NHL 2021, a season of emotional and financial recovery, kicks off on Wednesday, 10 months after the league closed the doors on the last regular season because of the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Amid the virus’s current surge in numbers across North America, the first question will be whether the NHL, with the majority of its 31 arenas still closed to the public, can keep all of its teams healthy and able to complete a 56-game schedule (trimmed from 82), followed by a four-round playoff season scheduled to conclude no later than July 9.
Hope for the best but expect some bumps. In the meantime, here is a “starting six” collection of story lines to follow in the new season:
▪ Alexis Lafreniere — Manhattan’s famed midtown theaters remain dark, leaving the Blueshirts to command the Broadway spotlight with their newbie leading man.
The Rangers fell feet-first into a big bucket of luck when the lottery popped up their logo for first dibs in the draft, et voila, Lafreniere, a 6-foot-2-inch, 200-pound left winger who owned junior hockey (Rimouski) in the way Mario Lemieux and Vincent Lecavalier did in their day.
Lafreniere is a potential generational talent, though fulfilling that kind of promise can be a heavier lift for a winger than a center.
Lafreniere entered camp on Monday on a third line that had Filip Chytil at center and fellow ex-Quebec Leaguer Julien Gauthier on the right side. Some heft there. Chytil is 6-2, 206, and Gauthier 6-4, 227. Provided he is the real deal, Lafreniere won’t be long on the third line.
▪ Old faces, new places — Bruins fans will be eager to see how Zdeno Chara, the Black and Gold captain since 2006, fares on the Capitals’ backline. Chara will be 44 in March and admittedly working with a smaller toolbox these days. But he’ll be a presence on a D corps that is part of a squad that is a legit Stanley Cup contender. Of equal interest: How will the Boston blue liners emerge from Big Z’s lingering shadow?
Elsewhere, old pal Joe Thornton, no longer deemed essential personnel in San Jose after 15 years, signed up to take a twilight spin with his hometown Maple Leafs. In a one-week span, the Leafs also signed UFAs Wayne Simmonds, Zach Bogosian, T.J. Brodie, and Jimmy Vesey. Even with Bogosian and Brodie in the D mix, they still lack the backline presence to be a serious Cup player.
Like the Bruins, the Blues bid adieu to their captain, defenseman Alex Pietrangelo, who hooked on with Vegas for the season’s richest free agent deal (seven years, $61.6 million). Meanwhile, the Blues plucked Torey Krug off the Boston backline for the second-richest UFA deal of the season (seven years, $45.5 million). According to Krug, the Bruins made an initial bid for him, only to pull it off the table as October’s UFA period approached.
Longtime Capitals goalie Braden Holtby, a Bruins nemesis, found a new home with the Canucks, who saw their No. 1, Jacob Markstrom, bolt to Calgary for six years, $36 million.
Ex-Boston University defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, who won the Cup with Tampa Bay amid a career renaissance, picked up a three-year, $11.7 million gig with the Ducks. The Rangers, who bought out his deal in 2019, will pay him nearly another $9 million over the same three years.
The Canadiens, among the league’s most improved clubs, added some snarl and skill at the wings with UFA pickup Tyler Toffoli and Josh Anderson, the latter of whom came in the deal that sent Max Domi to the Blue Jackets. Big character infusion for the Habs, too, with their addition of Corey Perry.
The Sabres, ever searching to stop the franchise freefall, landed prized winger Taylor Hall, the No. 1 to Tyler Seguin’s No. 2 in the 2010 draft, for a one-year test drive at $8 million (second only to Pietrangelo’s $8.8 million cap hit). Jack Eichel has yet to have anyone with Hall’s talents on his line since arriving in Buffalo in 2015 (now five seasons of playoff DNQs).
▪ Forensic offside — Thankfully, a critical change in the offside rule should lead to fewer mind-numbing game delays. A player’s skate no longer has to be touching the blue line for him to be deemed onside. As long as at least one skate remains within the “plane” of the blue line — i.e., an imaginary line extending up from the line — the play will be deemed OK. Should mean more goals remain on the board, fewer looks of the guys in stripes staring into iPads and shrugging shoulders.
