Training camp preview: Coaches, rookies and lines, PTOh my

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Will <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nhl/players/4683/" data-ylk="slk:Matt Duchene">Matt Duchene</a> make it to training camp with the <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nhl/teams/col/" data-ylk="slk:Colorado Avalanche">Colorado Avalanche</a>? (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
Will Matt Duchene make it to training camp with the Colorado Avalanche? (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

All 31 NHL training camps officially open today, and that means that after a long, bad summer, hockey is officially back.

And despite the overall quality of the summer (which, again, was bad) you can’t say the NHL is wanting for storylines as camp official begins. Even leaving aside what a catastrophe the inaugural season of Vegas Golden Knights hockey will be, there’s a whole hell of a lot to talk about over the next few weeks.

Let’s run down just a few of the bigger storylines around the league:

So many new coaches

Right now, only three NHL head coaches have had their jobs for more than four years. Joel Quenneville (no surprise) is the longest-tenured, having been hired mid-October 2008. But after that, Jon Cooper and Alain Vigneault only barely make the four-year cut-off, having been hired in their teams’ 2013 offseason.

But the number of coaching changes made in the 2017 calendar year is staggering: 10, not including the Vegas Golden Knights making their first hire ever.

So that’s 11 coaches — more than a third of the league — entering their first full seasons with new clubs? A lot of them take over with their teams in unenviable positions. Just the last five hired (Rick Tocchet in Arizona, Phil Housley in Buffalo, Bob Boughner in Florida, Travis Green in Vancouver, and John Stevens in LA) have tough hills to climb if they want to get their teams all that close to the playoffs. I don’t think anyone expects Gallant to work a miracle with what he’s got.

Some others are better off: Ken Hitchcock will almost certainly get Dallas back to the postseason. Claude Julien has a pretty good club in the Canadiens, and frankly they’re lucky to have him. Mike Yeo in St. Louis should likewise have a nice go of things.

That leaves two more unmentioned: Bruce Cassidy in Boston and Doug Weight in Brooklyn. That feels like two teams that could really go either way, irrespective of what their coaches can do. Just weird rosters on both fronts, and if either club wants to make the playoffs, they have the talent but maybe not the depth.

When 1 in every 3 teams league-wide has a new face behind the bench, there’s a lot to keep track of, but it should at least provide some enjoyable chaos.

Top 2 picks could change their teams’ fortunes

What role will Nico Hischier play with the Devils this season? (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
What role will Nico Hischier play with the Devils this season? (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Very fun that the top two picks in the league went to two of the longer-standing Metropolitan Division teams that don’t seem to have a particularly large amount of enmity toward each other, but their impacts could both prove significant.

And like a lot of top-two picks, their teams are in a position to give them plenty of opportunity.

Not that either the Flyers or Devils want to be in position to give Nolan Patrick or Nico Hischier second-line minutes, but they might end up doing just that. In Philly, at least, there’s a cushion of Claude Giroux and Sean Couturier in front of Patrick, who looks like he should be good to go at the start of the season. But if something happens to either of them, or if Patrick really proves something, there could be a bigger role for him.

The Devils have no such luxury, as Travis Zajac is out long-term and the only other centers on the roster who have proven they’re top-nine NHL players are Adam Henrique (who, by the way, played a decent amount of last season on the wing) and Brian Boyle (who, by the way, should be nowhere near second-line minutes). If it’s down to Hischier or, oh god, Pavel Zacha, you’d think John Hynes would go with the rookie. You don’t want to put him in that position, of course, but they might not have much of a choice.

Neither is likely to be a Calder Trophy candidate, simply because they’re so young and they’re not likely to be in positions to succeed over 82 games, but if nothing else they’ll provide a glimpse of things to come.

Goaltending battles?

Speaking of the Flyers, they’re one of the handful of teams league-wide with no clear answers for who will be the starting goalies.

They have to choose between Brian Elliott (who was awful last year in Calgary after years of low-key great hockey under Ken Hitchcock; wonder what changed ha ha ha) and Michal Neuvirth, who was an atrocious backup last year after a mostly decent career as a 1b. Neither seems like a great choice! Maybe they’ll platoon it!

Other teams with a potential goaltending controversy on their hands: The Red Wings (Howard vs. Mrazek), Islanders (Halak vs. Greiss), and Florida (Luongo vs. Reimer). There are also a few maybes here, depending on how things work out, including: Winnipeg (Mason vs. Hellebuyck), Dallas (Bishop vs. Lehtonen), Anaheim (Gibson vs. Miller), and perhaps even Calgary (Smith vs. Lack? Yikes.)

But again, that’s a good chunk of the league with iffy-at-best goaltending situations. Pretty fun!

