Hockey is back! Saturday, September 25th marks the pre-season opener, when the Montreal Canadiens will take on their longtime rivals, the Toronto Maple Leafs at 7 PM. Every approaching season in sports brings with it a flurry of questions and emotions. Today, I will be going over what I believe to be the biggest stories going into the 2021-22 NHL season that fans should be watching out for all year long.
Disclaimer: I won't be adding Jack Eichel's future destination as a topic in this article, as I've already written about it quite a few times before.
1. The NHL returns to ESPN, TBS
In 2021, the NHL will officially return to ESPN after leaving the network for NBC in 2004. The league also struck a deal with Turner Sports, as both deals with ESPN and Turner will run through the 2027-28 season. ESPN and Turner own the rights in the U.S. only, as NHL coverage in Canada still belongs to Rogers Sports & Media.
Last week the NHL and NHLPA hosted the Player Media Tour, where the games biggest superstars were able to get an exclusive first look at all the new features that ESPN and Turner will bring to the game broadcasts this year. All the players loved what the networks were bringing to the table, and Alex Ovechkin himself gave his own personal nod of approval. Ovechkin has never played a game on ESPN before.
"Ovechkin grew up in Russia, not the United States. He debuted in the NHL in 2005-06, after the NHL left ESPN in 2004. Yet he not only knew the "NHL on ESPN" theme song, he hummed along on camera."
(If this doesn't give you chills I don't know what will)
2. Alex Ovechkin chases Wayne Gretzky's all-time goals record
Speaking of Alex Ovechkin, did you know that he is sixth all-time in goals scored? Behind huge names like Wayne Gretzky, Gordie Howe, Jaromír Jágr, Brett Hull, and Marcel Dionne, all of which are retired, making Ovi the all-time leading goal scorer among active players. Ovechkin is sitting at 730 career goals scored, 164 behind Gretzky's record of 894.
Now, obviously it's almost mathematically impossible for any one player to score 164 goals in one season, but remember that Ovechkin recently signed a five-year deal with the Washington Capitals over the offseason, which will keep him playing well into age 40 season; putting him right in the middle of the chase for the goal scoring gold within the next few years.
Age hasn't seemed to slow Ovi down a bit, as he was the recipient of the 2019-20 Maurice "Rocket" Richard Trophy, awarded to the player who leads the league in goals at the end of the season; Ovechkin's ninth time winning the award in his career.
3. The Toronto Maple Leafs NEED to make some noise
Ever since joining House Enterprise in July of 2020, I've never laid off of the Toronto Maple Leafs. No, I haven't been hard on them because they're an Original 6 rival of my favorite team the New York Rangers, but I've been hard on them because there is no reason that they should underperform as much as they have these last few years.
The Maple Leafs have elite talent up and down their roster. You could compare them to the pre-2020 Los Angeles Dodgers, a storied franchise that had been regular season warriors for years, but could never find a way to make it work in the post season.
Led by Captain John Tavares, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and a slew of other top-notch players, there is no reason the Leafs should still be stuck in the first round. Goaltender, Jack Campbell played good hockey last season as the backup to Frederik Andersen, but in a goalie swap with the Carolina Hurricanes, the Leafs sent Andersen to Carolina in exchange for Petr Mrazek, who was solid in his three years in Raleigh.
The Leafs fell victim to the Montreal Canadiens last season in the first round, a team that blindsided three different teams on their way to a Stanley Cup appearance. Toronto hasn't won a playoff series since 2004, and they haven't won a Stanley Cup since 1967. The fans in Toronto are starving for some good fortune to come their way.
4. The Edmonton Oilers NEED to make some noise as well
The Oilers are in the same boat as the Toronto Maple Leafs. While the Oilers have been fortunate enough to make it out of the first round since 2004 -- even making a Stanley Cup appearance in 2006 -- they still have no excuse as to why they haven't made more noise than they have. With two of the best players in the world, Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, the Oilers should be a threat to make it to the Stanley Cup every year. However, the franchise just has a hard time surrounding their two superstars with adequate enough talent to make it that far. While not quite as pathetic, the Edmonton Oilers are the Los Angeles Angels of hockey.
