The NHL dropped the puck in its abbreviated 56-game season on Wednesday and one thing became clear: The next 115 nights of 863 games will be crazy. Opening night brought us a little bit of everything: a fanless banner raising, a spectacular puck toss, a fight, overtime, a staggering amount of publicity and 37 goals all together.
Here are our main conclusions:
1. LeMontreal Canadiens should be a player in theNorth Division.
The Habs made a statement with an overtime win over the Toronto Maple Leafs – the team everyone predicts will win the division. Don’t count Montreal. There’s a lot to like about the GM Mark Bergevin’s off-season. He added depth at every position, from goalie (strong support from Jake Allen) to defense (Joel Edmundson and the arrival of rookie Alexander Romanov, who looked fantastic and played 22:49 in his debut) to offense (Tyler Toffoli was a great free agent, but Josh Anderson charmed fans with a solid performance for the first time, including two goals).
The roster has clearly accelerated, especially with 20-year-old Jesperi Kotkaniemi and 21-year-old Nick Suzuki ready to contribute. A game like Wednesday’s shows the Canadiens have willpower. We were the best team, Anderson said afterwards. Message received!
Error! The file name is not specified. Maple Leafs Morgan Rielly (left) and John Tavares lost to a strong Canadian team in EO to open the season. Frank Gunn/Canadian Press via AP
2. Things look different, but we will adapt.
The NHL’s summer break taught us that empty hockey stadiums translate well into television products. The lack of fans has never been a problem; the net covering the seats on the 100 level certainly helps, and the emissions generally improve the noise level from the surrounding crowd. But a lot has changed since the summer. The NHL has calculated its losses due to the disruption to the normal schedule, with commissioner Gary Bettman saying the league and its clubs could lose billions, not millions, even in the 2021 season. (The revenue generated directly and indirectly from the games represents about 50% of the league’s revenue, and currently only the Coyotes, Panthers and Stars plan to have fans, and in limited numbers).
So the NHL is getting a little more aggressive in its pursuit of revenue. For the first time, the league sold naming rights to its divisions. You won’t hear me talk about the eastern Massachusetts division of the NHL very often, but you will hear it on my shows. Very much so. The league also allowed teams to put ads on their helmets for the first time, although they were so discreet that I didn’t notice (or mind) them. But the bulldozer commercials? Man, it was like an overload. The most visible advertising was around the glass above the panels. In Tampa Bay, it was little Adidas logos. In Edmonton, the words Rogers 5G were printed on and around the glass. It was a lot. But, in the long run. It makes people work and makes us happy.
3. It’s going to be a long season in Chicago.
A game against the defending champions may not be the best indicator, but Wednesday’s 5-1 blitz was as brutal as it was inevitable for the Blackhawks. Chicago has gone from franchise legend Corey Crawford (the only player in team history to win multiple Stanley Cups) to an untested trio. Malcolm Subban made some great saves in the first game, but if that’s the best defensive effort you can get, oh well!
The blue line, which has been in flux all season, has often let Subban down. The Blackhawks were struggling to put on a show. No Crawford, Brandon Saad, Alex Nylander, Kirby Duch and Jonathan Toews – without inspiring replacements, that’s a problem. Finally, the Blackhawks confirmed what was becoming increasingly obvious in their field: They’re being rebuilt.
We don’t have enough players, top to bottom, to compete with the best teams, Grand Master Stan Bowman told me in October. We’ve got a lot of good players, we’ve made a good start to building a good team, but we’ve got a long way to go and I accept that.
Chicago is using this season as an opportunity to gain a foothold. While it’s admirable to have a plan, you have to sympathize with Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith, who always give their all at a high level but don’t have the support of the cast to consider another championship in the near future.
Over the past five seasons, the NHL has seen a gradual upward trend in average goal scoring (peaking at 3.02 goals per game/team last season), while the goal average has declined (.910 in 2019-20). In the first three Eastern Conference games alone, 24 goals were scored (an average of four goals per team). Several goaltenders I spoke to during the offseason – especially those from teams that haven’t played since March – said that going a long period of time without a game situation would be difficult and would likely take some time to adjust. If you’re wondering how the absence of training camp and preseason exhibitions might translate into a lack of training, expect sloppy and open games, at least at the beginning of the season.
5. It is not easy to be loved.
The NHL returns on the 13th. The return of January! Here you will find everything you need to know at the start of the season:
– A guide to the 31 ranked NHL teams: Top 100 Players
– Fantasy Hockey Sketchbook
– Major Rule Changes for 2021
– Attendance Rankings
– Top 100 Prospects.
