Most intriguing star-studded debuts, can’t-miss games of 2022-23 NHL season

Flames head coach Darryl Sutter says they're still searching for their "ideal" lines at camp, says biggest thing we have going for us, is Jonathan Huberdeau is probably the best passer this team's had maybe ever, so they want the ideal fit for him.

Another off-season carousel has spun, a flurry of moves are in the books, and more than a few of the game’s biggest stars find themselves in new cities and new jerseys as the 2022-23 season approaches.

Calgary went from plucky contender to the hockey world’s punchline to the winners of the off-season, in a matter of months. Edmonton and Toronto opted to roll the dice on major surgery at a vital position, with everything on the line. Ottawa and Montreal infused their youth movements with high-end talent. And a few former Flames will try to keep the magic going Stateside.

The new season figures to feature more than its fair share of star-studded debuts, nostalgic reunions and stops on the revenge tour. With the regular season approaching, here’s a look at the most intriguing debuts to watch for, and some must-watch games on the 2022-23 schedule.

JONATHAN HUBERDEAU / NAZEM KADRI / MACKENZIE WEEGAR, Calgary Flames

No team stitched together as intriguing an off-season as the Calgary Flames, and it wasn’t particularly close. 

After what looked set to be the most disastrous summer of Brad Treliving’s tenure in Calgary, the past few months wound up as the GM’s most impressive. Out are his club’s two highest scorers last season — linemates, and fan favourites, Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk. In are two forwards far, far better than anyone would’ve expected Treliving to land to replace that duo — Jonathan Huberdeau and Nazem Kadri. Not to mention standout defender Mackenzie Weegar, who was thrown into that mix for good measure.

All eyes will be on the Flames as they start their new era in 2022-23. While the rest of the game’s contenders tinkered with key pieces here and there, and the up-and-coming squads did their best to reel in more talent, no one else enters the new season in quite the same situation as Calgary, who’ve essentially swapped out one star-studded core for another with the supporting cast remaining relatively untouched.

Given how they’ve lined up so far in camp, there’s a good chance Calgary enters the new campaign as a better team. Huberdeau and Elias Lindholm figure to pick up where the Selke nominee left off with his now-departed linemates. And Kadri looks set to pair up with breakout winger Andrew Mangiapane on a dangerous second line, giving Daryl Sutter two offensively potent units. An already-solid back end figures to get a significant boost too, with Weegar slotting in on the top pair with veteran Chris Tanev.

After years of frustration in Calgary as the promise of the Monahan-Gaudreau era wore thin, the page has been turned. Now, we’ll see what the next chapter looks like.

GAMES TO WATCH:

• Oct. 13, Flames vs. Avalanche: The new trio of Huberdeau, Kadri and Weegar will get their first chance to do their thing for the Flames, and in front of the C of Red no less. As an added bonus, Kadri will get his first meeting with his former team out of the way, too. The true circled reunion for the Stanley Cup champ, though, likely comes on Feb. 25, when Kadri makes his return to Colorado’s Ball Arena, where he’s sure to be honoured by the Avs for his Cup run contributions.

• Nov. 19, Flames vs. Panthers: Huberdeau and Weegar get a homecoming of their own as they return to FLA Live Arena to meet the team they both spent their entire NHL careers with. (This also marks the first time the Flames meet Tkachuk, but more on that later).

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ALEX DEBRINCAT / CLAUDE GIROUX, Ottawa Senators

If there was a close second for wild off-seasons, it was surely Ottawa, who came out swinging with a run of bold moves that have the Sens looking primed for a significant leap forward in 2022-23. The youth movement in Ottawa has carried the day for the past few years — Brady Tkachuk, Tim Stutzle, Josh Norris and Drake Batherson all finished among the club’s top scorers last season, and all have yet to crack 25 years. And more blue-chip prospects are on the way. But GM Pierre Dorion sped up Ottawa’s timeline this time around with the infusion of some established skill heading into the new campaign.

In Alex DeBrincat, the Sens brought in a bona fide elite sniper, just 24 years old and already with a pair of 40-goal campaigns in the bag. He put up 41 and a career-best 78 points just last season — one year prior, the Chicago product scored at a 60-goal, point-per-game pace through 52 appearances. Alongside Ottawa’s on-the-rise dynamic talent, he’ll be a menace. 

