NHL embarks on season that will be like ’56 playoff games’

The NHL has started seasons of fewer than 82 games in January and played into the summer to award the Stanley Cup.

Just not like this.

When the puck drops on the regular season in five rinks Jan. 13, it will be the start of a 56-game sprint to the playoffs with all divisional play until the semifinals. That will ramp up the rivalries, reduce travel during the pandemic and make this a once-in-a-lifetime chase for a title.

”We’re going to see a 56-game season, but it’ll be 56 playoff games,” veteran New York Islanders general manager Lou Lamoriello said. ”It’s exciting. I think the divisions the way they’re in front of us, it’ll be great for the fans and I think the players will enjoy it, also, so I think the rivalries will just raise to a level we haven’t seen in a long, long time.”

If hockey can navigate the perils of the virus like other sports. Already three teams have been affected, with Dallas unable to start the season on time.

Fans won’t be able to watch in person at the beginning except in a handful of U.S. Sun Belt markets. Tampa Bay on Saturday reversed course on beginning the season with a limited capacity of 3,800 in the arena that’s also hosting the NBA’s Toronto Raptors, citing the recent rise of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in the area.

Teams will play every division rival at least eight times, often consecutively like a baseball-style schedule.

That includes a never-before-seen all-Canadian North Division because of border restrictions. Four teams from each of the four divisions make the playoffs and play it out until there are four left in contention for the Cup by the start of summer.

”It’s going to be a wacky year playing teams back-to-backs and playing the same team kind of repetitively,” Washington defenseman John Carlson said. ”It’s going to be different than anything we’ve dealt with.”

Far different than completing the 2019-20 season in quarantined bubbles in Canada with Tampa Bay winning it all. Being out in the world means coaches in masks behind the bench, no venturing outside the hotel and arena on the road, and six months of pure hockey in the hopes of avoiding the kind of teamwide outbreaks that have already hit the Stars and have others on edge.

”You don’t want to bring the virus into the locker room, and if it is, you want to do your job of eliminating it as soon as possible,” St. Louis forward Brayden Schenn said. ”I think the team that at the end of the day is going to be the smartest off ice is going to have the best chance to win because I think that’s going to limit players going down with the virus.”

The schedule and protocols were designed with that in mind. If they work and most if not all games go on as scheduled, it could improve the quality of play.

”Not having to travel (as much), just kind of getting settled in one place and playing a team a couple times could kind of increase the rivalry aspect,” three-time Cup-winning Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby said. ”The product will probably be the best it can be.”

Much of that depends on goaltending, with each team likely relying on more than just its starter given the condensed schedule. Coaching will also be different.

”It changes the coaching side probably more than the playing side,” Colorado coach Jared Bednar said. ”You’re familiar with your opponent: you maybe have just played them a couple times, and you play them another two-game set, you can approach it like it’s a little bit of a playoff series.”

Just as the temperature tends to rise over the course of a playoff series, players expect to be just a little bit madder on the ice this year because contempt will build over mini-series and the season as a whole.

”It’s going to get heated,” said Corey Perry, who joined Montreal after reaching the final with Dallas. ”In the regular season, people tend to forget a little bit what happened the game before. But this, there’s going to be back-to-backs or a day in between and guys won’t forget. And those are the fun games to be a part of.”

It likely won’t be the same lineup every night, either, given virus cases with players tested daily, and the usual wear and tear of injuries. Because of quarantine measures, each team will have a taxi squad of four to six players and must have three goalies available at all times.

”If ever we were going to need depth at all positions, it’s going to be this year,” Philadelphia coach Alain Vigneault said. ”Because we’re going to be playing four games in six nights and a lot of back-to-backs, you’re going to need depth throughout the lineup. It’s going to be a challenge.”

Similar to the 48-game season in 2013 because of the lockout, a slow start could be the difference between even some Cup contenders making it and falling short.

That’s why Vegas GM Kelly McCrimmon likened this into jumping right into the second half of the season even though some teams haven’t played since March.

”There’s no excuse not to be ready to go here,” Edmonton captain Connor McDavid said. ”We’ve had lots of time to prepare both on and off the ice, both mentally and physically.”

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    Stars sign 41-goal scorer Jason Robertson to 4-year, $31M deal

    Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports
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    FRISCO, Texas — Jason Robertson signed a four-year, $31 million contract with the Dallas Stars after the young 40-goal scorer missed the first two weeks of training camp.

