A busy offseason has a lot of teams feeling rejuvenated for the 2019–20 season. Between big-name trades, highly touted prospects and some unfinished business from last year, there’s plenty to look forward to throughout the league as the page is turned for a new year in hockey.
With the first regular-season puck drop just around the corner, we discuss which storylines we’ll have our eyes on, who we think will surprise us and who won’t live up to expectations .
What storyline you’ll be watching?
Alex Prewitt: While teams north of the border quest after Canada's first Stanley Cup in more than a quarter-century, I'm looking south. From Phil Kessel reuniting with Rick Tocchet in Arizona, to the emergence of young stars like Stars defenseman Miro Heiskanen and Panthers center Aleksander Barkov, to the regrouping job ahead of Tampa Bay after last spring's first-round sweep, there are no shortage of stories scattered around the Sun Belt. Picking one, though, how about the Carolina Hurricanes? Those Bunch of Jerks had a strong offseason on paper, adding Erik Haula, Jake Gardiner and Ryan Dzingel. But can they take another step in the thorny Metro Division? "We’ve always been known as the team that worked hard, was a tough team to play against, and we just never got over the hump," coach Rod Brind'Amour told me recently. "We’ve had a few years where we’ve done pretty successfully, good seasons, but fell back into the old pattern. That’s what we have to avoid."
Jeremy Fuchs: Tampa Bay cruised through the regular season, looking so far-and-away better than every other team. Then the playoffs started and all hell broke loose. It wasn’t just that they got swept. They looked hapless. The Bolts bring back largely the same team, though the addition of Pat Maroon was particularly savvy. But they’re in an odd spot. If they again march through the regular season, the questions will hit hard before the postseason. And if they struggle, then there will be questions of disarray in Tampa Bay. Obviously, there is more than enough talent to cruise to a Cup. They’re that good. But there has yet to be an explanation for last year.
Joan Niesen: I swear I’m not just saying this because I grew up in St. Louis—but I’m fascinated to see what the Blues can do coming off their first Stanley Cup. General manager Doug Armstrong certainly doesn’t seem content to sit back and enjoy being at the helm of the reigning champions; his trade for Justin Faulk last week proved that. That addition will elevate St. Louis’s defense, and I’m excited to see what Jordan Binnington does in his second season in goal. Was what he did in 2019 for real? And can the Blues string together a full season of good hockey after going from terrible to unbelievable a year ago?
Dan Falkenheim: How much do veteran goaltenders Pekka Rinne, Henrik Lundqvist and Jonathan Quick have left in the tank? Situated on cellar-dwelling teams, Lundqvist and Quick posted career-worst seasons. Rinne played well, but he stalled out in the Predators' first-round exit. Goaltending tandems are becoming the norm—no netminder has started 70-plus games in the last two seasons—and it wouldn't be surprising to see backups Juuse Saros (Predators), Alexandar Georgiev (Rangers) and Jack Campbell (Kings) seize the 1A role. That's a dramatic shift away from goaltenders who used to be perennial Vezina finalists.
Kristen Nelson: There’s plenty to look forward to this season, but I’m most interested in seeing how the rookie race pans out. We’ve gotten a taste of this class’ potential when Quinn Hughes and Cale Makar came off their college seasons and made their debuts in the spring. The second phase hit when Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko finally pulled on their rival jerseys at the draft. We’ll have big brother vs. little brother; new life in the Hudson River rivalry; a guy with a superfood name on a super-talented Avalanche squad. Plus, let’s not forget how impressive Nick Suzuki has been in the Canadiens’ preseason and how a decimated Blue Jackets roster gives way for Alexandre Texier to step up. Will it truly be Hughes vs. Kakko like so many anticipate, or will another Jordan Binnington–type talent sneak up out of the shadows to make a significant impact beyond just showing up the rest of the rookie class?
Who’s you’re surprise team?
Prewitt: Take note, Knicks. This is an efficient midtown Manhattan rebuild. The reinforcements arrived in many forms this offseason for the New York Rangers, whether in free agency (star winger Artemi Panarin, college defenseman Adam Fox), trade (defenseman Jacob Trouba) or draft (No. 2 pick Kakko). With only one regular forward or defenseman over the age of 30 (Marc Staal), the young Blueshirts might still endure some early growing pains under second-year coach David Quinn. But if Lundqvist can replicate his form from early last season, when he entered Dec. 2018 with a .921 save percentage, New York could make some noise at a meaningful time next spring.
