One more sleep, unless of course you count the pre-game nap tomorrow as a sleep. That’s all that remains until the start of the 2018-19 NHL season. To get you primed, here are 10 of the most intriguing storylines that have emerged going into the campaign.
1.The post-millennials, or whatever it is they’re calling them these days. When Jesperi Kotkaniemi of the Montreal Canadiens and Rasmus Dahlin of the Buffalo Sabres step on the ice for their first NHL games Wednesday and Thursday night, respectively, they’ll become the first players born in the year 2000 to play in one of the Big Four professional sports leagues. Both Andrei Svechnikov (Carolina) and Barrett Hayton (Arizona) will start the season on their teams’ rosters, but it’s not clear whether they’ll play immediately The fact that Dahlin will accomplish the feat comes as no surprise, but Kotkaniemi is a player nobody but the draft nerds had even heard of this time a year ago. Dahlin is a beacon of hope for a Sabres team that hopes to be playing meaningful games and contending for a playoff spot down the stretch this season, but it should be remembered that the learning curve for a young defenseman can be a steep one. Kotkaniemi will start the season in Montreal and have ample chance to prove he belongs there.
2.Can Ty Rattie blossom as Connor McDavid’s right winger? The Edmonton Oilers did almost nothing to improve their team from a roster standpoint, so they’re going to have to improve from within. And there is reason to believe that should happen. Jesse Puljujarvi is showing glimpses of the promise he showed when he was drafted fourth overall in 2016 and a full season of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins alongside McDavid is tantalizing. But the Oilers need more than Puljujarvi to bolster their right side and Rattie, who lit it up in the pre-season alongside McDavid, could be a key to that. It’s not as though he’s not capable of producing offense. He was a huge producer in junior and he’s only 25. Then again, he’s never come close to doing it at the NHL level and he’s on his third organization. And if he can’t do it, you can just envision McDavid saying, “Pfft. I guess I’ll just do it myself, then.”
3.The Columbus conundrum. Here at The Hockey News, we picked the Blue Jackets to finish first in the Metropolitan Division. They have the potential to be a legitimate Stanley Cup contender, but they’re staring down the barrel of losing franchise cornerstones Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky for nothing in the off-season to free agency. Panarin is almost certainly gone and Bobrovsky is a good bet. So what do the Blue Jackets do? It’s not as though they’re in a rebuilding mode and have the option of moving both players for futures. So the Blue Jackets will likely bite the bullet and ride Panarin and Bobrovsky as far as they can this season, thank them for their work, and watch them leave.
4.Erik Karlsson changes everything. When the San Jose Sharks obtained Erik Karlsson from the Ottawa Senators in the off-season, they served notice that they have no intention of being left out of the Stanley Cup conversation. Think about it. They’ll be in a position where they can basically have one of Karlsson, Brent Burns or Marc-Edouard Vlasic on the ice for every second of every game. And how do teams defend against a defense corps that can move the puck the way these guys do? The Sharks will be both fun to watch and scary good if they put all the pieces together.
5.Speaking of the Senators, how much worse can it get? A lot worse. If things go as expected, the Senators might be guilty of the worst draft blunder since the California Golden Seals in 1971. That was the year that Montreal Canadiens GM Sam Pollock traded Ernie Hicke to the Golden Seals for their first pick in the draft. He then dealt Ralph Backstrom to the Los Angeles Kings to ensure the Seals finished last, thereby giftwrapping either Guy Lafleur or Marcel Dionne as the No. 1 pick. The Canadiens went with Lafleur and the Golden Seals foundered. If the Senators finish last and put themselves in the best position to win the lottery, the same thing could happen with phenom Jack Hughes, since their first-round pick was dealt to Colorado last season in the Matt Duchene deal. It will be interesting to see if the Senators keep Duchene and Mark Stone, risking losing them for nothing as UFAs, in an effort to try to stay out of last place and save face.
6.The Vegas Misfits are primed for success once again. The Vegas Golden Knights enter the season a better team than the one that shocked the NHL and advanced to the Stanley Cup final. Full stop. The additions of Paul Stastny and Max Pacioretty represent upgrades to what they had. Can the Knights handle the weight of expectation and far closer scrutiny and get over the Stanley Cup hump this season? It’s not unfathomable.
7.The retooled St. Louis Blues. During the off-season, the newly acquired Ryan O’Reilly said, “A Stanley Cup is possible.” And he’s right. With the acquisitions the Blues made over the summer, combined with some of the young talent already in the lineup, the Blues are firmly ensconced as second-tier Cup contenders. But guess what? The Washington Capitals were in that group themselves this time a year ago. With Brayden Schenn, O’Reilly, Tyler Bozak and 19-year-old Robert Thomas down the middle, the Blues have the depth at that position to hang with the big boys in the Western Conference. A full and healthy year from Jaden Schwartz and Robby Fabbri gives them Cup-level depth of offense.
8.Do the Penguins have one more Cup in them? Any team that boasts the likes of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang gives itself at least a fighting chance to accomplish something special. But time is running out for the Penguins. Even though they may not have a Chicago-like decline in their future, the window is most definitely closing. It will be interesting to see what GM Jim Rutherford does to surround his core with the supporting cast it needs to go for another Cup.
9.The Year of the Cat? The Panthers are still relegated to being the second-best team in the state of Florida, but after years of misery and mismanagement, things are looking up. The acquisition of Mike Hoffman gives the Panthers two solid lines that can score and take the pressure off one another when it comes to facing opposing checkers. Florida went 25-8-2 from late January to the end of the season. It will be interesting to see what happens if that version of the Panthers shows up to start the season.
10.St. Pettersson in Vancouver. The betting sites are giving Elias Pettersson of the Canucks the best odds of winning the Calder Trophy, one year after Brock Boeser finished second in rookie-of-the-year voting. The Sedin-less Canucks are hoping they have another Henrik Sedin on their hands in Pettersson, who did nothing during the pre-season to dampen the enthusiasm the Canucks and the hockey world have for him. The Canucks won’t be near Stanley Cup-contender status anytime soon, but Pettersson gives them more hope than they’ve had since 2011.