Top Storylines to Follow During 2017 NHL Training Camps

Lyle RichardsonFeatured ColumnistSeptember 7, 2017

Top Storylines to Follow During 2017 NHL Training Camps

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    NHL training camps open in mid-September. Several storylines, involving stars such as New York Islanders center John Tavares, Colorado Avalanche forward Matt Duchene and free-agent right wing Jaromir Jagr, will be worth following during that period.

    Tavares' status as an unrestricted free agent next summer raises questions about his future with the Islanders. Duchene has been the subject of trade speculation for months. Jagr and fellow right wing Jarome Iginla are the few noteworthy UFAs still unsigned as training camp approaches.

    Those aren't the only stories worth watching when camps open. Several teams have to adjust to new head coaches, while some promising prospects could make the leap to the NHL. A handful of young restricted free agents, such as Boston Bruins winger David Pastrnak, have yet to re-sign with their clubs.

    Here's a look at the notable storylines to follow during the 2017 NHL training camps. You can voice your opinions on this topic in the comments section below.

Potential PTO Candidates

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    As of Sep. 6, 93 unrestricted free agents had yet to sign with new clubs. Twenty of them, such as former Boston Bruins right wing Jimmy Hayes, signed professional tryout offers in the hopes of landing full-time NHL contracts.

    The limited increase in the salary cap (from $73 million to $75 million) for 2017-18 left many teams with little cap room to add depth via free agency. That has forced less talented players hoping to stay in the NHL, such as Hayes, to go down the tryout route.

    Several former players sidelined by injuries or other issues are hoping to stage NHL comebacks via professional tryout offers. They include forwards Brandon Prust and Ryan Malone and defenseman Jared Cowen.

    Among those free agents are recognizable players such as Jagr, Iginla and Brian Gionta, as well as defensemen Dennis Wideman, Roman Polak and Cody Franson. At this late stage in their respective careers, they could also become PTO candidates.

Prospect Watch

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    NHL training camps offer fans their first glimpses of each club's promising young prospects. Part of the focus this year will be upon New Jersey Devils center Nico Hischier, Philadelphia Flyers center Nolan Patrick and Dallas Stars defenseman Miro Heiskanen. They were the top three selections in the 2017 NHL draft. 

    They aren't the only youngsters from this year's draft worth watching. Detroit Red Wings center Michael Rasmussen (selected ninth overall) and Florida Panthers right wing Owen Tippett (10th overall) could surprise by cracking the rosters of their respective retooling teams.

    Promising kids from previous drafts could also be ready to make the jump to the NHL. Arizona Coyotes center Clayton Keller, Colorado Avalanche center Tyson Jost, Ottawa Senators defenseman Thomas Chabot and Vancouver Canucks right wing Brock Boeser saw a handful of big league games last season and will be hungry for more.

    None of these names can be considered future NHL franchise players comparable to former top draft picks such as Edmonton Oilers center Connor McDavid and Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews. Still, some could show early potential as future stars.

Coaching Changes

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    After struggling through last season, the Arizona Coyotes, Buffalo Sabres, Dallas Stars, Florida Panthers, Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks failed to qualify for the 2017 playoffs. Those six clubs subsequently hired new head coaches during the offseason.

    Ken Hitchcock returns to Dallas after stints with the Philadelphia Flyers, Columbus Blue Jackets and St. Louis Blues. He previously coached the Stars from 1996 to 2002, winning the Stanley Cup in 1999.

    Rick Tocchet is back with the Coyotes after serving as an assistant coach with the Tampa Bay Lightning and Pittsburgh Penguins. He also had a stretch as the Lightning's head coach from 2008 to 2010.

    Like Hitchcock and Tocchet, new Kings bench boss John Stevens has previous head coach experience, serving in that role with the Philadelphia Flyers from 2006-07 to 2009-10. He was briefly their interim head coach in 2011.

    For Buffalo's Phil Housley, Florida's Bob Boughner and Vancouver's Travis Green, this is their first opportunity as NHL head coaches.

    Each man faces daunting challenges this season. The Coyotes, Sabres and Canucks are rebuilding clubs, while the Stars, Panthers and Kings hope to rebound back into playoff contention.

    Fans and pundits will be watching to see what changes those coaches implement to improve their new clubs. 

1st Season for the Vegas Golden Knights

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    The expansion Vegas Golden Knights make their NHL debut in October. During the offseason, general manager George McPhee stocked his roster with established veteran players and hired former Florida Panthers head coach Gerard Gallant as his bench boss.

    Their first training camp provides a peek at how well this roster could perform during the team's inaugural campaign.

    McPhee brought in some skilled veteran talent through the expansion draft and trades, landing such notable players as goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury and left wing James Neal. He also selected several promising players, such as backup goalie Calvin Pickard and blueliner Shea Theodore.

