NHL Season will be intriguing one

In two weeks from today, hockey returns. If you had faith we’d get to this point, kudos to you.

Somehow, the NFL is nearing completion of its season, and the NBA is miraculously starting a 72-game slate. And while it’s not a full season, the NHL will have a campaign the likes of which we haven’t seen before.

The long, drawn-out process between the NHL and NHL Players Association eventually sealed the deal on a 56-game season beginning Jan. 13. Fans will not be in the majority of arenas. The atmosphere of games will not be what we’re used to until it’s deemed safe to return.

We can only hope the Seattle Kraken’s inception will set the stage for the return to normalcy we crave next season. But for now, we have hockey. For what it’s worth, that’s good enough.

The skinny

With the NHL realigning its four divisions for the year — North (all-Canada), West, Central and East — it’s going to be unique to say the least.

For example: This will likely be the most difficult season to bet.

Intra-division play runs the roost in 2021. Teams play their division opponents eight times (nine or 10 in the North) to reach that 56-game plateau. There’s plenty of familiarity, especially with teams playing as many as four-game series in stints. We may not know which teams break through until, maybe, late February to March. We’re still going to make weekly picks, but it’s going to be a challenge.

Overs will cash aplenty, especially with no exhibition games for what will be an exhaustive four months. If you’re looking for teams that may benefit early on, those with reliable goalie tandems — Vegas, Colorado, Boston, Dallas, Vancouver, Calgary, maybe Montreal — may cash early.

Getting caught up

A lot has happened since we last talked when the Tampa Bay Lightning raised the Stanley Cup in the Edmonton bubble.

Let’s start with the Vegas Golden Knights, who at 9-1, have the second-best odds in the Western Conference to win the Stanley Cup.

Never the ones to be complacent, the Golden Knights got aggressive after losing in the Western Conference Final. Vegas signed top free agent defenseman Alex Pietrangelo to a seven-year, $61.6 million contract.

Pietrangelo and fellow blueliner Shea Theodore are expected to star in a “full” season under coach Peter DeBoer, who loves to drive offense from his defensemen. But as the great philosopher Thanos showed us, sometimes it costs everything to get what you want.

Vegas traded center Paul Stastny and defenseman Nate Schmidt to Winnipeg and Vancouver, respectfully, to clear the cap space necessary to reach Pietrangelo’s $8.8 million cap hit. The Golden Knights are banking on Cody Glass to take the leap in Stastny’s absence, and hope Pietrangelo is enough to push Vegas back to the Stanley Cup Final.

Speaking of Pietrangelo, the St. Louis Blues recovered well after losing their former captain to Sin City. The Blues signed defenseman Torey Krug as the Pietrangelo replacement to a seven-year deal. Two seasons removed from their miraculous run to the Stanley Cup, the Blues are in an interesting position. Ryan O’Reilly now captains a St. Louis team that was eliminated by the Canucks in the first round. And yet, at 19-1, they’re still dangerous.

That escalated Sunday when the Blues signed Mike Hoffman to a professional tryout deal and according to reports, will turn into a one-year deal after St. Louis performs some cap gymnastics before the season starts.

The Blues join the Golden Knights in the newly-formed West Division — which will be a bloodbath — so it won’t take long before Pietrangelo gets re-acquainted with his former team.

If it weren’t enough to get St. Louis and Vegas, the Colorado Avalanche join this stacked division. Your betting favorites at 15-2, the third time might be the charm for the Avs.

Two years ago, a bad offsides call — which would not be called this season — cost them in Game 7 at San Jose in the second round. Last season, down its starting and backup goaltenders, Colorado had to rally from a 3-1 series deficit only to lose in overtime against Dallas in the second round.

As long as Nathan MacKinnon remains healthy and Colorado gets the quality netminding it did last season from Philipp Grubauer and Pavel Francouz, the Avs will contend. This team is too talented to fall short a third consecutive year.

And I didn’t forget about the Lightning. The defending champs are expected to return to the Cup Final at 7-2 and 8-1 to win it all, but an absurd offseason has brought some questions for Tampa.

The Lightning will be without former MVP Nikita Kucherov (hip surgery) for the entire regular season, but his loss might have been the best thing possible for Tampa’s capologists. Kucherov going on long-term injured reserve, paving the way for two-way stud Anthony Cirelli’s new contract, and the acquisition of Marian Gaborik and Anders Nilsson (also going on LTIR) will make the Lightning miraculously cap compliant.

Tampa Bay should still be good enough to get to the playoffs, and if they get a healthy Kucherov — as well as Steven Stamkos — they’ll be in prime position to defend the crown.

Good to be back

It’s just a relief to get back to hockey and get back to work. I’m greatly appreciative to everyone at Gaming Today for allowing me to come back another year and turn the page on what has been a really hellacious year for a lot of us.

My hope is that this column will bring some sort of normalcy back for all of us, with the full intention that we can get back to a routine. I hope you all follow along for the ride.