The 2017–18 season ended on a surprising note, and things only got weirder over the summer.
The Capitals could be suffering from a literal Stanley Cup hangover while John Tavares made the Atlantic Division a lot more competitive by joining the Maple Leafs. Erik Karlsson got himself out of Ottawa and into the Sharks’ lineup and the Stars and Rangers plucked head coaches from the NCAA ranks.
It all left us excited for the new season, but also with a whole lot of questions. Here’s one for every team:
Is their Stanley Cup window officially closed?
It’s looking likely. Goalie John Gibson was extended, which is great, but there was no effort to get significantly younger up front. Ryan Getzlaf is still reliable, but Ryan Kesler isn’t cleared for contact. Corey Perry’s five-month return timetable following knee surgery doesn’t help things this season—and we can probably expect more injuries along the way. If things aren’t looking good by the deadline, might be time to blow it up.
Are they ready to make the jump?
They could be, but they need some youngsters to step up. Dylan Strome, the No. 3 pick in 2015, needs to be a consistent presence. So does Lawson Crouse. And Alex Galchenyuk, still just 24, needs to become elite after returning from a lower-body injury. The defense, led by Oliver Ekman-Larsson, is underrated and plays in front of a netminder on the precipice of breaking out in Antti Raanta.
Can they keep up in the Atlantic Division?
The Bruins had a relatively quiet off season, watching as the Maple Leafs loaded up and the Lightning locked up core players. While he didn’t land John Tavares or Ilya Kovalchuk, GM Don Sweeney is betting big on his young talent developing into viable options to fill out his team. Jake DeBrusk and Ryan Donato looked great stepping into 2017–18 roster slots, but Boston will need its youngsters to become NHL players to beat out the Bolts and Leafs.
Is the rebuild over?
Every one of the Sabres’ first-round picks over the last five years will be in the opening night lineup, and all of them are top-10 selections. This is a roster oozing talent on the frontlines with Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart and Casey Mittelstadt getting some help from offseason acquisition Jeff Skinner. Rasmus Dahlin, the top pick in the 2018 draft, is a step in the right direction on the blue line, but neither the defense nor goaltending are where they need to be, especially in a hard-to-crack Atlantic Division.
Are the Flames playoff-bound once again?
The 2018–19 Flames will have a different look than their predecessor in a few spots. Bill Peters takes over behind the bench, and he’ll have deeper scoring with the additions of James Neal and Elias Lindholm. Swapping out Dougie Hamilton for Noah Hanifin on the blue line isn’t a significant downgrade in front of goalie Mike Smith, who remains solid at 37. The Sharks and Knights will duke it out for the top spot in the Pacific, but the door is open for Calgary to join the playoff party.
Can the offense match the revamped defense?
Dougie Hamilton and Calvin de Haan join one of the strongest sets of young defensemen in the league and will hopefully help goalies Scott Darling and Petr Mrazek find their form. But who will score goals for this team with the loss of Jeff Skinner? Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen take the reins, but will need rookies Andrei Svechnikov and Martin Necas to make an impact quickly.
How do they rebound after their worst season in a decade?
Getting Corey Crawford back between the pipes would be a big start, and he seems to be progressing in his return from injury. Patrick Kane will be the focal point of the offense while Alex DeBrincat and Nick Schmaltz look to build on promising rookie seasons, but an aging core and injuries to the defense—coupled with Crawford’s ongoing recovery—could put the Hawks behind the eight ball early in the season.
Can they follow up their 2017-18 breakout season?
Colorado had 48 points in 2016–17 and then busted out 95 points last year, which snuck them into the playoffs on the final day of the regular season. That type of night-and-day transition is hard to follow up, so it’s likely the Avalanche will level out a bit this time around. They have the star power in Nathan MacKinnon and a new-look Gabriel Landeskog who, like his team, practically doubled his point total from 2016–17 (33) to 2017–18 (62). But aside from them and third-year winger Mikko Rantanen there’s not a whole lot of depth to help them out and this could be the kicker as the Avs search for another playoff spot.
COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS
What do they do with Artemi Panarin?
The star Russian winger has made clear his intentions to not re-sign with the Jackets after this season, putting the team in a rough position: Do they go all in while goalie Sergei Bobrovsky awaits a new deal as well, or do they deal Panarin and start looking to the future? It’s an unenviable position for GM Jarmo Kekalainen, who has a short window to figure out what to do with the man who scored a franchise-record 80 points in 2017–18 and is in his prime at 26 years old.
Who provides the secondary scoring?
The Stars’ top line of Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn and Alexander Radulov is one of the NHL’s best and for good reason. But beyond that trio, there’s not a whole lot of offense going on. Jason Spezza could get things going again with a change of pace now that Jim Montgomery is in charge, though the return of Valeri Nichushkin from the KHL nor the signing of Blake Comeau give Dallas enough of an extra edge.
DETROIT RED WINGS
What comes next for the Red Wings?
