Another season, gone. 103 NHL seasons are now in the books and even with all the historical precedents that exist, this was probably the most unique of the 103.
The 2020-21 season began with the world still very much in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Arenas were fanless. Broadcasters were doing games off monitors. Coaches were wearing masks on the bench and players were coming down with the virus.
However, the NHL and NHLPA refused to go dark and scrape the season. There was too much money on the line. There were other factors in play too. So, in a compromise, the league and players’ union decided to put together a shortened 56-game campaign with four new divisions that were based upon geographic proximity. The most unique of these was the new North Division, or, all Canadian Division, in which the seven teams from north of the border only played each other; after all, the border between the U.S. and Canada was closed.
Storied rivalries and historic matchups were done away with in favor of keeping team travel as minimal as possible. For the first time since prior to the NHL’s Modern Era (1942), the Rangers and Red Wings did not play each other. The Bruins and Red Wings did not battle. The Blackhawks did not face off with the Blueshirts or Beantowners. The Canadiens couldn’t add to their rivalry with Boston. You get the idea.
As the league attempted to traipse through the season some local governments began to allow a smidge of fans to attend games. The number started out in the low hundreds. Then it rose and continued to rise, all the way through the Stanley Cup Final, during which the Tampa Bay Lightning were estimated to have 19,000 in attendance for their Game Five Cup-clincher on Wednesday night.
And speaking of the Lightning, they won their second consecutive Stanley Cup by throttling the Montreal Canadiens, who were finally allowed to cross the border, in about as one-sided a series as we’ve seen in years. The Lightning are just the second team this century to win back-to-back titles. Next year, can they become the first to win three-straight since the Islanders made it four-straight from 1980-83?
Of course, in order to get to The Cup Final, the Lightning first had to knock off the Islanders for the second straight year. A hard fought six-game series in the bubble last summer gave way to an equally grueling seven-game series last month that saw the Boys from Long Island come up just short; lacking enough offensive firepower to get past Tampa Bay.
Granted, one might argue that had Anders Lee, the Isles’ Captain, not torn his ACL during the middle of the season, the Nassaumen might have actually gotten past Tampa a few weeks ago and perhaps they’d be the ones now hoisting Lord Stanley’s favorite chalice.
Alas, the Isles fell in the third-round of the playoffs for the second consecutive year, to the same team and now head into an off-season filled with questions regarding how to keep the core of the team together in a flat cap world, while also adding the necessary pieces to get over the hump next year.
The Isles have been a model of consistency the past few seasons under Lou Lamoriello and Barry Trotz and there hasn’t been much roster turnover during that time. But now the reality of the flat cap, as well as the Expansion Draft, are upon them. We know Mathew Barzal isn’t going anywhere. But could the likes of Jordan Eberle, Anthony Beauvillier or Josh Bailey be on the move? What about Casey Cizikas, the pivot for the team’s Identity Line? He’s an unrestricted free agent and he could very well have a tough decision to make as there are sure to be plenty of suitors who would like to pry him away from the Islanders.
In fact, one of those suitors could be the Rangers, who are in desperate need of a player of Cizikas’ ilk as the franchise attempts to become more difficult to play against under the new regime of Chris Drury and Gerard Gallant.
Gallant doesn’t like putting youngsters with potential on the fourth-line; he sees no benefit to it. So, might a veteran like Cizikas make sense to fill that role? And as for the mandate to get tougher to play against, surely the Seventh Avenue Skaters will have to move some of their young guns in order to acquire the type of players they’re seeking.
Could 2017 first-rounder Filip Chytil be moved as part of a package to get a player like Aleksander Barkov, Matthew Tkachuk or even Jack Eichel? And what about a player like Pavel Buchnevich, who has clearly grown leaps and bounds since making his debut during the 2016-17 season? If Vitali Kravtsov, Kaapo Kakko and Alexis Lafreniere are all going to be part of the top-six next season then somebody from the quartet of Mika Zibanejad, Artemi Panarin, Chris Kreider and Ryan Strome has to be either moved down the lineup or shipped out altogether.
There’s simply too many mouths to feed and not enough food to go around. And let’s not forget, the Rangers could still target UFAs like: Phillip Danault; Blake Coleman; Barclay Goodrow and Zach Hyman to fill out the bottom-six of their forward group.
Regardless of who comes and who goes, a tangible shift in philosophy is expected on Broadway next season.
Now, getting back to Jack Eichel, it looks more and more like Buffalo’s star is going to be traded. The question is to who and for what? And Eichel is just one of a number of stars around the league who could be moved for one reason or another. We know Vladimir Tarasenko of the Blues has requested a trade and he’s likely not the only player around the league to have done so.
Meanwhile, with the first buyout window now open and the Expansion Draft to welcome the Seattle Kraken into the league scheduled for July 21st, there are sure to be plenty of players on the move in the coming days and weeks. And let’s not forget, the NHL’s annual Entry Draft is July 23rd and 24th, so there will undoubtedly be an influx of new talent to the league as well. Of course, when new talent enters, old talent leaves.
Could the likes of Henrik Lundqvist (who didn’t play this year because of a heart condition), Zdeno Chara, Patrick Marleau and others decide to finally hang up their skates after long and distinguished careers? Surely some will continue to play the game they’ve loved since before they could walk, but there will inevitably come a time when the league’s oldest players announce they’ve entered retirement.
Fans will celebrate the players who call it a career, as will their former teams, but there’s one thing that won’t be celebrated outside of Tampa and that’s how the Lightning circumvented the salary cap, using a loophole to help the franchise win its third Stanley Cup (second in a row).
The team’s handling of the Nikita Kucherov situation has brought much hand wringing the past few months and the league’s General Managers will no doubt convene to discuss possible solutions to ensure it doesn’t happen again. And while they’re at it, they’ll likely look at some of the other rules too, which is an annual exercise.
But they better be snappy with it, because the 2021-22 season is right around the corner, roughly 100-days away if you want a numbered estimate. It’s less than 100 if you stop the count at the pre-season. And what will next season bring? We know the Seattle Kraken will begin play as the NHL’s 32nd franchise; can they replicate Vegas’ first-year success? The Islanders will move into a new arena (UBS Arena), but will it be ready in time?
So there you have it. The 2020-21 NHL season is officially in the books and now we get ready for the annual off-season shenanigans, before saying hello to the 2021-22 campaign. It’ll be a quick turnaround, but that’s a good thing for you, the fans, because what’s the greatest sport on the planet to do without you?