    During training camp, McPhee is expected to clear up his club's crowded blue line. He has 11 defensemen on one-way NHL contracts. Three or four of them could be demoted or traded before the regular season opens in October.

    The Golden Knights aren't expected to be a playoff contender in their first season. Hockey fans in Las Vegas will want them to be entertaining and competitive, though. Training camp and preseason play will give them an early look at what to expect.

Jaromir Jagr and Jarome Iginla

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    As of Sep. 6, veteran right wings Jaromir Jagr and Jarome Iginla remain unsigned. Now in their 40s, they are well past the primes of their respective playing careers. The future Hall of Famers could be facing the end of their long tenures in the NHL.

    Jagr, 45, tallied a respectable 16 goals and 46 points in 82 games last season with the Florida Panthers. However, it was a considerable drop from the 27 goals and 66 points in 2015-16. Injuries to linemates Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau contributed to that decline, but so did the Czech's lessening speed.

    The 40-year-old Iginla's production has steadily eroded in recent years. In 2016-17, he netted a career-low 27 points split between the Colorado Avalanche and Los Angeles Kings. It was also the first time since 1997-98 that he failed to reach 20 goals in a non-lockout season.

    If Jagr and Iginla haven't signed with NHL teams when training camps open, speculation will grow over whether they will consider playing in Europe.

    They could also follow the lead of former Arizona Coyotes right wing Shane Doan, who announced his retirement on Aug. 30 after 19 NHL seasons.

Unsigned Restricted Free Agents

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    With training camps starting up soon, a handful of restricted free agents remain unsigned. It's possible the contract negotiations of these budding stars, including Boston Bruins right wing David Pastrnak and Vancouver Canucks center Bo Horvat, could drag on into training camp.

    Pastrnak, 21, finished second among Bruins scorers last season with 70 points. On Wednesday, the Boston Globe's Kevin Paul Dupont reported the club and the player's agent discussed an eight-year contract.

    Horvat was the Canucks' leading scorer (52 points) last season. Sportsnet's James Cybulski reported Monday that Vancouver general manager Jim Benning hopes to have the 22-year-old re-signed by the end of the week.

    Some could consider playing in Europe. Ted Kulfan of the Detroit News noted Tuesday the odds of Detroit Red Wings forward Andreas Athanasiou signing with a KHL team were shortening. Sitting $3 million over the $75 million salary-cap ceiling, the club lacks sufficient room to pay the 23-year-old a significant raise.

    These free agents could also threaten to withhold their services until their teams pay up or trade them to clubs willing to do so. Both sides will use the approaching start of training camps in the hopes of leveraging more favorable contract terms.

John Tavares' Contract Status

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    New York Islanders center John Tavares is entering the final season of his six-year, $33 million contract, becoming eligible next July for unrestricted free agency. That raises the prospect of this season possibly being his last with the club.

    As of July 1, the Islanders could open contract negotiations with the 26-year-old. But with training camp opening soon, there's no indication they are close to signing him to an extension. A long-term deal could cost them over $10 million annually.

    The Islanders' performance in 2017-18 could play a key role in Tavares' plans, especially if he hopes to play for a Stanley Cup contender one day. He could also monitor the club's efforts to secure a new venue. On April 21, Mike Rose, Jim Baumbach and Robert Brodsky of Newsday reported NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said the Islanders planned to submit a bid to construct an arena in Belmont Park.

    The longer Tavares goes without re-signing with the Isles, the more media speculation will grow over his future with the club. That chatter could commence in earnest throughout training camp.

Matt Duchene Trade Rumors

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    Since last season, Colorado Avalanche center Matt Duchene has been the frequent subject of trade rumors. The speculation shows no signs of petering out during training camp.

    On Aug. 17, Mike Chambers of the Denver Post reported Avalanche general manager Joe Sakic would continue listening to trade offers for the 26-year-old Duchene.

    On Aug. 30, USA Today's Kevin Allen suggested the Columbus Blue Jackets, Carolina Hurricanes and Montreal Canadiens were possible trade destinations. BSN Denver's Adrian Dater added the Nashville Predators and Boston Bruins.

    Despite Duchene's subpar performance (18 goals, 41 points) last season, he's a former 30-goal scorer who still has value on the trade market. The problem, however, is Sakic's asking price. On Aug. 29, Allen tweeted the Avs wanted "a [first-]rounder, quality young defensemen, proven NHLer and top prospect."

    On Wednesday, TSN's Frank Seravalli reported there is talk Duchene might not report to camp. Uncertainty over the center's future could hover over the Avalanche training camp, providing an unwelcome distraction and perhaps forcing Sakic to make a trade.

                       

    Player info via NHL.com. Salary info via CapFriendly.