Welcome to the first Saturday of the NHL season. And welcome to a new weekly feature. Every Saturday this year we’ll take a look around the league at some of the best games, storylines and head-to-head matchups that we’ll be seeing that night. We’ll also dip into the archives for a quick history lesson, and make a prediction that (spoiler alert) will end up being wrong. It should be fun.
Hockey is a team game, fans are constantly reminded. The word is basically inscribed directly into the brains of anyone who sets foot in an NHL arena. You win as a team and lose as a team. There’s no “I” in team. And without question, no single player can ever be bigger than the team.
Great. With that out of the way, let’s spend the next few paragraphs talking about Connor McDavid.
Last year, he won the Art Ross and the Hart Trophy as a 20-year-old. This year, virtually everyone is picking him to do it again. These days he’s in every ad, on every poster and just went first overall in your office hockey pool. The hype train hasn’t just left the station; it’s sprouted wings, gone airborne and is skywriting “MCDAVID IS AWESOME” over every rink in the league.
And after watching him in Wednesday’s season opener, it feels like we may have undersold the kid.
It took him about 30 seconds to get his first breakaway of the season. He had his first goal by the 11-minute mark, coming on a play in which he demonstrated a Wayne Gretzky-like ability to drift into an empty spot where the puck was about to arrive. And then midway through the third period, with the game on the line, came this:
I mean, what do you do against a player who can do that? Really, what are your options? Tackle him? Leave two guys back in your own zone at all times, just in case? Pray? Players aren’t supposed to get faster with the puck on their stick, but McDavid has shown up and broken the NHL’s physics engine. What’s the plan here?
The Flames sure don’t know. They got the schedule at the same time we all did. They spent the last few months knowing that their first game of the regular season would come against McDavid and the Oilers. They have a new goaltender and arguably the best blue line in the league, and they know that the path out of the Pacific probably goes through Edmonton.
They had all the time in the world to come up with a game plan to stop, or at least contain, Connor McDavid.
And we saw what happened.
Tonight’s opponent is the Canucks, finally making their season debut. Like the Flames, they’ve also had plenty of time to think about how to stop McDavid. Unlike the Flames, they do not have one of the best blue lines in the league, although they will have last change. Maybe that helps. It probably won’t.
This season is shaping up to be the Connor McDavid show. Oilers fans are already delirious. The rest of us might as well enjoy the ride… at least on the nights that it’s not our team’s turn to step into the thresher.
Key subplot: The rematch
The current conference format means that the Stanley Cup finalists only face each other twice in the following season, and this year the Penguins and Predators will get both matchups out of the way by the end of October. That includes tonight’s clash in Pittsburgh, as the Predators try to get the road win they couldn’t manage during last year’s final; they were outscored 15-4 in the three games in Pittsburgh during the series.
Both teams endured a bumpy off-season that saw several key veterans depart via free agency, retirement and expansion (not to mention an injury to Ryan Ellis). And both are off to slow starts. The Predators lost their opener on Thursday, dropping a 4–3 decision in Boston. But the bigger news in in Pittsburgh, where the defending champs have lost two straight including Thursday’s 10–1 debacle at the hands of the Blackhawks.
Fans know we’re not supposed to overreact to the first week, but man… 10-1? That’s not supposed to happen to good teams, especially ones that are more or less at full strength.
It’s true that backup Antti Niemi started the game, but Matt Murray played most of it and he got shelled, too. The list of positives that the Penguins can take from that game is basically “it eventually ended” and that’s it.
It’s far too early for must-wins, but you’d have to think that the Penguins will be looking for a bounce-back game. And that means the Predators should be motivated to twist the knife on the team that denied them their Cup.
You hear a lot about windows over the course of a season. As in: Whose window to win a championship is opening? Whose is wide open? And whose is slamming shut?
It’s a tricky topic, and it’s easy enough to get it wrong. We’ve all collectively closed the window on the Blackhawks a few times over the years, and they keep finding their way to the top of the standings. And every now and then a team like the 2012 Devils or 2017 Senators decides to take a run at a championship even though their window wasn’t even supposed to exist at all.
So sure, let’s proceed with caution. But it’s awfully tough to see a game between the Rangers and Maple Leafs show up on the schedule and not start wondering about windows.
For the Maple Leafs, the question is whether their window is opening or is already here. The traditional thinking about NHL rebuilds says they shouldn’t be there yet — these things take time, we’re always told, and going from dead last to legitimate contender in two years shouldn’t be possible. And yet here come the Leafs, packed with young talent and with two seasons to work with before the salary-cap headaches kick in.
They’re far from a perfect team, but in a wide-open Atlantic, not to mention a league where every contender has a flaw or two… well, why not? You probably wouldn’t have to work too hard to convince the Jets, after their Wednesday home opener turned into a demolition at the hands of Matthews and friends.
