Well, it’s finally here. A brand new NHL season got underway this week and that means we’ve got things to talk about.
Every week, we’ll touch on some of the big trends, stories and highlights that fans are (or should be) discussing, so let’s dive into some takeaways from the first few days of the new season.
Brian Boyle and Jonathan Drouin provide comeback stories
Every NHL season brings about new faces in new places, but sometimes they also bring a resurgence of players that had fallen off the map a bit in recent years. It’s often heartwarming to see guys fight their way back into the spotlight, knowing that the road to get back there couldn’t have been easy.
We’ve already seen a few of those feel-good stories in the first couple days of the season. First, veteran forward Brian Boyle scored a goal for the Penguins in Pittsburgh’s season opener against the Lightning — his first NHL game in over a year.
Boyle wasn’t offered a contract last season and spent the year playing pick-up hockey before competing at the World Championships and earning a tryout with the Penguins in camp. He officially signed Tuesday morning, then scored a goal later in the day. It's a pretty incredible story for a well-respected guy, especially when you remember that Boyle was diagnosed with leukemia in 2017 and didn’t know if he’d play hockey again.
Then there’s Jonathan Drouin, who stepped away from the Canadiens last April due to mental health issues. He had been struggling with anxiety and insomnia and felt like he couldn’t continue playing hockey until he handled his off-ice issues, and it meant he had to miss Montreal’s Cinderella run to the Stanley Cup Final last season.
Fast forward to this week. Drouin suited up for the Habs in the team’s season opener on Wednesday and quickly got on the scoresheet with the team’s first goal of the season.
Big congrats to both of those guys for climbing back and earning their shine this week. Awesome to see.
New broadcast partners off to a strong start
Opening week is always exciting, but this season brings a little extra juice and intrigue because it marks the start of the NHL’s new TV contract with ESPN and Turner. As someone who grew tired and frustrated with NBC’s coverage, which got stale over the years, I was really excited to see what the new networks brought in the first few days of the partnership.
The early returns have been promising, though not perfect. I’m almost ashamed to admit how emotional and nostalgic I got when I heard the "NHL on ESPN" theme song kick back in for the first time, but the network did an incredible job of eliciting violent goosebumps with this outstanding feature on the theme ahead of opening night.
My big hope is that ESPN’s acquisition of rights will help increase exposure and attention to the NHL and that the opening night ratings are encouraging.
Then, on Wednesday, Turner had its turn debuting the partnership, and it was the studio show that really won me over. When the deal with Turner was announced, most people hoped that it meant we’d get a studio show similar to "Inside the NBA" — almost an impossibly good panelist show that features a lot of insight and, most importantly, fun — and it seems like that’s the goal for TNT.
The initial five-person panel of Wayne Gretzky, Paul Bisonnette, Anson Carter, Rick Tocchet and host Liam McHugh showed a lot of promise right out of the gate. It brought honest, natural and fun conversation from a variety of personalities. They weren’t afraid to have some fun and get a little weird — and by that, I mean they weren’t afraid to bring in Charles Barkley.
It wasn’t perfect and I have a few minor complaints — I think they have to cool it a bit on the self-congratulatory “WE’VE GOT GRETZKY!” stuff and some of the on-ice graphics — but I laughed and smiled more in an hour than I did watching NBC’s coverage for 10 years. Hockey needs to start embracing personality and fun more, and that goes for the way the game is covered as well. I’m optimistic about where this is headed.
Kraken endure some early troubles
Opening night brought a historic moment for the NHL as it featured the debut of the league’s newest franchise — the Seattle Kraken. It wasn’t the smoothest or most successful welcoming party for Seattle, as the team saw several players enter COVID-19 protocol ahead of Tuesday’s game. Fortunately, a number of those players were cleared ahead of puck drop, and the team was able to ice a full squad for the opener in Vegas.
But things didn’t go particularly smoothly once the Kraken hit the ice. They looked shaky in the early going — especially on the defensive end — and fell into an early 3-0 hole against the Golden Knights. Ultimately, Seattle erased that deficit and made it an entertaining game, but the Kraken couldn’t come away with the victory in a 4-3 loss.
If there’s a moral victory to be had, it’s that Seattle's uniforms are a fantastic addition to the league’s fashion closet. Also, congratulations are in order to my fellow Bostonian Ryan Donato, who potted the first goal in Kraken franchise history. That has to be something that’s wildly difficult to comprehend as a player.
It’s a bit of a bummer that Seattle’s first-ever game wasn't played at home, but I suppose that’s just another thing we can look forward to in the coming weeks. The Kraken play their first game at Climate Pledge Arena on Saturday, Oct. 23, against the Canucks.
NHL 22 takeaways
As mentioned last week, I’ve been playing NHL 22, the latest installment in EA Sports’ NHL video game franchise. I promised I’d provide some of my thoughts this week, so here it goes:
As someone who has been highly critical of the franchise and its tendency to lag behind its competitors in the sports video game market, I’ve enjoyed my experience thus far — though that should come with some context.
I’m mostly an offline gamer, meaning I spent most of my time with the Franchise and Be-A-Pro modes. I don’t really mess around with HUT and other online modes (though I do play a little EASHL), so I can’t really give any feedback for the online stuff. What I do know is that this year’s game looks and feels moderately better.
Defensive AI is much improved, and players actually have to get creative and smart to generate a variety of offense, which is a very welcome change of pace from the constant cross-crease scoring featured in previous installments. As annoyed as I am by the fact that the introduction of X-factors seems to be the only major new feature, it is a useful feature that creates necessary separation between star players and everyone else below them.
Gameplay still isn’t perfect, and the game modes/presentation still lack depth so it’s hard to find yourself completely immersed in the experience. But it’s a step in the right direction. If you have $60 to $70 to spare and aren’t expecting a completely different game, you might find the plunge worth taking.