The NHL is coming back: Here’s what you may have missed and what to expect this year

For anyone working in or around the sphere of professional hockey, the schedule isn’t much different than that of a student or teacher.

Once the calendar clicks past Labor Day, it’s time to get back to work.

NHL players who haven’t made their way to their respective cities of employment are doing it now. Informal skates are underway for the veterans, while rookie tournaments are on the horizon. Main camps open in less than two weeks. The exhibition season will be here before you know it and in case you’ve forgotten, the NHL regular season kicks off in Europe on October 7, with a two-game set in Prague between Nashville and San Jose, part of the resumption of the NHL’s Global Series.

In many ways, these past seven weeks have felt like the first real NHL offseason in three years.

In 2020, the 24-team bubble playoff started in August and they were down to the final four by the second week of September. In 2021, the 56-game season didn’t start until January with realigned divisions and travel restrictions that resulted in, among other developments, a one-year experiment with an all-Canadian division. The outcome was the same both times, with the Tampa Bay Lightning winning back-to-back Stanley Cups.

But by the time the 2021 expansion and entry drafts and free agency were all completed, half of the last summer was gone.

This year, for everyone except maybe Flames’ general manager Brad Treliving (more on his offseason workload later), it seemed like the league finally had a chance for a collective deep breath and then a hearty exhale.

The optimism of September is now upon us and it feels genuine, the batteries collectively recharged all around the league.

When last we left you, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly was handing the Stanley Cup to Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog because commissioner Gary Bettman had tested positive for COVID-19.

Colorado celebrated what seemed like a long overdue Stanley Cup, after an epic final against the Lightning, who didn’t give up the push for a threepeat without a fight. That championship series followed an exciting two-month playoff which helped obscure how flat the last NHL regular season was, from a competitive point of view. It was a year that lacked any genuine drama from about Christmas on.

Early on, the Eastern Conference had divided itself neatly into eight haves and eight have-nots and playoff spots were effectively decided months ahead of time. It wasn’t much more competitive in the West, with six teams (Winnipeg, Chicago, Arizona, San Jose, Anaheim and Seattle) all falling far off the pace early and five teams (Colorado, Minnesota, St. Louis, Calgary and Edmonton) all booking their playoff spots with little difficulty.

Thus, in a 32-team league, after the Kraken made their debut last season, it meant only five clubs (Los Angeles, Vegas, Vancouver, Nashville and Dallas) were actually jockeying for three playoff spots during the stretch run.

So here we are, with training camps around the corner, and we have the Coyotes about to start playing at a 5,000-seat arena on the campus of Arizona State University.

We have a division champion in Calgary wildly remade up front. We have Ottawa suddenly a hot destination; Columbus as well.

The reigning regular-season champion Panthers replaced a Jack Adams finalist in Andrew Brunette with veteran coach Paul Maurice and traded away the NHL’s second-leading scorer, Jonathan Huberdeau, to Calgary for the rabble-rousing Matthew Tkachuk in the hopes of getting further along in the playoffs.

The regular season’s competitive imbalance turned the 2022 trading deadline into an early version of Boxing Day, with ‘for sale’ signs posted on franchises across the continent.

The wheeling and dealing geared up again almost as soon as the teams hit Montreal for the draft.

That, in turn, produced a volatile upheaval in a handful of different markets.

It’s fair to say that 2022 was a summer like no other in the NHL.

Now a summer like no other doesn’t always guarantee a season to remember. But you cannot dispute the fact that intrigue and curiosity heading into camps is running at peak levels.

Oddly enough, two of the most changed teams also represent two of the NHL’s smallest markets — Ottawa and Calgary, two franchises that generally don’t make much of a splash on the bigger, national picture.

Calgary and Ottawa made significant changes to their respective cores, which is really the only way to quantitively shift the narrative. The one difference: The Flames’ moves were set in motion by forces largely out of their control, and could be mostly seen as sideways. Two key contributors were out (Johnny Gaudreau, Tkachuk),; three key contributors came in (Huberdeau, Nazem Kadri, MacKenzie Weegar).

The changes will have the net effect of shifting leadership and roles within the Flames, but it can be debated: Are they better, are they worse, or are they just different?

Of course, sometimes, just being different — if what you have isn’t working to your satisfaction — does make you better. In Calgary, there’s been a percentage of the fan base disenchanted with the core for some time now, even though that core helped them to a division title last season and the second-best record in the NHL in 2019.

So not exactly a franchise that’s been wandering off in the wilderness for an extended period.

Ottawa, by contrast, has been that.

But this offseason’s push has been, frankly, impressive work by general manager Pierre Dorion.

