It’s been about three months since the Vegas Golden Knights hoisted the Stanley Cup, Connor Bedard was selected first overall in the 2023 NHL draft, and hundreds of players found new homes via free agency.
But as autumn quickly approaches, so too does the NHL preseason and training camps for all 32 teams ahead of opening night on Oct. 10.
To help get you ready for the next few weeks — as teams decide on which players make the roster, and how their lines, D pairings and goalie tandems will shake out — here are the biggest lingering questions for each club, courtesy of Ryan S. Clark (on the Western Conference) and Kristen Shilton (on the Eastern Conference).
Big question: Are the Bruins’ over- or underestimated (again)?
Many of us fell victim to it last offseason. We believed Boston was dead in the water. The team was (supposed to be) too old, too past its prime to truly compete in an increasingly competitive Atlantic Division. And then, well, the Bruins went on to have a historic regular season that earned them a President’s Trophy title … ahead of a shockingly short playoff run halted by Florida in the first round.
It would be easy to, once again, dismiss the Bruins and their chances this year to compete for a Stanley Cup. But would that be at our own peril? Can Boston pivot and reinvent itself for a whole new era? David Pastrnak remains one of the NHL’s best forwards. Linus Ullmark just won a Vezina Trophy. Hampus Lindholm is a top-tier defenseman. Jim Montgomery is a Jack Adams Award winner. And on and on. Can the Bruins’ core lead them into a successful next chapter?
Big question: Can Buffalo finally end the NHL’s longest postseason drought?
It’s been 12 years since the Sabres last earned a playoff berth — the longest stretch without one for any team in the league. Buffalo came tantalizingly close in 2022-23 when the club finished just one point back of Florida for the Eastern Conference’s second wild-card spot. Alas, the Sabres stayed outside looking in.
Will Buffalo’s talented young team put them over the hump in 2023-24? Rasmus Dahlin and Tage Thompson are undeniable stars in the making. Alex Tuch and Dylan Cozens are coming off great seasons. The only real question mark for Buffalo is in net, and who will take the reins there (Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen? Devon Levi? Someone else yet to be signed?) The Sabres were on the cusp of something great last season. Does Buffalo have the personnel now in place to take that last step toward being a playoff team?
Big question: Has Detroit done enough to address its power-play problems?
There’s been a recurring theme for the Red Wings in recent season, and that’s a mediocre power play. Granted, Detroit improved with the extra man in 2022-23, when the team jumped from 16.3% to 21.1%. Still, that ranked just 17th in the league and wasn’t ultimately good enough to be a true factor in helping the Red Wings reach their full potential.
GM Steve Yzerman seemingly targeted players this offseason who could be difference-makers on special teams, including defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere (a possible top-unit quarterback), sniper Alex DeBrincat and a potential second-unit stalwart in Daniel Sprong. Given the league’s increasing parity, it is the success (or failure) of a power play that can make or break a team’s playoff chances. Has Detroit finally found the right mix to elevate its man advantage?
Big question: How will Florida fare without its injured stars?
The Panthers know they’ll be (significantly) shorthanded on the blue line to start the coming season. Both Aaron Ekblad and Brandon Montour are recovering from offseason shoulder surgeries from injuries suffered during Florida’s Stanley Cup Final run in the spring. It’s possible Ekblad and Montour won’t suit up until December, leaving the Panthers with gaping holes to patch up.
But who can step up? Florida already lost defensive stalwart — and locker room leader — Radko Gudas to Anaheim in free agency. New faces like Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Niko Mikkola will have to hit the ground running to help out. What will all that change mean for the Panthers’ early-season success as they attempt to build chemistry and find a groove? Florida struggled out of the gate in 2022-23 and was able to rebound with a strong second-half push; is that in the cards for them again? Or will the players not present leave too large a void and hurt Florida’s chances of setting the right tone and getting on track? The Panthers still have time to sign reinforcements (if they can make the cap situation work). Does GM Bill Zito have any tricks up his sleeve?
Big question: Will the Canadiens take a leap forward?
