The 2017–18 NHL season begins this week, and with it comes a slew of new players, new front offices, and even a new team. And while familiar powerhouses like the Penguins and Blackhawks will once again be favored, the league’s hierarchy is changing. The Nashville Predators will be looking to defend their Western Conference crown, the youthful Oilers and Maple Leafs seem poised for deep playoff runs, and the new Vegas Golden Knights are ready to challenge any and all opponents (well, at least on Twitter). This could be a season that launches a new dynasty—that, or Pittsburgh could be the first NHL three-peat winner since the ’80s Islanders. We hope for the former, as we break it all down in our “Changing of the Guard” NHL Preview week.
Breakout Level: Won’t Be Totally Embarrassing
Michael Baumann: I don't think the Coyotes are going to be good, necessarily, but as business fronts for scamming local governments go, the organization is going to be more convincing than it was last year. Defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson is great, and if Jakob Chychrun can come back strong after offseason knee surgery, he’ll only improve on a season in which—bless his heart—he had to play 68 games on an NHL blue line as an 18-year-old. Now the Coyotes are adding Niklas Hjalmarsson and Jason Demers, and looking at the roster you can talk yourself into this blue line being—HEY! HEY! Stop shouting “Luke Schenn” in my ear, I’m trying to be optimistic here! Anyway, you can talk yourself into this blue line being pretty good.
Arizona's forwards, however, are a mess. (It takes a real dolt to have a high draft pick year after year, trade away all your good players, and not manage to come out with something.) There’s a Domi and a Strome in there, and trading a prospect and a top-10 pick for Derek Stepan showed that the front office is working to make the team better. But the biggest addition for Arizona will be a full season of Clayton Keller. I don’t watch much junior hockey, but I caught three games of this year’s World Junior Championships and just judging from that, he looks like the best player ever. Pencil Keller in for 100 points and the Coyotes for a 10-to-15 point improvement.
Breakout Level: An End to an Eight-Year Playoff Drought
Donnie Kwak: It’s hard to believe, but Jeff Skinner—tiny, hyperactive, prolific pip-squeak Jeff Skinner—is already entering his eighth NHL season. And still, the 25-year-old Carolina winger has yet to appear in a playoff game. Since the creation of the stacked Metropolitan Division four years ago, the Canes haven’t even sniffed the postseason, much less qualified for one. However, the new season brings cause for hope: While Pittsburgh is Pittsburgh and Columbus remains strong, the aging Capitals and the depleted Rangers have taken a step back. Of the remaining Metro teams, Carolina has as good a chance as any to sneak into a playoff spot.
Turns out all that sucking by Carolina hasn’t totally been in vain. The Canes have built one of the league’s most dynamic defensive corps, with an impressive top four of Noah Hanifin, Justin Faulk, Jaccob Slavin, and Brett Pesce—median age 22.5, all Carolina draft picks. Buttressing that youthful back line are a few key offseason acquisitions: 6-foot-6 goalie Scott Darling, who supplants longtime starter Cam Ward in net, plus veteran forwards Justin Williams and Marcus Kruger. They join a lineup that includes Skinner, Victor Rask, Teuvo Teravainen, Sebastian Aho, and Jordan Staal—certainly enough firepower to field two scoring lines. Carolina’s bottom-six group is shaky, but that’s the case for every team on the fringes of the playoff picture. If Darling proves his worth and the Canes can produce more goals (they finished 21st in scoring last season), Skinner just might get to play some meaningful springtime hockey for once.
Breakout Level: Playoffs (or Jack Eichel Dies Trying)
Andrew Gruttadaro: In the 2017 offseason, the Buffalo Sabres officially became Jack Eichel’s team. Amid reports that the 20-year-old phenom wouldn’t sign an extension as long as Dan Bylsma was the Sabres coach, owners Terry and Kim Pegula (smartly) hitched their wagon to Eichel, firing Bylsma and GM Tim Murray and replacing them with first-time head coach Phil Housley and Pittsburgh Penguins front-office alum Jason Botterill. Eichel still hasn’t signed an extension, but he did recently tell USA Today that “you don’t mind running into [Botterill] in the hallway,” so at least he’s no longer being plagued by apparently terribly awkward encounters with Bylsma and/or Murray. Which is good, because in the 2017–18 season, Eichel and the Sabres need to—and should be expected to—make a leap.
The young core of players Murray established—Evan Rodrigues, Sam Reinhart, Zemgus Girgensons, and Rasmus Ristolainen—are heading into their third, fourth, and fifth years in the league, respectively, and they should start playing with more intelligence and consistency; Kyle Okposo, Evander Kane, and standout center Ryan O’Reilly are still on the roster; Marco Scandella, a solid defenseman, and former Buffalo legend Jason Pominville joined the team in a trade when Botterill shipped longtime Sabres Marcus Foligno and Tyler Ennis off to Minnesota. And then there’s Eichel, who’s entering his third season after a second that was unfortunately truncated by a high ankle sprain. (He returned after missing the first two months of the season and managed to lead the team in scoring anyway.) This guy is good—a player with sick hands and sneaky speed whose skills transcend the eye test.
It’s been six years since the Sabres made the playoffs. Eichel’s grown now (and, we pray, will hopefully be healthy for a full season), and he finally has enough tools around him. Anything less than ending that postseason drought should be seen as a failure.
Breakout Level: That Team You’re Secretly Scared to Meet in the First Round
Katie Baker: OK, the Dallas Stars maybe had their “breakout” season two years back when they won the Central Division and advanced to the second round of the playoffs (for the first time since 2008!). But the shine faded quickly: Last season, the Stars finished sixth in the Central; had a penalty kill that wasn’t just the worst in the NHL, it was the worst in the NHL since 1993–94; and were outscored by 39 goals thanks to a combination of bad goaltending, bad defense, and bad breaks. (The Stars struck either the crossbar or the goalposts with their shot attempts more than anyone else in the league.)
