NHL Themes 2017–18
Jeremy Lanaway, The American's hockey correspondent, reports from Vancouver on the plotlines to follow in the coming season
Here we go again! The pre–season has at long last become a thing of the past, clearing the way for the latest instalment of NHL tale–telling. The approach of the 2017–18 regular season finds players fine–tuning their strides, re–zeroing their shots, stiffening their passes, working out any kinks that might've crept into their game throughout the off–season lull – all in the hopes of helping to position their team on the long, uphill path to the playoffs.
Like any new NHL season, this one is chock full of storytelling potential. The most promising narratives are likely to revolve around the Pittsburgh Penguins' follow–up to lifting their second Cup in as many seasons, the inauguration of professional hockey in Sin City, the continued dominance of superstar upstarts, and the NHL's spurning of Olympic hockey in South Korea in February, 2018. So sit back, crack a cold one, and prepare to be entertained.
In their fiftieth season, the Penguins achieved something that hadn't been done since the Detroit Red Wings pulled off the accomplishment in 1998: winning back–to–back Stanley Cups. The NHL's post–millennial era has produced a handful of juggernauts – the Chicago Blackhawks, the Los Angeles Kings, the Penguins – but only Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and company have managed to achieve the near–impossible feat of hoisting the Cup two seasons in a row, joining ranks with the Blackhawks in winning three mugs over the past decade.
So what now? Will the Penguins' long–overdue hangover finally show up in 2017–18? Or will the team manage – against all odds – to further their incredible run of dominance for yet another season and playoffs? With the likes of Crosby, Malkin, and Phil Kessel leading the charge; Kris Letang, Derek Pouliot, and Mark Streit guarding the blue–line; and Marc–Andre Fleury manning the pipes, it's fair to say anything is possible for the Penguins.
Rolling the dice in Vegas
Even though it's been more than two decades since the Arizona (née Phoenix) Coyotes normalised the phrase 'hockey in the desert', it still feels somewhat jarring to say the words 'NHL' and 'Vegas' within the same breath. Jarring or not, the newly minted Las Vegas Golden Knights [sic] are about to embark upon the same journey the Coyotes did back in 1996. They have a brand–new arena, a bottomless well of vacation–goers from which to draw a regular audience and the beginnings of a roster, thanks to a recent expansion draft; now they just need to hit the ice and find out if Lady Luck is indeed on their side.
Because of Las Vegas' status as North America's favourite weekend destination, the crowds in T–Mobile Arena – located right on the Strip – are expected to include as many fans for the visiting team as the home club. This rare dynamic has compelled odds–makers to give the team a decent shot at financial success. Needless to say, the odds of their attaining competitive success are significantly longer – but that's the whole point of Vegas, isn't it? The next big win is just a dice–throw, wheel–spin, or button–push away.
Youth is (once again) king
The kids are more than all right. Not since 2005–06 – when Alexander Ovechkin and Crosby made their debuts – has the NHL produced such a star–studded rookie corps. Auston Matthews (Toronto Maple Leafs) and Patrik Laine (Winnipeg Jets) sat atop the rookie scoring ladder in 2016–17, with 69 and 64 points respectively, while William Nylander and Mitch Marner (both Maple Leafs) each tallied 61. The results point to a distinct theme: the kids aren't just getting by – they're doing as much to help their clubs as their veteran teammates. When you add sophomores Connor McDavid (coming off a 100–point season with the Edmonton Oilers), Artemi Panarin (Blackhawks), Jack Eichel (Buffalo Sabres), and Max Domi (Coyotes) to the list, it becomes clear that the NHL is experiencing another youth movement.
Taking a closer look at the kids and how they've been playing reveals an impressive statistic. Only four rookie classes in the past dozen years have managed to account for more than 9 percent of the NHL's goals–total in a single season, with only one class surpassing 9.5 percent. Last season's freshman crop scored nearly 11 percent of the league's total goals – only two percent shy of the 13 percent tallied by the Crosby–Ovechkin cohort in 2005–06. The NHL's youthward shift is likely to continue, which could produce even younger rosters in the future, potentially speeding and opening up gameplay. Teams who choose to stifle their youngsters could find themselves on the outside looking in.
Bait and switch
Never one to shy away from irony, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has announced the league's return to foreign climes for two of its opening puck–drops in the 2017–18 schedule. The Colorado Avalanche and the Ottawa Senators will play back–to–back games in Stockholm, Sweden as part of the NHL's 2017 Global Series – the league's first jaunt abroad since 2011. The irony of seeking to expand the NHL's global reach in the same season it rejects participating in the Winter Olympic Games is likely not lost on Bettman, whose money–first mandate is as dependable as gravity and the dulling of skate blades.
Hockey fans can only hope that the NHL's Seoul snub is a one–off, and that the league will do the right thing by returning to the world's premier hockey event in Beijing in 2022. However, the NHL's incessant pushing of outdoor games – the 2017–18 season will include the 100 Classic, the Winter Classic and the Stadium Series – and its hard–sell of last year's World Cup of Hockey point to long odds for a revival of Olympic participation. On a side note, come February it will be interesting to see if Ovechkin and a handful of other European superstars manage to follow through on their heartfelt pledge to don their country's colours in Seoul despite the NHL's short–sighted withdrawal.
So here we go again – turning the page to a whole new chapter of NHL storytelling. Like seasons past, the NHL's 2017–18 instalment is sure to yield endless plotlines teeming with twists and turns, heroes and villains, heart–swells and heartaches. It's the most exciting time of year for hockey fans because anything – everything – is possible.
Have you cracked that cold one yet?