5. The NHL Winter Classic returns!
One of the greatest events in not only hockey, but in North American pro sports is the NHL Winter Classic. Every New Years Day since 2008, the NHL has selected two teams to play in the Winter Classic. The Classic was cancelled in 2021 due to the Covid-19 shortened season, but it is making a triumphant return in 2022. This season's NHL Winter Classic will feature the St. Louis Blues and Minnesota Wild, as they battle it out at the home of the MLB's Minnesota Twins, Target Field on January 1st, 2022.
The Washington Capitals, Boston Bruins, and New York Rangers are tied for the most Winter Classic wins since it's inception 13 years ago, at two a piece.
6. NHL players being permitted to compete in the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics
The NHL skipped the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, and caused much uproar throughout the international hockey stage. The IIHF and NHL announced that there will be a break in the 2021-22 NHL season in order to let players represent their countries on the world stage.
The NHL is the premier league for top hockey talent in the world. Every young kid who's ever put skates on has dreamed of coming to North America to play in the NHL, no matter what country they grew up in. Not allowing the best players in the world to compete is a huge blow to the growth of the game and an insult to fans all over the globe. Most players in the NHL consider winning gold for their home country the second greatest honor behind having your name etched into the Stanley Cup.
The NHL hasn't competed in the Olympics since Sochi 2014, where TJ Oshie became a national icon in the U.S. for his overtime shootout goal against longtime rival, Team Russia. Even the most casual hockey fan in the country who couldn't name a single active hockey player recognizes the name TJ Oshie.
7. Arizona Coyotes need to make strong bid to stay in Arizona
While most teams in the league start the season with question marks surrounding whether or not they'll make the playoffs, how their stars will perform, or how their rebuild is going, the one question that faces the Arizona Coyotes at the beginning of every season is: is this the team's last year in Arizona?
It's been a tough existence for the Coyotes and their fans. I've already covered the topic in detail in a previous article, so you can check that out for more information. But to sum it up, the Coyotes have been facing relocation threats for years, and this year might be the first building block toward that move. It was announced that Glendale City would be opting out of the Coyotes lease with Gila River Arena, the team's home since 2003.
The Coyotes have since submitted a $1.7 billion bid to have a new arena built in the city of Tempe, Arizona, but that might prove to be a difficult task for the Coyotes to achieve. The Coyotes have had a hard time drawing fans to their games for a very long time, and the product on the ice has experienced little to no success over the franchise's existence.
Whether or not the city of Tempe is willing to invest long-term in a team that hasn't proven anything yet -- whether on the ice or in the stands -- has yet to be discussed with the public.
8. The Vegas Golden Knights' window for a Stanley Cup is closing
The Vegas Golden Knights have been a premier team in the league since their inception in 2017, where they made the Stanley Cup Final in their first year as an organization. Since then, they have tasted nothing but success. The only thing that Vegas has yet to achieve is a Stanley Cup. They'll be heading into the 2021-22 season among the favorites to win the Stanley Cup for the fifth season in a row, but it appears as if their window for contention is slowly closing.
The Knights' lack of offense during the 2020-21 Stanley Cup playoffs against the Montreal Canadiens was jarring, something that we haven't seen from Vegas. Many hot takes this offseason have revolved around the Knights possibly even missing the playoffs altogether in 2022. While I don't think this is the case, I do think it's time for the Knights to win. I believe that the Knights will no longer be competing at a high level in a year or two from now.
9. Can the Montreal Canadiens repeat their success from last season?
This is a big question that many people are asking. Last season's Stanley Cup trip for the Montreal Canadiens has been dismissed and excused by rival fans all over the league, claiming that their path to the playoffs was far too easy to begin with. In a realigned 2020-21 Canadian division, facing the likes of lower-tier teams like the Calgary Flames, Ottawa Senators and Vancouver Canucks, many believe that the Habs might not make the playoffs at all in 2022 now that they have to face the other 31 NHL teams regularly.
It was a Cinderella story run for Montreal in 2021. Carey Price put the team on his back, and lifted them past the Toronto Maple Leafs, Winnipeg Jets and Vegas Golden Knights, before losing 4 games to 1 against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Stanley Cup Final.
Will Montreal make the playoffs again in 2022?
So, there you have it. What I believe to be the biggest stories heading into the 2021-22 NHL season. Good luck to you and your teams heading into the season!