It was truly a worst-case scenario for the franchise, which is why I don’t think it will last. (After all, we know a Jamie Benn–led team won’t stay down easily.) Tyler Seguin recorded 72 points last season despite his worst shooting percentage since his rookie campaign, and he could eclipse 80 this year. Free agent Alexander Radulov, that elusive and glorious enigma, adds the important element of “weirdo intrigue” that is essential to any hockey team worth its salt.
The addition of goaltender Ben Bishop—who helped lead the Tampa Bay Lightning to the 2015 Stanley Cup final before a series of knee injuries set him back—is one to keep a close eye on. It’s possible the 6-foot-7 Bishop will never regain his peak form, and his early preseason showings haven’t been great. But even a serviceable performance could take enough of the back-to-back-to-back starter pressure off of Kari Lehtonen to allow for an overall—and much-needed—upgrade in net.
Dallas has a new coach in Ken Hitchcock, who may have reached the end of his road in St. Louis but still has plenty of mileage left to kick the Stars’ defensive corps into (better) shape. The Stars will have a decidedly young blue line, save for the veteran newcomer Marc Methot, but that could just make them more malleable in Hitch’s meaty paws. Dallas is poised for the best kind of rebound—the kind that takes your mind off the disappointing recent past.
St. Louis Blues
Breakout Level: More Than a Playoff Afterthought
Megan Schuster: The Blues play in a stacked division—there’s no getting around it. The Central has long been dominated by the Blackhawks, and when packaged with the Wild’s recent regular-season success and a dynamic Stanley Cup final run from the Nashville Catfish Wranglers, it’s easy to overlook St. Louis. Though the Blues have a superstar in Vladimir Tarasenko, a potential breakout talent in Vladimir Sobotka, and a roster full of solid vets, St. Louis seems to consistently (2015–16 season aside) enter the playoffs as an afterthought.
That won’t be the case anymore under new(ish) head coach Mike Yeo. Yeo came to St. Louis as the heir-apparent to Ken Hitchcock—he was hired last summer with the idea that he would spend the year with the team, learn from Hitchcock, and take over when Ken left St. Louis after the season. That all changed then Hitchcock was abruptly (finally) fired, and Yeo got an underperforming team with 32 games left in the season dumped in his lap. He somehow managed to pull the best out of his players, and the Blues entered the playoffs on a 22-8 run. Despite their late-season success, the Wild were supposed to make quick work of the Blues in the first round. Instead, they were stopped cold by an out-of-body series from Jake Allen and the St. Louis offense’s remarkable ability to put just enough points on the board to advance. Unfortunately for them, they came up against the streaking Predators in the second round, and, well ... you know the rest.
Things are looking up in St. Louis, though. Clearly Yeo’s aggressive coaching style works for the team, and if they can pick up where they left off at the end of last year, they could become the squad expected to raze the West instead of the team that quietly enters the postseason through the backdoor.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Breakout Level: Legitimate Cup Contention
Matt James: It’s a great time to be a fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs, and it doesn’t even sound sarcastic to say that anymore.
Brendan Shanahan’s rebuild is way ahead of schedule in Toronto—particularly on the offensive end of the ice. Last season, Leafs fans watched in gleeful disbelief as rookies Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander combined for a staggering 191 regular-season points. Playoff hockey made a brief but spirited reappearance at the Air Canada Centre, and now it looks like that could become a regular occurrence in Toronto.
This year, if all goes according to plan, the sophomore superstars will build upon their exhilarating rookie years. The addition of the ageless Patrick Marleau will further elevate an offense that was already fifth in goal scoring, and a shake-up in defensive personnel—combined with an entire offseason for Mike Babcock to analyze game tape—means that Frederik Andersen won’t end this season anywhere near last year’s mark of 2,052 shots against (second most in the league). Plus, Nazem Kadri’s newfound willpower will finally allow him to lay off the cookies.
Unless they get bitten by the injury bug or the defense fails to improve, look for the Leafs to trade away some of their more redundant assets to add a shutdown defenseman at the deadline and prepare for a deep playoff run.
And if things don’t go according to plan this year, there’s always next year for this young and talented Toronto team. Or even the six-to-seven years after that.
Breakout Level: Make It to the Conference Finals
Paolo Uggetti: The Oilers’ true breakout happened last season when they returned to the playoffs for the first time since 2006 and won their first playoff series in 11 years. Edmonton was eliminated by Anaheim in the second round after an exhausting seven-game series that featured one OT game and another double-OT game. It was a lot of fun to watch, namely because the Oilers have one of the most exhilarating players in the sport in Connor McDavid.
McDavid doesn’t just fly on the ice, he glides on it like he owns it. His stick is less a piece of hockey equipment than an extra appendage connected to his lightning-fast brain. It’s thrilling to watch.
Connor McDavid is in midseason form. Flips the puck in the air and then swings it into the net. pic.twitter.com/JAi4QT8ID0— Brady Trettenero (@BradyTrett) September 28, 2017
The Oilers will only go as far as this 20-year-old, chapped-lipped superstar will take them. He already holds an MVP trophy from last season, and just got a $100 million deal this summer. With another season under his belt and a lot of continuity around him, there’s little reason this team should not find itself in the conference finals, if not the Stanley Cup final in 2018. At the very least, McDavid will continue to be a thrill on the ice.
This is Connor McDavid’s league now, and we’re all just marveling at it.