▪ New divisions — The league’s recovery plan has the teams playing in four realigned divisions, hopefully for just this season. The all-Canadian North division — seven teams — was once a WHA model. It will be the most grueling from a travel standpoint (Vancouver to Montreal is 2,288 air miles). The Bruins, in the East, almost could bus to all of their games. Longest hike: Pittsburgh, 570 miles. Mileage aside, all play is within the divisions, which should lead to intense rivalries. If popular enough, it’s possible that the Lords of the Boards will consider an even more conference-centric schedule when/if life gets back to normal.
▪ Puck and Player Tracking — Gizmos galore. Long in the making, the NHL finally will roll out its giant data project, using infrared technology to measure every movement the puck and players make. The pucks, $40 each, are fitted with battery, circuit board, and light tubes. Players will carry similar circuitry in the back of their shoulder area. All the data are being generated to add to broadcast narratives and on-screen streaming info, and also to complement the growing legalized gambling industry. Yes, if the puck lands in the crowd, fans can take it home.
▪ Can the Lightning repeat? — Free agency and the salary cap have made it near impossible to win back-to-back Cups. Only the Penguins (2016, ’17) have done it in the cap era. Key obstacle for the Bolts: Top gun Nikita Kucherov (hip surgery) is not expected to play in the regular season. They should qualify easily even without him. How soon and how fit he is for the postseason could determine whether they’re back in the winner’s circle.
NEW TRICK FOR OLD DOG
Thornton on wing for Maple Leafs
Before the bucket of pucks barely dipped below room temperature at Toronto’s first practice, Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said he intends to begin the season with Joe Thornton lined up at left wing on a trio with Auston Matthews in the middle and Mitch Marner on right side.
That’s a significant late-in-life change of position for Jumbo Joe, 41, who hitched on with the Leafs for a one-year free agent deal at $700,000 and now finds himself their No. 1 left wing.
A career center, Thornton has made his fortune (some $109 million in contracts, including his Bruins rookie package), as a dominant pass-first center. In 70 games last season with the Sharks, he put only 76 pucks on net and last reached triple figures (121) in 2015-16.
Spoiler alert: After 1,636 games, he ain’t changing. He also might not have to change. Matthews led the Leafs last season with a career-high 290 shots, fourth most in the league and second among all centers (Avalanche pivot Nathan MacKinnon was No. 1 overall with 318).
If Thornton remains his regular left-side running mate, Matthews stands to get better looks off Thornton feeds and possibly will land even more shots, collect more goals (he potted 47 last season).
Charlie Coyle, before landing in Boston and being cast as a full-time center, often was used at wing in Minnesota. The defined role has suited him well. He’s about to enter Week 1 of a new deal that will pay him an average $5.25 million over the next six seasons. Free of wing duty, he has become an effective possession center, able to hang on to pucks in the offensive end and steer/drive an assortment of wingers.
“The challenge when you play both,” noted Coyle, “is that you come in for a specific day, or even game time, and you don’t know where you are playing. Or you are switching back and forth game to game or shift to shift. That can be a tough task. When you are set in stone with a specific position, get your mind right to where you are playing, it definitely helps.”
Coyle is confident that Thornton will adjust to the new role.
“Sounds like he’s playing with some pretty good players off the bat,” Coyle said. “In a perfect world, you’d rather play in one spot and play there, get great at it, rather than switching back and forth — but sometimes it calls for that. You also take pride in being that guy — and I’m sure [Thornton] does — whatever the team needs is where you’ll play.”
Wingers don’t have the defensive demands that centers must assume. The Leafs may modify their attack with Thornton on the side, and allow Matthews to yield some of that duty to Thornton. But generally, Jumbo should find himself less encumbered and better able to turn the new role into at least more shooting opportunities.
“You’re probably not as tired, being on [wing],” said Coyle, comparing the roles. “But you still have to help out. At center, you’re always in the mix — especially the way we play — the center is always more involved, especially in the D zone. So yeah, [as a wing], you might have more energy once you get the puck and go down the other way. But you have to know what you are doing. You still have to help out … help out down low, depending where the puck is … you have to turn your brain on a bit and make sure you know what you are doing. You’re not always in the center, helping everyone out, but you’re always doing something.”
A lot different than the bubble
The game in New Jersey Thursday night will be the first non-bubble encounter for the Bruins since their 2-0 win at Philadelphia on March 10 of last year.
Less than 48 hours after the Bruins chartered out of Philly that night, the league implemented its COVID-19 pause, which makes the game in Newark the club’s first bubble-free venture in 310 days.
