Damien Cox: The NHL relaunches in hopes of a rebound. There’s a lot to cheer for


Time for a normal hockey season. Pretty please.

Starting Tuesday, the NHL is planning (hoping?) for a smooth return to its regularly scheduled programming, including a full 82-game season, a return to the divisions that were in place before COVID-19, revenue streams that once made it a $6-billion (U.S.) business and a memorable introduction for its 32nd team, the Seattle Kraken.

Whether this will all actually happen in this way, who knows?

We are already hearing of players who are still feeling the effects of a COVID infection from months ago, and the threat of an outbreak like the one that helped wreck the season of the Vancouver Canucks a year ago is still very much a possibility. In fact, the Kraken finalized the first roster in team history on Monday with good and bad news, making Mark Giordano the team’s first-ever captain but also placing five players on the NHL’s COVID protocol list.

That said, the outlook seems mostly positive, particularly with teams looking to make their home arenas as safe as possible and with, according to NHL headquarters, all but a handful of players fully vaccinated, Even Devils starting goalie Mackenzie Blackwood appears set to surrender to logic and science and get the jab.

All this means the interruptions to the NHL season should be fewer, which in turn means there’s a very good chance the Tampa Bay Lightning will at least be able to attempt a genuine three-peat after two shortened seasons. The 2021-22 season might even last long enough for both Jack Eichel (injured and unhappy) and Brady Tkachuk (unsigned) to eventually see action. We’ll also see whether the Montreal Canadiens can repeat as Stanley Cup finalists without the services of Carey Price and Shea Weber for extended periods of time.

As we wave goodbye to the one-year experiment with an all-Canadian division there is much to look forward to, even as we lament the ongoing crisis in officiating that threatens to undermine the NHL’s integrity while Gary Bettman fiddles like Nero. There should be an Olympic tournament this winter if COVID allows, and a chance to see some of the NHL’s top young players in a different forum for the first time.

It’s been so long since we’ve had a thrilling international best-on-best tournament — 11 years, in fact — that it’s hard to recall the kind of positive energy that such events can create. Beijing will offer a chance for that dynamic to again work in favour of the NHL, even if the Bettman administration and the 32 owners are only grudgingly on board.

The Lightning, meanwhile, have been stripped of a chunk of their roster, and lost another promising player via waivers in the last few days. But Tampa has talent and continuity, plus an excellent coach in Jon Cooper — who has re-upped for another three years. The Bolts are more beatable now, but somebody still has to knock out the champs.

That team won’t be Buffalo. The Sabres are in an intractable fight with Eichel over his health status. No. 1 overall pick Owen Power is back at college. GM Kevyn Adams, meanwhile, seems to be positioning the team primarily for a shot at a second consecutive top selection, and the rights to OHL phenom Shane Wright.

Riley Sheahan, left, and the Seattle Kraken get down to regular-season business on Tuesday night.

The Sabres are starting over yet again with another build-through-the-draft process, while at the same time Toronto and Edmonton are hoping to prove that developing that way will actually lead somewhere. Both teams, loaded with top picks, suffered crushing first-round playoff defeats in the spring. Players such as Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner are incredibly rich, yet also very unaccomplished as NHL players in terms of team success. People are noticing.

The powerhouses of the last decade — notably Pittsburgh, Chicago and Los Angeles — are in rebuilding mode, although the Penguins are trying to do so on the fly to make the most out of Sidney Crosby’s remaining years as an elite player. Jonathan Toews returns to the Chicago lineup after a year-long battle with chronic immune response syndrome. L.A. seems to be assembling some very good pieces but lost top prospect Quinton Byfield to a broken ankle this month.

The two teams that seem most likely to take the next step are the Colorado Avalanche, unable to get past the second round the last three years, and the New York Islanders, losers in Game 7 of the third round to Tampa in the 2021 playoffs. The Avs are loaded with eye-popping talent, while the Isles have a terrific team mentality, get captain Anders Lee back from a serious knee injury and will finally open a much-needed new home arena Nov. 20 after beginning with 13 games on the road.

Vegas has been very good in every year of its existence, but hasn’t been able to get back to the Cup final after getting there in its inaugural season. Losing to the Habs in the final four last season was a shocker. Now popular goalie Marc-André Fleury has gone to Chicago and the Golden Knights will go with Robin Lehner as the starter, although Lehner upset NHL authorities with some spicy pre-season comments about player health and access to medicinal sleep and performance aids.

Washington’s Alex Ovechkin has a new five-year contract and his pursuit of Wayne Gretzky’s goals record continues. Patrik Laine hopes to rediscover his scoring touch in Columbus. Montreal’s Cole Caufield may or may not be the favourite to win the Calder Trophy. Elias Pettersson’s return to health gives Vancouver its best player back. Kirill Kaprizov has the weight of a gigantic contract on his shoulders after one Wild season.

All this and more is coming your way as the NHL tries to get back to business as usual. Unless you hate the sport or the league, you have to be hoping they’ll be successful.

Damien Cox is a former Star sports reporter who is a current freelance contributing columnist based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @DamoSpin


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