Top storylines that shaped NHL in 2021


There were innovative outdoor games, new media rights partners, including a reunion with an old friend. There were records that fell, a repeat Stanley Cup champion, a new team, stunning and important revelations and so much more.

Here are 21 moments that shaped the year in the NHL:

1. Jan. 13: NHL opens season with empty buildings

The 2020-21 season began much like the 2019-20 season ended, with games being played in empty buildings. It wasn’t a bubble situation as was the case for the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs; teams were in their home arenas but there were no fans in attendance at the start.

Still, the NHL regular season was back for the first time in 308 days with a five-game slate to open the season. The 2019-20 season was paused March 12, 2020 due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus.

Tarps with advertisements on them covered the lower bowls of the arenas. Ambient noise was pumped in for some effect, but it was quiet as the games played on and the season got under way, each team playing 56 games.

2. Feb. 21-22: Tahoe games

The NHL, limited because of COVID-19 restrictions and protocols, continued its 13-year annual tradition of playing outdoor games by building a rink on a golf course along the shores of Lake Tahoe for two of the most unique games in League history.

The NHL Outdoors at Lake Tahoe in Stateline, Nevada featured the Colorado Avalanche defeating the Vegas Golden Knights 3-2 in the Bridgestone NHL Outdoors Saturday and the Boston Bruins winning 7-3 against the Philadelphia Flyers in the Honda NHL Outdoors Sunday. Each game was played on the rink built on the 18th fairway of the Edgewood Tahoe Resort.

The game Saturday started in afternoon sunlight at noon local time with a terrific glare coming off Lake Tahoe. The game had to be postponed and completed in the evening. The game Sunday was delayed four and a half hours from its original start time to begin at 7:30 p.m. PT.

The Bruins and Flyers played the first period with sun glaring off the lake and hitting the southwest corner of the rink. They played the second period in dusk with a majestic picture of the Sierra Nevada behind them. The third period was played under the temporary lights, nightfall covering the lake and mountains in what turned into a magical night of hockey.

Video: Lake Tahoe game opening ceremony

3. March 10: NHL announces new partnership with Disney, ESPN

The NHL, ESPN and the Walt Disney Company reached a seven-year television, streaming and media rights deal to begin in the 2021-22 season, putting NHL games back on ESPN and its platforms for the first time since 2004 and bringing the “NHL on ESPN” theme song back.

The deal includes exclusive coverage of the Stanley Cup Final on ABC in 2022, 2024, 2026 and 2028.

Annually, there will be 25 exclusive national regular-season games on ABC or ESPN, 75 national regular-season games produced by ESPN to stream exclusively on ESPN+ and Hulu, half of the Stanley Cup Playoffs on ABC and ESPN, annual coverage of NHL opening night games, the NHL All-Star Game and Skills Challenge and other NHL special events.

In addition, the League’s out-of-market streaming package, with more than 1,000 games, is now available on ESPN+.

The NHL kept the other half of its U.S. media rights to sell to a second partner.

4. April 19: Marleau breaks all-time games played record

Patrick Marleau became the NHL leader in games played, passing Gordie Howe by playing his 1,768th game in the San Jose Sharks’ 3-2 shootout loss to the Vegas Golden Knights at T-Mobile Arena.

The Sharks players, including Marleau, were wearing a special logo of his No. 12 in the upper right of their jerseys. The then 41-year-old forward started the game and as soon as the puck dropped, he was officially the League’s all-time leader in games played.

Howe held the NHL record for regular-season games played since Nov. 26, 1961, when he passed former Detroit Red Wings teammate Ted Lindsay and became the first player to reach 1,000 games played. 

5. April 27: NHL welcomes Turner Sports to the family

The NHL found its other media rights partner in the United States, announcing a seven-year agreement with Turner Sports to have regular-season, playoff and Stanley Cup Final games televised on TNT and TBS through the 2027-28 season.

Turner Sports networks will televise the NHL Winter Classic in all seven seasons of the deal, starting with the 2022 Discover NHL Winter Classic between the St. Louis Blues and Minnesota Wild at Target Field in Minneapolis on Jan. 1 (7 p.m. ET; TNT, SN, CBC, TVAS).