And then there’s the homecoming of Claude Giroux, who returns to Ottawa after a brief stint with the contending Panthers, and a decade-and-a-half becoming a Flyers legend. At 34 years old, he won’t be bringing the same all-world skill-set that raised him to that level in Philly, but last season is proof enough that Giroux still has plenty to give. Still one of the slickest facilitators in the game, the vet finished 2020-21 with 65 points through 75 games — two thirds of that sum coming in assists — including 23 points through 18 games in Florida.

For all he’ll do off the ice as a veteran voice, as someone who can guide Ottawa’s young stars, he’ll still upgrade their on-ice product as significantly. And if the lines shake out as they seem likely to, with he, Stutzle and DeBrincat linking up, Sens fans should be in for a show.

GAMES TO WATCH:

• Oct. 13, Senators vs. Sabres: The first chance to see Ottawa’s new recruits line up together. The club’s second game of the season — Oct. 15 vs. the Maple Leafs — is just as worthy of a watch, as Giroux and DeBrincat get their first taste of the Battle of Ontario.

• Nov. 5, Senators vs. Flyers: Giroux didn’t face the club he wore the ‘C’ for after making his late-season move to the Panthers. In November, he’ll line up against the Flyers for the first time. A week later, the veteran makes his return to Philly’s Wells Fargo Center, playing his first game in the building as a visitor. It won’t quite have the same nostalgic vibe, but a week prior to those Philly reunions, he’ll face Florida for the first time as well, on Oct. 29 at FLA Live Arena.

• Feb. 17, Senators vs. Chicago: DeBrincat will have to wait far longer to get his reunion. He’ll face his former side for the first time in February. Not long after, he’ll play his first game back in the United Center, returning to Chicago on Mar. 6.

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JOHNNY GAUDREAU, Columbus Blue Jackets

On the other side of the Flames’ rollercoaster summer is Johnny Gaudreau, who wreaked havoc on the club and its fanbase with a seemingly last-minute decision to leave Calgary, and dropped everyone else’s jaws when he chose to sign with the Columbus Blue Jackets.

From afar, the choice seemed a head-scratcher. Coming off a career year, leading a club that seemed to be inching closer to contender status, Gaudreau packed up and moved to a team that’s missed the post-season the past two years. On the ice, the decision seemed far from a home run. Off the ice, though, the motivation seems clearer, the Salem, N.J. native’s move relocating him to the Metropolitan Division, closer to home.

But with the off-season drama of Gaudreau’s change of address now in the rear-view — minus a few eyebrow-raising quotes from the winger about his former team — the focus now turns to how much his presence can raise the Blue Jackets’ level. And, more specifically, to what he and former Winnipeg Jet Patrik Laine look like together — the duo having both swapped life in Western Canada for a run in a more low-key market. Playoff misses aside, the club has talent to work with beyond the starring pair — most notably, 33-year-old Jakub Voracek, who managed to lead the team with a 62-point effort last season (almost entirely helpers), and a blue-chip talent in rookie Kent Johnson.

Fair or not, the comparisons between Gaudreau and Huberdeau, and the Flames and Blue Jackets, are sure to be a talking point this season — at least on this side of the border. Who comes out ahead by the season’s end?

GAMES TO WATCH:

• Oct. 12, Blue Jackets vs. Hurricanes: Gaudreau and Laine get their first chance to prove the hockey world wrong. Johnny Hockey’s debut comes in a tough situation though, as his Blue Jackets get the Hurricanes on the road in Raleigh.

• Dec. 9, Blue Jackets vs. Flames (in Columbus): For the first time in his career, Gaudreau will line up against the Flames in a must-watch reunion tilt.

• Jan. 23, Blue Jackets vs. Flames (in Calgary): The more enticing meeting, though, will be this one — Gaudreau’s long-awaited return to the Saddledome. There’s no telling how the Flames faithful will respond to the return of No. 13 on their ice — will they shower him with cheers for his near-decade of service, or with boos for how it all ended?

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MATTHEW TKACHUK, Florida Panthers

And then there’s Matthew Tkachuk, whose situation is so similar to Gaudreau’s, but so very different.

When it comes to Flames fans’ potential reaction to seeing their former precocious winger return to the Dome, you’d have to imagine they can’t be too irked given how Tkachuk helped Treliving and Co. land Huberdeau and Weegar after deciding to move on. There are sure to be some hard feelings towards the former Flame, who got better and better each year in Calgary, only to leave town as he entered his prime, but Tkachuk surely gets points for the way he handled his exit.