The Canadiens have shown great restraint over the course of their rebuilding process. GM Kent Hughes seemed committed to a slow-and-steady grind in crafting Montreal into an (eventual) playoff team. That doesn’t preclude the Canadiens from making a leap this season, though. After all, Hughes went out and acquired Alex Newhook to bolster the team’s offense, and there’s potential for Nick Suzuki, Cole Caufield and Kirby Dach to show further improvement from where they were a year ago.
If that happens, will Montreal be one of this season’s biggest surprises? Maybe not by actually reaching the postseason, but pushing their way into that mix and giving the Canadiens’ young, talented core a taste of truly meaningful hockey? If Montreal can do that, how would it help the franchise possibly accelerate that rebuilding timeline?
Big question: Does Ottawa have what it takes to be a playoff team?
Senators GM Pierre Dorion is no offseason wallflower. He was busier than anyone (again) trying to make Ottawa into a postseason contender, bringing in Vladimir Tarasenko, Dominik Kubalik and Joonas Korpisalo over the summer to complement the Senators’ incumbents. That should include a healthy Josh Norris to start the season, too. Norris is one of Ottawa’s top forwards, and losing him for all but eight games to injury last season was a back-breaker the Senators couldn’t overcome.
Between Ottawa’s established core of Norris, Thomas Chabot, Brady Tkachuk and others — plus the addition of some high-profile newcomers — will the Senators finally make some noise in the Eastern Conference? Is it now-or-never for both Dorion and coach DJ Smith, especially as Ottawa transitions to new ownership?
Big question: Is Tampa Bay’s reign coming to an end?
The Lightning have enjoyed a recent run of success — including two Stanley Cup wins and one Cup Final appearance — that any NHL team would love to emulate. Last season is when the cracks started to show. Tampa Bay looked a little slower, a little more out of sorts. The very identity of the team in general was called into question. And even Andrei Vasilevskiy — while still excellent — wasn’t the same game-changer he’d perennially been for the Bolts.
When the Lightning fell to Toronto in their first-round playoff series, it seemed to signal Tampa Bay could be shifting directions. The Lightning’s lack of cap space has kept them from making any major signings (outside of extending their own players, such as Mikhail Sergachev and Anthony Cirelli). The Lightning’s depth has made them dangerous in seasons past, but some of their strong depth players have departed in recent offseasons as well.
So where will Tampa Bay fall in what could prove to be a pivotal year toward determining the franchise’s next phase? Will the extended offseason prove rejuvenating and lead to another brilliant run for the Lightning? Or is Tampa Bay truly past its heyday and bound for a rebuild sooner rather than later?
Big question: Will Toronto’s goaltending depth hold up?
The Leafs appeared to find a diamond in the rough when Ilya Samsonov came on the scene as a one-year free agent signee in 2022-23. Pegged as a backup for Matt Murray, Samsonov eventually took over the No. 1 role with solid success. Now Murray is injured and Samsonov — who inked a one-year, $3.5 million deal following an arbitration hearing over the summer — is expected to be carrying the Leafs’ load in net.
Has new GM Brad Treliving instated the right depth behind Samsonov to guard against a potential letdown in that department? Toronto already had Joseph Woll in the fold; he stepped in to back up Samsonov when Murray went down with various ailments last season. But Treliving also signed 33-year-old free agent Martin Jones to potentially fill that No. 2 spot. The Leafs have run into goaltending problems before, often at the most inopportune times of the season (i.e., the playoffs). Are they doomed to see that history repeat itself? Or will a Samsonov/Jones/Woll trio be enough to keep Toronto on track?
Big question: Can Carolina finally reach its full potential?
The Hurricanes have become a playoff powerhouse in recent seasons. Yes, they were swept out of the Eastern Conference finals last spring by the Panthers, but that doesn’t negate how good the Hurricanes have been in the Rod Brind’Amour era.
Carolina’s offseason moves prove they also think the organization is right on the cusp of greatness. GM Don Waddell brought in Michael Bunting, Dmitry Orlov and Brendan Lemieux in free agency, plus he re-signed netminders Frederik Andersen and Antti Raanta and extended captain Jordan Staal for another four years.
