We made it. Our long, restless summer has ended. It's finally time to drop the puck on a season that could define a dynasty.
Between them, the two clubs have split four of the past five Cups. Odds are that one of them will capture a third this spring, establishing the sort of supremacy that wasn't supposed to exist in the modern age of parity. That it could is a tribute to two teams that have been perfectly built to succeed in today's game.
Chicago was forced to trade promising defenseman Nick Leddy to get under the salary cap, but the team also had several cheaper options to replace him in-house. Los Angeles signed playoff star Marian Gaborik long-term and kept Mike Richards, the league's best fourth-line center, while also covering for the loss of veteran Willie Mitchell with the promotion of young Brayden McNabb.
The difference between the Kings and the Blackhawks last season was an overtime goal by L.A. defenseman Alec Martinez in Game 7 of the conference finals. Could it possibly be any closer this time around?
As good as the two teams are, they won't have a free ride to the conference finals. The Stars are this season's media darlings after acquiring Jason Spezza and Ales Hemsky to revamp their forward depth. If goalkeeper Kari Lehtonen can stay healthy—he suffered a mild concussion during the preseason—they could challenge. So could the Blues, who added Paul Stastny and Jori Lehtera up front, and plugged Carl Gunnarsson into what may be the best corps of defensemen in the league.
The Avalanche, led by the marvelous Nathan MacKinnon, will have to prove that their record-smashing 2013–14 season was a sign of things to come and not a statistical fluke. And the Sharks need to prove that their summer of relative inactivity—highlighted by the metaphorical depantsing of leaders Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau—was the proper response to the team's historic playoff collapse in the first round of last year's playoffs.
That the Bruins remain the favorites to win the East despite losing leading goal scorer Jarome Iginla (free agency, Colorado) and top-four defenseman Johnny Boychuk (trade with the Islanders) illustrates the talent gap between the two conferences. Anchored by Vezina Trophy winner Tuukka Rask and perennial Norris contender Zdeno Chara, Boston will again be strong in its own end. Up front though? There's not a lot of sizzle.
That won't be a problem for the Lightning, the team that is most able to challenge the Bruins for Eastern Conference supremacy. Tampa Bay is loaded up front with Rocket Richard favorite Steven Stamkos, Calder favorite Jonathan Drouin, and young guns Ondrej Palat, Alex Killorn and Tyler Johnson. The question for the Bolts is this: Was last season a sign of things to come for goaltender Ben Bishop, or was it a cruel one-off?
The Rangers, Stanley Cup runners-up last spring, have a new captain—Ryan McDonagh—but with their depth devastated by losses to free agency, they'll be hard-pressed to repeat as champions of the East. Could the Canadiens, with P.K. Subban freshly signed to a long-term deal, and a new second line anchored by Alex Galchenyuk and newcomer Jiri Sekac supplant New York?
While the Capitals are no threat to challenge for a title, there's still plenty of intrigue in Washington, where new coach Barry Trotz will match wills with superstar Alex Ovechkin, as well as on Long Island where a bold, last-minute rebuild of the blue line has John Tavares and the Islanders thinking playoffs.
Then there are the Maple Leafs, a team whose every win and loss will be measured as a validation for, or an indictment of, the hockey analytics movement.
And looming over it all is the promise of the 2015 draft class, the most impactful in more than a decade, led by the sublimely skilled Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel.
It's all going to be wonderful. Let's play hockey.
What to watch tonight
Canadiens at Maple Leafs, 7:00 p.m ET, Rogers Sportsnet
Looking for something to do tonight in Hogtown? There's a free Tragically Hip show at 6:30 p.m. ET at Yonge-Dundas Square with a chance to win a new car. Oh, and then there's the NHL season opener featuring the Forever Rivals.
If you haven't seen Toronto play since last year's opener, you might want to pick up a program. The Maple Leafs return only 10 players from that roster. There's better depth up front, where Daniel Winnik, Mike Santorelli, David Booth and KHL returnee Leo Komarov bring the veteran savvy and grit, while rookies Josh Leivo and Brandon Kozun add speed and scoring touch. The back end has been completely remodeled. Hard-luck veteran Stephane Robidas joins Dion Phaneuf on the top pair, Roman Polak brings truculence to the second, and rookie Stuart Percy adds puck possession flair to the third.
Is it enough to get Toronto back into the playoffs after last year's memorable meltdown? If will be a start if the Leafs can avoid being outshot by as large a margin as they were last season.
Flyers at Bruins, 7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN
The strength of Boston last year—the team's enviable depth down the middle—will be put to the test tonight. The Bruins, the defending Presidents' Trophy winners, will be without both centers David Krejci and Gregory Campbell as they open the season at home.
Krejci, who led the team with 69 points last season, was placed on injured reserve on Tuesday with an undisclosed injury sustained in the second period of Saturday's final preseason game against the Red Wings. He'll be out at least a week. Campbell, the gritty fourth liner, missed the entire preseason with a core injury. No word on his return.
Krejci's absence decimates a first line that's already in flux after having lost Jarome Iginla during the off-season. Milan Lucic, who is still not 100% after wrist surgery this summer, is likely to skate on a makeshift line alongside Ryan Spooner and Matt Fraser. Craig Cunningham will fill in on the fourth line.
Sharks at Kings, 10 p.m. ET, NBCSN
At first, it seemed like a cruel quirk of scheduling, wiht San Jose forced to open its season against the team that humiliated it in the playoffs last spring. That alone was bad enough, but the Sharks are also going to have to watch as Los Angeles unfurls its second Stanley Cup championship banner. And NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has revealed that the matchup “was no accident.”
Left unsaid? This was a favor to the San Jose organization.
If the Sharks didn't specifically request this date, they should have. The team, largely unchanged despite promises from GM Doug Wilson, needs a spiritual kick in the pants. If watching the team that they came within moments of vanquishing take a victory lap with the Cup doesn't do it, then this season is over before it begins. Keep an eye on Joe Thornton. San Jose's erstwile captain has something to prove after having the C ripped off his sweater this summer. Or, at least, he should. His reaction in this game will be telling.
Canucks at Flames, 10 p.m. ET, Rogers Sportsnet
Goalie Ryan Miller makes his first start tonight for the Canucks, hoping to revive his career after it went sailing off the tracks, Temple of Doom-style, in St. Louis. His presence in net is one of many changes that Vancouver's roster has undergone since last spring, but he is the one who is most responsible for the team's chances of getting back to the postseason
Miller clearly feels the weight of expectations coming into the opener. “I definitely have nerves,” he told the Vancouver media. “That is where you have to use the tools that you have—mental stability and toughness. You have to kind of harness that energy and have it come out in a good way. Or you can let it paralyze you or slow you down. … I have a lot of nervous and anxious energy, but I think I have had that throughout my whole career. To me it kind of tells you that you are awake, you are alive, you are in the moment in a situation and that is how you should feel.”
A plus for Miller and the Canucks: They might be facing the best possible opponent if they're looking to get off to a good start. The Canucks were 5-0 against Calgary last season.