Top 10 storylines for the 2021-22 season

I’m not going to lie, this column won’t completely avoid mention of COVID-19 and the NHL’s handling of its single-most significant speed bump in the Gary Bettman era. The nightmare, unfortunately, isn’t over. But for the first time in a long, long time, it seems the focus when discussing hockey isn’t entirely narrowed on managing and considering the associated impact of a global health crisis.

Instead, it’s on what’s set to happen on the ice.

In fact, when assessing the top storylines heading into the season, we can not only avoid leading with COVID-19, but damn-near bury it.

So let’s not waste another moment. We’ve done too much of that.

On the doorstep of the first full season in three years, here are the things we’re talking about now and what will continue to develop over the course of the 2021-22 NHL campaign.

The Jack Eichel saga

We have now reached the point where this is starting to infringe on human rights. Eager to have surgery on his injured neck, Jack Eichel is determined to make the decision he feels is best for his body, his career and his future health, and the Sabres, who problematically have final say in the matter, continue to deny him that.

The relationship has completely unraveled over this medical squabble. The Sabres stripped Eichel of his captaincy while showing no urgency to trade him, let alone budge on the surgery. Now one of the NHL’s very best players and intriguing young talents is at the risk of spending another season in limbo and, frankly, the situation has gone too far. It’s time for the NHL to step in and fix the matter.

NEWARK, NJ - FEBRUARY 23:   Buffalo Sabres center Jack Eichel (9) skates during the first period of the  National Hockey League game between the New Jersey Devils and tyhe Buffalo Sabres on February 23, 2021 at the Prudential Center in Newark, NJ.  (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
The feud between Jack Eichel and the Buffalo Sabres is ongoing. (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

More chapters need to be written in this story. Eichel’s brethren (beginning with the unfiltered Robin Lehner) have started to make their voices heard. The latest is that Buffalo will share medical information to prospective suitors. But will it lead to a resolution? Hopefully for Eichel’s sake it does at some point this season.

Insert Kraken pun here

Leave it to the Arizona Coyotes to threaten it before it can even be established, but the NHL has finally achieved symmetry. Beautiful, beautiful symmetry. With the Seattle Kraken fully indoctrinated now as the NHL’s 32nd franchise, we finally have equal opportunity in the NHL’s modern era with four eight-team divisions prepared for competition.

More importantly, like it did five years ago with Vegas, the NHL has sprawled into another key (and underserved) sports market. Seattle is a booming sports town where the Kraken and league itself can establish meaningful roots. Not a single game has been played, and yet it doesn’t seem remotely premature to label the Kraken as a massive success.

Fortunately, it doesn’t seem like a Vegas-style introduction in terms of on-ice success is required for this to be true. After showing a patient approach in the expansion draft, it seems the Kraken may need a few seasons to build into a truly formidable team — even if they are, on paper, more impressive than the original misfit Golden Knights seemed those seasons ago.

Seattle could be good, bad, or league average. It probably doesn’t matter that much. One thing we know for certain is that they’ll look tremendous doing it. 

I mean, check out these threads.

Rangers ready?

So, we know Tom Wilson had some impact on the Rangers’ rebuilding efforts. Now it’s time to find out if the lessons learned while losing a street fight will benefit the Blueshirts in the long run.

Still only a few years removed from announcing an intent to start from scratch, and now under the direction of rookie GM Chris Drury, the Rangers have made a series of moves aimed to compete in the immediate term. In are the hard-nosed Barclay Goodrow, Ryan Reaves, Sammy Blais and Jarred Tinordi, along with a potential game-changer behind the bench in famously-dismissed head coach Gerard Gallant, while a talented player perceived to be part of the problem, Pavel Buchnevich, is the highest-profile departure.

Though still immensely talented, the Rangers exist as some sort of referendum on how the game should be played, and it seems what happens will only help cement opinions one way or another.

Did they interrupt what was meaningful progression? Are they better off being tougher and less talented? And if they are a better team, is it merely on the back of Gallant? It seems the range of outcomes is about as wide for the Rangers as any other team. It’s going to be a very interesting season in Manhattan.

Where do the Lightning stand?

It’s undoubtedly unimportant after winning a second consecutive Stanley Cup, but it’s hard to spin the Lightning offseason into the positive. Yeah, Corey Perry, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Zach Bogosian signed multi-year contracts with the sort of value only Tampa Bay could manage, but losing the entire third line that helped the Lightning turn the championship corner is an unquestioned blow. How does this team — which is surely still experiencing the championship afterglow — look without Blake Coleman, Yanni Gourde and Goodrow throwing a wrench into the opposition’s game plans?

There will be hints as important assets like Mathieu Joseph and Alex Barre-Boulet (maybe) ascend in the system, but it’s safe to say we won’t have a firm grasp on what the Lightning truly are for many months. No one needs a reminder that this team was in cruise control, finishing third in its division, throughout the 56-game 2020-21 season before showing their best selves in a dominant charge to the Stanley Cup.

For a team that has been so established for so long, internal development is the key to the Lightning keeping their position atop the heap. Without it, the Lightning could be ripe for the taking for the first time in three years.

Best in Flo(rida)

Despite the unmatched success of the team up the road, the Florida Panthers may be the best hockey team in the state at the current moment. After giving the Lightning all they could handle in a six-game series in the first round last spring, Bill Zito continued to act on a rare luxury for contenders in the game today: the aggressive summer pursuit of upgrades. Adding Sam Reinhart to the mix provides another weapon to an offence that scored in the top five in the NHL last season. 

