When the Colorado Avalanche hoisted the Stanley Cup for the first time since 2001, it signaled the end of an NHL season that was a return to normalcy but still notably impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
After a truncated 2020-21 season with intra-divisional play, the NHL's 32 teams -- including the debuting Seattle Kraken -- were back in their traditional four divisions and two conferences for an 82-game campaign.
But the omicron variant hit the league hard near the end of 2021 with dozens of game postponements, player absences due to positive tests and teams shutting down activities around the holiday break.
With 50 games postponed through Dec. 23, commissioner Gary Bettman announced that NHL players would not participate in the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing due to "the regular-season schedule having been materially disrupted as a result of increasing COVID cases and a rising number of postponed games." The Olympic break was instead used to make up some of those games.
COVID's impact on NHL rosters meant that 1,004 different skaters and a record 119 different goaltenders saw action during the regular season. NHL players and executives believe that lineup shuffling was one of many reasons the 2021-22 season saw a goal-scoring boom: 6.3 goals per game, the most in an NHL season since 1995-96, a leap forward after a steady increase in goal-scoring over the last several seasons.
Will that trend continue in the 2022-23 season? Can the Avalanche go back-to-back like the team they defeated for the Cup, the Tampa Bay Lightning, did in the previous two seasons?
If you haven't kept up with the NHL in the past few months, don't fret, we've got you covered. Here's a chance to catch up on everything that has happened -- the hirings, firings, signings and even a blockbuster trade. It's all in our guide to the 2022-23 season for lapsed fans. Read up before the puck drops!
The Johnny Hockey fallout
Calgary Flames forward Johnny Gaudreau was the biggest prize of NHL free agency, as the winger was coming off a 115-point season and a fourth-place finish in MVP voting. When the 29-year-old told the Flames he wasn't returning for another contract, many believed the South Jersey native was destined for the Philadelphia Flyers or New Jersey Devils. But the Flyers couldn't move enough money from the cap to sign him, and Gaudreau picked a surprise suitor over the Devils: The Columbus Blue Jackets, who signed Gaudreau to a seven-year deal with a $9.75 million average annual value.
This decision began a chain reaction of events back in Calgary. Forward Matthew Tkachuk, who had one year left on his contract, informed the Flames that he also wouldn't sign another contract with the team. GM Brad Treliving, determined to keep Calgary in Stanley Cup contention rather than rebuild, traded the 24-year-old Tkachuk to the Florida Panthers for star left wing Jonathan Huberdeau and defenseman Mackenzie Weegar in a rare NHL blockbuster sign-and-trade. Tkachuk inked an eight-year, $76 million extension. The Flames convinced Huberdeau to sign an eight-year contract extension ($10.5 million AAV) and are working on a new deal with Weegar.
Finally, to replace the scoring and edgy play that left with Tkachuk, the Flames signed Colorado center Nazem Kadri to a seven-year, $49 million free-agent deal. All because Johnny Hockey packed his bags for the U.S.
Goalie musical chairs
Follow the bouncing puck as there were once again a number of goaltending changes in the NHL:
- The Washington Capitals decided to start over in net, walking away from restricted free agent Ilya Samsonov and trading goalie Vitek Vanecek to the New Jersey Devils. The Capitals then signed free-agent Darcy Kuemper, last seen winning the Stanley Cup with the Avalanche.
- To replace Kuemper, Colorado traded for long-time New York Rangers backup Alexandar Georgiev in the hopes he could develop into a starter.
- Samsonov signed with the Toronto Maple Leafs, who also added Matt Murray from the Ottawa Senators for perhaps the most boom-or-bust goalie tandem in the NHL. The Leafs' former starter, Jack Campbell, signed a free-agent deal with the Edmonton Oilers, who finally closed the book on the Mike Smith era.
- The Senators traded for Minnesota Wild goalie Cam Talbot, who had expressed his frustration when the team re-signed Marc-Andre Fleury to a two-year contract.
- Free agent Ville Husso left the St. Louis Blues for the Detroit Red Wings, while former Red Wings goalie Thomas Greiss signed with the Blues.
- Finally, an important chair was vacated: Vegas Golden Knights goalie Robin Lehner will miss the 2022-23 season after hip surgery, leaving a return to the postseason in the hands of rookie Logan Thompson, former Sharks goalie Adin Hill and backup Laurent Brossoit, who is also currently injured.
Bands were kept together
The Pittsburgh Penguins' Game 7 loss to the New York Rangers marked the fourth straight season they failed to advance past the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Their future together was in doubt, as a handful of prominent players were headed to free agency: center Evgeni Malkin, defenseman Kris Letang and forward Bryan Rust.
But GM Ron Hextall somehow kept "the band" together. Rust, 30, signed a six-year deal in May. Letang, 35, was next with a six-year contract extension. That left Malkin, whose negotiations with the team were difficult to the point where he vowed to test free agency. Shortly thereafter, Malkin was signed to a four-year extension.
Meanwhile in Boston, center Patrice Bergeron decided to run it back for another season on a one-year deal. He'll be reunited with center David Krejci, who's back with the Bruins after playing last season in Czechia.
