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From Vegas to Edmonton and Ottawa, there’s been no shortage of drama through the first 30-plus games of the NHL season.
The Golden Knights are on pace to make history, the Senators are in turmoil with owner Eugene Melnyk and superstar Erik Karlsson front and centre, and the Oilers are, well, back to being the Oilers. Elsewhere, rookies are soaring, veterans are roaring and a couple Russians are sniping at a torrid pace.
Here are the five most intriguing NHL storylines heading into 2018:
Can the Vegas Golden Knights make history?
The Vegas Golden Knights have not only been the surprise of this NHL season, they’ve had the greatest start of any expansion team in North American professional sports in the last 25 years. The patchwork club, which was pieced together with castoffs from the league’s other 30 teams, shockingly won eight of its first nine games and haven’t looked back since.
With another two points banked at home on New Year’s Eve versus the Maple Leafs, Vegas opened up a three-point lead in the Pacific Division and sit two points up on the Winnipeg Jets for the best record in the Western Conference. Only the relentless Tampa Bay Lightning have more wins and points league-wide than Vegas — which is well on its way to becoming the first team in the post-expansion era to make the playoffs in its inaugural season.
Will the Oilers make the playoffs?
After a 10-year hiatus, the Edmonton Oilers returned to the playoffs last season for the first of what figured to be many upcoming consecutive postseason appearances. The momentum from the team’s breakthrough season was halted immediately as the 2017-18 campaign began, however, as the Oilers dropped eight of their first 11 games and had everyone in hockey circles questioning what on earth was wrong with a team which was pegged as a Stanley Cup favourite entering this year.
The Oilers have lost some momentum over the holidays after taking six wins from eight games through the heart of December. They’ve dug themselves a giant hole after a less-than-ideal start to the campaign, but the postseason is not out of reach. Edmonton sits seven points back in the Pacific Division and the Wild Card race on the first day of 2018, and has more than half a season to make up that ground.
Rookie of the year race
This is one of the deeper rookie classes the NHL has seen in quite some time, and it will be intriguing to watch the Calder Trophy race play out over the second half of the season. There are 12 first-year players with at least 20 points through the first chunk of the season, with Vancouver Canucks forward Brock Boeser (21 goals, 17 assists) and the Islanders’ Mathew Barzal (13 goals, 23 assists) leading all rookies so far.
A trio of defenceman including Tampa Bay’s Mikhail Sergachev, the Devils’ Will Butcher and Boston’s Charlie McAvoy have made impacts far greater than freshman blueliners typically put forth, with the just-turned-20-year-old McAvoy in particular stepping up and taking the reigns as Boston’s No. 1 D-man. A group of eight or so skaters, including Boeser, Barzal, Sergachev, Butcher, Clayton Keller, Alex DeBrincat, Kyle Connor and 2017 No. 1 overall pick Nico Hischier all have legitimate shots at contending for the Calder trophy at season’s end.
Will Erik Karlsson find a new home?
Erik Karlsson is the best defenseman to ever suit up for the Ottawa Senators, and probably the most talented player the franchise has ever seen. There’s an actual possibility, however, that Karlsson may not spend the prime of his career in the Nation’s Capital.
After coming out and stating he would not take less than his market value to stay in Ottawa when he becomes an unrestricted free agent in 2019, Karlsson was asked to submit (for the first time) his 10-team no-trade list to management. With an owner clearly unwilling to spend to the cap and a team sitting in the basement of the Eastern Conference, the club, if not convinced they can re-sign him, could opt to flip Karlsson at the deadline or on draft day with a year of control left on his contract in order to maximize the return they’d yield for arguably the NHL’s best blue liner.
Duelling Russian snipers
Though several players remain in the mix, the race for the NHL’s goal scoring crown this season is likely going to come down to a pair of mightily-skilled Russians in Nikita Kucherov and Alex Ovechkin – who enter 2018 with with 25 and 24 tallies, respectively. A couple Islanders’ first-liners in Anders Lee (24) and John Tavares (21), along with the rookie Boeser (21) will also be in the mix.
Kucherov and Ovechkin may just be the two best pure shooters in the world right now, and both are in different, yet equally-productive points in their careers. The 24-year-old Kucherov is in his fourth full NHL season, and broke through with a career-high 40 tallies last season. Ovechkin, the wily veteran sniper, has captured a mind-blowing six Rocket Richard trophies as the NHL’s leading goal-scorer and has buried 50 tallies in a season seven times, including 65 in 2007-08.
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