The Top Storylines for the 2017-18 NHL Season

Carol Schram@pool88Featured ColumnistOctober 2, 2017

The Top Storylines for the 2017-18 NHL Season

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    It won't be long now.

    The curtain has fallen on an eventful preseason. NHL teams will start playing for keeps Wednesday, with four games on the opening-night schedule.

    As usual, we saw plenty of player movement during the offseason, as weak teams try to get stronger and good teams juggle to maintain the best possible rosters in the face of salary-cap restrictions. The debut of the new Vegas Golden Knights added an extra spark through the summer.

    As we prepare for the puck to drop, here are the biggest storylines to watch during the 2017-18 season.

The Pittsburgh Penguins Will Try to 3-Peat

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    Last June, the Pittsburgh Penguins became the first team in nearly 20 years to win back-to-back Stanley Cups. The last team to accomplish the feat was the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and 1998.

    The Penguins' achievement is impressive because it marks the first time since the salary cap was introduced at the beginning of the 2005-06 season that a team has been able to repeat as champion. The key to Pittsburgh's success has been the team's ability to generate strong support from inexpensive young players like Jake Guentzel, Bryan Rust and Matt Murray behind highly paid stars like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury.

    The question now—can the Penguins sustain their momentum and become the first team in more than 30 years to win three straight titles? Not even Wayne Gretzky's powerful Edmonton Oilers dynasty pulled that off—they dropped the ball with a second-round loss in 1986 after a pair of titles in 1984 and 1985 and lost in the first round in 1989 after winning the Cup in 1987 and 1988.

    The last group to three-peat was the New York Islanders. The franchise's only four titles to date came in consecutive years between 1980 and 1983—in a very different-looking 21-team league that had just absorbed four franchises from the World Hockey Association.

    Only four players from Pittsburgh's 2017 Cup-winning roster were even alive when the Islanders were winning their titles: Matt Cullen (born 1976), Mark Streit (1977), Chris Kunitz (1979) and Ron Hainsey (1981).

    All four of those veterans have moved on this season, as have Fleury, Trevor Daley and Nick Bonino. With Ryan Reaves, Matt Hunwick and Antti Niemi as their only significant roster additions, the Penguins' team depth will be tested as they push to set a new standard for greatness in a salary-cap world.

The Edmonton Oilers and Toronto Maple Leafs Will Battle for Canadian Supremacy

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    This is no slight intended to the Ottawa Senators, who were the last Canadian team standing in the 2017 playoffs and pushed the Penguins to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final. But the battle that has captured the imagination of Canadians is the one between the two long-struggling franchises in Edmonton and Toronto.

    The Oilers and Maple Leafs are on the rise thanks to improved management, top-level coaching and the arrival of respective franchise saviors in Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews. Both teams will get the chance to make a real push into the league's elite realm this season.

    On paper, Edmonton's a little further along in its rebuild. McDavid has an extra year of experience over Matthews and is the reigning league MVP. Plus, the Oilers won their first playoff series in more than a decade last spring, while the Leafs had to settle for a first-round loss to the Washington Capitals.

    With 103 points, Edmonton finished eight points higher than Toronto in 2016-17. That was an improvement of 33 points for the Oilers, while the Leafs improved by 26 points.

    After making such a big jump so quickly, the Oilers' challenge this season will be to keep pace with last year's performance. The Leafs have a little more room for improvement.

    Expect to see the gap between the two teams narrow and watch for their head-to-head matches to whip up plenty of excitement. The Oilers host the Leafs on November 30, then travel to the Air Canada Centre for the follow-up game just 10 days later on December 10.

Tampa Bay Lightning and Dallas Stars Push to Return to Playoffs

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    Just two years ago, the Dallas Stars finished the regular season as the top team in the Western Conference, while the Tampa Bay Lightning pushed the Pittsburgh Penguins to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final before the Pens went on to win the Stanley Cup.

    Neither team was able to maintain its momentum, though. The Stars fell by 30 points and finished second-to-last in the Central Division in 2016-17, while the Lightning came up just one point short of an Eastern Conference wild-card spot.

    On paper, the Stars and Lightning have both built strong cases to be back among the 16 that make it to the dance.

    Dallas should finally be able to cut down its goals against thanks to the arrival of goaltender Ben Bishop and a stronger commitment to defense under new coach Ken Hitchcock.

    Even without Bishop, their old starter, the Lightning are in good hands with Andrei Vasilevskiy in net. They're crossing their fingers that they'll be healthier—hoping in particular for full seasons out of Steven Stamkos and Ryan Callahan after both veteran leaders were sidelined for most of last year.

    If all goes according to plan, the Stars and Lightning won't just get back to the playoffs in 2016-17. Both teams are built to take serious runs at the Stanley Cup.

