A new NHL season always brings a lot of questions that need to be answered, from the who the contenders and pretenders are, to potential coaching changes, to free agent finds and flops to identifying the breakout players. We dig into all of those areas — plus many more — as we ask 25 important questions about the 2019-20 NHL season.
For the first time ever, the St. Louis Blues are entering a season on top of the NHL's mountain, defending the Stanley Cup. General manager Doug Armstromg strengthened the roster just before the start of the season by trading for Justin Faulk from the Carolina Hurricanes, adding to an already strong defense. A lot of the season will rely on Jordan Binnington's ability to repeat his second half — and postseason — performance.
Big things are expected in Denver this season, and for good reason. The Avalanche advanced to Round 2 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs a year ago, have as much young talent as any team in the league, bolstered their depth over the summer and still have the salary cap space to add much more help if needed. They are poised to make a serious championship run right now. But with great expectations comes great pressure, and they will definitely not be sneaking up on anyone this season.
Of all the postseason disappointments the Lightning have had over the past five years, their Round 1 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets was by far the worst. They won 62 games and tied a league record, seemed destined to return to the Stanley Cup Final and then failed to win a single playoff game. They are still the best team in the league on paper, but expectations are going to be through the roof to finally get over the hump. The Blues and Washington Capitals eventually shook their postseason disappointment labels...now it is up to the Lightning to shake theirs.
It may seem like a harsh question to ask, but so far the Babcock era in Toronto has produced a lot of hype and nothing but a bunch of third-place finishes and Round 1 losses in the playoffs, including two in a row to the Boston Bruins. Yes, the division is tough at the top. Yes, the Leafs lost two Game 7s to a great team. But they should have higher expectations by this point while a Babcock-coached team has made it to the second round just once in more than a decade. That cannot continue to be acceptable.
Ovechkin is the most dominant goal scorer in the history of the league and is not slowing down. He has won the league's goal crown in seven of the past eight seasons and has rarely been challenged. Can anyone top him this season? Look for John Tavares, Patrik Laine, Auston Matthews, David Pastrnak and Steven Stamkos to be the closest.
These two have been the top point producers in the NHL over the past three seasons and seem destined to hold their places at the top for the near future and continue to compete for the Art Ross Trophy. Who takes it this year? McDavid managed to overtake Kucherov with a late surge two years ago, while Kucherov bounced back in 2018-19 with a 128-point season that was one of the best offensive seasons of the modern era.
It is just really difficult to see a path for them to compete. Their defense was already decimated, and with the uncertainty around Dustin Byfuglien's future (will he retire or won't he?) it could quickly get worse. Add in the fact St. Louis, Colorado Dallas, and Nashville all made big moves around them to try and get better, and this is a season that could be really ugly, really fast.
You know at some point multiple teams will make a coaching change. It could be a bad team that has run out of answers and has no other card to play, or it could be a contender that is off to a slow start and looks to shake things up. Some names to watch: Bruce Boudreau in Minnesota, Paul Maurice in Winnipeg and Jeff Blashill in Detroit.
This year's rookie class looks to be exceptionally deep with potential impact players all over the league. The top two picks in the draft, Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko, will help reignite the Devils-Rangers rivalry, while young defenders Cale Makar and Quinn Hughes should make big impacts in Colorado and Vancouver. Those four seem to be the preseason favorites, but who else will emerge?
Free agency is always a massive gamble, and there were some pretty significant contracts signed this summer. The early front-runner for most successful signing would seem to be Artemi Panarin in New York, while Joe Pavelski could be just what the Stars need. Sergei Bobrovsky may become an issue five years from now in Florida, but in the short term he should be solid. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Kevin Hayes in Philadelphia, Brandon Tanev in Pittsburgh and Tyler Myers in Vancouver all look like investments who are destined to end in a trade or a buyout.
Not long ago they were the NHL's most successful team, but they enter this season riding a two-year postseason drought and are still clinging to the hope that their veteran core has a chance to still compete. The offense is there, but did they do enough to address the defense? And if they did not, will they think about moving on from longtime general manager Stan Bowman?
No performance was more unexpected last season than the one-year turnaround of the Islanders, going from 31st in the league in goals against to first and overcoming the free agent departure of John Tavares to advance to the second round of the playoffs. But there were a lot of red flags in that performance and the table seems to be set for a regression this season, especially if Semyon Varlamov cannot match Robin Lehner's performance in goal. Can they find the magic again? Most teams in this situation do not.
Honestly, there is no reason why they shouldn't be. They already have some key pieces in place — the biggest being Aleksander Barkov — and they made some huge additions in the offseason with the hiring of a future Hall of Fame coach ( Joel Quenneville) and the signing of a franchise goalie. The latter was the biggest missing piece they had, and for the money they spent and the core they have in place, the playoffs should be a bare minimum expectation this season.
When the Sabres started to rebuild way back in the Tim Murray era, the expectation was that the process would eventually produce positive results. Those results should have started by now. The Sabres are entering the season riding an eight-year postseason drought (the NHL's longest) and have stuck in place for most of that time. They have two franchise players (Jack Eichel and Rasmus Dahlin) but not much else around them. They have topped 81 points in a season just once since 2011. They still seem to be light years behind the top teams in their division.
Every year the Hurricanes were always a preseason sleeper pick in the NHL, and every year for one reason or another they would find a way to underwhelm. That has all changed and after their trip to the Eastern Conference Final, they will be entering this season with real expectations. Their defense is as deep as any other unit in the league, they have an underrated group of forwards led by Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen, Nino Niederreiter and Andrei Svechnikov and an exciting style of play that makes them a must-see team. They are for real, and they are not going away.
This is the big question in Pittsburgh. Even though his final point total from the 2018-19 season was strong, it was clearly one of Malkin's toughest years in the league. He slowed down considerably after a fast start and never seemed to be happy with his game. He arrived in camp motivated and with a chip on his shoulder, ready to show he is still one of the game's best. If he does, the Penguins could once again be tough to beat.
He is running out of years in the NHL to get his Stanley Cup. He is back in San Jose for another season, and while the Sharks lost some key pieces over the summer they still have a top team in the West and have all of the talent to compete — just as long as the goaltending holds up its end of the bargain.
The Predators took a small step back last season and clearly needed to do something to address their woeful power play unit. They attempted to fix that by dumping P.K. Subban's salary and throwing a ton of money at Matt Duchene in free agency. Duchene gives them another top-line forward, but is that going to be enough to close the gap between them and the rest of the top teams in the Western Conference?
It is certainly within reason to think they could. They were a double overtime in Game 7 away from being in the Western Conference Final a year ago, have some truly great players at the top of their lineup — including a Vezina-caliber goalie and maybe two Norris Trophy-caliber defenders — and added a 38-goal scorer in Joe Pavelski this summer. This is a heckuva team that should be able to compete with anyone in the West.
There are plenty of reasons for optimism in New Jersey this season thanks to a huge offseason that saw the Devils land impact players all over the lineup. The biggest reason, though, is the return of a healthy Taylor Hall. The last time he played a full season he was the league's MVP. The dark cloud hanging over his return is his contract status that sees him become an unrestricted free agent after this season. Can the Devils offer enough — and do enough on the ice — to convince him to re-sign?
The Blue Jackets were crushed by free agency this summer, waving goodbye to Artemi Panarin, Sergei Bobrovsky, Matt Duchene, and Ryan Dzingel. It is expected they will take a step back this season, but how far back will they go? They are defiant as an organization — from management, to the coaching staff, to the players — that they will still be good, and they have a lot of key pieces in place. But replacing Bobrovsky in goal is going to be a big challenge.
After several officiating mishaps in the playoffs, the NHL expanded instant replay this season to allow for review on major penalties and goals that are scored as a result of hand passes or pucks hitting the protective netting. On the surface, all of this seems like a reasonable decision. But we have seen in the past that replay review isn't always as black and white as it seems.
With Artemi Panarin, Kaapo Kakko, Jacob Trouba, and Adam Fox, they are no doubt going to be better, it's just a matter of how much. Are they a playoff team? Do they still have too many flaws? They still need help down the middle, but their biggest issue may just be the fact their division is loaded.
The Oilers did the impossible and finished the season with two of the league's top four scorers (Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl) and still missed the playoffs by a significant margin in what was a watered down Western Conference. It is a testament to how thin the rest of the roster is that the Oilers have these two, in their primes, signed long term and have still missed the playoffs in three out of their four seasons together. There is little hope to suggest this season will be any different.
Their days as a factor in the Western Conference seem to be well in the rearview mirror, and they desperately need some fresh faces in the lineup. They need to get younger, faster and more skilled. Simply put, they need to rebuild. They have a good farm system, but the NHL roster is still full of veterans signed long term. They probably won't move Anze Kopitar or Drew Doughty, but you have to think they would be willing to move on from Ilya Kovalchuk, Jeff Carter, Alec Martinez, Dustin Brown and maybe even Jonathan Quick if the right offer presented itself. It is likely none of them will be top-line players on the next contending Kings team.