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It’s hockey season
Today is the first day of fall. Winter is coming. So is NHL hockey. Training camps opened today, the first exhibition games are Saturday, and the regular season starts in less than three weeks. Feels like a good time to catch up on some key storylines from around the league. Such as:
We’re back to normal — mostly. The pandemic caused the 2020 playoffs to extend into late September, which led to the 2020-21 season being delayed until mid-January and shortened to 56 games. The subsequent playoffs also ran a few weeks late, with the Tampa Bay Lightning hoisting their second consecutive Stanley Cup on July 7. But, after another truncated off-season, order has been restored for the most part. The regular season is starting at more or less the usual time, and the traditional 82-game schedule is back. So is interconference and interdivisional play (goodbye, all-Canadian division), with every team in the league facing each other at least twice. The old playoff format returns too: the top three teams in each of the four divisions qualify, plus two wild cards per conference. The all-star game is back from a one-year hiatus: it’ll happen in Las Vegas, right before the Feb. 7-22 Olympic break. That pushes the end of the regular season to April 29 — a couple of weeks later than usual.
It’s good to be vaxxed. Though some players have shown up to camp unvaccinated, the league claims that at least 98 per cent of its players are expected to be inoculated against COVID-19 by opening night. That would leave only 15 players (or about one for every two teams) unvaxxed, and would give the NHL a vaccination rate that compares favourably with the NFL’s (recently reported as 93 per cent), NBA’s (90 per cent) and Major League Baseball’s (85 per cent). It also outpaces Canada’s percentage of fully vaxxed people, which is up to about 78 per cent of the eligible population. The NHL accomplished this mostly by making it clear that life could be tough for anyone who hasn’t taken the spike. Teams are allowed to suspend unvaccinated players without pay if they’re unable to participate in games or practices due to COVID-19 protocols, and some assistant coaches were let go because they didn’t have their shots. Many teams are drawing a hard line with fans too, requiring proof of full vaccination to attend games.
The Kraken have a release date. The NHL’s 32nd franchise plays its first official game on opening night (Tuesday, Oct. 12) at Vegas, and its first home game on Oct. 23 vs. Vancouver. Some Seattle players you might recognize include 2018-19 Norris Trophy winner Mark Giordano (formerly of the Flames), 2021 Vezina finalist Philipp Grubauer (signed away from Colorado), former Dallas Star Jamie Oleksiak (Penny’s brother), ex-Oilers Jordan Eberle and Adam Larsson, and Yanni Gourde, who just won back-to-back Cups with Tampa Bay. The Kraken’s arrival necessitated some minor realignment. To make room for Seattle in the Pacific Division, the Arizona Coyotes (who are going back to their peyote-trip ’90s logo, by the way) were moved to the Central.
Jack Eichel is still a Sabre — for now. The disgruntled star’s relationship with the NHL’s worst team is so poisoned at this point that it’s hard to imagine he’ll play another game for Buffalo. But the neck injury that ruined Eichel’s 2021 season is making it tough for the Sabres to get anything close to full value in a trade. Eichel still has five years left on a contract that carries a $10-million US annual cap hit, and he scored only two goals in 21 games last season. But he’s still only 24 and he put up big numbers in his last two healthy seasons, despite being surrounded by lacklustre (at best) talent on awful Buffalo teams. Whoever ends up trading for him has a chance to hit the jackpot.
Some even bigger names are on the mend. Reigning NHL goal-scoring champ Auston Matthews thinks he’ll be ready for the Leafs’ opener after having wrist surgery in mid-August. Pittsburgh’s dynamic duo of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin look like they’ll miss the start of the season after wrist and knee surgeries, respectively. Chicago captain Jonathan Toews is in camp and hoping to return to action after missing all of last season due to chronic immune response syndrome. His team missed the playoffs without him, but added goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and defenceman Seth Jones in the off-season.
The Olympics are coming — hopefully. After sitting out the 2018 Games in South Korea, the NHL and the NHL Players’ Association announced a few weeks ago that they’d struck a deal with hockey’s world governing body to compete in Beijing this February. This was obviously fantastic news for hockey fans, who should get to see Connor McDavid (Canada), Auston Matthews (United States), Leon Draisaitl (Germany), Nikita Kucherov (Russia) and other young superstars play in the Olympics for the first time. But there’s one potential fly in the ointment: the pandemic. The agreement gives the NHL and its players significant latitude to bail on the Olympics if COVID-19 conditions make going to Beijing “impractical or unsafe.” If everything goes as we hope, though, this should be the highlight of the hockey season.
Ben Simmons wants out of Philly. Will the Raptors bite? No one questions the 76ers star’s talent. The No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 NBA draft is one of the best athletes in a league filled with them. He’s quick, strong, a great passer and widely considered the best perimeter defender in the world. With that skill set in a near-seven-foot frame, he can play literally every position on the floor, from point guard to centre. But he can’t shoot. That glaring hole in his game became excruciatingly obvious in this year’s playoffs, where Simmons missed an atrocious two-thirds of his free throws (free throws!) and became almost unplayable in crunch time as opponents attacked his biggest weakness mercilessly by fouling him whenever he got the ball. That led to rumours that Philly would like to trade him, and now we know the feeling is mutual. Simmons has reportedly told the Sixers he won’t report to training camp and will never play for them again. Among the teams thought to be interested in Simmons (at the right price) are the Toronto Raptors, who have some intriguing players to offer as trade bait and a creative man running the team in Masai Ujiri. Until Simmons’ future is resolved, it’ll be the hottest topic leading up to the start of the NBA season on Oct. 19.
Spygate. Deflategate. Cheatsheetgate? OK, the latest sports ethics controversy doesn’t have quite the same ring. And it’s probably not even cheating, to be honest. During a play at the plate in last night’s Blue Jays-Rays game, the little card that Toronto catcher Alejandro Kirk keeps tucked into his wristband to remember how the team wants to pitch to certain hitters came loose and fell to the dirt. Tampa Bay’s Kevin Kiermaier, who’d just been tagged out, scooped it up and took it to his dugout, where he gave it to a team staffer. The Jays were not pleased with this alleged act of espionage. “If there’s one card we wouldn’t want any opponent to have, it’s that one,” someone with the team told Sportsnet’s Arash Madani. But Tampa manager Kevin Cash later apologized, and Toronto manager Charlie Montoyo said he now considers the whole thing “agua under the bridge.” The Jays, by the way, won the game 4-2 to stay 1½ games behind suddenly red-hot Boston and half a game up on the Yankees in the chase for the two AL wild-card spots. After today’s rubber match vs. the Rays, which started at 3:10 p.m. ET, the Jays visit the lowly Minnesota Twins for a four-game set beginning Thursday night. Read more about last night’s game and see how the micro-scandal with Kirk’s card got started here.
You’re up to speed. Talk to you tomorrow.