Mon. Apr 22nd, 2024

The 2023-24 NHL season may be in its infancy, but the world’s best players aren’t wasting any time making headlines. From defending champion Vegas Golden Knights’ dominance to Joseph Woll’s emergence in Toronto, there is no shortage of storylines to monitor through three weeks. These five are particularly pivotal as November and increasingly meaningful hockey loom.

The Atlantic Division is (still) a minefield

Throughout the summer, hockey writers took it as a given that there would be points on offer in the Atlantic Division. The Boston Bruins paid for their historic 2022-23 season with an equally historic offseason exodus; legends Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci retired, veteran forwards Taylor Hall and Nick Foligno headed to Chicago in a cap dump, and defensemen Connor Clifton and Dmitry Orlov left in free agency. In Tampa, a preseason injury to future Hall-of-Famer Andrei Vasilevskiy meant the waning Lightning dynasty would have to lean on untested journeyman Jonas Johansson in net for as many as two months. Add in offseason surgeries for top Florida Panthers’ blueliners Aaron Ekblad and Bradon Montour, and three of the division’s four 2023 playoff teams entered the season severely short staffed. Surely, that would create enough upward mobility to vault at least the Ottawa Senators and Buffalo Sabres into postseason berths, right? Not so fast. 

Johansson and the Lightning have done more than just survive through eight games, and the 28-year-old, who had played just 35 career games going into the year, remarkably recorded consecutive shutouts during the last week of October. Add in a fast start for Brandon Hagel (6G) and an offensive resurgence from Victor Hedman (8A, 9P), and the 4-2-2 Lightning have all the ingredients to appear in their seventh-consecutive postseason, especially after ‘Vasy’ returns. As for Boston, anyone who chalked up the successes of Jim Montgomery and Linus Ullmark to the defensive foundations laid by now-Vegas coach Bruce Cassidy and Bergeron is busy typing up a retraction; the duo has once again crafted the NHL’s most dominant defense with the help of superstar D-man Charlie McAvoy, and amid an eight-game points steak, the Bruins remain a power player in the East. With the Toronto Maple Leafs as strong as ever, dreams of a wide-open Atlantic Division are fading fast.

Are the Avalanche and Golden Knights on a collision course?

How did a pair of the best teams of the 21st century win consecutive Stanley Cups from the same conference without ever clashing in the playoffs? In 2022, when the Colorado Avalanche rolled the Western Conference and denied the Lightning a third consecutive Cup, the Vegas Golden Knights were busy missing the postseason for the first time in franchise history. The misstep cost coach Pete DeBoer his job, and some wondered if the Knights were still a viable contender without legendary netminder Marc-Andre Fleury. They quieted those questions last spring when Bruce Cassidy’s defensive structure and Vegas’s elite mix of size, skill, and experience proved too much for everyone from the star-studded Edmonton Oilers to the white-hot Panthers. Meanwhile, the Avalanche, ravaged by injuries and the cap crunch that follows any successful team, bowed out to the expansion Seattle Kraken in a series that was not as close as its seven-game length suggested.

In 2023-24, the teams seem destined to meet at last. Budget veterans Ryan Johansen (4G in 8GP) and Tomas Tatar (4A in 8GP) have combined to fill a Nazem Kadri-sized hole in Colorado’s scoring depth, and the superstar quartet of Nathan MacKinnon, Cale Makar, Mikko Rantanen, and Devon Toews are already in midseason form. Though the Avs fell to 6-2 after consecutive ugly losses (0-8 combined score) to Pittsburgh and Buffalo teams that badly needed a result, a healthy Colorado team is bad news for the Western Conference. Could the defensively stout Golden Knights play the immovable object to their unstoppable force? They have yet to lose in regulation this season and will rely heavily on the veteran pair of Shea Theodore (3G, 10P in 9GP) and Brayden McNabb (+9) when they host Colorado for the first time this season on Nov. 4. That meeting could be a preview of more meaningful encounters in 2024.

Can Joe Woll stop the Toronto Maple Leafs’ rotating door in goal?

Despite frequently being made a scapegoat, the Toronto Maple Leafs’ goalie carousel over the past few seasons has not been the disaster some fans remember. Frederik Andersen left town with the fourth-most wins in franchise history, Jack Campbell followed up an impressive 2021 postseason with a 2022 All-Star Game appearance, and Ilya Samsonov was thoroughly competent throughout last season as the Leafs won their first series in an eon. Goaltending is not the issue in Toronto. Or at least it wasn’t until ‘Sammy’ imploded to start the 2023-24 season.

