Burning Questions Early in the 2016-17 NHL Season

Allan Mitchell@@Lowetide_Featured ColumnistOctober 26, 2016

Burning Questions Early in the 2016-17 NHL Season

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    Every NHL preseason, experts pick their favorites to win the Stanley Cup and major awards, and by Halloween, most predictions have been blown out of the water. The excitement of the new campaign is still fresh, with surprises—good and bad—erupting in each conference and division.

    Can Sidney Crosby turn around an average start for the Pittsburgh Penguins? Are the Edmonton Oilers for real, or is this a mirage? Is Canada making a comeback?

    Here is a quick analysis of the burning questions being asked after two weeks of the NHL season.

Can the Edmonton Oilers Keep Winning?

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    The Edmonton Oilers have been outside the playoffs since the spring of 2006, changing general managers and coaches multiple times along the way. When owner Daryl Katz took over the team in 2008, few could have anticipated the long and arduous journey ahead.

    Edmonton drafted No. 1 overall in 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2015—an incredible period of draft positions. It wasn't until hitting the jackpot in 2015 (i.e. the Connor McDavid lottery) that Oilers fans could see a hopeful future.

    The first year was difficult, as McDavid battled injures while new general manager Peter Chiarelli made efforts to shore up the defense and goaltending. Edmonton once again finished near the bottom of the standings, selecting No. 4 overall in 2016.

    A major offseason deal for Adam Larsson and a few other fixes seem to have turned the tide, however. Edmonton went 5-1-0 in the first six games and is receiving scoring from McDavid and other secondary sources.

    Can the Oilers keep this pace? The answer is no—at least not in terms of winning five of every six games. Real improvement is possible, though, and a push toward a playoff spot could happen if the team avoids injuries and receives top goaltending. This is one of the most interesting stories to follow in 2016-17.

Will the Chicago Blackhawks Score and Give Up 300 Goals This Year?

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    The Chicago Blackhawks are scoring a lot of goals, but they are also giving up the same number, which is a problem. Through seven games, the club has scored and allowed 25 goals and has a 3-3-1 record. Chicago has done well at even strength, scoring 16 goals and allowing eight, but it has given up an incredible 13 goals when opponents are on the power play. This early, that number seems almost impossible, which points to a major problem for the team.

    Part of the issue comes from the sheer number of value contracts on the roster, including five rookie skaters who have played significant time this year. The twin $10.5 million contracts of Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews mean Chicago must have multiple players at $1 million or less—there are 14 men currently in that category.

    Success and the cap tend to be at cross purposes, and general manager Stan Bowman has been creative over many seasons. This year will be a fascinating test for Bowman and Blackhawks management, as there are some major issues facing the club already.

    The goals for and against will be a good way to keep track, with the goal differential showing progress. So far, Chicago is in a tough spot. Looking at the top-end talent on the roster, though, it would be foolish to bet against it.

Can Carey Price Drag the Montreal Canadiens to the Top of the Standings?

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    The difference between playing with and without Carey Price is an incredible gap for the Montreal Canadiens, suggesting he is the most valuable player in the game.

    Price has been splendid in his games so far this year—as has Al Montoya—and the stellar goaltending has Montreal winning the goal-differential battle by a wide margin. If the goalies can keep it up—and Price has the track record—Montreal could land in a good spot by the end of the season.

    Two newcomers have helped out early, including Alexander Radulov, who is back from Russia and looking good. Shea Weber is the other major new addition, and he is playing big minutes and getting impressive results.

    The bad times a year ago seem to be gone, and fans may be starting to forget the fact that P.K. Subban no longer wears the storied jersey. Montreal seems to have a roster that closely fits the style preference of head coach Michel Therrien, and this could be the year the Stanley Cup returns to Canada.

Will Someone Other Than Alex Ovechkin Win the Rocket Richard Trophy?

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    Alexander Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals has won six Rocket Richard Trophies as the top goal scorer in the league, including the last four in a row.

    This year, there are some new contenders, including rookie Auston Matthews, who scored four goals in his first NHL game. Fellow rookie Patrik Laine of the Winnipeg Jets has four goals, and veteran Taylor Hall has five for the New Jersey Devils.

    Veteran Richard Panik landed in a good spot with the Chicago Blackhawks. Playing on a line with Jonathan Toews, Panik is already at six goals and should be in position to get plenty of chances as long as he remains on a feature line.

    Patrick Kane of the Blackhawks and Vladimir Tarasenko of the St. Louis Blues should also be considered contenders for the crown, as both posted strong seasons a year ago. Jamie Benn of the Dallas Stars is another player to watch in 2016-17.

