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NHL preview: Ten storylines to watch in 2017-18

DallasStars.com's Scott Burnside details various talking points around the league heading into the new campaign

by Scott Burnside @OvertimeScottB / DallasStars.com

And so, the 2017-18 National Hockey League season looms, a great, vast expanse unblemished and yearning for stories to be writ large on the canvas.

Heroes? Villains? Disappointments and wonderful surprises? All will be revealed in time.

How will it look? Let us count the ways with the top 10 storylines of the coming season.

 

1. John Tavares: Should I Stay Or Should I Go

Last summer, two days before he could have become an unrestricted free agent, Tampa Bay captain Steven Stamkos signed an eight-year extension with the Lightning ending months of speculation that Stamkos was headed to, among other places, Detroit, Buffalo or his hometown of Toronto. But there remained throughout the process the feeling that Stamkos would somehow end up staying in Tampa. And of course, Tampa is where Stamkos remains. New York Islanders captain John Tavares represents a very different story in large part because the New York Islanders remain a team very much in a state of flux. Coming off a season that saw them miss the playoffs and fire head coach Jack Capuano the Isles still aren't very good. At best, they look like a playoff bubble team. So, what is Tavares thinking as he enters the final year of his current deal especially considering Connor McDavid's new $100-million deal (see below)? New owners have tried to keep him in the loop on the various decisions confronting the team not the least of which is where they'll end up playing long-term given the disaster that has been the move to Barclays Center in Brooklyn from Long Island. Tavares has said all the right things about wanting to remain with the Islanders but for us it comes down to one basic question; why would he? And the bigger question is if GM Garth Snow can't bring Tavares under contract sooner than later when does he begin the onerous task of trying to move the franchise center?

 

2. Carolina Hurricanes: Should Peter Karmanos Stay Or Should He Go?

We picked the 'Canes to make the playoffs a year ago. We were wrong. But this is a team on the verge of something very cool in our opinion. But as much as we love GM Ron Francis's shrewd work in locking up his young core for the long haul, repatriating three-time Stanley Cup winner Justin Williams and tabbing Scott Darling as the goalie of the future, the real future of this long-suffering franchise begins and ends in the boardroom as owner Peter Karmanos has put a price tag on his beleaguered squad at $500 million. It has not been a great fit with the absentee owner especially as the team has failed to make the playoffs since 2009 and the fan base has bled away with Karmanos occasionally popping his head out to suggest they need to be patient. Ha. Ha. Nothing endears a fan base to its team like a condescending owner who lives in another city. A new owner or ownership group is critical to cementing the 'Canes' future and put a halt to the persistent rumors of relocation and the timing couldn't be better as the 'Canes prepare to return to the playoffs next spring. You heard it here first.

 

3. Why Not Three?

We would have bet the farm a year ago that the Pittsburgh Penguins would not repeat as Stanley Cup champions. Not that we didn't love the team and the job done by head coach Mike Sullivan (how has he not been a Jack Adams finalist the last two seasons? Just asking.). But history doesn't lie and history said winning back-to-back Cups in the salary cap era simply wasn't going to happen. Still, there was captain Sidney Crosby standing at center ice in Nashville after Game 6 last June holding the Cup and while the team has undergone a significant makeover with Chris Kunitz, Trevor Daley, Ron Hainsey, Matt Cullen, Nick Bonino and fan favorite Marc-Andre Fleury all gone from the Cup-winning roster, this is still a formidable squad led by Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Matt Murray and Kris Letang who missed the entire playoffs with a neck injury. So, we ask again, other than history and just plain logic, why not three?

 

4. Sin City Boys

Speaking of Fleury, who was selected by the Vegas Golden Knights in the expansion draft in late June, the NHL will welcome its 31st franchise this fall when NHL hockey comes to Las Vegas as the city's first professional sports franchise. The NFL is coming so it's important for the Golden Knights to make an immediate impact to ensure its success. So far, the team has hit mostly high notes throughout its early existence including getting a guy like Fleury to become the initial face of the franchise. Still, the reality is the roster as constructed seems destined to be a draft lottery team next summer which isn't necessarily a bad thing as GM George McPhee continues to stockpile draft picks that should help the team become competitive sooner than later. A secondary storyline will be how visiting teams treat their visits to the gambling mecca; embrace it with days off spent in the city as a kind of reward for players or try and work travel to spend as little time as possible there to limit the potential for distraction and off-ice chaos. Our guess is beat writers are lobbying for the former not the latter.

