It’s finally here.
The 2015-16 NHL season, which starts with four games on Wednesday night, sets up as the most anticipated in a decade, highlighted by new rules, major player movement and the arrival of two prospects of the kind that usually come along only once in a generation.
Connor McDavid, selected with the first pick in the 2015 draft by Edmonton, hits the ice on Thursday night in St. Louis as the most highly regarded prospect since Sidney Crosby. A fluid skater blessed with extraordinary vision and silky hands, he makes the game look effortless. His challenge won’t so much be adapting to the NHL—it’s entirely possible that he’ll rank among the league’s top-10 scorers this season—but guiding a woebegone Oilers team out of a nine-year playoff exile. “The Oilers didn’t win the lottery,” GM Sherry Bassin of the OHL’s Erie Otters, McDavid's junior team, told the Edmonton Journal. “They won the jackpot.”
Second pick Jack Eichel faces similar expectations in Buffalo. The 2015 Hobey Baker winner is a more physical albeit slightly less well-rounded package than McDavid, capable of dominating a game with his speed and uncanny playmaking. Eichel is being looked upon as both the savior of a franchise that hasn’t had a player with this much potential since Gilbert Perreault, and the future of American hockey itself.
While they’ll generate most of the buzz, McDavid and Eichel aren’t the only freshmen worth watching this season. Three other players drafted in 2015 will join them in jumping directly to the NHL. Smooth skating defender Noah Hanifin (fight) could see action in all situations for the rebuilding Hurricanes. Mikko Rantanen (10th) will open the season playing on Colorado’s third line. Winger Daniel Sprong, Pittsburgh’s second rounder, was a preseason surprise who landed a roster spot on the Penguins for opening night.
Forwards Max Domi and Anthony Duclair will play key roles for the rebuilding Arizona Coyotes. Sam Reinhart will emerge from Eichel’s shadow in Buffalo. KHL vets Artemi Panarin and Sergei Plotnikov will juice the offense in Chicago and Pittsburgh, respectively. Defenseman Colton Parayko stunned observers by beating out several older prospects to earn a spot on the Blues. The Winnipeg Jets graduated sniper Nikolaj Ehlers, playmaker Nic Petan and two-way forward Andrew Copp from their deep pool of young talent.
And in Detroit, Dylan Larkin is set to become the first teenager to open the season on the Red Wings roster since 1999. With Pavel Datsyuk on IR, the 19-year-old will step onto the first line alongside Henrik Zetterberg and Justin Abdelkader, an explicit endorsement of his potential to become the team’s most impactful rookie since Steve Yzerman.
As usual, there will be plenty of familiar faces in unfamiliar places after a busy summer of trades and free agency. Fully embracing a long-overdue rebuild, the Maple Leafs shipped five-time 30-goal scorer Phil Kessel to Pittsburgh, where’ll he'll ride shotgun for Sidney Crosby on what could become the league’s most explosive line. The Sabres put their own rebuild on the fast track, sending prospects to Colorado in exchange for top center Ryan O’Reilly. The Flames pulled off a stunner at the draft, stealing 22-year-old defenseman Dougie Hamilton from the cap-strapped Bruins. Boston also shipped first liner Milan Lucic to the Kings for a package that included Martin Jones, who was quickly flipped to San Jose where he’ll become the new starting goalie.
The Stars took advantage of the annual salary cap sell-off in Chicago, augmenting their struggling blueline with veteran Johnny Oduya and adding three-time Cup winner Patrick Sharp to an offense that already ranks as the best in the Western Conference. The Blue Jackets jumped in as well, acquiring 22-year-old power forward Brandon Saad in a seven-player deal that was the summer's largest.
The most shocking change of address though didn't involve a player. After 10 seasons in Detroit, and a brief dalliance with the Sabres, Mike Babcock signed the most lucrative contract in NHL history—eight years and $50 million—to coach the Maple Leafs. The Stanley Cup winner and two-time Olympic gold medalist will be under intense scrutiny as he guides the franchise through what should be a long and painful rebuild in the league’s most media-intensive market.
