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Five things the NHL pre-season might tell us about the 2019-20 season

They might be nothing more than exhibition contests, but there are a few things we can learn from pre-season action. Here are five takeaways from the tune-up action around the league.

There’s no love lost between the Vegas Golden Knights and the San Jose Sharks, and the growing dislike that became full-fledged hatred during last season’s playoff run-in saw Sunday night’s pre-season finale for the two clubs bubble over.

In an exhibition contest that was won soundly by the Golden Knights, Vegas and San Jose engaged in a spirited affair that saw a total of 114 penalty minutes handed out on the evening, a whopping 96 of which came in the final frame. Included in the dustup between the Golden Knights and Sharks was one fight, a combined six 10-minute misconducts, eight roughing penalties and one abuse of officials penalty handed out to Evander Kane. (That could be trouble for Kane, too, as there’s potential for that to become an automatic 10-game suspension. Whether or not that will be the case is to be seen.) Even Sharks goalie Aaron Dell got involved in the fracas, throwing a shoulder-to-shoulder hit that spun the Golden Knights’ Mark Stone into the boards midway through the third frame.

But what does the pre-season ending tilt between the two teams tell us about what we can expect come the regular season? Well, it should tell us that the NHL might want to consider making an emergency amendment to the rulebook to allow for additional officials, if only just for the home-and-home set between the teams to kick off the season. We’re being a bit tongue-in-cheek, of course, but there’s every reason to believe that we’ll be seeing much more of the same when the Sharks and Golden Knights will collide in Vegas to open the campaign on Oct. 2, and if it’s another chippy contest between the two clubs on Wednesday, chances are the Friday meeting in San Jose is going to see the two teams again pile up the penalty minutes.

That there’s still plenty of ill will between the Golden Knights and Sharks isn’t the only thing the pre-season taught us, though. So, at the risk of putting far too much stock in a handful of tune-up contests, here are five things the pre-season might tell us about what we’ll see throughout the 2019-20 season:

First thing’s first: let’s not equate fun with good, because they’re not exactly the same thing and sometimes playing a brand of hockey that’s enjoyable doesn’t result in points in the standings. That said, the Senators, who were woeful last season, seem primed to become a club that is going to play an up-tempo brand of hockey that’s worth tuning into on any given night. What leads us to that assumption is the process behind their pre-season tilts. Given their per 60 minute rates for and against in pre-season games measured by Natural Stat Trick, contests involving the Senators had among the highest Corsi counts, shot counts and goal counts. It’s high-event hockey.

It helps, no doubt, that Ottawa also has some bright young talent on the roster. The league was introduced to Brady Tkachuk last season, Thomas Chabot broke out following Erik Karlsson’s departure, Erik Brannstrom looks set to crack the roster and there’s excitement about Drake Batherson becoming a full-timer. The playoffs might be a long shot, but there shouldn’t be too many dull moments in Ottawa.

It wasn’t long ago that Colorado was in the conversation for the first-overall pick, but the past two seasons of Jared Bednar’s tenure behind the Avalanche bench has seen the franchise take great strides. First, it was a playoff berth during the 2017-18 season. Then it was a two-round run this past post-season. And now, some are predicting the Avalanche to be a team that takes one more big step and potentially contends for the Stanley Cup. And if the pre-season is any indication, it seems the Avalanche are set to play the type of hockey that puts them in position to pile up points.

Despite a 2-3-1 record in the pre-season, Colorado did a lot of things right during the exhibition schedule. To wit, they finished with the pre-season’s fifth-best Corsi percentage, fourth-best shots percentage, third-best scoring chance percentage and fourth-best expected goals for percentage at five-a-side. Obviously, take it with a grain of salt, but the Avalanche are right up there with the likes of the Carolina Hurricanes, Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens in those categories, three teams that boasted exceptional underlying numbers last season.

The jury is still out on the goaltending duo of Mikko Koskinen and Mike Smith, and there's not a lot to be said about the talent on the wings in Edmonton, but one thing worth keeping an eye on as far as the Oilers are concerned is coach what Dave Tippett’s arrival means for the team’s ability to control the run of play.

You know that above list of teams who excelled in the possession game? The list that included Carolina, Toronto, Montreal and Colorado? Well, the team that rounds out the top-five in a few categories is Edmonton, who finished with the pre-season’s top Corsi percentage, shots percentage, scoring chance percentage and third-best expected goal percentage at 5-on-5. Why is that notable? Well, last season, the Oilers’ underlying numbers were awful. Edmonton finished 24th in Corsi percentage, 26th in shots percentage, 24th in scoring chance percentage and 23rd in expected goal percentage at five-a-side in 2019-20.

If the Oilers can better control the flow of the game, maybe that's enough to mask the mediocrity in the lineup. Maybe.

If New Jersey GM Ray Shero did one thing this off-season, it was address the offensive firepower on his roster. At the draft, he was able to add elite youngster Jack Hughes. In free agency, he brought aboard Wayne Simmonds. Late in the summer, he managed to pluck talented import Nikita Gusev away from the Vegas Golden Knights. And even when Shero made his early off-season blockbuster to bolster his blueline, acquiring P.K. Subban from the Nashville Predators, the move not only gave the Devils a No. 1 defenseman, but gave them one whose offensive acumen is arguably his greatest strength.

The result, at least in the pre-season, was one of the higher goals per game rates of any club. The Devils scored 20 goals in the seven exhibition contests they played, 2.9 goals per game. On the surface, it might not represent a massive uptick from last season’s full-campaign rate of 2.67 goals per game, but the Devils finished with the fifth-most goals of any club in the pre-season. If the offense can produce similar results, it’d be a boon to a team that is looking to fight for a wild-card spot this season.

It was only eight games and it was only 24 power play opportunities, but there’s something to be said about the fact the Maple Leafs converted seven times with the man advantage during the pre-season. For those doing the math at home, that’s a 29.2 percent success rate on the power play, which is absolutely bonkers. And, truly, the Maple Leafs’ power play can be every bit as good once the season starts, thanks in large part to the depth of scoring talent. Auston Matthews scored twice, John Tavares had a power play tally, William Nylander potted one with the extra man and Andreas Johnsson even got in on the special teams action.

It’s not just who’s on the ice, though. It’s the amount of opportunities the Maple Leafs generate. Per Natural Stat Trick, across Toronto’s seven pre-season games, the Maple Leafs managed 126.5 shot attempts, 68.4 shots and 74.4 scoring chances per 60 minutes on the power play. Each of those numbers were pre-season bests, the latter of which – scoring chance generation – was more than 17 clear of the next-best team.

So, if the pre-season should tell opposing teams anything, it’s to put the Maple Leafs on the power play at your own peril.

(All advanced statistics via NaturalStatTrick)

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