Hockey is finally back! Well, sort of. Preseason games, at least, are underway.
Preseason has evolved in the NHL, to the point that the battles to make the roster are dictated very little by a player's performance during training camp. With a hard cap and locked-in contracts, teams tend to have their roster puzzle sorted out before training camp even begins, with the aforementioned contracts dictating by and large who's in and who's out.
“I do think it’s changed a little bit from a mindset, even for me as a coach… I think, on all teams probably, that window has closed a little bit," New York Rangers head coach Peter Laviolette, who enters his first year at the helm in the Big Apple, recently admitted. "There’s contracts that are in place, and that’s not to say that any contract is locked in. There’s always moves you can make.”
That doesn’t mean there isn’t any intrigue during training camps. Teammates are jockeying for lineup spots, teams are experimenting, special teams units are being formed and, yes, there are still some players in real competitions to make the team.
Here are five situations to look out for.
Maple Leafs shuffling the deck down the middle
It’s no secret the Maple Leafs and William Nylander have been grinding through contract negotiations, with the forward asking for upwards of $10 million per season and the Leafs looking for that number to be in the high 8s or low 9s.
With Mitch Marner under contract and in line for his own extension in the not-too-distant future, the idea of paying two wingers eight figures each while having enough money to build the rest of the team is a tall order. That's especially true since center Auston Matthews will take over as the league's highest-paid player next season when his new extension kicks in.
Wingers simply aren't a premium position, even if Nylander is an excellent player. It is far easier to find complementary players to flank quality centers than the other way around.
But what if instead of devoting huge swaths of their salary cap to the wing, the Maple Leafs simply converted one of those stars into a center themselves? Well, the Leafs are trying to find out.
Many people forget that at one point, the Maple Leafs intended for Nylander to play center at the NHL level. He played it with the Toronto Marlies in the AHL and originally played it in the NHL when he earned his first call-up at the end of the 2015-16 season.
Of course, that all changed that summer after the Maple Leafs won the draft lottery. Matthews joined the organization and prompted the Leafs to shift Nylander away from the middle of the ice.
Nylander has the speed and strength to play up the middle, but will have to balance pushing for offense and playing responsible defensive hockey when lining up down the middle. The Swedish forward even referenced that he'd find himself on far fewer breakaways at center (because he can’t blow the zone), but does get to skate the puck up the middle of the ice a lot more.
If Nylander pans out as a center, it’s easy to see the big contract following. The Leafs could lock in two prime-aged players, Matthews and Nylander, as their top two centers through the rest of their primes. If this latest experiment doesn't pan out, however, those contract negotiations are going to get even more interesting.
Golden Knights have one hole to fill
It's not all that often we see the reigning Stanley Cup champions essentially run it back. The Avalanche lost a collection of players, namely Nazem Kadri, Darcy Kuemper, and Andre Burakovsky. Tampa Bay lost Yanni Gourde, Barclay Goodrow and Blake Coleman in one summer, followed by Ondrej Palat and Ryan McDonagh the next. The one year the Lightning largely ran it back, they won back-to-back Cups.
As for last year's champs in the Golden Knights? The only impact player they lost was Reilly Smith, who they traded away to become cap compliant.
In fact, the Golden Knights opened up training camp by reuniting all of the lines and pairings they largely used on their Cup run. Well, except for Smith’s spot of course.
That’s not exactly a small hole to fill, given that Smith had 26 goals and 56 points last season, in addition to 14 points in 24 playoff games. He was a notable contributor en route to their first ever Stanley Cup, and his absence will undoubtedly be felt.
Getting the first crack at replacing him is Paul Cotter, a strong winger listed at 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds, who impressed with 13 goals in 55 games last season. He will have to fight off others, including Pavel Dorofeyev and professional tryout (PTO) candidate Max Comtois.
Notable PTOs worth keeping tabs on
Speaking of PTOs, there are several intriguing ones to keep an eye on. Last season, there were a number of notable auditions that turned into contracts and contributions.
Eric Staal helped Florida reach the Stanley Cup Final (even if in a depth role). Jimmy Vesey returned to New York on a PTO, eventually earning an extension before the season even ended. Derek Stepan became a contributor in Carolina, as did Zach Aston-Reese in Toronto and Derick Brassard in Ottawa. Sonny Milano had a PTO with Calgary, ended up signing in Washington, and got a nice contract extension of his own.
There is value to be found in this pool.
Some PTOs that stand out include the aforementioned Comtois, as not only does he have all the tools that originally made him an exciting prospect, but he’s coming from a really poor Anaheim team. Vegas offers structure, surrounding talent and opportunity. This could be found money.
Colin White was an intriguing player only a few seasons ago and while he didn't quite stick with Florida last season, he’s still just 26 and is going to a Penguins team that will be without Jake Guentzel to start the season. That doesn’t mean White is about to play with Sidney Crosby, but it does bump everyone up a step in the pecking order, creating an opportunity for White to stick on the oldest team in the league.
Noah Gregor isn’t a player with top-six upside at this point, but he has been reasonably productive on a poor Sharks team and has traits that would fit in well on a contender like the Leafs. The Leafs are in cap trouble but if he finds a way to stick, he could make a name for himself.
There is bubble playoff hero Joel Kiviranta, trying out for an Avs team that had huge depth issues last season. His game has never really developed, but it’s another case of getting a good opportunity on a good team.
There are a couple of potential veteran situations to monitor as well, with Josh Bailey in Ottawa, Sam Gagner (or Brandon Sutter, or Adam Erne) in Edmonton and Mark Pysyk in Pittsburgh. Ultimately, we will look back at some point this season and see a couple of teams that really benefited from a PTO situation.
Loaded Kings have to find running mate for Dubois, Fiala
When your team makes a blockbuster trade, it always comes with intrigue. The Los Angeles Kings made one of the biggest splashes of the offseason by acquiring Pierre-Luc Dubois from the Winnipeg Jets for a collection of good players and assets, headlined by Gabriel Vilardi and Alex Iafallo.
You can’t deny the credentials on Dubois, though. The 6-foot-2 center has scored more than 27 goals and put up over 60 points three times in his career. He is strong defensively when he wants to be (which is key), and can dominate 200 feet of ice and contribute in all areas of the game. It is nearly impossible to trade for that type of player, but the Kings did so in large part because the 25-year-old forced the Jets' hand.
How he integrates into the Los Angeles lineup will be the next question. The Kings can simply run back their top two lines from last season of Adrian Kempe - Anze Kopitar – Quinton Byfield and Trevor Moore – Phillip Danault – Viktor Arvidsson. That's two strong lines with clear roles, already representing a solid core for a strong team, and that doesn’t even include Dubois or Kevin Fiala. Those are the two big fish the Kings have acquired, and paid, over the past two offseasons and it looks like they are going to pair them together to start the season, while keeping their other two established top lines together.
Logically, the approach makes sense. But whether Dubois and Fiala work together is something we won’t realistically know until at least halfway through the season. The real training camp question will be who plays with them?
Arthur Kaliyev appears to be getting the first shot at it and for his sake, he better make good of it. He is still just 22 but it’s not every day you get the opportunity to ride shotgun with two talented players like Dubois and Fiala. In terms of competition, there are a number of young players that could be knocking on the door sooner than later, headlined by Alex Laferriere, who is having a strong camp so far and is coming off a really strong season with Harvard.
Kaliyev has some tantalizing tools, is still young, and has already played parts of two seasons in the league with some level of production, but he hasn’t cemented himself in the lineup just yet. He’ll have to fend off people for that spot all season and that starts in camp.
Kakko, Lafreniere auditioning for bigger roles with Rangers
In back-to-back years, the Rangers selected Kaapo Kakko and Alexis Lafreniere second and first overall, respectively. Both players were immediately shoehorned into the league and with the Rangers fancying themselves as contenders, both were forced down the lineup and put into roles that didn’t exactly set them up for offensive success. Through four seasons for Kakko and three for Lafreniere, neither player has really popped offensively.
With a new head coach comes a new chance to impress and claim a spot in the top six, where the Rangers boast talent like Artemi Panarin, Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider. All of Panarin, Zibanejad and Filip Chytil have missed time at camp so far and Lafreniere is working on playing right wing so he’s not competing on the left side with Kreider and Panarin.
That type of shift from the left to the right side comes with all sorts of little details and changes to your game. He’s now playing his off-wing, which means he has to pick up pucks along the wall completely differently. Off the rush, he has to drive wide on his backhand, not his forehand. Shooting angles are different.
Those are all things to start ironing out in preseason, not to mention he’s going to have to do that while trying to claim a spot in the Rangers' top six.
Kakko, on the other hand, has generally played right wing, so that’s not an adjustment. For him, it’s more about cementing a spot in the top six once and for all. Laviolette clearly wants both players to, and is deploying them both there while their main competition, Blake Wheeler, has been paired with Vincent Trocheck.
The Rangers' established top-end talent has been reliable for years, but in order to take the next step, it’s time that Lafreniere and Kakko seize their opportunities and make good on their potential. It starts with making a good impression in training camp and locking in top-six lineup spots.