This is year No. 100 in the NHL’s history. The C-note season—the one, if not all about the Benjamins, all about the Connors and Austons and Sidneys. The NHL itself may be longer in the tooth, but it’s a young man’s league more than ever.
Edmonton’s Connor McDavid, for instance, became the youngest captain in NHL history earlier this month, at 19 years, 266 days old. The Pittsburgh Penguins won the Stanley Cup this past spring, with an average player age of 27.8, according to NHLNumbers.com. In 2002 and 2008, the Detroit Red Wings won Cups with average player ages of a little higher than 31 years old. In 2008-09, two teams, the Wings and Devils, had rosters with an average age of over 30.
There are none today.
True, the NHL has the oldest player in major professional sports, with Florida’s Jaromir Jagr still putting up points at age 44. But he’s a freak of nature. The rest of the league continues to trend younger, and yet there is much worry about the state of the game again.
The reason: lack of scoring.
Nobody wants to see the NHL revert to the days when goaltenders looked like stick figures, when unscreened, bad-angle shots from 55 feet regularly found the back of the net. Goals were too easy to score in the olden days.
But now, many believe it’s becoming just too hard to score goals. As much as pure fans can appreciate the higher quality of goaltending and defensive play, those around the game worry that 2-1 and 3-2 contests—as are becoming the norm—make for a product that just won’t sell to a wider audience.
Jamie Benn was part of the league’s highest-scoring team last season.
Consider this shocking statistic: The Dallas Stars led the league in goals last season with 265. In 1985-86, that number would have been last in the league. The ’85-86 Edmonton Oilers scored 426 goals.
The average number of goals per game last season was 5.42. In 1981-82, it was 8.02.
"The aim should be six goals per game again. We need that. Offensive players need to be able to do what they do best," Ray Ferraro, former NHL player and current analyst with TSN, said.
But that hasn’t happened since 2005-06, the first season after the 2004-05 lockout. NHL general managers have tinkered with the rules since, and goaltending equipment has changed in dimension some, but nothing seems to be doing much to increase scoring.
Whether scoring will increase again is one important storyline for the NHL’s centennial season. We examine that one, and more, in a list of burning questions for the league’s 100th birthday.
Will we see an uptick in scoring finally this season?
Edmonton’s Connor McDavid returns healthy for his sophomore season.
As the NHL continues to introduce young, gifted forwards into the league such as Connor McDavid (19), Auston Matthews (19), Nathan MacKinnon (21) and Artemi Panarin (24) and continues to have relatively young stars still such as Sidney Crosby (29), Jonathan Toews (28), Patrick Kane (27) and Alex Ovechkin (31), there is always hope.
A full season of McDavid would help, and all signs point to this being a great sophomore year for him as the newly crowned captain of the Oilers.
But the quality of goaltending and defense doesn’t seem to have dropped any over the summer. The days when forwards had quantitatively better foot speed over defensemen are gone. The average defender has as much speed, or more, than the average forward, at least according to the experts.
"You can’t go wide around a D-man anymore," NHL Network analyst Dave Reid said. "That used to happen all the time, once or twice every period at least. Now, you never see it. The quality of skating among D-men now is just so much higher than the old days. There is just no time and space for anyone anymore. Players used to be able to skate with the puck and take their time making a decision. At even strength, that just isn’t the case anymore."
And it’s not just the defensemen who are doing all the defensive work.
"There’s all the back pressure from the forwards, too," Toronto coach Mike Babcock said at the recent World Cup of Hockey. "If you have the puck now, you’re squeezed from both sides. That didn’t happen much in the older days."
There are so many other reasons to believe scoring will stay the same or even decrease. Better video scouting and increased knowledge of opponents’ tendencies through advanced analytics mean there are no secrets out there. Most teams have full-time goalie coaches now, whereas few could afford that luxury in the past. And referees haven’t given teams as many power-play opportunities recently as they once did.
Last season, teams averaged 3.11 power plays per game, according to Hockey-Reference.com. In 2005-06, it was 5.85. In 2007-08, it was 4.28. Not since 2008-09 (4.16) has the league averaged more than four power plays per game, per team.