And in other good news, Andrei Svechnikov — who suffered a season-ending ACL injury in March — is skating again and should be up to speed early to start the upcoming campaign. Will all that add up to Carolina truly excelling in 2023-24, not just in the regular season but once the postseason push begins? The foundation is there; we’ll soon find out how strong it is.
Big question: Is the Blue Jackets’ goaltending strong enough?
We aren’t ignoring the elephant in the room. Yes, Columbus just underwent a dramatic coaching change when first-year coach Mike Babcock resigned earlier this week after reports surfaced he was asking players to show him photos from their phones (Babcock was subsequently replaced by Pascal Vincent). How the Blue Jackets handle that distraction heading into the season is definitely worth monitoring.
But when it comes to Columbus’ on-ice prospects this season, the club’s goaltending will be a major, ongoing focal point. Even Elvis Merzlikins can admit it: He is the “key piece” for Columbus, as he told reporters this offseason. The Blue Jackets’ starter is coming off a rough season that included missing 20-plus games due to injuries, illness and personal matters. Partially as a result of Merzlikins’ absences (not to mention his .876 SV% and 4.23 GAA), Columbus struggled all the way to a near-basement finish in 2022-23.
Will Merzlikins be up to the task of carrying the Blue Jackets in net this season? Vincent has to believe that’ll be the case. Columbus added defensemen Ivan Provorov and Damon Severson in the offseason to bolster its blue line in front of Merzlikins, easing some of the pressure he’ll inevitably feel going into 2023-24. Still, it’s on Merzlikins to prove Columbus was right to bet on him as its guy going forward.
Big question: How will the Devils handle their newfound fame?
New Jersey was the ultimate feel-good story in 2022-23. The Devils were fast, fun and fantastic as the NHL surprise breakout club that not only dominated in the regular season but also topped the rival New York Rangers in a first-round playoff appearance. The inevitable follow-up question looms though: What will New Jersey do for an encore?
Because — let’s be honest — the pressure is on, and stakes are high for the Devils to show they were no one-hit wonder. The team’s core — headlined by Jack Hughes, Jesper Bratt, Nico Hischier and Dougie Hamilton — remains intact, and Ondrej Palat, limited to just 49 games last season due to a groin injury, should be back to full health and contribute accordingly. If the Devils’ goaltending tandem of Vitek Vanecek and Akira Schmid can hold up, there’s no reason to think New Jersey won’t soar once more. That is, of course, if they don’t get in their own way. Blocking out the noise around them — good or bad — will be critical to the Devils’ success.
Big question: Did the Islanders do enough to keep pace?
It has become a routine concern surrounding Lou Lamoriello’s club: Did New York stock up/change/evolve enough to keep up in the ultra-competitive Metropolitan Division? Lamoriello re-signed several of the Islanders’ own — including goaltender Ilya Sorokin and forward Pierre Engvall — but shied away from targeting any new faces off the open market.
Granted, Lamoriello did grab Bo Horvat in a trade with Vancouver last winter and inked him to an eight-year pact (a deal that has yet to pay full dividends). When it comes to the summer signing season, though, Lamoriello has been fairly quiet again, and it’s hard not to wonder whether that minimalist approach will benefit or hurt the Islanders in 2023-24. Is keeping it all in the family a winning strategy?
Big question: Can the Rangers bounce back from disappointment?
There’s no doubt New York was all-in on winning last season. The Rangers brought in Patrick Kane and Tarasenko ahead of the trade deadline to give their team a prime chance come playoff time. And the Rangers were poised to succeed there — they took a 2-0 lead in their first-round series against New Jersey, but that swiftly turned as they lost four of their next five games and the series.
Now Kane and Tarasenko are gone, Gerard Gallant has been replaced behind the bench by Peter Laviolette and the Rangers have to reestablish their identity. Chris Kreider expressed this summer that he, like many teammates, still wasn’t over how the 2022-23 campaign closed. That disappointment could ultimately fuel New York toward a better 2023-24 — but what if it weighs the team down instead? New York is one year removed from an Eastern Conference finals loss that was also supposed to be a catalyst toward positive evolution. It didn’t turn out that way. Will this most recent frustration be a building block off which the Rangers can actually thrive?