TAMPA, FL - MAY 22: Florida Panthers left wing Jonathan Huberdeau (11) scores a goal for the Florida Panthers during the NHL Hockey Stanley Cup playoff match between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers on May 22, 2021 at Amalie Arena in Tampa, FL. (Photo by Andrew Bershaw/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
The Florida Panthers could be the team to beat in the Sunshine State. (Photo by Andrew Bershaw/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

This is a dangerous, dangerous team without a single discernible hole. It’s a distinct possibility that Florida competes for conference and league accolades this season. 

Av nots?

There’s reason to worry about the Colorado Avalanche. Not because they’re in training camp without carbs and subsequently on edge, but because they are suddenly at risk of having the championship window come and go. Don’t get me wrong, this is still probably the most talented team on paper — even after losing a considerable chunk in the offseason, coughing up Joonas Donskoi and Philipp Grubauer to the Kraken, and seeing Brandon Saad depart in free agency. But what was a team with endless opportunities to build around maybe the best and most balanced young core in the league is now experiencing a squeeze.

Extensions for Gabriel Landeskog and Cale Makar tightened the parameters, meaning that management — just as much as a the players come playoff time — has to get it right. What will test that the most is the situation in goal. After losing Grubauer to the Kraken in a shocking free-agent decision, the Avs scrambled and paid a serious premium for Darcy Kuemper. Will he experience the same sort of performance bump under the kind conditions the Avalanche provide for their goaltenders, or is he not on the same level as Grubauer at this point in his career?

The noise is in Toronto, but no team should feel more pressure to win a championship than the Avalanche this season. 

Oilers better and worse

This should be a tremendous hockey season for Connor McDavid — likely his best. He’s finally headed to the Olympics and should put up a zillion points in the regular season and win all the major individual awards. But is it time for the best player in hockey to finally experience success in the Stanley Cup Playoffs? Yeah, I don’t know.

Edmonton had one interesting offseason, one that seems to exaggerate the situation already at work. Up front, the Oilers seem stronger than ever after luring Zach Hyman to McDavid’s wing and inserting Warren Foegele and Derek Ryan into the bottom six. Conversely, there are even more questions at the back after Cody Ceci and Tyson Barrie signed big tickets and management bet big on an aged Duncan Keith.

The major hope and prayer, though, is with Mike Smith, who Oilers management seems to be banking on repeating an outlier season after Ken Holland failed to address the issues in net after a second consecutive summer of feverish movement among goaltenders. 

Accentuating the positive, the Oilers are going to be a handful each and every night. But having done the same with the bad, it’s probably safe to assume McDavid’s greatest team success will take place overseas in 2021-22.

New television world

Part of NBC’s failure over the past decade-plus of bringing the NHL to American viewers is that it failed to elevate the game. Instead of showcasing the best teams, personalities, and stories the NHL has to offer, NBC leaned on re-treads, featuring the same games and same fading rivalries over and over again.

All that could change this season after the NHL found two buyers — ESPN and TNT — for its U.S. broadcasting rights. ESPN and TNT are now competing for viewership and product superiority, just as they do with the NBA. That dynamic is what historically leads to the best results — ask the NFL, which has classically leveraged all the biggest networks in U.S. sports television.

There is a high, high bar at ESPN, no doubt, but perhaps there should be some concern over the amount of attention it may pay to the NHL, a sport which would be considered lower priority on its broadcasting slate. 

The NHL deserves the high-end coverage it receives north of the border from its U.S. partners, and hopefully it’s now in a position to achieve that.

The unvaccinated

Well, we made it this far. For starters, credit where credit is due — to both the NHL and NHL player population. The fact that only an infantile share of players will enter the season under the strict provisions required to live the unvaccinated life in the NHL is partly credited to the league’s hard stance and near-uniform logic shared throughout the player population. 

Still, there are a few seeds clinging to the idea of freedom, even when most of their liberties as a professional athlete are being taken away with the decision. While daily testing, mask-wearing, and quarantines are the baseline, each player refusing the jab is going to deal with their own set of challenges. Several have essentially forfeited their spot in a lineup, and at least one who contracted COVID-19 will not compete indefinitely due to a serious medical condition associated with a bout with the virus. Higher-profile players like Tyler Bertuzzi and Mackenzie Blackwood risk the forfeiture of major dollars, and opportunities, by missing games and practices.

Few players will last the season without receiving the vaccine, but due to the nature of the business, and the times, they will sure make their position is known. 

Oh yeah, the Leafs

It hasn’t been an easy time for the Toronto Maple Leafs, who can’t even pull off a five-part documentary with Amazon money. With respect to All or Nothing, it was the latter. 

For the Leafs, the situation is this: nothing over the course of an 82-game season can prove anything one way or another for this group, returning tail between their legs against the backdrop of five consecutive first-round exits in the postseason. 

OTTAWA, ON - SEPTEMBER 29: Toronto Maple Leafs right wing Wayne Simmonds (24) sets up in front of Ottawa Senators goaltender Mads Sogaard (33) during third period National Hockey League preseason action between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Ottawa Senators on September 29, 2021, at Canadian Tire Centre in Ottawa, ON, Canada. (Photo by Richard A. Whittaker/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
All that matters for the Maple Leafs this season is playoff success. (Photo by Richard A. Whittaker/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The thirst for success is as strong and more essential as ever before, as the consequence after losing Hyman in free agency this past summer is experiencing the same sort of loss with Morgan Rielly at the end of this current timeline. Nothing is going to be easy for a team that is objectively worse on paper, and yet all it would take to paint over those concerns and take the crucial step is seeing its most important players deliver when the time is right. 

It’s really all that matters. It needs to happen this season — full stop. 

And if it doesn’t, it’ll be more than Rielly lost.

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