nhl season preview

Surprise Storylines That Could Dominate the NHL

Can the Sabres, coming off a league-worst 54-point season, make a playoff push? Where will Lightning star Steven Stamkos finish the season? There's no shortage of storylines that could emerge in the NHL.

by Joshua Kloke
Oct 7 2015, 9:45pm

Photo by Fred Chartrand-The Canadian Press

In a league where only two teams have won the last four Stanley Cups and Sidney Crosby and/or Alex Ovechkin have placed in the top five in scoring in each of the last three seasons, there are times when the NHL can feel predictable.

The Chicago Blackhawks were forced to move a few key pieces after winning the Stanley Cup—as they did in 2010—but, of course, you can never write them off.

READ MORE: Under the Bucket: Welcome to the Start of the NHL Season

The Washington Capitals have many onlookers excited right now and can be expected to contend for the Metropolitan Division title. Will anyone be surprised, though, if they can't get past the second round of the playoffs, just like they haven't for the last eight seasons? Yes, the big picture can look a bit similar each season, but, in recent years, trends have continued to change.

Last season saw the use of advanced stats go mainstream, fighting decrease, and many teams built on speed and skill experience success as opposed to those built on size and various intangibles. Now that those trends are out in the open, there are new storylines that could develop this season and surprise some people.Or the Blackhawks could just go out and win it all again. Either way.

Buffalo Sabres make playoff push

Let's face it: the Atlantic is a wide-open division. Tampa Bay seems to have a lock on the top spot, but Detroit's questions in net and how its aging star will fare (more on that in a bit) leaves Montreal, Ottawa and Florida as unpredictable bets. No one's going to be as bad as the Bruins, who made some questionable moves this offseason, or Toronto, which is prioritizing development over results. That leaves us with the Sabres.

They remind me a lot of the 2013-14 version of the Colorado Avalance. Buffalo is armed with a new coach eager to make his mark on the franchise, a Calder Trophy candidate, a young, run-and-gun offense that plays with an edge, and Ryan O'Reilly, for good measure. The Sabres' terrible possession numbers will still be too hard to overlook in the long run and they might regress the following season, but, in a wide-open division, Buffalo will play with nothing to lose and won't be nearly as bad as many think.

Steven Stamkos doesn't finish the season with Tampa Bay or Toronto

If the Bolts really come together and Stamkos plays lights out, as many expect him to, he'll have all the bargaining power he needs. But for a team already in cap trouble and one that will have to lock up Victor Hedman, Nikita Kucherov, Tyler Johnson, Ben Bishop and Ondrej Palat at the end of the 2016-17 season, the Lightning will be left with little choice. Stamkos will be too rich for their blood.

The Lightning could hold on to Stamkos and try to sign him during the offseason on the strength of a deep playoff run, but general manager Steve Yzerman might not want to risk it. He could net a very strong in-season package for Stamkos, but it won't be from the Leafs. The Leafs are under pressure to stay the course and not try to flip this team into a contender immediately. Unwilling to give up Morgan Rielly, William Nylander or Mitch Marner, the dream of Stamkos in Toronto is going to come at a hefty, if not astronomical ($12 million average annual value?), price in the offseason.

Could we see another deadline deal between the Lightning and the Rangers with Rick Nash being part of a package that goes the other way? Their salaries are comparable right now and a deal would offer both a chance at the Cup this season. Nash could ride out his career in Florida, offering veteran tutelage to the young Bolts, while Stamkos would get all the exposure necessary to boost his profile going into the offseason.

The Anaheim Ducks also have a number of reasonably-priced scoring options that they could move in a deal with Tampa Bay. That could just about seal their fate as Cup champs, couldn't it?

The Calder Trophy race will not be a two-horse affair

It would be somewhat shocking if Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel aren't awarded the top rookie honours at the end of the season, but that doesn't mean there won't be others factoring into the discussion.