It will televise all games in the Stanley Cup Final in 2023, 2025 and 2027, one conference final series each season, and half of the first two rounds of the playoffs, plus 72 regular-season games per season.

6. May 16: Kucherov’s return for Game 1

Nikita Kucherov joined the Tampa Bay Lightning’s lineup for the first time in 231 days since Game 6 of the 2020 Stanley Cup Final on Sept. 28, 2020. The forward scored two goals and had an assist in a 5-4 come-from-behind win against the Florida Panthers in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup First Round at FLA Live Arena.

Kucherov missed the entire 2020-21 regular season because of hip surgery he had Dec. 29. He spent the season on long-term injured reserve and his original timeline for return had him slated for the second round, coach Jon Cooper said.

He went on to lead the NHL in playoff scoring for the second straight postseason with 32 points (eight goals, 24 assists) and the Lightning repeated as Stanley Cup champions.

Kucherov scored a League-best 34 points (seven goals, 27 assists) in the 2020 playoffs.

Video: TBL@FLA, Gm1: Kucherov scores PPG in 2nd period

7. May 31: Canadiens complete comeback against Maple Leafs

The Montreal Canadiens won 3-1 against the Toronto Maple Leafs at Scotiabank Arena to complete the comeback from down 3-1 in the best-of-7 series to advance out of the Stanley Cup First Round as the No. 4 seed in the Scotia North Division.

It was the story that won’t go away for the Maple Leafs, who were the No. 1 seed. They have lost eight straight potential series-clinching games since defeating the Ottawa Senators in Game 7 of the 2004 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals. 

8. June 24: Montreal advances to Stanley Cup Final

Artturi Lehkonen‘s goal at 1:39 of overtime sent the Canadiens into the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1993.

The forward scored on a one-timer off a pass from forward Phillip Danault to give the Canadiens a 3-2 win in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Semifinals against the Vegas Golden Knights at Bell Centre in Montreal.

There were approximately 3,500 fans in the building to see Lehkonen’s goal, goalie Carey Price‘s 37 saves and the Canadiens’ celebration. There were thousands more outside the arena who celebrated their team’s return to the Cup Final through the streets of Montreal.

Video: Canadiens down Golden Knights, advance to Cup Final

9. June 25: Lightning reach Cup Final again

Andrei Vasilevskiy made 18 saves and forward Yanni Gourde scored a shorthanded goal, which was all the Lightning needed to get back to the Stanley Cup Final with a 1-0 win against the New York Islanders in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Semifinals at Amalie Arena.

It was Vasilevskiy’s second shutout in three games and his fourth straight in a series clinching game dating to Game 6 of the 2020 Stanley Cup Final, a 2-0 Cup-clinching win against the Dallas Stars.

10. June 29: McDavid wins Hart Trophy

Connor McDavid remarkable regular season was rightly rewarded with a sweep of the Hart Trophy.

McDavid, the Edmonton Oilers center, received all 100 first-place votes, becoming the second player in the 97-year history of the trophy to be unanimously named the NHL most valuable player to his team. Former Oilers center Wayne Gretzky also swept the voting in 1981-82.

McDavid led the League with 105 points (33 goals, 72 assists) in 56 games. He scored 21 more points than the next closest player, his teammate, Oilers forward Leon Draisaitl. His 1.88 points per game were the most by an NHL player since Mario Lemieux’s 2.30 in 1995-96.

He led the NHL in assists and power play points (37) and factored in on 57.38 percent of the Oilers’ 183 goals (excluding the shootout), the highest single-season percentage in League history.

Video: Connor McDavid wins Hart Memorial Trophy

11. July 7: Lightning complete repeat

Lightning struck again, this time at Amalie Arena as Tampa Bay won the Stanley Cup for the second straight season, again in shutout fashion, 1-0 against the Canadiens in Game 5 of the Cup Final in front of 18,110 fans.

Vasilevskiy made 22 saves to run his shutout streak in series-clinching games to five. He finished the playoffs 16-7 with a 1.90 goals-against average, .937 save percentage and five shutouts to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player to his team in the playoffs.

He became the first goalie in NHL history to have four series-clinching shutouts in a single postseason.

Ross Colton scored the lone goal. The forward became the seventh rookie in NHL history to score a Cup-clinching goal and the second to do so in the League’s modern era (since 1943-44), joining Mike Rupp, who did it with the New Jersey Devils in 2003.