    Oveckhin has started well—three goals in his first five games—and will probably be at the top of the scoring charts in no time. His patented hot streaks usually leave most contenders in the distance, and that streak could start at any time.

Will the Pittsburgh Penguins Ever Have a Healthy Lineup?

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    One of the hardest things to do in sports is to repeat as champion, and the Pittsburgh Penguins are finding that out early this season. Although the team's record is good, injuries to key players are having an impact.

    Sidney Crosby has returned from a concussion that forced him to miss the start of the season, and goalie Matt Murray is also close to returning to action after being out with a broken hand. Kris Letang, Derrick Pouliot and Conor Sheary all have various maladies—a summary is available at Hockey-Reference.com.

    It has been frustrating for Penguins fans, who saw three scoring lines last spring in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Having an impact scorer like Phil Kessel on the third line means opponents can't cover all of the offensive weaponry Pittsburgh boasts when healthy.

    The nature of the cap world is that injuries have a massive impact, especially when names like Crosby and Letang are out of the lineup. Pittsburgh has played well without its best players, but it should receive a major boost when all hands return.

    One interesting result of the injuries has been the work of Marc-Andre Fleury. His save percentage of .904 does not inspire, and Murray may well be the No. 1 starter when he returns. That may lead to trade talk later in the year.

Is This a Special Rookie Class?

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    It is too early to make any sweeping statements, but the quality and depth of this year's rookie class looks like it might be special. Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs scored four goals in his NHL debut, and Patrik Laine of the Winnipeg Jets scored a hat trick shortly thereafter.

    The Maple Leafs have a large rookie crop, including Matthews, William Nylander, Mitch Marner and Nikita Zaitsev. The Philadelphia Flyers have fewer rookies, but Ivan Provorov and Travis Konecny are having big impacts on the team. This is the beginning of the patient approach shown by Flyers general manager Ron Hextall since his arrival and should put the franchise on solid footing for years to come.

    Among the players who are performing well without much fanfare are Devin Shore of the Dallas Stars and Michael Matheson of the Florida Panthers. Sebastian Aho of the Carolina Hurricanes arrived in training camp with some expectations and has delivered so far on that promise.

    One area this rookie crop does not look dominant in is in goal, where only four rookies have played, and none appear to be imminent No. 1 starters for their respective teams.

How Many All-Time Greats Will Jaromir Jagr Pass This Season?

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    Jaromir Jagr's incredible NHL career continues on a high arc—one of the most unusual progressions we have ever seen. Each season he remains active means passing all-time greats in some important and cherished offensive categories.

    In total points, Jagr is at 1,871 and needs 16 more to pass Mark Messier and move into the No. 2 spot in the game's history. He just reached 750 goals, becoming only the third man to reach that total, and is 51 behind Gordie Howe.

    As incredible as his accomplishments are, there are two things that fans often mention in regard to his numbers. Jagr left the NHL for three KHL seasons in his late 30s. If he had scored even average point totals in those years, Howe's goal total might have already been overtaken.

    The other item pertains to age—44—and the number of years he may want to play. Most players his age have long retired, but Jagr remains productive. No matter how long his career lasts, fans cherish every game because of his unique career. He is a living, breathing piece of the game's history and adds to the legend with each stride he takes.

How Many Canadian Teams Will Make the Playoffs?

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    Last season, the NHL entered the playoffs with no Canadian teams. For a league that boasts seven teams from the northern country, the odds of not having even one team make the playoffs are low.

    An injury to Carey Price derailed the Montreal Canadiens' chances a year ago, but he is back, and the team's fortunes are looking up. The Toronto Maple Leafs are in a rebuild and are going to score and allow a lot of goals this season. In Ottawa, the Senators have one of the best players in the game in Erik Karlsson, but they continue to fritter away his prime with unusual roster decisions.

    The Winnipeg Jets have added a lot of youth—Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor might be special players—but the absence of Jacob Trouba is having an impact. Winnipeg may have to trade the defenseman sooner rather than later if the club has hopes of making the playoffs this year.

    Out west, the Vancouver Canucks have been an early surprise and have enough veterans to make things interesting. The Edmonton Oilers are off to a fantastic start but remain a team that lacks depth in important areas. The Calgary Flames have a chance at the playoffs but need to continue recovering from a slow start.

    Montreal is the best bet for playoff contention in 2016-17, and the Flames remain the best bet in the Western Conference among Canadian teams.