Compared to most of the National Hockey League, the Boston Bruins have a few extra days to prep before their season opener at TD Garden against the Dallas Stars on Saturday night. For most of the other 31 teams, their opening nights occur this week, beginning with Tuesday’s official start to the 2021-22 campaign.
An intriguing off-season saw the NHL change television contracts and re-align its four divisions — Atlantic, Metropolitan, Central and Pacific — to pre-pandemic times. We’ll kick off the intriguing developments with those newsworthy items and more ahead of Tuesday’s puck drop.
A return to rivalries and divisional norms
The pandemic-shortened season provided necessary divisional alignments. It also presented a unique schedule where teams would conduct a two-game series to ease travel burdens.
I’d love to see the league return to a baseball-like scheduling format — at least within the divisions — at some point. But the easing of COVID restrictions provided a necessary return to traditional divisional alignments.
With it comes a reunion of sorts for old rivals, especially within the Atlantic Division. The Canadiens, Maple Leafs and Lightning all appear on Boston’s 82-game slate for the first time since the 2019-20 campaign. Over in the Central, the Wild and Blues reunite with the Blackhawks, Predators and Stars after spending last year in the Pacific Division. Heck, the Habs and Hurricanes will match up again following a war of offer sheets the past few off-seasons, highlighted by Jesper Kotkaniemi’s departure from Montreal to Carolina this off-season.
Some rivalries, like Caps-Rangers, Flames-Oilers and Flyers-Penguins, will pick up where they left off the year before. But the other notable showdowns waited too long to renew acquaintances.
The new television contracts
For 15 years following the 2004-05 lockout, NBC brought significant exposure to the NHL. With a healthier financial outlook, the league can bask further into their rewards after securing their latest television rights contracts with ESPN and Turner.
Surely, TNT encountered some kinks during its Bruins-Flyers preseason telecast a couple of weeks ago. But there’s plenty of intrigue with the cast they’ve assembled, including Wayne Gretzky as a studio analyst. Even if Gretzky doesn’t settle into his role, adding the ‘Great One’ provides Turner some instant credibility with its hockey coverage.
But the crowned jewel of the new deal goes to the folks in Bristol. ESPN’s second go-around with their NHL package begins with Tuesday’s doubleheader featuring the two-time defending champion Lightning hosting the Penguins and the debut of the Seattle Kraken as they travel to Vegas to face the league’s 31st franchise in the Golden Knights.
ESPN’s theme song provides plenty of nostalgia. The ‘Worldwide Leader’ will certainly have some notable names to their broadcasts, including John Buccigross and Steve Levy on studio and play-by-play duty, the colorful Barry Melrose, and Linda Cohn hosting studio coverage and podcasts. But they’ll also showcase fresh faces, including Sean McDonagh as the lead play-by-play guy, Ray Ferraro, Kevin Weekes, Mark Messier, A.J. Meletzko, Hilary Knight and Cassie Campbell-Pascall as analysts, and Emily Kaplan, Greg Wyshynski and Blake Bolden in multiple reporting roles.
In addition to their nationally televised package, ESPN+ and Hulu take over for NHL.tv as the top streaming services for out-of-market games. So for those Bruins fans living outside of the New England area, you’ll be in luck.
Though the league has new broadcasting partners, they won’t leave the NBC network entirely. Come mid-February, they’ll once again send their marquee stars to the biggest sporting stage across the globe.
The Beijing Olympics
Four years ago, the league opted to keep their players in North America over pausing for two weeks during the PeyonYang Winter Olympics. The eight-year layoff came to an end after the league agreed to send their biggest and brightest stars to Beijing this off-season.
A plethora of young studs from two-time Hart Trophy winner Connor McDavid (Canada) to Auston Matthews (USA), David Pastrnak (Czech Republic), Cale Makar (Canada), Adam Fox (USA) and Charlie McAvoy (USA) will likely embark on their first Olympics. Combine the injection of youth with familiar names like Alex Ovechkin (Russia), Sidney Crosby (Canada), Brad Marchand (Canada), Patrice Bergeron (Canada), Victor Hedman (Sweden) and Patrick Kane (USA) and you have yourself a star-studded cast competing for gold.
Unleashing the Kraken
The Golden Knights set the bar high for future expansion clubs following their surprising run to the Stanley Cup Final in their inaugural 2017-18 campaign. The Seattle Kraken entered their first season with similar expansion draft rules. Yet, any thoughts of a Stanley Cup in Year 1 — albeit not improbable — should remain tempered.
GM Ron Francis added a handful of proven talents, including Mark Giordano, Jordan Eberle, Yanni Gourde and Jaden Schwartz.
On paper, the Pacific is the weakest of the four divisions. Unlike Vegas, Seattle will likely encounter the traditional expansion blues at some point. Yet obtaining a playoff spot isn’t all unrealistic for the newest hockey club out of the Pacific Northwest.
The Bruins will get their first look at Jeremy Lauzon and the Kraken on Feb. 1 in their final game before the Olympic break. They’ll resume play on Feb. 24 in Seattle to kick off a six-game road trip.
Tim Rosenthal serves as the Managing Editor of Bruins Daily. He started contributing videos to the site in 2010 before fully coming on board during the Bruins' Stanley Cup run in 2011. His bylines over the last decade have been featured on Boston.com, FoxSports.com, College Hockey News, Patch and Inside Hockey. You can follow Tim on Twitter @_TimRosenthal.
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