Lapsed fan’s guide to 2021-22 NHL season

Sports

The Tampa Bay Lightning ended an unprecedented NHL season full of modifications and adjustments forced by the COVID-19 pandemic in July by hoisting the Stanley Cup for the second straight year.

They’ll go for the three-peat in a 2021-22 campaign that sees the league revert to its normal alignment but features big changes on the ice for a dozen teams — as well as the addition of an entirely new team.

If you haven’t kept up with the NHL in the past few months, don’t fret, we’ve got you covered. Here’s a chance to catch up on everything that has happened — the hirings, firings, trades and signings, plus a huge amount of off-ice drama. It’s all in our guide to the 2021-22 season for lapsed fans. Read up before the puck drops!

Back to normal

After last season’s pandemic-impacted season — 56 games, realigned divisions and intradivision schedules to reduce cost and health risks — the NHL returns with a full 82-game schedule in 2021-22. It’s also reverting back to the wild-card playoff format that has been in place since 2014, after the top four teams in each division advanced to the postseason in 2020-21. The division lineups are the same as they were in 2019-20, save for one change: With the expansion Seattle Kraken coming into the Pacific Division, the Arizona Coyotes relocated.

(They relocated to the Central Division. Not, like, out of Arizona. Although the Coyotes are being evicted from their arena by the city of Glendale at the end of this season, they full intend on staying in the desert.)

The NHL is headed back outdoors this season, too. The 2022 Winter Classic between the St. Louis Blues and Minnesota Wild will be held on Jan. 1 at Target Field in Minneapolis. The Stadium Series will visit the home of the Tennessee Titans, Nissan Stadium, on Feb. 26, for a game between the Nashville Predators and the Lightning. The Toronto Maple Leafs and Ottawa Senators will play in the Heritage Classic on March 13 at Tim Hortons Field in Hamilton, Ontario.

The fans are back

NHL arenas are opening their doors to fans again after many teams played in empty to nearly empty arenas last season. Every NHL team except the Vancouver Canucks has clearance from local health officials to open at full capacity by opening night. (Vancouver is limited to 50% capacity.) At last count, 22 buildings will require fans to wear masks, although some will mandate them for unvaccinated attendees only, and 16 will require proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID-19 test. Most teams are using local health protocols as guidance for their arena policies, although some, including the Predators, are using stricter protocols.

COVID policy

While the NHL and the NHL Players’ Association didn’t mandate that players get a COVID-19 vaccine to participate in the season, the protocols they developed strongly suggested players do so. Vaccinated players will be tested for COVID-19 every three days at a minimum; unvaccinated players are tested every day. On the road, unvaccinated players will be unable to enter any venues outside of hotel facilities, practice facilities or the arena. There are additional social distancing guidelines for unvaccinated players.

The most significant part of the protocol: Teams can suspend players without pay if they’re unable to perform hockey-related duties. That could include the inability of players on U.S. teams to travel to and play in Canada. While the NBA has asked for a National Interest Exemption from Canada that would allow unvaccinated players to compete in games against the Raptors in Toronto, the NHL opted not to go that route.

Again, while there is not a mandate, the protocols and the pressure from teams have compelled around 99% of players to get vaccinated, according to NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly. Among the notable few who have chosen not to get vaccinated: Detroit Red Wings forward Tyler Bertuzzi and New Jersey Devils goalie Mackenzie Blackwood, whose unvaccinated status could also impact his status for Team Canada in the Olympics.

Olympic break

For the first time since 2014, the NHL is allowing its players to participate in the Winter Olympics. The break for the Beijing Games starts after the conclusion of the NHL All-Star Game in Las Vegas on Feb. 5 and will run through Feb. 22. The NHL and NHLPA, who made Olympic participation part of last summer’s collective bargaining agreement, reserve the right to pull out of the Games due to the pandemic by early January. But national teams are already naming players to their Olympic squads. One thing to keep in mind about the break: In the five previous instances when the NHL paused play because of league participation in the Olympics, 90% of teams in playoff position at the break went on to clinch a berth in the postseason (72 of 80).

The Kraken are released

The Seattle Kraken will become the 32nd NHL team when they hit the ice for the first time this season. The Kraken surprised many by not leveraging the expansion draft for picks and prospects as the Vegas Golden Knights had in 2017, although GM Ron Francis said he thought teams prepared better for this draft, having learned from the previous one.

Seattle was more aggressive than Vegas in signing free agents, inking goalies Philipp Grubauer (Colorado) and Chris Driedger (Florida), defensemen Adam Larsson (Oilers) and Jamie Oleksiak (Dallas) as well as forward Jaden Schwartz (Blues). Among the familiar names Seattle picked in the expansion draft were Calgary defenseman Mark Giordano, New York Islanders winger Jordan Eberle and Tampa Bay center Yanni Gourde. They’ll be coached by former Philadelphia Flyers bench boss Dave Hakstol.

One of the season’s biggest storylines is off the ice.

