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What We’re Most Excited to Watch This NHL Season

The 2021 NHL season is upon us—one featuring lots of divisional realignment, a supercharged atmosphere, and Joe Thornton playing on a line full of kids. Here’s what we’re looking forward to seeing.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The NHL is finally, officially back. A lot is changing this season—from a shortened schedule to new divisions to classic stars changing teams—and there are plenty of logistics still to figure out. But to celebrate the league’s return, the Ringer staff got together and picked some things they’re most excited to see this season.


Joe Thornton’s New Adventure

Katie Baker: On Christmas Day, Toronto Maple Leafs star Auston Matthews posted a photo on Instagram of a bunch of kids—he and his Leafs teammates—and what looked to be their graybeard dad, sitting around a Christmas tree.

That old guy in the tuque with the dog wasn’t actually their dad, though, but rather Joe Thornton, the grizzled and dazzling 41-year-old former San Jose Sharks captain who signed a one-year deal with the Maple Leafs in October and has already become a hilarious addition to a high-octane team with Stanley Cup aspirations. Thornton was drafted by the Boston Bruins in 1997, the same year Matthews was born. And as the new NHL season gets underway, it’s possible that they’ll be playing side-by-side on the same top line: Thornton and Matthews have been practicing together lately, along with 23-year-old Mitch Marner, who described Thornton to reporters this way: “I don’t think he has social media or really knows anything about it.”

Social media, on the other hand, loves Joe Thornton in the same way anyone who has ever encountered him does. (This endless compendium of Jumbo Joe memories at The Athletic is a real salve for these troubled times: “He nicknamed me ‘Daddy,’” one player said of the man who was once himself nicknamed Big Bird. “I don’t have any kids. Guys I play with still call me that.”) Whether he’s daydreaming about what he’d do if he scored four goals in one game or coming *thisclose* to a Stanley Cup with the Sharks, Thornton is one of the game’s most singular personalities. And his presence on the Leafs, a team rich with talent but also one that vibrates with the stress of high expectations, could be one of the more fun subplots of this NHL season.

“I got no stress man, honestly,” Thornton told reporters. “I feel good, I feel comfortable. I tend to play with no stress, have a smile on my face and stay hungry. I think that’s when I perform the best. And at my age, I’ll just continue that.” You do you, old man Jumbo. I’ll be watching.

The Era of the Kids

Michael Baumann: The NHL is now full of players who are too young to remember the dead puck era of the late 1990s and early 2000s. These players never knew that hockey could be a world where size was preferred to speed, where creativity was stifled by tactical expediency, where it was easier to put a man on the moon than to score a goal in a playoff game. This season, we’ll see the continued maturation of guys like Miro Heiskanen, Elias Pettersson, and Cale Makar, and the debuts of no. 1 pick Alexis Lafreniere, German wunderkind Tim Stuetzle, and perhaps even World Junior hero Trevor Zegras. We’ll see whether Igor Shesterkin can fill Henrik Lundqvist’s skates.

And after two winters of watching college hockey every weekend, I’m personally excited to see players I came to love—Flyers winger Wade Allison—or hate—Blues defenseman Scott Perunovich—begin to filter into the NHL, perhaps as soon as this season. Either way, it’ll be nice to see some familiar faces.

Division Realignment

Logan Rhoades: This season, the NHL realigned teams into four new divisions: North (Canadian), West, Central, and East. It’s a massive shake-up that will make for a truly entertaining season.

Not only is it great that the Canadian teams are finally in a group by themselves, revving up the national pride competition with every game, but the East is a juggernaut with three of the past five Stanley Cup winners (and the 2019 runner-up). In fact, since 2000, there have been only six Stanley Cup finals that did not feature a team in the newly formed East division. If that’s not enough, five of the past seven Presidents’ Trophy winners have come from a team in this group. The East is a modern-day coliseum of gladiators.

And until we reach the third round of the playoffs, all games will be intradivisional, so new rivalries will start to emerge, and historic ones will have plenty of action (hello again, Blackhawks and Red Wings).

Who’s excited? I’m excited.

The Regular Season Looking a Lot Like the Playoffs

Matt James: Imagine having to play against Brad Marchand eight times in one season. Now take out a bunch of rest days and push all the games closer together. Tensions are going to be supercharged this season, as exhausted teams play each other over and over again. And much like a playoff series, teams won’t have enough time between matchups to forget on-ice transgressions.

While familiarity breeds contempt, it will also force coaches to implement more tactical changes. In a normal season, you might shrug off a loss to a team you’ll see only twice all season and just focus on playing “your game.” But in this new format, you either fix your matchup problems right away, or prepare to have them be exploited seven more times in a season with 56 games rather than 82. Game planning for specific opponents will be crucial, and teams with coaches who aren’t great at making adjustments will be exposed.

This is going to be a grueling season for players and coaches alike. They might as well break out the playoff beards right now because this very irregular regular season is going to be extremely challenging both physically and mentally—and that’s before you factor in the inevitable COVID-related lineup issues. There’s likely to be a lot more gray in those beards four months from now.

Gritty’s Return

Bridget Geerlings: This past year has been tough, and while many people have taken to baking bread to get through their days, I decided to join TikTok, an app I had lambasted for months, largely because of one giant googly-eyed hero. Yes, I’m talking about Gritty, the iconic mascot for the Philadelphia Flyers. Gritty’s TikTok videos got me through my worst days of 2020. Whether he was dancing a jig on St. Patrick’s Day, or straightening his eyebrows to the tune of the 20th Century Fox theme song, his videos made everything better.

Several weeks ago, Gritty officially announced that he will be returning to the Wells Fargo Center this season—this after the NHL initially banned mascots from arenas due to COVID concerns, and a subsequent Change.org petition that sought to overturn the ruling. As someone who grew up an Islanders fan, I witnessed a lot of losses at Nassau Coliseum, and the one thing that made it worth attending the games was seeing Nyisles the mascot (RIP, KING). Since 2020 felt like one giant loss of a game, I’m glad Gritty will be there for us all in 2021.

Throwback Jerseys

Jomi Adeniran: With puck drop on this NHL season just around the corner, I can’t wait to see my favorite thing about hockey back in action. That’s right: the jerseys (or if you reside north of the border, the sweaters). Without a doubt, hockey has the best collection of apparel in the sporting world, and late last year, the NHL announced that all 31 teams will get Reverse Retro alternate jerseys. A lot of them look absolutely fantastic, but only a few of them are truly exceptional. Here is my top 3 of the new additions:

3. Carolina Hurricanes

Based on the old Hartford Whalers jerseys, Carolina brings back one of the most iconic looks in NHL history. The gray, blue, and green still pops just like it did all those years ago.

2. Montreal Canadiens

Something about that dark blue just makes my heart flutter. I’m a big fan of Montreal’s standard jerseys, and the Reverse Retro remix is a great tweak to an already special formula.

1. Los Angeles Kings

The new Kings jersey goes back to their original design, which matches the color scheme of the defending NBA champion Lakers and boy, it is clean. A Forum blue and gold jersey in Los Angeles? Of course it works!