Why the drop-off? Nobody seems quite sure, but most agree it might have something to do with fewer "head shots" in the game and fewer big, open-ice hits. The more that fighting keeps declining, too, the fewer chances for extracurricular events (i.e. dumb penalties) to occur.
With Carey Price back, will the Montreal Canadiens dominate like before he was hurt?
After winning the Hart and Vezina Trophies in 2015, Carey Price appeared well on his way to contending for both awards again with a blazing start to the 2015-16 season. He won nine of his first 11 starts, and the Habs were on top of the league in November. Then, on Nov. 25 against the Rangers, Price injured his right knee and didn’t play the rest of the season.
The Canadiens finished out of the playoffs.
Price is back, professing to feel 100 percent again, and he looked good at the World Cup (5-0 record) and in his only preseason start, a 6-1 win over Toronto.
So, yes, expect the Canadiens to be a strong team again with Price back in goal. He has long been a premier netminder. There are new parts to this Habs club, however, and it will be interesting to see how well they mesh.
The biggest change is on blue line, where 31-year-old Shea Weber takes over from P.K. Subban as the No. 1 D-man. Weber scored a goal in his lone preseason game for Montreal and has earned raves from embattled coach Michel Therrien for the kind of difference in style he’s brought, per NHL.com’s Sean Farrell.
Whereas Therrien saw Subban as flash, dazzle and high risk, the coach seems to love Weber’s more physical, traditional game in the defensive end. And everyone knows what kind of intimidating force Weber’s slap shot is at the offensive end.
Many might see the addition of 30-year-old forward Alexander Radulov as a huge risk, given his lack of recent NHL experience and a history of erratic behavior, but it was a worthy gambit by GM Marc Bergevin. Yes, Radulov’s salary is big ($5.75 million), but it’s only a one-year deal, and his talent is undeniable.
The Canadiens probably aren’t as deep as other elite NHL contenders, but with a healthy Price, they will be back to being a team that can beat anybody.
With Auston Matthews on hand and better goaltending, can Toronto challenge for the postseason?
No. That’s still too much to ask, even for a team with the highest-salaried coach in the league, with Mike Babcock in the second season of an eight-year, $50 million deal.
But it will be a big disappointment if the Maple Leafs are again the worst team in the NHL. First overall pick Auston Matthews has stardom written all over him, and newly acquired goalie Frederik Andersen, formerly of Anaheim, is an upgrade over anyone in net last season. Other promising youngsters, such as Morgan Rielly (22), Mitch Marner (19) and William Nylander (20), give long-suffering Leafs fans reason for hope.
But a playoff spot? Not likely. The kids, led by Matthews, have talent, but they still have lots to learn about winning in the NHL, and there just isn’t enough depth, especially up front.
The Maple Leafs are still a ways off, but they’re on the upward trajectory at least.
Will the Chicago Blackhawks return to Stanley Cup supremacy, or is this the start of a decline?
Arguably, the Blackhawks began their decline last season. They failed to win the Central Division and then lost in the first round to St. Louis. But let’s not kid anyone: The Blackhawks gave the Blues a heck of a series before losing in Game 7, and the core that has won three Stanley Cups since 2010 is still largely in place.
Toews, Kane, Duncan Keith, Corey Crawford, Brent Seabrook, Marian Hossa—they’re all still there. Panarin won the Calder Trophy, and Joel Quenneville is the active wins leader (801) among NHL coaches.
So, yes, this team can still win it all. But perhaps the window is closing. Hossa is 37 but still counted upon to play top-six minutes. Production-wise, he’s coming off the second-lowest-scoring season of his career (33 points in 64 games) since 1998-99.
The Blackhawks tried hard to sign Hobey Baker winner Jimmy Vesey and set him up as the left winger on a line with Toews, but they lost out to the Rangers and will look to the unproven Richard Panik to again fill the role. Chicago lost another good role player in Andrew Shaw, partially because of salary-cap problems, which leaves the Blackhawks’ bottom two lines looking further depleted.
