Top Storylines to Follow During 2015 NHL Training Camps
NHL training camps are finally underway. As the teams and players prepare for the upcoming start of the regular season, several storylines are worth following over the next two weeks.
Contract talks for superstars like Tampa Bay Lightning captain Steven Stamkos will attract plenty of interest. Several players, like Phil Kessel (pictured above) with the Pittsburgh Penguins, are adapting to new teams. Promising rookies like Edmonton Oilers center Connor McDavid are experiencing NHL training camps for the first time.
This slideshow delves into the top storylines to follow during the 2015 NHL training camps, examining their importance and potential impacts. Feel free to offer up your opinion in the comments section below.
10. 3-on-3 Overtime
The story: In an effort to reduce the number of regular-season games decided by a shootout, the NHL is introducing a five-minute three-on-three overtime period.
Analysis: To give all teams sufficient time to prepare for this change, 45 preseason games will go to a three-on-three overtime period regardless of the score at the end of regulation time. Coaches will likely practice three-on-three drills during training camp, both to adjust their styles of play and to determine which combinations of players will work best in this scenario.
Potential impact: The overtime period will certainly be more wide-open compared to the four-on-four format, ensuring more entertainment for the fans. This change will also lead to an increase in game-winning goal stats. It should reduce those instances where ties must be settled via shootout, but it remains to be seen by how much.
9. Professional Tryouts
The story: An unusually high number of unrestricted free agents accepted professional tryout offers (PTOs) with NHL teams compared to previous years. As of Sep. 22, General Fanager listed 62 players on PTOs with various teams.
Analysis: The marginal increase in this season's salary cap (from $69 million to $71.4 million) forced most teams to frugally manage their cap space. That led to a a large number of unsigned veterans going the tryout route in hopes of garnering new contracts. Among the notables are Martin Havlat, Tomas Fleischmann, Brad Boyes, Curtis Glencross, Derek Roy and Scott Gomez.
Potential impact: These players remain unrestricted free agents during their tryouts. If they perform well enough, they could receive contract offers with their current teams or other clubs. For many, this could be the last chance to continue their NHL playing careers.
8. Lehtonen and Niemi in Dallas
The story: In an effort to improve their goaltending, the Dallas Stars enter this season carrying two netminders with starter experience. During the offseason, they acquired and signed former San Jose Sharks goalie Antti Niemi to join Kari Lehtonen as their new tandem between the pipes.
Analysis: Lehtonen (pictured above) won 34 games last season, but his goals-against average (2.94) and save percentage (.903) were among the worst for NHL starters. Niemi won 31 games with the Sharks. While his stats were better (2.59 GAA, .914 SP) than Lehtonen's, he still struggled with consistency.
Potential impact: How these two perform in training camp and preseason play could provide a preview of how the Stars divide their goaltending duties. Despite last season's struggles, both are very competitive and hope to have bounce-back performances. It could result in an interesting goaltending duel in Dallas, potentially improving the Stars' playoff chances.
7. Who Will Replace Nicklas Backstrom?
The story: With Washington Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom still recovering from offseason hip surgery, it remains to be seen who will skate between Alexander Ovechkin and T.J. Oshie on the top line.
Analysis: CSN MidAtlantic's Chuck Gormley reported that Backstrom's timetable for returning to action remains uncertain. His absence could stretch well into October. Evgeny Kuznetsov or Andre Burakovsky could be pressed into service as his short-term replacement. Both are promising young centers with considerable potential. Veteran winger Marcus Johansson can also play center if required.
Potential impact: Filling Backstrom's skates for even a short period could prove a significant challenge for his replacement. However, this situation will provide the Capitals with an opportunity to evaluate Kuznetsov and Burakovsky in first-line situations.
6. The Bruins' Blueline Blues
The story: The Boston Bruins enter training camp facing concerns over their blue-line depth. Captain Zdeno Chara is aging, and his heir apparent (Dougie Hamilton) was dealt to the Calgary Flames in June following a contract dispute.
Analysis: Other than signing Matt Irwin, general manager Don Sweeney passed on the slim pickings in the free-agent market. He's opted to evaluate the young defensemen within his system. Power-play specialist Torey Krug could see second-line minutes, while Zach Trotman, Joe Morrow and Colin Miller will get long looks in preseason play.
