8 storylines to watch during 2020-21 NHL season


Is my excitement for the return of NHL hockey a direct reflection that my life has become a monotonous slog, leaving me desperate for flickers of excitements within a dark cave of despair?

No, no — certainly not. That can’t be it. I better not do any self-reflection to address that.

What I will do, though, is look at the 2021 season ahead, and highlight a few of the things I’m holding between my ears in the hours before puck drop. Let’s be real, people – we’ve all been through some “ish” here over the past year.

We’ve earned this excitement, so let’s enjoy it.

Hockey is back, and, barring catastrophe, we’re about to go on a nice run of action

This is less a storyline and more a reminder as we get into this season. I encourage you to think of the recent and challenging sports-less months almost like saving money. You haven’t been deprived of your usual in-season enjoyment per se, so much as a lot of it has gone into a savings account that’s now ready for withdrawal.

There will be NHL hockey games on your television the next 116 nights before there’s a single evening without a game. The schedule is condensed, and it leads us right into a playoff season that will take us into July, nearly a month later than usual.

Even with that, the NHL wants to start the 2021–22 season on time like nothing unusual has happened the previous two seasons. That means training camps would be back in September, and regular-season hockey — plus the Seattle Kraken! — will pick back up in early October. That means that from now until roughly mid-June of 2022 (totalling 18 months), we should be without hockey for only about two months. I mean, sure, we could all use a breather for a summer swim somewhere.

Banking that enjoyment has been hard, but it should pay dividends barring catastrophe in the months ahead. (And, hey, when’s the last time we’ve had a catastro- … y’know what? Never mind.)

The Canadian Division has been talked to death, but so it should be

It’s not just that the Canadian division represents more chances at fun north-of-the-border rivalry games that makes it great — it’s also that it should be wildly competitive.

If you polled the seven fanbases and asked, “Do you think your team has a reasonable shot at winning the division?”, I bet six would by majority say yes, and the seventh (Ottawa) might secretly think they’ve got a shot. It’s the least confident I’ve ever been about what order six teams will finish in a division that I can remember. And with a probable abundance of three-point games, it’ll likely stay tight down to the wire, which should keep every fanbase engaged. Staying healthy will go a long way, methinks.

We should talk about the health thing, as it will effect literally everything league-wide more than ever

I think an under-discussed story heading into this season is “Can the NHL finish the season with 31 teams playing in 31 buildings?” I realize we’re at 31 in 30 with San Jose starting in Arizona, but can it at least stay at that number?

The Dallas Stars had 17 positive COVID-tests, which shows how transmissible the virus is (and it’s likely that hockey conditions make that even more true). Had the Stars been playing games around their division, boy, the league would be in some trouble already. Moving teams to hub cities, at some point, is not impossible. It’s a big-picture story, but still one I’ll have my eye on – can the NHL pull this off in the way they want, amidst our current global crisis?

But on a nightly basis we’re going to have player absences for positive COVID tests, we’re going to have injuries from the condensed schedule, and we may just have issues with fielding healthy teams.

That brings us to …

Where and when will fans be at games?

As of now, three teams in the NHL will open with some fans in the buildings: Dallas, Arizona and Florida. I’ve come to realize fans are more important to my engagement of random games than I had ever believed. Because it’s not hard as a fan to stay engaged when the stakes are high — I had no problem staying into the hockey in the playoffs.

But I’m a basketball fan, too, and fan-less buildings have left the lower-stakes games feeling low. Here’s hoping that by the time the standings get more sorted out — in late March, maybe — more fans are able to attend games to spice things up a little.

Third goalies and the waiver wire

When Corey Crawford decided to retire, it opened up a can of worms I hadn’t anticipated: at varying points this season, teams are just going to need bodies, warm bodies, and waiver claims might be more frequent (at least between teams based in the same country to avoid quarantines).

Two goalies (Anton Forsberg and Eric Comrie) were claimed after day one of waiver pick-ups, and as injuries and COVID do their thing this year, you can expect the value of a good third goalie to be higher than ever before. The Leafs didn’t even risk putting Aaron Dell on waivers despite wanting to, which proved prescient.

Speaking of goalies

I’ll just note again who is playing where this season, because it’s pretty important.

• Braden Holtby: Vancouver
• Jacob Markstrom: Calgary
• Matt Murray: Ottawa
• Jake Allen: Montreal
• Cam Talbot: Minnesota
• Devan Dubnyk: San Jose

And still where they should be, but heading into the season with official starter status:

• Ilya Samsonov: Washington
• Ilya Sorokin: New York Islanders
• Igor Shesterkin: New York Rangers

Kinda strange, hey? Knowing how goalies can affect the fates of teams, these moves may matter as much as any others made this off-season.

Taxi squad issues

Elliotte Friedman mentioned in his latest 31 Thoughts that the NBA has a rule that teams must have at least eight players eligible for a game, or they must forfeit. That prompted the Philadelphia 76ers to dress an injured player and actually use just seven guys one night.

Talk is the AHL may require something around 14 skaters (and two goalies) for a game to go on, which is worse than what ECHL teams rolled out when I was there (10 forwards and six D), and even that got tough at times. It’ll be interesting to see what the NHL considers “enough” players to play a game.

Will we get to focus on what matters — the hockey stories?

Above is a mix of hockey-related things and those that are COVID-based, but isn’t that our reality right now? It’s impossible to get out a list of “things that seem to be on the brains of fans” as we head into the season without constantly being pulled back from the on-ice action to the big-picture stuff.

Yes, I want to know if the Toronto Maple Leafs get over the hump and go from potential to contender. Yes, I want to know if the Montreal Canadiens did enough in the off-season to change their course in a meaningful way. Can the Vancouver Canucks avoid a step back? Can the Edmonton Oilers be the best team in Canada again? And on and on those questions go, from inside Canada to the greater part of the league.

We’ll need a little luck, but that’s my hope above all – that we get to focus on some hockey stories in the days ahead. I’ll just try to keep that big picture in mind when I get in Twitter arguments over game analysis, as getting to do game analysis suddenly feels like an absolute luxury.

Enjoy the hockey, enjoy your team, enjoy being furious at the referee once again. Mercifully, flickers of excitement are about to be fanned into a full-on flame, and my cave of despair shall once again have light.

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