Thursday September 17th, 2015

At long last, we have hockey.

After a seemingly interminable summer dominated by expansion talk and a host of depressing legal issues, following the sport is about to become fun (for the most part) again as training camps kick off around the league. Here’s a look at eight storylines that bear watching as they unfold:

1. How will the Patrick Kane saga play out?

Ideally, the Blackhawks would open camp at Notre Dame on Friday facing questions about their championship defense and the impact of losing players like Brandon Saad, Patrick Sharp and Johnny Oduya over the summer due to salary cap constraints. Instead, they’ll operate under the cloud of the ongoing police investigation into sexual assault allegations against Kane.

NHL
Patrick Kane attorney denies settlement talks with accuser

At the moment, Kane, who has not been charged with any crime, is expected to attend camp, but that could change. The team has announced a press conference for Thursday afternoon to address his status. The Hawks could announce a suspension at that time or they could reveal their commitment to the player as he deals with the allegations. Either way, his fate ultimately lies in the hands of a western New York grand jury ... unless the rumored negotiations with the complainant result in an out-of-court settlement.

However it plays out, this is the one story that obliterates all the others around the league.

2. Which rookies will earn a job?

NHL
Sabres superprospect Jack Eichel looks like the real deal

Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel have already made living arrangements in Edmonton and Buffalo, respectively, so there’s no doubt where they’ll be skating on opening night. Who’ll join them in the race for the Calder Trophy? Defenseman Darnell Nurse and forwards Leon Draisaitl and Anton Slepyshev are in the mix to join McDavid on Edmonton’s roster. Sam Reinhart is penciled in to center one of the top three lines in Buffalo. Chicago’s Artemi Panarin could assume a top-six role with the defending champs. Likewise with Nikolaj Ehlers in Winnipeg. Sam Bennett will look to build on his sensational postseason debut with Calgary. Stephen Johns and Julius Honka both hope to steal a job from a veteran defenseman in Dallas. Boston is hoping Colin Miller does the same for the Bruins. Arizona is counting on Max Domi and Anthony Duclair to step up. Dylan Larkin could force Detroit to break with tradition and graduate him to the NHL at just 19. And Kevin Fiala will try to follow Filip Forsberg by making an immediate impact in Nashville. There are plenty of jobs to be won. It’s up to the kids to seize them.

3. Can the Lightning resolve the Steven Stamkos contract situation?

Heading into the off-season, Lightning GM Steve Yzerman said that signing Stamkos to a long-term extension was his “No. 1 priority.” So much for that. Three months have passed and there’s no deal. Worse, there’s little reason to believe that an agreement is within reach.

There is a possibility that Stamkos is a franchise player whose franchise might not be committed to him. The longer he remains unsigned, the greater the likelihood that he is dealt at some point this season or worse, allowed to leave as a free agent next summer. And if you don’t think that uncertainty is an issue, you must have missed the Twitterstorm that erupted on Wednesday when a Toronto broadcaster noticed that Stamkos wasn’t among the players featured on banners hanging at Amalie Arena. (Stamkos’s banner was added to a different wall later in the day.) This is a distraction that won’t go away.

4. Can the Kings resolve Anze Kopitar’s contract situation?

NHL
Slava Voynov to leave Kings, volutarily departs U.S. for Russia

The clock is ticking as Kopitar has placed an Oct. 8 deadline on working out an extension to his current contract. The two-time Cup winner is looking for a deal similar to the eight-year, $84 million deal that was given to Chicago’s Jonathan Toews. The Kings are countering with something closer to $72 million, arguing that an AAV any higher than $9 million would force them to dismantle the team in order to get under the cap. 

With their championship aspirations draped squarely over Kopitar's broad shoulders, the expectation is that the Kings will have to meet his demands, or come awfully close, before the season opener.

