Buffalo Sabres v Toronto Maple Leafs
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The 2021-22 NHL season will mark the first time since the 2018-19 campaign in which the league will hold a full 82-game regular season. The COVID-19 pandemic interrupted the 2019-20 season and the 2021 campaign didn’t start until January as a result of the finish of the 2019-20 calendar being pushed back.

The 2021-22 NHL campaign is set to get underway on Oct. 12 with the defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning hosting the Pittsburgh Penguins. In addition, the Seattle Kraken will take on the Vegas Golden Knights in a battle of the two most recent expansion franchises.

With the offseason officially in the rearview mirror, there’s so much to watch for as the regular season begins. Here’s a look at the most intriguing storylines entering the 2021-22 NHL slate.

More than 95 percent of the league is vaccinated

As the season begins, one of the biggest talking points will be the COVID-19 pandemic. While it isn’t mandatory that players get vaccinated, there’s a limit on what unvaccinated players are permitted to do throughout the season. 

These are the basic COVID-19 protocols that unvaccinated players must adhere to this season:

  • Players who aren’t vaccinated will only be able to go to their team hotel, practice facility and arena while being unable to use areas such as bars, restaurants, gyms, and pools while on the road
  • Unvaccinated players will also be forbidden from having teammates or visitors in their hotel rooms
  • Teams will be permitted to suspend unvaccinated players who are “unable to participate in club activities,” whether due to a positive test for COVID-19 or due to an inability to travel because of government restrictions
  • Unvaccinated players lose one day’s pay for each day they miss, though the league will make exceptions for players who don’t take a vaccine due to religious or medical reasons

The NHL has estimated that 98 percent of the league is vaccinated. Teams have encouraged their players to get vaccinated and there are certainly stricter guidelines to follow for those that chose not to get the vaccine.

Lightning look to win third consecutive Stanley Cup

The Tampa Bay Lightning have found themselves on top of the NHL world over the past two seasons with back-to-back Stanley Cups. For anyone that questioned the validity of winning the Stanley Cup in the bubble two years ago, the Lightning silenced those doubters for an impressive run in 2021, which ended with a 4-1 series victory over the Montreal Canadiens in the Stanley Cup Final. 

Now the Lightning will attempt to hoist the Stanley Cup for the third consecutive season. The team returns with the majority of the same roster and managed to add former Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Brent Seabrook as well as veteran goaltender Brian Elliott. This time around, the Lightning will have a healthy Nikita Kucherov, who registered an NHL-best 32 points in the postseason after missing the entire 2020-21 regular season with a hip injury.

Tampa Bay will be looking to achieve a three-peat for just the sixth time in NHL history. The Toronto Maple Leafs (1947-49, 1962-64), Montreal Canadiens (1956-60, 1976-79), and New York Islanders (1980-83) are the only NHL franchises to win at least three Stanley Cups.

Will Jack Eichel get moved?

The Jack Eichel saga has been one that has been filled with many twists and turns. Since being selected with the No. 2 pick in the 2015 NHL Draft, Eichel has become the face of the Buffalo Sabres. However, that relationship has become extremely strained over the past year. In April 2021, it was announced that Eichel would miss the remainder of the season due to a herniated disc in his neck. In May, Eichel expressed his displeasure with the franchise over how to treat the injury. After declining to have surgery for the injury, the Sabres stripped Eichel of his captaincy last month and was placed on injured reserve.

It seems like a foregone conclusion that the Sabres will be forced to move Eichel. At this point, it’s likely a matter of when and where Eichel ends up being dealt. Buffalo is need of a huge rebuild after missing the postseason for the past nine seasons. Eichel was supposed to be the centerpiece of the rebuild after signing an eight-year, $80 million contract extension prior to the 2017-18 season. Considering the injury concerns, the return for Eichel likely won’t be what it could’ve once been.

Inaugural season for the Kraken

The Seattle Kraken will become the 32nd NHL team when the 2021-22 season begins. The Kraken are going to be constantly compared to the Vegas Golden Knights, who won 51 games and advanced all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals in their inaugural season back in 2017. It’s going to be tough for Seattle replicate that kind of success, but the franchise does have a good amount of strong building blocks on its roster. Much like the Golden Knights did with Marc-Andre Fleury, the Kraken do have an All-Star-caliber goaltender in Philipp Grubauer. It also doesn’t hurt that the team has a nice mix of veterans featuring the likes of Jordan Eberle, Mark Giordano, and Adam Larsson, so a playoff appearance may not be out of the question.

