The leaves are brown, the cider is sweet, and the college football rivalries are hot. But one superior concept dominates every square inch of sentimental autumn weekend imagery: FROZEN WATER. The NHL season is back, and not a moment too soon. The puck drops for the first time this afternoon, with a 2 p.m. ET showdown between the Preds and the Sharks in Prague. If you can’t make it out there, the games start domestically on Tuesday night.
As fans buzz with questions like “Which American team will win the Stanley Cup this year?” and “Which rookie is most appropriate to have a crush on?”, I’ll try to get you as ready as I can with this preview. The teams are grouped alphabetically within their divisions, though I did mix it up by starting in the West instead of the East this time. I’ve highlighted one player from each team who catches my attention the most. Don’t you dare skip any.
Arizona Coyotes: The Arena
I swerved you! Our first guy is not a guy at all, but a building. Charitably, the Coyotes will be playing this season (and at least two more) in the most unique arena in the entire NHL. More realistically, it’s an embarrassment—another amateurish development for a team that consistently struggles to justify the headaches of its own existence.
The Coyotes have tried and failed to get a brand-new arena somewhere in their home state for a while now, but after the city of Glendale refused to let them renew their lease at the normal-sized building they’d played in since 2003, they had to scramble for a replacement and ended up in Arizona State University’s new rink, with a capacity of around 5,000—which guarantees the Coyotes won’t be able to draw more than half what the next-worst team in NHL attendance does on an average night. This is not a quick fix either, with plans for a new arena in Tempe not even close to finalized, so even if there’s a novelty around the Coyotes’ first few games in these intimate confines, it will almost surely wear off long before they leave.
It’d be one thing if this disaster was happening around an intriguing team, where the college hockey atmosphere could bring them some extra charm, but it’s not. This team sucks. Despite missing the playoffs in nine of the last 10 years, all Arizona has to show for their struggles is a trio of second-tier guys in their mid-20s scattered through the ranks, with no relevant reinforcements to speak of. It would be a miracle of Disney-movie proportions if this roster, under these circumstances, got it together and made any kind of stab at competitiveness, But I’ll be rooting for the opposite to happen. I want this franchise to continue getting as weird and dumb as possible.
Chicago Blackhawks: Patrick Kane
God, this is why I always do the Eastern Conference first! I tried to switch it up and got plunked with probably the two worst hockey franchises on the continent right off the bat. Despite changes at the executive level, team owner Rocky Wirtz has failed to reckon with his franchise’s botched handling of sexual assault claims against former video coach Brad Aldrich a decade ago, which makes the Blackhawks unworthy of your time or attention even before getting to any of the on-ice stuff.
How is the on-ice stuff? I hate that you asked. It’s more dysfunctional crap. Chicago kind of pump-faked an attempt at revitalization after five empty years when they signed defenseman Seth Jones to a questionably massive deal last offseason, and when that didn’t pan out, and GM Stan Bowman resigned in disgrace because of the Aldrich scandal, Kyle Davidson took over and blew up about half the team. But ruining the Blackhawks’ shot at a full rebuild, at least for now, is the continued presence of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane on the first line. Kane, in particular, has continued to produce with admirable consistency even as everything has crumbled around him, with his 92 points in his age-33 season last year serving as the third-best of his long career. He will likely to continue to bring more of the same this season, and provide a few jolts of excitement for otherwise hopeless fans, until he, too, is sent along to a contender at the trade deadline.
Colorado Avalanche: Cale Makar
OK, finally, this is actually a pretty good team. They won the Stanley Cup last summer. It was no fluke, either.
Over the course of several years, the Avalanche slowly but surely built themselves into an absolute juggernaut so bursting at the seams with talent that they finally became immune to the playoff misfortune that had dogged them the last few seasons. But too bad for them; the nature of the NHL’s salary cap meant that the 2022 champs were a one-year-only special engagement. Among the top contributors from last year, the Avs were unable to retain Andre Burakovsky, Darcy Kuemper, or Nazem Kadri when they hit free agency, meaning that this year’s model is a deflation from the divine energy of last season’s run.
Nevertheless, though the responsibility of a repeat is carried on fewer sets of shoulders, the players the Avs held onto are still enough to knock your socks off. While it’s Nathan MacKinnon who got the headline-grabbing mega-deal this offseason, there might be no better hockey man in the world today than Colorado’s top defender, 23-year-old Cale Makar. Entering his fourth season, the fourth pick in the 2017 draft looks so much like the reincarnation of Bobby Orr that I keep forgetting Bobby Orr is still alive. Like an MVP quarterback with a stick, Makar seems to have total control over everything that happens on the ice when he’s on it, and if he sees (or creates) a hiccup in the defense, he pounces confidently with brilliant skating and a mastery of the puck. Along with his other returning pals, he keeps the Avalanche standing tall over the rest of this division.
Dallas Stars: Jason Robertson
The Stars are stuck between eras. They’re still carrying a lot of the older guys who helped them to an aberration of a Cup Final run in 2020, but the headliners here are the gaggle of youngsters in their mid-20s or earlier who have taken on more and more responsibility for the direction of this franchise. In the back there’s former third overall pick Miro Heiskanen on defense and the newly minted playoff star Jake Oettinger in goal, and in the front, while I don’t want to shortchange the ageless Joe Pavelski and his 27 goals last season, it’s the Roope Hintz and Jason Robertson show.