Veteran blueliners say goodbye
The NHL saw a few star defenseman call it a career. Zdeno Chara, the 6-foot-9 defenseman who won a Stanley Cup and a Norris Trophy with the Boston Bruins, retired after 24 NHL seasons. The 45-year-old played for the New York Islanders last season. P.K. Subban, 33, retired after 13 seasons with the Montreal Canadiens, Nashville Predators and New Jersey Devils. (Keep an eye out for "P.K.'s Places" on ESPN+ this season.)
Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Keith Yandle, who broke Doug Jarvis's NHL record by playing in his 965th consecutive game last season, retired after 16 seasons. Finally, Edmonton Oilers defenseman Duncan Keith called it quits before entering the final season of his 13-year contract. Keith won three Stanley Cups, two Norris trophies and the Conn Smythe for playoff MVP with the Chicago Blackhawks.
Teams making big moves
Some teams leveled up in the offseason with roster-reshaping moves for skaters, like:
- The Ottawa Senators made the biggest noise, signing former Flyers captain and local hero Claude Giroux to a three-year deal and trading for Blackhawks star winger Alex DeBrincat.
- The Carolina Hurricanes added some veteran savvy to their group, trading for shaggy Sharks defenseman Brent Burns, Vegas goal-scoring winger Max Pacioretty and then signing Jets forward Paul Stastny.
- The Los Angeles Kings acquired winger Kevin Fiala from the salary cap-strapped Minnesota Wild and signed the 26-year-old winger to a seven-year contract extension.
- The Detroit Red Wings signed free-agent Husso, free-agent Blues winger David Perron, Rangers center Andrew Copp, Blackhawks forward Dominik Kubalik and Panthers defenseman Ben Chiarot.
- The Rangers signed former Carolina center Vincent Trocheck to a seven-year deal while former center Ryan Strome signed in Anaheim. The Ducks also made a splash by getting former Dallas defenseman John Klingberg on a one-year deal worth $7 million.
- Forwards Mason Marchment (Dallas), Ondrej Palat (New Jersey), Nino Niederreiter (Nashville), Max Domi (Chicago) and Andre Burakovsky (Seattle) all moved via free agency.
- Among the free agents that decided to stay were their stuff is located: Evander Kane (Edmonton), Filip Forsberg (Nashville), Rickard Rakell (Pittsburgh), Reilly Smith (Vegas) and Colorado's Josh Manson and Valeri Nichushkin.
- Finally, in perhaps the single greatest marriage between player, venue and moment, Phil Kessel will attempt to set a new record for most consecutive NHL games played in the poker capital of the world, singing a one-year deal with the Vegas Golden Knights. He's at 982 straight games, needing eight games to pass Yandle.
MacKinnon, others break the bank
Avalanche star Nathan MacKinnon won his first Stanley Cup and then made history. MacKinnon signed the richest contract for the NHL salary cap era on Tuesday, agreeing to an eight-year contract extension worth $100.8 million. That's an average annual value of $12.6 million for the 27-year-old center, higher than that of Edmonton Oilers star Connor McDavid or anyone else in the NHL -- well, at least until Auston Matthews signs his next deal.
Other significant new contracts that start in 2023-24 include Canucks forward J.T. Miller (seven years, $56 million), Islanders star Mathew Barzal (eight years, $73.2 million), Blues winger Jordan Kyrou (eight years, $65 million), Buffalo center Tage Thompson (seven years, $50 million) and Senators center Tim Stützle (eight years, $66.8 million). Restricted free agent Jason Robertson, meanwhile, agreed to four-year, $31-million extension with the Dallas Stars that starts this season, while Patrik Laine opted for a four-year, $34.8 million extension with the Blue Jackets.
Canadiens shock the draft
The Canadiens won the NHL draft lottery and with it the chance to draft Canadian center Shane Wright at the July event inside Montreal's Bell Centre. Wright had been the top-rated prospect for the entire season ... but the Habs shocked the hockey world by opting for Slovakian winger Juraj Slafkovsky instead, an 18-year-old that had helped his nation win Olympic bronze in Beijing.
New Jersey, picking second, selected Slafkovsky's national teammate Simon Nemec, making them the highest drafted Slovakian-born players ever. Wright fell to the Seattle Kraken at No. 4.
Rookies to watch
Slafkovsky, Nemec and Wright could have an impact this season. But a number of rookies are also expected to elevate their respective teams. They include three former Michigan Wolverines: Defenseman Owen Power of Buffalo, the first overall pick in 2021; center Matty Beniers in Seattle, who was selected right behind Power; and their Wolverine teammate Kent Johnson, a center with the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Center Mason McTavish, who saved Canada's world junior gold chances with a stick save in overtime against Finland, will be a force for the Ducks. Forwards Cole Perfetti (Jets), Jack Quinn (Sabres), Marco Rossi (Wild), Alexander Holtz (Devils), William Eklund (Sharks) and defenseman Jake Sanderson (Senators) will also be in the Calder Trophy mix.