Fuchs: Florida has been on everyone’s radar that I’m not sure the Panthers can qualify as a surprise. But how about the Philadelphia Flyers? They’re really good down the middle with the addition of Kevin Hayes. There’s still plenty of top offensive talent that could be unleashed even more with Alain Vigneault in charge. Ivan Provorov and Matt Niskanen are a quality top pair on defense. It all comes down to, of course, Carter Hart in net. He was really good as a 20-year-old rookie. If he can take a step up, the Flyers could be dangerous.
Niesen: I don’t think the Chicago Blackhawks are going to win the Stanley Cup, but I do think after a disastrous 2018–19, they’ll be back in the playoff picture if they can approximate the offensive production they had a year ago and improve defensively, which they should after some strong, if not flashy, offseason acquisitions. The team seemed to rally around new head coach Jeremy Cotillon when he took over midseason, and I think he can get Chicago back to the postseason in his first full year on the job.
Falkenheim: The Montreal Canadiens are a team that barely missed the playoffs with 96 points last year. Even though the Canadiens whiffed hard on Sebastian Aho and didn't make any significant additions, growth from under-25 players like Artturi Lehkonen, Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Victor Mete will strengthen Montreal's depth. They need Shea Weber to stay healthy, which should help lift last season's second-worst power play unit. Carey Price is still one of the best goaltenders in the world. Add in prospects Suzuki and Ryan Poehling, and the Canadiens are suddenly a fast, young, exciting team.
Kristen Nelson: The Arizona Coyotes are going to find themselves in the playoffs this year. They came so close last season as they fought for the final wild-card spot in the Western Conference, and that was with an injury-laden roster and before Kessel came to town. Now that Kessel has left his lonely home theater in Pittsburgh to reunite with Tocchet, Clayton Keller is leveling into form and Nick Schmaltz is healthy again, Arizona will vastly improve its 28th-ranked 2.55 goals per game average from last season and raise some hell.
Which team won’t live up to expectations?
Prewitt: The roster received some massive upgrades when restricted free agents Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor signed, but the Winnipeg Jets lost significant pieces on their blue line this summer: Trouba, Tyler Myers, Ben Chiarot and, depending on how his ongoing personal leave is resolved, Dustin Byfuglien. A six-game, first-round loss to the Blues did little to increase optimism, and though Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler still form one of the NHL's premier one-two punches up front, Winnipeg will have a tough task keeping pace amid a Central Division headlined by Nashville, Dallas, Colorado, and defending-champion St. Louis.
Fuchs: The Calgary Flames finished first in the West, then flamed out in the postseason. And their biggest issue—defense—is probably worse. Cam Talbot might be a downgrade in net. They can probably score enough to beat up on lesser teams, but I can easily envision another quick playoff exit. A midseason goalie trade might not be a bad idea. (How would Thomas Greiss or even Jaroslav Halak look?)
Niesen: The San Jose Sharks are going to take a step back this season after losing a ton of the depth that got it to the Western Conference finals last spring. Yes, the Sharks were able to extend Erik Karlsson, but they’re going to be looking for production from new sources after losing their captain, Joe Pavelski, as well as defenseman Justin Braun and forward Joonas Donskoi. But my biggest worry when it comes to San Jose is its goaltending, which was the worst in the NHL last year—and the team made no shakeups there this offseason.
Falkenheim: The Boston Bruins currently have the fourth-best odds to win the Stanley Cup, but they are getting old, fast. Zdeno Chara is 42. Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci are 34 and 33, respectively, and both have an injury history. The Bruins are talented enough to remain a lock for the playoffs, but it's going to be tough to replicate what they accomplished last season.
Nelson: There’s plenty to be excited about for the New Jersey Devils with Jack Hughes and P.K. Subban, and let’s not forget about Wayne Simmond and Nikita Gusev. But, I don’t buy that all the holes have been filled enough to get this team into the playoff picture come spring. The offense is certainly improved, but their goaltending is still worrisome and there will be some growing pains with the younger stars. Many Devil fans and executives alike want this to be a perfect season to ensure a Taylor Hall extension. The playoffs-or-bust mantra may spark some inspiration, it just doesn’t feel realistic in such a difficult Metro Division.