Full arenas. A full schedule. After what we’ve been through the past two years because of the COVID-19 pandemic, that’s enough to get excited about the 2021-22 NHL regular season starting Tuesday.
But there’s more. Much more.
A team trying to become perhaps the first NHL dynasty in decades. A new team in the first United States city to win the Stanley Cup. Not one but two new state-of-the-art arenas. The return of outdoor games, the NHL All-Star Game and NHL players to the Olympics. A new U.S. media package with an old friend and a new one.
And, most important, what promises to be an intense, compelling race from opening night to the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Thirty-two teams. Sixteen spots. Go.
“It’s the first 82-game season we’ve had in a couple years, basically,” Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. “So I think it’s just handling those highs and lows of a season. It’s such a competitive league that you can’t afford to drop a bunch of games in a row. You’ve got to be able to grab it quick.”
It has been so long since we’ve had an 82-game season that some of the best young players in the NHL — make that best players, period — haven’t had the chance to play in one.
Take Cale Makar of the Colorado Avalanche. He has won the Calder Trophy as NHL rookie of the year and been runner-up for the Norris Trophy, which is voted to the League’s best defenseman. Yet he has played 101 NHL regular-season games, only partly because of injuries. The 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons each were disrupted and shortened due to the pandemic.
“I’ve never really had a full year yet,” Makar said. “I want to experience a normal regular season.”
This season is expected to be at least almost normal, though COVID-19 remains an issue. Almost all players have been vaccinated. Teams can travel between Canada and the United States without quarantining, so the NHL can return to its usual alignment (with the Arizona Coyotes moving to the Central Division to make room for the expansion Seattle Kraken in the Pacific).
“We’re hopeful and expect to get an 82-game season in,” NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said. “We expect to play a full Stanley Cup Playoffs and we expect to finish close to kind of a normal calendar for the first time in three years. That will be an accomplishment, and we’ll do that hopefully in an environment where we have full buildings in most of our cities, so we’re excited about that.”
When the Tampa Bay Lightning won the Stanley Cup in 2019-20, they won it in a bubble in Edmonton with no fans in the stands. When they raised their banner to start the 2020-21 season, they didn’t raise it all the way because they wanted to wait for their fans to return. By the time they repeated as champions last season, Amalie Arena was full, and it will be full when they raise their banner this time before they play the Penguins on Tuesday (7 p.m. ET; ESPN, ESPN+, SN, TVAS).
No team has won the Cup three seasons in a row since the New York Islanders won it four straight seasons from 1980-83, let alone since the NHL introduced the salary cap in 2005-06.
“I think two in itself is pretty amazing, to do it back to back,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. “But if you do three, then you’re really kind of into the dynasty conversation in all of pro sports, not just hockey.”
Seattle was the first United States city to win the Cup. The Seattle Metropolitans of the Pacific Coast Hockey Association won it in 1917, defeating the Montreal Canadiens of the National Hockey Association months before the NHL was founded. Now, after more than a century of hockey in other leagues, Seattle will have an NHL team of its own.
The Kraken will play their first regular-season game Tuesday (10 p.m. ET; ESPN, ESPN+, SN, TVAS). Their opponent? The Vegas Golden Knights, who serve as inspiration, having won the Pacific Division, finished fifth in the NHL standings and made the Stanley Cup Final in their inaugural season of 2017-18.
Seattle already is setting records in merchandise sales and drawing crowds to its new three-sheet practice facility, Kraken Community Iceplex. And wait until you see Climate Pledge Arena, the new arena under the iconic roof of the former KeyArena near the Space Needle. The Kraken play the Vancouver Canucks on Oct. 23 in their home opener.
“The city is so excited to have us,” Kraken goalie Philipp Grubauer said. “They’ve done an amazing job, the whole organization, ownership. I’m proud to be a part of that.”
The New York Islanders will play the Calgary Flames on Nov. 20 in the first game at their new showplace, UBS Arena.
NHL tentpole events, canceled last season due to the pandemic, return this season.
The St. Louis Blues will play the Minnesota Wild in the 2022 Discover NHL Winter Classic at Target Field in Minneapolis on Jan. 1. The 2022 Honda NHL All-Star Weekend will be at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas on Feb. 4-5, and the NHL will break afterward for the 2022 Beijing Olympics and the first best-on-best men’s hockey tournament since the World Cup of Hockey 2016 in Toronto.
Then the Lightning will play the Nashville Predators in the 2022 Navy Federal Credit Union NHL Stadium Series at Nissan Stadium in Nashville on Feb. 26, and the Buffalo Sabres will play the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 2022 Tim Hortons NHL Heritage Classic at Tim Hortons Field in Hamilton, Ontario, on March 13.
All of it will be covered in the United States by ESPN and Turner Sports over the air, on cable and online. The NHL is returning to ESPN for the first time since 2004 and joining Turner for the first time, and each plans its own fun and innovative approach. No less than Wayne Gretzky will be in studio for Turner, Mark Messier for ESPN.
“I’m just really looking forward to it,” said former NHL goalie Brian Boucher, an analyst for ESPN. “Hoping for a year that is not stopped by health concerns and that we can get back to some normalcy and looking forward to a great season.”