Here we sit on the precipice of what’s (supposed) to be the first “normal” NHL campaign since the 2018-19 season that started in early October and ended just as the league had planned in June. I’ll be honest, it feels wonderful. After a proper summer away, I’ve returned to refresh myself on all the moves that NHL teams have made over the past few months, and I’m left where I always am – where you’re supposed to be – before the season: with a pile of questions and very few answers.
Every team thinks they’ve somewhat solved the puzzles that perplexed them the season before, or at least sees that they’ve made marginal gains, and hope that’s enough for their fortunes to improve. Bad news though: the league gets better every year as a whole, so small improvements might be just enough to keep pace.
Now a few weeks from the start of the regular season, I’m going to take a look at both the Eastern and Western Conferences in separate columns. Today we’ll start out East, where my pre-season prep has me wondering…
After two Cups and another run to the Final, is the Reign of the Lightning finally over?
Tampa Bay has played an absurd amount of hockey over the past three seasons, playing as many games as any team in each year, over a shorter time frame through condensed schedules. Last year it seemed like they were absolutely dead by the end, but they just refused to go away until Colorado mercifully put them out of their misery. It seemed like everyone was hurt.
Now they’ve lost Ondrej Palat, who was a huge part of what made the Bolts the Bolts, they lost Ryan McDonagh, who was second on the team in TOI in playoffs, and they lost Jan Rutta. The replacement plan is Philippe Myers and their fingers crossed for internal improvements from the likes of Brandon Hagel, Nick Paul and Ross Colton. Anthony Cirelli and Zach Bogosian are out until December. It doesn’t seem like they’ll be better, but there’s still so much talent there that they’ll be good. They just look more human.
Will the Florida Panthers overhaul make them more “playoff built?”
That was the idea right? It seemed like they didn’t love the post-season showing of Jonathan Huberdeau when the hockey got hardest, so they moved him for a grittier style young guy in Tkachuk. They moved on from rookie head coach Andrew Brunette and brought in the guy who’s coached the fourth most games in NHL history in Paul Maurice -- that was for playoff experience right? They lost a boatload of talent – Huberdeau, Claude Giroux, Ben Chiarot, MacKenzie Weegar, Mason Marchment – so can they get anywhere near last year’s Presidents' Trophy pace to position themselves for a deeper playoff run?
Will the big names the Hurricanes brought in be better than the guys they lost?
The Canes won the Metro Division last season, and they look poised to be great again. But they did subtract Vincent Trocheck and Nino Neiderreiter, to go with Tony DeAngelo on the back-end. Brent Burns should replace the blue line void capably, though, and Max Pacioretty is an exciting add (though they’ll have to wait until Januray or February of 2023 for him to return from an Achilles injury). Still, their goal is to go deeper in the playoffs, and with those two – and Ondrej Kase, health permitting – they could look like a more competitive, hungry group.
Will the Maple Leafs survive their all-or-nothing goaltending gamble?
It was last year the Leafs were featured in the Amazon “All or Nothing” documentary, but the phrase works well for the chance they’ve taken in their crease heading into the season ahead. They chose minimal roster turnover with their skaters (Ilya Mikheyev out, Calle Jarnkrok and Some Other Guys in), but bye-bye Jack Campbell and Petr Mrazek, hello Matt Murray and Ilya Samsonov.
The Leafs are squarely in “playoff success or there will be massive changes” territory now, so no pressure Mr. Murray, and Mr. Samsonov.
Will the Rangers' kids take a permanent step to put them among the Cup favourites?
I’m a well-established Isles Guy, so it hurts to write this, but it’s almost impossible to look at the Rangers roster and not see a team that’s going to win and win and win. They bring in Vinny Trocheck to replace the departed Ryan Strome, and from there it comes down to what the kids do. They have enough elite top-end guys to score, so if their kids – Alexis Lafreniere, Kaapo Kakko and Filip Chytil, namely – look as good as they did in the playoffs all season, they’re going to be a force to be reckoned with. With the Vezina winner in Igor Shesterkin in net, and Norris winning 1D in Adam Fox, if their supporting cast is even decent the Rangers should match their 110-point regular season from last year.
