We're more than halfway through the third straight pandemic-affected NHL season — but it finally feels like we're tracking toward normalcy. We have (mostly) full arenas again, and a (mostly) typical 82-game schedule — save for those few weeks in December where a flurry of postponements threatened to wreak havoc on everything. While some off-ice issues linger, and the league works to get back afloat with revenue, fans have been treated to incredible hockey since October. The season's first half has been defined by a series of daring, high-skill goals from a new generation of brash young stars not afraid to show some personality and transform the sport. You'll remember 2021-22 as the season you were introduced to Trevor Zegras, trust me.

We also have the old guard standing tall. The veteran two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Lightning refuse to go dull, while Alex Ovechkin is playing like a man on a mission in his age-36 season, as he stares down Wayne Gretzky's all-time goal record. There's also a new group of elites — the Colorado Avalanche, Carolina Hurricanes and Florida Panthers — who all believe their time is now. The trade deadline is just over a month away and then the Stanley Cup playoffs — this writer would die on the hill shouting that it's the best postseason in all of sports — will be here before we know it. It's all shaping up to be an exciting second half, but surely you, the fan, have some lingering questions. Behold, some answers.


How does the league feel about where things are as the second half begins?

Cautiously optimistic. The NHL had to postpone more than 100 games (and reschedule 25 more) in a challenging stretch. The league trudged on, and at its most stressful moment, started its Christmas break early to give everyone a reset. All but one player in the NHL is fully vaccinated — Detroit's Tyler Bertuzzi remains the only holdout — while league sources have insisted a "large portion" of players and coaches have also been boosted. (The NHL and NHLPA don't intend to mandate a booster shot this season.) Because of that, and while projecting declining numbers as we exit cold and flu season, the NHL and NHLPA decided to stop regular testing for asymptomatic players after the All-Star break. In conjunction, the league also did away with its temporary taxi squads, meaning the NHL and NHLPA feel confident they won't need to reschedule many more games, if any at all.

So the NHL thinks COVID-19 stuff is mostly behind it and it can keep up with the schedule uninterrupted?

Pretty much. I checked in with the league office late last week, and everything still seems on track with our preseason timeline expectations: The regular season will end on April 29 and the Stanley Cup will be awarded the last week in June. Ah, normalcy. The big X factor here is Canada. Commissioner Gary Bettman made it clear at his annual state-of-the union news conference during All-Star Weekend that he was frustrated with restrictions made in several Canadian provinces limiting attendance — and therefore draining from the league's revenue. Bettman said several Canadian teams have explored the possibility of playing in the United States, and he threatened to move the NHL draft from Montreal if the landscape doesn't change in Quebec. That's a storyline to keep tabs on.


Speaking of arenas and revenue, are the Coyotes really going to play in a college rink next season?

We all know that the Arizona Coyotes are Bettman's Sun Belt baby — he put the franchise there in 1996 and has helped the Coyotes navigate through bankruptcy and ownership changes, determined to make it work. The Coyotes' biggest road block thus far has been the location of Gila River Arena in Glendale; it's simply too far out from where most of the fan base lives. The team's relationship with the arena and the city of Glendale became fractured (and at its worst, involved unpaid taxes) and the Coyotes were told they needed to find a new home next season. Owner Alex Meruelo has a grand plan to build a new arena and multifaceted entertainment venue in Tempe, an ideal location. Only problem? That proposal is complicated, involving gambling and liquor licenses, and sits at the city council right now, waiting for approvals. So the team needed a temporary solution. Enter the Arizona State Sun Devils. The Coyotes reached a deal to play their next three seasons in the Sun Devils' 5,000-seat arena; the Coyotes will be paying nearly $20 million to get the facility up to NHL code. Bettman said he's OK with the solution because he views it as temporary and thinks the venue will create a unique fan environment. While that's all true, some league owners and the players' association have expressed reservations. Since the NHL and its players operate on a revenue-sharing system, one of the clubs maxing out at only 5,000 tickets for the next three years is less than ideal.


What's the burning on-ice question on everyone's mind right now?