It’s no secret that Detroit has been in rebuild mode for the past few seasons, and no longer having Henrik Zetterberg around accelerates things a bit. The Red Wings now belong to Dylan Larkin—he of the new five-year contract—and the franchise can effectively make way for the next generation to take the reins. Expectations shouldn’t be too high, so look forward to a season full of youthful mistakes, at least a couple of highlight-reel scores and another lottery pick.
Can Connor McDavid drag his team back to the playoffs?
A season ago, the Oilers were a (very) dark horse pick to win the Cup, but other than McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, no one got the message. There’s not a whole lot of reason to believe things will get better in 2018–19. Goalie Cam Talbot, defenseman Oscar Klefbom and winger Milan Lucic are all bounceback candidates, but expecting all of them to find their stride again at the same time is a bit of a stretch. So the weight, once again, falls to McDavid, who might need a little more help than new addition Tobias Rieder’s secondary scoring to get back to the postseason.
Can the Panthers make their way back to the playoffs?
The Panthers boast a set of top-six forwards that can skate with any other crew in the league. Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Vincent Trocheck, Evgenii Dadonov, Nick Bjugstad and now Mike Hoffman should rack up the points this season, but it might not be enough to mask a defense that’s still putting it all together in front of a weathered goalie tandem. They’ll be stuck duking it out for a wild card spot with plenty of competition, and it might not be pretty.
LOS ANGELES KINGS
Did the Kings do enough to keep up in the Pacific?
The Kings bring back a core that includes annual candidates for the MVP, Norris and Vezina trophies in Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty and Jonathan Quick. A full, healthy season of Jeff Carter will add to the goal column. While adding in Ilya Kovalchuk, 35, to one of the NHL’s oldest teams should reinvigorate a middling power play, it might not be enough to stay on par with the big moves made by Vegas and San Jose.
Can the Wild compete in a stacked Central Division?
The Wild are a team stuck in purgatory: They’re not good enough to realistically be considered Cup contenders, but they’re too good to be a high lottery team at season’s end. After signing twin 13-year deals, forward Zach Parise hasn’t played a full season since 2013 and top defenseman Ryan Suter is coming off a summer of rehab after an ankle fracture ended his 2017–18 campaign early. The duo is important to Minnesota’s postseason hopes, but even healthy, it'll have its work cut out to make it past the regular season.
What can we expect out of Carey Price this season?
The 2017–18 season was a trying one for Carey Price and the Canadiens, and that’s probably putting it lightly. The 31-year-old All-Star goalie, who begins an eight-year, $84 million deal this season, struggled through injuries to a career-worst 16–26–7 record with a 3.11 GAA and .900 save percentage. In the midst of an on-the-fly rebuild (though GM March Bergevin refuses to use the word), Montreal needs its netminder to be on top of his game to even sniff the playoffs, especially with question marks on offense and top blueliner Shea Weber out until at least December following knee surgery.
Is this the year they finally break through for a Cup?
The Presidents’ Trophy winners didn’t make any panic moves after losing a seven-game slugfest to Winnipeg in the second round, but that’s an easy bar to clear when you hardly make any moves at all. (The return of old friend Dan Hamhuis was the closest thing to a marquee acquisition in Nashville.) Standing pat was the right call, but there’s no way to know whether Pekka Rinne’s Jekyll-and-Hyde act in the 2018 playoffs was a one-off or a prelude to the end. The franchise cornerstone netminder can’t be merely league-average in the spring if the Preds plan to break through.
NEW JERSEY DEVILS
After breaking through ahead of schedule, can they stay on schedule?
Does Taylor Hall have to play at a Hart Trophy level for New Jersey’s young core to improve upon the No. 8 seed it earned last season? Nico Hischier is the real deal and will only get better from here, but the Devils need tangible improvement from lines two through four, too. At least they shouldn’t have to do much looking over their shoulder: The bottom of the Eastern Conference looks pretty well-defined, unless someone replicates the 27-point jump the Devils enjoyed from the 2016–17 season to ’17–18.
NEW YORK ISLANDERS
What does the post-John Tavares franchise look like?
If anything, it will be the same. Even with Tavares, the Islanders had such a porous and historically bad defense. It’s unclear if Robin Lehner can be an elite goaltender, and the defense is still leaky. So maybe they’ll score a little less—Mat Barzal can only do so much. But it won’t matter if they can’t stop anyone.
NEW YORK RANGERS
What are the expectations in Dave Quinn’s first season in the NHL?
Dave Quinn is taking over a young team and that could be the perfect scenario for the new NCAA-turned-NHL coach to thrive. Though the Rangers are in the midst of a rebuild, Quinn will have a reliable backbone in one of the league’s best-dressed goalies, Henrik Lundqvist. The Swede’s stats have declined over the last two seasons, but some help from defense and the spark of a new coach could get him back on track. The Rangers really could go either way in Quinn’s first year, but they have the opportunity to play spoiler in an always-entertaining Metro Division.
How does this team fix itself?
From goaltending to goal-scoring to replacing a veteran defenseman, the Senators… have a lot of work to do. Although focused on rebuilding and moving forward, the Sens will need dedicated guidance from Mark Stone and Matt Duchene and getting them under contract beyond this season would certainly be a good sign that the team has some leaders in this transitional time. But Ottawa also has one of the most fascinating rookies in Brady Tkachuk. If the team gives him a chance to shine, that could be the little spark it needs to find some light in the black hole it seems to be swirling in.