The Buffalo Sabres and star center Jack Eichel have been at a monthslong impasse about how they want to handle his injured neck. The Sabres prefer a commonplace fusion surgery. Eichel wants an artificial disc replacement surgery that hasn’t been performed on an NHL player before. The battle has been public and contentious — the Sabres stripped Eichel of his captaincy, for instance. Buffalo GM Kevyn Adams has been fielding offers for Eichel, who asked for a trade, but the uniqueness of the player — a 24-year-old franchise center with a $10 million cap hit — and the uncertainty of his health have made that complicated.

There has been some movement late in the preseason, however, as it appears teams with access to Eichel’s medical records are willing to allow him to have the surgery he wants. But they are asking for the Sabres to put conditions on the trade in case there are any issues with Eichel’s health going forward. Stay tuned.

Players’ health at forefront

The Eichel situation compelled his former teammate, Vegas goaltender Robin Lehner, to speak out. In a Twitter thread in October, Lehner put the spotlight on the mistreatment of players by NHL teams, accusing some teams of pushing unprescribed medication on players. He also accused Philadelphia Flyers coach Alain Vigneault, whom he called “a dinosaur,” of bullying players. Lehner’s accusations got the attention of both the NHL and the NHLPA, who reached out to him. Lehner said the discussions were productive and that he plans to continue this work without further public comment.

Goalie carousel

The NHL offseason was defined by the incredible number of goaltenders who changed uniforms, as 18 teams made a switch in net.

Among the most significant moves:

  • Marc-Andre Fleury won the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s best goaltender, then saw his run as the masked face of the Vegas Golden Knights end. The cap-strapped Knights sent Fleury to Chicago — a trade Fleury first heard about via Twitter — and turned over their crease to Lehner. After taking some time to contemplate his future, Fleury opted to join the Blackhawks. He’s in the last year of his contract.

  • After Grubauer shocked the Avalanche by leaving for the Kraken, Colorado had limited options for a replacement. It paid a hefty price in trading for Darcy Kuemper of the Arizona Coyotes.

  • Tuukka Rask of the Boston Bruins is an unrestricted free agent after undergoing offseason hip surgery. With the 34-year-old’s future in question, the Bruins signed away goalie Linus Ullmark from the Sabres.

  • The Carolina Hurricanes and Toronto Maple Leafs did a goalie switcheroo. The Hurricanes said farewell to all three of their goalies from last season, trading rookie of the year finalist Alex Nedeljkovic to Detroit, having James Reimer sign with San Jose and seeing Petr Mrazek ink a deal with the Maple Leafs. In turn, Carolina signed former Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen and added former Coyotes goalie Antti Raanta.

  • Among the other goalie additions were Braden Holtby (Dallas), Jaroslav Halak (Vancouver), Jonathan Bernier (New Jersey) and 40-year-old Craig Anderson, who seemed to be headed for a relaxing retirement before signing with the Sabres. For a goalie this season, that appears to be the polar opposite of relaxing.

The Blackhawks are back?

The Chicago Blackhawks haven’t won a playoff series since capturing the Stanley Cup in 2015, the last championship of their salary-cap era dynasty. But three big additions in the offseason have them optimistic they’ll get back to contention. The team acquired Fleury to shore up their goaltending. They traded for Columbus defenseman Seth Jones, then signed the 27-year-old star to an eight-year contract extension through 2030. They also said hello to an old friend: Captain Jonathan Toews, who missed all of last season due to what he said was chronic immune response syndrome, is back at center.

The Blackhawks had one significant subtraction, too: Duncan Keith, who played 16 years in Chicago, was traded to Edmonton.

While the team tries to keep its focus on the ice, there’s something off the ice that’s casting a shadow over everything they do: an ongoing independent investigation into allegations that then-assistant coach Brad Aldrich sexually assaulted two players in 2010. According to TSN, GM Stan Bowman and other team executives were in a meeting about the allegations in 2010, but nothing was reported at the time to the NHL or to police.

Bowman and others are cooperating with the investigation, and the Blackhawks have indicated they’ll release the results to the public.

One of free agency’s biggest names signed with an unlikely team during the offseason. Hamilton, 28, left the Carolina Hurricanes to sign a seven-year, $63 million contract with the New Jersey Devils, a team that has made the playoffs only once in the past nine seasons and is mired in a rebuild.

But in the end, they won the offensive defenseman’s services with an offer that combined big money with maximum term for an unrestricted free agent. Devils ownership gave GM Tom Fitzgerald the green light to spend, and spend he did.

The Hurricanes, meanwhile, sought to fill the void left by Hamilton’s departure with former Rangers defenseman Tony DeAngelo, a controversial signing due to his off-ice reputation. DeAngelo was bought out by the Rangers because of his disruptive behavior, which included a physical altercation with teammate Alexandar Georgiev.

