Viewed in isolation, the games themselves can be wonderful escapes or forgettable duds.
But it is the NHL’s big-picture, slow-to-unfold narratives — those advanced by on-ice heroics and failures, twisted by post-game quotes, and wrinkled by closed-door negotiations — that draw us in for the long haul.
With the 2015-16 season mere days from opening, here are 10 story lines we’re most intrigued to see play out.
1. Curtain opens on The Connor McDavid Show.
The hottest ticket west of Blue Jays playoff passes. Good fortune has brought optimism -- and a revamped management and coaching staff -- to a once-proud hockey hub that had become defined by misery and drought and ineptitude. Everything's changed now.
But just how quickly can McDavid help get this thing off the ground? How many points does he score as a rookie? Which all-star NHL defenceman will he make look foolish first? How much will those second-market tickets cost when the Oilers roll through your town? Man, this is gonna be fun to watch.
2. Will Steven Stamkos re-sign with the Lightning?
This is already one of the most compelling player (non?)negotiations in recent memory. When was the last time a truly elite NHL player in his prime tested his value on the open market? To cite Brad Richards' $60-million deal with the New York Rangers in 2011 is still kind of grasping. Richards was 31 with one 60-assist season; Stamkos will be 26 with at least one 60-goal campaign to his name. So prudent and so comparatively boring on UFA Day, hockey has been denied its LeBron Decision.
If, as speculated, the pride of Markham, Ont., does come home and join Mike Babcock's Maple Leafs, it will signify a power shift and accelerate that rebuild. If Stamkos re-signs for what we assume will be in the Kane-Toews financial bracket, well, that will make it tricky to keep the Triplets line intact down the road. The StammerScanner is the new BabWatch.
Subplot: How much more ice time does Jonathan Drouin see as a sophomore?
3. The battle to crack the World Cup rosters
The anticipation of (and subsequent arguing over) the release of national hockey team rosters is almost as fun as the tournament itself. The relief, the joy, the hurt feelings. Just think of the Martin St. Louis saga in 2014. While we hesitate to place the 2016 World Cup of Hockey on the same platform as the Olympics, watching NHLers step up their club game in order to represent their country is compelling. Remember: Canada's Jamie Benn was irked that he didn't get invited to the Sochi tryout camp, then went out and killed it with Dallas in the fall, leaving management no choice but to put him on the eventual gold-medal squad.
Subplots: What will Team Young Guns' sweaters look like? Which anthem do they play if Team Europe wins it all?
The messy, entirely awful case of Patrick Kane has hovered like a black cloud over the league for two months. He is still under investigation by police in New York. He has still not been charged with a crime. He is still dressing for the defending champions. The highest-profile and most exciting American in the game is about to enter the first season of an eight-year commitment that will pay him more money than every player not named Jonathan Toews. We have no idea how this ugly situation concludes, but we appreciate the question. And make sure to arrive early for Patrick Kane Bobblehead Night on Jan. 24!
Subplot: How will Mike Richards' court case and grievance with the NHL be resolved?
5. How 3-on-3 overtime excites and evolves
Thirty-three of the first 44 pre-season games sent to overtime produced a deciding 3-on-3 play -- a 75 per cent success rate. The NHL is essentially trying to flip the 30/70 split between games decided by OT as opposed to shootout, as the AHL did last season. So far, so good. And with NHL-level skill and speed gobbling all that open ice, on average it only took 2:49 of fourth-period action to create a game-winner.
“It’s going to be one of those things you’re excited to watch," Sharks sniper Joe Pavelsi says. "When it happens, you’ll be like, alright, this is pretty cool. It’s going to draw in the fan, like the shootout does. Whether you like the shootout or not, there isn’t anyone that’s turning it off. When that 3-on-3 hits, you won’t see too many guys turning the channel.”
Subplot: Will the new coach's challenge solve controversial goals or bog down the momentum?
Think of the times Phil Kessel has played meaningful games as a pro. In 22 career NHL playoff games, he's scored 21 points. At Sochi in 2014, he hung eight points in six games for Team USA. This whole season Kessel is playing meaningful games -- the Penguins are in win-it-all-now mode -- and the world's best player is now his centreman. Kessel has never scored 40 in one year. Plenty think he'll get 50.
Subplot: Will the additions of T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams finally fill the right-side void alongside Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom?
7. NHL expansion enters Phase 47
We jest, but the expansion saga -- formally down to Quebec and Las Vegas -- has no end in sight, no deadline. And yet fans cling to every scrap of news (latest: Bettman figures a new team will cost its prospective owner a half-billion dollars) because a new addition or two could spell road trips to Vegas and those fantastic baby-blue Nordiques sweaters being relevant again and a highly entertaining expansion draft.
Subplot: Is Seattle really done here, or will the league find a second western club to even the conferences?
8. The Show-Me Generation
A few intriguing players enter 2015-16 on prove-it contracts. Edmonton defenceman Justin Schultz, Ottawa forward Mike Hoffman and Nashville second-chancer Cody Hodgson are all RFAs-to-be on one-year deals. They must all step up this season. But none will garner more attention (or spilled ink) than Toronto centre Nazem Kadri, the highest-paid RFA-in-waiting at $4.1 million. The 25-year-old was suspended by his own team last season for off-ice behaviour, yet Kadri has dedicated himself to his conditioning and swears he's ready to be a No. 1 centre.
Subplot: Which members of the highly touted 2015 draft class can make the immediate jump to the NHL?
9. Longtime coaches on short leashes
"Who will be the first NHL head coach fired this season?" is a fun if morbid parlor game. Two candidates immediately spring to mind. St. Louis's Ken Hitchcock and Boston's Claude Julien hardly got a convincing show of support by management after their clubs were ousted in quick fashion last spring, their futures dangling in limbo, publicly, for weeks. Both respected bench bosses are back at the helm, but heaven help them if their teams don't get off to a strong start.
Subplot: Can declining superpowers Boston and Vancouver, both attempting to execute the dangerous rebuild-on-the-fly technique, qualify for the post-season and prove their critics wrong?
10. Is 2016 the year the East finally takes back the Cup?
Western dominance has been the theme of the league's championship series for four years running, and Kings star Drew Doughty says he would like to see the "Kings, Blackhawks, Kings, Blackhawks..." pattern continue. The Anaheim Ducks, for one, look like a team on the brink. But the contenders on the right are legit. We wouldn't be shocked if Tampa Bay, Washington or New York leads a momentum shift. Or maybe Pittsburgh flies out and outscores everybody.
Subplot: Canada's teams surprised in 2015, with five of them qualifying for the playoffs. Any chance we see that many back in the dance?