5. Which players will turn their PTOs into a new contract?

The market was flooded with free agents of middling talent, forcing several proven vets into the uncomfortable position of heading into camp on a trial basis. Players like Curtis Glencross and Brad Boyes (Toronto), Lee Stempniak (New Jersey), Tomas Fleischmann (Montreal), Jan Hejda and Lubomir Visnovsky (Chicago), Jonas Gustavsson (Boston), Ray Emery (Tampa Bay), Derek Roy (Washington) and Scottie Upshall and Scott Gomez (St. Louis) will have to demonstrate they have something to offer that their younger competition doesn’t, and if they’re lucky, they’ll earn a low-dough offer to stick around.

Of this group, Glencross, Boyes, Stempniak and Gustavsson are the likeliest to stick, but there are, as always, no guarantees.

6. How will the familiar faces in new places fare?

NHL
Fans find fault with management as Maple Leafs close door on Phil Kessel

All eyes will be on former Maple Leaf Phil Kessel as he transitions to the high-flying offense in Pittsburgh. Can he bear the weight of Stanley Cup expectations? And will he line up with Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin? In Washington, T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams will be persons of interest while we wait to see which one will skate alongside Alex Ovechkin. Can Martin Jones provide the Sharks with the top-caliber goaltending that eluded them last season? Can Johnny Oduya buttress a Dallas defense that ranked among the league’s most porous? Can Ryan O'Reilly and Evander Kane hep Eichel spark Buffalo’s anemic offense? Can Robin Lehner and Cody Franson shore up the Sabres’ miserable back end? Others to watch include Brandon Saad (Columbus), Milan Lucic (Los Angeles), Mike Green (Detroit) and Patrick Sharp (Dallas).

7. Who’s No. 1?

Every team needs two reliable goalies but there’s only room for one between the pipes on game night. The most intriguing battle will be in Ottawa, where Andrew Hammond hopes to translate his late-season heroics into the starting job for the Senators. In Detroit, playoff hero Petr Mrazek will look to permanently unseat Jimmy Howard as the Red Wings’ go-to guy. Jake Allen and Brian Elliott will battle for playing time in St. Louis. Eddie Lack hopes to unseat Cam Ward in Carolina, and Dallas is hoping that either Antti Niemi or incumbent Kari Lehtonen will prove reliable enough to grab the lion’s share of the work.

8. Which new coaches will have the greatest impact?

NHL
Red Wings' coach change may open door to top prospects like Dylan Larkin

Did Mike Babcock make the right decision leaving a cushy situation in Detroit to guide the Maple Leafs through the early stages of what’s expected to be a lengthy rebuilding process? Is Jeff Blashill up to the challenge of replacing the legendary Babcock with the Red Wings? Can Dave Hakstol successfully transition from coaching college kids to handling the pros in Philadelphia? Can Dan Bylsma (Buffalo) and Todd McLellan (Edmonton) guide their young charges toward respectability? And are John Hynes (New Jersey) and Pete DeBoer (San Jose) up to the challenge of leading a pair of floundering franchises off the rocks?

Hot links

• Stating that he has a “mission is to help guys who are dealing with anxiety, depression, and uncertainty about their future. Not down the line, not next week, but right now,” Daniel “Car Bomb” Carcillo announced his retirement from the NHL. Best of luck, Danny.

• Elliotte Friedman examines the impact of Slava Voynov’s self-deportation, Drew Doughtys workload and Boston’s dressing room issues in this week’s 30 Thoughts column.

NHL
P.K. Subban shines off the ice by donating $10M to a children's hospital

• Surprising everyone last season was the easy part for the Flames. So what will they do for an encore?

• Here’s some clarification on P.K. Subban’s generous commitment to a Montreal hospital. Not surprisingly, it’s a bit more complex than we originally thought.

• Hurricanes president Don Waddell is not opposed to advertising on jerseys. He also offers up some hot opinions on potential relocation, former ’Cane Alexander Semin and other topics of the day.

• This one makes for a tough read unless you’re fluent in German, so I’ll give you the Cliff’s Notes version: Dany Heatley has signed to play this season for the Nürnberg Ice Tigers of the DHL.

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