The start of the 2021-22 NHL season is one week away. And the league is bigger than it's ever been before, as the Seattle Kraken have been added as an expansion team, bringing the total number of franchises to 32.
Next Tuesday, there will be a pair of games on opening night to get the season underway. The Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning will host the Pittsburgh Penguins, while the Kraken will play the first regular-season game in team history when they go on the road to face the Vegas Golden Knights.
Things are getting back closer to normal around the NHL this season. The 2020-21 campaign didn't begin until January, and there was temporary realignment due to the coronavirus pandemic. The league's 31 teams at the time were split up into four divisions, and they played against only division opponents until late in the playoffs. Now, the Eastern and Western Conference split has returned for the 82-game slate.
There won't be many changes to the action happening on the ice, as the NHL released its rulebook for the 2021-22 season with few noticeable differences.
Although there aren't any major rule changes/additions, one rule is going to be more heavily enforced. That's Rule 59, which relates to the cross-checking penalty. The league has announced there will be a stricter enforcement "designed to promote offense and reduce injuries."
Per the NHL rulebook, cross-checking is "the action of using the shaft of the stick between the two hands to forcefully check an opponent." When a player is called for the penalty, the other team gets a power-play opportunity. So those could be more prevalent early in the 2021-22 season until players get a better idea of how officials will now be handling these calls.
The stricter enforcement will mostly happen around the boards, in the open ice and in front of the net, which the NHL broke down in a recently released video:
Vegas forward Mark Stone isn't afraid to admit he's cross-checked players, but he also seems to be in favor of the NHL getting it more under control.
"Cross-checking has become almost natural in the game. I cross-check. I get cross-checked. That's just how it's been," he said, per ESPN's Greg Wyshynski. "But if they're trying to get rid of injuries, I can understand why they're doing it. It's a sensitive area. In the playoffs especially, it can get a little out of control."
Nashville Predators defenseman Roman Josi expressed a similar sentiment.
"There has to be a line. It can be dangerous," he said, per Wyshynski. "You never want to cross-check a guy when there's a risk for injury. So as a defenseman, we'll have to adjust a little bit."
The NHL has also updated its COVID-19 protocols for the upcoming season. ESPN's Emily Kaplan shared the memo, which introduced "significant restrictions" for players who aren't vaccinated. There were 27 pages outlining these protocols.
However, these restrictions won't impact many players, as Kaplan reported "an overwhelming majority" of NHL players are vaccinated.