Big question: What is a realistic expectation for the Flyers?
Philadelphia could be several things this season. They could be terrible. They could be mediocre. They could be decent. That’s how it is when a team is rebuilding; like Forrest Gump’s proverbial chocolate box, you never know what you’re going to get.
Philadelphia was active enough in the offseason, signing Garnet Hathaway, Marc Staal, Ryan Poehling and Victor Mete to boost the team’s depth. There was also a new two-year contract for the organization’s rising star, Cam York. Sean Couturier and Cam Atkinson should be healthy after missing significant time last season with injuries.
All that considered, the Flyers don’t look so bad. But it’s not about what happens on paper; it’s about how the club can perform on a nightly basis. Should we expect Philadelphia to improve upon their 75-point showing in 2022-23? Or are the changes they’ve made simply to maintain the status quo and keep moving slowly towards long-term, sustained success? Who knows? Maybe it’ll be a bit of both.
Big question: How big of an impact will Erik Karlsson have?
Penguins new general manager Kyle Dubas pulled off a “Barbie”-like blockbuster this summer when he traded for reigning Norris Trophy winner defenseman Erik Karlsson. It was the shot in the arm Pittsburgh needed after free-falling out of the playoff picture last season and helped quiet some swirling concerns around the club (namely about their goaltending and aging stars).
Now we have to wonder just how much of a difference Karlsson can make in Pittsburgh, and also where. We know he’ll carry heavy minutes patrolling the blue line, but what about on special teams? Karlsson notched 27 points with the extra man in 2022-23 and projects to be the Pens’ go-to option quarterbacking the top unit. Pittsburgh finished 14th on the power play last season; will Karlsson bump them into the top 10 or better? That could genuinely separate Pittsburgh in a packed Metro Division, but only if the on-ice chemistry is there with Karlsson and his unfamiliar teammates. Will there be a seamless fit?
Big question: Will the Capitals make a trade before training camp?
Washington is in a similar boat to Philadelphia; we don’t entirely know what to expect from them this fall. The Capitals traded several key players at the deadline and coasted to a quiet regular-season finish. It was thought — by some — that GM Brian McLellan would be active over the summer moving more players, particularly disgruntled forward Evgeny Kuznetsov. Those deals never materialized, and McLellan’s only significant signing was Max Pacioretty (who is still recovering from an Achilles tendon injury).
There’s natural concern about Washington’s overall depth at this point, and whether it’s enough to get them through until Pacioretty can join the mix. A team in flux isn’t the ideal situation for first-time head coach Spencer Carbery to step into, either — but then Washington wouldn’t have been in the market for a replacement behind the bench if things were going well. McLellan has time remaining to alter Washington’s on-ice personnel. Will he take advantage and give the Capitals a better chance at winning more games than a year ago?
Big question: Are they the most improved team in the Western Conference?
We see this nearly every preseason: A team that struggled the season before has the sort of offseason that makes you wonder whether they might be on to something. Could it be possible that the Coyotes are that team?
A team hindered by three consecutive sub-30-win seasons appears to have its strongest roster in years. The Coyotes signed Nick Bjugstad, Matt Dumba, Alexander Kerfoot and Jason Zucker in free agency. They traded for a top-four defenseman in Sean Durzi while also signing top prospect Logan Cooley when he was initially set to return to the University of Minnesota. It adds to a foundation that already featured Lawson Crouse, Barrett Hayton, Clayton Keller, Matias Maccelli, J.J. Moser, Nick Schmaltz and Karel Vejmelka. It’s possible this season could see the Coyotes win 30-plus games — something they did in back-to-back seasons in 2018-19 and 2019-20.
Big question: What is the realistic expectation for Connor Bedard in his rookie season?
Drafting Bedard comes with the premise that having him could potentially lead to contending for Stanley Cups. But for now, it appears the largest question facing him and the Blackhawks are about what’s realistic.
