As usual, there is no shortage of storylines with another NHL season upon us.
The Calgary Flames made a splash on Monday signing 45-year-old Jaromir Jagr. This will be Jagr’s ninth NHL team and first time wearing the sweater of a Canadian club.
There will be rule crackdowns in the faceoff circle, slashing and an alteration to the offside video challenge that now calls for a two-minute penalty for an unsuccessful challenge.
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The NHL now is a 31-team league, thanks to the addition of expansion Vegas Golden Knights. This also is the first time in 20 seasons Jarome Iginla, now 40, is on the sidelines looking for work.
Of course, for the first quadrennial cycle since 1998, the NHL has decided not to allow its players to participate in the Olympics. One of the reasons was they didn’t think it would be good for business to shut down the season for three weeks.
But as the New York Post pointed out last month, the league’s national television broadcaster in the United States, NBC, does not have any NHL games scheduled for broadcast during the Olympics on its main network or cable sports network. NBC also is the Olympic broadcaster in the U.S. Hmmm.
Let’s mull over a handful of topics and make some bold predictions.
The Pittsburgh Penguins will threepeat
The New York Islanders are the last club to win three in a row when they put together four consecutive Stanley Cup championship seasons between 1980-83.
The Penguins might have lost key players like Marc-Andre Fleury, Chris Kunitz, Nick Bonino, Matt Cullen, Trevor Daley and Ron Hainsey, as well as assistant coach Rick Tocchet and assistant general manager Jason Botterill.
But the 30-something set of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel will be aided by youngsters Jake Guentzel, Conor Sheary and goalie Matt Murray, as well as the emergence in last season’s run of defenceman Brian Dumoulin. Plus, star defenceman Kris Letang is healthy again after neck surgery caused him to miss the playoffs last spring.
In a perfect world, we’d see a Penguins-Chicago Blackhawks final. Both teams have won three Stanley Cups since 2009 — Pittsburgh in 2009, ’16, ’17, and Chicago 2010, ’13, ’15.
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The Predators will return to the final, too
Not since the Penguins lost in the 2008 Stanley Cup final to the Detroit Red Wings and rebounded to win in 2009, has the loser in the final returned to the championship series the following spring.
2009 — Detroit (lost in second round in 2010)
2010 — Philadelphia (lost in second round in 2011)
2011 — Vancouver (lost in first round in 2012)
2012 — New Jersey (missed playoffs)
2013 — Boston (lost in second round 2014)
2014 — N.Y. Rangers (lost in conference final 2015)
2015 — Tampa Bay (lost in conference final 2016)
2016 — San Jose (lost in first round 2017)
The Nashville Predators have an excellent opportunity to make it back to the final. Sure, defenceman Ryan Ellis is out until January after knee surgery, but they did advance to within two games of winning it all this spring without their top centre, Ryan Johansen, and sniper Kevin Fiala.
They have depth and if playoff heroes like Colton Sissons, Frederick Gaudreau and Pontus Aberg can feed off their springtime performance this team should be even better. There also is junior-aged defenceman Samuel Girard. Although the Predators have one of the top blue lines in the game even with Ellis injured, Girard could start the season in Nashville.
The Flames are Canada’s best hope
By the time the playoffs roll around in April, there will be many stories written and told about the Montreal Canadiens and the 25th anniversary of the last Canada-based team to have won the Stanley Cup.
The chance of ending that Canadian drought has improved immensely since neither of the Canadiens, Senators, Maple Leafs, Canucks, Flames, Oilers or Jets made the 2016 post-season.
Montreal has the best goaltender in the world in Carey Price. Edmonton has the game’s leading scorer in Connor McDavid. Ottawa is coming off a trip to the East final. Toronto has a dynamic young group led by Auston Matthews and Winnipeg has a pair of its own capable kids in Mark Scheifele and Patrick Laine.
But the most productive of the seven Canadian clubs will be the Calgary Flames. They do not have the most talented group up front, but their defence with a top-four of Dougie Hamilton, Travis Hamonic, Mark Giordano and T.J. Brodie is the best in the league. Mike Smith in goal will give them an edge in the playoffs.
Odds are Vegas will finish 31st, but the Golden Knights will be a tough out
The last time the NHL expanded was in 2000 when the Columbus Blue Jackets and Minnesota Wild joined the loop. The Blue Jackets finished with 71 points and in 13th place in the West, three points ahead of the Wild and five in front of the last-place Anaheim Ducks.
With the loser point for an overtime or shootout loss introduced after the 2004-05 lockout-cancelled season, the lowest point total put up was 48 by the lowly Colorado Avalanche last year.
The Golden Knights’ over-under for their point total has been set at 68.5. I say with Fleury in goal, James Neal and Jonathan Marchessault up front, a capable defence, Gerard Gallant behind the bench and the loser point, Vegas will put together a better year than the inaugural Blue Jackets.
Duchene may spend the entire season in Denver
Four years ago, Matt Duchene enjoyed his most productive season with 23 goals and 70 points in only 71 games and cracked the gold-medal winning Canadian men’s Olympic team roster.
But after a disastrous season for the Avalanche, he demanded a trade and while he considered a no-show, the 26-year-old forward was at Colorado’s training camp, hopeful he soon will be moved.
Every team seems to have been reported to be in pursuit of Duchene, including Canadian teams like Ottawa, Calgary and Montreal.
But what if the Avalanche turn it around this season? Colorado still has talent with Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog, Erik Johnson and now the addition of 23-year-old Harvard product, Alexander Kerfoot. The Vancouver native has exhibited plenty of chemistry with Duchene.
Besides, Duchene is under contract until July 2019. So there is little pressure for Avalanche executive vice-president of hockey operations Joe Sakic to make a Duchene trade for another year.