- Emily Kaplan is ESPN’s national NHL reporter.
The NHL dropped the puck on its abridged, 56-game season on Wednesday and one thing became clear: the next 115 nights — which will cram in 863 games — are going to be a doozy. Opening night brought us a little bit of everything: a banner raising without fans, a highly dramatic puck drop, a fight, overtime, a dizzying amount of advertisements and 37 combined goals.
Here are our main takeaways:
1. The Montreal Canadiens should be a player in the North Division
In taking the Toronto Maple Leafs — the team everyone is predicting to run away with the division — to overtime, the Habs made a statement. Don’t count Montreal out. There’s a lot to like about GM Marc Bergevin’s offseason. He added depth at every position, from goaltender (solid backup Jake Allen) to defense (Joel Edmundson, as well as the arrival of top prospect Alexander Romanov, who looked terrific playing 22:49 in his debut) to offense (Tyler Toffoli was the big free agent get, but Josh Anderson was first to endear himself to the fan base with an all out effort, including two goals).
The timeline is clearly accelerated, especially with 20-year-old Jesperi Kotkaniemi and 21-year-old Nick Suzuki ready to contribute. A game like Wednesday’s shows the Canadiens have swagger. “We were the better team out there,” Anderson said after. Message received!
2. Things look different, but we’ll adapt.
The NHL’s summer bubble taught us that empty hockey arenas translate well to a TV product. The lack of fans never felt distracting; the mesh covering the seats in the 100-level definitely helps, and broadcasts mostly perfected the ambient crowd noise. But a lot has changed since the summer, too. The NHL has calculated its losses from disrupting its normal schedule, and commissioner Gary Bettman said the league and its clubs will lose billions — not millions — to even stage a 2021 season. (Gate revenue generated directly and indirectly at games accounts for roughly 50% of league revenue, and as of now only the Coyotes, Panthers and Stars plan to have fans, in limited capacity).
So the NHL is getting a bit more aggressive in chasing revenue. For the first time, the league sold naming rights to its division names. You won’t hear me call it the MassMutual NHL East Division often, but you’re going to hear it on your broadcasts. A lot. The league also let teams put ads on their helmets for the first time, however they are so discreet, I didn’t notice (or mind) them much. Ads in the arena however? Holy cow, it felt like overload. The most conspicuous was the ads circling the glass above the boards. In Tampa Bay, it was small Adidas logos. In Edmonton, the words “Rogers 5G” were printed again and again and again around the glass. It was a lot. But, perspective. It’s keeping people employed and keeping us entertained.
3. It’s going to be a long season in Chicago
A game against the defending champs might not be the best barometer, but Wednesday’s 5-1 drubbing by the Lightning felt just as brutal as it was inevitable for the Blackhawks. Chicago moved on from franchise legend Corey Crawford (the only player in team history to win multiple Stanley Cups) to an unproven trio. Game 1 starter Malcolm Subban had a few highlight-worthy saves, but if this is the best defensive effort you can trot out, yikes.
The blueline, leaky all of last season, often left Subban high and dry. The Blackhawks had a hard time generating any forecheck. No Crawford, Brandon Saad, Alex Nylander, Kirby Dach and Jonathan Toews — with no inspiring replacements — is a problem. The Blackhawks finally admitted what was becoming abundantly clear by their transactions: they are in a rebuild.
“We don’t have enough players, top to bottom, to compete with the top teams,” GM Stan Bowman told me in October. “We’ve got a lot of good players, we’ve got a pretty good start on the makings of a good team, but we still have a ways to go yet, and I accept that.”
Chicago is using this season as a chance to give the young guys reps. While it’s admirable to have a plan, you’ve got to feel for Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith, who are still giving it their all at a high level, but just don’t have the supporting cast around them to visualize another championship anytime soon.
4. Bring on the offense
It’s been a gradual trend in the NHL over the last five seasons, with goal averages slowly ticking up (peaking at 3.02 goals per game/per team last season) and goalies’ average save percentage waning down (.910 in 2019-20). The first three Eastern Conference games alone brought us 24 goals alone (average four goals per team). A few goalies I talked to over the offseason — especially on teams that hadn’t played since March — said the long stretch without game situations would be a challenge, and maybe take a slight adjustment period. If you were wondering how the lack of proper training camp and preseason exhibitions might manifest, expect some sloppy and wide open games — at least to start the season.
