NHL life in 2021 — like regular life — was dominated by COVID-19.
The league manoeuvred, contorted and pivoted to play a 56-game campaign that culminated in July with the Tampa Bay Lightning winning their second consecutive pandemic Stanley Cup.
Things were going well to start this season until the Omicron variant swept across North America, forcing a string of postponements, team shutdowns, fans being barred from some Canadian arenas due to new coronavirus restrictions, an extended pause over the holiday break, and the NHL’s decision to back out of the Beijing Olympics.
COVID-19 will no doubt cast a long shadow again in 2022, including how the schedule is reworked and the economic affect on a league that less than a month ago was projecting a return to US$5.2 billion in revenues.
But there are also plenty of other storylines to watch.
The Olympic decision means there’s a chance NHL stars could go a decade without a best-on-best tournament after the league skipped the 2018 Games in South Korea for financial reasons.
The World Cup of Hockey was staged by the NHL and NHL Players’ Association in 1996, 2004 and 2016. With the league looking to rise its business, the event’s rebirth could be in the cards before NHLers head to the 2026 Olympics in Italy.
Zeroing in on some other things to watch across the league, the Edmonton Oilers started 2021-22 with a 16-5-0 record and topped the Western Conference on Dec. 1.
But injuries, COVID-19 and poor play had seen the club go just 2-8-2 over its last 12 heading into Wednesday’s game in Toronto against the Maple Leafs.
Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl have been doing their part — the pair sit 1-2 in the scoring race — but roster holes are once again showing, including in goal where under-fire head coach Dave Tippett blasted Mikko Koskinen this week for a couple soft ones in a 4-1 loss to the New York Rangers.
Toronto, meanwhile, is in a battle with Tampa Bay and the Florida Panthers for first in the Atlantic Division. The Leafs, who had gone 19-4-1 heading into Wednesday since starting the season a sluggish 2-4-1, continue to be led by Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, John Tavares and William Nylander up front.
But the emergence of Jack Campbell in goal and continued improvement away from the puck have been the biggest differences for Toronto, which is still looking for its first playoff series victory in the salary cap era.
Speaking of teams looking to make a push, the Colorado Avalanche are loaded with talent. Can they finally take the next step with Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, Gabriel Landeskog and Cale Makar?
Despite being ranked among the top Cup contenders in recent times, Colorado has lost in the second round three straight years.
Switching to the board room, four teams — the Vancouver Canucks, Montreal Canadiens, Chicago Blackhawks and Anaheim Ducks — are currently without permanent, full-time general managers.
How they choose to fill those roles, and when, will be fascinating with a number of potential candidates under contract and the NHL trade deadline set for March 21.
MCDAVID RULED 2021
McDavid won the Hart Trophy, Ted Lindsay Award and Art Ross Trophy for his dominant performance during the pandemic-shortened 2020-21 campaign.
The Edmonton star, who was placed in COVID-19 protocol Wednesday and missed the game in Toronto, led the NHL with 105 points in 56 games last season, 21 better than Draisaitl.
McDavid added 52 points in 31 contests to start the current schedule, giving him a league best 157 for 2021’s calendar year.
Draisaitl was second with 135 points, while Auston Matthews (99), Panthers winger Jonathan Huberdeau (99) and Rantanen (96) rounded out the top-5.
SUTTER PRAISE FOR JOHNNY HOCKEY
Calgary Flames head coach Darryl Sutter didn’t mince words when asked about Johnny Gaudreau ahead of his 500th NHL game back in March.
“Hopefully he has more energy than his 499th,” Sutter shot back, as only he can.
There’s never been any doubting Gaudreau’s offensive prowess. The 28-year-old had a 99-point season in 2018-19 and sits eighth in league scoring with 37 points in 2021-22, including seven in three games since the Flames returned from their COVID-19 outbreak.
But it’s Gaudreau’s all-around game that’s impressed Sutter.
“Johnny is one of the best 200-foot players in the league right now,” the coach said of his star winger this week. “That says a lot about him and just the way he’s approached the season.”
Gaudreau said that despite his gaudy 2018-19 numbers, he was “maybe cheating a little bit on the offensive side.”
“A good year points-wise,” he continued. “But just looking at my game personally, I think I’ve got a lot better with my 200-foot game.”
HILLIS ON A WILD RIDE
It’s not very often a player goes from the third-tier ECHL to the NHL in the same season.
Cameron Hillis did it in less than two months.
Ravaged by COVID-19 and injuries, the Montreal Canadiens handed the 21-year-old centre from Oshawa, Ont., his NHL debut over the weekend.
Hillis registered three assists in six games with the ECHL’s Trois-Rivières Lions before being promoted to the American Hockey League’s Laval Rocket in mid-November, where he put up two goals and four points in eight contests.
A third-round pick at the 2018 NHL draft, Hillis played just over 10 minutes and registered two shots in undermanned Montreal’s 5-2 loss in Florida on New Year’s Day.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 5, 2022.
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Joshua Clipperton’s weekly NHL notebook is published every Wednesday.
Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press