With the 2021-22 NHL season just around the corner, we take a look at some of the biggest storylines to watch for this season, including Jack Eichel, the Seattle Kraken, the Olympics, and some important pending unrestricted free agents.
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Where will Jack Eichel end up?
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There does not seem to be any plausible path for Jack Eichel to return to the Buffalo Sabres and play for that team ever again. The constant losing, the lack of direction, and the bridge-burning disagreement over his medical treatment seem to make this a situation ripe for a divorce. The question is where will the Sabres trade him and how much damage has been done to his trade value? Anaheim, Los Angeles, New York, Calgary all seem like plausible options.
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What will the Seattle Kraken do?
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The last time we saw a new team enter the NHL the Vegas Golden Knights were playing in the Stanley Cup Final in their inaugural season. That is going to raise the bar for the Seattle Kraken who came into the league with the exact same expansion draft rules. The only problem: Other teams did not screw up the way they did during the Vegas expansion draft, and Seattle did not seem to take full advantage of the options available to it. The good news for the Kraken is they play in a weak division, which should help them stay competitive. They also invested heavily in goaltending. The Stanley Cup Final is probably not a realistic goal, but the playoffs could be within reach.
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Alex Ovechkin continues pursuit of 894 goals
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Alex Ovechkin will not reach Wayne Gretzky’s all-time goal record this season but he can get himself a little closer. If he registers another 40-goal season he will climb to the No. 3 spot on the NHL’s All-time list and inch his way closer to the magic number of 894 goals. It will not be easy over the next few years, but it is certainly well within reach.
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Connor McDavid won another scoring title and his second MVP during the 2020-21 season by topping the 100-point mark in a 56 game season. That is close to a 150-point pace over 82 games. He will not have the luxury of only playing against Canadian teams this season, but he is entering his age 25 season which is generally an offensive player’s peak years. What is he capable of this season?
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After a stunning run to the Stanley Cup Final, the Montreal Canadiens underwent major changes this offseason, losing Philip Danault, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, and Tomas Tatar to new teams, while also losing Shea Weber to injury. Then just before the start of the season, it was announced that starting goalie Carey Price, the biggest factor in that Stanley Cup Final run, entered the league’s player assistance program and will miss time this season. Some of the most important players in that Stanley Cup Final run will not be there at the start of the season.
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Blackhawks Investigation and changes
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The Chicago Blackhawks have been in the news all offseason for two very different reasons. The most significant of which is the two separate lawsuits that were filed by former players accusing a former video coach of sexual assault. The team vows to release the findings of its investigation and make proper changes, but general manager Stan Bowman remains in charge even though he was the general manager at the time and knew of the accusations.
They also made headlines for overhauling the roster with the additions of Marc-Andre Fleury, Seth Jones, Caleb Jones, and Tyler Johnson, as well as the return of Jonathan Toews.
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Gaudreau has been the Flames’ best player for the past seven years and is entering the final year of his contract. His future with the team remains very much in doubt. He has been the subject of trade rumors for years, and while he says all of the right things about wanting to stay this is going to be his one big opportunity to cash in and pick the team of his choosing. He also has a no-trade clause that lets him pick the five teams he wants to be dealt to during the season, so the Flames might find themselves in the awkward position of potentially losing him for nothing after the season if they can not work out a new contract.
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The big in-season trade last year was Columbus sending Pierre-Luc Dubois to the Winnipeg Jets for Patrik Laine. It was a swap of disgruntled players that wanted out of their current situations and the early returns have been lousy for both teams. Especially Laine in Columbus. He struggled to make an impact, was constantly in coach John Tortorella’s doghouse, and did not play well. Now he gets a fresh start with a new coach and a full, normal season. A return to his 35-40 goal self would be a huge development for the Blue Jackets, who need that type of player, and for Laine when it comes to his contract situation.
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Contract situations in Pittsburgh
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Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, and Bryan Rust all have expiring contracts for the Pittsburgh Penguins after this season and that is going to be a big challenge for general manager Ron Hextall. There is going to be pressure for Malkin and Letang to finish their careers in Pittsburgh, and they should, but how much money can the Penguins allocate to them in a flat cap league given their ages and the makeup of the rest of the team? Rust seems like the player that is most likely to go.
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After not participating in the 2018 Olympics, the NHL is back for the 2022 games in Beijing, China. It is always exciting to see the world’s best representing their countries, and Canada figures to be the heavy favorites going into the tournament. This will be the first time Connor McDavid gets to represent Canada at the Olympics, and he will do so alongside Sidney Crosby at the top of its roster.
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Tuukka Rask is not yet signed but is not yet totally out of the picture, either. Until he returns (or if he does) the goaltending will fall on free-agent addition Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman. Swayman has shown potential, and Ullmark is coming from a brutal situation in Buffalo, but it is definitely a question mark for a team that still has a lot of the ingredients to be a Stanley Cup contender.
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There is a lot happening in San Jose right now, and not much of it is good. The team is clearly in need of a rebuild and is loaded with aging players on massive contracts. There are also major questions regarding their two best players, for very different reasons.
Evander Kane keeps finding himself the subject of investigations, ranging from the allegations that he threw his team’s games, to physical and sexual abuse allegations from his ex-wife, to the investigation that he may have submitted a fake vaccination card. His future with the team, short-term and long-term, is very much in doubt.
Then there is Tomas Hertl, who is entering the final year of his contract and is an unrestricted free agent after this season. With the Sharks likely to miss the playoffs again he could find himself on the move before the NHL trade deadline.
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Will anybody beat Tampa Bay?
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The Tampa Bay Lightning have become the gold standard for winning in the NHL right now, topping the league in regular-season wins and playoff wins going back over the past seven years. They have been in five Conference Finals since then, three Stanley Cup Finals, and won each of the past two Stanley Cup Finals. They are going for the NHL’s first three-peat since the early 1980s when the New York Islanders won four in a row. They did lose quite a bit from last year’s team, but they are still returning all of their superstars.
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It has not happened since the 2003-04 season, and this current core has lost in the first round in five consecutive seasons. That is simply not good enough for the talent level and financial investment here. Changes will have to be made if they fail again, and playing in the Atlantic Division they are almost certain to get a brutal First Round matchup whether it is Tampa Bay, Boston, or a rapidly improved Florida Panthers team.
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The consecutive games played record could be set
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Doug Jarvis’ record of 964 consecutive regular-season games played could fall this season as Keith Yandle and Phil Kessel close in on it. Patrick Marleau, if he signs with a team, could also pass that mark this season. So it is possible that Jarvis’ mark of 964 games could end this season as only the fourth-longest streak in league history. Yandle is the closest to the mark and will have a chance to pass it as a member of the Philadelphia Flyers.