After two seasons cut short by COVID-19 and another that began and ended late, the NHL will be back to normal this season. As normal as it gets in the NHL, that is. Remember, this league gave its blessing for the Arizona Coyotes to play in a 5,000-seat arena on the campus of Arizona State for at least two seasons while awaiting construction of a new home, their third since the franchise moved south from Winnipeg.
The league’s international focus returned after a three-year pause, with Nashville sweeping a pair of games from San Jose in the Czech Republic. Defending Stanley Cup champion Colorado will face Columbus — the surprise winner of the Johnny Gaudreau free-agent sweepstakes — next month in Tampere, Finland. But the NHL hasn’t committed to allowing players to compete in the 2026 Milan-Cortina Winter Olympics, which would provide greater exposure over a longer timeframe.
Ten teams made coaching changes for this season, but seven “new” coaches are retreads. Bringing new blood are Lane Lambert of the New York Islanders, Derek Lalonde of Detroit, and Luke Richardson of Chicago. He coached Montreal for six playoff games in 2021. Rick Bowness is back in Winnipeg, which in 1988-89 was the first of his six NHL coaching stops. John Tortorella (Philadelphia) and Peter DeBoer (Dallas) are each on their fifth NHL head coaching job. Tortorella’s hard-driving tactics will either turn around the Flyers or inspire a mutiny.
The Avalanche learned the difficulty of keeping a successful team together under a salary cap when they lost goaltender Darcy Kuemper and second-line center Nazem Kadri to free agency. Alexandar Georgiev, acquired from the New York Rangers, will be a No. 1 goalie for the first time. Still, Colorado’s depth is formidable.
Milestone watch: Washington forward Alex Ovechkin can break the record for most seasons scoring 50 or more goals. He has done it nine times, tying him with Wayne Gretzky and the late Mike Bossy. With 780 career goals, Ovechkin is 22 from passing Gordie Howe for second, behind Gretzky’s 894. Phil Kessel, now with the Vegas Golden Knights, is eight games from breaking Keith Yandle’s record of playing in 989 consecutive games.
Some cosmetic changes: Teams can have a sponsor patch on their game jerseys. For now, it’s only one patch per jersey. Also, teams can increase revenues with digitally enhanced dasherboards, which will change throughout games and give teams a chance to tailor ads that are visible during telecasts of road games.
Predictions for the biggest winners and losers this season …
Art Ross trophy (leading scorer): Connor McDavid. No reason to go out on a limb. The Edmonton Oilers’ captain won his second consecutive scoring title last season and fourth overall. A fifth should be easy.
Hart trophy (most valuable player): McDavid. It’s impossible to dispute his value. He consistently carries the Oilers, who can never fill their glaring holes on defense and in net. Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon will deserve consideration, too.
Calder trophy (rookie of the year): Mason McTavish, Ducks. He was voted the most valuable player in the world junior tournament after he led Canada to victory. Drafted No. 3 in 2021, he’s a pure scorer with a knack for finding open spaces. Defenseman Owen Power, who was drafted No. 1 by Buffalo in 2021, is impressive at both ends of the rink. It usually takes defensemen longer to develop than a forward, but he could be an exception.
Vezina trophy (best goaltender): Round up the usual suspects. Start with the New York Rangers’ Igor Shesterkin, who won the award last season with a .935 save percentage and 2.07 goals-against average. Andrei Vasilevskiy of Tampa Bay has led the NHL in each of the last five seasons but has only one Vezina to his credit. His two Cup titles are fine consolation.
Jack Adams trophy (coach of the year): Jared Bednar, Colorado. It takes a while for news about outstanding feats by players and coaches in the West to filter back East. He probably deserved it last season.
Which leads us to …
First coach to be fired: Dallas Eakins, Ducks. General manager Pat Verbeek inherited Eakins, who was hired by Bob Murray. The Ducks are all about growth and developing their youngsters, and Eakins must excel in those areas. A slow start could end Lindy Ruff’s tenure as coach of the New Jersey Devils, who finished seventh in the Metropolitan division each of the last two seasons.
First general manager to be fired: Kelly McCrimmon, Vegas. The Golden Knights’ trip to the Stanley Cup final as an expansion team in 2018 set a high bar. Since then, they’ve made some bizarre moves and have managed the salary cap poorly, leading them to miss the playoffs amid some injuries last season. Their goaltending is a question, and their skill level isn’t as high as it should be.
Stanley Cup playoff predictions
West champion — Colorado Avalanche
East champion — New York Rangers
Cup winner — Colorado Avalanche