The expectation is he will play top-line minutes and receive opportunities on the first-team power-play unit. As for his actual production? Will Bedard produce the sort of numbers similar to that of previous No. 1 picks such as Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews that saw them make an immediate impact in their maiden campaigns? Or will Bedard’s initial foray into the NHL be a trajectory closer to that of a pair of No. 1 picks in Jack Hughes and Nathan MacKinnon, who each needed a few NHL seasons before they became critical to their team’s success?
Big question: Could they win a second Stanley Cup in three seasons?
Last season’s attempt to defend the third Cup in franchise history came with challenges. Injuries were the biggest of them all, as the Avalanche had only four players appear in all 82 games. Despite that, they were the Central Division champs, finishing with 109 points … only to then get ousted in the first round by an upstart Seattle Kraken team that possessed a level of scoring depth the Avs struggled to match.
The Avs addressed that lack of depth this offseason by acquiring Ross Colton, Jonathan Drouin, Ryan Johansen, Tomas Tatar and Miles Wood. Now it’s a matter of trying to find a way to navigate a challenging Western Conference landscape led by the defending champion Golden Knights and doing it without captain Gabriel Landeskog, who will miss a second straight season while recovering from knee surgery.
Big question: Do the Stars have enough to win the Western Conference?
If there was a word to describe what the Stars accomplished during the 2022-23 season, it might be “almost.” They almost finished with the best record in the Western Conference. They almost found a way to push the Golden Knights to seven games in the Western Conference finals after falling into a 3-0 hole.
Everything the Stars did last season further signals the fact that they are ready to be included in the discussion when it comes to which Western teams are in contention to win the Cup. It’s a bit of a contrast compared to last offseason, when the question surrounding the Stars was whether they had enough scoring depth to avoid a second straight first-round exit. They had nine players who scored more than 10 goals in the regular season, and 16 who finished with more than 10 points. It’s a group that now welcomes Matt Duchene and Craig Smith, who have the potential to make an instant impact upon their arrival, much like Joe Pavelski and Evgenii Dadonov did.
Big question: Can the Wild reach the playoffs for a fifth straight season?
How Wild general manager Bill Guerin and his front office staff will continue to build a playoff team around the albatross that is the combined buyouts of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter remains the narrative for the Wild until it’s not. It’s the major reason the team had such limited salary cap space and could only do so much in free agency. Signing Pat Maroon comes with the comedic caveat that any team who has him will (seemingly) win the Cup. So maybe making the playoffs is not a concern after all?
Perhaps it comes back to whether they can generate enough goals to not have to rely on their defensive principles and goaltending to win games. Natural Stat Trick’s metrics shows that in 5-on-5 play, the Wild were in the bottom 10 of shots per 60, scoring chances per 60, goals per 60 and high-danger chances per 60. Their 246 regular-season goals were also the second fewest by a team that made the playoffs, with only the Islanders having scored fewer.
Big question: What are the Nashville Predators?
Yes, they are a hockey team that plays in downtown Nashville. We know that. But are they a team that has a chance at the playoffs? Or is this a roster that still maybe needs a few more key players in certain spots before a conversation about the playoffs can start?
Those appear to be the significant questions facing a team that is transitioning from the only GM it had ever known in David Poile to Barry Trotz, the first coach in franchise history, who is now their second GM. Trotz was quick to move on from Matt Duchene and Ryan Johansen, before signing Gustav Nyquist, Ryan O’Reilly and Luke Schenn to create a level of intrigue about what the Preds could become this season. It was further heightened by the arrival of coach Andrew Brunette and his track record in leading high-scoring teams.
Now you see why there is a discussion to be had about what the Preds could accomplish this season. Especially when they were just three points removed from the final Western Conference wild-card spot after seemingly being in transition mode following last season’s deadline.
Big question: How much of a difference can Mike Weber make in his first season?
Focusing a team’s biggest question on the potential changes implemented by a first-year assistant coach might seem like a lot. And it is. But this is also the reality facing the Blues. They hired Rochester Americans assistant coach Mike Weber with the idea that he could fix a defensive structure and penalty kill that encountered several challenges in a tortuous season marked by inconsistency.
