With the new hockey season nearly upon us, optimism peaks for just about every franchise and its fan base.
Training camps are a week away and rookie camps are even closer.
This week, we’ll be going division by division to highlight one player who absolutely must deliver in 2023-24 for their team to have a chance to hit, or exceed, their goals.
Without David Krejci or Patrice Bergeron back, the Bruins have a serious question at centre. Pavel Zacha and Charlie Coyle will have an opportunity to expand their roles into the top half of Boston’s forward unit, though neither will be able to fully replace Bergeron at the top of it all.
Speaking to the Boston Herald, head coach Jim Montgomery indicated that Coyle would begin training camp in Bergeron’s old spot on the top line between Brad Marchand and Jake DeBrusk. Last season, Coyle fit more into a shutdown centre role and took big steps there that the Bruins hope will help his transition to a top-line role where he’ll face tougher competition more often. Coyle’s career-best offensive season came all the way back in 2016-17 when he scored 56 points, though, and he’s scored 20 goals in a season just once in his career.
Coyle has grown into an important piece on this roster, but it’s an entirely different challenge to succeed as a 1C versus a 3C in the NHL. Can the 31-year-old hold down that spot, or will the Bruins eventually be seeking a new top-six centre on the trade market?
Jack Quinn was set to be a potential breakout player for the Sabres in 2023-24, building on a promising 37-point rookie season. But an Achilles injury will keep Quinn out of the lineup for the first few months of the season, so there is an opportunity for someone on the right wing of the second line. Given Quinn may not return until December or even January, this isn’t a short-term fill-in — whoever steps up in Quinn’s place needs to be sustainable.
At the moment, Casey Mittelstadt may be the most likely to sub in for Quinn. Mittelstadt’s sixth year in the NHL was his best so far, finishing with 15 goals and 59 points, and while his role was mostly on the third line, he was used in the top-six at centre and the wing to fill in for injured players. Given that he was mostly successful, the 24-year-old Mittelstadt may get the first call to fill in for Quinn.
There is very real pressure on this Sabres team to make progress and get into the playoffs this season, so it’s important to hit the ground running. They may instead choose to go with a prospect such as Jiri Kulich (2022 first-rounder) in that slot if he has a strong camp, but Mittelstadt is, at this point, the “safer” pick.
DETROIT RED WINGS
As Steve Yzerman keeps adding veteran players to his roster, the Red Wings are taking an almost expansion-like approach to their build, accumulating other teams’ cast-offs to (hopefully) put together a unit of motivated individuals determined to prove people wrong. That’s sometimes what this plan feels like, anyway.
This past summer Yzerman added Alex DeBrincat, who was a different sort of acquisition in that he wasn’t some other team’s cast-off. DeBrincat was acquired by Ottawa last season to be a difference-making goal scorer, but he didn’t really deliver on those expectations and then had no real desire to stay put. Rather than slow walk to free agency, the Senators had to trade him out.
Now with his hometown Red Wings, DeBrincat has a new four-year contract and the same expectations the Senators had for him. Can he get back up to 40 goals? The Red Wings have a lot of “pieces” but, so far, not enough difference makers. They need DeBrincat to have a significant presence right away if they’re to rise above the other rebuilders in the Atlantic.
After knocking off some big-time Stanley Cup contenders last playoff season and getting all the way to the Final, do not forget that Florida only qualified for the East’s final wild card spot by a single point, and probably wouldn’t have made it had the Penguins not tripped over themselves against the lowly Blackhawks. So, remember, what brought them playoff success only just barely got them through the regular season.
There will be key injuries to start this new season on the back end (Aaron Ekblad, Brandon Montour) and Radko Gudas’ understated presence and physical game left via free agency, so more pressure will fall on the goalies. Sergei Bobrovsky was integral in getting Florida to the Final (after Alex Lyon led a shocking streak to the playoffs) but he was again below average (.901 save percentage) through the regular season. It’s unlikely he’ll ever return to his previous Vezina form, but now the $10-million goalie is turning 35 in September and Florida needs him to elevate, lest the Panthers slip behind early, chase all season, and risk following up the franchise’s most successful campaign ever with another highly disappointing one.