Hintz has been around a little longer but completely broke out in his steadiest season yet with 37 goals—many of them grabbed almost out of thin air. Robertson had even more—41!—in just his second full NHL campaign, and there’s little doubt that he can be the tall, handsome face of the franchise. The lengthy offseason negotiations with Robertson and Oettinger, as the Stars try to fit their restricted free agents under the salary cap, does point to a bit of a problem, however. With so much money tied up in guys who are past their prime, it’ll be difficult for the Stars to ice a real contender. But with the talent on display night after night, they’ll still be a tough opponent for anyone in the league.
Minnesota Wild: Marc-Andre Fleury
He’s still here! The goalie who will turn 38 this season, and was already the league’s oldest everyday netminder last year, is back to play for the Wild in the 19th year of his career. That’s half his life spent stopping pucks in the NHL.
Fleury regressed, unsurprisingly, from a resurgence that won him the Vezina in 2021, but after being shipped up north via Chicago in the middle of last season, he was a solid option for the Wild and even, very briefly, found a vintage playoff form that put his team up 2-1 on the Blues in the first round. Since then, the Wild bailed on goalie Cam Talbot and sent him to Ottawa in exchange for the young but as-yet underwhelming backup Filip Gustavsson, meaning Fleury should enter the year as the undisputed No. 1. With the Wild as a whole looking like a fairly average team after an overachieving 2021 where tons of guys put up career-best numbers, and star winger Kirill Kaprizov carrying even more of an offensive load after the loss of Kevin Fiala, how much magic is left in Fleury really might be the difference between success and failure in Minnesota. This team doesn’t have the depth to support a subpar goalie, but with a reinforced backstop, they could wreak some havoc.
Nashville Predators: Filip Forsberg
I’ve always liked Filip Forsberg. The 28-year-old creative goalscorer has been a star for this franchise going back to 2015, when Nashville was beginning a rise that would make it the hottest city in the NHL as they peaked with a Stanley Cup Final trip two years later. With an eight-year deal signed this summer, Forsberg is shaping up to be a Pred for life, but the comedown for this team has been harsh. A dominant regular season after the Cup loss ended in second-round heartbreak, and in the four years since, Nashville has been a first-round out—their most recent trip, a sweep against the Avalanche, made for their worst season since 2014.
The NHL really isn’t built for teams like the Predators to take big steps forward. They did manage to add a 20-goal scorer in Nino Niederreiter, but the salary cap means that the core they’ve had for a while, and who are all under big long deals, continues to be fairly immutable. Their positioning as a team just on the edge of the playoff picture also prevents them from accessing the best fresh talent. So barring some major surprises or genius GM inspiration, they are left to slowly decay until they hit bottom and bounce. But in their goalie Juuse Saros, their top D-man Roman Josi, Forsberg, and possibly Matt Duchene if his career best 2021–22 wasn’t a fluke, the Preds still boast exciting players to watch on a nightly basis. So it could be worse. And it will be worse. But not yet.
St. Louis Blues: Jordan Binnington
Like Nas, the Blues goalie’s present-day endeavors are tainted by a perfect debut. Binnington’s 2019 was a devastating ambush on the rest of the NHL, as the relative unknown got called up to a terrible team and proceeded to play out of his mind, going 24-5-1 across the season’s second half to take St. Louis to the playoffs and then all the way to the Cup. The Blues since then have been good but fairly quiet when it’s mattered most. Binnington has faced a rocky road, as the younger and steadier Ville Husso supplanted him as the go-to goalie last regular season, and even when the former playoff hero returned to the net and put on a series of spectacular performances, an injury and then a water bottle he threw at Nazem Kadri overshadowed those contributions.
Husso went to Detroit this summer, and so this is Binnington’s team once again. In front of him, the Blues roster is a very good mix of established veterans like Vlad Tarasenko and Torey Krug alongside guys who are hopefully just hitting their prime like Jordan Kyrou and Robert Thomas. But no particular aspect of their game should blow anybody’s mind, and they will definitely need Binnington looking better than he did most of last year in order to keep the ship afloat. With him in form, though, this could be the league’s dark horse Cup contender.
Winnipeg Jets: Neal Pionk
The Jets have really fallen off, huh? One day you’re dreaming about a Stanley Cup parade in Winnipeg, and the next I’m telling you that Neal Pionk is a guy to watch. Winnipeg has followed a similar trajectory to the Predators (tell me you didn’t skip the Predators!), looking like the cream of the crop in 2018 before losing in the conference final and failing to ever really recover. Their decline has been steeper than Nashville’s, though, as the Jets missed the playoffs by eight points last season and changed coaches over the long break. Rick Bowness, whose career as a head coach dates all the way back to the old Winnipeg Jets of 1988–89, now has to figure out how to turn back the clock on what once seemed like a beautifully constructed small-market nucleus.