Finding chemistry

In addition to all the coaching changes, some fairly big shakeups came for star players’ situations as well, with trades, new contracts, and other issues cropping up to dramatically impact the way some marquee lines might have to work.

Probably chief among them is Chicago shipping out Artemi Panarin and bringing back their old friend Brandon Saad. It’s clear that Saad will play with Jonathan Toews and, as I’ve talked about before, it’ll be interesting to see what Patrick Kane looks like without the guy who seemingly made his production shoot into the stratosphere. Maybe the added offense for Toews makes up the difference, but it’s tough to say, especially since they also have to replace Marian Hossa’s two-way quality as well.

Meanwhile, the new-look Washington Capitals are likely to look a lot like the old Caps, only a little worse. They kept TJ Oshie and Evgeny Kuznetsov with big extensions, but it cost them crucial depth in the form of Kevin Shattenkirk, Marcus Johansson, Karl Alzner, and Justin Williams. They’ve still got plenty of talent (as you might expect given their status as Presidents’ Trophy winners two years running), but boy, they sure did lose a lot of it as well. How they navigate that will go a long way toward determining how the best division in hockey looks this year.

Then in Edmonton, the thinking is now pretty clear: If they’re paying big, big money to Leon Draisaitl, he’s gotta be the No. 2 center behind Connor McDavid. That creates some interesting questions. Pushing Ryan Nugent-Hopkins down to be your No. 3 (or maybe trading him, who knows?) ain’t bad at all, but it opens up a slot next to McDavid. Who takes that? Could be anyone.

And maybe it’s just morbid curiosity at this point, but I kind of want to see what happens with the Sedins. So far, it seems the plan is to throw Sam Gagner on their line. Not a bad idea. Gagner is a bit of a player and he’s certainly better than some of the stiffs with whom the Sedins have been saddled the past few years. And if that doesn’t work, might I suggest: Brock Boeser? Gone are the days when the twins can make even, say, Jason King, look like a borderline-useful forward, but Gagner can play a bit, especially on the power play. Boeser’s CV as a scorer at the lower levels speaks for itself. It’d be nice for Daniel and Henrik to ride into the sunset with one last 65-plus-point season under their belts.

Interesting PTOs

Cody Franson seems to be a pretty strong candidate to stick with the Chicago Blackhawks. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
Cody Franson seems to be a pretty strong candidate to stick with the Chicago Blackhawks. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

As discussed before, most PTOs are cynical pieces of business intended to skirt roster rules. However, there are a few NHLers on tryout deals who could crack their teams’ lineups. You can choose for yourself whether that speaks better for the player or worse for the team.

Probably the slam-dunkest of these deals — in terms of, “He should absolutely make that team” — is Cody Franson in Chicago. Decent No. 4 defender, good bottom-pair guy. And man, Chicago needs help on the blue line.

Other intriguing PTO deals: Jimmy Hayes in New Jersey (he doesn’t score a lot of goals, but neither do they, so let’s not throw stones here) and PA Parenteau in Detroit (he might legitimately be the fifth-best forward they have in camp). Maybe maybe Eric Gelinas in Montreal and Alex Chiasson in Washington (tough to get a read on those guys as far as I’m concerned, but I think they might be cheap fringe NHLers).

Unsigned RFAs

And yeah, training camps are opening, but there’s still a handful of unsigned RFAs out there nonetheless.

Let’s start with the happy news: Marcus Foligno doesn’t have a deal from Minnesota yet, but all indications are it’ll happen soon.

The biggest of these is David Pastrnak in Boston, which has been talked about at length on this website. There seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding on the team’s part about what the market bears for a player of Pastrnak’s caliber, and one wonders exactly when light will dawn on Marblehead here. Just pay the guy. Good lord, how do you let it get this far?

Same is true of Andreas Athanasiou in Detroit. Last I saw the team was offering him an incredibly low-value bridge deal. Something less than $2 million, if I’m not mistaken. That’s an insult of an offer on a team that pays Justin Abdelkader whatever Justin Abdelkader makes. (What’s that? It’s how much? Come on.) Athanasiou reportedly has a KHL offer on the table, and I bet you it’s for more than $1.9 million pre-tax.

Josh Anderson and Columbus don’t seem lined up on a deal quite yet and the player won’t show up to camp without one. In fact, he’s apparently prepared to go to Switzerland to skate instead. Maybe that’ll get the contract talks moving along more seriously.

Finally, no progress on Nikita Zadorov re-signing with Colorado. Hey, I wonder what country this Zadorov character is from, and if they have a big-money professional hockey league there. Probably not. I bet Joe Sakic is playing this exactly right.

Oh, and now that I mention the Avs…

Duchene Watch

Your guess is as good as mine. I can’t know the mind of Sakic. Perhaps no one can.

Tavares Watch

Your guess is also as good as mine here.

Will someone sign Jagr?


Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

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