Former Penguins coach Dan Bylsma became Plan B in Buffalo. Todd McLellan, who agreed to a mutual parting of the ways with the Sharks in April, signed on to oversee the rebuild in Edmonton. Peter DeBoer, fired midway through the season by the Devils, replaces McLellan in San Jose.
There will be three rookies behind the bench as well. Jeff Blashill, a Calder Cup-winner with the AHL’s Grand Rapids Griffins, takes on the challenge of replacing Babcock in Detroit. New Flyers coach Dave Hakstol will become the first man to jump directly from the NCAA to the NHL since Bob Johnson in 1982. And at 40, New Jersey’s John Hynes will be the youngest head coach currently working in the NHL.
There’ll be changes to the way the game is played as well. In an effort to reduce the impact of the shootout on the standings, the league has re-imagined overtime. The new format sees each team ice three skaters for up to five minutes, and based on what we’ve seen in the preseason, it should deliver hockey played at a breakneck pace with multiple scoring chances at both ends of the ice. At least until coaches learn how slow it down.
The league also is introducing a coach’s challenge that will create an opportunity to ask for a video review of goals under two specific circumstances: if an offside play led to the goal; or if goaltender interference may have been involved. The challenge option only exists if a team still has its one timeout available. If the challenge is unsuccessful, they lose their timeout. If it is successful, the call on the ice is overturned and the challenging team retains the timeout.
There’s also been a slight change to the way face-offs are conducted. Under the new rule, the player in the offensive zone will put his stick down first. In theory, this creates an advantage to the attacker which should translate to more wins and more opportunities to create offense.
Of course, not every story will be a happy one. The league faces several concussion-based lawsuits, and the lingering sadness of a series of player suicides.
Patrick Kane, Chicago’s sublimely gifted sniper, remains the subject of an investigation into rape allegations filed by a Buffalo-area woman in August. Though no charges have been filed to this point, he could be called to face a grand jury at any moment and his presence on the club will certainly be a point of controversy as the Blackhawks hit the road.
Buffalo’s O'Reilly and former King Mike Richards face criminal charges for drunk driving and a cross-border drug offense, respectively. And just this week, a story surfaced suggesting that cocaine use is both prevalent and on the rise in the NHL.
Those stories are disheartening, but there'll be better ones ahead, especially on the ice.
Let’s drop the puck.
The numbers game
• The Canadiens and Maple Leafs will be the first teams to start the season when they meet tonight in Toronto at 7p.m. ET. It will be the seventh straight year they've faced off to start a campaign. The Leafs are 4-1-1 in those games. The 1953-61 Habs share the NHL record of nine straight opening night wins with the 1978-86 Blues.
• Ageless Panther Jaromir Jagr holds the NHL career mark of 37 points in season openers.
• Five active NHLers have posted hat tricks in season-opening games: Colorado's Paul Stastny (2007), Derek Stepan of the Rangers (2010), then-Capital Mikhail Grabovski (2013), then-Coyote Radim Vrbata (2013) and Corey Perry of the Ducks (2014).
• The NHL and NHLPA are discussing adding cocaine to the league’s list of banned substances. Seriously, what's to discuss? It’s an illegal drug. Get it done.
• Hopefully the tall foreheads involved in those discussions read Todd Fedoruk’s story. The former tough guys explains how easy it is to get illegal drugs and how often he caught breaks from the police when he was found to be under the influence.
• The Hockey Hall of Fame is hoping to acquire some key memorabilia from Connor McDavid’s NHL debut.
• Brendan Shanahan’s OCD is helping to shape the future of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
• Scoring is trending down in the NHL. Michael Traikos asked the game’s top snipers what should be done to fix it.
• A trend toward smaller, faster players could mean that pace will be up and hitting down this season in the NHL.