The Jets’ defense is a bigger issue than their offense, as Connor Hellebuyck is forced year after year to do more work than any other goalie in the league. And so Pionk, picked up in a 2019 trade that saw the Rangers get a major piece of their own puzzle in Jacob Trouba, is probably the man who most needs to step it up under this new regime. The 27-year-old should be expected to anchor the second D pairing behind Josh Morrissey on the first pair. But last season was Pionk’s worst yet in Manitoba, allowing 705 scoring chances against when he was on the ice vs. just 625 team chances for. And while in the forward gang I can confidently saw that top guys like Kyle Connor and Nik Ehlers continue to hold plenty of ability, Morrissey, Pionk, and the other blue-liners have been far more difficult to pin down, unable to string together multiple strong seasons as they see-saw through their careers. Before Bowness can really go for it in Winnipeg, he’ll need to devise a way to carefully patch up the holes in this foundation.
Anaheim Ducks: Trevor Zegras
Zegras really became the enemy of those who hate fun last year—particularly fans of teams with their own Rookie of the Year contenders—because of the perceived favoritism that he got from the NHL, who gave him a special invite to all-star weekend and spotlighted him heavily on their social accounts. (Zegras went on to finish second in the Calder voting, behind Detroit’s Moritz Seider.) From a purely statistical standpoint, it may be fair to argue that a kid with just 26 career goals in 99 career games hasn’t “earned” the kind of superstar status that’s usually required to be, for example, on the cover of a new video game. But that line of thinking has to ignore just how completely awesome Zegras is at making highlights—the passing kind, the scoring kind, and the showboating kind. At just 21 years old, he brings a brand of creativity and flair to the ice that the league craves, especially from an American player. Maybe that’s unfair to equally talented young guys on other teams like Andrei Svechnikov or Robert Thomas, but tough shit. I love watching this dude, and he has a bigger individual impact on how exciting it is to watch his team than anyone else in the league.
The Ducks, as a whole, should be starting to trend upward thanks to the boon of young talent gained from four straight years out of the playoffs. But they were still a whole 21 points shy of the postseason last year, and therefore have a ton of ground left to cover. Good thing they have Zegras to generate plenty of interest while they rev back up.
Calgary Flames: Nazem Kadri
What a wild summer this was for Calgary, who both lost and gained bigger pieces than any other team. Johnny Gaudreau went to Columbus in free agency. Matthew Tkachuk was granted a trade to the Panthers in exchange for a couple of older but hugely important talents in Jonathan Huberdeau and MacKenzie Weegar. And Nazem Kadri, fresh off a heroic season with the Cup-winning Avalanche, chose this place as his new home.
The Flames underachieved in the playoffs by losing to the Oilers in five games in the second round, but all year long they had me believing in their championship potential. After missing the postseason entirely in 2021, a brilliant young core that had never managed to fully deliver on expectations put together a division-winning season where they regularly dominated possession of the puck. Losing a couple of their most critical pieces—I wonder, personally, how much the infamously rough-edged coach Darryl Sutter had to do with the exits—obviously puts much of their future in jeopardy. But gaining an experienced top-tier winger, a first-pairing defender, and probably the fifth-best player on a loaded Stanley Cup roster is a pretty good way to keep everything from falling apart.
Kadri, specifically, feels like the X factor, as he brings 30-goal potential and finally managed to shed his rep as a guy who lets his team down by getting suspended in the playoffs. Will he reproduce his success on unfamiliar terrain with a lesser supporting cast? Will the new guys manage to gel with the old? Will Sutter manage to learn everyone’s name before January? Those questions and more make the Flames the most fascinating team at the top of the NHL.
Edmonton Oilers: Evander Kane
I can’t say Evander Kane is a guy I’d happily bring to my locker room, if I were a GM, but it worked out as well as it could have for Edmonton last season. The 31-year-old winger, once a highly coveted scorer, was evicted from the Sharks organization in the middle of last season after speedrunning a diverse array of controversies that all made him seem like a dickhead with some serious personal issues, before finally being brought down by a fake COVID vaccine card.
To the Sharks, and plenty of other franchises, Kane wasn’t worth the trouble anymore. But in January, the flailing Oilers were desperate and willing to try anything, so they took a risk that Kane could regain his old form without, like, assaulting a prize-winning moose at the Alberta Winter Jamboree. And it paid off tremendously. Kane stayed out of off-ice trouble—he got a one-game playoff suspension for injuring Nazem Kadri on a cross check, which adds new spice to the Flames rivalry—and he carried the team to an impressive postseason, scoring 13 goals in 15 games before Edmonton fell in the third round to the Avs.
As a reward, Kane got a four-year contract from his new team, and the Oilers can head into 2022–23 with at least the hope that they’ll be more than the two-man McDavid and Draisaitl show they had to be for so long. Maybe people can change, and Kane helps out so much that the Oilers dominate the Pacific. But for a franchise that already had bad vibes when they were losing before Kane’s arrival, you can almost hear the countdown to some very ugly drama.
Los Angeles Kings: Phillip Danault
Danault always felt like a connoisseur’s choice for favorite player when he was on the Canadiens, as he killed penalties, won faceoffs, blocked shots, locked down opposing stars, and tallied up a respectable number of assists even as he rarely found the net himself. But in his first year on the Kings after joining them as a free agent, Danault became good in a way that was plain to everyone, more than doubling his career high in goals with 27 while still showcasing the traits that made him so frustrating for top players to go up against. Danault was the best signing of last summer, and his anchoring presence as the 2C behind Anze Kopitar helped propel the Kings back into the postseason for the first time since 2018, where they pushed the Oilers to seven games.