Old faces in new places

Among the other notable skaters who transferred teams in the offseason via free agency:

  • The Lightning lost their entire checking line during the offseason, a potentially significant blow to their three-peat chances. Gourde was taken in the expansion draft, and Blake Coleman (Calgary, six years, $29.4 million) and Barclay Goodrow (Rangers, six years, $21.85 million) left via free agency. One of the players who could help fill the void: Corey Perry, late of the Canadiens, who signed a two-year deal with the Lightning.

  • Veteran forward Nick Foligno (two years, $7.6 million) took his talents to Boston, but the Bruins also lost a significant player in center David Krejci, who left as a free agent to play in his native Czech Republic.

  • There were also some veteran players who had their contracts bought out and joined new teams on lower-cost deals. The Minnesota Wild shocked many by buying out the last four contract years of forward Zach Parise and defenseman Ryan Suter, which will give them around $13 million in dead space against the cap in 2022-23 through 2024-25. Suter (four years, $14.6 million) signed with the Dallas Stars; Parise (one year, $750,000) joined the GM who drafted him, Lou Lamoriello, with the Islanders. Defenseman Keith Yandle was bought out by the Florida Panthers and signed a one-year, $900,000 deal with the Philadelphia Flyers.

  • Finally, two legendary players kept their careers going for another season. Joe Thornton will play his 24th NHL season on a one-year deal with the Panthers. Zdeno Chara will play his 24th season where it all began: with the New York Islanders, the team that drafted him.

Price, Weber missing

The Montreal Canadiens made a stunning run to the Stanley Cup Final last season before losing to the Lightning. But they’ll be without two of their biggest contributors to that run as the season begins. Defenseman Shea Weber will miss the entire 2021-22 season — and might call it a career — due to a number of injuries, including to his foot, ankle and knee. Goalie Carey Price, meanwhile, left the team to voluntarily enter the NHL/NHLPA player assistance program a few days before the end of training camp. Price is expected to miss at least the first month of the season, but GM Marc Bergevin cautioned it could be longer.

San Jose Sharks forward Evander Kane was accused in an Instagram post by his estranged wife, Anna Kane, of wagering on NHL games and influencing the outcome of Sharks games he wagered on. The NHL investigated and found no evidence to support the claims. But it continued with two other investigations. Kane was also accused by his estranged wife of physical and sexual abuse. He has denied those charges through his attorney. The NHL is also looking into whether Kane submitted a fake COVID-19 vaccination card to the league and the Sharks.

Kane did not take part in San Jose’s training camp, and there’s no indication when — or if — he’ll rejoin the team.

New coaches

Along with Hakstol in Seattle, there are three other new head coaches in the NHL this season.

  • Gerard Gallant, who led the expansion Golden Knights to the Stanley Cup Final in 2018, returned to take over the New York Rangers from David Quinn.

  • The Columbus Blue Jackets elevated assistant coach Brad Larsen, who replaces John Tortorella after six seasons.

  • Andre Tourigny, who coached Canada’s world junior team, was hired to replace Rick Tocchet with the Arizona Coyotes.

Meanwhile, Don Granato (Buffalo) and Dominique Ducharme (Montreal) had their interim tags removed to officially become head coaches.

Rookies to watch

There’s a very strong crop of rookies ready to make an impact this season. Leading the way is forward Cole Caufield of the Canadiens, who had 12 points in 20 playoff games last season. The Anaheim Ducks have two contenders for rookie of the year in forward Trevor Zegras and defenseman Jamie Drysdale. The Detroit Red Wings also have a strong rookie duo in forward Lucas Raymond and defenseman Moritz Seider.

Winger Vitali Kravtsov (Rangers), center Marco Rossi (Wild), center Peyton Krebs (Knights) and center Alex Newhook (Avalanche) are worth keeping an eye on. So is center Quinton Byfield of the Kings, the second overall pick in 2020 who will open the season sidelined by an ankle injury. In goal, the Panthers’ Spencer Knight, the Red Wings’ Alex Nedeljkovic (still technically a rookie), the Wild’s Kaapo Kahkonen (ditto) and the Bruins’ Jeremy Swayman all could contend for rookie of the year honors.

Cross-check crackdown

The NHL has vowed to crack down on specific forms of cross-checking that it feels are getting out of hand. In the preseason and at the start of the regular season, expect to see calls involving multiple cross-checks on a player battling for the puck near the boards; when defenders use their sticks with excessive force to defend in open ice; and cross-checks delivered from the faceoff dots to the crease that send opponents to the ice while there’s a shot coming from the point.

The Ovechkin chase

Alex Ovechkin signed a new five-year contract with the Washington Capitals in the offseason. “I don’t know if he comes out and says it, but he wanted a five-year term for a reason, you know?” Capitals GM Brian MacLellan said. That reason? Ovechkin is within range of Wayne Gretzky’s NHL record of 894 career goals. Ovechkin, 36, has 730 goals in 1,197 games. If Ovechkin maintains his career average of 0.61 goals per game, he would need 271 games to score another 165 goals and overtake Gretzky. With that pace, he would break the record during the 2024-25 season, the fourth year of his new contract. Obviously, his continued dominance as a scorer and good health into his twilight years will ultimately determine that timeline.

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