Samsonov has tried everything, including ditching his Curtis Joseph-inspired mask, to break out of his funk, but the 26-year-old Russian has admitted that his ugly .841 save percentage is becoming a distraction off the ice. “It’s hard for me, but I will be figuring this out,” Samsonov told Sportsnet. Rookie Joseph Woll might limit his opportunities to do that. After impressing during his second NHL cup of coffee last season, which extended into the postseason, there was every chance Woll could become coach Sheldon Keefe’s 1B at some point during 2023-24. He might skip that step. Just a year younger than his counterpart and standing 6-foot-5, the shot-stopper is all but a finished product after more than 80 games of seasoning with the AHL Marlies. It shows on the ice; Woll’s dominant 1.33 GAA and .961 SV% through four appearances suggest he could end the procession of post-Andersen goalies in Toronto.

What’s going on in Alberta?

When the Edmonton Oilers beat the Calgary Flames in a wildly entertaining five-game series during the second round of the 2022 postseason, it felt like the Battle of Alberta was back in earnest. For the first time since the days of Messier and MacInnis, the rivals were relevant Stanley Cup contenders simultaneously, destined to clash countless times in Pacific Division showdowns. What a difference a year and a half makes.

Matthew Tkachuk and Johnny Gaudreau left Calgary high and dry after souring on 2022 Jack Adams Award winner Darryl Sutter and Western Canada, respectively. When Sutter lost the locker room, the Flames missed the postseason for the sixth time in the past 10 years. The team axed its winningest-ever coach, but the leftovers of that magical 2021-22 team have failed to rally around a new leadership group of former Sutter assistant Ryan Huska and first-year captain Mikael Backlund; Calgary’s defeat to their hated rivals in the Heritage Classic brings their losing streak to five, and the Flames are desperate for something to go right. As outspoken blueliner Nikita Zadorov told the media earlier this week, “Now [that] there’s no Darryl, so there’s no excuses.”

The Oilers may have thrashed Calgary 5-2 in Canada’s signature outdoor game but do not find themselves much further from the panic button with two wins and five points from eight tries. During the McDavid-Draisaitl era, Edmonton’s inability to win the big one despite having the best player in the world with one of the most clutch postseason scorers of his generation riding shotgun has variously come down to shoddy goaltending, ill-discipline on defense, and nonexistent depth scoring. Over the past two seasons, GM Ken Holland has recruited veteran defender Mattias Ekholm, goalie Jack Campbell, and former Washington Capitals forward Connor Brown to address those issues. Nothing has stuck so far in 2023-24. Brown has a goose egg in the points column through eight appearances, second-year netminder Stuart Skinner’s .861 SV% is somehow the best on the team, and the defense is shipping four goals per game. It’s Murphy’s Law in Edmonton, and Holland and coach Jay Woodcroft need more than star power to weather this perfect storm.

‘PLD’ is worth every penny, but can the Kings survive their goaltending?

The NHL is a copycat league, and it isn’t hard to see which blue-blood teams Rob Blake has attempted to replicate over the past few months. After consecutive years of watching his good-not-great roster bow out to the Oilers in the first round, the Hall-of-Fame player followed the Hurricanes/ Knights model of creating as many matchup nightmares as possible and letting the rest take care of itself.

After paying steeply to extend deadline acquisition Vladislav Gavrikov to shore up his top four on defense, Blake traded for Pierre Luc-Dubois for an eyebrow-raising return and signed him to an even more eyebrow-raising eight-year, $8.5 million AAV pact. Blake and the Kings capped themselves out for a player who has never recorded a 70-point season, but it is hard to deny the effectiveness of their new triple act at center. Between Dubois’s size and skill and the shutdown abilities of captain Anze Kopitar and Phillip Danault, the Kings’ forward group can dictate the pace of play with the best of them; aside from his three goals and five points, Dubois has controlled an absurd 68.5% of high-danger chances in his first eight games with the club. Kopitar and Danault are both north of 56% in that department, and with a top four of Mikey Andersen, Drew Doughty, Matt Roy, and Gavrikov, L.A. can grind teams to dust for 60 minutes each time out. Will that be enough to prop up a goalie tandem of Cam Talbot and Pheonix Copley? Freddy Andersen or Adin Hill they are not, and though the 36-year-old Talbot has done respectfully so far, Copley has a grisly 4.88 GAA in three appearances for the 4-2-2 Kings.

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