Most emotional NHL return games to look forward to this season

Watch as Erik Karlsson puts on his new San Jose Sharks jersey for the first time while being welcomed at a press conference.

It was a long, busy NHL off-season.

Thankfully though, the puck will drop on 2018-19 soon, giving us 1,271 games + playoffs to enjoy.

Some of these games will be high-stakes matchups between two teams hungry for a playoff spot. Others will involve the Detroit Red Wings.

And some of them will feature a player returning to the home rink of a team he used to play for.

Here are some of those worth watching out for:

The ‘Welcome Back’ crowd

Tyler Bozak @ Toronto Maple Leafs, Oct. 20

Tyler Bozak won’t have the pedigree of most of the other players on this list, but the centre had spent his entire nine-year professional career in Toronto before this season. At a time when the Leafs had startlingly little in terms of prospects, Bozak chose Toronto as a highly touted college free agent back in 2009, spurning several other suitors.

The 32-year-old lived through some of the darkest times in team history and just wasn’t part of the Leafs’ plans once they landed a certain other free agent at his position on July 1.

Bozak found himself a nice spot in St. Louis and won’t have to wait long to come back to Toronto, with the Blues visiting Scotiabank Arena late in October. Hopefully Kanon comes along.

What to expect: Leafs fans are in something of a good mood these days, and given how amicable the split was, you can be sure Bozak will be given a nice welcome. Of the three big free-agent losses the Leafs suffered this summer, we’re giving the edge to Bozak as the one whose return will involve the most feels.

Max Pacioretty @ Montreal Canadiens, Nov. 10

Looking up Max Pacioretty’s return to Montreal was among the very first things hockey watchers did when the 29-year-old was traded to Vegas in a late-summer blockbuster on Sept. 10.

Pacioretty doesn’t have the Cups or tenure to be remembered alongside other Canadiens legends, but the former captain will no doubt be greeted enthusiastically when he shows up in Vegas gold two months from now.

What to expect: We probably won’t see the stream of tears we got from P.K. Subban when he made his return to Bell Centre in 2016-17, but you can bet emotions will be high for Pacioretty when he comes back to the only home rink he’s ever known since being drafted 11 years ago.

Erik Karlsson @ Ottawa Senators, Dec. 1

The two-time Norris winner will return to Ottawa in front of a fan base that at least has some experience welcoming back a longtime Swedish star.

Erik Karlsson grew into the best player the Senators ever had, and his trade to San Jose has most definitely left a bitter taste in the mouths of Sens Army. His return to Ottawa will be something to behold.

What to expect: You can bet fans in attendance will show Karlsson nothing but love when he returns to Canadian Tire Centre.

It also wouldn’t shock anyone if a “Melnyk Out!” chant or two took place, with owner Eugene Melnyk taking the brunt of the heat for not being able to keep Karlsson in the nation’s capital long term.

Jeff Skinner @ Carolina Hurricanes, Jan. 11

Jeff Skinner never made the playoffs as a member of the Hurricanes, but he still spent his entire eight-year career with the franchise before being traded to Buffalo in August.

The seventh pick of the 2010 draft made the Hurricanes in his first camp with the team and reached 30 goals as rookie.

What to expect: He topped the 30-goal mark twice more in the years that followed and was well regarded by the Carolina fan base. A nice round of applause and maybe a little tribute video seems appropriate here.

Jay Beagle @ Washington Capitals, Feb. 5

Like Bozak, Jay Beagle was never a star player, but he gave many good years to the Capitals organization and finally left for a big contract after helping Washington to its first Stanley Cup.

Beagle was undrafted, but worked his way through the ECHL to the Capitals farm team in Hershey before breaking into the NHL in 2008-09.

His first year as a regular Capital was 2010-11, and the defensive centre wound up with 471 games there to his name.

And a Stanley Cup, of course.

What to expect: Beagle was a warrior for the Capitals and you’d expect nothing short of a hero’s welcome for all his hard work and reliability throughout the years. Oh, and also the Cup. The fans probably appreciate that the most.

Rude Returns

Matt Duchene @ Colorado Avalanche, Oct. 26

This won’t be Matt Duchene’s first official road game against the Avalanche since being traded to Ottawa last November, but it will be his first in Colorado.

That’s because the Senators played the Avs in Sweden for a pair of contests which, coincidentally, were Duchene’s first two games with Ottawa.

The 27-year-old’s departure from Denver went roughly like this: Duchene requested a trade from a floundering Avalanche team, GM Joe Sakic got a great return for the 2009 third-overall pick, and Colorado went on a surprise run to the post-season led by an unleashed Nathan MacKinnon.

What to expect: All of that could lead to a rather derisive reaction from the Pepsi Center crowd, not unlike the kind Phil Kessel got from Boston back when the Bruins were more than happy with the return they got from their deal with Toronto in 2010.

Could we hear “Thank You Duchene” chants on Oct. 26?

Mike Hoffman @ Ottawa Senators, Nov. 19

This one could get awkward.

If Melnyk gets most of the blame for Karlsson being dealt, how much falls on Mike Hoffman?

The fifth-round pick developed into a near-30-goal scorer with the Senators before being traded to Florida via San Jose this off-season after the Karlsson family accused Hoffman’s fiancée of online harassment.

What to expect: Something of a rough reception for the Kitchener, Ont., native when he shows up in Ottawa this November.

Ilya Kovalchuk @ New Jersey Devils, Feb. 5

Ilya Kovalchuk signed a 15-year, $100-million deal with the Devils in 2010 (a $6.66-million cap hit, for fans of irony). He left three summers later to go play in the KHL.

The Russian sniper’s absence was felt heavily by a team that had only a few months earlier seen captain Zach Parise bolt for Minnesota.

With Kovalchuk coming back to the NHL on a three-year deal with the Los Angeles Kings this year, you can bet there will still be some hard feelings when the 35-year-old steps on to the ice at Prudential Center this winter… though it’s worth mentioning how Kovalchuk’s “defection” actually helped the team a bit.

The Devils had been punished for their earlier attempt at signing Kovalchuk to an even longer, cap-circumventing-er contract in 2010 (17-years, $102 million).

Once Kovalchuk left though, their $3-million fine was reduced an undisclosed amount and rather than forfeit a first-round pick, the Devils’ pick was pushed down to 30th overall in 2014.

This doesn’t even include the potential cap-recapture penalties New Jersey might have faced should Kovalchuk have retired later in the deal.

What to expect: At the end of the day, Kovalchuk bailed on the Devils. Their fans will let him hear it.

John Tavares @ New York Islanders, Feb. 28

“Snake.” “Pajama Boy.” “Liar.”

John Tavares is likely to receive the coldest of receptions when he steps on to the ice at Barclays Center to face thousands of hurt Islanders fans.

Tavares was supposed to the franchise saviour when drafted first overall in 2009, the key to turning around a dark stretch in team history fuelled by horrible trades and absurdly long signings.

Instead, he left the team still close to his prime, leaving fans with just the feeling of betrayal along with one playoff series win.

Tickets for this one won’t be hard to sell.

What to expect: A great atmosphere and a standing ovation for the first Islander to lay a hit on No. 91.

Honourable mentions: Evander Kane is back in Buffalo on Nov. 27, James van Riemsdyk comes back to Toronto on Nov. 24, Leo Komarov on Dec. 29, Dougie Hamilton returns to Calgary after three strong seasons and a blockbuster deal on Jan. 22, Alex Galchenyuk at Montreal on Jan. 23.

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