Though important parts of the Kings roster continue to be concerningly old, guys in their 20s like Danault, defenseman Matt Roy, leading goalscorer Adrian Kempe, and the newly arrived Kevin Fiala provide plenty of promise that last year’s relative success can be replicated and even improved upon. Throw in some hyped-up emerging talents like Quinton Byfield and Alex Turcotte, and the outlook gets even better. If the Kings can hurry along the players just starting their careers, and stave off the effects of time just a little longer for the ones near their end, they might even have the makings of a contender.
San Jose Sharks: Timo Meier
The Sharks are another team, like Chicago, who would probably love to do a hard reset but are being sabotaged by the few good players still left on their roster. Timo Meier is one such player. Entering his last year before restricted free agency, Meier has been one of the lone bright spots for a once-ambitious franchise that couldn’t support its own weight and has since failed to make the playoffs in three straight years—the longest drought of their existence.
Alongside Tomas Hertl on the first line, Meier proved himself as a stellar shooter and anxiety-inducing offensive threat, scoring a career-high 35 goals in his sixth season after taking a step backward the year before. With the incentive to either command a massive deal or induce the Sharks to trade him to a contender for a big forward-looking haul ahead of the deadline, Meier should be plenty motivated to repeat last year’s performances, even if the bottom two-thirds of San Jose’s roster can’t even hope to keep up.
Seattle Kraken: Andre Burakovsky
The Kraken suffered through a terrible start to their expansion franchise life last season, but lucky for them, the plan from the beginning prized roster flexibility, and there’s plenty of reason to be more optimistic for their sophomore year, if only because it can’t get much worse. Burakovsky, another man who the Avs couldn’t afford to keep, is the most famous of the newcomers, bringing with him the memories of some dramatic playoff moments, the ability to finish chances effectively from the wing, and an old nickname for his former Caps and Avs teammate, goaltender Philipp Grubauer.
Also joining what was one of the league’s worst offenses last year are some tremendously important young kids. Shane Wright, once thought to be the clear No. 1 pick in the 2022 draft, will get to make a first impression here after falling to fourth. And 19-year-old center Matty Beniers—the first person ever drafted by the Kraken—will be handed the keys for his first full season in the NHL.
Unfortunately, a lot of Seattle’s roster still looks like last year’s—depth guys unwanted by their old teams, mostly—and Grubauer is still a major concern after an unmitigated disaster of a campaign. But the Kraken have what it takes to be interesting, if not necessarily good, and at least they’re moving in the right direction.
Vancouver Canucks: J.T. Miller (by special guest previewer Maitreyi Anantharaman)
In the desperate early days of December, a new regime is installed. Bruce Boudreau arrives behind the bench in Vancouver. His mission: Rescue the last-place Canucks. He promises speed and an aggressive forecheck. “My philosophy in a nutshell,” he says, “is why do we let teams in our zone, ever?” He throws Elias Pettersson onto the penalty kill. In his first of what will be many exceptionally charming postgame press conferences, he forgets Juho Lammikko’s name. He delivers on his promises. The Canucks win. They keep winning. The crowd chants, rapturously each night, “Bruce, there it is.” They win some more. Seven straight. Two weeks into the Boudreau Era, I wonder if the Canucks will ever lose again.
They do. Whenever they can least afford to, they lose. A brutal homestand in late March renders the Canucks’ once-longshot playoff hopes a longshot again. So for all the joy there is to be found in the team’s midseason resurrection, when the season is over, it’s little losses and slumps that come to mind. It’s those times J.T. Miller didn’t backcheck in overtime.
Miller was hardly the problem, though. The 29-year-old forward finished with (tragically) 99 points on the season, a career high. (Pettersson, the team’s second-highest scorer, finished with 68.) Miller’s contract situation—he was a pending UFA—forced the new front office to stake out a clear position. Would they operate with a long-term shrewdness the previous management hadn’t at literally any point ever, maybe trading him to bolster one of the NHL’s weakest prospect pools and defense corps? Or would they keep their best player around, because they believed in this version of the Canucks?
This summer, Miller signed a long-term extension. Here’s to seven more years of him sidling up to the near-side boards, the zone-entry machine. Here’s to seven more years of “FUCK!”s caught in range of the on-ice microphone. I, too, believe.
Vegas Golden Knights: Jack Eichel
There may be no bigger X factor in the entire NHL than Jack Eichel, who two seasons ago suffered a back injury so bad it completely soured his relationship with the Buffalo Sabres, for whom he was the only good thing they had going for a long time. A disagreement over treatment for that injury led to Eichel’s publicly expressed displeasure with the Sabres, the loss of his captaincy, and eventually a blockbuster trade to Vegas, where he debuted in February and played for in front of an angry Buffalo crowd the following month.
Eichel gets the privilege of entering this season with fewer distractions and hoopla, but he’s also under all the pressure now. In his last mostly full season, in 2019–20, Eichel was a gloriously skilled, high-scoring center who even without much of a supporting cast could impose his will on the game. In the last two years combined, though, he’s scored 16 goals in just 55 games. It’s not his fault, of course, and he even looked quite good in his abbreviated year in Vegas. But the Knights are paying him to be a superstar, and they’re going to need him pretty close to his best form in order to avenge the embarrassment of last year, when a stacked roster suffered nearly every misfortune imaginable to miss the playoffs by three points. Maybe this year, finally, will see Eichel in the postseason for the very first time.
