vancouver is back to allowing full capacity. The NHL says that only a handful of players around the league remain unvaccinated. Those on U.S.-based teams won't be able to play in Canada because of the quarantine periods required for unvaxxed people crossing the border.
The Lightning can three-peat — but they're not favoured to. Kings of the ashes, Tampa Bay won both Stanley Cup tournaments held during the worst of the pandemic. Now they have a shot to become the first NHL team to win three titles in a row since the Islanders rattled off four straight in the early '80s. The Lightning lost some important role players over the summer, but their formidable core of forwards Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point and Steven Stamkos, defenceman Victor Hedman and goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy remains intact. Still, the betting markets slightly favour Colorado — a trendy Cup pick the last two years before getting upset in the second round both times. The Avalanche hit a bit of a speed bump today as MVP-calibre forward Nathan MacKinnon was ruled out for at least their first game after testing positive for COVID-19. After Colorado and Tampa Bay, Vegas and Toronto have the next-best odds to win the Cup.
Seattle has a tough act to follow. Vegas enjoyed the most successful expansion season in the history of North American pro sports, reaching the Stanley Cup final in 2018. Opposing general managers learned from some of the mistakes they made in helping the Golden Knights build a championship-calibre roster right off the bat, so the Kraken are unlikely to be such strong rookies. But they have several good players, including captain Mark Giordano (the 2018-19 Norris Trophy winner with Calgary), goalie Philipp Grubauer (a Vezina finalist last season with Colorado), former Dallas Star Jamie Oleksiak (Penny's brother), ex-Oilers Jordan Eberle and Adam Larsson, and Yanni Gourde, who just won back-to-back Cups with Tampa Bay. A playoff spot might be in reach in the relatively soft Pacific Division.
Some familiar names are in unfamiliar places. In case you forgot, Zdeno Chara is now an Islander after signing with the franchise where the 44(!)-year-old defenceman's career started 24 (!) years ago. Fellow old guy Joe Thornton is a Panther. Marc-Andre Fleury and Seth Jones are with Chicago. Dougie Hamilton signed a (seven-year $63-million US) deal with the Devils. Ryan Suter is a Star, Oliver Ekman-Larsson is a Canuck, and Corey Perry figures if you can't beat 'em, join 'em: he signed with the Lightning after losing the last two Cup finals to them with two different teams.
Connor McDavid can't possibly get any better… right? We shouldn't put it past him, but last season will be hard to top. The Oilers superstar had one for the ages, racking up 105 points in 56 games to win his third scoring title and second MVP. The last player to average as many points per game as McDavid did last season was Mario Lemieux back in 1995-96. On the other hand, McDavid is still only 24, so it's possible we haven't even seen his peak yet. Frightening.
Alex Ovechkin has more legends in sight. With 730 career regular-season goals, Ovechkin needs one more to match Marcel Dionne for fifth on the all-time list. He also has a good chance to reel in both Brett Hull (741) and Jaromir Jagr (766) this season. Then, the only ones left to conquer would be Gordie Howe (801) and, of course, Wayne Gretzky (894). Based on his career scoring pace, Ovechkin could catch the Great One sometime during the 2024-25 season, when he'll be 39 years old. Ovechkin is currently dealing with a lower-body injury but hopes to play in Washington's opener on Wednesday night.
Some big names are sidelined. Ovechkin's teammate Nicklas Backstrom will miss at least the first 10 games as he recovers from off-season hip surgery. In Pittsburgh, Sidney Crosby (wrist surgery) could miss the start of the season, while his sidekick Evgeni Malkin (knee surgery) is out for at least the first two months. Reigning NHL goal-scoring champ Auston Matthews (wrist surgery) is expected to miss Toronto's first three games. Jack Eichel is still at odds with the Sabres over what type of back operation he should get, which is also holding up the disgruntled forward's inevitable trade to another team. In Montreal, star goalie Carey Price is on leave for an indefinite period as he seeks help under the NHL's player assistance program, while defenceman Shea Weber won't play this season due to multiple injuries and is contemplating his future. Evander Kane is not on San Jose's roster to start the season as the NHL investigates allegations of abuse made by his estranged wife and looks into whether Kane used a fake COVID-19 vaccination card. Kane was cleared by the NHL last month of an allegation by his wife that he bet on NHL games.
The Winter Olympics are coming. After sitting out the 2018 Games in South Korea, the NHL and the NHL Players' Association reached a deal with hockey's world governing body to compete in Beijing this February. McDavid (Canada), Matthews (United States) and Kucherov (Russia) are among the stars set to make their Olympic debuts, assuming the pandemic doesn't take a turn for the worse over the next few months. If all goes according to plan, the NHL's best players will head to China right after the all-star game on Feb. 5. The Olympic men's tournament runs from Feb. 9-20, and the NHL season resumes from a three-week break on Feb. 23.
Read more about the new NHL season here and learn nine things you need to know for 2021-22 in this video by CBC Sports' Rob Pizzo: