NHL season preview: Leafs and Oilers dream big as Avs target repeat title

Another NHL season has arrived with no shortage of stories, trends and teams to watch. Can Colorado go back to back? Or will Toronto and Edmonton finally break through

Another NHL season is upon us. Here’s a preview of stories, trends and teams to watch in the coming months – and some predictions to go with them.

Leafs and Oilers: Make or Break

In July, hockey writer JFresh (Jack Fraser) released the results of a fanbase survey. Fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Edmonton Oilers were among those deemed by more than 6,500 respondents to be among the most “annoying”, “delusional” and “unhinged and prone to melting down over next to nothing”. Those opinions may be validated once more this season.

Other than in Colorado, where there will be pressure for a repeat Stanley Cup win, expectations will be highest in Toronto and Edmonton – and with good reason. The Oilers in particular look poised to break through. A Western Conference final loss to the eventual Cup champs is nothing to be ashamed of, but Oilers fans are now expecting better. With ex-Leaf goalie Jack Campbell now between the pipes, the Oilers feel they’ve found the last piece of the puzzle. If not, expect some griping from Edmonton again.

In Toronto, a clock ticks down to 1 July 2023, the day Auston Matthews is eligible to sign a contract extension with the Leafs. Already there’s speculation about where he might go if he doesn’t (LA?), but the better question might be what it’ll cost to keep him. It took Edmonton eight years after drafting Connor McDavid first overall to reach a conference final. Matthews was drafted in the same slot a year later. Will he have to wait longer to have the same success? Will he be willing to? Maybe with enough cash – and a captain’s C?

Ads! Ads! Ads!

Speaking of jersey patches, there will be new ones. The NHL introduced ads on helmets during the pandemic season as a way to recover revenue. Now teams can add sponsor marks to the top right chest area, where things like Cup finals patches usually are. The move itself came as little surprise, though it has caused consternation in the hockey jersey collectors community, where the ads are roundly loathed for both aesthetic reasons and – though less of an issue, but still a problem – because they are heat-pressed! Very gauche.

On visual appeal, they have a point; some ads are hideous. Minnesota will sport a garish logo of intersecting purple and light green squares, clashing with the jersey’s forest green and red. And Montreal has a glaring Royal Bank of Canada logo slapped on la Sainte-Flanelle. Not all the logos are terrible, mind you. Those that are simply words, like on the Coyotes’ jerseys or the Leafs’ stylized ‘Milk’ mercifully blend in. One hopes it’s all worth the estimated 100 million heat-pressed dollars the ads will raise for the league.

But that’s not the only place the NHL is testing new advertising. ESPN reported this week that the NHL will introduce new digitally enhanced boards that can display different ads for TV audiences than those seen in the arena. ESPN also notes that the technology will one day “allow broadcasters to use the boards for everything from in-game stats to special effects for goal celebrations.” The mind reels at the inevitable sports betting or fantasy league applications.

Will Auston Matthews stay with the Maple Leafs after this season? If so, it’s going to cost them.
Will Auston Matthews stay with the Maple Leafs after this season? If so, it’s going to cost them. Photograph: Claus Andersen/Getty Images

Big moves, big paydays … big payoffs?

Nobody, including the Blue Jackets, seemed to really understand why Johnny Gaudreau opted to move to Columbus in July. “We were like, ‘OK, wow, is this real?’” Blue Jackets’ general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said after the signing. It was. Gaudreau had long said he wanted to play closer to his home state of New Jersey, especially as he starts his family. Now, he needs to make his $68.25m contract worth something – and, maybe just as importantly, make Columbus a place other top-tier players start to consider as a home, too.

Gaudreau wasn’t the only Calgary Flame to leave – Matthew Tkachuk wanted out as well. In a deal with Florida, the Flames picked up Jonathan Huberdeau, who soon signed for eight years (at $10.5m per). Joining him in Calgary this year is Nazem Kadri, fresh from a Stanley Cup win in Colorado, who signed with the Flames for seven years. Meanwhile, Darcy Kuemper also left Denver, bound for Washington on a five-year deal. Replacing him between the pipes in Colorado is former Rangers backup Aledandar Georgiev.

While all those players were shuffling around, there was movement behind the benches, too. Ten teams will start the 2022-23 season with new head coaches, including in Vegas, Dallas, Florida, Chicago, Boston, and San Jose. John Tortorella is also back – this time with the Philadelphia Flyers, where he already has “major concerns” about the locker room culture. Coming from a guy who likes to start fights with entire opposing locker rooms, that’s saying something.

Jonathan Huberdeau has departed Florida to sign an eight-year deal with the Calgary Flames.
Jonathan Huberdeau has departed Florida to sign an eight-year deal with the Calgary Flames. Photograph: Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

The real world

As for hockey culture more generally, this week Hockey Canada was back in front of Canadian parliamentarians to address alleged incidents of sexual assault said to have happened at past world junior championships. The NHL is investigating, too, and at some point this season it may report its findings. But, if last year’s league report into sexual assault allegations within the Chicago Blackhawks organization is any model, don’t expect a splashy release.

The NHL works hard to keep the outside world, well, outside. But the world keeps coming, including in Europe this weekend, as the NHL kicks off its first Global Series games since before the pandemic. The Czech government, lobbied hard by former Czech star Dominik Hasek, said Russian players wouldn’t be allowed into the country to play when the Sharks face off against the Predators Saturday (Czechia being a Ukraine ally). In the end, they will (thanks to the Schengen Agreement). Their inclusion will please Sharks captain Logan Couture. “If we go over there, we want everyone on our team to be there,” he reportedly said on the matter. “All the guys that are going to make the team are a part of our team.” Can’t argue with that! But let’s hope no international incidents need his mediating.

So, who’s good?

Back to the ice in North America. Keep an eye on the southern half of the Atlantic Division, where Florida look to maintain momentum, and the sun may start to set on Tampa Bay. In the Metro, Carolina are ascendent with the Rangers close behind. In the West, who might finally match the speed and prowess of the Stanley Cup-champion Avalanche? In the Central division, look to St Louis and Minnesota, with Edmonton and Calgary still the best bets from the Pacific And we’ll see which comes first: Seattle finding their groove or Jack Eichel finding his.

The first round of the playoffs might look similar to last year – with teams like Nashville, Vegas, Boston and Washington fighting to the end for a spot in the post-season. And hope springs eternal in Los Angeles. If Edmonton can find their groove, we may see a repeat of last year’s Western final, but it still seems likely the Avalanche will win out.

In the East, Carolina look dangerous, but – as in Edmonton – there’s a question mark in net: can Frederik Andersen take them all the way? And will his former club, the Leafs, finally get to the second round? If they can, will they meet the ‘Canes in the conference final – or the Rangers? I might put my money on Shesterkin in that case.

Let’s say Avalanche v Rangers for the final – Avs in seven to repeat.


Colin Horgan

The GuardianTramp

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