I remember a conversation with Nathan MacKinnon before last season, where he said it was the first time in his Avalanche career that he felt his team could actually win. The odds are good this year, with McKinnon regularly playing the role of MVP and GM Joe Sakic always making tough moves to support the team. Colorado opened this season as the favorite at the Stanley Cup in Vegas. But the Avs started slowly. They’ve been too careless with the puck, which you can’t afford against a big, strong Blues. I was looking forward to the turn of Gabriel Landeskog, Nazem Kadri and Brandon Saad, but they didn’t go well together and soon coach Jared Bednar started reworking his lines. The Colorado, whose offense is generally very good, struggled to generate much pressure. Louis for the quality of his team play and yes, it’s only the first game. But the stakes are now on Colorado, and every night all teams will be at their best.
6. Nolan Patrick and Oscar Lindblom are back, and Philadelphia couldn’t be happier.
Error! The file name is not specified. Oscar Lindblom (center) was first diagnosed with cancer in December 2019. Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images.
On Wednesday, Patrick played his first NHL game in 652 days (and you thought 2020 was a long year!). And then he scored in the first half, on the power play (Philadelphia’s Achilles’ heel in the summer months). The No. 2-ranked 2019 squad missed all of last season due to a debilitating migraine. For Philadelphia, this has been a problem all season. General Manager Chuck Fletcher said in January that Patrick is making progress and the Flyers are optimistic that he will be able to reach the playoffs with him. Philadelphia made up for it against the deadline last year with some deep crosses, but is in much better shape now with Patrick in third behind Sean Couturier and Kevin Hayes.
Meanwhile, Oscar Lindblom was first diagnosed with cancer in December 2019. Lindblom, who was going through a breakthrough period at the time of her diagnosis, completed her last round of chemotherapy in July. He’s a guy when you see him in the locker room, you want to go fight him, Hayes said. He’s a fighter. He didn’t look away. Even sweeter: The Flyers’ fifth goal, originally credited to Travis Konecny, was credited to Lindblom a few hours after the game.
The Flyers’ offense scored six goals in their debut against their rival Pittsburgh Penguins, including three in a row to close out the third period, and showed why many hockey players are counting on them this year. This game has really bent the depths of Philadelphia. I buy the hype of this team for the Cup.
7. A few young players to watch for the rest of the season
Nils Hooglander, the star of the Canucks’ escape from training camp, will be Sweden’s newest obsession in Vancouver. Without much competition behind him on the right wing, Hoaglander could have stayed in the top six for a while. Hoaglander’s goal in the first game means the hype around him will intensify, and at full speed from the Canadian media. The same goes for Alexander Romanov, who as mentioned will play a big role in Montreal and will only lead Shea Weber in ice time on Wednesday. The defender played with a lot of confidence, and did you see that crosscourt pass?
Watch live (and time-shifted) NHL games every night this season on ESPN+. Click here to see the upcoming program and how to register.
The much-touted prospecting system the Flyers have put in place? It is now clear that Joel Farabee, the 2018 first-round coach, shines with a goal and three assists. The 20-year-old Farabee seems to be taking a big step forward. And it will be good to see Kailer Yamamoto, who scored 11 goals in 27 games last season (and one in Wednesday’s game against the Canucks), get a full season. Looking at the power play and winger Leon Draisaitl, Yamamoto’s stats can only improve.
Jordan Kirow caused a sensation in the Blues’ opening game and could be a solid goal-line option. He said he gained five pounds this summer, but that doesn’t seem to have affected his speed.
And I don’t know how often rookie defender Cal Foote will play Tampa Bay, but I’m excited. Coach John Cooper reported Foote’s minutes in his NHL debut against Chicago (he didn’t finish until 10:47) as he certainly showed some nervousness in the first game, but he’s showing promise. We’ll see if he’s back in the cab when the lightning escapes from the paycheck.
8. Goodbye, Austin Matthews Lane
The 23-year-old American was lucky enough to become the first player in NHL history to score five points in the preseason. The first four incidents occurred during the first four seasons of the Matthews NHL. That didn’t happen to him Wednesday against Habs, although he did hit the crossbar in the third period. I still expect Matthews to go after Alex Ovechkin in scoring this season, he’ll just have to play to catch up.
nhl, nhl teams list, stanley cup 2020, hockey teams