Tuesday, January 5, 2021

22 of my most intriguing NHL names to watch this season

We’re a week away from the start of one of the most fascinating seasons in NHL history. We’ve got one-time-only divisions where teams will only play each other, an old school playoff format, and a 56-game schedule, we hope. No All-Star Game, no bye weeks, and at least to start with, no fans in most of the buildings. How it’s all going to play out? I have no idea, and neither do you, and that’s what’s going to make it great. Or horrible. We’ll see.

It all makes for one of the most intriguing seasons in modern NHL history. So today, I’m going to celebrate the unknown by building a roster of the most intriguing players heading into this season. We’ll go 12 forwards, six defensemen and two goalies, then add a coach and a GM, with a limit of one selection per team. That’s pretty much it as far as the rules here; if you’re looking for a more thought-out selection criteria than my going, “Oh yeah, that guy, I wonder how that’s going to go” then I’m not sure what to tell you. It’s early, manage your expectations.

We’ll do this like any well-constructed roster, and build from the net out.


Marc-Andre Fleury, Golden Knights

We’ll start with an entry that would have surprised anyone who just time-travelled ahead from last summer — not because Fleury is on this list, but because he’s there as a Golden Knight. There was a time when a divorce between Vegas and their first franchise player seemed inevitable, what with the whole “my agent is commissioning artwork of my team stabbing me in the back” story. If they were being honest, both sides might have preferred that. But with two years of a $7 million cap hit left on his deal, there were no takers. And so, even with Robin Lehner back as the presumed starter, everyone is apparently going to turn the page and start the season as friends.

Will it stay that way? And if not, how does it play out? Fleury’s been one of the most popular players in the league for the better part of a decade, and it would be kind of fascinating to see him go for the full heel turn. But even if the situation is decidedly less dramatic, there’s still some volatility here for a team that starts the year among the Stanley Cup favorites.

Collin Delia, Kevin Lankinen and Malcolm Subban, Blackhawks

OK, that’s three guys instead of one, so I’m already cheating. But this spot is really going to whichever one of the Hawks’ goalies emerges as a legitimate starter. If any of them do.

It’s been a while since we’ve seen a team go into a season without a single established NHL goalie on the roster, and it seems like a recipe for disaster, especially after an offseason in which goaltenders were switching teams all across the league. Then again, the closest recent comparison may be last year’s Blue Jackets, and that worked out pretty well. That team had Joonas Korpisalo, who’d been in the league for four years, so it wasn’t as extreme as what the Hawks are doing, but if you’re a Hawks fan looking for optimism, it’s a decent start. And decent starts might be in short supply in Chicago this year.

Honorable mentions: Thomas Griess arrives in Detroit to test the theory of just how much of a difference a solid goaltender can make to a bad team; the Ilya Sorokin era begins for the Islanders, even as we’re not sure how much he’ll play or how long it might take him to push theoretical mentor Semyon Varlamov into a timeshare, if not a role as his backup (or trade bait).

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