How are the Vegas Golden Knights going to get cap compliant when Jack Eichel is healthy? They'll need to figure it out quickly, because all signs point to Eichel debuting as soon as this week. It's not just Eichel's $10 million salary the Golden Knights need to squeeze in; Alec Martinez and his $5.25 million salary have been shelved, and the defenseman appears ready to return soon. GM Kelly McCrimmon said the team had a plan for how to attack this logjam when it traded for Eichel, and there's plenty of speculation about the players who could be traded (such as original Golden Misfits William Karlsson and Reilly Smith). However, Vegas is waiting as long as possible to make a move — and for good reason, because the issue could solve itself. Captain Mark Stone has been battling a back injury all season long, and if he's put on long-term injured reserve (with his $9.5 million salary) that could solve a lot of problems. Of course, that will trigger a chorus of groans that this is cap circumvention, a la Nikita Kucherov and the 2021 Stanley Cup-winning Tampa Bay Lightning. But those people should be shouting at the NHL CBA, not McCrimmon. Because as long as Stone is legitimately injured, it's all compliant.


We've seen seven coaching changes already this season, what gives?

You heard that number right — nearly one fourth of NHL teams have switched bench bosses this season. Five coaches were fired (Jeremy Colliton, Travis Green, Alain Vigneault, Dominique Ducharme and Dave Tippett, in chronological order) while Joel Quenneville resigned because of his role in the Chicago Blackhawks sex abuse case and Paul Maurice stepped away for personal reasons. In-season coaching changes are ubiquitous in the modern NHL. This could be somewhat of a course correction; last season there were only three in-season coaching changes, as a lot of teams held on to coaches they might have been borderline on. One of those reasons is financial. Most NHL teams were reeling last season from lost revenue, and paying a coach not to coach isn't exactly for the budget-conscious. This season, as we track toward more normal revenues, teams are perhaps feeling a little more capricious. Players in Philadelphia told me they viewed Vigneault as "untouchable" considering he was making $5 million in salary through the 2023-24 season, but ownership was willing to eat that when results became so poor. The Canadiens are technically paying three coaches this season, as the $5 million deal of Claude Julien is still on the books, as are contracts for Ducharme (who had just signed a three-year extension, yikes) and Martin St. Louis, the Hall of Famer who was coaxed out of his job coaching his son's pee wee hockey team to right the ship of the Original Six franchise.


Are any other coaches on the hot seat?

The carnage should be over for now — which, of course, is famous last words. I've heard rumblings that the Stars thought about making a change, but it seems they'll stick with Rick Bowness for the time being. Derek King has done a good job restoring confidence and positive vibes around the Chicago locker room, but I haven't talked to anyone who views him as the long-term solution. Once the Blackhawks hire a GM — and I've heard the search could wrap up soon — expect that person to bring in a different coach next season. The Flyers are giving Mike Yeo the job for the rest of the season, but given the mess in Philadelphia, it's hard to imagine them not going full reset entering next season and hiring someone else. (Rick Tocchet and ESPN's own John Tortorella are the names I've heard most connected there; remember, the old brain trust of Paul Holmgren and Bobby Clarke is heavily involved in big picture decisions.)


Who are the breakout stars of the season so far?

It's hard to argue against Trevor Zegras. He pulled off so many viral highlights during the season's first half, the league was compelled to invite him to All-Star Weekend just to be part of the skills competition (where he did not disappoint, pulling off arguably the highest-difficulty move of the night). Zegras is wildly creative, highly skilled and completely fearless — ushering in a new generation of NHLers who aren't afraid to show off their personality, authentically.

Nazem Kadri's career year is hard to ignore. Motivated by yet another postseason suspension, as the Avalanche were eliminated from the second round for the third consecutive season, Kadri is playing out of his mind right now, and will get compensated accordingly when he hits the open market as an unrestricted free agent this summer. And it's not just the offensive numbers. Kadri's overall game is so sound, Avs coach Jared Bednar has him playing an increased role on the penalty kill and has bumped Kadri's ice time by nearly three minutes this season.

Meanwhile in St. Louis, Jordan Kyrou is finally putting it all together after a stop-go start to his career, which was hampered by knee injuries. If you weren't paying attention to Kyrou's speed during the season, you definitely noticed it when he dethroned Connor McDavid at the NHL's fastest skater event.

In New York, Igor Shesterkin is proving why the Rangers felt comfortable parting with the King, Henrik Lundqvist, two years ago. Shesterkin is the real deal, and cool as his predecessor under pressure. Meanwhile, Florida's Jonathan Huberdeau has officially overtaken teammate Aleksander Barkov for the title of "Most Underrated Star" in the league (though Carolina's Sebastian Aho and Winnipeg's Kyle Connor would like a word).