Moving forward, the bigger question is how he fits into the Panthers’ picture next season. There’s plenty to dissect here from both sides. On the Panthers’ front, the addition of Tkachuk and all he brings — some offensive flair and plenty of sandpaper — has to be weighed against the loss of all Huberdeau (the club’s highest scorer last season, by a longshot) brought. There’s no doubt the Cats are still absurdly deep up front, but it’ll be a different look with Huberdeau no longer part of the offence, and Weegar’s absence is sure to alter how the blue line moves forward, too.

For Tkachuk, the pressure will be on from the get-go after the 24-year-old inked a massive deal in Florida — eight years at $9.5 million per season, making him the second-highest-paid skater on the team — and came to town in a deal that shipped out Huberdeau, the franchise’s all-time scoring leader. Living up to that pressure won’t necessarily be as simple as just playing his game in a Panthers’ sweater. There’s also the matter of who he lines up with.

Through camp so far, the plan seems to be playing Tkachuk alongside fellow former Flame Sam Bennett, rather than the club’s premier scoring talents, Aleksander Barkov and Carter Verhaeghe. Tkachuk figures to be effective regardless of where he slots into the lineup, but given his 100-point outburst came on a line with Gaudreau and Lindholm — two elite playmakers, and the two most dynamic talents Calgary had — it would be no surprise if the points were harder to come by this season.

GAMES TO WATCH:

• Oct. 13, Panthers vs. Islanders: Tkachuk makes his Panthers debut on the road against the Islanders, his first chance to kick off the Matthew Tkachuk Friendship Tour out east.

• Nov. 19, Panthers vs. Flames (in Florida): As said above, this marks the first time Tkachuk will face the Flames as a member of the opposition. And given the effect Tkachuk usually has on the opposition — see: Doughty, Drew — expect some fireworks.

• Nov. 29, Panthers vs. Flames (in Calgary): Ten days later, the real reunion comes, as Tkachuk will skate in front of the C of Red for the first time since leaving town. As with Gaudreau, all eyes will be on how the Flames faithful react to his return.

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JACK CAMPBELL, Edmonton Oilers

It’s been a wild few years for Jack Campbell. After some early disappointment in Dallas, and those years biding his time and building up his game in Los Angeles, the 30-year-old took his shot and ran with it over these past few seasons, establishing himself as a bona fide starter in Toronto. Now, after just three years and 77 games as a Leaf — a run that seemed years longer given his connection to the team and the fanbase — Campbell’s off to his fourth organization, and maybe his best chance to earn a ring.

The sheer offensive dominance of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl has papered over plenty of the Oilers’ issues for years, but last season the duo showed just how far that strategy can take them, the pair putting up a ridiculous 65 points in 16 games to push Edmonton all the way to the third round. Much of the squad around them remains fairly similar, aside from one massive change in Campbell. How much will the former Maple Leaf move the needle as Edmonton looks to push even further?

While Campbell’s tenure in Toronto was up and down at times, there were stretches where the netminder looked truly elite. The question is whether those stretches of brilliance represent the goalie Edmonton will get the majority of the time, or whether they’ll be a similar rarity in his new sweater. If life behind the Oilers’ blue line proves a bigger challenge for Campbell, Edmonton might find itself in roughly the same position they were in last year — strong enough to get by everyone but the two teams who seem likely to be waiting at the finish line.

But if Campbell can be the netminder he was in those world-beating moments, who knows how far the Oilers can go with McDavid and Draisaitl rolling through defenders as they always have?

GAMES TO WATCH:

• Oct. 12, Oilers vs. Canucks: Campbell will have some early opportunities to endear himself to Oilers fans, as his first two games with his new club — starting with the Canucks, and followed by Game 1 of the 2022-23 Battle of Alberta on Oct. 15 — come against longtime rivals.

• Mar. 1, Oilers vs. Maple Leafs (in Edmonton): Campbell gets his first chance to face off against his former club’s high-flying offence during the home stretch of the season. Where each club stands in its respective playoff race should add some fuel to the fire.

• Mar. 11, Oilers vs. Maple Leafs (in Toronto): Ten days later, the fan favourite will return to Scotiabank Arena to play in front of the Maple Leafs’ fans, who used to rain ’Souuuup’ chants down him every game.  

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JURAJ SLAFKOVSKY / KIRBY DACH / SEAN MONAHAN, Montreal Canadiens

The intrigue in Montreal stretches beyond this off-season, back to the arrival of GM Kent Hughes and head coach Martin St. Louis. After getting a chance to reshape the club down the home stretch of the 2021-22 campaign, there’s enough intrigue in Montreal heading into 2022-23 simply in getting a full season of St. Louis manning the bench. But he’ll have some new weapons to work with, too.