    The Stars announced the deal after their exhibition game in Denver, only a week before the regular season opener Oct. 13 at Nashville.

    Robertson turned 23 soon after the end of last season, when the left wing had 41 goals and 38 assists for 79 points in his 74 games. His 13 power-play goals led the team. Robertson joined Hockey Hall of Famer Mike Modano, Jamie Benn, and Tyler Seguin as the only 40-goal scorers since the franchise moved to Dallas in 1993.

    “Jason is an integral part of the present and future of our team and we’re thrilled to have him for the next four years,” general manager Jim Nill said.

    A second-round draft pick (39th overall) by the Stars in 2017, Robertson has 125 points (58 goals, 67 assists) in his 128 NHL games. The 6-foot-3 California native had one goal and three assists in his first postseason action last season, when Dallas lost its first-round playoff series in seven games against Calgary.

    “Since he was drafted by our organization, he has worked tirelessly to become a better player every day. His knack for scoring goals and seeing plays develop on the ice are just some of the tremendous assets that he brings to our team,” Nill said. “He is one of the best young players in the NHL, and we look forward to seeing him continue to progress.”

    Robertson had the second-highest point total for a Stars rookie in 2020-21, when he had 45 points (17 goals, 28 assists) in his 51 games.

    Before the start of this season’s camp, new coach Pete DeBoer said he looked forward to coaching Robertson.

    “Listen, I laid awake at night with the excitement of coaching Jason Robertson, 40-plus goals, but he’s not here,” DeBoer said then. “So, you know, until he gets here, I can’t spend any energy on that.”

    Robertson will finally be there now.

    Coaching carousel leaves 10 NHL teams with new face on bench

    Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
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    The coaching carousel spun a little faster than usual across the NHL, meaning nearly a third of the league will have someone new behind the bench this season. And not just bottom-feeders making changes.

    Ten teams go into the season next month with a new coach, from Presidents’ Trophy-winning Florida and perennial playoff-contending Boston to rebuilding Chicago and San Jose.

    John Tortorella will try to whip Philadelphia into shape, Bruce Cassidy is tasked with getting Vegas back to the playoffs and Derek Lalonde takes his two Stanley Cup rings as a Tampa Bay assistant to his new challenge with the Detroit Red Wings.

    TORTS REFORM

    Philadelphia players knew they were in for some changes when Tortorella was hired, so they asked Cam Atkinson, who spent six years playing for the no-nonsense coach in Columbus.

    “I keep telling them like he’s a guy that’s going to change the whole dynamic of this organization,” Atkinson said.

    Tortorella has not shied away from saying a culture change is needed after a last-place finish and a decade with one playoff series win. There is likely not much he and players can do this year about a Cup drought that dates to 1975, but they can start with maddeningly inconsistent stretches of games that have plagued the Flyers for years, no matter the roster.

    BIG MO

    The Panthers were the league’s best team in the regular season last year but struggled in the playoffs before losing in the second round to cross-state rival Tampa Bay in five games. That was enough for general manager Bill Zito to decide to move on from interim coach Andrew Brunette and hired seasoned veteran Paul Maurice.

    The expectation is to get back to the playoffs and compete for the Cup, and having Maurice at the helm was one of the factors that made power forward Matthew Tkachuk pick Florida as his trade-and-sign destination.

    “He’s got high hopes for our team,” Tkachuk said. “He sees us playing in a certain way that’s going to make us successful. And he’s done it. He’s been around the NHL a long time, been a very successful head coach and somebody that I’m really looking forward to working with.”

    PLAYOFF ROTATION

    Bruins GM Don Sweeney fired Cassidy after a seven-game loss to Carolina in the first round despite Boston’s sixth consecutive playoff appearance.

    Vegas had already fired Peter DeBoer, making him the scapegoat for an injury-riddled fall from the top of the Western Conference that ended with the team’s first playoff miss in five years of existence. The Golden Knights quickly turned to Cassidy, who like Maurice brings experience and gravitas to a franchise with championship aspirations.

    “I think we’re very fortunate as an organization to have him as our coach,” center Jack Eichel said. “Every single person I’ve spoke to about them, they said the same thing: that he’s got a really, really great knack for the game and to able to make adjustments and he understands things. Very, very competitive — wants to win, has won a lot of hockey games over the last few years.”

    The Bruins replaced Cassidy with Jim Montgomery, a hockey lifer getting a second chance after being fired by Dallas in December 2019 for inappropriate conduct. Montgomery sought and received help at a rehab facility and got a big endorsement from the staff with St. Louis, the team he was working for as an assistant.