In 5-on-5 play, the Blues were among the 10 most porous teams in terms of shots allowed per 60, goals allowed per 60, scoring chances per 60 and high-danger scoring chances per 60. They were also one of seven teams that allowed more than 300 goals last season, while also having the third-worst penalty kill with a 72.4% success rate.
Weber spent three seasons in the AHL, and his team went from giving up 270 goals in his second season to 233 last season, as the Americans advanced to the Eastern Conference finals, where they lost to the eventual Calder Cup champion Hershey Bears. There was little change, personnel-wise, on a much-questioned blue line, so maybe a new voice can bring new results.
Big question: What does the future look like for the Jets?
Just six seasons ago, the Jets were a Cup contender that had the makings of a perennial challenger. Since then, they have made it out of the first round (or qualifying round in 2020) just once, which has led to a series of changes that have led to even more questions about what could be next. This summer was no different.
The offseason departures of Pierre-Luc Dubois and Blake Wheeler are thought to be just the start. It’s possible that a similar outcome may be in store for the Jets’ six-player pending unrestricted free agent class that is led by three-time NHL All-Star and 2020 Vezina Trophy winner Connor Hellebuyck.
But even with all of these questions about their future, it’s possible the Jets could reach the playoffs for the sixth time in seven years. Playoffs or not, there are still questions to be asked about their future — and who will be around to author it.
Big question: What sort of impact will first-year coach Greg Cronin have?
After a few seasons spent outside the realm of contenders, the Ducks have built one of the NHL’s most promising youth movements. Figuring out how they can tap into that potential is why they hired Greg Cronin. He has been an NHL assistant coach, an AHL assistant coach, a college head coach and a college assistant. The head coach of the AHL’s Colorado Eagles for five seasons, Cronin has the reputation for being a teacher and developer who can also win games.
What lies ahead of Cronin in his first job as an NHL head coach is two primary goals. The first is ensuring that his teachings can provide the sort of foundation that can grow the Ducks’ young core led by Jamie Drysdale, Mason McTavish, Troy Terry and Trevor Zegras. The second is finding ways to improve upon a team that finished with a minus-129 goal differential — the lowest mark in the NHL during the 2022-23 season.
Big question: What are the team’s long-term plans?
As it stands, the Flames have eight veterans who have more than two years left on their current contracts. They also have eight veterans who are set to be free agents next summer, including some key players.
Daily Faceoff reported toward the end of last season that Noah Hanifin (one of six pending UFA defenseman) did not plan on re-signing. Recently, Hanifin told reporters at the team’s charity golf tournament that he has not shut down the possibility of re-signing a new contract while adding he is excited for this season. Mikael Backlund said at the same tournament he wants to see where the team is heading. Elias Lindholm told reporters, “I’ve been pretty clear that I’m willing to stay,” while Flames GM Craig Conroy said the team is working with Lindholm’s representatives and, “I think it’s going in the right direction.”
It’s a set of circumstances that leaves the Flames in the midst of a proverbial balancing act: Do they make another push for the playoffs, given that they missed out last season by only two points? Or is it time to exchange some of those pending free agents for prospects and picks?
Big question: Could last season’s second-round exit prepare the Oilers to win it all this season?
The Oilers are clearly in a championship window. How they can maximize it is the key, after they were eliminated in the 2022 Western Conference finals by the eventual Cup champion Avalanche, and then knocked out in the second round last postseason by the eventual Cup champion Golden Knights.
There are two major questions this time around: How do the Oilers find consistent secondary scoring, and is their goaltending solution on the roster?
Secondary scoring was an issue in the games they lost to the Golden Knights, reinforced by the fact that Zach Hyman and Warren Foegele were the only Oilers beyond Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid to score in those games. Consistency in the crease was also an issue. In his two wins against Vegas, Stuart Skinner managed a 1.00 goals-against average and a .965 save percentage. He was pulled in three of four games the team lost, posting a 6.32 GAA and .814 save percentage.
