10 Storylines to Watch at the Start of the 2021-22 NHL Season

Lyle Richardson@@SpectorsHockeyFeatured ColumnistOctober 15, 2021

10 Storylines to Watch at the Start of the 2021-22 NHL Season

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    The 2021-22 NHL season is underway, a little later than usual because of the COVID-19 pandemic's ongoing effects upon life in general. Its impact upon unvaccinated players and the league's schedule will remain a noteworthy storyline to follow in the coming weeks.

    That's not the only topic worth following that could shape this season. There's the inaugural campaign of the NHL's latest franchise in Seattle, the anticipation of the league's return to the Winter Olympics and Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin's ongoing rise up the all-time goal-scoring leaderboard.

    Here are 10 storylines to keep an eye on at the start of the 2021-22 NHL season. You can express your opinion on this topic in the comments section.

COVID-19 Pandemic

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    This is the third straight NHL season affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. This time, however, a full 82-game schedule is planned, with teams in their normal divisions playing before arenas allowed to be at full capacity while fans observe strict health and safety guidelines. It should bring a return to some semblance of normalcy after the 2020 playoffs were held in bubble cities and a shortened schedule last season with limited travel and attendance restrictions.

    Under the league's updated COVID-19 protocol, fully vaccinated players face fewer restrictions. If they contract COVID-19, it will be treated as a hockey-related injury. The league's four remaining unvaccinated players face much stricter guidelines, including potential suspension without pay for missing games for COVID-19-related reasons.

    It's hoped the high vaccination rate among players and staff, combined with the league's strict protocols, will prevent or reduce the possibility of outbreaks, which wreaked havoc with last season's schedule. The effectiveness of those rules will be tested as long as COVID-19 continues to work its way through the population.

2022 Winter Olympics

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    For the first time since 2014, the NHL is sending players to the Winter Olympics. They'll be part of the men's ice hockey tournament at the 2022 Beijing Games. The Olympic break in the league's regular-season schedule is slated for Feb. 3-22.

    The Olympic break is still months away, but already the nations participating in the tournament have named the first three players to their respective rosters. Canada's are Sidney Crosby, Connor McDavid and Alex Pietrangelo. Auston Matthews, Patrick Kane and Seth Jones are part of the United States contingent. The Russian Olympic Committee includes Alex Ovechkin, Andrei Vasilevskiy and Nikita Kucherov.

    Each country must submit its full list of 55 potential candidates by Oct. 15, with the final selections expected to be made in January. Which players will round out those rosters will be the subject of growing fan and pundit speculation in the coming weeks.

Rise of the Kraken

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    The Seattle Kraken made their official debut against the Vegas Golden Knights on Oct. 12, taking the mantle from the latter as the NHL's newest franchise. How they'll fare during their inaugural campaign will be among this season's notable plotlines.

    With a roster built mostly with players chosen during their expansion draft on July 21, the Kraken possess solid goaltending depth in Philipp Grubauer and Chris Driedger and a strong top-four defense of Mark Giordano, Vince Dunn, Adam Larsson and Jamie Oleksiak. They have some decent offensive forwards in Jaden Schwartz and Jordan Eberle but lack skilled depth at center and a game-breaking goal scorer.

    Hanging over the Kraken is the inevitable comparison to the Golden Knights' impressive first season, which was capped by their reaching the 2018 Stanley Cup Final. It's unlikely Seattle can replicate its expansion cousin's success. Whether the Kraken can put up a respectable effort over the course of 2021-22 will be worth watching, however.

Evander Kane's Uncertain Future With the San Jose Sharks

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    It was a memorable offseason for all the wrong reasons for San Jose Sharks winger Evander Kane. Several off-ice issues that arose during the summer have cast doubt over his future with the team.

    The 30-year-old was the subject of a league investigation after being accused by his estranged wife, Anna Kane, of gambling on NHL games. Though the league found no evidence to support that allegation, he remains the subject of two other league investigations into sexual assault and domestic battery allegations arising from a restraining order application filed by Anna and of Evander using a fake COVID-19 vaccination card.

    Kane and the Sharks mutually agreed he wouldn't participate in training camp while those investigations are ongoing. With the season underway, he's considered a non-roster player. The outcome of those inquiries will determine whether that status becomes permanent as far as the Sharks are concerned.

Vladimir Tarasenko's Relationship With the St. Louis Blues

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    St. Louis Blues winger Vladimir Tarasenko was the subject of trade speculation throughout the offseason. On Sept. 18, Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported Tarasenko's unhappiness over two shoulder surgeries performed by team doctors, subsequent treatment by the medical staff and his reduced role led to his trade request earlier in the summer.

    Tarasenko's history of shoulder injuries and his annual $7.5 million salary-cap hit through 2022-23 hurt the club's efforts to trade him. With the season underway, he and Blues management must put this situation behind them and attempt to make the most of it. Whether that relationship can be repaired could be closely watched around the league.

