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Here’s a look at some of the top storylines around the NHL heading into training camps:
In order to minimize travel amid the coronavirus pandemic, the NHL realigned the divisions to the East, West, Central and North. The Rangers and Islanders will be featured in the East division — alongside the Devils, Sabres, Bruins, Flyers, Penguins and Capitals. The West consists of the Ducks, Coyotes, Avalanche, Kings, Wild, Sharks, Golden Knights and Blues, and the Hurricanes, Blackhawks, Stars, Red Wings, Panthers, Predators and Lightning make up the Central division.
The North division will feature all seven Canadian-based teams: The Flames, Canadiens, Senators, Maple Leafs, Canucks and Jets.
With the goal of returning to the NHL’s “normal” hockey calendar for the 2021-22 season, the league imposed a truncated 56-game regular-season schedule featuring intradivisional play with teams squaring off 8-10 times each.
That means NHL fans will get eight Rangers-Islanders games, there will be 10 Battles of Alberta (Edmonton-Flames), and we’ll see Zdeno Chara and his new team, the Capitals, square off eight times with his former team of 14 seasons, the Bruins.
The first two rounds of the playoffs are set to be intradivisional, with the first-place team playing the fourth-place team and the second-place team facing the third-place team in the first round. The four teams that advance to the semifinals will be seeded by their points total in the regular season (No 1 vs. No. 4; No. 2 vs. No. 3).
Goalies on the go
The Rangers bought out the final year of franchise goaltender Henrik Lundqvist’s contract at the conclusion of last season, allowing him to sign a one-year deal with the Capitals shortly after — though a heart condition will sideline Lundqvist this season, and perhaps for the rest of his career.
The Devils also went in a new direction for goaltending this offseason, buying out the remaining two years of Cory Schneider’s contract after seven seasons with the club. Schneider then signed with the Islanders, while the Devils scooped up former Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford in free agency and signed him to a two-year deal worth $7.8 million.
Crawford, 36, had spent all 13 of his NHL seasons with Chicago.
After seven seasons with the Canucks, Jacob Markstrom left in free agency and inked a six-year, $36 million contract with the Flames. Matt Murray, who was an pending restricted free agent at the end of last season with the Penguins, was traded to the Senators in exchange for Jonathan Gruden and a 2020 second-round pick. Murray subsequently signed a four-year, $25 million deal with Ottawa.
The Capitals allowed Braden Holtby, once considered to be Washington’s franchise netminder, to walk in free agency after 10 seasons, and the 31-year-old signed a two-year, $8.6 million deal with the Canucks.
Rooks worth looks
The Rangers’ rebuild is set to really be put to the test this season with two standout rookies on the roster who many in the NHL have their eyes on. Naturally, Alexis Lafreniere, the Rangers’ first No. 1 pick since the universal draft was inaugurated in 1969, is one of them.
Though he appeared in 12 games with the Rangers last season, goalie Igor Shesterkin is still considered a rookie and is the other freshman on Broadway to keep tabs on. He posted a 10-2 record with a 2.52 goals against average last season, but will be challenged by a much bigger workload split with Alexandar Georgiev now that Lundqvist is gone.
Shesterkin’s Russian buddy, Ilya Sorokin, is the rookie to watch on Long Island, where Islanders fans have been patiently waiting for the prized goaltending prospect to be NHL ready.
Additionally, the Wild’s 135th-overall pick in 2015, Kirill Kaprizov, is slated to make his NHL debut this season. Quinton Byfield, the Kings’ No. 2 pick in 2020, has been flashing his skills for Team Canada at the World Junior Championship with a six-point performance over Switzerland last week.
The Senators’ third-overall pick in 2020, Tim Stutzle, has also been causing a stir over at the WJC, accumulating 10 points (five goals, five assists) in the first four games of the tournament.
The Capitals hired former longtime Predators coach Peter Laviolette, who was fired in January after six seasons in Nashville. Laviolette brings 18 years of NHL coaching experience to a veteran team.
After serving as a Rangers assistant coach since 2017, Lindy Ruff was hired as head coach of the Devils in July. Ruff, who is third among active coaches in wins (736), is challenged with taking on a Devils team who had the sixth worst points percentage (.493) last season.