Wide-open race for Blackhawks’ crown as NHL season begins
After the Chicago Blackhawks raised the Stanley Cup on home ice in June to celebrate their third title in six years, they spent the summer figuring out how to pay for it.
That meant making significant changes, including the departures of several key players.
That also left the Stanley Cup race remarkably wide-open.
The league has no overwhelming favorite when play begins Wednesday night with four games. Seemingly half of the NHL’s teams have legitimate hopes of being the next to raise the Cup in a league that’s financially healthy, remarkably competitive and ready for a busy winter.
”No team can live on what they did in the past,” said Los Angeles captain Dustin Brown, whose Kings missed the playoffs last spring after winning the Cup in 2014. ”You always have a new challenge at this time of the year, and everybody has it this season.”
Chicago is the closest thing to a modern NHL dynasty after its lengthy run of excellence, but the Blackhawks will have to do it again without Patrick Sharp, Brandon Saad, Johnny Oduya, Antoine Vermette, Brad Richards and a handful of other contributors. Patrick Kane will be in uniform – and he’ll even have a bobblehead night Jan. 24 – while he is under investigation for an alleged sexual assault.
Chicago coach Joel Quenneville plans to lean on Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith and his other veteran leaders to get through this transition period with a chance to repeat.
”It’s what we’re bred to do. It’s what we’re all about,” Quenneville said. ”You get to this level, or at any level, I think you want to win every shift, you want to win the game, you want to be productive, you want to contribute in a meaningful way, in a positive way. Nothing better than winning.”
The Anaheim Ducks are a popular preseason pick for their franchise’s second title after taking the Blackhawks to the seven-game limit in the Western Conference finals. Coach Bruce Boudreau’s squad is loaded with an enviable mix of veteran excellence and young talent, but has been knocked out of the last two postseasons by the eventual Stanley Cup champion.
While the West still appears to be the superior conference with St. Louis, Los Angeles and hard-charging Calgary and Winnipeg in the mix, the Eastern Conference could finally break through next summer after losing seven of the last nine Stanley Cup Final series.
The Tampa Bay Lightning are widely considered the favorite to defend their East title after making few changes to an impressive squad. Washington, Montreal and the New York Islanders all are title contenders, while returning powers like the New York Rangers will look to stay in the race.
”There’s no guarantee that you will keep your spot,” Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist said. ”It’s hard to get there, and it might be harder to stay there. It keeps everyone on their toes.”
While the NHL’s veterans look to grab the ring, hockey’s two most intriguing teenage talents in the past several years will begin their push to the top with struggling franchises.
No. 1 overall pick Connor McDavid makes his long-anticipated NHL debut with the Edmonton Oilers in St. Louis on Thursday, the same night that No. 2 pick Jack Eichel debuts with the Buffalo Sabres at home against Ottawa.
Here are some more things to watch when the NHL season begins this week:
3 ON 3
For the first time, NHL overtimes will feature 3-on-3 play. Preseason tests have demonstrated the thrill of unleashing NHL scoring talent in this format, which is all but certain to reduce the number of shootouts dramatically, essentially trading in one non-traditional strategy of avoiding ties for another.
THROW THE FLAG
The NHL will allow coaches to challenge rulings on the ice for the first time. Defending teams can ask for offside calls after a goal is scored, or a team that believes it got the puck into the net can ask for a review of a no-goal call. Both teams can ask for a review of goalie interference, as long as the team has retained its timeout. The Kings are among the teams that plan to have an iPad near the sticks on the bench to help them determine whether to challenge calls.
Mike Babcock will be the NHL’s most scrutinized coach after accepting an eight-year, $50 million contract to leave Detroit for the Toronto Maple Leafs, who haven’t won a playoff round or finished higher than third in their division since 2004. No coach has more international respect than the longtime Canadian Olympic boss, but fixing this legendarily underachieving marquee franchise is the biggest challenge of his career.
The NHL continues to move toward expansion to Las Vegas and Quebec City, although recent comments by Boston owner Jeremy Jacobs cast doubt on the league’s willingness to do it quickly. It’s tough to imagine the NHL owners passing on $1 billion in expansion fees, but we should find out during this season whether the NHL will have new teams two years from now.
EMPTY YOUR POCKETS
Fans at all 30 NHL arenas – including Barclays Center in Brooklyn, the Islanders’ new home – will have to pass through metal detectors. Some buildings already had the security measure in place, but others expect longer lines until fans and arena employees get used to the new procedures.
AP Sports Writers Larry Lage in Toronto and Jay Cohen in Chicago contributed to this report.
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