10 storylines to watch during 2022-23 NHL season

Calgary Flames centre Nazem Kadri skates during first period NHL preseason hockey action against the Edmonton Oilers in Calgary, Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2022. (Jeff McIntosh/CP)

Another NHL season is upon us, and as much as we all study up, monitor rosters, and assess outlooks in order to make our predictions and projections, no one really has any idea what’s about to unfold over the course of the next nine months.

That unknown is exactly what makes the start of a fresh campaign so exciting.

There are the big questions that jump to the front of the line: Can Connor McDavid bring the Hart Trophy back to Edmonton, or will Auston Matthews repeat his remarkable 60-goal feat? How much closer will an ageless Alex Ovechkin get to The Great One’s all-time goals record? Who will win it all? Who will win the lottery?

Overachievers and underperformers will emerge, led by breakouts and breakdowns, and it’s fair to guess that more than a few coaches and GMs will find themselves on the hot seat over the course of the year.

After three years of navigating countless challenges brought by the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2022-23 season brings what we all hope will be a full season uninterrupted.

No one knows what’s in store, but as we look across the league’s landscape right now, these 10 storylines could greatly shape what’s to come.

Colorado’s core is locked up. Now, can they run it back?

The Colorado Avalanche ushered in summertime by hoisting the Stanley Cup, and after an off-season of parties and parades announced the signing of cornerstone Nathan MacKinnon to a historic eight-year extension juuust in time to welcome fall.

The 2022 Stanley Cup champions now enter the season as the odds-on favourite to run it back. Defending their title would make the Avalanche the third team to do so in the last seven years – the Pittsburgh Penguins were crowned back-to-back champs in 2015-16 and 2016-17 and we just witnessed the Tampa Bay Lightning do the same in 2020 and 2021. Prior to that, you had to go back two decades to see a team win back-to-back Cups (Detroit Red Wings in 1996-97 and 1997-98).

The Avalanche bring back the same core group, but also find themselves victims of their own success. The loss of Nazem Kadri, whose play last year far exceeded Colorado’s cap space this summer, will be felt. There’s also a bit of uncertainty hanging around the blue paint when it comes to either Pavel Francouz or Alexandar Georgiev becoming a No. 1 netminder after Darcy Kuemper’s departure to Washington.

According to the sports books’ Stanley Cup line, the Toronto Maple Leafs have the second-best odds right now behind Colorado to win it all, followed by the Florida Panthers, Tampa Bay Lightning, and Carolina Hurricanes rounding out the top five.

Can the Maple Leafs and Sabres end their historic droughts?

The Toronto Maple Leafs head into this fresh sheet of 82 games with their focus already fixed on Game No. 83. Like Colorado last year, the pressure is palpable for the Maple Leafs to finally breakthrough in the post-season and win… now.

The Maple Leafs currently hold four of the least-desirable records in the NHL: Their 54 seasons without a Stanley Cup is both the longest active drought and the longest ever drought at any time in NHL history. It’s been 54 years since they last appeared in a Cup Final at all (another record) and they hold the longest active playoff series win drought, with last spring’s first-round loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning marking their 17th consecutive season without a playoff series victory. (The Florida Panthers previously held that record, having gone 24 seasons without a playoff series win before advancing to Round 2 last spring.)

Adding to the stakes – if they could be any higher, that is – is the fact that Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas is entering the final season of the five-year contract he signed in 2018. He’s all in on this team, this year.

Across the border in Buffalo, the Sabres’ stakes are considerably lower, as are the expectations – but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a healthy dose of warranted hope for a drought-busting playoff berth. The Sabres were one of the most exciting teams to watch as the season wound down last year, setting the stage for a leap forward this fall. Buffalo holds the longest current playoff appearance drought – it’s been 11 years since their last trip to the post-season.

All eyes on Calgary, Ottawa, Florida after big off-seasons

The success of last year’s Calgary Flames could almost entirely be attributed to a single word: chemistry.

The word of the off-season could’ve easily been “disaster” after franchise face Johnny Gaudreau departed for Columbus in free agency and his top linemate, Matthew Tkachuk, made clear his desire for a trade. Instead, Brad Treliving made his team… even better?! In exchange for Tkachuk, Treliving landed star forward Jonathan Huberdeau and cornerstone defender MacKenzie Weegar from the Florida Panthers and locked both up to eight-year extensions.

