By David Mullen
On Oct. 2, it was 98 degrees in Nashville, 96 in Raleigh, 92 in New York City and Columbus, 91 in St. Louis, Phoenix and Tampa, 88 in Miami and 94 in Dallas, home of the Stars. Welcome to Opening Day of the 2019-20 NHL regular season. While it may not be typical hockey weather in many NHL cities, the Stars hope their offense (pronounced OH-fence), unlike last year, will not be as cold as ice.
The Stars made the playoffs last year, despite finishing 29th in the NHL in offense and scoring only 209 goals. General Manager Jim Nill knew that statistic as well as anyone. In the offseason, he signed former San Jose Sharks captain Joe Pavelski, 34, to a three-year deal. He scored 38 goals last season.
The Stars, needing to fill the roster after losing Jason Spezza, Mats Zuccarello, Brett Ritchie, Valeri Nichushkin and others, also picked up right wing Corey Perry, currently out with a broken foot, and defenseman Andrej Sekera. Their defense, led by 20-year-old potential superstar Miro Heiskanen and anchored by goalie Ben Bishop, is stellar. It is the front line that is holding the Stars back from being a top tier team again.
Last season, Dallas CEO Jim Lites challenged Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn, who together were to be faces of the franchise, to play to their potential. By the way, shaking up star players should be head coach Jim Montgomery’s job. The success of Seguin and Benn are directly tied to the success of the Stars, as is the production of the power play unit with Seguin, Benn, Pavelski, Alexander Radulov and defenseman John Klingberg. If everything comes together, the Stars can compete in the Western Conference. If not, it looks like another early playoff exit.
The Eastern Conference is stacked, and the forecast calls for (the Tampa Bay) Lightning. They are coming off a great regular season, but ran out of gas come playoff time.
Still, they are deep squad led by goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy. The Boston Bruins were last season’s Stanley Cup runner-up. They are a quality team and will compete again this season.
The Toronto Maple Leafs is the team that can bring the Stanley Cup back to Canada. After a contract stalemate, winger Mitch Marner resigned. Centers Auston Matthews, 22, and John Tavares, 29, are bona fide scorers, and goalie Frederik Andersen is one of the best in the league. With an improved defense, things are looking bright in the North.
The Washington Capitals are always dangerous with “The Great Eight” Alexander Ovechkin, as are the Pittsburgh Penguins with “Sid the Kid” Sidney Crosby, although it is hard to believe that they are both in their 30s. The winds are favorable for the Carolina Hurricanes and 22-year-old Finn Sabastian Aho. The New York Rangers have rebuilt and are ready to compete at a high level again.
The Florida Panthers (Miami still has a team?) look to three-time Stanley Cup winning coach Joel Quenneville and new goalie Sergei Bobrovsky to return fierceness to the club. The legendary Montreal Canadiens can only hope for a playoff Wild Card spot, as can the New York Islanders, depending upon how soon to be 77-year-old GM Lou Lamoriello reshaped the team.
The Chicago Blackhawks are a defensive liability, the Philadelphia Flyers are in a holding pattern, and the Columbus Blue Jackets have never won a playoff game in their history. The New Jersey Devils could surprise, adding defenseman P. K. Subban in a trade.
The Buffalo Sabres are always interesting to watch. On paper they look average. But new coach Ralph Krueger must bond with this team. When it comes to being a GM, Detroit Red Wings’ Steve Yzerman was a great player. In reality, he inherited a team needing an overhaul. How the mighty have fallen. And Ottawa, like many Senators, will do nothing this year.
In the Western Conference, a lot of NHL pundits are betting on the Vegas Golden Knights after a mild offseason revamping. They will make the playoffs and may even win the conference, but I don’t like their odds for winning the Stanley Cup. The relatively unknown Nashville Predators have been in five consecutive Stanley Cup playoffs and could represent the Western Conference in the championship.
Last year’s surprise team, the Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues, are still looking for respect. The team is virtually the same as last season’s gritty bunch, so there is no reason to think that they can’t go far again this year. But it is nearly impossible to repeat as champions. There are too many teams.
The San Jose Sharks are tough in the regular season and flame out in the playoffs. Speaking of, the Flames are good again, even if Calgary gets little notoriety outside of Alberta. I like the Colorado Avalanche as a surprise team in the West this season. They are well balanced.
The Winnipeg Jets are cash strapped and losing altitude. The Arizona Coyotes, if they remain healthy, can sneak into a final Wild Card spot. The Vancouver Canucks are trying to return to the playoffs after a missing out the last two seasons.
The Minnesota Wild got older all of a sudden, but will continue to give the Stars fits. The Edmonton Oilers are going in a different direction, drilling deep into the farm system for young talent. And there is not much to like in Southern California, as the once mighty Anaheim Ducks are cooked and the Los Angeles Kings are merely peasants.
As a fan of other leagues tired of the success and media dominance garnered by the New York Yankees, the New England Patriots, the Golden State Warriors and anything LeBron James, potential NHL followers take note. Since 2013, there have been six different champions in seven years.
Toronto has not won the Stanley Cup since there were six NHL teams. There are now 31 franchises and, in 2021, Seattle will make 32. But this season, the Maple Leafs will beat the Avalanche and join the Raptors to give Toronto fans World Championships in the NHL and NBA. At least hockey is Canada’s game.
As for the Stars, turbulence may be ahead. A slow start will lead to some mid-season flurries on the roster and on the bench creating a high pressure situation. But if they can get hot, like the weather on Opening Day, there is no reason they can’t forecast a long playoff run in the Stanley Cup playoffs.