Every team carries two things into a new NHL season: Hope and questions.
Of course, there’s a tiered dynamic to hope. A lot of clubs are aiming for a playoff berth, while others in a different class of team merely want to see tangible signs of progress. At the top, a few squads can look in the mirror and sincerely say this could be the year.
Questions, too, come in an assortment of shapes and sizes. Some squads are wondering about a young guy or two who might step up, others are still not sure who the No. 1 goalie is.
The answers, in many cases, won’t come for a long time yet. But with NHL camps officially kicking off, it’s time to pose a query — big or small — for all 32 outfits. To do so, we’ll break it into bite-size chunks and go division by division. To kick things off, we’ll start out west with the defending Stanley Cup Champions and the rest of the Pacific.
Anaheim Ducks: What does a step forward look like?
No team in the league has more immediate questions than the Ducks right now because No. 1 centre Trevor Zegras and highly regarded young defenceman Jamie Drysdale are both restricted free agents without contracts.
Let’s assume that changes before Anaheim’s first game on Oct. 14.
Recall, this team finished at the bottom of the cellar with 58 points last season. It wasn’t pretty.
But there are seriously promising players all over the ice in Anaheim. Zegras and Drysdale are 22 and 21, respectively; surprise second-overall pick Leo Carlsson could crack the squad; Mason McTavish is a big-time sophomore breakout candidate and Lukas Dostal is one of the more intriguing young netminders in the league.
Anaheim could well finish near the bottom of the NHL again, but we’re going to get a much better handle on the long-term outlook this year.
Calgary Flames: Will the current roster seem like a relic from a past life after the trade deadline?
I’m not sure we’ve taken enough time to step back and appreciate the journey this organization has been on in the past 14 months or so. I’m not afraid to admit, I thought the work former GM Brad Treliving did last summer — refusing to take a knee when Johnny Gaudreau left as a free agent and RFA Matthew Tkachuk asked out — was commendable. Obviously one severely underwhelming Jonathan Huberdeau season later, we can look at that approach differently. The bottom line, though, was that Treliving thought he had a team that could still compete, and, based on personnel, he wasn’t wrong.
So here we sit, a year or so later. Treliving is in Toronto, Craig Conroy is the rookie GM of the Flames and Calgary has five significant players — Elias Lindholm, Noah Hanifin, Mikael Backlund, Chris Tanev and Nikita Zadorov — entering the final year of their contracts.
Honestly, who knows where this is going. It’s very, very easy to imagine second-year Flames Huberdeau, Nazem Kadri and MacKenzie Weegar being much better under rookie coach Ryan Huska. Ditto for Jacob Markstrom, who was a Vezina runner-up in 2022 before enduring a rough season last year.
There’s no question this squad has the potential to crack the top eight in the West. But how secure will a playoff spot have to be for Conroy to ride with whatever contract uncertainty he’s dealing with at the time? If things do go south, will the team be open for bussiness?
This is easily one of the most fascinating squads in the league to keep an eye on.
Edmonton Oilers: Can Jack Campbell bounce back?
It was a tough debut for Campbell in Oil Country and the odds his five-year contract winds up looking good are pretty long.
But can this guy get back to — or close to — the .916 goalie he was in his two full years with the Toronto Maple Leafs? Only nine puck-stoppers in the NHL had a better mark than Campbell during that span.
Stuart Skinner’s emergence was huge for the Oilers last year, but it’s hard to look at a sophomore goalie and forecast 50 quality starts. Edmonton is going to need both these guys and it would be a meaningful boon for the squad if Campbell could re-discover the form he showed previous to landing in Alberta.
Los Angeles Kings: What’s the break-glass-in-case-of-emergency goalie plan?
Maybe the duo of Cam Talbot and Pheonix Copley will be just fine. In three seasons from 2019-20 through 2021-22, Talbot had a .919 save percentage. That’s the eight-best mark among goalies with at least 100 starts in that time.
Still, Talbot is 36 now and didn’t look great in Ottawa last year. Copley, meanwhile, came out of nowhere to help with L.A.’s crease issues last season before getting bumped by deadline acquisition Joonas Korpisalo.
Any way you look at it, this is a tough battery to roll with for a team that feels its time is now.
San Jose Sharks: Is this the least compelling team in the league?
With respect, if you’re not a heavy-duty Sharks backer, there’s not much in the way of obvious reasons to watch this club. Other likely bottom-feeders like Anaheim, Chicago and even Montreal at least have some intriguing young guys to keep an eye on.
The next wave just hasn’t landed on the Northern Cali coast yet.
If anything, we’ll be watching to see how guys in the final year or two of their deals — the likes of Anthony Duclair, Mikael Granlund, Mike Hoffman, Kevin Labanc and Alexander Barabanov — fair and what return the Sharks might fetch for them in a trade deadline sell-off.
Still, it’s not like there is an Erik Karlsson situation to monitor as was the case last season.
Seattle Kraken: How much will we know about Shane Wright’s NHL potential six months from now?
Seattle’s No. 1 centre, Matty Beniers, won the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year four months ago. There’s no guarantee Wright — the projected first-overall pick who fell to fourth in 2022 — will even crack the roster this fall. But if he can slide in behind Beniers and show something at the NHL level, the Kraken’s long-term plan will really be coming into focus.
Vancouver Canucks: Can we establish any semblance of good vibes?
It’s the first full year under Rick Tocchet and Quinn Hughes is the new captain. If we see an Elias Pettersson extension before next summer, Canucks fans will likely be happy to call this season a win.
Things got gruesome so fast out of the gate last October — remember the 0-for-7 start under a twisting-in-the-wind Bruce Boudreau? — that even a nice, boring .500 mark over the first six weeks would go a long way toward a step in the right direction
Vegas Golden Knights: Does Jack Eichel become a true superstar now?
Jonathan Marchessault may have won the 2023 Conn Smythe Trophy, but there’s no denying the playoffs were Eichel’s coming out party. He’s healthy, in an overwhelmingly positive situation and turns 27 in the first month of the season. Is the groundwork laid for a 110-point season?