5. It’s not easy to be the favorite
I remember talking to Nathan MacKinnon ahead of last season, and he said it was the first time in his Avalanche career where he felt like his team could actually win. The ante is raised this year, thanks to MacKinnon continually playing like an MVP, and GM Joe Sakic continually making shrewd moves to make this team stronger. Colorado opened as a Stanley Cup favorite in Vegas this season. But it was a slow start for the Avs in their opener. They were too sloppy with the puck, which you can’t afford to do against the big, tough Blues. I was looking forward to seeing the line of Gabriel Landeskog, Nazem Kadri and Brandon Saad, but they didn’t look right together, and it wasn’t long before coach Jared Bednar started blending his lines. Colorado’s typically high-functioning offense had a hard time generating much pressure. Credit St. Louis for a strong team game and yes, it’s only Game 1. But the bull’s-eye is squarely on Colorado now, and it’s going to get every team’s best, every night.
6. Nolan Patrick and Oskar Lindblom are back, and Philadelphia couldn’t be happier
On Wednesday, Patrick suited up in his first NHL game in 652 days (and you thought 2020 was long!). And then he scored in the first period, on the power play (Philly’s Achilles’ heel in the summer bubble). The No. 2 pick of the 2019 draft missed all of last season with a debilitating migraine disorder. It was a lingering storyline for Philadelphia all season; general manager Chuck Fletcher said last January Patrick was progressing and the Flyers were optimistic he could join for a playoff push. Philly stocked up on depth centers at last year’s trade deadline to compensate, but now are in much better shape with Patrick manning the third line role behind Sean Couturier and Kevin Hayes.
Meanwhile, Oskar Lindblom played for the first time since his December, 2019 cancer diagnosis. Lindblom, who was having a breakout season at the time of his diagnosis, finished his final chemotherapy treatment in July. “He’s a guy when you see him in the locker room, you want to go to battle with him,” Hayes said. “He’s a warrior. He didn’t look out of place.” Even sweeter: The Flyers’ fifth goal, originally credited to Travis Konecny, was awarded to Lindblom hours after the game.
The Flyers offense broke out for six goals — including three straight to close the third — to down the rival Pittsburgh Penguins in their opener, showing why a lot of folks in hockey are expecting them to contend this year. This game really flexed Philly’s depth. I’m buying the Cup hype on this team.
7. A few young players to watch the rest of the season
Nils Hoglander, the breakout star of Canucks’ training camp, is going to be the latest Swedish obsession in Vancouver. Without much competition behind him on right wing, Hoglander could stick in the top six for a while. A goal in Hoglander’s first game means his hype is going to ramp up, at Canadian media warp speed. Ditto for Alexander Romanov who, as mentioned earlier, is going to have a big role in Montreal, trailing only Shea Weber in ice time on Wednesday. The defenseman played with a ton of confidence, and did you see this stretch pass??
That vaunted prospect system the Flyers have built up? It’s fully realized now, with 2018 first-rounder Joel Farabee shining with one goal and three assists. The 20-year-old Farabee looks like he’s about to take a big step forward. And it will be good to see the Oilers’ Kailer Yamamoto get a full season in after scoring 11 goals in 27 games last season (and one in the game against the Canucks on Wednesday). Looks on the top power play, and on Leon Draisaitl’s wing, will only improve Yamamoto’s stock.
Jordan Kyrou was buzzing in the Blues’ opener, and could be a reliable depth scoring option. He said he gained 10 pounds this summer, but doesn’t look like it compromised his speed.
And I’m not sure how much rookie defenseman Cal Foote will play in Tampa Bay, but consider me intrigued. Coach Jon Cooper sheltered Foote’s minutes in his NHL debut against Chicago (he logged just 10:47) as he definitely showed some first-game jitters, but he has promise. We’ll see if he’s back on the taxi squad once the Lightning escape their salary cap hell.
8. Goodbye, Auston Matthews’ streak
The 23-year-old American had a chance to be the first player in NHL history to score in five-straight season-openers. The first four happened to occur in Matthews’ first four NHL seasons. It didn’t happen for him on Wednesday against the Habs, though he did hit a crossbar in the third. I’m still predicting Matthews will chase down Alex Ovechkin for the goal scoring crown this season, he’ll just have more catching up to do.
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