Boston Bruins: Patrice Bergeron
It’s funny how somehow who’s looked and played almost exactly the same way for over a decade could be the subject of offseason retirement rumors, but they’re moot now anyway. The Bruins’ captain signed a one-year deal in the summer and is back for a 19th season, which will likely again see a good Boston team struggle to rise above the superpowers of the Eastern Conference.
Now 37, Bergeron is coming off his fifth career Selke win as the best defensive forward in the game, and he achieved it while continuing to be a consistent offensive presence as well. With the return of David Krejci, back to his longtime Boston home after a year playing in the Czech Republic, the Bruins’ roster somehow looks even more familiar than it did last year. After the early-season injuries clear up, they’ll still be relying on Charlie McAvoy, David Pastrnak, and Brad Marchand to do a lot of the heavy lifting.
The problem: That core gave them a mere fourth-place finish in a stacked Atlantic last year, capped by a first-round exit against the Hurricanes. In fact, outside of their trip to the Final against the Blues in 2019, the Bruins haven’t advanced past the second round in the last nine seasons. And while there is something to be said for being a constant playoff presence and a tough out, if you’re not improving, you’re moving backward. Some relatively small changes—the Krejci comeback, a new depth forward in Pavel Zacha, and a fresh coach in Blues assistant Jim Montgomery—might prove to hold big surprises. But Boston appears to be starting this season standing still on an escalator going down.
Buffalo Sabres: Owen Power
Buffalo really screwed it up with Jack Eichel, but in the NHL you can never use up all of your chances. A team can be bad year after year, with no end in sight, and still every spring they’re allowed to take on another one of the most coveted young talents in the game. And pretty much every time, the kid has no choice.
Anyway, Owen Power, the 19-year-old defender out of Michigan, was drafted first overall in 2021 and now has the unenviable task of molding the Sabres into something much better than they are now, which is a team that’s failed to make the playoffs in 11 straight seasons. He’s a little awkward off the ice but he’s also someone who, if he plays to his full potential, can lighten the load for everyone on the ice with him, using his gravity and attacking skillset to keep the puck on the right half of the ice and open up chances for his teammates, who need all the help they can get.
The Sabres aren’t quite as much of a smelly pile of waste as they could be, having at least finished ahead of five other Eastern Conference teams in 2021–22, after a lot of people pegged them for dead last. But “not the very worst” is still an extremely low bar to clear after over a decade of nonstop losing, and even with the boost from Power, it doesn’t look as though the Sabres have anything like the depth they need to break the drought. I guess at this point, what’s a few more years of waiting?
Detroit Red Wings: Dylan Larkin
Gone is the fresh-faced local teen debuting for a storied franchise on the verge of collapse. Here now, after six straight years without a playoff appearance, is a 26-year-old captain at a crossroads. Larkin is going to be an unrestricted free agent after this season, and even though he seems to want to stick around in Detroit, it’d be hard to begrudge him moving on if the Red Wings once again fail to show any forward momentum.
The 15th pick in the 2014 draft, Larkin isn’t quite the franchise savior or heir to Yzerman that many hoped he’d be after a promising rookie year, but he’s proven to be a very good center and great leader, seasoning the team’s losing streaks with exciting goals created by his speed and agility. And though he has already wasted much of his prime on a franchise that hasn’t even been trying to win, this year at least teases an attempt at improvement. The Wings had an extremely active offseason, bringing in none of the major headliners but a boatload of solid contributors like Andrew Copp and David Perron. They have a new and better goalie in Ville Husso, plus the second-year seasons of super rookies Moritz Seider and Lucas Raymond to look forward to. In all, they should absolutely be better than last year, when they finished 26 points out of a playoff spot. Are they 26 points better than last season? Probably not. But hopefully they show enough of a spark that Larkin will commit to seeing this grueling rebuild through to its end.
Florida Panthers: Matthew Tkachuk
It’s fitting that a rat (affectionate) like Tkachuk would find his way down to Florida, where the best team in franchise history innovated the rat trick many years ago. The most shocking trade of the summer mixed up the rosters of two Cup hopefuls in the Flames and the Panthers, as Tkachuk’s desire to leave Calgary got him swapped for one of Florida’s top-two forwards and top-two defensemen.
Those are big skates to fill, but Tkachuk was a revelation last year—so good that he commanded an impressive package even when his team had little leverage. Primarily known as a pest who frustrated the hell out of opponents in his first few years in the league, Tkachuk exploded in 2021–22 as one of a few prolific scorers on a revitalized Flames squad. Playing in every game, Tkachuk tallied 42 goals and 62 assists with his smart positioning and aggressive style (and his talented, playmaking teammates, too). It’d be fair to wonder if Tkachuk could maintain these numbers if he had moved to a place where he’d be the only star on a lesser team, but with another excellent center in Aleksander Barkov running the offense he shouldn’t miss a beat.