    “He’s a winner,” Bruins goalie Jeremy Swayman said. “I think guys are going to thrive on that energy.”

    The Stars completed the circle by hiring DeBoer, who has coached two teams (New Jersey in 2012 and San Jose in 2016) to the final and is on his fifth stop around the league.

    “This is a tough league and it’s a tough one to coach in and you have to be able to handle situations,” GM Jim Nill said. “I know Pete can do it.”

    LAMBERT ISLAND

    Lane Lambert served as an assistant under Barry Trotz with Nashville, Washington – where they won the Cup together – and the Islanders. When Trotz was abruptly fired after New York missed the playoffs for the first time in his four seasons on the job, his right-hand man got the gig with his endorsement.

    Longtime executive Lou Lamoriello thought his team needed a new voice. But Lambert isn’t that new, and his familiarity with the Islanders keeps some continuity.

    “Barry was great for our team, and having Lane as an assistant, he had lots of say, as well,” forward Mathew Barzal said. “As a group, we all have a good relationship with him, so I think it’ll be an easy transition for our team.”

    MORE NEW VOICES

    The final coaching change of the offseason came in San Jose, with ownership and interim management firing Bob Boughner and his assistants before Mike Grier took over as GM. Grier hired David Quinn, who most recently coached the U.S. at the Beijing Olympics after spending three years with the Rangers.

    Rick Bowness, the Stars’ interim coach when Montgomery was fired who helped them reach the final in 2020 and was not brought back, joined Winnipeg. He immediately made an impact by stripping Blake Wheeler of the Jets captaincy.

    The other new coaches – Lalonde in Detroit and Luke Richardson in Chicago – are not expected to make such big waves.

    Richardson, who briefly was acting coach for Montreal during the 2021 final when Dominique Ducharme tested positive for the coronavirus, is overseeing the start of a long-term rebuild by the Blackhawks. Lalonde was Red Wings GM Steve Yzerman’s pick to help end the storied franchise’s playoff drought.

    “He believes in what he’s preaching, which I think is great walking into a new locker room,” captain Dylan Larkin said. “He’s made a great impression on the guys.”

    Islanders agree to terms with Mathew Barzal on 8-year extension

    Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
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    Mathew Barzal has agreed to terms with the New York Islanders on an eight-year extension, a move that keeps the franchise’s top forward under contract for the balance of his prime.

    The deal is worth $73.2 million with an annual salary cap hit of $9.15 million, according to a person with knowledge of the contract. The person spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the team did not announce terms.

    Barzal has led the team in scoring, or been tied for the lead, every season since he became a full-time NHL player in 2017-18. He has 349 points in 411 regular-season and playoff games for the defensively stingy Islanders, who qualified for the postseason three consecutive times before an injury- and virus-altered last year.

    “We feel recharged,” Barzal said recently. “We feel like everybody had good summers and worked hard, and we got that excitement back.”

    Barzal, now 25, is coming off putting up 59 points in 75 games. The offensive star will now be asked to round out his game.

    “I’m a fan because Mat has the ability to raise his game and to be a special player,” general manager Lou Lamoriello told reporters at the team’s practice facility on Long Island. “And now, with this contract and our faith in him, (it) puts that responsibility on him. We’re trusting that. It’s up to him to respond to that.”

    Senators goaltender Cam Talbot out 5-7 weeks with injury

    Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports
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    OTTAWA, Ontario — Ottawa Senators goaltender Cam Talbot is expected to be out five to seven weeks with what the team called an upper-body injury.

    The Senators initially called Talbot day to day with what they hoped was a minor injury. Instead he’s now expected to miss at least the first month of the NHL season.

    Ottawa claimed goalie Magnus Hellberg off waivers from the Seattle Kraken upon announcing Talbot’s expected absence. Hellberg, who played for Sweden at the Beijing Olympics could split time with countryman Anton Forsberg while Talbot is out.

    The Senators acquired Talbot from Minnesota during the offseason to make him their starter after the Wild opted against bringing him back along with Marc-Andre Fleury. Talbot, 35, had a 2.76 goals-against average and .911 save percentage this season.

    Losing Talbot is a blow to the Senators, who also acquired winger Alex DeBrincat from Chicago and signed longtime Philadelphia Flyers captain Claude Giroux as part of a move toward contending and ending their playoff drought.