There were high hopes the Blackhawks would become the first team since Detroit in 1997 and 1998 to win back-to-back Cups. A fourth Cup in seven seasons, plus back-to-back, would give Chicago legitimate claim to the word "dynasty."
Four Cups in eight seasons would still give sufficient ammunition to make such a claim. But the odds seem steeper.
How about the Pittsburgh Penguins’ chances of winning back-to-back Cups?
Evgeni Malkin returns to a packed Penguins lineup.
Well, the Penguins’ chances look good on paper. Pittsburgh returns with a roster largely untouched from winning it all; the loss of defenseman Ben Lovejoy to free agency is the only notable departure.
Coach Mike Sullivan did a wondrous job in transforming the Pens from a roster of top-end all-stars into a hardworking team after taking over in December. Unlike last year, he now has the benefit of being with the players from day one. The Penguins’ four lines look deeper than anybody’s. You only have to see Evgeni Malkin’s name penciled in as the team’s third-line center for proof of that.
Crosby is coming off not only a Conn Smythe effort from last spring but also a World Cup MVP-winning performance. He seemed to make the transition in the playoffs from being an offense-only star to becoming a two-way leader, much like Toews, Steve Yzerman and Joe Sakic did as their careers progressed.
Defensively, Trevor Daley is healthy again, and Kris Letang arguably should have won the Conn Smythe last spring.
If there is one area where Penguins haters might pin their hopes for a failed repeat effort—other than the Cup hangover itself—it is in goal. While rookie Matt Murray won high marks for his playoff performance, people forget that he was pulled for Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Final against Tampa Bay in favor of Marc-Andre Fleury. The rookie was also questioned plenty over his play in Game 5 of the Final against San Jose, a home loss to the Sharks.
With an offense as deep as this one, though, Penguins goalies should survive a few shaky goals.
The Cup hangover has claimed victims for nearly 20 years now. But if one team looks like a strong bet to lift the curse, it’s this Pittsburgh club.
What are the odds of Washington and St. Louis lifting their playoff curses?
Alex Ovechkin will give it another try at a Cup with Washington.
It is hard to believe that neither the Capitals nor Blues, for as much success as they’ve had as franchises, have won a Stanley Cup. The Caps have taken two of the past seven Presidents’ Trophies (including last season’s) but have failed to get past the second round.
Last spring’s second-round loss to Pittsburgh in six games was a bitter disappointment. It’s hard to see how Washington can be any better than it was in the regular season, but even if it is, the instant storyline would become: Will the curse continue?
Still, everything is in place for another reasonable chance at a Cup. Ovechkin is still Ovechkin, and Braden Holtby is the reigning Vezina winner. Barry Trotz is a great coach. Quality depth abounds on the roster.
And yet, the failure of last spring remains heartbreaking for Caps fans. They really thought 2016 was their year, but it wasn’t. Again.
We can say the same kinds of things about the Blues: Excellent team, long tradition of regular-season success, a packed roster and a great coach in Ken Hitchcock. And yet…
Somehow, the Blues found a way to lose a Western Conference Final where they looked to be in good shape, with a Game 5 at home in a 2-2 series against San Jose. Two more wins and the franchise would have been back in the Cup Final for the first time since 1970. But once again, the Blues’ top offensive players failed to show up in the biggest of games, with Vladimir Tarasenko being the most glaring no-show.
A Blues team that finally seemed to have gotten past all the learning curves to ultimate success showed, well, it hadn’t yet.
One of these teams is guaranteed to have another disappointment at the end. It could happen to both of them even. But one has to win a Cup eventually. Maybe this is finally the season.
Rapid-Fire 2016-17 Predictions
- Stanley Cup Winners: Pittsburgh Penguins
- Conn Smythe Winner: Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh
- Conference Champs: Pittsburgh Penguins, Nashville Predators
- Presidents’ Trophy Winner: Tampa Bay Lightning
- Biggest Decline: New York Rangers
- Biggest Improvement: Buffalo Sabres
- Biggest Surprise: Buffalo Sabres
- Biggest Breakout Star: Connor McDavid, Edmonton
- Biggest Bust: Andrew Ladd, New York Islanders
Adrian Dater covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter at @adater.