There are countless ways to analyze what may lie ahead for the upcoming NHL season but, in this exercise, we’re taking the philosophical route and asking a collection of questions with answers that, while unforeseen right now, will have a significant impact on the 2023-24 campaign when it’s all said and done.
Let’s dive right into it.
What’s in store for new-look Bruins?
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The Boston Bruins enter 2023-24 as one of the league’s most fascinating teams. After rewriting the record books last year, the B’s suffered a humiliating first-round playoff elimination before losing Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci to retirement. Boston is bound to regress from the best regular season in league history, but how steep will the decline be? New captain Brad Marchand believes his club will be just fine.
“I don’t know how people look at the depth on our team and say that we’re going to fall off the radar,” Marchand told ESPN. “There’s a great opportunity for everyone here to do something bigger and build something new and continue the legacy that those guys built.”
He has a legitimate argument. Boston won two playoff games this past spring without Bergeron and Krejci, and the Bruins have made a habit of proving hasty naysayers wrong as their core’s gotten older. Even though Boston likely won’t compete for a second straight Presidents’ Trophy, the club still boasts strength at every position group, is led by a Jack Adams-winning head coach, and plays in a division that could be more wide open than it appears. The Bruins have had the Maple Leafs’ number for a decade, the Lightning and Panthers are starting the year with significant injuries, and the Senators, Sabres, and Red Wings are still trying to establish themselves as playoff contenders.
Perhaps Marchand is right?
Will the Erik Karlsson experiment work?
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The Pittsburgh Penguins occupied much of the summer spotlight. They pried Kyle Dubas from Toronto, spent lavishly in free agency, then traded for the reigning Norris Trophy winner – a blockbuster that trumped all the club’s other moves and will define a critical season in Steel City, where missing the playoffs again simply isn’t an option.
Karlsson, 33, is coming off the best season of his Hall of Fame career, and one of the best we’ve seen from a rearguard in the modern era as he eclipsed 100 points. Equally as important, he played 82 games for the first time since 2015-16. His health is paramount going forward for the Penguins, who owe Karlsson $10 million per season through 2027. Age and price point were the main detractors among critics of Pittsburgh’s pursuit of Karlsson, but the time for punditry has passed. Now it’s time to see if Dubas’ all-in gamble will pay off on the ice – and it’s far from a guarantee.
The Penguins project to have one of Karlsson or Kris Letang on the ice for most of the game at even strength, where the former’s presence should help Pittsburgh’s breakout immensely. Karlsson will also be tasked with reviving the Penguins’ star-studded – but 14th-ranked – man advantage. He and Letang will both get top-line power-play minutes to start, but two right-handed shots running the point is unconventional. Additionally, Pittsburgh had plenty of talent on its top unit last season, but couldn’t click for whatever reason. Adding another weapon to the arsenal doesn’t guarantee success if the plan of attack is off.
On paper, it’s easy to see why adding Karlsson could be a home run for the Penguins, but time will tell if the transition will be seamless or not.
What lies ahead for this summer’s trade bait?
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Trade rumors ran rampant over the offseason for a glut of players entering the 2023-24 season on expiring contracts or on teams in the doldrums. Among the alleged bait: Mark Scheifele, Connor Hellebuyck, Elias Lindholm, Noah Hanifin, Brett Pesce, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Travis Konecny, to name a few. Alas, none of them were moved, and none of them were extended. Was the speculation all a ruse, or are we in for an all-time trade deadline in a few months?
The Jets and Flames looked destined for fire sales after rocky seasons but managed to keep most of their talent – namely the first four stars listed above – for another kick at the can. While their fans may be relieved to start the campaign with their rosters still intact, neither Canadian outfit is necessarily a lock to make the playoffs. If Winnipeg and/or Calgary are out of contention come the March 8 trade deadline, they could hold a serious influence over the frenzy. Contending teams will undoubtedly be calling about players of that caliber.
Elsewhere, Carolina seems content to let Pesce play out the final season of his contract and boast perhaps the deepest defensive corps in the league. A trade could have made sense a few months ago but, with the season upon us, why would the Cup-contending Canes give up such a vital piece? The same could be said for Kuznetsov and Konecny, even though the Capitals and Flyers don’t have feasible championship aspirations.
Trading any of these players now isn’t beneficial to their respective clubs, but it would be favorable for blockbuster-hungry fans if they’re back in the trade mix within a few months.
Can the Senators or Sabres shake up the playoff race?
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Many were shocked at the meteoric rise of the New Jersey Devils last season: They went from seventh in the Metropolitan Division to third in the entire NHL in one year. Naturally, many wonder who could be the next contender lurking in the shadows.
The two consensus options are Buffalo and Ottawa, who are set to make the Atlantic Division much more interesting in 2023-24. The Sabres and Senators were each on the cusp of the postseason last year, and both squads got better while, as mentioned above, the usual suspects in the division got a little bit weaker. It could be the perfect recipe for either – or both – teams to shift the landscape of the Eastern Conference.
Although the young core of the Senators has plenty of time to emerge into a powerhouse, this coming season is likely playoffs or bust for the jobs of head coach D.J. Smith and general manager Pierre Dorion. Ottawa hasn’t reached the postseason since 2017, and a berth this year is the only appropriate measure of progress for a team with all the pieces to compete. A full year of Jakob Chychrun, while also adding Vladimir Tarasenko and Joonas Korpisalo to a rock-solid pre-existing roster, might make for something special in Canada’s capital.
The Sabres will again ice a young, lethal offense and a modestly reinforced blue line as they look to snap the NHL’s longest active playoff drought of 12 seasons. While much of Buffalo’s roster will be the same as the one that missed the postseason by a single point in April, there’s now a potentially massive improvement between the pipes in rookie Devon Levi. He’s undeniably the Sabres X-factor for the season ahead and, if his debut campaign goes anywhere near as well as his path to the pros went, Buffalo could be in for a significant surge in the standings.
Is Bedard a lock for the Calder?
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Probably. But we’re not gift-wrapping the hardware to Bedard just yet. The NHL’s latest generational star is already putting on a show night in and night out during the preseason and is the rightful Rookie of the Year favorite. However, generational players aren’t always decorated in their debut seasons – Connor McDavid and Sidney Crosby can attest – and there’s a deep group of freshmen that could cause some chaos in the Calder race. Let’s highlight a few.
First, there’s Coyotes stud Logan Cooley, who may have already scored the goal of the year with his dazzling spin-o-rama Down Under. The University of Minnesota product has a year on Bedard and will be given every opportunity to succeed with major ice time in Arizona.
Adam Fantilli, who went two picks after Bedard this summer, may already be the Columbus Blue Jackets’ No. 1 center. He’s a scintillating blend of size and skill and could enjoy a productive debut campaign playing in a sneaky talented top six.
Other candidates include the aforementioned Levi, who will be a lock to be at least a finalist if he leads Buffalo to the playoffs. Devils’ youngster Luke Hughes has the name cache and the raw talent to be an immediate star, while Matthew Knies is going to get a golden chance to be an impact player on a Maple Leafs squad that should compete for a division title.
This question could age like milk if Bedard lights up the league in his first year as many expect but, at least for now, keep an eye on the rookie race in 2023-24.
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