For some people, the arrival of autumn means earlier sunsets, more schoolwork, and an increasing desire to only wear sweaters. For others, it means the return of ice hockey: North America’s greatest sport.
Yes, most of the games are held late at night for us in Edinburgh, but in what other team sport is fighting a time-honoured part of the game? When else can you watch grown men chase each other… on a sheet of ice… while wearing knives for shoes? I rest my case for hockey’s superiority. If you need any more convincing – or an idea of what to look out for as you browse Youtube highlights – here are three key reasons to follow the upcoming National Hockey League season.
1 – Rookie Matchup
The 2022 NHL Entry Draft this summer was the first held in person for three years, and it certainly delivered on drama. The struggling Montreal Canadiens turned heads immediately by selecting Juraj Slafkovský with their first overall pick, making him the highest-drafted Slovak player in NHL history. The selection surprised many viewers, but none more so than Ontario native Shane Wright, who had been projected to go first overall since his junior days. Wright was forced to sit through two more picks before being selected by the Seattle Kraken, a dramatic slide that few would have predicted six months earlier.
Wright admitted in his post-draft press conference that he would “have a chip on [his] shoulder” after being drafted so much lower than expected. Both Slafkovský and Wright have made their teams’ opening rosters, and both want to show they were deserving of that coveted first pick. Whether the Canadiens made the right choice is yet to be seen.
2 – Trade Drama
Slafkovský and Wright are not the only players with something to prove to a new franchise. Former Calgary Flames forward Johnny Gaudreau stunned the hockey world by signing with the Columbus Blue Jackets in July. He opted not to resign with the Flames to live closer to his family – but rather than signing with his hometown Flyers or one of the many teams within a short drive of Philadelphia, he selected Ohio. It was a decision that Yahoo! Sports columnist Dan Wetzel called “one of the most stunning and unconventional free agent decisions ever, in any sport.” Gaudreau is now a hero in Columbus, but even his star power might not be enough to get the struggling Blue Jackets into the playoffs. For the Flames, his departure was only the start of a massive shakeup, as alternate captain Matthew Tkachuk announced several days later his desire to leave the team via free agency. Flames GM Brad Treliving responded with the biggest trade of the offseason.
Tkachuk, 24, was sent to the Florida Panthers along with a fourth-round pick. In return, the Flames received forward Jonathan Huberdeau, defenseman MacKenzie Weegar, and two prospects. The trade was not amicable on either side.
The Panthers and Flames now enter the season with revamped lineups and high expectations. Their matchups against each other, on November 19 and November 30, promise to be must-watch hockey.
3 – The Battle of the East
The 32 National Hockey League teams play in four divisions, with two divisions per conference. The top three teams within each division, as well as two wild card teams per conference, go on to compete in the Stanley Cup playoffs. This year’s wild-card race will be especially close, particularly in the packed Eastern Conference, where the difference between a wild-card ticket and missing the playoffs could come down to a handful of losses.
The real unpredictability comes from three teams finally exiting the rebuilding phase: the Ottawa Senators, Buffalo Sabres, and Detroit Red Wings. All of these franchises have been the butt of league-wide jokes for years. While they might not be lifting the Stanley Cup in eight months, they do have the potential to upset for the Eastern Conference wild-card spot. So if you ever find yourself torn between watching a west coast matchup or an east coast one, you’re probably better off going east.
It takes effort to follow the NHL from 5,000 km away, but the start of a new season is the best time to do it. You’ll be rewarded with a fast-paced sport played by some of the best athletes in the world. Oh, and the occasional hockey fight doesn’t hurt either.