It’s that time of year again. I love the summer, but those three-plus months without hockey are tough. But as we know, summer is fleeting and here we are back in the fall with the beginning of the NHL regular season upon us. I was so busy last week I didn’t even have time to do a season preview before the first pucks were dropped last Wednesday. So instead, here’s a quick rundown of what I’m looking forward to and expecting this NHL season.
Predictions are tricky. You may think you have a team pegged and then they go and do the opposite. Last year at this time, I wrongly predicted that Edmonton, Toronto, Ottawa, Boston, Columbus and Calgary would miss the playoffs, while I had the likes of Tampa, Detroit, Philly, the Islanders, Florida, Los Angeles and Dallas all reaching the postseason. I was just a bit off, but I wasn’t the only one.
There’s a lot of young talent in the league that is ready to step up and take the mantle from the likes of Crosby and Kane. Teams are going with skill and speed over size and grit and it’s making for some exciting hockey. The likes of McDavid, Matthews and Eichel are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
New rules. I was happy to see the league institute a new rule around the coach’s offside challenge of goals, which slowed things down considerably last season. Now there are some stakes: if a coach loses his challenge, his team is penalized for delay of game. That should make teams a little more hesitant about challenging goals; indeed, Rangers coach Alain Vigneault challenged a Maple Leafs goal on Saturday night and was penalized after the challenge was shot down. If the end result this season is fewer frivolous offside challenges, it will be worth it.
The NHL is also cracking down on hard slashes to the glove, an issue that came to a head last season with Sid Crosby’s unpunished slash that nearly severed part of Marc Methot’s finger. It remains to be seen how far refs will go in making these calls: will any stick contact to the glove be called, or will it be only hard hacks? Another rule change hopes to prevent cheating on faceoffs by doling out penalties to centers who try to angle for position in the faceoff circle by either moving their skates inside the markings or using head butts to gain position against their opponents. There were a lot of warnings and eventual penalties called for this in the preseason, but hopefully, teams will figure it out as the season wears on.
More goals? Through the first handful of games, there have been a ton of goals scored. Alex Ovechkin had hat tricks in consecutive periods (in two different games), the Leafs and Hawks burst through the gate with 15 goals in their first two games and defenses in general were looking a little shell-shocked. No doubt teams will settle down, but let’s hope the offenses of the league can keep things interesting.
He’s back. It was great to see the ageless (okay, he’s 45) Jaromir Jagr sign with Calgary right before the season started. He’s only 57 games away from passing Gordie Howe for most games played in NHL history, but he’s not just a feel-good story. Jagr can still play, and he’ll give a talented, young Flames squad both veteran experience and top-notch playmaking ability. I hope he plays forever.
Vegas, baby. The Vegas Golden Knights made their debut last week and it was glorious, going 2-0 out of the gate. Nobody expects that to continue, but it’s nice to see the new club get off to a good start. It’ll be interesting to see whether the team can build a strong fan base out in the desert.
No Winter Olympics. Not for NHL players, anyway. This was announced by the league in the spring, but it’s worth noting again that the NHL will not be taking a two-week break in February to allow its players to participate for their native countries in the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, Korea. The league cited the disruption to regular season play, as well as the time zone difference and negligible benefits as reasoning for the decision to skip the Olympics for the time since 1994. It’s disappointing for fans (at least this fan, anyway) and it looks like 2022 isn’t happening because the International Olympic Committee has gone on record as saying participation in the 2018 Games is a pre-requisite for being part of the following tournament.
I’m not seeing a Pittsburgh three-peat this season. Here’s my picks to click:
East: Tampa Bay over Toronto
West: Edmonton over Minnesota
Stanley Cup: Tampa Bay
Hart (MVP): Connor McDavid
Art Ross (leading scorer): Connor McDavid
Norris (best defenseman): Brent Burns
Vezina (best goalie): Braden Holtby
Calder (best rookie): Charlie McAvoy
Selke (best defensive forward): Patrice Bergeron
Adams (best coach): Mike Babcock