114 days later, here we are at the start of the 2015-16 NHL season. Feels good, doesn’t it? With many fans getting revved up and excited to watch their teams either dominate the regular season or make an unexpected run at the Stanley Cup Playoffs, there are also many other fans looking for a distraction from their team’s predicted abysmal season. For the later mentioned fans, as well as anyone else interested, I have constructed this list of exciting storylines to watch this season:
Phil Kessel’s New Home
The long-time whipping boy of the Toronto Maple Leafs fan base, Phil Kessel, was finally given his passage out of the Hockey Bubble that is Toronto. The media, the fans, and the atmosphere; they are either working for you or against you in Toronto, and at the end of his roller-coaster tenure with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Phil “The Thrill” Kessel was dealt to the Pittsburgh Penguins. There is many an article discussing what this means for hockey’s most valuable franchise, but let’s look at the impact on the other side of the trade. In his time with the Maple Leafs, Kessel was said to never have a bona fide centreman that would give the gifted sniper the talent he deserves to work with. In Pittsburgh, the issue that superstar Sidney Crosby has seemed to always face was that he has never had an elite winger to work with, making do with what he had. With Crosby and Kessel playing on the same line for most of the preseason, this is for sure to be a chocolate and peanut butter moment.
“Cinderella Goalies” Hangover
At the end of last season, I wrote an article about the Cinderella stories of goalies Devan Dubnyk of the Minnesota Wild, Cam Talbot of the New York Rangers, and Andrew “The Hamburglar” Hammond of the Ottawa Senators. With these three goalies making a significant impact on each of their team’s Stanley Cup Playoffs berths, the eventual downfall of all three of these teams in the playoffs as well as roughly four months of the offseason is sure to make an impact on the true meaning of each of these goalies hot finishes last season.
Devan Dubnyk came to the Minnesota Wild half-way through the NHL season after a few years of adversity, to turn the Wild from an afterthought to a legitimate Stanley Cup contender. Posting a 27-9-2-5 record (W/L/OT/SO) with a .935 SV% and 1.78 GAA, Devan Dubnyk blew everyone’s expectations away. Come playoff time, Dubnyk performed admirably against the favoured St. Louis Blues to pull off a 4-2 series win. Despite this strong effort, Dubnyk and the Wild were no match for the juggernaut that was the Anaheim Ducks, who performed a 4-0 series sweep against the Winnipeg Jets and the Minnesota Wild and were only stopped by the Stanley Cup Champions, the Chicago Blackhawks. The numbers that Devan Dubnyk posted in that hot streak are definitely not sustainable, but he will probably still post some pretty impressive numbers this season and solidify his position as Minnesota’s starting goaltender.
New York Rangers backup goaltender Cam Talbot came to the team’s rescue when starting goaltender Henrik Lundqvist was injured for an indefinite amount of time with a little bit less than half of the season left. Posting a 21-9-4-5 record with a .926 SV% and 2.21 GAA on the season, Cam Talbot did an unbelievable job filling in for “The King”, helping the team go from 11th in the league to 1st during his substitution. By the time the Stanley Cup Playoffs came around, Talbot was riding the pine with Lundqvist returning from his injury and understandably assuming his starting position role. The Rangers, unfortunately, faltered in their loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference Final of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but Talbot’s impressive run was not in vain. His efforts earned him a contract with the rejuvenated Edmonton Oilers where he is projected to be their starting goaltender for the season. His future performance in Edmonton is difficult to call because his impressive career numbers could be attributed to a solid Rangers lineup, rather than his individual efforts.
With the Ottawa Senator’s being 10 points out of the last wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference with approximately a third of season left, they were pretty much considered down and out, they would need a miracle to catch up and make it into the Stanley Cup Playoffs. That miracle would come in the form of “The Hamburglar”, rookie goaltender Andrew Hammond.