Unlike the bubble environment structured in Toronto, Bruins players during training camp have been free to return to their homes (or temporary hotel digs) after workouts each day. Much of everyday life has returned to normal, albeit with COVID-19 numbers ballooning each day across the US and Canada.
“It’s obviously a lot better to come home to your own home, your own bed, what you’re accustomed to,” said Bruins defenseman Matt Grzelcyk. “It’s similar in that we’re testing every day, as soon as you get in the building — the first thing you do is get tested for COVID. I think it’s been quite a long process and hopefully we can see some better results and people are able to get back to normalcy soon.”
Having the Toronto experience “a little bit in your back pocket,” noted Grzelcyk, has made it easier to understand the necessity, and strict nature, of the safety protocols.
“It makes it a little bit easier in understanding how strict the protocols are — for good reason,” said Grzelcyk, who turned 27 on Tuesday. “It’s to make sure you are staying as healthy and safe as possible, so you are not only taking care of yourself but taking care of others. The team has done a great job of mapping out what we are allowed to do, and things to stay away from … so we are able to stay on the ice. We don’t want to have any red flags going into the season, because once we get going it’s a pretty quick season. It would be unfortunate if someone were to put themselves, or their teammates, in [an unsafe] situation.”
Meanwhile, life away from the rink, by Grzelcyk’s description, has been tailored to the times.
“I think you are trying to limit it as best you can,” he said. “If you can, get groceries delivered, or get dinner delivered, I think it would make it a lot easier and eliminate a lot of variables to make sure you are able to go out and perform in practice or a game — you’re just trying to stay home as much as you can. That’s the philosophy I’ve tried to adapt to. It’s unfortunate, but these are the times we are in.”
All of which begs the question, what in these perilous times is his favorite takeout pizza joint?
“Ha, I’m not allowed to say right now,” said the former BU Terrier. “I don’t know if pizza is my go-to. I would normally say T Anthony’s over at BU, but I’m trying to stay away during training camp and get back in shape.”
What will await fans at Garden?
The Bruins, last seen on Causeway Street the night of March 7, will return there for their home opener Jan. 21 against the Flyers. For the foreseeable future, no fans will be allowed inside TD Garden.
Amy Latimer, president of the Garden, declined to comment through a staff spokesperson this past week on a number of building- and Bruins-related questions, including how many fans the Garden would accommodate once regulations governing crowd size begin to relax.
It’s a question often asked here by fans, particularly season ticket-holders. Delaware North, the Buffalo-based concessions company owned by Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs, months ago commissioned a “Safer Stadia” report detailing safe COVID-19 practices and how arenas and stadiums would build back crowds over time.
Latimer also opted not to provide details on what health and safety enhancements Bruins fans would encounter once returning to the building. Team president Cam Neely said recently that food orders, typically made at in-arena concession stands, would be processed electronically and fans notified of pickup areas in the building. Emphasis: no lines, engineered social distancing.
The Celtics, who returned to the Garden Dec. 23, have adhered to strict protocols for entering and exiting the building on game nights. Presumably, Bruins players and staff will be subjected to identical protocols.
Jeremy Lauzon’s parents are doctors, his father a lung specialist and his mother a gynecologist. Their area of northern Quebec (Val-d’Or Foreurs) had been relatively free of COVID-19 the last 10 months, but that has changed of late, according to the Bruins defenseman. “Now it’s starting to get a little bit out of hand,” he said. “They’ve been really lucky, but obviously they’ve been working really hard and putting in a lot of time — I’m really proud of them.” … Nick Wolff, who spent three months tuning up in the Slovakian league prior to joining Bruins training camp, is an active outdoorsman, in part why he chose to go to the University of Minnesota-Duluth. “Lakes everywhere around Duluth,” he said. “I enjoyed going out after practice. I missed out on that [while in Europe], but obviously, hockey comes first.” Grouse was his common target while in Duluth. “A nice hike with a gun,” he said. “Just great to be outside, get some exercise and breathe some fresh air.” When lakes around Duluth froze, Wolff and a number of his Bulldog teammates went straight from the indoor rink to outside ice, with full fishing gear at the ready. “Pulling a sled in freezing cold temperatures,” he recalled. “We had a car pre-packed to go after practice, heated huts and everything.” The boys saved their catches, tossed them in the freezer back at their dorms, and finished last season with a fish fry on campus. “Had the whole team over,” said Wolff. “Cooked the fish and had some beers.”