It’s been a terrible offseason for the NHL. From Patrick Kane’s police investigation, to Ryan O’Reilly’s impaired driving, to Mike Richards’ arrest at the Canadian border, to the ongoing legal troubles of Slava Voynov, the giddy high of another enthralling Stanley Cup playoffs is a distant memory.
But the summer of the NHL’s discontent is coming to an end. And while the off-ice drama isn’t going away any time soon, there finally will be some on-ice drama, as well. The Hawks open camp at Notre Dame on Friday, so look for a Hawks-centric preview in the coming days. But with camps opening around the league this week, here’s a look at who and what to watch for outside of Chicago in the upcoming season.
5 Faces In New Places
1. Phil Kessel, Pittsburgh
Moody. Unenthusiastic. Off-putting. Uncoachable. Doughy, even. That’s how Kessel was portrayed in Toronto, a city that couldn’t wait to get rid of him. Oh, and he also played every single game for the past five seasons. And he’s also a five-time 30-goal scorer. And he’s a guy Patrick Kane deemed the most naturally gifted player he’s ever played with (at the Olympics). And now he’s going to be on a line with the best player in the world, Sidney Crosby. Fifty goals isn’t just a possibility, it’s the expectation.
2. Mike Babcock, Toronto
Babcock left one of the most stable franchises in sports, the Detroit Red Wings, for the dumpster fire that has been the Maple Leafs in recent years. An eight-year, $50-million contract helped him make that decision. It’s a dream job, but it could be a nightmare early on. Toronto has missed the playoffs in nine of the last 10 seasons, and is just starting the rebuilding process. And the Leafs, who have the league’s largest and most insatiable fan base, haven’t won a Stanley Cup since 1967. Toronto isn’t known for its patience.
3. Dougie Hamilton, Calgary
Hamilton is 22 years old and one of the best up-and-coming defensemen in the NHL, and all Boston got for him was three draft picks. And you thought Hawks fans were upset about the Brandon Saad trade. Hamilton was a restricted free agent, and it became apparent the Bruins couldn’t afford to keep him. Now in Calgary, Hamilton joins a blue line headed by Norris Trophy favorite Mark Giordano and T.J. Brodie. The Flames were last year’s surprise team. They won’t sneak up on anybody this season.
4. Troy Brouwer, St. Louis
What happens when a beloved former player joins a hated current rival? Brouwer will find out in a couple of weeks, when the St. Louis Blues first visit the United Center. The Washington Capitals shipped Brouwer — who scored the game-winning goal against the Hawks late in last season’s Winter Classic — to St. Louis in exchange for shootout specialist T.J. Oshie. The bruising Brouwer, who has 46 goals over his last two seasons, should fit right in with the hard-hitting Blues.
5. Milan Lucic, Los Angeles
Lucic is a big dude who plays a heavy game. Little wonder the punishing Kings coveted him, sending goalie Martin Jones and a first-round pick to Boston. Lucic is just 27, and, in theory, is entering his prime years. He can give the Kings the offensive boost they need to rebound from last year’s stunning fall from winning the Stanley Cup to missing the playoffs. Lucic also is in the last year of his contract, so he’ll have plenty of motivation.
1. Brandon Saad, Columbus
The 22-year-old “man-child” might wind up being the one that got away for the Hawks. Sure, they landed a second-line center in Artem Anisimov and a high-end young talent in Marko Dano, but Saad is a burgeoning star in the NHL — the prototypical power forward, possessing size, speed and skill. In Columbus, he’ll be a top guy, not just another cog in the machine. Can he still produce without Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa on his line? The Blue Jackets are counting on it.
2. Patrick Sharp, Dallas
The past season was difficult for Sharp, on and off the ice, and his numbers suffered. But Sharp is still just one year removed from the best season of his career (34 goals, 44 assists), and is in the best shape of his career, even at 33 years old. Expect his numbers to rebound now that he’s with the offensive-minded Dallas Stars. Sharp’s best numbers came when Joel Quenneville finally let him play on the top line. In Dallas, he’s likely to be joined by reigning scoring champ Jamie Benn and all-world talent Tyler Seguin. The goals will come in bunches.
