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Storylines to watch entering the NHL's biggest season ever

  • Post Author
    by Sports director
  • Post Date
    Mon Oct 11 2021

Author: Anthony Winker

The NHL season is right around the corner. Here are some storylines to keep an eye on this season before the action officially kicks off on October 12th. 

Welcome to the party, Seattle

This season, the NHL welcomes its newest franchise into the fold: the Seattle Kraken. Approved on December 4th, 2018, the $650 million franchise will begin to play this season. The Kraken expansion draft was under the same rules as the team that entered before them. That team was the Vegas Golden Knights, and all they did in their inaugural season was win their division with 109 points and earn a berth in the Stanley Cup Final (where they would lose to the Washington Capitals). The bar has been set high. While 109 points seems unlikely (although we thought the same thing about Vegas), on paper, this is a playoff team, especially in a weaker Pacific Division.

They have a true number one goaltender in Phillip Grubauer, who signed an 8-year deal in free agency. Grubauer finished second in the Vezina Trophy (awarded to the best goalie in the league) voting last season for the Colorado Avalanche. They also have veteran leadership in the form of Mark Giordano, plucked from the Calgary Flames in the expansion draft. However, they lack true star power and goal scoring on offense and will be relying on a relentless forecheck and defense to win games. We'll see if they truly are a playoff contender, or if they perform the way you would expect an expansion team to play in their first season. 

The quest for three in Tampa Bay

No one has enjoyed the NHL's COVID era more than the Tampa Bay Lightning. They won the NHL's strange 24-team bubble playoffs in 2020, defeating the Dallas Stars in 6 games in Edmonton. Last year, they defeated the Montreal Canadiens in 5 games to complete the back-to-back in last year's shortened season. This year, they go for the three-peat, while returning the entire top six from last year.

Nikita Kucherov, who famously (or infamously, depending on who you ask) returned just in time for the postseason after missing the entire regular season (and causing a cap controversy in the process) is fully healthy once again. Steven Stamkos and Brayden Point are back as well. On the back end, they have perennial Norris candidate Victor Hedman and Vezina candidate Andrei Vasilevski as well. The only problem with this team is that they had to replace their entire third line over the offseason. Yanni Gourde (taken in the expansion draft by the Kraken), Blake Coleman (to Calgary in free agency), and Barclay Goodrow (traded to the New York Rangers) have been replaced with Corey Perry, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, and Zach Bogosian. Tyler Johnson was also traded to Chicago in the offseason. This team will need its new-look third and fourth lines to contribute, or risk being extremely top-heavy, which is not a recipe for success in the playoffs. 

The highly-anticipated rookie debuts 

Last season, we got a taste of UW's very own Cole Caufield and what he could do. In 10 regular-season games, the 15th-overall pick in the 2019 draft had five points, but in the postseason, he was a huge part of the Canadiens' run to the Stanley Cup Final with four goals and eight assists in 20 playoff games. He is the likely Calder frontrunner to open this season.

Additionally, Trevor Zegras, the 9th overall pick in the 2019 draft, is up for the Anaheim Ducks who had 13 points in 24 games for Anaheim last season and looked electric at times. Florida Panthers' backstop Spencer Knight (13th overall, 2019) didn't lose a single start in the regular season in four tries. He also started two playoff games and won one of them, and is in line to be the number one goalie for a legitimate Stanley Cup contender.

The Minnesota Wild are sitting on a couple of talented rookies of their own in Matt Boldy (12th overall, 2019) and Marco Rossi (9th overall, 2020). Boldy lit it up for Minnesota's AHL affiliate Iowa last season to the tune of six goals and 12 assists for 18 points in 14 games, but surprisingly did not get a playoff call-up last season. As for Rossi, the fact that he even has this chance could be a miracle. The Austrian was diagnosed with myocarditis last season as a result of complications from COVID-19 and was forced to miss the entire year. While neither will start on the active roster, both are sure to receive the call at some point this season and will be instrumental to Minnesota's success this year.

This is not even to mention guys like Quinton Byfield (Los Angeles Kings), Alex Newhook (Avalanche), and Vasily Podkolzin (Vancouver Canucks). The future of the league is in good hands. 

Ovi taking aim at Gretzky 

Alex Ovechkin re-signed with the Washington Capitals this offseason on a 5-year, $47.5 million deal (9.5M AAV), the only team he has ever known. In his illustrious career, he has scored 730 goals. The NHL record for career goals scored is held by a guy named Wayne Gretzky, with 894. In order to pass the Great One, the 36-year old Ovechkin would need to score 33 goals per season if he wants to break it by the end of his contract. He had 24 in 45 games last season for the Caps.

“He definitely has a legitimate shot,” Gretzky has said. 

The return to 82

For the first time since the 2018-2019 season, the NHL will play a full-82 game schedule (knock on wood). Gone is last season's divisional realignment with the Honda West, Discover Central, MassMutual East, and Scotia North divisions, and the usual Atlantic, Pacific, Metropolitan, and Central divisions are back.

Also back, are teams all being scheduled to play one another at least twice this season again after teams were limited to only teams in their realigned divisions last year. Once again, we'll get to see renewed rivalries like Minnesota-Chicago and individual matchups like Connor McDavid vs. Auston Matthews again that we didn't last season. 

NHL back in the Olympics 

After taking the 2018 Olympic Games in Pyeongchang off, the NHL is back in the games. The NHL is scheduled to break from February 3rd to February 22nd for All-Star Weekend and then the 2022 Olympic Games in Beijing. Canada is the likely favorite, as per usual, only cemented by the highly anticipated Olympic debut of Oilers star forward Connor McDavid. Team USA will likely feature guys like Auston Matthews (Toronto Maple Leafs), Max Pacioretty (Vegas Golden Knights), and Jack Eichel (Buffalo Sabers). Other notables who would make their Olympic debuts are Sebastian Aho (Carolina Hurricanes, Finland), David Pastrnak (Boston Bruins, Czech Republic), Nikita Kucherov (Tampa Bay Lightning, Russia), and Leon Draisaitl (Edmonton Oilers, Germany). The last “best-on-best” tournament held with NHL players was the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, won by Canada, who also won the last two Olympic Games. Will anyone be able to knock them off this year?

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