Folks — we’re about two weeks out from rookie camps opening, and three from training camps getting started. Hockey is getting set to return from a short summer, so it’s time for us to get thinking about how things may unfold.
Now, there is still work to be done around the league. Various RFAs still remain unsigned and there are a few notable UFAs who could have a positive impact. PTOs are likely to come for some.
And, of course, trades could still unfold. Patrick Kane’s name is being connected to various teams, while we wonder if Vancouver or Winnipeg — for all the rumours that circled them through the summer — still have something up their sleeves.
As we start moving off the links and on to the rinks again, let’s start getting back into an NHL mindset. As the rosters sit today, we’ll go through each division and identify one early possibility to rise, and fall, from each grouping.
Riser: Ottawa Senators
While Calgary GM Brad Treliving basks in the glow of a successful off-season that could easily have taken a sharp turn south, perhaps recency bias is making some of us forget just how outstanding Pierre Dorion fared in Ottawa.
Alex DeBrincat brings 40-goal upside. Claude Giroux adds the veteran element, terrific playmaking and a long-established productive leader. Cam Talbot effectively replaces Matt Murray as the go-to No. 1 in net. And this team already had a very promising collection of young players making strides, from 25-year-old Thomas Chabot down to 20-year-old Tim Stützle. Oh, and add 20-year-old Jake Sanderson to that mix now, too.
The Senators finished 34 points behind fourth-place Boston for a playoff spot last season, so there is tons of ground to make up in 2022-23. And maybe it’s a bit early to think playoffs yet, but between the Sens, Red Wings, Sabres and even Canadiens, each of the Atlantic’s bottom four teams from a season ago have a reason for optimism right now. There will be some upwards movement — how much of that gap can any of these teams close? We’re wagering on the Sens being this season’s biggest movers, but the Red Wings certainly deserve a nod as well.
Faller: Boston Bruins
This off-season didn’t go as poorly as it could have for Boston. In an alternative reality, the wheels would have come flying off this thing and “rebuild” would have been part of the season-long narrative. But Patrice Bergeron decided to stay instead of retire, and David Krejci even returned from a year playing in Czechia. Top two centres — check.
But, still, there is cause for some level of concern in regards to injuries. Brad Marchand and Charlie McAvoy are expected out until at least December recovering from hip and shoulder injuries, and then you wonder how long it will take them to hit full stride from there. Bergeron himself is recovering from elbow surgery, though expected to be ready for the start of the season. Krejci didn’t play in the NHL last season.
As well, David Pastrnak’s expiring contract will hang over the team all season until he’s extended…or worse. The situation with him is the most important to Boston’s path forward now from here.
If the Bruins start slow and it follows them into December or even January, will any of the bottom four Atlantic teams be able to push close enough to the Bruins — or surpass them? This Bruins core isn’t dead yet and the front office mandate is to clearly “win now”, but the start of the season could be a bumpy ride.
Riser: Columbus Blue Jackets
GM Jarmo Kekalainen isn’t one to sit around and wait on his teams, but he isn’t one to force things either. Last season was one of patience for the Blue Jackets, but the off-season arrived with a splash when Johnny Gaudreau signed with the team. He adds one of the top offensive players (especially off the rush) to the Blue Jackets and could pair neatly with sniper Patrik Laine.
The Islanders could be a pick here too as last season fell apart for various reasons, but after a quiet summer and starting a new season without the magic of Barry Trotz, we wonder if the Blue Jackets could pass them. Could Columbus be a playoff team? Time will tell, and maybe it’s slightly early for that. But don’t sleep on coach Brad Larsen’s team.
Faller: Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins
Cheating a bit here with a couple of picks. There are really only two choices here, and while it’s hard to imagine either the Penguins or Capitals falling out of the playoffs, they’re certainly less of a sure thing now. The Canes and Rangers are contenders on the rise — the Caps and Penguins feel like past contenders on the slow walk back down.
There is full motivation to keep the engines running for these two aging teams. The Penguins ran it all back, keeping Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and Bryan Rust, and then found a way to bring in Jeff Petry as well. A bounce-back campaign for him would go a long way here.
