There’s plenty of troubling news on the horizon for people in general for the beginning of 2022, and that includes hockey players and the NHL. However, there are many things worth being excited about as the calendar year begins. Here are five of them, in no particular order.
1. Guaranteed drama in Edmonton and Toronto. Many teams have high stakes in how the 2021-22 NHL regular season, but perhaps none have higher stakes than the Maple Leafs and Oilers. Both Edmonton and Toronto are fortunate enough to have (at least) one generational superstar in Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl in the former, and Auston Matthews in the latter. Both have made significant changes to lineups that hasn’t gotten the job done when the playoffs roll around.
Win or lose, the Leafs and Oilers are going to make headlines; it’s just a matter of those headlines either referencing a team finally able to excel in the post-season, or a team faced with more change, this time possibly to its core. It’s going to be Shakespearean, and even if you’re not a Toronto or Edmonton fan, you have to appreciate this for the high drama it is.
2. We’re starting to see which teams are playoff-bound, and which ones are toast until next year. Now that we’re approaching the halfway point of the season, there’s beginning to be some separation in the NHL standings, and we can start to project which teams are all but assured of a playoff spot, and which teams are going to continue to disappoint en route to a top pick in the next entry draft.
There’s no complete assurances, of course, but let’s look at the Metropolitan Division, for example: the top three teams in the division have at least 14 more points in the standings than the fifth-place Philadelphia Flyers. Sixth-place Columbus and seventh-place Columbus both have 10 fewer standings points than the fourth-place Pittsburgh Penguins, and the Pens have two games in hand on the Blue Jackets. It’s going to be nearly impossible to push through the standings and challenge the Penguins for the final playoff berth. It will be intriguing to see how the top three teams manage minutes of their stars, knowing they’ve got a cushion to work with thanks to their stellar current record.
The same goes for the Atlantic Division. The top three teams in the Atlantic (Tampa Bay, Florida and Toronto) all have at least 44 points. The fourth-place Boston Bruins have 10 fewer points than the Leafs, and although they have at least three games in hand on the Leafs, Panthers and Lightning, Boston may have to slug it out with the Detroit Red Wings for the fourth spot. But unfortunately for the Wings, the Bruins have a whopping five games in hand on them. If Boston gets a rejuvenated Tuukka Rask in net, they easily could improve on their .607 win percentage and leave Detroit in the mushy middle. That is a story for another day, but you get the picture. Good teams have established a firm hold on a playoff spot, leaving a few to fight it out for the fringe of the post-season. It will be a thrill to see teams firm up their roster, and seeing the playoffs start to materialize.
3. Jack Eichel returns, and Vegas becomes even more of a Stanley Cup frontrunner. He hasn’t played an NHL game since he suited up for only 21 games last season, but Eichel has finally had the surgery he wanted on a herniated neck disc, and he’s nearing a return to action. The Golden Knights have managed just fine without him this year, overcoming a slow start (7-5-1) to go 13-3-1 and become the Pacific Division’s top team.
Eichel gives them the franchise center most teams need to win a Cup, and if he returns to peak form, Vegas has to be considered a championship frontrunner. The Calgary Flames and Oilers may challenge Vegas for the top seed in the Pacific, but the addition of a star like Eichel makes you expect big things from them.
4. The Colorado Avalanche ascend to the top of the Central Division, solidifying its status as a legitimate championship threat. The Avs also stumbled out of the gate this season, going 4-5-1 and causing their fans to start worrying that analysts were wrong when they predicted Colorado would stomp on most of the league as they earned a top post-season berth in the Central Division. However, head coach Jared Bednar has pulled the Avalanche back in the playoff picture, going 14-3-1 since then.
Colorado currently sits fourth in the Central with 38 points in 28 games, but they have three games in hand on third-place Minnesota (and trail the Wild by only two points), five games in hand on second-place Nashville (who have only four more points than the Avs), and five games in hand on first-place St. Louis (who have five more points than Colorado). If their win percentage of .694 remains the same, the Avalanche have every chance to leapfrog the Predators, Wild and Blues to get to the top of the division. As long as they’re healthy, the Avs should be looked to for highlight goals galore, and perhaps their first Cup win since the 2000-01 campaign.
5. The end of COVID, and the return of the simple joys of the game. It may not feel like it at the moment, but there’s light at the end of this pandemic. Eventually, we’re going to get it right, and return everyone to normalcy – or as close as possible in a post-COVID world. When we do, let’s hope everyone has an improved appreciation for all involved, from the ushers and wait staff at game time inside NHL arenas, to the on-ice officials and security people – all of them, working to provide an entertainment experience.
The old line about not knowing what you’ve got until it’s gone certainly applies in this case. When we get it back, it would be great if we were more aware of everyone, and we appreciate all the small things that go into creating a big-league hockey game.