Don't forget Logan Thompson, taking over the net in Vegas, and Edmonton netminder Stuart Skinner are also rookies.
Coaching carousel spins again
There were 11 teams that made coaching moves in the offseason, some of them domino effects:
The Boston Bruins fired coach Bruce Cassidy and hired former Dallas Stars head coach Jim Montgomery. Cassidy was hired by the Vegas Golden Knights to replace Pete DeBoer, who took over the Dallas Stars after they moved on from Rick Bowness. The Winnipeg Jets hired Bowness as their new head coach, while Paul Maurice, who stepped down from the Jets during last season, took over the Florida Panthers from Jack Adams finalist and interim coach Andrew Brunette, who is now an associate coach with New Jersey.
Meanwhile, Luke Richardson (Chicago), Derek Lalonde (Detroit), Lane Lambert (New York Islanders, replacing Barry Trotz) and Martin St. Louis (Montreal) were all given their first official head coaching gigs. Former Rangers coach David Quinn signed on with the San Jose Sharks.
Finally, in the move everyone expected, John Tortorella left the ESPN studio to move back behind the bench, bringing his particular brand of whimsy to the Philadelphia Flyers.
The Ovechkin chase
Washington Capitals star Alex Ovechkin scored 50 goals for the ninth time in his career to tie an NHL record, but it's another record he continues to have in his sights: Wayne Gretzky's NHL career mark of 894 goals. Ovechkin sits third all-time with 780 goals, with a chance to pass the legendary Gordie Howe (801) this season.
Next moves for Kane, Toews
The Chicago Blackhawks are in a full-on rebuild, while franchise stars Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews are entering the final years of their contracts ahead of unrestricted free agency. Both have trade protection and neither one has indicated their intentions for the future. Expect a robust trade market for Kane, with the New York Rangers and a potential reunion with Artemi Panarin the focus of much preseason speculation.
Arizona to ASU
Sometimes when you're kicked out of your home, you have to downsize on the next one. Hence, the Arizona Coyotes will play at least the next three seasons -- with an option for a fourth -- on the campus of Arizona State University, after their 19-year run in Glendale ended when the city opted not to renew their arena lease. The perfectly named Mullett Arena will also house the school's Division I men's hockey team. The Coyotes paid for improvements to the arena, including NHL-level locker rooms and training areas.
The ASU move comes as the Coyotes wait for approval on a new arena project in Tempe, whose decision is expected this fall. Mullett Arena will hold less than 5,000 fans for Coyotes games, making it one of the most intimate venues in NHL history. While it's expected Arizona will take a massive revenue hit, the Coyotes expect to sell out every home game and say their season-ticket revenue has surpassed what they were generating in their former home in Glendale.
The Kraken get a mascot
Creating a mascot in a post-Gritty world is a tough assignment. The Seattle Kraken took on the challenge with their first plushy friend: Buoy, a 6-foot-tall, furry, blue troll with an anchor hoop earring dangling on his left side and a blue tentacle hanging from his right ear. His backstory is that he is the nephew of the Fremont Troll, the iconic Seattle sculpture that inspired his creation.
An NHL mascot that doesn't just troll opponents, but is an actual troll? Gritty would be proud.
Getting into advertising
Seeking to tap every revenue stream that it can, the NHL made two big changes in how it displays advertising during games.
The most divisive one for fans was the first advertisement logos placed on NHL player game jerseys in the league's history. They'll fit into a 3-inch-by-3.5-inch space on the sweaters, either on the front or the shoulders. There are some restrictions on what sponsors can advertise on the players, including geographic restrictions on sports wagering companies. While fans can buy official and replica jerseys without the ads on them, many teams were only selling official jerseys with the ads at team stores. The NHL expects the majority of its teams won't start the season with ads on jerseys, but expects that to change by the 2023-24 season.
Meanwhile, the NHL is revolutionizing the way it presents ads during broadcasts. The NHL is debuting digitally enhanced dasherboards (DED) for all games this season that will "erase and replace" the advertising found on arena rink boards with virtual ads on broadcasts. The DED system allows for the digital replacement of camera-visible arena dasherboards within local, national and international NHL game broadcasts. While overlaying other advertisements on the boards will be its primary function, the DED system eventually will allow broadcasts to use the boards for everything from in-game stats to special effects for goal celebrations.
"When you're in the arena, you won't see any change. When you're watching at home, you won't know the difference," said Keith Wachtel, the NHL's chief business officer and executive vice president of global partnerships.
Only one rule change
The NHL didn't tinker with its rules during the offseason, save for one interesting change. Referees will now be able to nullify a major penalty after video review.
Previously, a referee could only confirm the original major penalty call or downgrade it to a minor penalty upon video review. Now they can confirm the major, reduce to a minor or "rescind the original major penalty altogether."
"Tank hard for Bedard"
Finally, the next "generational talent" in hockey will be the prize of the 2023 NHL draft: 17-year-old Connor Bedard of the Regina Pats of the Western Hockey League. Some NHL teams already have rosters that seem, shall we say, less than competitive in anticipation of increasing their draft lottery odds.