Hottest storylines to watch for the 2017-18 season

NHL


As the calendar turns to August, the NHL is in the dog days of its summer sojourn. Here are five storylines I’m stoked about before training camps open in September:

1. Olympic absence

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has held firm on not sending players to the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, citing participation as too disruptive to the schedule. That means NHL players will not compete in the Olympics for the first time since 1998. The decision has been critiqued by several NHL stars, including Henrik Lundqvist, Connor McDavid and Alex Ovechkin. In a tweet posted in April, Lundqvist expressed a sentiment echoed by many in league circles: Skipping the Olympics is a missed opportunity to market the game globally, especially in a nascent Asian market.

Team Canada kicked its preparations into gear, naming Willie Desjardins as its head coach and Sean Burke as GM. But without NHL players, Canada will likely fill its roster with players on overseas contracts, including some NHL veterans. The Canadians will compete in five tournaments over seven months, including the Sochi Hockey Open from Aug. 6-9. Team USA will announce its coach and management teams on Aug. 4. Expect the U.S. roster to include players from overseas pro leagues. Collegiate players are in consideration as well — so, yes, cue the inevitable references to the “Miracle On Ice.”

2. McDavid trickle-down effect

McDavid’s eight-year, $100 million extension signed earlier this summer ushers in the highest average annual value ($12.5 million) in league history. What’s the trickle-down effect, both for the Oilers and for the rest of the NHL?

Let’s begin with Edmonton. The 20-year-old captain might have accepted a bargain; an initial deal was rumored at more than $13 million AAV. McDavid also could have asked for a shorter term. His new deal signals faith in the organization — coming off its best season in more than a decade — and gives GM Peter Chiarelli breathing room, though not much.

Restricted free agent Leon Draisaitl is the next immediate priority. The Oilers appear bullish on striking a deal for the 29-goal scorer to be their long-term No. 2 center and should get it done. The trouble begins in 2018-19, when McDavid’s new deal kicks in. The Oilers already have $52.3 million committed to 12 players. Although the cap should be higher next summer, the Oilers have to make decisions on free agents Matt Benning, Patrick Maroon, Darnell Nurse and Ryan Strome, among others. Goalie Cam Talbot is an unrestricted free agent in 2019.

More broadly, McDavid’s deal sets the bar as the new normal for ascending superstars. Keep an eye on the Buffalo SabresJack Eichel as a market indicator. Discussions are open between the No. 2 draft pick of 2015 and the new Sabres’ front office, led by GM Jason Botterill. Even though Eichel missed 21 games last season, he carries leverage after notching 113 points in his first 142 NHL games. Eichel’s contract, too, will have a trickle-down effect. It could be used as a baseline for Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews and Winnipeg Jets winger Patrik Laine, both eligible for paydays next summer.

3. Poised for a three-peat?

As the Pittsburgh Penguins parade Lord Stanley from Montreal to Moscow, it’s fair to wonder if they’ll be doing the same next summer — their third summer in a row. Pittsburgh’s roster did change this offseason, officially moving from Marc-Andre Fleury to Matt Murray in net while losing Nick Bonino, Trevor Daley and Chris Kunitz to free agency. But what Pittsburgh has built seems to automatically replenish (see: Jake Guentzel, Conor Sheary); forwards Zachary Aston-Reese and Daniel Sprong could be on deck.

Two of the Penguins’ toughest foes in the Eastern Conference are managing tight windows. The Washington Capitals, strapped by the salary cap, parted with Karl Alzner, Marcus Johansson, Nate Schmidt and Justin Williams — without signing replacements. (Washington’s spending centered on extensions for Evgeny Kuznetsov and T.J. Oshie.) Meanwhile, the New York Rangers did typical Rangers things by signing the best free agent on the market: defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk. In a unique twist, they didn’t overpay. Rather, Shattenkirk signed at a discount to play for the team he grew up rooting for. Meanwhile, the Rangers shook up their core, buying out veteran defenseman Dan Girardi and trading center Derek Stepan. After several moves, New York was left with a plethora of capable defensemen and no depth at center.

The Penguins’ toughest conference competition might come from Canada. The Montreal Canadiens, Maple Leafs and Ottawa Senators are all coming off strong seasons and project no signs of regression.

4. Bring on Vegas

An arena is built, a roster is formed, and the excitement in Sin City is palpable. There will be hockey in Las Vegas this season. Although the Vegas Golden Knights are strategizing for the future — GM George McPhee’s stated goal: Make the playoffs in three years — they are better equipped than any expansion team in recent history. The Golden Knights have hoarded draft picks and defensemen but will build around an impressive centerpiece: three-time Stanley Cup-winning goalie Fleury. Although Vegas is likely to finish at the bottom of the 2017-18 standings, it has proven scorers in Jonathan Marchessault, James Neal and David Perron to make things interesting.

But immediate success in Vegas won’t be judged on the ice. Rather, the NHL anxiously waits to see if this team can be embraced by the community. Coming off a Stanley Cup playoffs in which the Nashville Predators elevated experiential hockey for fans in non-traditional markets, can Vegas keep it up? In an interview in July with Forbes, owner Bill Foley boasted that the Golden Knights have smashed expectations with season tickets, selling 13,500 of 17,000 seats and all suites. The Knights have “more revenue than the Flyers, Penguins, the Boston Bruins,” Foley claimed. “We are No. 5, 6 or 7 in terms of ticket revenue in the league,” he told Forbes. “That’s how good Las Vegas has been to us.”

5. Potential farewells

There’s a changing of the guard in the NHL, as McDavid-Matthews becomes the league’s marquee duo, following Sidney Crosby-Ovechkin and Wayne Gretzky-Mario Lemieux before them. Another interesting, if tangentially related, storyline has emerged: potential departures of NHL mainstays.

It felt as if Jaromir Jagr were poised to play as long as Gordie Howe did. But after the Florida Panthers didn’t re-up the 45-year-old winger, Jagr remains unsigned. Surely his legs have given a bit, but his hands haven’t (112 points the past two seasons), and his hard-to-quantify locker room presence adds value. Jagr is currently skating with his hometown team, Kladno, in the Czech Republic. While he has said that his preference is to play in the NHL, if he can’t find the right match, Jagr could stay in the Czech Republic or sign a contract in the KHL.

Meanwhile, Shane Doan, 40, and Jarome Iginla, 40, are also without hockey homes, despite staying in shape. Neither player has won a Stanley Cup, which means both might be looking to play only for a contender. After an unceremonious divorce between Doan and the Arizona Coyotes, this feels like an unsavory goodbye.

Of course, if any of these players remain unsigned by February, the Olympics could beckon. A gold medal is not a bad way to go out.



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