Last week I took a look at the Eastern Conference and some of the unanswered questions that loom as we head towards the new season, and there was one trend: the league seems to have been pushed even closer together, as so many years of the flat salary cap has forced the top teams to take little steps back, while many of the rebuilding teams finally look more ready to push their chips in.
There’s some element of that in the West too, as well as some other big questions, such as….
Colorado: Is a goaltending tandem of Alexandar Georgiev and Pavel Francouz enough to repeat as Stanley Cup champions?
I’m not sure there’s been a more disrespected Cup champion goalie than Darcy Kuemper. He was a .921 in the regular season, and in the biggest playoff moments – like say, a Game 4 OT win during the Cup Final, and a nail-biting 2-1 clincher in Game 6 – he was superb. We know this Avs team – even without Nazem Kadri – have at least enough skill to hang with the best teams. Francouz has never played more than 34 games in a season and Georgiev was 15-10-2 with an .896 save percentage last season (on a very good team). Can these two adequately replace Kuemper at the sport’s toughest position?
Calgary: Did the Flames pull the equivalent of losing all your cash at a casino, making the walk of shame to an ATM, then actually win all their money back and more?
OK maybe that question was a little too hyper-specific to some of my own experiences – it also never actually plays out that way – but there was a moment when it looked like this was going to be a real ugly summer for the Flames. Then suddenly they went on a run and as they’re counting up their chips, it seems like they may have actually come out ahead. If they’re any better than last season, they’re certainly among a small group of Cup favourites from the West heading into the season.
Edmonton: Can the Oilers defence give an elite forward group enough to win a Cup?
The Oilers forwards group is, without question, one of the best in the NHL. Surrounding Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl with Zach Hyman and Evander Kane proved effective last year, and I still really like the names beyond that, from Ryan McLeod to Ryan Nugent-Hopkins to Jesse Puljujarvi and beyond. They’re good-good-good.
The goaltending, between Jack Campbell and Stuart Skinner, shouldn’t hurt them any, and it wouldn’t shock me if that tandem was top half of the league.
So to me it’s up to the back-end. If they can limit chances and move the puck up quickly, the Oilers will be another legit Cup contender in Alberta.
Nashville: Can Roman Josi, Matt Duchene and Filip Forsberg replicate their career seasons to ensure the Preds score enough?
All three veteran Preds players had gigantic years, with Duchene and Forsberg scoring over 40 goals each, and Josi surpassing his previous career high in points by 31.
They added Ryan McDonagh and Nino Neiderreiter to a team that was competitive last year. To stay there and even take a step they need those three vets to do it all over again. Is that possible?
Vegas: If not now, when?
The hour is nigh for good ol’ VGK. They’re still talented as can be on the back-end, and they have the ability up front too. But the original “misfits” core is aging past 30 and not getting better. Alec Martinez and Alex Pietrangelo and Brayden McNabb are all over 30 as well. They need to be healthy (Mark Stone and Jack Eichel, namely), and they need borderline shocking seasons from a goalie tandem of Logan Thompson and Adin Hill. The pressure is on for it to all come together, as it’s not going to get any easier for this team if they don’t win now.
Vancouver: Can their D-corps hang?
They’re competitive and talented up front, and Thatcher Demko heads into the season as one of a handful of Vezina favourites. But they’re running back the same D-corps as last season, which they’ve openly mused about trying to fix in the past. For a team that can’t seem to decide if they’re blowing it up or going all in, will they get internal improvement with consistency and a full year of Bruce Boudreau? Or are they going to have to score their way out of trouble, which … sounds like more trouble.
Winnipeg: Don’t mess with (a lack of) success?
Speaking of running it back, the Jets are basically changing coaches (to Rick Bowness), “taking some pressure off” Blake Wheeler by not having a captain, and hoping they catch lightning in a bottle with an extremely similar roster to 2021-22. On the one hand, you see the logic: the top-six forward group includes Kyle Connor, who set career highs in goals (47) and points (93) last season, Mark Scheifele (70 points in 2021-22), Pierre-Luc Dubois (28 goals), Wheeler (60 points) and Nikolaj Ehlers (28 goals).
On the other hand, even with all that they finished eight points out of a playoff spot last season, and for some reason they intend to strive for a slightly improved version of that mediocrity? All their plans strike me as varied forms of half-measures so far. (And just my two cents here, but for all Wheeler has done for that franchise, beginning the season off by taking away the “C” is a strange and inauspicious start.)
San Jose: The Sharks were 30th in scoring last year and added little offence (and lost Burns), so…?
The Sharks made a change at GM (to Mike Grier) and head coach (to David Quinn) but it’s hard to see how a team trying to change its fortunes is suddenly going to find a substantial uptick in offence with just a slightly different playing style.
Not everything in hockey can be summed up by numbers, BUT: If you’re 30th in goal scoring, take away a good offensive player and don’t add any, you won’t score enough to make playoffs.
Chicago: Will Jonathan Toews and/or Patrick Kane wear different jerseys this year (or ever)?
It feels like Toews would be the most willing to leave Chicago’s sinking ship, but he’ll need to play well enough for a team to take a chance on even his pro-rated salary at the deadline (with some salary retention it could be both worthwhile to another team, and value in return for Chicago). And teams would of course want Kane in a scenario like that, surely, but would he be willing to leave? A career in just one jersey has value to some guys (as Ryan Getzlaf recently demonstrated).
Seattle: Will the Kraken actually score some goals this year?
The Kraken came out of the gates with a wildly passive game plan of building patient and slow, while trying to be competitive via defence and goaltending on the ice. Which, y’know, is smart, but … yawn. They’ve been the anti-Golden Knights, who’ve been the perfect embodiment of Vegas: exciting and careening out of control. Despite their excellent kits, Seattle was not a “stop on this channel, the Kraken are playing” team.
But this year they’ve added Oliver Bjorkstrand and Andrei Burakovsky, and Shane Wright has a chance to make the team. Matty Beniers is currently the favourite for the Calder Trophy according to the odds on Coolbet. So will that infusion of offence make them more interesting and competitive?
Arizona: What is this (literally) travelling sideshow going to become?
The real fans in Arizona deserve not just a good hockey team, but like two or three Stanley Cups after they get a new arena built in a better location. If that day ever comes, they’ll emerge like Andy Dufresne after crawling through 500 yards of … waste.
To those loyal fans, please don’t read past that. Stop here. For everyone else: this is going to be embarrassing to watch.
Not the roster itself, as I’ve seen some cases they may actually be better than the betting markets think. They’ve got NHL players, they’re not going to lose every night. I’m referring to the whole thing, flagrantly trying to lose more than they win by trading away just about everyone any good or prime aged, starting the season with 20 of their first 24 games on the road before returning “home” (almost certainly with playoffs already miles off), to play 37 of their final 58 games at something called “Mullett Arena” of all damn things, in front of a college-sized crowd. Just playing out the string hoping to get to not next year, but three seasons from now, as quickly and painlessly as possible.
Which sounds painful.
It’s going to be a circus, but the circus sells popcorn, so be sure to get yours ready.