 

5. Oh, Olympics, We Hardly Knew Ye

After five trips to the Winter Olympics beginning in 1998 in Nagano the NHL will not be taking part in the 2018 Olympics in South Korea. Blame the tone deaf International Olympic Committee, blame the National Hockey League Players' Association, the International Ice Hockey Federation and the league itself but the bottom line is that whatever happens on the ice in PyeongChang will be lesser than it could have been and all concerned should feel some measure of shame that it came to this. Sure, there'll be heartwarming stories of guys like Max Talbot or Jonathon Blum or hitherto unknown collegiate players who will pursue gold but leaving Crosby, Malkin, Jamie Benn, Henrik Lundqvist and the game's best players behind is nothing but a waste and the product on the ice, often less than compelling even with NHLers on big international ice, will be a snooze fest. We get that NHL owners have never been able to reconcile the cost of closing their doors and sending their most important assets to the Olympic tournaments with little or no tangible return. Fair enough but anyone who loves the fame should feel no small measure of remorse come February. As a side note look for the NHL to reveal in a timely fashion heavy sanctions for any player (hello, Alex Ovechkin) who bolts his NHL squad for South Korea. If it were us we'd make it simple; any player who leaves his team will be suspended indefinitely and will need to reapply for readmission to the league with a hearing set for no earlier than July -- as in weeks after the playoffs. Oh, and we'd dock teams of players who bolt a first-round pick.

 

6. Young Guns

With all due respect to first overall pick Nico Hischier and second overall pick Nolan Patrick who went to New Jersey and Philadelphia respectively at the June draft the expectations for the rookie class of 2017-18 are much more muted than the past two seasons when we waited with baited breath for Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel and Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine to take the league by storm. For the most part, they did not disappoint. The '17 draft class was deeper than most folks believed but it'll be a surprise if there are immediate impact players like Matthews who won rookie of the year honors in June for his work with the resurgent Toronto Maple Leafs or McDavid who won the Hart Trophy in his second season with the Edmonton Oilers.

 

7. And Now For The Encore

Speaking of McDavid 'The Next One' lit it up last season winning his first scoring title and league MVP award in what amounted to his first full season in the NHL (he missed almost half his rookie season with a shoulder injury). More importantly the Oiler captain, who led the league with 100 points in 82 games, guided the Edmonton Oilers to the second round of the playoffs where they lost an excruciatingly close seven-game series to Anaheim in their first post-season appearance since 2006. So, now what? McDavid inked a monster eight-year contract extension worth $100 million (and he left money on the table in doing so) in the off-season so the future is now for the game's brightest young star and his suddenly hot Oilers.

 

8. Goals, Goals, My Kingdom For Some Goals

Sidney Crosby led all NHLers with 44 goals last season. While we're not among those who bemoan the lack of 50-goal scorers as symptomatic of a decline in the game that's a disappointing goal total for the NHL's top goal scorer and it's clear the NHL has devolved since the 2004-05 lockout in terms offensive production with not one single season since 2005-06 featuring games with an average of six goals or more per game. Increasing goal production is an obsession for league officials so we don't know why the NHL hasn't looked seriously at having penalized players sit the entire length of their penalties regardless of whether opposing teams score - as was the case for many years in the league - but there is one sure way to increase scoring and that's to have officials enforce the standards properly with more penalty calls. The playoffs were an embarrassment of slashes and maulings that went uncalled and it doesn't take substantive changes to the game to ensure that offense increases just calling the existing rules with vigor.

 

9. Whither The Caps?

The Washington Capitals remain the great cautionary tale on how difficult it is to win in the NHL. Blessed with oodles of talent both homegrown and of the free agent variety the Capitals are coming off their third Presidents' Trophy win since 2010 and second in a row. And yet the squad has failed to advance beyond the second round of the playoffs since Alexander Ovechkin joined the team after the 2004-05 lockout and have been to just one Stanley Cup final in team history, that in 1998. The Capitals, dumped in the second round for the second straight year by Pittsburgh, bid adieu to Justin Williams, Kevin Shattenkirk, Karl Alzner, Marcus Johansson and Nate Schmidt promising an infusion of young blood into the lineup and ensuring that expectations will be at their lowest in years.

 

10. End Of The Line?

With Nashville captain Mike Fisher announcing his retirement from the NHL (speaking of the Olympics wouldn't Fisher look good sporting the captain's 'C' for Team Canada in South Korea?) time to reflect on other great veterans who may not be returning. Let's start with Jaromir Jagr who remains in job limbo at age 45. Point totals dropped from 66 to 46 last season and the carousel may have finally stopped for the sure-fire Hall of Famer. Likewise, it's hard to imagine a fit for guys like classy Jarome Iginla, 40, who seems determined to play in Boston if he plays at all and longtime Arizona captain Shane Doan who will turn 41 at the start of the season and who won't be back with the 'Yotes after joining the franchise in Winnipeg in 1995. Vern Fiddler, popular former Dallas Star, is also still without a place to play at age 37. A tip of the hat to all if this is, indeed, the end of the line.

This story was not subject to approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club. You can follow Scott Burnside on Twitter @OvertimeScottB

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