Finally the NHL is back after a nearly four-month offseason. With the return of NHL regular-season play comes a logistical challenge the likes of which the league has never seen, already evidenced by the Dallas Stars, Carolina Hurricanes and Washington Capitals early-season detours. The Stars and Hurricanes have both had games postponed because of positive tests on the team, while the Capitals are currently being forced to play without four of their Russian stars — Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Dmitri Orlov and Ilya Samsonov — due to breaking league safety protocols. Additionally, Blues newcomer Mike Hoffman and others across the league missed time in training camps and games because of travel restrictions and required quarantines. Needless to say this will be an interesting season.
Thus begins a series of weekly check-ins on the 2021 NHL season.
For starters, let’s get up to speed on how the season works, and why it will be one of the best to watch in recent memory.
The NHL was forced to realign their divisions and regular-season schedule to accommodate the virus, resulting in a shortened 56-game regular season. The new divisions — North, West, Central and East — will only compete within the division. To reduce travel, the NHL has taken a page out of the MLB’s book and made most trips into a two, often back-to-back, game series against the same club. Because of this format, teams will play each other between eight and 10 times this season, contributing to an especially nasty, playoff-like atmosphere for the entire duration. Additionally, the first two rounds of the playoffs will also be within division, eventually leaving us with only one team from each, ultimately creating a final four competing for the Stanley Cup.
With the housekeeping out of the way, let’s get to some of the action. Here are my biggest storylines after two weeks.
Slow start for Stanley Cup favorite Colorado Avalanche…
Prior to the season starting, analysts and fans alike chose the Colorado Avalanche as the favorites to hoist the cup this year after a disappointing loss in the second round of last year’s playoffs was mostly attributed to goaltending problems. Although they ignored a less-than-ideal goalie situation in the offseason, they did welcome Stanley Cup champion Brandon Saad and talented two-way defenseman Devon Toews. They also have the promise of a great blue line for the foreseeable future with a defensive core led by Cale Makar and a rising Canadian youngster Bowen Byram.
The Avalanche got off to an underwhelming start, falling to a solid Blues squad in their season opener, 4-1. Less than 48 hours later, however, the Avalanche exploded for five power-play goals and had their offensive talent on display for a final score of 8-0. Since then, the Avalanche have split series against the Kings and Ducks, two rebuilding rosters in Southern California.
The Avs now sit at a 3-3 record after six games, and while it is early, this season is only 56 games long. I fully expect the Avalanche to be one of the four from the West division who compete in the postseason, but I remain lukewarm on this stacked offensive juggernaut due to their lackluster start and unaddressed weakness in net.
Montréal on the other hand...
The all-Canadian division is a dream come true for hockey fans everywhere. The division features the Toronto Maple Leafs, Montréal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators, Winnipeg Jets, Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers and Vancouver Canucks. There will be plenty of highlight reel goals, hits and fights north of the border this year. It offers us one of the greatest rivalries in sports with the Oilers and Flames, the flashy scoring of American hero Auston Matthews, and the most exciting hockey club in the early going of this season in the Montréal Canadiens.
The Canedians have a balanced roster with veteran leadership coming in the form of captain Shea Weber and goalie Carey Price and the quiet offseason additions of two Stanley Cup champions, Tyler Toffoli and lifelong pest Corey Perry.
This is a team that has started off extremely well, picking up points in all six of their games so far, sporting a 4-0-2 record and sitting atop the North. I see this Canadiens club as well equipped as any to succeed in this season’s format. They have the speed and skill to outscore, the veteran presence to keep them on course and the goaltending to save them when needed. No team has been as impressive as the Canadiens in the early going, and I don’t see any sign of them slowing down.
Business as usual in Columbus…
In one of the biggest trades in recent memory, the Columbus Blue Jackets sent 2016 third-overall pick and budding superstar Pierre-Luc Dubois and a third-round pick to Winnipeg for 2016 second-overall pick Patrik Laine and Jack Roslovic over the weekend. Both Dubois and Laine had made it known they wanted out of their respective teams as training camp was getting underway.
In their game against the Lightning on Thursday, prior to the trade, Dubois was benched by coach John Tortorella after the first period and missed the remainder of the tilt after showing a lack of intensity. They went on to win the game. Dubois has been Columbus’ most productive forward in recent years and has the most points among Columbus skaters since the start of the 2018-19 campaign. Dubois is just another name in the long line of superstars who have abandoned the tight checking defensive system run by Tortorella in Columbus. Among the names before him are Matt Duchene, Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky.
In return, Columbus lands a premier goal-scoring talent — something sorely needed. They were the 28th ranked goal-scoring team last year. In Laine, they get what I believe is the best natural goal scorer to enter the league since Ovechkin did in 2005. I do not expect Laine to put up league-leading numbers in Columbus due to the team’s defensive-first system; however, I do expect him to lead the team in goals for seasons to come.
No matter the team that sits in front of him, Tortorella always finds a way to field a competitive squad in Columbus. With minimal offensive talent and overall mediocre rosters, Tortorella has again and again willed his team into the playoffs. It will be interesting to see where the Jackets end up at the end of the year. My faith in Tortorella’s magic tells me they will not go away quietly, and is why I am more intrigued by this deal from Columbus’ perspective.
Captain America returns…
The Dallas Stars had a cinderella postseason run last year and saw their season opener delayed over a week this year due to a COVID-19 outbreak within the team. They are starting and will play a majority of the season without No. 1 center Tyler Seguin and starting goalie Ben Bishop.
In their first two matchups of the season, both against Nashville, the Stars saw Captain America aka Joe Pavelski step up with a seven-point effort over the first two games, with two game winning goals. This is just the latest of the heroics from the 36-year-old former Sharks captain, who made so many of the plays that guided the Stars to becoming last year’s Western Conference Champions.
The Stars are a well coached and strong team who showed their potential in last year’s run, but they are composed of an aging and overpaid core. If they are going to capture an elusive Stanley Cup in Dallas for the first time since 1999, they must do it now and overcome a Tampa Bay team that defeated them in the finals last year, who due to realignment, are in the same division this season. Who wouldn’t want to see Pavelski get his name on the cup after so many seasons of coming up short?
What to watch for this week
West division rival St. Louis Blues and Vegas Golden Knights will meet twice this week in Sin City. The biggest story here is long tenured former Blues captain, Alex Pietrangelo, making his first appearance against his former team. This looks like it will be an intense and physical two-game meeting between two of the best rosters in the league.
Thursday, Jan. 28 — Blues @ Knights 6 p.m. PT