The Panthers as a whole might struggle to reach the highest highs of their league-leading 122-point season from a year ago, when they could seemingly snap their fingers and summon a comeback whenever they needed to. But dominating the first 82 games, as they learned after their second-round sweep by the Lightning, doesn’t do much to determine how your season ends. Florida should be a little less terrifying thanks to the regression bug, but they’re set up nicely to keep making the playoffs. One of these years, it should all click for them at just the right time.
Montreal Canadiens: Nick Suzuki
The 23-year-old Suzuki was made the youngest captain in Canadiens history last month, after Shea Weber finally succumbed to his mounting injuries. Good luck, kid. Following a miracle run to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2021, the Habs came crashing back down to Earth, and then just kept sinking lower and lower beneath the surface. Playing under the weight of overinflated expectations, missing cornerstone goalie Carey Price, and stuck with basically half a roster after a blow-it-up trade deadline, Montreal finished dead last in the league with a pathetic -98 goal differential. It was the worst Canadiens season since 1940, made even more painful by all the joy they’d brought just a few short months earlier.
Entering the team is the newest first overall pick, Juraj Slafkovsky, and a couple of low-risk/high-reward projects after trades for Sean Monahan (lost his mojo in Calgary) and Kirby Dach (stalled out in Chicago). But this has the feel of a franchise still stunned by how quickly they gained so much and then lost it all, and in a demanding market that can be merciless on struggling players, this season has the makings of another disappointment. Suzuki, who’s from southern Ontario and is still working on his French, feels a bit like he got the captaincy by default as the first-line center who led the team in points. The leadership task ahead of him is immense. We’ll see how many Canadiens make it through to the other side of the season.
Ottawa Senators: Claude Giroux
Something is wrong with the 2022–23 Ottawa Senators: People are actually feeling good about them. What was once a lovable, chaotic collection of still-learning youngsters that only the most deranged hockey fans were able to appreciate now seems to be earnestly trying to make it into something called a playoffs.
The poster boy for this new era of Sens hockey is Claude Giroux, who even near the tail end of his career is still a bona fide star the likes of which Ottawa hasn’t seen since Erik Karlsson. Alongside a new, pretty decent goalie in Cam Talbot and a young Richard Trophy–winner in the making in former Blackhawk Alex DeBrincat, Giroux brings with him honest-to-God expectations for a franchise that for the last few years has been all about failing a lot and then really screwing with people’s heads by showing brief flashes of greatness. Brady Tkachuk, Josh Norris, and Tim Stützle all help make up a slowly developing nucleus of young talent that, with reinforcements like the ones procured this summer, can turn this into a glorious breakout year for the Sens after five straight seasons of early summer vacations.
I do not want to write the logical conclusion to this section, which would advise fans that, despite the excitement around the Ottawa Senators, they still have a lot of ground to make up, a lot of holes in their roster, and a lot of talented kids who haven’t quite leveled up yet. Instead, I will tell you to look out for YES, HAHAHA YES: OTTAWA SENATORS 2023 STANLEY CUP CHAMPS t-shirts and hats, coming soon to the Defector Store.
Tampa Bay Lightning: Ross Colton
The constant pressure of the NHL’s salary cap continues to slowly but surely take its toll on the Lightning. This offseason, after an incredible third straight trip to the Stanley Cup Final, it was Ondrej Palat who most prominently bit the dust, signing a deal with the Devils to deliver yet another blow to this would-be dynasty after tying for the team lead in playoff goals .
Plenty of great players remain locked up with the Lightning—at least their whole top five or six—but for Tampa to not slip and become mortal, they need new contributors to step up and fill in the gaps. Ross Colton would be one of these potential duct-tape dudes. A slowly developing 26-year-old who was drafted in the fourth round in 2016, the little-known rookie made a name for himself in one of the four games he played in the 2021 playoffs, scoring what turned out to be the Cup-winning goal in Game 5 of the Finals against Montreal. The highly physical forward followed up in his first full season with 22 goals despite playing under 13 minutes a night on average, and with the departure of Palat, he’ll surely get the opportunity to shoot even more.
After three years ruling the East, the Lightning feel due for a step back, though maybe that’s some wishful thinking brought on by fatigue. They may not be what they were a few years ago, but Tampa remains packed with all-stars and as poised as anyone else to slice their way through the playoff bracket. This has been the NHL’s model franchise for years and years, setting an example to everyone of how smart drafting and shrewd cap management can create long-lasting success. If Colton, or Anthony Cirelli, or Nick Paul can take that leap and slot in, New England Patriots–style, it’ll only further reinforce the genius of this team’s brain trust. If that happens, it might be a very long time before we’re rid of the Lightning.
Toronto Maple Leafs: God
In May, when the Leafs faced the Lightning in a first-round Game 7, I briefly disappeared from my friend’s wedding reception to find an empty hotel bar, where the lonely bartender and I watched Toronto fail to tie the game in the final five minutes and exit the playoffs without a series win for the sixth straight year—their fifth straight to end with a winner-take-all loss. I went back to the party, leaned over the bar there to order another drink, and caused a minor stir when I almost set my hair on fire as it dangled over a lit candle.