Potential impact: Irwin or Krug could earn themselves regular second-pairing minutes, while one or two youngsters could slide into third-pairing roles. Should they all fail to play up to expectations, Sweeney could look to the waiver wire or the trade market for help.
5. Mike Babcock and the Maple Leafs
The story: After a decade coaching the Detroit Red Wings, Mike Babcock is running his first training camp with the Toronto Maple Leafs. On May 20, the Leafs signed him to an eight-year contract.
Analysis: It's a big leap for Babcock, moving from the security of a deeper roster in Detroit to join a team undergoing a long-overdue rebuild. His biggest challenge will be to change the culture of losing that's hung over the Leafs for over a decade. Babcock must also find a way to improve the club's much-maligned core, particularly Dion Phaneuf, Tyler Bozak, Joffrey Lupul and Nazem Kadri.
Potential impact: Fortunately for Babcock, Toronto fans and media have low expectations this season. He won't feel the pressure to turn the Leafs into playoff contenders overnight. Babcock is also among the most respected coaches in the league. Any improvements he brings to the roster will be considered a big step in the right direction by the long-suffering denizens of Leafs Nation.
4. Phil Kessel in Pittsburgh
The story: After six seasons with the Toronto Maple Leafs, right wing Phil Kessel enters his first training camp with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Kessel was dealt to the Penguins on July 1.
Analysis: Kessel is among the NHL's elite snipers. He led the Leafs in scoring in each of his six seasons with the club, ranking among the league's top 10 scorers in three of them. The biggest question is whether the five-time 30-goal scorer will skate on Sidney Crosby's line or Evgeni Malkin's. Each superstar has lacked a true, established scorer on his respective wing for some time.
Potential impact: Kessel's training camp performance is worth keeping an eye on. Regardless of which of the Penguins' superstar centers he meshes with, the 27-year-old right wing will provide a significant boost to their offensive attack. Skating alongside Crosby or Malkin, Kessel could approach the 50-goal plateau this season.
3. Training Camp Debuts for Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel
The story: It's the first NHL training camp for Edmonton Oilers center Connor McDavid and Buffalo Sabres pivot Jack Eichel. Selected first and second overall in the 2015 NHL draft, respectively, the duo are highly touted rookies.
Analysis: McDavid and Eichel are considered potential franchise players for their respective clubs. They could become the biggest rookie duo since Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin made their debuts a decade ago. As a result, they enter training camp facing tremendous pressure to reach very high expectations.
Potential impact: Strong performances through training camp and preseason play will only stoke the hype surrounding McDavid and Eichel. If one or both struggle or suffer an injury, it will spark considerable concern among the long-suffering fans in Edmonton and Buffalo. There will also be plenty of interest around the league in these two promising youngsters, who could lead the next generation of NHL superstars.
2. The Contract Talks of Steven Stamkos and Anze Kopitar
The story: Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven Stamkos and Los Angeles Kings pivot Anze Kopitar enter training camp without contract extensions. Both are eligible next July for unrestricted free agency.
Analysis: The two stars will be expensive re-signings for their respective teams. General Fanager indicates that Stamkos' salary-cap hit this season is $7.5 million, while Kopitar's is $6.8 million. They could each command over $10 million annually on their next deals. Complicating things is the potential salary-cap squeeze the Lightning and Kings face beyond this season.
Potential impact: Given the star status of Stamkos and Kopitar and their value to their respective clubs, the longer they go without new deals, the more speculation will grow over their futures. If both remain unsigned by the end of training camp, their contract statuses will become unwelcome distractions for the Lightning and Kings in the upcoming season.
1. The Patrick Kane Investigation
The story: Chicago Blackhawks star winger Patrick Kane is currently facing a grand jury investigation for sexual assault. To date, he has not been charged.
Analysis: Kane's participation at training camp made headlines. According to NBC Sports' Mike Halford, Blackhawks brass received considerable criticism for their handling of a recent press conference to address the situation. Many Blackhawks fans, however, are sticking by Kane. The Associated Press (h/t CBC.ca) reported that he received a warm welcome on the opening day of camp.
Potential impact: Regardless of the investigation's outcome, Kane's attendance at camp is already a significant distraction for the Blackhawks. He and his teammates will be dogged by questions from the press regarding any developments in this story and its effects upon team chemistry.
Player stats via NHL.com.