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NHL Season Preview: Plenty of storylines
The 2015-16 NHL season is upon us, and there is no shortage of intriguing storylines.
The Stanley Cup is again at home in Chicago, where the defending-champion Blackhawks are dealing with a roster overhaul and star winger Patrick Kane is facing rape allegations. There’s a new big-name coach in Toronto, a new big-time goal scorer in Pittsburgh, but there isn’t a new contract for one of the league’s superstars in Tampa.
Before the puck drops with four games Wednesday, take a look at these 10 themes that will be part of the 10th season since the NHL’s second lockout.
1. The Patrick Kane saga.
In early August, it was reported that Kane was under investigation for sexual assault at his home just outside Buffalo. Kane arrived at training camp despite continuing police proceedings and, about a week later, an attorney for the accuser claimed her rape kit was anonymously on her mother’s doorstep.
The attorney rescinded that claim the following day and withdrew from the case, although he maintains his belief in Kane’s accuser’s allegations. The Erie County district attorney may still file charges against Kane.
All the while, the 26-year-old Kane is about to embark on his ninth NHL season. Unless the charges are dropped, and even then there is no guarantee the cloud will be lifted, this will be hanging over Kane and the Blackhawks every time he touches the ice for a game or practice.
2. The new-look Blackhawks.
After the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup for the third time in six years, general manager Stan Bowman wasted little time alleviating his team’s salary-cap issues.
Right winger Patrick Sharp was traded to Dallas in a deal that brought back defenseman Trevor Daley; restricted free agent forward and playoff hero Brandon Saad was shipped to Columbus for forwards Artem Anisimov and Marko Dano while veteran forwards Brad Richards and Antoine Vermette and defenseman Johnny Oduya were allowed to leave via free agency.
“The salary cap is a puzzle that we all have to figure out,” Bowman said after signing defenseman Brent Seabrook to an eight-year, $55 million contract in September. “Every team faces those challenges. I look at it as a great situation to be in.”
3. 3-on-3 overtime is here.
Having grown weary of games so frequently going to shootouts, the NHL adopted a new measure for the 2015-16 season: 3-on-3 overtime will replace 4-on-4 overtime.
In the preseason, the new format has had the desired effect, as a majority of the overtimes have been decided during the five-minute session.
“It’s pretty much what we expected, but we’ll see what the regular season is like,” commissioner Gary Bettman said.
4. The McEichel Era begins.
Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel, the first and second pick of the 2015 draft, respectively, are almost universally considered to be generational talents. Both players will begin their careers with downtrodden clubs — McDavid in Edmonton and Eichel in Buffalo.
McDavid and Eichel looked like future stars in the preseason, which means expectations will be enormous in the regular season.
5. Phil Kessel starts anew in Pittsburgh.
Maligned doesn’t even begin to describe high-flying winger Phil Kessel’s time with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Despite scoring 181 goals in 446 games over six seasons with the Leafs, Kessel was a lightning rod for everything that was going wrong with the team.
Kessel and his $8 million cap hit were traded to Pittsburgh this summer, a move that the Penguins hope put them over the top.
“He doesn’t have to do it by himself here,” Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford said to ESPN. “He gives us a better chance to score in a league that’s hard to score in. He will be the guy on certain nights.”
With either Evgeni Malkin or Sidney Crosby as his likely center, a 50-goal season could be in the offing for Kessel.
6. Hockey comes to Brooklyn.
Did you know? The Islanders have moved to Brooklyn. You probably haven’t heard about it.
After 33 years on Long Island, the Islanders will play their home games at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, home to locally sourced, artisanal coffee-drinking hipsters that are sure to tell fans they looked the Islanders before it was cool.
Kidding aside, Brooklyn is getting one of the NHL’s rising teams, even if fans will have to watch from a few obstructed-view seats in the arena.
7. Mike Babcock takes over in Toronto.
The biggest free-agent signing during the offseason wasn’t a player — it was the Maple Leafs signing former Detroit Red Wings coach Mike Babcock to an eight-year, $50 million contract. Arguably the sport’s top coach, his average annual salary is exceeded by only 45 players.
At his introductory press conference, however, Babcock was frank about the immediate future of the Leafs: “Pain is coming.”
The Leafs are in the midst of a rebuild to be sure. But it will be interesting what sort of effect Babcock and his 527 career victories will have on a team searching for an identity.
8. Steven Stamkos’ contract situation.
Tampa Bay Lightning’s star forward Steven Stamkos enters this season in the final year of a four-year contract with unrestricted free agency looming next summer. The 25-year-old scored at least 40 goals in a season four times and has 97 goals in his past 167 games over the past three seasons.
That type of production won’t come cheap. Stamkos can likely command a contract with at least a $10 million cap hit, which makes the job of Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman a difficult one.
“I definitely love being here,” Stamkos told reporters in Tampa. “We want to win a championship, and I want to be part of that.”
If an agreement can’t be reached, would the Lightning considered trading one of the game’s biggest stars? How this all plays out will have a huge effect on the Lightning’s success this season and in the future.
9. The next steps with expansion.
Las Vegas and Quebec City won’t be part of this season, but their fates will likely be decided at some point between now and next offseason.
“We are in the process of gathering information,” Bettman said after the fall Board of Governors meeting. “There have been no deliberations as to whether or not we want to expand, how many teams, or where. There’s much work to be done.”
The Board of Governors will meet again Dec. 7-8 in Pebble Beach, Calif., when a decision could be made about Las Vegas and/or Quebec City joining the NHL for the 2017-18 season.
10. Kings searching for redemption.
After winning the Stanley Cup in 2014, the Kings missed the postseason in 2015.
Defenseman Slava Voynov was suspended in October following an arrest for domestic violence, charges to which he would eventually plead no contest. Voynov was released by the team and now faces deportation to Russia.
Center Mike Richards had his contract terminated in July after a reported incident involving an attempt to bring drugs across the Canadian-United States border, although the NHLPA is reviewing that move.
Also gone are Andrej Sekera and Justin Williams via free agency, replaced by free agent Christian Ehrhoff and trade acquisition Milan Lucic.
The Kings will be looking to clean up their act both on and off the ice in 2015-16.