Can the Bruins survive their early season injuries?
This roster, when complete and healthy, can hang with any team in the league. But they finished fourth in the Atlantic last year, and have to start this season without Brad Marchand for a couple months, and same goes for Charlie McAvoy and Matt Grzelcyk. They’ve also got a new coach taking over (Jim Montgomery) who will be trying to keep things afloat out of the gate. It will be a test to keep pace long enough to get to full strength.
How can the Penguins get better?
It’s not that they aren’t good, or won’t be good. But they finished seventh in the East last year and their last playoff series win came in 2018. They’re running it back with their core intact, essentially adding Jeff Petry (instead of Mike Matheson) and saying “we were already one of the good teams, if everyone plays a little better we’ve got a chance.” It hasn’t been enough in the past, so they’ll need more from their secondary players. If they’re fully healthy all year, could that be enough to give them more? Or are they trending towards being stuck in the middle?
Is Darcy Kuemper enough to help Washington through their own early season injuries?
I mentioned the Bruins having some early season injury woes, but the Caps will be without Nick Backstrom and Tom Wilson for a couple months to start the season as well. This is a good, experienced team, and we just saw Darcy Kuemper win the Stanley Cup. We know they won’t be bad. But like the Bruins, will they fall too far behind in the early going to catch back up?
Will the Islanders – who added roughly nobody – be able to score enough to contend?
I say “roughly nobody,” because they did trade for Alexander Romanov this off-season, and he should help them on their middle D-pair (Lou Lamoriello called him a “top-five D-man” on the Isles, which is very specific), providing a nice physical and defensive edge, while having offensive upside. But they’re the only team in the league to not have signed a single UFA, and they missed the playoffs by 16 points last season.
We know they can defend, and they play in a way that helps their goalies out. The hope is “new” head coach (and former assistant) Lane Lambert can unlock some offensive potential (we know there’s more there with Mat Barzal). They were a better team after their awful road trip and COVID-tinged start last season, so they should be able to push for a playoff spot. But taking no steps to improve after that finish does leave some concerns.
Did the Red Wings add enough to exit the group of tanking teams?
They sure added a lot of bodies, including *deep breath* David Perron and Andrew Copp and Ville Husso and Ben Chiarot and Olli Maatta and Mark Pysyk and Dominik Kubalik. And they were already excited about Lucas Raymond and Moritz Seider. So, I think it’s safe to say their goal isn’t a high draft pick this next summer. Will this be the team to catch one of the groups above?
And what of the Sens: maybe it’s them that’s ready to take the next step?
They like their goaltending duo of Anton Forsberg and Cam Talbot, their kids are younger and improving, and they added Claude Giroux and Alex DeBrincat and Tyler Motte, just to name a few. They also seem set on moving out of tank mode. Are those names enough in a competitive division? If nothing else, they’re going to be a lot of fun to watch this season. We’ll see how it translates into wins and losses.
Much like the names above, the Devils have decided it’s time to climb. Are they the “next” team to find their way in?
You can see how the league’s salary cap structure has left the top teams without any room to do anything but get a tiny bit worse - doing their best to hang on as close as possible to their past successful rosters – while the cellar teams have added like crazy. The Devils are no different after missing the playoffs nine of the past 10 seasons.
Ondrej Palat, Vitek Vanecek, Erik Haula, John Marino, and Brendan Smith will all join a Devils team that's already got some supremely talented young players. Their goaltending should be healthier, if not just outright better after a year that saw them play seven goalies. We’ll see just how much better they can be – I know some in the analytics community that like how they’re built.
Have the Flyers become the embodiment of Gritty himself?
I ask because, I can’t figure out what the heck they are or what the plan is. They brought in John Tortorella to coach (who’s already criticized the room?), Anthony DeAngelo (who’s had issues with teammates in the past), they gave four years to Nic Deslauriers (who’s a good fourth liner but … four years?). I mean, the plan seems to be “be healthier than the season before (namely Sean Couturier and Kevin Hayes) and hope that works.” I genuinely don’t know if they’re trying to win, or accepting that it’s time to tank hard for Connor Bedard. Whatever their belief is, best believe we’ll all be watching because – like Gritty – it should be some show.