The NHL is finally back. After a busy offseason, weeks of training camp and a World Cup thrown in for good measure, we’re just one more day away from watching NHL games that matter again.
By tomorrow night, the season will have started. By the weekend, we’ll have seen each team at least once or twice. And by Sunday, we’ll have freaked out over the results of those one or two games, because they’ll have told us everything we need to know about how the season will turn out.
We probably shouldn’t do that last one. But we can’t help it – we’re hockey fans, and overreacting is in our nature. And if we know we’re going to do it anyway, we might as well go into the first slate of games with a plan.
So here are eight key games to watch over the next few days, the results that would have us all jumping to conclusions, and why we may want to hold off just in case we’re wrong.
Flames at Oilers (Wednesday)
What could happen: In the official unveiling of their new Rogers Place home, the Oilers lose to their provincial rivals.
What it would mean: Oh no, here we go again.
Or maybe not: Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but the Oilers are heading into the season with high hopes that this is the year they finally rejoin the Western Conference playoff race. For once, there’s some legitimate reason for that confidence: Connor McDavid is healthy, Milan Lucic is here, the blue line is better, and the new arena should add to the excitement.
But there’s still a decade of history here, and it wouldn’t take much to for some of that negativity to creep back into the season after a few bad losses. Granted, we’re being a little bit overdramatic here, as you’d have to think that even battle-scarred Edmonton fans will give the team more than a game or two before panicking. So instead, let’s pencil them in for three. (But all bets are off if Taylor Hall gets off to a quick start in New Jersey.)
Maple Leafs at Senators (Wednesday)
What it would mean: They’re all busts and the Maple Leafs’ rebuild is a disaster.
Or maybe not: This is going to be a season-long battle for Toronto fans, although in fairness, most of them don’t have much experience with rooting for promising young talent.
On the one hand, all three kids really do seem like the real deal. Marner was arguably the best player in junior last season, Nylander has already looked good in limited NHL action last year, and Matthews was fantastic at the World Cup.
The three are a big part of the reason why the Leafs are finding themselves on top of pre-season prospect rankings, and they’ve helped generate something we’re not used to seeing in Toronto: actual optimism.
But there’s a thin line between optimism and unrealistic expectations, and it’s one that everyone in Toronto will have to navigate carefully. In today’s NHL, it’s rare for rookies to put up the sort of monster numbers that were seen in the 80s and 90s. With the exception of guys like Sidney Crosby and McDavid – and none of the three Leafs are in that class – today’s rookies typically take a season or two to really start producing.
For Marner, Nylander or Matthews, something in the 50-point range is probably a realistic best-case. Numbers in that range that should qualify as good news, even if they might feel like a disappointment given all the hype.
Bruins and Blue Jackets (Thursday)
What could happen: The Blue Jackets lose.
What it would mean: Another awful start is about to doom the Blue Jackets.
Or maybe not: Much like the Oilers, there’s some history here. The Blue Jackets have created an uphill climb in each of their last four seasons by stumbling out of the gate – 5-12-2 in 2012-13, 6-10-3 in 2013-14, 6-15-2 in 2014-15, and then last year’s historic eight-game losing streak that was the worst start the league had seen since 1943.
All that said, one loss doesn’t make a streak, even if it came in what should be a winnable home game against a team that’s expected to be on the playoff bubble. But then you look ahead at the rest of the Columbus schedule this month, and it’s hard not to worry just a bit. They face the Sharks and Blackhawks at home, then take to the road to visit Dallas and all three California teams. November isn’t much better, featuring teams like the Stars, Blues, Capitals and Lightning (twice).
You can’t earn a playoff spot over the first 20 games or so, but history shows that you sure can lose one. The Blue Jackets know that, and they’ll want to open the year with some positive momentum for a change. The Bruins offer them an opportunity to do that. If they don’t take it, things will only get tougher from there.
Hurricanes at Jets (Thursday)
What could happen: The Jets struggle in their own zone.
What it would mean: They miss Jacob Trouba – or whatever they could get for him in a trade.
Or maybe not: The Jets’ opening night serves up a winnable matchup with the Hurricanes, and they only face three playoff teams in their first nine games. They’ll need a good start to keep from being swept away in a tough Central Division, and the schedule-maker has given them the opportunity to get one.
If they can get out of the gate well, that takes a ton of pressure off of Kevin Chevaldayoff to resolve the Trouba situation. It’s always tough to make a trade that’s been forced on you by a player, and there’s no doubt that Cheveldayoff’s colleagues around the league are looking to take advantage of the situation Trouba created. A solid start would help tip the scales a little bit closer to Winnipeg’s favor.
But if they get off to a slow start, things get tougher. And that’s especially true if the blue line struggles. Some fans will demand that the team find a way to get Trouba back in the fold; others will want to see a trade that will bring back a capable replacement.