    A bounce-back performance by a healthy Tarasenko could make him more enticing to clubs seeking scoring depth on right wing. However, it would also make him invaluable to the Blues' playoff hopes this season.

Sidelined Stars

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    It's not uncommon for some NHL clubs to begin a new season with a star player sidelined by injury or other factors. This season is no different, with several notable names already on the shelf for significant periods of time.

    Some, such as Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews, and Washington Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom, are expected to return to action later in October from offseason surgery or injuries suffered during training camp. Several others, however, will be out for much longer.

    Jack Eichel remains out as his standoff with the Buffalo Sabres continues over treatment for a herniated disk in his neck. The Montreal Canadiens will be without goaltender Carey Price for at least 30 days after he voluntarily entered the NHL's player assistance program, while captain Shea Weber will be out for the entire season dealing with multiple injuries.

    Pittsburgh Penguins center Evgeni Malkin will miss the first two months of the season recovering from offseason knee surgery. The Dallas Stars still have no timeline for goalie Ben Bishop's return from last fall's knee surgery.

The Blackhawks' Sexual Assault Investigation

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    Karl B DeBlaker/Associated Press

    Among the dominant stories of the offseason were a pair of lawsuits in relation to former Chicago Blackhawks video coach Brad Aldrich, with one lawsuit from a former player saying Aldrich sexually assaulted two players during the 2009-10 season.

    As this story unfolded, details emerged over the Blackhawks' supposed handling of the situation at the time. On June 17, TSN's Rick Westhead reported a source had said senior management allegedly refused to file a police report after the players in question informed team officials of the purported assaults in the 2009-10 season.

    The other lawsuit was filed by a former student at a Michigan high school with whom Aldrich was convicted of having sexual contact while working at the school as a volunteer in 2013. That lawsuit accuses the Blackhawks of negligence for not reporting the prior allegations of sexual assault against Aldrich to police.

    The club hired a former federal prosecutor to conduct an independent review of the allegations, saying they will make the results public.

    On June 28, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said the league would await the result of the independent investigation before determining how to proceed. Until then, this story will continue to cast a pall over the Blackhawks' season.

Jack Eichel's Standoff with the Buffalo Sabres

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    After six seasons, the Buffalo Sabres and Jack Eichel are slowly heading toward a divorce. The two sides have been at an impasse since the 24-year-old center voiced his displeasure with management on May 10 over treatment for a herniated disk in his neck. The club wants Eichel to undergo neck fusion, but he prefers a disk replacement, which is said to have never been performed on an NHLer.

    The Sabres have fielded calls about Eichel from clubs interested in acquiring his services. General manager Kevyn Adams said he won't move the talented center unless the trade value is there. As the regular season began, however, Adams had yet to find an offer to his liking. Meanwhile, the stalemate between management and Eichel led to his being placed on injured reserve and stripped of his captaincy after failing a physical at training camp.

    Recent reports indicate some movement toward a potential resolution. There are several teams willing to allow Eichel to undergo disk replacement surgery if they acquire him. Adams is said to be willing to consider certain conditionals aspects to facilitate a deal. Nevertheless, Eichel's $10 million annual average contract value through 2025-26 and the Sabres' potentially expensive asking price could keep this drama churning for some time.

Alex Ovechkin Chases Wayne Gretzky's Goal Record

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    Wayne Gretzky held or shared 61 NHL records upon his retirement in 1999. Most of them might never be broken. However, Washington Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin is within range of The Great One's 894 career goals record. On Wednesday, he scored twice against the New York Rangers to pass Hall of Famer Marcel Dionne for fifth place on the all-time list.

    Ovechkin is this generation's greatest goal scorer and among the all-time greats. His 24 goals in 45 games during last season's shortened schedule was the lowest total in his NHL career. He's reached or exceeded 50 goals eight times and tallied between 46 and 49 goals in three other seasons.

    Signed over the summer to a new five-year contract with the Capitals, the 36-year-old must average 33 goals per season over the course of that deal to topple Gretzky's record. Having passed Dionne's 731 goals, he could overtake Brett Hull (741) and Jaromir Jagr (766) by the season's end to take possession of third overall.

Connor McDavid's Pursuit of the Stanley Cup

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    Edmonton Oilers captain Connor McDavid enjoyed an outstanding performance last season, tallying 105 points in 56 games to win the Art Ross Trophy and the Ted Lindsay Award while becoming just the second player in NHL history to win the Hart Memorial Trophy by unanimous vote. However, he is still in pursuit of his first Stanley Cup.

    A dazzling offensive forward who generates scoring chances at a speed and pace few players can match, McDavid is well-established as the NHL's best player. The 24-year-old Oilers captain should be the overwhelming favorite to win the scoring title, the Hart and the Lindsay Award again.

    The only thing lacking from McDavid's resume is a Stanley Cup. He and his teammates will face a daunting challenge overcoming their roster weaknesses as well as deeper clubs such as the Vegas Golden Knights, Colorado Avalanche and the two-time defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning. If McDavid can lead them to Cup glory this season, it will help cement his legacy among the NHL's greatest players.

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