The Rangers represent the other side of the coin. Their window has been open for years, dating back to their most recent playoff miss in 2010. They’ve had 100+ points in every full season since then except for 2013–14, and they went to the final that year. They’ve won nine playoff rounds in the last six seasons, and are still just two years removed from a Presidents’ Trophy.
And yet, you wonder if their time is running out. Rick Nash is 33 and has just one year left on his contract. Marc Staal is already 30, and somehow Mats Zuccarello is, too. And then there’s the big one: Henrik Lundqvist, who’s 35 and coming off a disappointing season in which he finished with a .910 save percentage, his first year under .920 since 2008–09.
Everyone ages differently, but most goalies tend to hit a decline in their mid-30s, and if Lundqvist’s has arrived then the Rangers are kind of screwed; he’s signed through 2021 at an $8.5-million cap hit.
With Lundqvist’s clock ticking loudly, you might think there’d be a sense of urgency around the Rangers to win right now. Instead, they’ve been getting younger, as Jeff Gorton looks to execute the sort of soft rebuild that GMs love to talk about but rarely pull off. That’s no easy task in what looks like the league’s toughest division, and dropping games to bottom-feeders like the Avalanche sure won’t help.
Tonight is Toronto’s home opener, and you can be sure that Matthews (and Mitchell Marner and William Nylander and all the rest) will get a hero’s welcome from long-suffering Leafs fans. For the first time in a generation, there’s honest-to-Wendel optimism in Toronto, and rightly so. The window is opening; it might already be here. But when Matthews inevitably breaks loose at some point tonight and bears down on Lundqvist, it might serve as a gentle reminder to Leafs fans that windows don’t mean much if you can’t take advantage.
Player in the spotlight: Derick Brassard
Erik Karlsson‘s injury has drawn most of the attention, and rightly so, but he wasn’t the only Senator to miss the pre-season. Brassard had been out after off-season shoulder surgery, and was touch-and-go to make it back into the lineup for Thursday’s opener. He did, and he posted three points to help the Senators earn a point against the Capitals.
In fact, Brassard’s line was one of the few bright spots for the Senators on Thursday. He combined with Mark Stone and Bobby Ryan to record three goals and seven points, with all three players finishing plus-4 on a night when Ottawa coughed up four goals. The Senators tend to be a team that spreads the scoring around, but on Thursday they were basically a one-line show.
Brassard was a little bit of an under-the-radar guy outside of Ottawa last year. He saw his production dip to 39 points, well down from the 59 he averaged in his last two years in New York, before adding 11 more in the playoffs. He’s not the team’s top centre in terms of ice-time or production; that would be Kyle Turris.
But with Turris playing out the last year of his contract and headed towards either a big raise or UFA status this summer, Brassard’s ability to produce in a top-six role on the team could turn out to be crucial. A few more games like Thursday’s would certainly help.
From the archives
NHL history is filled with moments that are shocking, inspiring or just plain weird. The idea of this section is to take one of the Saturday games and turn back the clock to a previous matchup between those two teams that turned out to be memorable.
After watching the Golden Knights make their debut in last night’s win over to the Stars, it seems appropriate to look back at another team’s first game. And the schedule gives us a chance to do that, by serving up a Chicago/Columbus matchup that comes exactly 17 years to the day after the two teams met in the first game in Blue Jackets’ franchise history.
As you’d probably expect, that inaugural Blue Jackets roster wasn’t much to look at. It featured a handful of recognizable veterans, including Kevin Dineen and Geoff Sanderson, as well as a few players who weren’t quite as well-known, like Jan Caloun and Petteri Nummelin. Lyle Odelein was captain, Ron Tugnutt was the starting goalie and first-ever draft pick Rostislav Klesla played the first of the eight NHL games he’d get that season before heading back to junior.
All in all, they weren’t bad. The team would go on to record a respectable 71 points, finishing ahead of established teams like the Islanders and Canadiens. And they got off to a strong start against the Hawks that night, scoring three goals in a two-minute span of the first period. That included Bruce Gardiner potting the first in franchise history, followed by goals by David Vyborny and Steve Heinze.
That was pretty much where the highlights ended for Columbus that night; the Blackhawks stormed back with five unanswered goals, including two by someone named Reto Van Arx. That represented two-thirds of his entire NHL output, and at this point I’m 90–per cent sure he’s actually been made up by hockey-reference.com as a practical joke.
The Blue Jackets would go on to earn their first win five nights later in Calgary; it would be the only one they’d manage in their first nine games.
Oddly specific prediction
After being shut out in their opener, the Flames get on the board against the Jets in the first two minutes of play tonight.