Then, Treliving went out and landed the biggest free agent on the market in Nazem Kadri, signing the gritty Stanley Cup champion to a seven-year pact. The Battle of Alberta just got a whole lot more interesting. The question now comes down to chemistry.

Calgary’s off-season stole a bit of the thunder away from the Ottawa Senators. Have they officially emerged from their extensive rebuild? The acquisition of Alex DeBrincat and Cam Talbot on the trade market and Claude Giroux in free agency says yes, but a strong Atlantic Division with a tough-to-crack top four suggests playoffs should still be a hope, not an expectation.

July’s prizes bring October’s surprises – that’s totally a saying, right? – and no one is immune to the annual marathon of “Wait, he plays where now?” that comes every fall. So, a refresher:

Johnny Gaudreau is scoring goals and firing cannons in Columbus, Phil Kessel is all-in on the iron man record – and contending, after leaving Arizona – as the newest forward with the Vegas Golden Knights, Kevin Fiala moved to L.A., and Max Pacioretty is looking for good health and a Cup run in Carolina. Matt Murray and Ilya Samsonov replaced Jack Campbell (Edmonton) and Petr Mrazek (Chicago) in Toronto’s crease and Cup champion Darcy Kuemper is in the blue paint for the Capitals, while ex-Ranger Alexandar Georgiev takes his place in Colorado’s blue paint. Kirby Dach is now part of Montreal’s future, Brent Burns is now manning the Hurricanes’ blue line, while John Klingberg bets on himself with the Ducks, and Ryan McDonagh gets a fresh start in Nashville. Got all that?

Coaching carousel brings familiar faces to new places

Nearly a third of NHL teams enter 2022-23 with a new head coach after a particularly busy go-round of the coaching carousel.

Of the nine new hires, just two – Derek Lalonde in Detroit and Lane Lambert with the New York Islanders – are rookies. The Vegas Golden Knights wasted no time scooping up former Bruins bench boss Bruce Cassidy as the franchise’s third-ever head coach – and the one they hope will steer the ship back into the playoffs with Jack Eichel at the helm and questions in net. Jim Montgomery’s second chance at a head coaching gig brings him to Boston while Rick Bowness, who replaced Montgomery in Dallas in 2019, now lands in Winnipeg after parting ways with the Stars. The Stars, meanwhile, are depending on Pete DeBoer to do what he does best: jump-start teams into long playoff runs. Twice, he’s guided clubs all the way to the Stanley Cup Final in his first season with a new team (2011-12 Devils and 2015-16 Sharks) and came really close to doing it a third time with the 2019-20 Golden Knights, who lost to – who else? – the Stars in the Western Conference Final in 2020.

After stepping away from the Jets last December, Paul Maurice has found his next landing spot in Florida, at the helm of a Panthers team with massive expectations. David Quinn is back in the game in San Jose, as is John Tortorella – a coach-team partnership that feels like it’ll either be a raging success or a rage-filled disaster.

Chicago, Arizona lead the race to the bottom Bedard

Tank hard for Bedard… is that the slogan we’re going with this year? Regardless of the wording, the sentiment has already long settled in with several fanbases starting down a season of painful losses.

Of the rebuilding teams, the Arizona Coyotes and Chicago Blackhawks have made their intentions the most… well, obvious. Chicago shipped off Kirby Dach (Montreal) and Alex DeBrincat (Ottawa), two young players who were thought to be major parts of their next core in favour of starting from the ground up.

Arizona, meanwhile, is focused on restocking its cupboards with picks and prospects as opposed to wins. The Montreal Canadiens, winners of the 2022 lottery, are going all-in on youth (expect growing pains) while the Flyers feel like a team that’s still a bit undecided about its ultimate direction.

Will Seattle take a step forward or remain in the bottom of the Pacific? Can the Ducks, Senators, and Devils take a big leap forward? Which way will the Sharks go?

As for Bedard, the Regina Pats captain is a mere two weeks into the season and already exceeding expectations: He’s got five goals and 11 points in six games so far.

