A new NHL season is getting underway, and it’s time to break from our summer hiatus to look ahead.
Not everything that happened the last three-and-a-half months made sense, and we’re not even going to dive into Ilya Kovalchuk retiring here. But all of it points to a season of curiosity. Tyler Seguin is in Dallas. The salary cap rose once again to a nice, un-round $64.3 million. Good teams stood pat. So did some bad teams. Teemu Selanne is the new Chris Chelios.
Here’s how it will all play out. We think:
Most puzzling off-season: Edmonton Oilers.
Edmonton had the first overall draft pick in 2010, 2011 and 2012 and used each pick well. The organization was getting younger and better — the Oilers’ top minor-league affiliate, the Oklahoma City Barons, advanced to the AHL’s Western Conference finals; their ECHL affiliate won the championship. Their top six scorers were all 23 or younger last season, and goalie Devan Dubnyk took a major step forward. So what do they do? Fire their general manager, head coach and one of three assistant coaches, of course. Maybe there was some internal turmoil bubbling under the surface. From a distance however, the Oilers’ housecleaning seemed like a knee-jerk reaction to some prematurely high expectations. Can a team full of 20- and 21-year-olds be allowed to learn at an age-appropriate pace, or will Dallas Eakins’ leash be similarly short?
Best off-season: Chicago Blackhawks/Los Angeles Kings (tie).
It happens every year: Team wins Stanley Cup; opposing general managers take notice, try to copy the “championship blueprint”; entire NHL shifts in that direction. The trend continued when the Los Angeles Kings prevailed in 2012 and the Chicago Blackhawks won it all in June. But the league is in a different world now than, say, five years ago, with fewer teams are able to transform into contenders by making a few off-season changes.1 If you already have a winning blueprint, why alter it? Good on Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman for sticking to his guns, keeping the team’s entire core intact while losing Michael Frolik, Dave Bolland and backup goalie Ray Emery. And good on Kings GM Dean Lombardi for doing the same, swapping out backup goalies and getting forward Matt Frattin from Toronto. The only thing that thwarted a Cup run in Los Angeles last season, perhaps, were season-ending injuries to Willie Mitchell, Rob Scuderi and Jarret Stoll. That’s just bad luck. Chicago was a bit better than L.A. in the Western Conference Final last season, and a bit better than the Boston Bruins — another team with a championship blueprint — in a memorable championship-clinching Game 6. And if you’re one bad break away from being the best, why change a thing?
Player who will benefit most from his new scenery: Tyler Seguin
Let’s be clear: A 21-year-old acting his age in Boston is no less likely to find trouble in Dallas, or Toronto, or New York, or Timbuktu, where I hear the party scene is fantastic. But the local hockey team is only slightly less popular in Timbuktu than Dallas, where every bit of Cowboys-related minutiae reported in the media gives Seguin cover as he takes time to mature with the Stars. In Boston, where the hockey is infinitely more popular and the expectations much higher for the Bruins than for the Stars, one misstep by a young stud like Seguin becomes a thing. Dallas is simply not a hockey town; good luck to owner Tom Gagliardi in trying to make it one. Gagliardi will even let Seguin play his natural center position, and that might be the most beneficial change of all.
Player who will benefit least from his new scenery: Jonathan Bernier
The grass is always greener, right? Resigned to backup duties behind Jonathan Quick in Los Angeles, Bernier asked for a trade. He finally got one in June … and landed in Toronto, where goalies these days are inevitably discarded at the accursed crossroads of obscurity and infamy.2 This is no easy transition. Speaking of blueprints: The Kings’ stout young defense and star-studded forward corps offer optimal working conditions for an NHL goaltender. To complain is to nitpick. At the same time, Bernier was a seldom-used backup on the fourth-most popular professional sports team in town3. Now, he is not. Wherever these greener pastures end, there’s either a dumpster or a bronze statue waiting for Bernier. For his sake, you hope he can buck the trend.