Cheveldayoff, of course, would rather make this move on his own time. His team can help him out with a strong start.
Capitals at Penguins (Thursday)
What could happen: One team wins.
What it would mean: Well I guess we know who the real powerhouse in the East is going to be.
Or maybe not: The NHL loves to serve up prime matchups during opening week, but this one may be the best of them all. The Penguins will raise their fourth Stanley Cup banner, and they’ll do it in front of a Washington franchise that’s still looking for its first. That’s just cruel. And it will remind the Capitals that after a 120-point regular season last year, they crashed and burned in the playoffs yet again.
That narrative isn’t really fair. Last year’s second-round matchup between the two teams was simply a case of two legitimate Cup contenders meeting in a close series that could have gone either way. (Remember, three of the six games went to overtime.) The loss didn’t expose some sort of fatal flaw in the Capitals; they just lost to a good team that was on a roll.
That said, we all love a redemption story, and the Caps coming into Pittsburgh and spoiling the party would give us a chance to play up a season-long revenge angle. Of course, a Penguins win would reinforce the idea that they have the Capitals’ number. Either way, one of these teams will leave this game looking like the Eastern favorite, and will just have to ride out the clock for the next 81 games to lock it up.
Ducks at Stars (Thursday)
What could happen: The Ducks score a bunch of goals.
What it would mean: The Stars had all off-season to fix their goaltending, the one fatal flaw that kept them from contending for a title last year. They didn’t do it, opting to head into the season with the same Kari Lehtonen/Antti Niemi tandem that melted down in the playoffs. And now it’s going to cost them yet another shot at the Cup.
Or maybe not: The lack of a goaltending upgrade in Dallas ranks as one of the more surprising non-moves of the off-season. But in Jim Nill’s defence, this wasn’t exactly an easy move to make. Lehtonen and Niemi are on the books for a combined $10.4 million cap hit for the next two seasons, one of the highest totals for the position in the league. It would be tough to add another goaltender without shipping one out, and the market for that would have been minimal.
So given that his hands were probably tied, it might make sense for Nill to go into the season as-is and then hope for the best. If the goalies look good, he can hold onto both, or deal one from a position of strength. And if they’re still a weakness, it may be easier to make a move midway through the season when the cap hits are easier to manage.
Of course, for either plan to work, the Stars can’t completely crash and burn right out of the gate, which is why they’ll be under a bigger spotlight then usual over the seasons’ first few weeks. And that will include opening night.
(Bonus overreaction: If the Stars’ goaltending looks great and they post a shutout, we can all decide that Randy Carlyle has already ruined the Ducks.)
Canadiens at Sabres (Thursday); Blackhawks at Predators (Friday)
What it would mean: WELL I GUESS WE KNOW WHO WON THAT TRADE!
Or maybe not: Honestly, I’m not even going to bother trying to talk anyone out of this. Weber-for-Subban was one of the most stunning trades of a generation, and it’s inevitable that we’ll be arguing about it for years.
Sure, we won’t really know who won the deal until several seasons down the line, and even then we might end up realizing it was pretty much even. But that’s no fun. These kind of monster one-for-one trades come along roughly once a decade – yes, fine, sometimes it’s more like twice in a half hour, but stay with me – and hockey fans are going to obsess over the short-term results, because that’s just what we do.
Besides, hanging on every Weber shift will give Montreal fans something to do when they’re not overanalyzing every Carey Price save or Michel Therrien/Max Pacioretty interaction. Remember, it’s always important to diversify your early-season overreactions. We’ve all got to make sure we still have something left in the tank for week two.
Calgary at Vancouver (Saturday)
What could happen: As the last team to open their season, the Canucks welcome the Flames for Saturday’s late game. They look terrible.
What it would mean: The Canucks are finishing last.
Or maybe not: Let’s not be overly pessimistic. It’s still technically possible that they could bounce back from a loss, and finish second last.
I kid, Canucks fans. A little bit. Despite an off-season that saw them make contender-type moves like signing a 30-year-old free agent and trading one of their better prospects for a defenceman who can play right now, the Canucks are entering the season with a cloud of pessimism hanging over them. Lately, they’ve even become a trendy pick to be the league’s worst team.
That’s not a good thing to hear about your team, but it certainly takes care of any early pressure from unrealistic expectations, and it sets the stage for some positive momentum if they can start well. And they might – the October schedule also includes non-playoff teams like the Hurricanes, Sabres, Senators and Oilers. Vancouver could get off to a decent start, then circle the “nobody believed in us” wagons for the rest of the season.
Or they could lose to the Flames. Between this and the Rogers Place opener, you have the chance to crush the hopes of two Canadian rivals in one week, Calgary. Don’t let the rest of us down.