Las Vegas Sun

May 22, 2017

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Why Las Vegas franchise is among top story lines of this NHL season

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Stephen Sylvanie / Special to the Sun

The Los Angeles Kings and Dallas Stars play in the first NHL preseason game held on the ice at T-Mobile Arena on Friday night.

With the World Cup of Hockey over and the NHL’s centennial celebration still on the horizon, the attention of hockey fans is now squarely on the start of the regular season. With that in mind, here are five stories expected to dominate the NHL.

The Expansion Draft

The new Las Vegas franchise will not begin play until 2017, but the expansion team will cast a long shadow over the league for much of this season. With teams facing challenging restrictions governing who they can protect from the expansion draft, countless players will be subjected to speculation regarding their eventual availability next summer. One lengthy slump or confrontation with management may mean that a quality player could be bound for Las Vegas.

The period leading up to the expansion draft in June should be especially fretful for teams boasting depth along the blue line. With teams given the option of protecting three expansion-eligible defensemen or eight total expansion-eligible skaters, maintaining that defensive depth could prove tricky. The same goes for goalies, with each team able to protect only a single netminder.

“You have to plan now,” said Ron Sutter, a director of player development for the Calgary Flames. “Going into expansion, a good GM is going to make those proper decisions. He’s going to have an idea who he is going to keep and who he might lose.”

Connor McDavid

McDavid, the Edmonton Oilers’ star center, has been anointed the next face of the league, having compiled 48 points in 45 games in a rookie season interrupted by a collarbone injury. After serving as captain of the upstart North American squad at the World Cup, McDavid, 19, was named the youngest captain in NHL history last Wednesday. With his remarkable blend of skill and speed, McDavid will be expected to lead an Oilers club looking to make the playoffs for the first time in more than a decade, after a recent move into a new $600 million arena.

Even before the start of the World Cup, McDavid, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 draft, provided a glimpse of what hockey fans could expect in the coming season. It started with an astonishing goal against Finland that proved to be the decisive score in Canada’s 2-0 gold-medal-game victory at the world championship in Moscow in May.

Weeks later, Edmonton signed the bruising wing Milan Lucic to a seven-year contract, providing McDavid with perhaps the perfect complement in a 6-foot-3 linemate who has proved equally adept at scoring goals and protecting teammates.

Canadiens on the Hot Seat

Last season, the Montreal Canadiens began with a 9-0-0 surge and ended with a 16-24-2 thud. That crushing disappointment for one of hockey’s most rabid markets inspired general manager Marc Bergevin and coach Michel Therrien to orchestrate a major roster reconstruction that included trading for center Andrew Shaw and signing wing Alexander Radulov.

But no move exemplified Bergevin and Therrien’s plan to make the Canadiens a more physically imposing matchup than the blockbuster trade on June 29 that sent the fan favorite P.K. Subban, one of the NHL’s most charismatic players, to the Nashville Predators for Shea Weber. That swap of franchise defensemen outraged Montreal’s fans, obscuring the fact that their team had acquired a blueliner among the best and most intimidating in the league.

Bergevin called the Subban trade the “most difficult transaction I’ve ever had to make.” But with Bergevin and Therrien having cast their lot with this tougher group, a poor start to the season could severely hurt their standing with the team’s fans, and potentially its management, too.

Are the Sharks for Real?

After a 15-year run in which they became known for regular-season wins and postseason disappointment, the San Jose Sharks advanced to the Stanley Cup Final last season for the first time in franchise history. The Pittsburgh Penguins beat the Sharks in six games, but San Jose still cleared a major franchise hurdle. Considering the team’s history, much of the hockey world will be curious to see if the Sharks can do it again.

That should prove difficult in a Western Conference featuring a number of elite teams, but the Sharks’ roster remains almost entirely intact. Brent Burns, Logan Couture, Joe Thornton and Marc-Edouard Vlasic return after tasting victory with Canada at the recent World Cup, and General Manager Doug Wilson even added to the team’s impressive offense by signing forward Mikkel Boedker to a four-year contract.

“I think we should have a little bit of a bad taste in our mouth from losing in the final,” coach Peter DeBoer said at the start of training camp. “Come back re-energized and ready to make that journey again.”

Toronto’s Young Guns

The Maple Leafs posted the league’s worst record in 2015-16, but there will be plenty of attention paid to the team this season. The franchise is celebrating its 100th anniversary with a series of events, including the Centennial Classic, an outdoor game against the Detroit Red Wings set for Jan. 1 in Toronto. The yearlong celebration will be buoyed by a team boasting impressive young talent and genuine optimism regarding its future — something fans in Toronto have not felt in at least a few years.

That hope starts with Auston Matthews, the first overall selection in this year’s draft, who proved himself worthy of that honor with his exciting play at the World Cup as a member of Team North America. Mitch Marner, the fourth pick in last year’s draft, earned a roster spot with an impressive preseason performance, as did William Nylander, the eighth pick in 2014.

In all, the Maple Leafs start the season with five forwards with little to no NHL experience in their lineup. It may not result in an immediate return to the playoffs, but it should prove interesting.

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