Big question: Can the Kings get beyond the first round — and if so, how far can they go?
Trading for Pierre-Luc Dubois while re-signing trade deadline acquisition Vladislav Gavrikov only reinforces the Kings’ championship aspirations. Yet any discussion about the Kings trying to win the third Cup in franchise history at some point delves into how winning a first-round series has remained an issue. Facing a Stanley Cup contender in the Oilers in consecutive opening rounds is one part of the equation. But that doesn’t fully explain why the Kings have not made it out of the first round since 2014, when they won their second title in three seasons.
Drew Doughty, Anze Kopitar and Trevor Lewis, who returned in the offseason, were members of the last Kings team to win a first-round series. Yet half of the Kings’ roster was either in high school, middle school or — in the case of Brandt Clarke and Quinton Byfield — elementary school the last time they won in the first round.
Now that they have Dubois and Gavrikov coupled with the young talent they’ve developed, players they have acquired and a goaltending tandem that costs just $2.5 million in cap space, could this be the year that sees the Kings advance beyond the first round?
Big question: What should be expected from William Eklund?
Eklund’s time in the NHL has amounted to eight points in just 17 games over the past two seasons. The Sharks’ patience with his development is the primary reason. The shoulder injury that led to him having surgery last March is another. Still, what Eklund accomplished (17 goals, 41 points in 54 AHL games) during the 2022-23 campaign offered insight into how he would adjust to the North American game.
Eklund, who was the Sharks’ first-round pick in 2021 (No. 7 overall), is expected to be fully healthy ahead of camp with the belief he could challenge for a roster spot on a team that created curiosity this offseason. For the Sharks, the narrative has been about the future. Seeing how Eklund fares this season could provide more clarity into how that future could look.
Big question: How do they take the next step now that they are no longer a surprise?
All four of the Kraken lines can score, and they have defensemen who can also make offensive contributions. They have a five-player defensive structure that is one of the strongest in the NHL at taking away shots and limiting scoring chances. And if what they did in the playoffs serves as foreshadowing, it appears goaltender Philipp Grubauer may have found the consistency that has eluded him since leaving the Avalanche.
After going from being a lottery team to defeating the defending Cup champs and being one win away from the Western Conference finals in the span of a year, the Kraken are no longer a surprise, but a team that has high expectations. As for how the Kraken will handle that challenge in Year 3? That — along with an actual kraken itself — remains to be seen.
Big question: Could this season be different, or have we already seen this episode?
After he took over the Canucks, Rick Tocchet won 20 of his 36 games, the 12th-most victories in the NHL in that span. Tocchet’s brief tenure provided progress and a sense of optimism. Then again … the same thing happened with Bruce Boudreau during the 2021-22 season, only for him to be replaced by Tocchet in 2022-23.
The Canucks can go down many paths this season. Tocchet’s arrival saw the Canucks retain their scoring touch and average 3.31 goals per game, which ranked 13th from the time he was hired to the end of the season. When he took over, the Canucks were in the bottom 10 in goals allowed; in 36 games under Tocchet, the Canucks ranked 17th.
So yes, the “Tocchet era” presents an argument for why there is a sense of optimism for the Canucks — but that still comes with a sense of caution.
Big question: Can the Golden Knights repeat as Stanley Cup champions?
Every question about the Golden Knights this season will stem from their quest to go back-to-back.
Trading Reilly Smith saw them lose a top-nine forward, with the idea that it was one of the ways to create the needed financial flexibility to re-sign Ivan Barbashev. Smith was one of five players from the Golden Knights’ Cup-winning roster to leave in the offseason, but they still have 10 of their highest-scoring forwards returning, as well as all of their defensemen. They’ll also return a goaltending tandem that features an NHL All-Star in Logan Thompson and the goalie who was one of their strongest playoff performers in Adin Hill.
Limited cap space was why the Golden Knights could not really supplement their roster in the offseason. That said, they have used the last few years to develop homegrown talents such as Paul Cotter — who scored 13 goals in a bottom-six role — who can be contributors on team-friendly deals.