READ MORE: There's More to the Oilers than Connor McDavid

One player that could emerge is Arizona's Max Domi, whom McDavid himself is a fan of. Domi might not get the kind of attention that McDavid and Eichel do but, for a rookie, is that such a bad thing? He'll be 21 by the early spring and his physical maturity could help his case.

Or what about Calgary's Sam Bennett, who rushed onto the scene late last season and grabbed a point in his first shift after overcoming a shoulder injury? His relentless style of play will put him in coach Bob Hartley's good books, and he could see first-line minutes if the Flames' dependable trio of last year falters.

Pavel Datsyuk will miss half a season's worth of games with injury

Things aren't looking promising for the magic man. Though Datsyuk produced at over a point-per-game clip last season, Detroit's over-reliance on the injury-prone 37-year-old as a scoring option could push him beyond his comfort zone. Mike Babcock seemed to manage his ice time with a dip last season, but it's unclear how new coach Jeff Blashill will work with such a gifted veteran, who's not scheduled to return from an ankle injury until mid-November.

Patrick Roy gets fired

We've seen the leashes on coaches get shorter and shorter. The recent Jack Adams winner needs to win right away with the talent he has, but a long slump owing to the Avalanche's continued poor possession numbers could see Roy shown the door.

Is there anyone else out there that would fit with the young Avalanche? Former Tampa Bay bench boss Guy Boucher, who was rumoured to be coveted by the Maple Leafs, could be an option. And what about John Tortorella, who surprised many when he was given the USA head-coaching job for the World Cup? A return to the NHL seems unfathomable, until it doesn't.

Filip Forsberg finishes Top 5 in scoring

Forsberg could be this year's Jakub Voracek. While he's five years younger, Forsberg posted similar numbers (26 goals, 37 assists, 63 Points) over 82 games last season to Voracek's totals in 2013-14 (23/39/62) before he broke out as an elite scoring threat.

Like Voracek, Forsberg doesn't have a ton of offensive support around him but under Peter Laviolette's attacking system, he will have free reign to work his magic. Streaky as he might be, there's been a new addition to the top five scorers for the past few seasons and Forsberg is trending up, and doing so quickly.

Vancouver unleashes fire sale at trade deadline, finishes near basement

Everyone that is, except for the Sedins. They'll go down with the ship (and how can you realistically move them both, or even separate them?) but Alex Burrows, Alex Edler and Ryan Miller will all be for sale once the reality of the mismanaged Canucks roster sinks in and the team finds itself toward the bottom come the trade deadline.

READ MORE: The Vancouver Canucks Are in Trouble

There's a lot of fingers crossed that the Sedins have one last rabbit to pull out of their hats, but it doesn't seem meant to be. The Canucks are aging, and are the best bet to bottom out a la the 2014-15 Maple Leafs. By season's end, they'll be in the basement shopping the classified section for options.

Tuukka Rask gets dealt

Another team that looks to be in a state of flux (oh, how the mighty have fallen) will take further stock of its roster midway through the season and decide to approach the former Vezina Trophy winner about waving his no-movement clause. It's not easy to ask of Rask, but things don't look to be getting better in Boston anytime soon. Rask's $7 million AAV won't come cheap, but if a team with a marginal No. 1 goalie is looking to move to contender status (Winnipeg? Anaheim?), there might be a deal to be made here.

This one might be the biggest stretch on the list but as long as GM Don Sweeney is running the show in Boston, anything is possible.

Washington gets over the hump, challenges for Stanley Cup

Enough is enough here. Two of the Capitals' key pieces, Alex Ovechkin and Braden Holtby, are coming off monster seasons and showed that they're capable of playing much longer than the 82-game regular season—Holtby's .944 playoff save percentage put him firmly in the elite category. The additions of T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams will help down the stretch, as well.

Yes, they're always as good a pick as any before the season to win it all, but this comes down to Ovechkin. He knows the clock is ticking and he still has the ability to play otherworldly when needed. It might be needed for longer than usual this time, but there comes a point where questions about your legacy become too loud.

This season, he drowns them out for good.