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YEARBOOK: What to keep your eye on in 2019-20

With new rules, a heap of top prospects to ‘play’ for and a lockout looming, this season is full of intrigue – and that’s not even counting the games.

The last time there were three consecutive first-time Stanley Cup winners was 2004 to 2007 when the Tampa Bay Lightning, Carolina Hurricanes and Anaheim Ducks won titles with a full-season lockout in the midst of it. Before that, you have to go back 100 years to 1919-20 to find a three-year run of first-time winners that, coincidentally, was also interrupted. Instead of billionaires battling millionaires, it was a worldwide and deadly flu epidemic that stopped the 1919 Stanley Cup final from happening. The owners and players might want to remember that if they end up bickering with each other over collective-bargaining issues this season.

Aside from the fact it could be the last hockey we see for a while, there is a lot to look forward to in 2019-20. Will there be another first-time Stanley Cup champion? Yeah, we’re talking about you, Vegas. With that in mind, here are 10 things to watch for in the 2019-20 NHL season.

1. GETTING IT RIGHT…EVERY TIME…MAYBE...
After saying he was trying to keep his head from exploding when a hand pass led to an overtime goal in Game 3 of the Western Conference final, commissioner Gary Bettman vowed the league would make changes to video review in an effort to get it right as often as possible. To that end, a series of changes to coach’s challenges were introduced to expand video review. So the hand pass that led to San Jose’s goal in overtime won’t happen again. Neither will the incorrect call of a major penalty that led to Vegas losing Game 7 in the first round. The league did a good job of balancing what needed to be reviewed while maintaining the human element in officiating. There will be delays, but they won’t be onerous, and most fans will welcome the right call.

2. THE RACE FOR NO. 1
When it comes to the 2020 draft, QMJHL star Alexis Lafreniere enters the season as the consensus choice to go first overall. After all, he had 105 points last season with the Rimouski Oceanic and is a late birthday. And there are high-quality prospects for teams that don’t win the lottery as well. After Lafreniere, it projects to be a top five of Quinton Byfield of the OHL’s Sudbury Wolves, talented Swedish wingers Alexander Holtz and Lucas Raymond and Finnish center Anton Lundell. “It’s going to be hard to crack that top five,” said one NHL scout. “These guys are not fly-by-night players. They’ve all done well in their peer groups and internationally, and there aren’t a lot of deficiencies in their games.” With the depth of tantalizing talent at the top, will teams be more interested in going into tank mode?

3. IMPENDING LABOR ISSUES
Yeah, we know. But the fact of the matter is the owners have until Sept. 1 to opt out of the current CBA, while the NHL Players’ Association has until Sept. 15. The owners almost certainly will not opt out. The players might. If they do, it would trigger an expiration of the agreement after 2019-20 and start a year of posturing by both sides.

The biggest stumbling block is what to do about escrow – the portion of the players’ salaries that is held aside until the end of the season when the league’s financials are finalized. That’s an issue that seems to have reached a tipping point for the players.

4. COACHES ON THE HOT SEAT
After a season that saw 13 teams change coaches (seven during the season and six before it started), including the Stanley Cup-winning St. Louis Blues firing Mike Yeo in November, it seems as though coaches have never been on a shorter leash. And a couple of bigger-name bench bosses could find themselves facing some heat in 2019-20. Mike Babcock of the Toronto Maple Leafs is halfway through his eight-year, $50-million contract and still doesn’t have a playoff-series win to his credit. What if the Leafs get off to a disastrous start and GM Kyle Dubas, who it seems is never on the same page as his coach, feels the pressure? Winnipeg, a team of which so much is expected, lost in the first round of the playoffs, and Paul Maurice may be in trouble if the Jets start slowly.

5. ARE THE PANTHERS FINALLY READY TO CONTEND?
Speaking of slow starts, wouldn’t it be nice if the Florida Panthers didn’t have to dig themselves out of an inescapable hole and find themselves out of the playoffs by November with their typical early-season stumbles? There is little doubt the Panthers have the firepower to be a playoff contender. That was never the issue. In Joel Quenneville, they now have a proven coach with the authority to put his imprint on the roster and the way it plays. In Sergei Bobrovsky, they have a Vezina Trophy-caliber goaltender capable of leading them to the post-season. But guess what? Bobrovsky was terrible in the first half of the season in Columbus in 2018-19. A repeat of that won’t be acceptable.

6. ARE THE PENGUINS ON THE WAY DOWN?
We all know it’s going to happen someday. There is going to be a time when all those moves to win those Stanley Cups are going to come back and haunt the Pittsburgh Penguins and they won’t make the playoffs. Will that season be 2019-20? Consider that the Chicago Blackhawks were swept in the first round of the 2017 playoffs before missing the post-season each of the past two years. The Penguins? Well, you’ll recall they were swept in the first round of the playoffs last spring. Management is retooling the team on the fly to give Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang a chance for another Cup, but there are very serious concerns on the blueline.

7. THE(ROOKIE) BATTLE OF THE HUDSON
Neither of them is a lock to win the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year – Colorado Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar is the clear early frontrunner for that award – but it will be interesting to see what No. 1 overall pick Jack Hughes will do in New Jersey, while No. 2 overall pick Kaapo Kakko begins his career in Manhattan. Both were record-setters last season – Hughes is the most prolific player USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program has ever produced, and Kakko is the highest-scoring under-18 prospect of all-time in the Finnish League, and they’ll be going head-to-head in the biggest market in the world.

8. MILESTONE MEN
Should Patrick Marleau play all 82 games this season, he’ll move to third on the NHL’s all-time games-played list, just 28 behind Gordie Howe for the No. 1 spot. If Marleau does that, he’ll also have played 870 consecutive games. But the one to really watch in that race is Florida defenseman Keith Yandle. He has four years left on his deal and has played 797 consecutive games. Another 82-game season would give him 879 games, good for fourth on the all-time list, 85 behind all-time ironman Doug Jarvis.

9. GRAND CENTRAL DIVISION
When The Hockey News staff was hammering out its predictions for this season, things very nearly got to gunplay when it came to the Central Division. You have the defending Stanley Cup champion in St. Louis, one of the league’s up-and-coming powers in Colorado, a team that has clearly gone all-in with Dallas, a perennial 100-point team in Nashville and one of the league’s most balanced rosters in Winnipeg. All five made the playoffs last season, but the reality remains that a very good team from that division could find itself on the outside looking in. And, as is often the case, the best part of the playoffs will be the first two rounds, where we get to watch the Central squads beat up on each other for a month.

10. WHITHER THE LIGHTNING?
If it’s true that a team needs a metaphorical gut-punch in the playoffs before realizing its Stanley Cup dream, the engraver might want to start getting familiar with the names of Tampa Bay’s players this season. It could be argued there was no worse choke job in NHL history than the Lightning being swept in the first round last spring. But remember the 2011 Boston Bruins? The ones who won the Stanley Cup? Well, they blew a 3-0 series lead and a 3-0 lead in Game 7 before losing to the Philadelphia Flyers in the second round the year before. It will be interesting to see how the Lightning handle this season. Two years ago, they rested many of their stars down the stretch and it almost cost them first place in their division. Last season, they kept the pedal to the metal and flamed out. So which failed approach do they try again this year?

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