The Capitals needed an upgrade in net, and got it in Darcy Kuemper, so the bottom shouldn’t fall out here either. But, remember, they were already the final playoff team from the conference last season, and then blew a Round 1 series lead, losing three in a row to get eliminated by the Panthers (who were then swept easily by the Lightning). They also are going to have to play this season without Nicklas Backstrom, a huge loss.
If any team from the Metro’s bottom four is going to make a move up and challenge last season’s top four, at least one of these two old guards will have to fall a bit more.
Riser: Winnipeg Jets
From the Central Division, only Winnipeg, Chicago and Arizona missed the playoffs last season and only one of those teams has any real hope of upward movement in 2022-23.
But there is no guarantee the Jets won’t fall further down either. They’ll start the season with major questions about key players. Pierre-Luc Dubois has noted his desire to test the open market two years from now, so he’ll be a trade candidate with RFA status on the horizon in 2023. Mark Scheifele opened the door to the possible end of his time in Winnipeg and a need for a fresh start. He also is two years away from becoming a UFA. Is Blake Wheeler’s voice the one needed in a leadership role at this time? Is the blue line good enough? How much will Andrew Copp be missed? Is the much-needed development from younger players going to be enough to make up any gaps?
But behind all this the Jets still have a roster that could hit — it was far more of a surprise than an expectation to see how badly they struggled last season. Heck, if Connor Hellebuyck alone plays well enough to enter the Vezina conversation again, he could single-handedly keep this team afloat.
Faller: Dallas Stars
The only team to qualify for the playoffs with a negative goal differential (minus-8) last season, the Stars still invest a combined $19.35 million in Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn (their fourth and sixth highest scorers) so finding improvement in the coming years won’t be the easiest thing.
Mason Marchment was brought in after his career year in Florida, but how much of that offence can he keep with the sandpaper side of his game, if he’s no longer on the top line of the NHL’s best offence?
There are plenty of pieces to like here, for sure. Miro Heiskanen could be one of the league’s top blueliners before long, Roope Hintz is still on a relatively cheap deal for what he brings. Jason Robertson and Jake Oettinger are two exciting and key young players but both, it should be noted, are still RFAs without a contract. And you have an owner who didn’t sound all that keen on paying them big bucks quite yet.
John Klingberg is gone, as is coach Rick Bowness. New coach Peter DeBoer historically starts strong with his new teams, but he also became the first coach to miss the playoffs with Vegas just last season. The challenge here will be to squeeze a different style of play from this roster, one less defined by defence-first, and more offensively inclined. Is Oettinger as advertised against the Flames in the playoffs last season? Much is to be learned about this team in 2022-23.
Riser: Vancouver Canucks
While very tempting to take the Anaheim Ducks here — a team shaping up to begin climbing the order again — the Canucks seem to have more of the pieces you need to actually do it over 82 games.
Much of the change we expected hasn’t happened…at least not yet. J.T. Miller is still in town, with Ilya Mikheyev and intriguing Andrei Kuzmenko added. The defence could use some work still, but Quinn Hughes gives them a star and Thatcher Demko can help patch up some holes.
And maybe we shouldn’t underestimate Bruce Boudreau, who has a terrific track record of guiding his teams to the playoffs. The Canucks were 32-15-10 after he took over in December, which made them the 13th-best team in the NHL over that span.
Trades could still happen and change the outlook for this team. But as of now, they’re returning — and in fact, adding to — the same group that was highly competitive for over four months last season. Who’s to say they can’t build on that over 82?
Faller: Calgary Flames
Not saying the Flames will miss the playoffs. Far from it. This will still be a team to contend with, thanks to the masterful job done by GM Brad Treliving over the summer.
The blue line is improved and the goaltending is strong. And while the top line may not be as dangerous as before, the arrival of Nazem Kadri should allow them to run three centres deep and spread out the wealth a bit more.
Can the Flames hold off the improved Oilers, who addressed their more pressing need with Jack Campbell? Can they hold off the Kings, who took big strides in 2021-22 and could step up again now? And where will Vegas end up fitting into all this?
The Flames aren’t a “faller” in the sense that there should be worry here, but more because the competition should be stiffer this time around. And, heck, maybe they’re better built for the playoffs this time. We’ll see.