Coyotes’ new home puts rebuild in the spotlight

Not only do we have a roster being built from the ground up in Arizona but an arena, too.

Rink talks took a promising step in June when Tempe city council voted to open negotiations over a proposal that, if approved, would see the building of a massive new entertainment district that includes a new home for the hockey team. In the meantime, the Coyotes are staring down three seasons playing in what will easily be the NHL’s most unique barn – a 4,700-seat rink at Arizona State University.

The temporary setup, which understandably drew the ire of franchises across the league, will be a focal point in 2022-23 not just for the many revenue questions swirling but for what kind of fan experience Coyotes’ home games will bring. If done well, the Coyotes have a really unique opportunity to create a one-of-a-kind, intimate fan experience for those who come to support the rebuilding club.

The continuation of arena talks in Calgary and Ottawa are also expected to make significant progress this season, too. It’s crunch time in Calgary after a previous agreement collapsed, while the dream is alive in Ottawa for a new home built at LeBreton Flats.

Patrick Kane is still a Blackhawk, but for how much longer?

It’s no great coincidence that the two teams projected to land at the bottom of the league standings this year possess the two more intriguing trade pieces this season. Jakob Chychrun is equal parts star d-man and injury risk, a solid piece for a rebuilding team but also a sought-after trade target that could fetch the Coyotes a pretty massive return. We’ll have to stay tuned to see what happens here.

By far the biggest trade target heading into this year is Patrick Kane, the quintessential rental forward if ever there was one: He’s on an expiring deal, knows what it takes to win it all, and is still producing at a high rate (he had 92 points on a dismal Blackhawks roster last year). So, which contender scoops him up – and will we have to wait until the trade deadline to find out?

Cap relief is (reportedly) coming. How might that alter teams’ transactions now? While nothing is guaranteed, Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reported last week some pretty promising salary cap projections. They outlined a possibility of the cap, which is currently set at $82.5 million for 2022-23, rising to more than $87 million in 2024-25 and potentially reaching around $92 million for 2025-26.

Should this be confirmed by the NHL, it could drastically change the ways teams and agents do business right now. Could we see another rise in bridge deals like we did a few seasons ago? Might we have more record-breaking contracts upwards of Nathan MacKinnon’s $12.5 AAV?

Sportsnet’s Rory Boylen looked into one upcoming contract situation – Auston Matthews, who’s extension-eligible next summer – and what a rise in cap space could mean for his fortunes.

Hockey’s reckoning continues in wake of Hockey Canada investigations

As all the action unfolds on the ice, there’s a lot going on around the game – particularly when it comes to the sport’s culture and those in positions of power that govern it.

Allegations of group sexual assault, detailed in a civil lawsuit settled by Hockey Canada in May, have led to a national reckoning of the organization and intense scrutiny of its actions in the wake of the alleged incident said to have taken place in June 2018. The case has prompted the re-opening and of two investigations as well as the launching of a third, conducted by the NHL. Nearly all of the players on the 2018 Canadian world junior roster at the centre of these allegations were under contract with NHL clubs at the time of the alleged incident, and most are on NHL rosters today.

NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said earlier this week that the league’s investigation is "closer to the end of the road."

"Our investigators are almost done with the players. We’ve gotten full cooperation, by the way, from all the member players of that squad," Daly said during an interview on Sportsnet 650's Halford & Brough.

"There are some additional witnesses that our investigators want to follow up with," he added. "So, we’re not at the end of that road yet, but we’ve been making material progress on a consistent basis."

Women are in front offices, and the game is better for it

Six women enter their first full NHL seasons as assistant general managers: Emilie Castonguay and Cammi Granato (Vancouver), Meghan Hunter (Chicago), Dr. Hayley Wickenheiser (Toronto), Kate Madigan (New Jersey), and Alexandra Mandrycky. All six have already done so much to shape the game, and now we get to see how they approach these new challenges and bring new perspectives to how their respective clubs do business.

At the same time, women are being hired as scouts and analysts and video coaches, working with players on the ice and helping them succeed in development roles off it. It truly is only a matter of time until a woman stands behind the bench of an NHL club on a full-time basis or takes the helm as GM.

There are more women working in NHL management and personnel roles today than ever before. Real change is happening, and 2022-23 is ushering it in.

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