By David Mullen
The NHL regular season has begun for 30 of the 31 teams. The defending Western Conference champion Dallas Stars remain in the penalty box.
While the indiscretion is not for hooking, slashing or having too many men on the ice, it is for having too many men off the ice. The team has been benched while serving nearly a week under COVID-19 protocols. When the Stars begin their season on Friday, Jan. 22 at home against the Nashville Predators, they will have some speed skating to do.
Some teams will have already faced-off six times, which was expected in the NHL 2020-21 truncated schedule. The original league schedule has 868 games wedged into 116 consecutive nights. The Stars, peaking with 17 players under COVID-19 restrictions, will be playing make-up games on the rare off days that were found. More hockey in May. Great.
No hypothetical bubble to play in (yet) this year, and the Stars (along with Arizona and Carolina) are the only teams to play home games in front of socially distanced fans. Once again, the league has realigned, this time in an attempt to keep air travel reduced. All regular season games and the first two rounds of playoff action will be played against division foes.
Not missing a chance to find lost revenues, the NHL will allow jersey advertising for the first time, and divisions are corporately sponsored. In the MassMutual East, Boston, Washington, New Jersey, the New York Rangers and Islanders, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Buffalo form a division with the league’s best life insurance plan.
Even though a team from Canada has not won a Stanley Cup in 27 years — What do they know about hockey in Canada? — the Scotia North division consists of teams in the Frozen North. Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa will play for the imaginary Tim Horton’s trophy. I wonder if they will bother to play the “Star Spangled Banner” before the game?
The hybrid Honda West division is made up by St. Louis, Minnesota, Colorado, Arizona, Vegas, Anaheim, Los Angeles and San Jose. Five of last year’s bottom ten teams lived out West. Maybe the teams were just conserving their energy.
And the Stars are in the Discover Central Division with Chicago, Columbus, Carolina, Tampa Bay, Florida, Nashville and Detroit. If the game is bad, will fans get their cash back?
Part of the reasoning is that Dallas, playing primarily Eastern Time Zone teams, can broadcast games earlier on TV. Now fans won’t have to wear their CPAP during late games played at SAP Center in San Jose. As a sidebar, the Sharks can’t play at home to start the season anyway, until Santa Clara County allows the team access. Reference football’s San Francisco 49ers playing home games in Phoenix in 2020.
A rule change means that offsides can be called if a player’s skate is above, and not necessarily touching, the blue line. That ought to speed up play. As Warner Wolf used to say, “Let’s go to the video tape!”
Before last season, I picked the Tampa Bay Lightning to win the Stanley Cup. They did. They played the Stars in the finals. They can’t happen again, at least this year. They both play in the same division in 2020-21. Tampa Bay is still the team to beat, but the Stars will contend once they are allowed a shift change. Coach Rick Bowness got his interim title taken away and is formally the head hockey coach this season. That’s what winning will do.
GM Jim Nill has been as much an economist as an executive so far. The NHL salary cap was set at $81.5 million, requiring Nill to puzzle together a playoff caliber roster while still paying players recovering from long-term injuries.
With the loss of starting goalie Ben Bishop until midseason, the Stars retained Anton Khudobin with the hope he can carry his playoff magic into the regular season. Backup goaltender Jake Oettinger is the wild card, as he will be called on often in the condensed season further tightened by the four makeup games.
The Stars will continue to search for an offense. Captain Jamie Benn will have new line mates in Roope Hintz and Denis Gurianov as Tyler Sequin recovers from injuries, which required off-season surgery. The team has players like Joe Pavelski and a number of youngsters wanting to gain quality ice time.
Dallas will ask even more from their defensemen and John Klingberg and young Miro Neiskanen (21) are proving that are ready to make their mark. But without much practice, expect a slow start from the Stars in a division where making the playoffs is almost a given.
The Toronto Maple Leafs remain my “favourite” team by a skosh in the Scotia North. The Philadelphia Flyers will represent the East, but not without a fight, which is their nature. The Colorado Avalanche will emerge from the West and are my choice for the Stanley Cup champions over the Flyers.
Because of injuries, salary cap issues and the COVID-19 pandemic, the Stars will be skating uphill to start the season. Once again, they will rely on late season magic to move on in the playoffs. It will be a much tougher road to the Stanley Cup finals this year, with a lot less time to get there.
With an 8-2 NFL playoff record, I would lead the 10 football prognosticators in Dallas’ only remaining daily newspaper. But they didn’t ask me to play. I picked Kansas City before the season to win the Super Bowl, so as much as I like Buffalo, I would be wrong to go against my September 2020 pick. Aaron Rodgers is smart (he went to Cal) and the Green Bay Packers play like a selfless team, which should be enough to beat the Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field.