Video: Lightning defeat Canadiens to repeat as Cup champions

12. July 21: Kraken unveil their roster

The Seattle Kraken, the League’s 32nd team, revealed its selections in the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft presented by Upper Deck in front of more than 4,000 fans at Gas Works Park on the north shore of Lake Union, directly across from downtown Seattle.

ESPN televised the expansion draft, its first NHL event under the new U.S. media rights deal. Chris Fowler, Dominic Moore and Kevin Weekes co-hosted the event and the Kraken had team executives and Seattle sports and entertainment celebrities announcing each pick.

Goalie Chris Driedger, forwards Jordan Eberle and Brandon Tanev, and defensemen Mark Giordano, Jamie Oleksiak and Haydn Fleury were in attendance to hear their names called and to get their first Kraken sweater.


13. July 23: University of Michigan dominates NHL Draft

The University of Michigan was the big winner of the 2021 NHL Draft with four players selected in the top five picks.

Owen Power (No. 1, Buffalo Sabres), Matthew Beniers (No. 2, Kraken) and Kent Johnson (No. 5, Columbus Blue Jackets) made history as the first time three teammates were selected in the top five of the NHL Draft. They all played at Michigan in 2020-21.

Luke Hughes (No. 4, New Jersey Devils) was a top recruit for Michigan and joined Power, Beniers and Johnson in the Wolverines program this season.

Power and Beniers were the first teammates in the modern NHL Draft to be selected first and second.

14. Aug. 20: Henrik Lundqvist announces retirement

“It’s time.”

That’s what former goalie Henrik Lundqvist posted on his Twitter account to lead off his statement announcing his retirement. Lundqvist didn’t want it to be time, but a heart condition forced him to end his playing career prematurely at the age of 39.

Lundqvist was 459-310-96 with a 2.43 GAA, .918 save percentage and 64 shutouts over 15 seasons with the New York Rangers. He was 61-67 with a 2.30 GAA, .921 save percentage and 10 shutouts in 130 playoff games. He played in the 2014 Stanley Cup Final.

He finished his career sixth in NHL history in wins, seventh in saves (23,509), eighth in games played (887), ninth in starts (871), ninth in time on ice (51,816:51) and 17th in shutouts.

Lundqvist signed a one-year, $1.5 million contract with the Washington Capitals on Oct. 9, 2020, but couldn’t play last season because of his heart issue.

He had a valve replacement surgery in January and tried to work his way back to play, but setbacks along the way prevented him from doing so.

15. Oct. 12: Kraken debut in Vegas, 11 days later at home

The Kraken hit the ice for the first time in a regular-season game, making their NHL debut in a 4-3 loss to the Vegas Golden Knights at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.

Ryan Donato scored the Kraken’s first goal, the forward cutting Vegas’ lead to 3-1 at 11:32 of the second period. Forwards Jared McCann and Morgan Geekie followed to tie the game at 3-3, but Vegas forward Chandler Stephenson‘s goal at 8:33 of the third period was the difference.

Seattle played its first home game on Oct. 23, opening Climate Pledge Arena with a 4-2 loss to the Vancouver Canucks. That day was the first time the Kraken players and coaches skated on the ice at Climate Pledge Arena or saw their home dressing room.

Video: Relive the Seattle Kraken home opener

16. Oct. 27: Kyle Beach reveals he’s John Doe in Blackhawks scandal

Former Chicago Blackhawks forward prospect Kyle Beach bravely went on TSN and revealed to reporter Rick Westhead that he was the victim of sexual abuse by former Blackhawks video coach Brad Aldrich in 2010.

Beach was previously known as “John Doe” in the independent investigation conducted by Jenner & Block, a Chicago-based law firm hired by the Blackhawks, that revealed the details of the sexual abuse scandal in its report. But Beach wanted to let the viewers know he was the victim and a survivor.

The scandal led to the dismissal of former Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman and assistant general manager Al MacIsaac along with Florida Panthers coach Joel Quenneville, who was the Blackhawks coach at the time.

