With the offseason coming to a close, training camps have opened and the start of the 2019–20 NHL season is just around the corner. With each team given a new slate, there are plenty of questions to consider ahead of the new season. Will the Lightning rebound from after an early playoff exit? Will RFAs be signed in time for the first official puck drop? How will the Jack Hughes–Kaapo Kakko rivalry shake out? Here are some storylines to watch throughout the year:
1) RFA Stalemates
Artemi Panarin, Sergei Bobrovsky and Matt Duchene’s summer exodus from Columbus caused a spending bonanza in the open market (a combined 21 years, $207.5 million divvied between the three of them), but the same hasn’t been the case for this offseason’s restricted free agents. Mitch Marner and Charlie McAvoy finally reached deals with their respective teams, but there are still plenty of RFAs holding out. The Jets haven’t figured out how to bring back both Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor. And, despite 75-point-plus seasons, Brayden Point, Mikko Rantanen and Matthew Tkachuk don’t have new contracts. William Nylander proved he wasn’t scared of missing regular season games, and he got paid. Your move, GM’s.
2) Cross–Hudson River Rivalry: Hughes vs. Kakko
Kaapo Kakko threatened Jack Hughes’s reign as the consensus No. 1 overall pick after notching six goals and a gold medal in the 2019 IIHF tournament, but the Devils stuck with Hughes at the draft. The debate didn’t end there and Kakko’s hype has continued since delivering a dominant one-game performance at the NHL’s annual prospect tournament. The two 18-year-old phenoms boast tantalizing potential—Hughes possessing creativity and explosive skating, Kakko displaying power and strong puckhandling—and could start in their team’s respective top six to begin the year. Spoiler alert: They’re both going to be good. P.K. Subban and Panarin’s arrival to New Jersey and New York should keep both teams relevant, but the future lies with Hughes and Kakko.
3) How Will the Lightning Rebound?
Last season Tampa Bay scored more goals than any team in over 20 years, dominated with a historically dangerous power play, steamrolled the NHL to a record-tying 62 wins … and then was dumped in four games by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round of the playoffs. Goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy told NHL.com that the team “wasn’t ready” for the playoffs. Postseason failure aside, it’s a new season and the Lightning are still dangerous. Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Victor Hedman and Vasilevsky aren’t going anywhere. GM Julian BriseBois tinkered around the edges, reshaping the defense with Kevin Shattenkirk and Luke Schenn and adding Blues playoff hero Patrick Maroon. It’s Stanley Cup or bust for a franchise with three 50-win seasons in seven years and nothing to show for it.
4) Can Last Season’s Cinderella’s Turn Into Contenders?
While the Blues rode “Gloria” and a worst-to-first season all the way to a ticker-tape parade in St. Louis, the Hurricanes and Avalanche captured hearts but not the Stanley Cup. Carolina’s affable Bunch of Jerks faces a leadership void as Justin Williams—the mastermind of the Storm Surge—mulls retirement. Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen and Andrei Svechnikov should secure the team’s playoff status in the meantime. Out in the Western Conference, the Avs swept the Flames and moved on from Tyson Barrie, leaving young blueliners Samuel Girard and Cale Makar to command the backend. That shouldn’t be an issue as forwards Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Rantanen look to turn last season’s hot streak into a strong 2019 campaign and lead one of the league’s best young teams.
5) Young Goaltenders
For the first time in forever, the Philadelphia Flyers might have a franchise goaltender. Carter Hart became the first 20-year-old goalie in a decade with at least 15 wins and he was one of three goalies since 1986 to make 30 starts before turning 21. Despite playing behind a porous Flyers defense, Hart looked like a bonafide starter, flashed his potential and showed why he was the team’s top prospect. He would have finished higher in Calder voting if not for Jordan Binnington, who did about everything a rookie goalie could hope to accomplish. The Blues secured their steely netminder to a two-year, $8.8 million bridge deal. Each goalie is expected to be his team’s starter, facing the rigors of a full season for the first time in their careers.
Additional Items of Interest
Does the league’s scoring trend continue? Scoring has climbed in each of the last three seasons. That coincides with an increase in shots per game: team’s averaged at least 31 shots per game during the last two seasons, the highest averages in over 30 years.
Are the decade’s early Stanley Cup contenders finished? After four years of alternating Stanley Cup victories between 2012–15, the Kings and Blackhawks are trending toward the bottom of the Western Conference. But Anze Kopitar has said the Kings “have something to prove” and Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane aren’t going anywhere, for now.
Coaching hotseats. Winnipeg’s window looks smaller than originally thought, and coach Paul Maurice could be on the outs if the Jets don’t live up to expectations. Phil Housley might find himself in a similar situation if the Sabres don’t take a notable step forward this year.
Alex Ovechkin’s quest for 700 goals. Ovi needs 42 goals to become the eighth NHLer to reach 700 goals. He’d move ahead of Luc Robitaille (668), Teemu Selanne (685), Mario Lemieux (690), Steve Yzerman (692) and Mark Messier (694) in the process.