Penguins will be without Sidney CrosbyEvgeni Malkin when season begins

The Pittsburgh Penguins are going to be extremely shorthanded when the season begins. Star center Sidney Crosby is going to miss at least the first two weeks of the season after undergoing wrist surgery. In addition, fellow center Evgeni Malkin is going to miss the first two months of the campaign as he continues to recover from offseason knee surgery. 

This is a group that hasn’t won a playoff series since the 2017-18 season. Over the past two seasons, Malkin has missed a total of 88 games due to injury. Malkin is coming off of a season in which he had career lows in points, goals, and assists. Meanwhile, Crosby has undergone two wrist surgeries in the past 13 months. In the absence of Crosby and Malkin, the Penguins will be forced to depend on veterans like Jake Guentzel, Jeff Carter, and Kris Letang to hold down the fort early in the season.

Will Vladimir Tarasenko get dealt?

Over the summer, St. Louis Blues star Vladimir Tarasenko requested a trade, which led many to believe that he would be moved. However, the NHL preseason is underway and Tarasenko remains on the roster. Now the Blues didn’t protect Tarasenko in the expansion draft, but he went unselected by the Kraken. 

Tarasenko is coming off a season in which he missed five months due to a shoulder injury, but did return for the postseason. It appears that Tarasenko is in phenomenal shape and is being a good soldier throughout training camp. Perhaps if the Blues get off to a strong start to the season, Tarasenko will rethink his trade demands and will stay put. Right now, it looks like the team is holding onto its star winger.

Will the Golden Knights break through?

The Golden Knights got their franchise off to a tremendous start during their 2017-18 inaugural season when they reached the Stanley Cup Finals. Since then, Vegas hasn’t been able to reach that same plateau. It looked as though the Golden Knights were going to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals last season before the Montreal Canadiens were able to eliminate them in six games. It definitely was a surprising result after the Golden Knights defeated the Colorado Avalanche in the Second Round, which was arguably their most fierce competition. Now Vegas will look to finally be the class of the Western Conference once again with many of the same faces back in the fold.

Alex Ovechkin takes aim at all-time goals record

Over the summer, Alex Ovechkin signed a five-year contract extension to remain with the Washington Capitals. The 36-year old winger currently has 730 goals, which is good for sixth place on the league’s all-time goals list. Ovechkin could rise up the list during the 2021-22 campaign. 

The Capitals star trails Marcel Dionne by just one goal for fifth place, Brett Hull by 10 goals for fourth place, and Jaromir Jagr by 36 goals. Obviously, Ovechkin will pass Dionne and Hull without any problems. He’s scored at least 48 goals in three of the past four seasons. Of course, the league was limited to just 56 games in 2021, so Ovechkin only had 24 goals last season. Another 40-goal season should be in the cards for Ovechkin as long as he stays healthy and that will allow the Capitals winger to take the No. 3 spot on the all-time list. Once Ovechkin passes Jagr, he’ll be within earshot of Wayne Gretzky’s all-time goals record of 894.

New-look Blackhawks

The Chicago Blackhawks were the class of the NHL over the previous decade as they won the Stanley Cup in 2010, 2013, and 2015. However, that Stanley Cup-winning group is getting up there in age for the most part. With that in mind, the Blackhawks made significant changes to their roster this past offseason. Chicago made a huge move to shore up their defense with the acquisition of Seth Jones from the Columbus Blue Jackets. In a further effort to keep opposing teams off the score sheet, the Blackhawks also went out and acquired veteran goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury from the Vegas Golden Knights. It also won’t hurt that the Blackhawks likely will have center Jonathan Toews back in the fold after missing the entire 2021 season due to chronic immune response syndrome.

League will have midseason break for 2022 Winter Olympics

The NHL will be participating in its sixth Winter Olympics in 2022 after the league skipped the 2018 Games in PyeongChang. With that in mind, the league will have a midseason break so that players can represent their respective countries in Beijing. The NHL does have the option to withdraw from the Winter Olympics if COVID-19 conditions worsen and NHL games prior to the scheduled break are affected. Assuming that the league participates, it will mark the Olympic debuts for some of the NHL’s top players, including Connor McDavid, David Pastrnak, and Auston Matthews.