The world’s greatest hockey league returned from a pandemic-induced break and saw all 31 teams hit the ice inside (mostly) empty buildings. It was a weird feeling, but we got a taste of what things were like during the Stanley Cup playoffs with an expanded 24-team format.
Now that every team is back at it, we’re able to judge our favorite clubs harshly and dramatically using the kind of small sample size we’re used to seeing each October. It’s strange to be starting the season in January, but hey, at least we’re spending our nights arguing about line combinations on Twitter again.
With the first few days in the books, let’s take a look at five of the biggest takeaways from the opening week of the 2021 NHL season:
Connor McDavid is ready for chaos
Connor McDavid is the best player in the NHL. Talk about going out on a limb.
Heading into Monday, McDavid and his Oilers teammate – reigning NHL MVP Leon Draisaitl – were in a five-way tie for the NHL scoring lead (with five points). Draisaitl’s points are straight assists, while three of McDavid’s are goals. Unsurprisingly, McDavid has been the real star of the show, playing 48 minutes in two games against the Vancouver Canucks while completely dominating puck possession, even after losing the first game.
A poor cliche in hockey is “mid-season form”, used to describe a player doing something fantastic or completely horrendous early in a season, based on their talent level. If I had to use this tired term to describe anyone at the moment, it would be McDavid. His hat-trick to open up the season was quite something, and his highlight-reel goal – taking the puck from the Oilers blueline and using his blistering speed to fool two Canucks on the transition before cutting through the slot and catching the defenders off guard to score one of the best goals of the opening week – was simply dazzling.
That’s what he does best, and it looks like he’s out for blood in 2021. McDavid has played in just one proper post-season over the past five years and, whether due to personal injuries or just a poor team performance, he hasn’t had much to do come spring time. He wants to change that this season in a big way.
The Canadian Division is fantastic
I probably could have just said this before the season even began, but the North (Canadian) Division is a thing of beauty.
Many have wondered what this concept might look like and, so far, I’m giving it an A+. The Montreal vs Toronto tilt to open things up on Wednesday was as entertaining a clash between the two teams as we’ve seen in the past 10 years, and the following battle between Vancouver and Edmonton was just as thrilling. It only got better as the week went on, but the first night was all I needed to declare this experiment – which would never work under normal circumstances – a success.
The thought of seeing Montreal/Toronto, Toronto/Ottawa and Calgary/Edmonton, among other matchups, a whopping 10 times each this season is an absolute treat. You can already tell from the first few days that teams understand what’s at stake – the chance to be crowned the first-ever “champion of Canada”. There doesn’t seem to be a clear favorite among the teams on paper, so the title is truly up for grabs.
The Calder Trophy race is stronger than usual
This shouldn’t come as a surprise given the strength of the 2020 NHL draft, but the Calder Trophy race is wide open.
Heading into the season, Rangers Alexis Lafreniere and Igor Shesterkin and Minnesota’s Kirill Kaprizov were the three players most people were keeping an eye on. So far, Kaprizov sits first in rookie scoring with four points in his first two games while being the only rookie forward to skate in over 20 minutes a night on average. Joining Kaprizov near the top are New Jersey defenseman Ty Smith, San Jose forward John Leonard, and Ottawa’s Josh Norris, all with two points apiece.
It’s still way too early to think about this fight in any meaningful manner, but with 43 rookies getting at least a game of action to kick off the first weekend of play, it’s great to see so much young talent. We’ve got first-line forwards like Kaprizov, top-four defenders like Vegas’ Zach Whitecloud and Los Angeles’ Mikey Anderson, and a starting netminder in Shesterkin. Throw in 2020 first-round picks Lafreniere and Ottawa’s Tim Stutzle, and this a really impressive group. We might even get Los Angeles’ Quinton Byfield and Alex Turcotte, as well as Anaheim’s Trevor Zegras before too long.
I picked Shesterkin to win the Calder Trophy and I still believe he will, but as a big prospects guy, I can’t say I’ve been this excited about a rookie class since perhaps 2015 when Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel were duking for the coveted piece of hardware.
Flyers’ feel-good stories
When it comes to player personnel, the Flyers faced some adversity last season.
It started before training camp when it was announced that Nolan Patrick – the second overall pick in 2017 – would miss the entire season with migraine issues. Then, midway through the campaign, Oskar Lindblom was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare bone cancer, sidelining him long term. The COVID-19 delay allowed Lindblom to return for the playoffs, but he was buried in the lineup after missing action for nine months.
Both are back for the 2020-21 season, however, and they’ve been impact players right out of the gate. Patrick scored in the opening contest and added an assist for two points through two games. Lindblom immediately found a home on the second line alongside Travis Konecny, one of the best forwards in the league early on, and added two assists himself.
Not only are they good players, but they’re well-respected people as well. Their continued health is way more important than on-ice performance but it’s great to see the two returning to perform at an encouraging rate early on.
COVID-19 has made its presence known
Just minutes before puck drop on the 2020-21 season took place, the NHL announced that 27 players were unavailable for opening night due to COVID-19 protocols. Among them were Edmonton Oilers forward James Neal, Vancouver Canucks forward J.T. Miller, and Winnipeg Jets forward Nikolaj Ehlers. A whopping 17 players on the Dallas Stars tested positive for the virus, forcing the team to shut down activities with a revised January 22nd start date.
The league has been updating the lists daily, but as of the morning of the 18th, only three players – Columbus’ Mikko Koivu and Detroit’s Adam Erne and Robby Fabbri – remain. If that number stays low or even reaches zero in the coming days, the league could view its COVID-19 protocols as successful, since most of the cases came prior to the start of the season. While the NHL is not using the bubble format from the 2020 post-season, it is still working hard with teams to limit outside contacts and keep players safe with consistent testing.
Dallas’ postponement to kick off the season was a real bummer for the defending Stanley Cup finalists, and it makes you wonder if we’ll see more of those as the season goes on. Perhaps that’s just an inevitability. Let’s hope, at the very least, that everyone stays as safe as possible.