The Leafs should be good, but each time they repeat the same story of crushing disappointment, it gets harder and harder to be jazzed about their chances. They have a goal-scoring wizard in Auston Matthews, a perfect Scottie Pippen in Mitch Marner, and a strong supporting cast further buffeted by Michael Bunting’s surprise breakthrough as an old-man rookie last season. This is a definite playoff team that could really only be wounded in the regular season by a five-alarm fire at goalie, where the wobbly Ilya Samsonov and Matt Murray both arrive looking to win the starter’s gig after the sturdy Jack Campbell left for Edmonton.
There could be some fun in watching the Leafs blast through the regular season, but very little that they do will matter until they get back into the playoffs and, if the Creator allows, slay the demons of the first round. That alone would be quite an accomplishment—a broken curse for the longest-suffering fanbase in hockey—but it would still, brutally, only get them 25 percent of the way to a Cup. The Leafs have really done everything right in putting this alleged contender together. It’s just a pity that they still feel so impossibly far away.
Carolina Hurricanes: Max Pacioretty
It won’t do you much good to be aware of him right at this moment, but Pacioretty is the sleeping giant of the NHL season, projected to enter the fray for his new team in Carolina when he returns from an Achilles injury sometime around the all-star break. The former Canadiens captain was one of the many things that went wrong for Vegas last season, playing in only 39 games in 2021–22 before VGK’s salary cap constraints got so bad they forced a trade to Carolina this summer for the dreaded “future considerations.”
The Canes, once lovable upstarts, are now firmly ensconced in the East’s playoff picture but have been stymied by playoff disappointment again and again since being resurrected from the dead. In their first time back after a decade away, they got swept out of the conference final, which is a perfectly acceptable outcome for a team just beginning its rise. But in the following visits, they’ve lost in the first round and fallen out of two straight second rounds despite back-to-back division titles.
Defensively this team was unbreakable last year, and even with the trade of surprising one-off star Tony DeAngelo they should still be good, and also much more likable. Offensively, their core trio of Sebastian Aho, Andrei Svechnikov, and Teuvo Teravainen has done more than enough to bring them success. But, particularly after losing center Vincent Trocheck in free agency to the Rangers, they could always use more. And that’s exactly what Pacioretty is—another weapon to call upon when they finally get to that point late in the year when everything else isn’t enough. In peak condition, Pacioretty could very well be the difference between winning and losing that second-round Game 7. Even if he won’t be around for most of the year, at this point in their window, that’s all that needs to matter to Carolina.
Columbus Blue Jackets: Johnny Gaudreau
Johnny Gaudreau and Columbus was the offseason love story nobody could believe. He was the most coveted free agent on the market, coming off a resurgent 115-point year as the face of his Flames. She was in Ohio. And yet, they found each other. Gaudreau shocked the NHL by signing a seven-year deal for less money than he was offered elsewhere, and then he further confused everyone by passionately expressing how much he loved playing in Columbus.
“I’d never been to Columbus before until I made it to the NHL, so when I started playing there I didn’t know what I was walking into, and I was just … ‘Wow!’” said the New Jersey native. “They’ve always had great crowds, really into the game. I said to myself then, ‘This looks like a really fun place to play.’”
It must have been pretty spectacular for Johnny Hockey to be willing to go from Calgary, a Cup contender, to a franchise that’s missed the playoffs the last two years, never finished better than third in its division, and has only one legit playoff series win in its history (beating the Leafs in the 2020 bubble doesn’t count). Even with Gaudreau, the Blue Jackets don’t feel like anything special. They boast a perfectly serviceable collection of 20-somethings at forward, a pretty leaky defense, plus, for some intrigue, the mercurial winger Patrik Laine, whose potential Gaudreau could really unleash. Maybe they can overachieve and threaten for a playoff spot, but even an eight-seed would qualify as a surprise. At least now nobody can say they’ve never attracted a good free agent.
New Jersey Devils: Jesper Bratt
I keep waiting and waiting for the Devils to be the breakout team of the year, and again and again they end up near the bottom of the standings. Maybe this time it’ll work, though.
This is a team that had the first overall pick in the draft in 2017 and 2019 but didn’t even sniff the playoffs last season. (Injuries played a role in their shortcomings but the gap between them and the fourth-place Capitals was still gigantic.) However, you can poke around this roster and find plenty of guys you’d pay to watch play hockey. Jack Hughes is the charismatic leader, still only 21 years old. Nico Hischier, the top pick from 2017, just had his best season yet. Ondrej Palat is here after so much success in Tampa. Ryan Graves, formerly of Colorado, and Dougie Hamilton, a big signing last offseason from the Hurricanes, are also proven winners with much to contribute. And plenty of other inexperienced, rough-around-the-edges prospects are hovering on the outskirts of the roster, waiting for their shot.
But for all the pricey signings and high picks that the Devils have added in the last few years, none of them look better than Jesper Bratt, a sixth-round pick from back in 2016 who really burst onto the scene with 26 goals and 47 assists last year. The 24-year-old winger, who signed just a one-year deal out of restricted free agency this summer, is small but explosive, a major threat on breakaways who can create chances even as the main focus of the defense’s attention.
I have one eye on the Devils this year, because they do hold so much promise in their ranks. But in the short term, there’s still such a long climb waiting for them to even get to average that it’s more than reasonable to still view their development in terms of years and not months. But hey, if you haven’t already been burned by the bandwagon, and you feel like jumping on it now, there are worse decisions you could make. Just don’t start calling them The Bratt Pack.