While Bobrovsky is the player in focus, we should also note that Spencer Knight could be a factor here, too. Knight entered the NHL-NHLPA’s Player Assistance Program in February and it’s believed he could return to the team for camp. Florida’s “goalie of the future,” Knight didn’t play himself into a bigger workload last season but, as Bobrovsky ages, that transition to 22-year-old Knight has to start happening.
Yes, if the Canadiens are to punch above their weight this season and hang around the playoff race in any fashion, they’ll need Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield to build on their immense early success, for Kirby Dach to keep delivering on his potential, for Josh Anderson to recapture his scoring ways, for Brendan Gallagher to be healthy and productive … and so on.
But if 26-year-old goalie Sam Montembeault can take the reins and keep improving his year-over-year performance it’d set the Canadiens up nicely to overachieve on their goals. And, heck, it may even help them overcome any other shortcomings on the roster.
Montembeault makes $1 million a season before becoming a UFA next summer and the Canadiens would love to know they have a piece they can keep going forward with as this young roster continues to mature and grow.
After finishing with the league’s 24th-ranked team save percentage at 5-on-5 last season, it was obvious Ottawa needed an upgrade in net if the Senators had any hope of closing the six-point gap between where they finished and a playoff spot.
GM Pierre Dorion found his guy in free agency, but did assume some risk in signing Joonas Korpisalo to a four-year pact at $4 million. The 29-year-old netminder is coming off a strong season in which Columbus traded him to Los Angeles to be their playoff starter.
But all you have to do is go back one more season, to 2021-22, to see Korpisalo finish with an .877 save percentage. The season before that, he posted an .894 save rate. And then there’s the minor detail of historical workload: Korpisalo played a career-high 39 games last season, so he’s never been leaned on for even half a season.
Now he’s Ottawa’s guy and we’re at the point where anything short of the playoffs will be a disappointing finish for the Senators (and one that could bring the Dorion era to an end altogether).
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
The Lightning have been victims of salary cap attrition in recent years and lost a few more key pieces this summer, including Alex Killorn (fifth in Lightning goals last season), Ross Colton (seventh) and Corey Perry (eighth). The Lightning will still be a top Cup contender of course, but how the secondary and depth offence comes together will be interesting to see.
One player who they’ll be counting on to step up is Tanner Jeannot, who Tampa acquired for the hefty price of Cal Foote and five draft picks last February. Jeannot was certainly brought in for his sandpaper game and how that could be utilized in the playoffs, but he’s also got some offensive upside. However, Jeannot scored just once in 20 regular-season games with the Lightning, and not at all in three playoff showings.
Now with a two-year extension, Tampa is going to need more offence to go with Jeannot’s bump. In 2021-22 with Nashville, Jeannot scored 24 times so he’s shown he can have that kind of presence at this level. There will be a possible job opportunity to earn on the second line at camp and it could be Jeannot’s if he can find that skill to go with his snarl.
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
This is less of a regular-season comment and more of a playoff one, since that — again — is all this Maple Leafs season will be about. But Mitch Marner will be eligible to sign an extension as of July 2024 so even though he has two more seasons remaining on his current contract, his future will be much discussed as this season unfolds.
Because new GM Brad Treliving has really chosen to run it back with the same core group that has failed in the post-season time and again, there is no patience left in Leafs Nation. Marner is a fantastic winger, an elite two-way player who scored 99 points last season and was a Selke finalist. But his playoffs have left something to be desired.
Yes, Marner started last playoffs fantastically with 10 points in the first four games against Tampa. After that, though, he managed just four points in seven games and scored only once all series against Florida. Toronto needs more than that to break through, especially if this is a player who’s going to keep earning $11 million-plus on this roster in its next phase.