Early-Season Injuries Could Cause Slow Starts for Some Teams

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    In today's NHL, players with long-term injuries fall into two categories: the ones whose contracts can be used as tools for salary-cap relief and the ones that create big roster holes when they're sidelined.

    Players like David Clarkson of the Vegas Golden Knights and Johan Franzen of the Detroit Red Wings fall into the first category. Their playing careers are almost certainly over and their cap hits will be shuffled off the books once the regular season begins.

    Beyond that, some teams will be missing key figures when they line up to start the season this week—and quite a few of these injuries are carried over from last season's playoffs and/or offseason surgical procedures.

    Looking at the CBC's list of injured players, the Anaheim Ducks are one of the most short-handed teams going into opening night. Top defensemen Sami Vatanen and Hampus Lindholm are both expected to be out of the lineup until November, and Ryan Kesler's return after hip surgery is expected around late December.

    The St. Louis Blues are also beaten up. Patrik Berglund is out until December after offseason shoulder surgery, while Zach Sanford, Alex Steen and Jay Bouwmeester were all injured during the preseason. On Thursday, the Blues announced that Robby Fabbri had reaggravated a knee injury and would require ACL surgery that'll cause him to miss the entire season.

    Here are some other long-term absences that will impact teams around the league:

    • Jakob Chychrun, Arizona Coyotes (knee surgery, indefinite)
    • Marian Hossa, Chicago Blackhawks (skin condition, likely out for season)
    • Andrej Sekera, Edmonton Oilers (ACL surgery, late December)
    • Marian Gaborik, Los Angeles Kings (knee, indefinite)
    • Nick Bonino, Nashville Predators (recovering from broken leg, indefinite)
    • Ryan Ellis, Nashville Predators (knee surgery, early January)
    • Travis Zajac, New Jersey Devils (pectoral surgery, mid-February)

    As for Erik Karlsson, the Ottawa Senators captain told Don Brennan of the Ottawa Sun that "they took half my ankle bone out" during his offseason surgery and that he would be "most likely not" ready for the Sens' season opener Thursday. After watching Karlsson participate comfortably in a full practice last Wednesday, Brennan tweeted: "Smart money still says he plays in opener."

Rule Changes Could Increase Scoring

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    One of the biggest talking points of the early preseason was the referees' enthusiastic assessment of slashing and faceoff violation penalties.

    By September 23, Sportsnet was already reporting that officials had been asked to "dial it back a bit." It remains to be seen whether the new standards of enforcement will lead to more power plays—and, potentially, more goals in an offense-starved league in 2017-18.

    In addition to aiming to calling slashing and faceoff violations more stringently, the league has also amended some rules this season, with an eye toward creating an uptick in scoring.

    Here are the changes, from Rory Boylen of Sportsnet:

    • An incorrect offside challenge will now lead to a minor penalty for delay of game.
    • Timeouts are no longer allowed after icing plays.
    • If a player knocks the puck out of the air with a high stick while his team is on a power play, the ensuing faceoff will now move to the neutral zone instead of the defensive zone.

The 2018 Calder Trophy Race Is Wide-Open

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    The Calder Trophy competition for rookie of the year is always fascinating. Even when young stars come into the league with pedigrees like Matthews or McDavid, they face competition not just from members of their own draft class but also from more mature players who are making their way into the NHL from Europe, college, junior and the minor leagues.

    This season, there's no clear-cut favorite. Keep an eye on college standouts like Charlie McAvoy of the Boston Bruins, Clayton Keller of the Arizona Coyotes and Brock Boeser of the Vancouver Canucks.

    Among the 2017 draftees, first-rounders Nico Hischier, Nolan Patrick, Owen Tippett, Filip Chytil and Kailer Yamamoto are all expected to start the season with their NHL teams.

    Alex Formenton is a rare second-round long shot to stick with the Ottawa Senators, according to Ken Warren of the Ottawa Citizen. If Formenton doesn't make it, 19-year-old Logan Brown could grab that roster spot instead.

    Other junior standouts who are looking make the jump to full-time NHL status this year and could find themselves in the Calder mix include 2016 draftees Pierre-Luc Dubois with the Columbus Blue Jackets, Mikhail Sergachev with the Tampa Bay Lightning, second-rounder Alex DeBrincat with the Chicago Blackhawks and fourth-round pick Victor Mete with the Montreal Canadiens.

    From the 2015 draft class, keep an eye on Matthew Barzal with the New York Islanders and Joel Eriksson-Ek with the Minnesota Wild. Going back a little further, don't forget about the Islanders' Josh Ho-Sang and Jakub Vrana of the Washington Capitals from the class of 2014.