New York Islanders: Noah Dobson
After three straight years defying projections, the Islanders fell hard in 2021–22. A long road trip that opened the season while they waited for their new arena to get finished set a disoriented tone that continued well through the home debut and led into a brutal 11-game losing streak. The Isles never recovered, and four years after head coach Barry Trotz started drilling this directionless team into a hard-nosed powerhouse that was reliably infuriating to play against, he was replaced by his former assistant Lane Lambert.
With Pittsburgh and Washington likely on the downslope in this division, the Islanders do have a chance to at least snag a postseason spot, but they’ll have to get there by showing more talent than they did last season, and not just by rediscovering their inner bastard. The young Ilya Sorokin was awesome in net, and could steal any given game, but with only a couple of exceptions, the skaters continue to look lackluster, at least as individual pieces.
One bright spot, though is Noah Dobson, the 22-year-old defenseman who’s quickly gone from basically apprenticing under vets like Andy Greene and Zdeno Chara to, last season, leading the whole team in ice time. He’s particularly adept at moving the puck from his own zone to the other team’s, and his offensive talents showed in a 13-goal, 38-assist third season in the league. For a team that only has a couple of sure-thing scorers—Brock Nelson and Anders Lee—those are anything but throwaway numbers.
New York Rangers: Igor Shesterkin
The only goalie to receive MVP votes—24 of them for first place!—hopefully doesn’t enter this year with a sore back, given how often he carried the Rangers last season. They shouldn’t have even needed him that much, with all the supposed talent oozing out of this roster, but even with Chris Kreider, Artemi Panarin, Mika Zibanejad, and multiple hyped-up recent draft picks, the Rangers still called upon Igor time after time to bail out what finished as an exactly league-average offense.
You should take it as a given that the .935 save percentage is going to go down. That’s just how goaltending works. But the Rangers’ roster remains very sparkly and exciting even after you factor in that comedown. Adam Fox is only 24 and already established as one of the league’s very best defenders. The peak of this forward group is ruthless with its power play chances. But nevertheless, the Rangers still looked nervous and unsure during their first two seven-game playoff series wins, and then thoroughly outmatched after Tampa turned it on in the conference final. Are they going to be able to handle the expectations after such a strong season? Are Alexis Lafreniere and Kaapo Kakko going to make good on the potential implied by their draft positions? They better bring some answers, because you can’t just bank on a once-in-a-lifetime season from your goalie every year.
Pittsburgh Penguins: Evgeni Malkin
It was not the most passionate renewal of vows ever witnessed, but Evgeni Malkin remains a Penguin, even after the front office initially balked at the 36-year-old’s desire for four years on his new contract. It’s easy to see both sides of the disagreement. When Malkin’s been healthy, he’s continued to be a legend for Pittsburgh, good for at least a point per game and still able to deliver in the clutch. On the other hand, Malkin hasn’t been very healthy lately, missing 78 games across the last three seasons.
The Penguins have failed to make it out of the first round every attempt since 2018, but in the regular season at least they still look remarkably like they did back then. Sid and Geno rack ’em up when they’re on the ice, diamond-in-the-rough Jake Guentzel continues to be an astoundingly great fit on the wing, Kris Letang anchors the blue line, Bryan Rust is good for at least 20 goals every season, and the random goofballs they enlist to fill out the rest of the spots all find a way to contribute. These are the Penguins! You know them, you hate them, you beat them in the playoffs. But they just keep coming back. Maybe this year, if things go wrong, they finally miss the postseason for the first time since 2006. But if Malkin is at or above like 70 percent for most of the year, I wouldn’t bet on it.
Washington Capitals: Darcy Kuemper
You made it to the last team! Thanks for reading all of these! Or if you skipped down to the end: Shame on you!
Darcy Kuemper didn’t make it easy to believe in him. Many at this very website were, behind closed doors, calling him a big-time fraud during Colorado’s playoff run. If the Avalanche had in fact been less of a steamroller, he probably wouldn’t be a Stanley Cup champion. But despite multiple benchings spread out across multiple series, Kuemper was the one in net for the Avs when it mattered most, and his 10-4 playoff record no doubt increased the fee he commanded to sign with the Capitals this summer.
Washington and Pittsburgh have always felt intertwined all through the Crosby/Ovechkin eras. Ovi has more individual greatness left to play for, as this year he will likely pass Gordie Howe as the second-most prolific scorer in NHL history. But the two teams finished seventh and eighth in the East, three points away from each other, and enter the year with questions surrounding whether or not their perennial playoff presences can endure.
On the aging, well-established Caps roster, Kuemper looks to be the one clear improvement. After Braden Holtby’s departure, Washington could never manage to make one solid goalie out of Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek, and they gave up on trying. Kuemper comes to town as the unchallenged No. 1, and despite his struggles when the pressure was on, he brings with him a decade of solid regular-season success that, at the very least, outpaces anything the previous holders of this job could manage. This gang of Capitals is going to fall apart sooner or later, but Kuemper could be the staples that hold them together for a little while longer.
That’s it! I’m done! And you are too! Come find me eating poutine, drinking Labatt, and watching Coyotes-Sens at the Canadian bar in Chelsea.