Hockey is a game of numbers, right? So, with that in mind, consider this: Starting tonight, the NHL will have at least one game per day for the next 116 consecutive days. Twenty-seven of those days and nights will feature double-digit numbers of games. Twice each there will be 15 games and 13 games, three times there will be 14, five times there will be 12, eight times there will be 11 and seven times there will be 10. Of those 116 days, 100 of them will feature a docket of five games or more.
A little more than three months after the NHL finished a season like no other, it starts another season like no other. It will be chaotic. It will be unpredictable. But most of all, it will be wonderful. Very well-paid athletes playing a game cannot even come close to eradicating all that has been lost by the COVID-19 epidemic, but for at least a couple of hours for each night of the next 116 and beyond, it can provide those who love this game with a diversion from the real-world events and a reason to cheer. We haven’t had many of those in the past 10 months, so let’s take them when we can get them.
Will there be positive tests? Of course. Will the NHL’s best-laid plans hit a couple of bumps along the way? Without doubt. Is there a good chance there will be outbreaks of the virus among NHL teams? Absolutely. But Major League Baseball and the National Football League have been able to play their seasons to completion, so there’s no reason to believe the NHL will not do the same.
So what are we going to see on the ice? Well, we’ll see a lot fewer goals called back by offside infractions with the rule change that allows a player’s skate to be along the plane of the blueline, so that’s really good. We’ll see an absolutely blistering pace for each team and we’ll likely see a fair bit of nastiness, considering teams will be playing each of their opponents at least eight times during the regular season. And beyond putting the Ottawa Senators in seventh place – and that’s not even a sure thing – good luck sorting out that North Division. Over in the East, at least one of the Capitals, Flyers, Bruins, Penguins and Islanders are going to miss the playoffs. The Central has the defending Stanley Cup champion and legitimate contenders in the Hurricanes and the Blue Jackets and the West has the champion-in-waiting Avalanche, with the league’s most deadly and impressive group of young talent, the Former Misfits in Vegas and the Blues, who are one year removed from winning the Cup themselves.
Ramped-up rivalries, reduced travel and intra-divisional play right up to the semifinal will make a seven-game series between adversaries seem like a walk in the park. By the time 16 teams that survive this obstacle course get to the post-season in mid-May, they’ll have already played 56 playoff games to get to that point. Think about how important each and every regular-season game is in the NHL in a normal 82-game season. You simply cannot take a night off against anyone. Ever. Well, with the schedule reduced to 56 games, you’ve basically increased the importance of every one of those games by 30 percent. One GM said he wouldn’t be surprised if there’s only a 10-point difference between first and sixth place in his division.
And the talent. Oh, the talent. The level of skill and speed in the game is the highest it has ever been. Of the top 10 scorers in the NHL last season, six of them were under 25. Connor McDavid is at the height of his powers, as is Auston Matthews, who will face each other eight times this season. Jack Eichel of the Buffalo Sabres and Brayden Point of the Tampa Bay Lightning, two of the league’s emerging stars, will also be seeing an awful lot of each other. Cale Makar and Quinn Hughes, two of the most dynamic young defensemen the league has seen in years, will undoubtedly build on their rookie seasons and get even better. And speaking of rookies, from Alexis Lafreniere to Kirill Kaprizov to K’Andre Miller to Tim Stutzle, they will make for another exciting race for the Calder Trophy.
So, if the players can’t take any nights off, neither can we. It’s usually good advice to pace yourself, but not this season. Do not look away for a second because you’re bound to miss something really, really good. It’s going to be a wild ride, so buckle up.
– Ken Campbell
Power Rankings by Ryan Kennedy
1. Colorado Avalanche: Nathan MacKinnon and Cale Makar lead a super-charged squad with a Stanley Cup in their gunsights. Top-heavy division will let them feast on lesser foes, too.
2. Vegas Golden Knights: Joining the Avs atop the West, Vegas added a star blueliner in Alex Pietrangelo, while already boasting one of the best lineups in the league. Watch for Shea Theodore, too.
3. Tampa Bay Lightning: What will the champs do without the injured Nikita Kucherov? A comeback from Steven Stamkos may be the tonic. The Bolts are loaded at every position.
4. Carolina Hurricanes: Goaltending may be streaky, but the Canes have a potent attack led by Sebastian Aho and Andrei Svechnikov, plus an enviable blueline corps that rolls deep.
5. Philadelphia Flyers: Carter Hart is the real deal in net, while the Flyers bring exciting players at every position in front of him. Look for continued growth from Ivan Provorov and Travis Konecny.