How does Wayne Simmonds fit in?
Philadelphia welcomed back James van Riemsdyk this summer after six seasons in Toronto that ended with a career-best 36 goals in 2017–18. While his return to Broad Street strengthens the Flyers’ offense, it does put Wayne Simmonds’s role into question. The rise of Travis Konecny and the addition of JVR will likely bump Simmonds out of the top six as well as the top power-play unit. The 30-year-old’s contract expires at the end of the season and if he doesn’t steady his statistical decline, Simmonds could find himself on a new team next year, if not beforehand.
What’s the deal with Phil Kessel?
Phil Kessel was just up to the same old [stuff] this summer, ya know? But not without a few rumors that he and coach Mike Sullivan weren’t getting along and he could be traded. The trade buzz was shot down and Sullivan clarified that their relationship hasn’t always been the best, but they have a mutual respect for each other. Kessel, who had a career-high 92 points last season, was underwhelming in the Pens’ second-round playoff exit due to a few nagging injuries. He says he’s healthy now and if that’s true, he could easily have another prolific season.
SAN JOSE SHARKS
Who takes the lead on the Sharks’ blue line?
This is fascinating. Initial plans look to have Brent Burns playing with Joakim Ryan while Erik Karlsson will be paired alongside Marc-Edouard Vlasic. That’s two top defensive pairings. When it comes to the power play, Burns and Karlsson make for a lethal duo running things on the blue line. The smooth-skating Swede will likely be the quarterback on the man-advantage with the Sharks’ resident Wookiee launching rockets at will.
ST. LOUIS BLUES
Will Mike Yeo take the fall if the Blues still can’t score?
St. Louis went wild on July 1, signing David Perron and Tyler Bozak and swinging a blockbuster trade for Sabres two-way star Ryan O’Reilly in an effort to turn around an offense that finished 24th in goals per game, 26th in shooting percentage and 30th on the power play. (Adding Patrick Maroon a few weeks later only helps the cause.) Mike Yeo’s teams have never finished higher than 12th in the league in scoring, and after a flurry of moves that were largely embraced in St. Louis, the focus will turn to man behind the bench if the Notes are outgunned in the West race again.
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
What does Steve Yzerman leaving the Bolts mean for their future?
Yzerman's abrupt departure days before training camp leaves Julien BriseBois in charge of the Bolts' future. BriseBois played a large part in helping build the team into a contender alongside Stevie Y and gets the chance to continue his work in the starring front-office role. A former tax lawyer and target for team in the market for a new GM, he's set up for long-term success and can show off some of his own front-office magic.
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
Does the addition of John Tavares make this team a legit Cup contender?
Adding possibly the biggest free agent of all-time to a young team just entering its prime gives the Maple Leafs oodles of possibilities. Still, the team didn’t address its defensive shortcomings during the summer months, returning the majority of blueliners that allowed the most shots on goal to opponents last season. Frederik Andersen has proven himself a more-than-capable goaltender, but he’ll need some help if he’s to backstop the Leafs past the first round of playoffs.
What does the first season of the post-Sedins era look like?
In a word: Rough. There’s some light at the end of the tunnel, and its extraordinarily bright—Brock Boeser gets a chance to build on his terrific, if shortened, rookie season, Bo Horvat seems like a lock for 20-plus goals and Elias Pettersson is the early favorite for the Calder. Around them, though, is a team that’s still working its way through a rebuild. Mid-term contracts to depth forward Antoine Roussel and Jay Beagle don’t seem to jive with the franchise’s direction, though they’ll make for a good veteran presence as the kids continue to take the lead.
VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS
How do they follow that up?
It’s safe to say that Vegas surprised virtually everyone last season and it worked hard this summer to prove it’s capable of contending again this year. Between trading for Max Pacioretty and signing free agent Paul Stastny, the offense’s depth is bolstered. As long as Marc-Andre Fleury keeps playing like the smiley bloke who had four shutouts in the postseason, the Golden Knights can make some serious noise again in a toughened-up Pacific Division.
What comes next after they finally won it all?
The Stanley Cup celebrations to end all Stanley Cup celebrations is in the books. So what do the Capitals do for an encore? They’re still in a jam-packed Metro Division and said goodbye to backup goalie/stretch run starter Philipp Grubauer and penalty killer Jay Beagle. Those aren’t insurmountable problems, but it doesn’t make Life After The Cup any easier in D.C. Don’t worry, there’s a plan after 2017–18’s “Not be suck” motto: “Not be suck, back-to-back.”
What happens with Jacob Trouba?
The relationship between the former first-round pick and the Jets has been frosty for some time, and despite being awarded a one-year, $5.5 million contract following arbitration over the summer, it’s hard to tell if things are any better, even after the best season in franchise history. The defenseman says he’s open to sticking around in Winnipeg, though the Jets have players like Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor coming up on paydays soon. The cap constraints aren’t helpful, but neither is the idea of dealing a 24-year-old defenseman in his prime for less than full value.