Leading that influx of new talent is, of course, Juraj Slafkovsky, who earned Montreal’s No. 1 pick in the 2022 NHL Draft. The big-bodied winger should have enough size and skill to hold his own in the big leagues from the get-go if he makes the roster out of camp, but whether he can be an impact player as quickly remains to be seen. Also joining the fray up front is Kirby Dach, another towering lottery pick, who spent the past three seasons building up his game in Chicago. He’s yet to live up to the pressure that comes with being a No. 3 pick, but at 21 years old, there’s still plenty of time for him to become a key piece down the middle in Montreal moving forward. 

Building off all the Flames talk, throw Sean Monahan into that mix, too. While the former Flames top-line centre has seen his career derailed by injuries over the past few seasons, Monahan will get a chance at a reset in Montreal, and should be motivated to carve out a role with his new club after being benched at the end of his run in Calgary.

The departure of Jeff Petry figures to shake up the blue line, too. In his place, the Canadiens get Pointe-Claire, Que. native Mike Matheson, fresh off of rebuilding his game in Pittsburgh to become a capable puck-carrier for the veteran squad. How his high-risk, high-reward style will fit with the younger Habs is unclear, but he surely has the skill to make some waves in Montreal.

GAMES TO WATCH:

• Oct. 12, Canadiens vs. Maple Leafs: How else to begin a new era and work in a handful of new pieces than against the club’s biggest rival? 

• Oct. 17, Canadiens vs. Penguins: Four games into the season, the Canadiens host the Penguins, which will give Matheson a chance to face his former squad. Perhaps more importantly, it’ll mark the return of Jeff Petry to Montreal after the veteran defender logged eight impressive seasons for the club.

• Nov. 25, Canadiens vs. Chicago: Dach gets his first chance to return to the United Center in late November, to face the team who moved on from him before he could prove he was worth building around.

• Dec. 1, Canadiens vs. Flames: A few games later, Monahan will make his return to the Dome to face the Flames. It’ll be an important one for the city and for the former sixth-overall pick, whose near-decade in Calgary began with him kicking off the post-Iginla era and jump-starting the youth movement that continued with Gaudreau, Bennett and Tkachuk.

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MATT MURRAY / ILYA SAMSONOV, Toronto Maple Leafs

After what’s seemed like a decade of high-stakes, all-or-nothing seasons in Toronto, the Maple Leafs seem to have truly arrived at a make-or-break season. Six straight years of one-and-done playoff hockey have put the Leafs brass on the hot seat. While progress has come — most notably in the form of a seven-game nail-biter against the defending champion Lightning last season — other exits (against Montreal a year prior, Columbus the year before that) — are tougher to wave away.

If another promising season has collapsed under the Maple Leafs by the time the 2023 playoffs are through, it’s tough to see how the club moves forward without some more significant surgery — whether that’s on the ice or in the front office. And that potential success hinges on what happens in the Leafs’ net.

After moving on from Frederik Andersen and handing the reins to Campbell, seemingly for the long haul, Toronto finds itself with a new No. 1 yet again. This time, the gamble seems more polarizing — some are optimistic that Matt Murray can return to the form that allowed him to make history as the first rookie goaltender to win two Stanley Cups, while others wonder if GM Kyle Dubas is showing too much loyalty to another former player of his. 

The wild card in all of this is Ilya Samsonov, the former Capitals first-round pick, who will likely make more noise than expected as the season rolls on. He hasn’t yet shown what he’s capable of since that first-round selection, but if — like Murray — he can reclaim the form he showed in his younger days, he’ll get his chance to shine in Toronto.

The tests are sure to come early and often as the Maple Leafs must once again fend off a couple heavyweight contenders in their division. They’ve shown they have plenty of promise elsewhere in the lineup, but the season will go as their goaltending does. 

GAMES TO WATCH:

• Oct. 12, Maple Leafs vs. Canadiens: As said above, the Leafs’ new netminders — likely Murray — will get a chance to win over Leafs Nation early as Toronto faces the rival Canadiens in Game 1 of the regular season. 

• Oct. 13, Maple Leafs vs. Capitals: If Murray gets the opener, it would be no surprise to see Samsonov get his first shot in Game 2 of the season, a chance to face his former club in Toronto’s home opener at Scotiabank Arena.

• Oct. 15, Maple Leafs vs. Senators: Murray should get his own chance to face his former club two nights later, when the Leafs host their provincial rival, wrapping up the reunion tour early.

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