At the League’s Board of Governors meeting on Dec. 9, Kim Davis, the NHL senior executive vice president of social impact, growth initiatives and legislative affairs, gave a presentation titled “Respect Hockey — Committing Ourselves to the Game’s Greatest Values” that focused on the pillars of prevention, reporting, counseling and accountability.

Davis announced the NHL was partnering with the Respect Group, an anti-harassment organization co-founded by former NHL player Sheldon Kennedy, and Jopwell, an industry leader in recruiting from diverse communities.

The partnership with the Respect Group, which was founded in 2004, will focus on assisting the League in establishing an online training program focused on anti-bullying, abuse, harassment and discrimination that will be mandatory for all NHL personnel, including players and coaches.

Davis also said the NHL will organize a “Respect Hockey Summit” within the next year to bring together the leaders of various hockey leagues and associations to talk about culture in the workplace, challenges and best practices to foster greater inclusion and diversity.

17. Nov. 4: Eichel traded to Vegas, has surgery eight days later

The curiosity of when Jack Eichel would be traded and to which team ended when the Vegas Golden Knights acquired the center from the Buffalo Sabres.

Vegas sent forwards Peyton Krebs and Alex Tuch, a top 10 protected first-round pick in the 2022 NHL Draft and a second-round pick in the 2023 NHL Draft to the Sabres for Eichel and a third-round pick in the 2023 draft.

One of the issues between Eichel and the Sabres was the disagreement between the sides about how to treat the herniated disk in his neck. Eichel wanted artificial disk replacement surgery, which had never been performed on an NHL player, but the Sabres weren’t comfortable with that.

Eichel had the disk replacement surgery Nov. 12. He said he expects it to be a three-month recovery to start playing again.

18. Nov. 5: McDavid dangles through Rangers to score

Connor McDavid got the puck at the offensive blue line and wheeled around in the neutral zone waiting for his teammates to tag up. Once they did, McDavid looked up and saw the New York Rangers in a change and their four players remaining on the ice pressuring up to the blue line.

The Edmonton Oilers forward went for it and scored what was arguably the goal of the year in the NHL.

With Oilers down by one and time winding down in the third period, McDavid knifed through Kevin Rooney and Dryden Hunt, blew past Jacob Trouba, turned Patrik Nemeth inside out and beat goalie Alexandar Georgiev with a forehand-backhand move to tie the game 5-5 with 2:59 remaining.

Leon Draisaitl won it in overtime, giving the Oilers a 6-5 win. They were down 4-1 in the second period.

Video: McDavid scores unbelievable goal against Rangers

19. Nov. 20: Islanders open UBS Arena

The New York Islanders opened their long-awaited new home UBS Arena with a 5-2 loss to the Calgary Flames in front of a sellout crowd of 17,255. The arena is situated directly next to Belmont Park in Elmont, New York.

The Islanders called Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, New York their home from 1972-2015 before moving to Barclays Center in Brooklyn. They returned to the Coliseum full time last season, but it was temporary as they waited for UBS Arena to open.

The Islanders played their first 13 games of the season on the road to give workers more time to put the finishing touches on the new arena. They went 5-6-2, losing the last four games.

20. Dec. 7: Zegras’ alley-oop pass connects

First there was “The Michigan” goal, the lacrosse-style goal first scored by former University of Michigan forward Mike Legg and made famous in the NHL by the likes of Carolina Hurricanes forward Andrei Svechnikov and Nashville Predators forward Filip Forsberg.

Now Anaheim Ducks rookie forward Trevor Zegras has invented “The Michigan” pass.

Zegras flipped the puck from behind the net, up and over the crossbar to the front, where forward Sonny Milano batted the puck out of the air and into the net. It was basically the NHL version of an alley-oop slam dunk in Anaheim’s 2-0 win at the Buffalo Sabres.

Video: ANA@BUF: Zegras lobs unreal pass for Milano

21. Dec. 9: Fleury wins No. 500

Marc-Andre Fleury became the third goalie in NHL history to join the 500-win club when he made 30 saves in the Chicago Blackhawks 2-0 win against the Montreal Canadiens. It was Fleury’s 69th shutout.

Fleury joined Martin Brodeur (691 wins) and Patrick Roy (551) as the only goalies to reach the 500-win milestone. Fleury needed fewer games than each to reach 500 wins, doing it in 901 games, topping Brodeur’s 908 and Roy’s 933.

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