NHL 2021-22 Season Preview: Kraken released, Lightning hoping to strike thrice

When the NHL regular season begins Tuesday, what’s old will be new again — and what’s actually new will be getting plenty of attention, too.

The league returns to its normal divisional format after a season of realignment and games played mostly in empty arenas. And for the second straight season, everyone will be looking to catch the Tampa Bay Lightning, the back-to-back Stanley Cup champions.

Meanwhile, all eyes will be on the Seattle Kraken, the NHL’s 32nd and newest franchise, which makes its much-anticipated debut and could be an immediate playoff contender.

What will the 2021-22 season bring? Here are the top storylines to watch.

Is Tampa Bay the team to beat … again?

You have to include the Lightning on any short list of Cup contenders because of their track record and the fact that many of the stars who led the way in those two titles — Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, Andrei Vasilevskiy, Victor Hedman and more — remain in the fold.

But the Lightning’s roster underwent some key changes in the offseason. Namely, the entire vaunted third line of Barclay Goodrow, Yanni Gourde and Blake Coleman, which played a huge role in both championship runs, has moved on.

There hasn’t been a three-peat in the NHL since the New York Islanders won four in a row from 1980 to ’83. The Lightning have the talent to do it, but whether they have the depth to go through another grueling playoff run is the big question.

For more up-to-date news on all things Lightning, click here to register for alerts on the FOX Sports app!

How good will the Kraken be in Season 1?

Seattle enters the league with sky-high expectations, largely because the previous expansion team, the Vegas Golden Knights in 2017-18, advanced all the way to the Stanley Cup Final in its first season (and has remained a contender since then).

The expansion draft and ensuing free agency in July brought some well-established talent to Seattle, such as Vezina Trophy finalist goaltender Philipp Grubauer and veteran defenseman Mark Giordano, so the potential is there for the Kraken to make noise in a weak Pacific Division.

They’ll get the chance to make an impression right away: Their first regular-season game is against the Golden Knights on Tuesday in Las Vegas. Then, on Oct. 23, they’ll debut in their new home, Climate Pledge Arena, in front of a crowd that has been anticipating the arrival of hockey in Seattle for years.

For more up-to-date news on all things Kraken, click here to register for alerts on the FOX Sports app!

Can anyone challenge Vegas in the Pacific?

The Golden Knights have advanced at least as far as the conference finals in three of their four seasons of existence, and there’s no reason not to believe they’ll be strong contenders again.

A big reason for that is the rest of the division is in major flux, with several teams in the process of retooling their rosters.

The Edmonton Oilers, with star forwards Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, are expected to provide the stiffest competition. If the Kraken come together quickly, they could vie for the division title, too.

But Vegas’ biggest challenge could be in how its roster changes affect its makeup. Most notably, reigning Vezina winner and fan favorite Marc-Andre Fleury is gone, having been traded to the Chicago Blackhawks in what essentially was a salary dump. It’ll be up to Robin Lehner to maintain Vegas’ standard of excellence in goal.

For more up-to-date news on all things Golden Knights, click here to register for alerts on the FOX Sports app!

What will McDavid do for an encore?

Despite a shortened, 56-game season in 2020-21, the Oilers’ star had 33 goals and 105 points and won the Hart Trophy as league MVP for the second time in his career. With highlights such as this, it’s no wonder.

Expect McDavid to be among the league’s scoring leaders once again, but he’d probably prefer to see more playoff success. Edmonton has advanced past the first round just once since his arrival in 2015, including a disappointing first-round sweep at the hands of the Winnipeg Jets last season.

Can a Canadian team get over the hump?

Last season, the Montreal Canadiens became the first team based north of the border to reach the Stanley Cup Final in 10 years, but they fell in five games to the Lightning to extend Canada’s championship drought to 28 seasons.

If one of Canada’s seven teams is to challenge this time around, the likeliest candidates are McDavid’s Oilers and the Toronto Maple Leafs, who have suffered through a long run of playoff futility (no series wins since 2004).

The Leafs, despite having their own young star in Auston Matthews, blew a 3-1 series lead and were eliminated by the Canadiens in the 2021 playoffs.

Also, don’t sleep on Winnipeg, which has quietly become a consistently strong team. Backstopped by former Vezina winner Connor Hellebuyck, the Jets reached the second round last season.

Who’s tops in the stacked Metropolitan Division?

Of the NHL’s four divisions, the Metro might be the biggest toss-up.

The Washington Capitals (2018) and Pittsburgh Penguins (2016 and ‘17) are recent Cup champions, but both are expected to begin this season without their injured star captains, Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby.

The Philadelphia Flyers and Carolina Hurricanes also have playoff aspirations, but expect fierce competition from the division’s three New York-area teams. The Islanders are coming off back-to-back conference finals appearances, the New York Rangers are ready to take the next step after a rebuild, and the New Jersey Devils have infused their roster with plenty of young talent.

FOX Bet currently lists the Islanders as the favorites to win the division (+350).

Are the Blackhawks a threat again?

Bidding to get back to its Cup-winning heights of the early 2010s, Chicago aggressively reworked its roster in the offseason by acquiring Fleury and stalwart defenseman Seth Jones in separate trades.

The biggest “addition,” though, might be captain Jonathan Toews, who is back after sitting out last season because of illness.

He and high-scoring winger Patrick Kane are two of the few remaining faces from the championship days, and their experience will be key if the Blackhawks are to make noise in the playoffs once again.

For more up-to-date news on all things Blackhawks, click here to register for alerts on the FOX Sports app!

How will the Olympics factor into things?

The NHL is scheduled to go on a three-week break in February so that its players can participate in the Beijing Olympics. This will mark the league’s return to the Games after it kept players out of the 2018 Olympics.

Although the break is a major disruption to the season, most players are open about their love of competing for their country. More importantly, this will be the first opportunity for many of the NHL’s young stars to shine on a worldwide stage.

For example, Canada will get to showcase McDavid, Nathan MacKinnon, Mitch Marner and Cale Makar, and the United States team will boast Matthews, Jones, Hellebuyck and, if healthy, Jack Eichel.

Despite the Olympic break, there will still be an All-Star Game on Feb. 5 in Las Vegas — another chance for the NHL to put its stars in the spotlight.

For more up-to-date news on all things NHL, click here to register for alerts on the FOX Sports app!

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