Thing I’m not so sure will work: Teemu Selanne still playing at age 43
Love Teemu, love the video the Anaheim Ducks made to announce Teemu’s return4, still can’t see this season ending well — for him or for the team. How does a player who was so ineffective for vast stretches of a four-and-a-half month long season expect to be effective in April, May or June of 2014? The answer, the Ducks believe, is by scheduling days off for Selanne in advance. At best, it’s a smart way for the Ducks to transition from the Selanne Era to an era where Emerson Etem, Jakob Silfverberg and others pick up the secondary scoring load behind Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. At worst, it was a compromise done not in the best interests of the team, but out of deference to a player who means more to his current team than perhaps any other player in the league5. But hey, this all-access Finnish documentary of Selanne’s life shows promise!
Dark horse Hart Trophy candidate: Bobby Ryan, Ottawa
The displaced Duck enters a situation in Ottawa where he will have certain freedoms he did not enjoy in Anaheim. He will not have to play center. He will not have to jell with linemates that have better chemistry (Getzlaf/Perry) or far less chemistry (almost everyone else the Ducks tried to pair with him last season). Under a coach (Paul MacLean) whose system successfully extracts defense everywhere else on the ice, Ryan can do what he was born to do: Score at will. Provided the Sens meet the bare minimum requirement for producing a Hart candidate — that is, they make the playoffs — Ryan now has a real shot at being considered the league’s most valuable player.
Preferred Hart candidate: Jonathan Toews
After captaining the ‘Hawks to two Stanley Cups in the last four years, it’s become time that Toews get the recognition he deserves. “Captain Serious” probably won’t lead the NHL in scoring and he will face stiff competition for the Selke Trophy as the league’s best defensive forward (which he probably is). But consider this: In addition to his two Cups, Toews has one Conn Smythe Trophy, one Selke, an Olympic gold medal, and was named Most Outstanding Forward of those Games — all at age 25. This is the year he gets recognized for being the best player on the best team in the world, regardless of the team.
Dark horse Stanley Cup pick: New York Rangers over San Jose Sharks
There are probably better teams in each conference than the Rangers and Sharks. But when I look at the short list of teams that fell under the “one move away from contending in 2012-13” category, I keep coming back to these two. For the Rangers, they’re betting on a coaching change making the biggest difference. The Sharks are betting on Tomas Hertl and Tyler Kennedy. And yes, even in my dark-horse scenario, I have the Sharks losing their final game of a good season.
Preferred Stanley Cup Finals pick: Pittsburgh Penguins over Los Angeles Kings
Again, the Kings fell short of back-to-back titles in 2013 because of bad luck, but they were closer than you might think. The Penguins fell short — way short — against the Boston Bruins because of bad goaltending. But does anyone believe that Marc-Andre Fleury is truly as awful as he looked during last year’s playoffs? The guess here is that being left off Team Canada’s summer roster motivates Fleury to regain his 2008-09 form, and the Penguins become the most complete team in hockey.
1. The salary-cap restrictions imposed by the new CBA ensured this, but the league seemed to be leaning this way even without the lockout.
2. Look for the corner of Jonas Gustafsson Blvd. and Vesa Toskala Ave., if you’re using a local map.
3. Lakers first, Dodgers second, Clippers a sneaky third. You can bump the Kings to fifth if you include the Angels of Anaheim, sixth if you count the USC football team.
4. Didn’t love his secrecy. No amount of well-placed sources, it seemed, had Teemu making his announcement when he did.
5. I considered some other players for this distinction. Alex Ovechkin gets it if he’d won a Stanley Cup. Sidney Crosby gets it if the Penguins didn’t have such a damn good team around him. Same for Zdeno Chara in Boston. Daniel Alfredsson gets it if he isn’t a Red Wing. Martin Brodeur comes closest, and I’ll buy that argument, but Brodeur’s contribution to hockey in New Jersey seems relatively less than Selanne’s contribution to hockey in Anaheim when you consider that Selanne was such a singular talent on his team for so long. Just ask yourself, where are the Devils 15 years ago with Brodeur, but without Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer and Ken Daneyko? Then ask where those old mighty Mighty Ducks teams are with Selanne but without … Bobby Dollas and Guy Hebert?