Alex DeBrincat. (Stan Szeto / USA Today)

First, the trade to bring in Alex DeBrincat, an elite-level goal-scorer, young enough to fit in the team’s core without giving up a major piece off the NHL roster. Then luring a key free agent, Claude Giroux, to Ottawa, to further flesh out the core of the team. And adding the veteran goaltender Cam Talbot to stabilize the netminding was an under-the-radar bit of good horse trading — taking advantage of Talbot’s wish not to job-share with Marc-Andre Fleury in Minnesota.

The hope is Josh Norris, Drake Batherson and Tim Stutzle all live up to their promise because the dollar and term commitments made to them as well as Brady Tkachuk and Thomas Chabot are serious. Ottawa has a long way to go to make up the gap between the top and bottom four teams in the Atlantic, but the Senators should be on the way — not just better, but also fun to watch, which hopefully will energize the fan base and get them out to Kanata in larger numbers.

Maybe the closest comparison to this offseason was the summer of 2016 when two trades — Taylor Hall for Adam Larsson and PK Subban for Shea Weber — brought a wow factor to that offseason. Hall eventually won an MVP for his new team, the Devils, in 2018 while Subban also thrived early in Nashville, garnering a Norris Trophy finalist nod in 2018. Weber, meanwhile, overcame some crippling physical issues to help Montreal qualify for the 2021 Stanley Cup Final.

So, impact players who had an impact in their new locations. It’s what they’re wishing for in Ottawa and Calgary, where they’ll use training camps and the early season to solve the mystery of chemistry because it all eventually needs to jell on the ic; and that’s the vexing, puzzling part of the equation that no one can accurately forecast.

But they’ll remember that Hall keyed a historic year-over-year turnaround in New Jersey before he was traded to Arizona and then as a highly prized free agent, joined Buffalo on a one-year, $8 million prove-it-to-me contract.

Hall’s contract that year was similar to the one signed by John Klingberg with the Ducks earlier this summer.

When all the other key free agents were getting dollars and term, Klingberg lingered on the market and finally settled for $7 million on a one-year deal. That seems to be the modus operandi of new Ducks GM Pat Verbeek, who was trying — as much as possible — to fill in the gaps in his lineup, with a series of short-term solutions.

The Ducks closely monitored the most meaningful hockey played this summer, the rescheduled world junior championship in Edmonton, where they received impressive results from Mason McTavish, who looks like a young Ryan O’Reilly. A nice piece to build around.

Two of the three California teams, the Ducks and Sharks, have new leadership in Verbeek and Mike Grier, respectively. But Verbeek has the far easier task, inheriting a team from the previous regime that has, in addition to McTavish and Olen Zellweger, two of the most intriguing young talents in the game in Trevor Zegras and Jamie Drysdale.

Verbeek also had the luxury of loading up on draft picks at the deadline by trading away useful vets such as Rickard Rakell, Hampus Lindholm and Josh Manson, who eventually helped the Avs win the Cup. In short, the heavy lifting was already done before Verbeek arrived on the scene; his job now is to shepherd that youthful nucleus to the next level. Grier, by contrast, has a far greater challenge in front of him.

More and more teams have adopted that scorched-earth rebuild philosophy over the past handful of seasons beyond Anaheim and Ottawa. Arizona tops the list, but Buffalo, Detroit, New Jersey and now both Montreal and Chicago are all going down the same essential path, along with Seattle, which has followed the more traditional slow-but-steady expansion path.

Question: If 10 teams all hit the reset at roughly the same time, and suffer through painful rebuilds, how many will actually succeed in reaching the ultimate goal, a Stanley Cup championship? Colorado did, not that long after a gutting 48-point regular season. Three of the four Atlantic also-rans — Ottawa, Buffalo and Detroit — clearly signaled this offseason that they were ready to make the push toward respectability, presumably hoping that one of last year’s playoff clubs sinks in the standings.

On paper, Boston was theoretically that candidate because the Bruins will start the season with a number of key players, including Brad Marchand and Charlie McAvoy, on the sidelines, recovering from offseason surgeries. Their absences, along with Matt Grzelcyk, means they could start more slowly than anticipated, though getting Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci back for another year will mitigate the worry.

Still a further word of caution here: The same things were said about the Penguins a year ago because they were going to start the season without Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby and other key figures. The reality was different. A handful of secondary players stepped up and helped keep the Penguins afloat until the big boys returned. After that, it wasn’t much of a contest.

On paper, the playoff races for the 2022-23 season are shaping up to be far closer and more interesting than a year ago. How will it all play out on the ice? We’ll soon start to see.

(Top photo of Nazem Kadri: Ron Chenoy / USA Today)