Hammond went on an impressive 15 game undefeated-in-regulation streak and eventually went on to post a 20-1-2-3 record with a .941 SV% and 1.79 GAA. Holy Crap. Unfortunately though, the clock struck midnight for Hammond when he lost the first two games in the playoffs to the Montreal Canadiens and he was forced to watch from the bench for the rest of the series as his team went on to lose the series 4-2. The one questions that remains with Hammond is: “Was it a hot streak?” Well, considering he hasn’t won any of his three pre-season starts, this may be the case. The pre-season is really hard to take seriously though, considering the Leafs finished first place in their division in the pre-season last year, and well… we all know how that story ended. The one thing that I will say is that “fear the sophomore year.” What I mean is, most players who have an amazing rookie year tend to have an awful sophomore year (in comparison to their rookie year) due to reasons like players having footage/figuring out how to counter their playing style and players getting into their own heads too much. So although Hammond may have a rough year this year, I still think there is plenty more to come from him.
Outstanding Rookie Class
If you haven’t heard, there are these two kids, Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel, that have been creating quite the commotion that hasn’t been heard of since Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin were drafted into the NHL. Now bound to be compared to each other for the rest of their lives, these two players should be exciting to watch as they potentially change their respective team’s prospects around. It may be hard to believe that one single player can turn a perpetually losing team into a winning team, but with Eichel leading his Buffalo Sabres in points in the preseason, and McDavid generating the second most preseason points for his Edmonton Oilers, it is a safe bet to say that these players are going to make a smooth and impactful transition to the NHL.
Connor McDavid has been lighting the hockey world up ever since he first came onto the hockey scene. Being only the third player to be granted Exceptional Player Status (which allows a year early entrance into the certain CHL leagues at age 15, rather than 16, for players deemed good enough to compete in the CHL’s leagues at an elite level) where he was drafted 1st overall by the Erie Otters. During his OHL career, McDavid went on to post 285 points in 166 games and eventually went on to being drafted first overall by the Edmonton Oilers this past spring. The Edmonton Oilers have been a team that have struggled for years, missing the post-season nine seasons in a row, one season short of tying the NHL record of 10 set by the Florida Panthers. In this time, the Oilers have acquired several first overall picks: Taylor Hall in 2010, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins in 2011, and Nail Yakupov in 2012. This time though, McDavid is being heralded as the missing piece in hopes of finally transforming this losing team into a winning team.
If it was any other year, Jack Eichel would have been taken first overall by a long shot. Unfortunately for him, Connor McDavid took that title from him in what is sure to be the first of a long line of comparisons between the two players. Eichel isn’t no slouch though, posting 26 goals and 45 assists in 40 games for Boston University, Eichel went on to win the Hobey Baker Award for the NCAA’s top men’s ice hockey player, only the 2nd freshman in NCAA history to win the award. This was good enough to be drafted second overall by the Buffalo Sabres. Furthermore, he is already being considered a favourite to win the Calder trophy for Rookie of the Year after leading his team in points in the pre-season. Again, this is another rebuilding team that does have some talent in the line up to work with, and it should be very exciting to see where they end up.
McDavid and Eichel aren’t the only rookies looking to make an impact. With Arizona Coyotes rookies Max Domi (yes, Tie Domi’s son, for the uninformed) and Anthony Duclair cracking the opening night roster, these two are looking to rekindle the magic that led Team Canada’s 2015 WJC Gold medal victory early this year. In addition to that, there is a long list of players like Dylan Larkin of the Detroit Red Wings who just made the Detroit Red Wings roster, Sam Bennett of the Calgary Flames who impressed in his short run with the Flames during the playoffs last season and is set to be the second line center for the Flames, and many more rookies to be on the lookout for this season. The truth of the matter is, there is always good players coming into the NHL through the entry draft each season, but we haven’t had a talent pool this deep since the 2005-06 season that had future superstars like Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Zach Parise, Duncan Keith, and Brent Seabrook playing their rookie seasons that year.
So there you have it, three big reasons why this season stands out more than most. Maybe it’s the fact that I’m a Leafs fan and I’m really reaching for something to distract me from the horrible season that is set to unfold for the Maple Leafs, or maybe it’s the fact that there is a lot of interesting dynamics happening this season. Who knows, you be the judge! Let me know what you think in the comments, especially if there are any other big storylines that I may have missed!
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