6. St. Louis Blues: Yes, they took some body blows in the off-season but Ryan O’Reilly, Torey Krug and the recently-added Mike Hoffman make this team a legit threat.
7. Toronto Maple Leafs: The ceiling for Auston Matthews continues to expand and Toronto will have no problems scoring goals. But can goalie Frederik Andersen get off to a good start?
8. Washington Capitals: Ilya Samsonov is ready to be The Guy in net and he’ll have some fantastic skill in front of him. The fun storyline: What does Zdeno Chara have left in the tank?
9. Vancouver Canucks: If Thatcher Demko is the real deal in net (and he probably is), then the Canucks will be a force. Look for big things from Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes.
10. Boston Bruins: Early injury absences of David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand will hurt the B’s out of the gate, but expect a significant charge upon their return. Big year for Charlie McAvoy.
11. Columbus Blue Jackets: Pierre-Luc Dubois is on the team – for now – and the Jackets are a pretty well-oiled machine at this point. Liam Foudy will be a fun rookie to watch.
12. Nashville Predators: Led by Roman Josi, the Nashville defense will be excellent as always. But can they get the goaltending and the offense to keep up in the Central?
13. Edmonton Oilers: Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl are two of the most explosive offensive weapons in the world, but can this team also keep the puck out of their own net?
14. Calgary Flames: Rebound years from Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan are crucial, but at least Matthew Tkachuk continues his ascent. Jacob Markstrom solidifies the goalie position.
15. New York Islanders: Locking up Matt Barzal was obviously crucial as he stirs the drink on Long Island. They’re scarier in the playoffs than the regular season – but they’ll have to get there first.
16. Dallas Stars: The runners-up from last year’s bubble have some rough injuries to overcome, notably Tyler Seguin and Ben Bishop. They’ll need Miro Heiskanen to be Norris-caliber early on.
17. Montreal Canadiens: Possibly the biggest X-factor team in the league; if the Habs’ kids are truly ready for primetime, they’ll be hard to beat. If not, it’s the Carey Price Show again.
18. Pittsburgh Penguins: The Pens are trending in the wrong direction, though you’re never out of the hunt when Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are around. Is Tristan Jarry ready for his close-up?
19. Buffalo Sabres: Hope is in great supply here and the Sabres finally have a crew to augment Jack Eichel. Taylor Hall has tons of motivation, while Eric Staal could be a playoff whisperer.
20. New York Rangers: They’re gonna be fun and they’re gonna be involved in a lot of goals – in both nets. Artemi Panarin, Adam Fox, Alexis Lafreniere? Yep, that’s Broadway-approved.
21. Winnipeg Jets: Connor Hellebuyck is the backbone and hopefully he gets some more help this year. Josh Morrissey needs a rebound year and the pressure is on Patrik Laine.
22. Minnesota Wild: It’s finally Kirill Kaprizov time! But now the Wild need some top-six centers. At the least, the defense will be solid thanks to Matt Dumba, Jared Spurgeon and Ryan Suter.
23. Florida Panthers: There’s a lot to like about the Cats, starting with Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau. But can Sergei Bobrovsky rebound in net? That’s a long contract.
24. Arizona Coyotes: At the least, the Yotes will have very good goaltending and some interesting offensive weapons. But new GM Bill Armstrong has his work cut out for him.
25. Ottawa Senators: Much like the Rangers (but without a Panarin), the Sens will be very fun to watch thanks to a bunch of talented kids. Matt Murray attempts to re-start his career, as well.
26. Los Angeles Kings: Winning the Battle of California ain’t what it used to be, but the Kings have some great kids coming up and Anze Kopitar provides stability up front.
27. New Jersey Devils: They won’t be great, but at least they’ll be better. A bounceback from P.K. Subban is crucial and perhaps newcomer Ryan Murray will help in that effort.
28. Detroit Red Wings: Like the Devils, the Wings will be less tragic than before, but they almost have to be. Dylan Larkin leads the charge, while Thomas Greiss will help in net.
29. San Jose Sharks: The defense is getting old, the goaltending is rough and the next wave hasn’t made a dent yet. Heck, the Sharks aren’t even playing in their own state right now.
30. Anaheim Ducks: While the future looks promising (Hello, Trevor Zegras), it’s not here yet – which means another long season for goalie John Gibson and veteran Ryan Getzlaf.
31. Chicago Blackhawks: No Jonathan Toews, no Kirby Dach and no real starters in net. This could be a very long season for Chicago fans; kind of a turn-back-the-clock thing.