3. Johnny Oduya, Dallas
In effect, the Hawks and Stars swapped Oduya for Trevor Daley, and the two couldn’t be more different. Oduya is the veteran, reliable, stay-at-home defenseman the Stars need, and should be a nice fit in Dallas, which suffered from Daley’s defensive lapses last season. Oduya had a tough stretch during the regular season last year, but found his game just in time in the spring.
4. Brad Richards, Detroit
Richards made it quite clear that he wanted to stay in Chicago, where he enjoyed a career resurgence alongside Kane following the veteran’s demotion to the fourth line for the New York Rangers. But the Hawks couldn’t make the money work, and the 35-year-old Richards went to yet another Original Six team in Detroit, where he’ll again hope his veteran savvy and skill will make up for his deteriorating speed.
5. Antoine Vermette, Arizona
Vermette’s time in Chicago was brief, but memorable. After enduring an excruciatingly slow start to his Hawks career, and being made a healthy scratch for a game in the Western Conference final, Vermette scored three game-winning goals over the last two rounds as he won his first Stanley Cup. Good thing, too. Because he won’t be contending for it for a long time now that he’s back in Arizona. But it’s home for Vermette, and the young Coyotes will benefit from his experience and leadership.
5 Coaches on the Hot Seat
1. Ken Hitchcock, St. Louis
Three straight dominant regular seasons. Three straight first-round exits. And the Blues only signed him to a one-year contract. Gulp.
2. Mike Yeo, Minnesota
Goaltender Devan Dubnyk’s astounding second-half run last season saved Yeo’s job. For now. But after three straight playoff losses to the Hawks, hockey-mad Minnesota’s patience is wearing thin.
3. Todd Richards, Columbus
The Blue Jackets, riddled by injuries last season, are already being hyped as the next team to take the next step. With the Penguins, Capitals, Rangers and Islanders in their division, Columbus can’t afford a slow start.
4. Jack Capuano, N.Y. Islanders
The Islanders contended for the Presidents’ Trophy for much of last season before fading late and losing in the first round. With the team moving to Brooklyn this season, the pressure’s on to perform well early on and attract new fans.
5. Claude Julien, Boston
Julien survived the Bruins’ rocky offseason. But after missing the playoffs last season, and with an aging, depleted team, his days could be numbered.
5 Story Lines to Watch in 2015-16
1. McDavid vs. Eichel
Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel are the two most highly touted rookies since Sidney Crosby, and they landed in cities that desperately needed them. Edmonton lucked into McDavid, so let the Wayne Gretzky comparisons begin. Eichel, meanwhile, is the great American hope in Buffalo. Two generational talents, two hockey-crazed but success-starved cities. No pressure, kids.
2. Central dominance
Four teams — the Blues, Predators, Hawks and Wild — finished with at least 100 points in the Central Division last year. And the Jets had 99. And Dallas (92 points) is fast on the rise. The Central meat-grinder will be tougher than ever this season.
3. Stamkos’ future
Steven Stamkos is entering the last year of his contract with Tampa Bay, and everyone assumed a record-setting contract extension was inevitable this summer. It hasn’t happened. Will the Lightning lock up their superstar, or will the league’s best pure goal-scorer become trade bait?
4. SoCal stagnation
Can the Kings rebound from their massively disappointing 2014-15 season to contend for a third Stanley Cup? Can the perennial regular-season power Anaheim Ducks and coach Bruce Boudreau finally get over the hump and reach the Stanley Cup Final? On paper, they’re two of the league’s best teams. Again.
There’s a good chance that, at some point this season, the league will announce its first expansion since 2000. Las Vegas and Quebec City have entered the third stage of the expansion vetting process, and the league still has its eye on Seattle. Will two teams be added? One? None? We should find out soon enough.