Hockey is back.
There are old faces in new places (Mike Babcock and Lou Lamoriello in Toronto). There are new faces in old places (Slava Voynov in Russia). Jaromir Jagr is still employed in the NHL, joining Chris Chelios and Gordie Howe as a rare “once in a couple different generations” player.
Already a treasure trove of storylines have emerged, with more on the way. Here are eight to whet your appetite for the upcoming season:
1. 3-on-3 overtime
I’m convinced that the early instances of 3-on-3 overtime I’ve seen are the closest I will come to dropping acid.
In one case, the Chicago Blackhawks were leading the St. Louis Blues 3-1 after 60 minutes when the game went to overtime, which was mandated by the league. The idea is to acclimate these teams (and every team, eventually) to the new format. They had a minute to get acclimated before Troy Brouwer scored a goal for the Blues. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen a game in any sport end on a sudden-death goal for the losing team.
That won’t happen during the regular season, but there have been some early takeaways from the new OT format. I didn’t anticipate the margin of error for goalies would be so large, but at least once I saw a netminder allow a rebound that would be considered catastrophic in a 5-on-5 scenario, possibly even 4-on-4. Because there were only six skaters on the ice, however, there was no fight for the puck because no one else was around the puck. The absence of traffic also means that screening the goaltender isn’t going to be an option for most teams, so I imagine this changes overtime into something more like a shootout for the goalies — read the play, react to the shot, and don’t worry about allowing a rebound.
Another thought: Sidney Crosby might be unstoppable in overtime. I don’t know whether any of this is good or bad, but it’s definitely going to be different.
2. Lou Lamoriello and Mike Babcock running the Toronto Maple Leafs
Babcock was hired May 20, Lamoriello on July 23, and I’m still not sure what’s next for the Leafs under this arrangement.
We can predict certain things, like Babcock drawing up the X’s and O’s of a possession-first system, or Lamoriello acquiring Travis Zajac. It’s the things we can’t predict that make this so intriguing. How will Babcock manage the expectations for a rebuilding team in a market that does not tolerate rebuilding? How will Lamoriello delegate executive duties to his younger, more analytically-driven staff? Much of this is new to them, and they are new to Toronto.
3. The Chicago Blackhawks, bearers of a dynasty
I enjoy the dynamic of a wide-open field in any major sports league, and the NHL embodied this for the better part of five years following the 2004-05 lockout.
The dynamic changed the moment Patrick Kane snuck a forehand past Michael Leighton in overtime to end the 2010 Stanley Cup Final. Since then the Blackhawks have been to three Finals, winning them all. The Los Angeles Kings and Boston Bruins have been to two Finals. If you don’t have the requisite combination of size, speed and goaltending to compete on this level you might as well tell season-ticket holders to temper their expectations at the outset of the season.
I really enjoyed ESPN’s “Chasing the Blackhawks” series on who can dethrone the best team in hockey. To the cynic, Brent Seabrook’s new 8-year contract extension is a measuring stick, a reminder to Blackhawks fans that your Cup window is due to close when Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane come off the books in 2023, after which a 38-year-old Seabrook is still owed $6.9 million. (Have fun with that.) In the meantime, Chicago can have fun watching the dominant franchise of its era.
4. Milan Lucic playing for the Kings
This probably wasn’t Dean Lombardi’s intention, but the Kings effectively doubled down on offense over the summer. Slava Voynov is gone (more on him in a bit). Lucic, who never saw a 50-50 puck he didn’t think he could win, is in. Christian Ehrhoff, an expert at getting the puck to the net but a below-average defenseman last season according to both Corsi and Fenwick, was the marquee addition to the blue line. The top prospects competing for a job in camp are centers Brian O’Neill and Jordan Weal — put together, less 12 feet of AHL point-producing prowess.
The Kings, of course, have built their reputation on stifling scoring. It’s how they’ve managed to challenge the Chicago Blackhawks’ recent supremacy as well as any other Western Conference team. That reputation probably won’t change so long as Lombardi and Darryl Sutter are running the show, but the personnel changed more this off-season than any since the team captured its first cup in 2012.
The key to this is Lucic, who can score 30 goals but doesn’t need to to be effective. If he’s merely grinding to keep the puck in his own zone and create scoring chances for his linemates, it might be all the Kings need most nights — on paper that is. Reality sometimes has a funny way of playing itself out.
Like you, I’d rather read the sports page than the police blotter. It’s always a shame whenever the perpetrator of a crime receives more attention than his victim receives sympathy.
But there’s an inherently fascinating dynamic whenever the sports page and the police blotter converge — someone at the pinnacle of his profession being treated like a common criminal. The case against Kane took a strange turn this week. The case against Voynov resulted in him leaving the country.
Each story teaches us a valuable if uncomfortable lesson about the people who play the game. We would probably know little of Adrian Peterson’s upbringing, Josh Hamilton’s persistence, Clint Malarchuk’s depression or Mike Danton’s post-NHL career had each man kept his nose clean. Now, because of the off-ice crimes committed by Voynov, Mike Richards and Jarret Stoll (who has since signed with the Rangers), the Kings will educate their players about domestic violence and drug abuse. It’s possible that other teams will follow suit to pre-empt their own unfortunate headlines.
6. The return of Torts
John Tortorella’s act began wearing thin almost immediately after he guided the Tampa Bay Lightning to the only NHL championship a John Tortorella team ever won. That was 11 years ago.
In a way, that validates the recent selection of Tortorella as the head coach for Team USA in next year’s World Cup of Hockey. His abrasive style, grating over time, might be most effective in a short tournament where maintaining long-term relationships with players is optional.
We’ve seen it before with Ron Wilson and Ken Hitchcock, a pair of fiery NHL nomads who have done some of their best work behind the bench in international competition. Tortorella, the winningest American-born NHL coach ever, might be a more logical choice than you think.
7. Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel
If the early reviews are to be believed, McDavid and Eichel might be the best 1-2 overall draft picks to enter the league since … Ilya Kovalchuk and Jason Spezza in 2001? Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau in 1997? Mike Modano and Trevor Linden in 1988?
We’ll enjoy the progress of McDavid in Edmonton and Eichel in Buffalo for now, and level the historical judgment later.
8. Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi
The Dallas Stars have not drafted and developed a number-one goalie since Marty Turco, and he hasn’t played a minute in the NHL in three years. With all apologies to Jack Campbell, who is 23 years old and has plenty of time still to develop, it’s telling that the Stars are paying two goalies in excess of $10 million combined this season. That’s where they are at the moment.
This seems terribly unnecessary, and it probably is, but maybe the combination of Lehtonen and Niemi is the cure for what ails an ailing franchise. The Stars have won two playoff games the last seven years. At that point it’s worth trying anything. This certainly fits the definition of “anything.” I’m not sure which goalie is number one and which is number two, but I’d be willing to guess that one of them picks up the bill at the next team dinner.