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Seven Story Lines to Overreact to As the NHL Season Starts

Hockey is officially back tonight, so let’s make sure we draw conclusions for the entire season based on what we see during the next 96 hours.

The NHL drops the puck on its regular season tonight with four games, followed by seven more tomorrow. By Sunday, every team will have played at least once, which means we’ll be in a position to draw firm conclusions about how the rest of the season will turn out.

Oh, we’ll be told not to. We’ll be admonished and scolded and constantly reminded not to overreact to one or two games. But where’s the fun in that? We’re hockey fans. Overreacting to every little thing is what we do.

But it’s important to be prepared. So here are seven story lines to keep an eye on this week, along with the prepackaged overreaction you should have ready to go, just in case.

Did this happen? Connor McDavid fails to register a hat trick in his NHL debut tomorrow in St. Louis.

Then that can only mean … : BUST!

Or maybe not: McDavid is the most heavily hyped prospect to enter the league since Sidney Crosby, and when you factor in the explosion of media coverage over the past 10 years, he may be the most hyped ever. He’ll be under a microscope every time he takes the ice, with fans looking for signs that he can somehow live up to it all.

And he almost certainly will … eventually. But this seems like a good time to remember that teenage rookies rarely take the league by storm. In fact, in the two decades since the onset of the dead puck era, only one such player has managed a better season than Patrick Kane’s 72 points in 2007-08.

That would be Crosby, who totaled an impressive 102 points in 2005-06,1 and that’s where some will want to peg the McDavid comparisons. But that was the first year after the season-long lockout, and scoring was way up thanks to a leaguewide mandate to make sure the entire game was spent on the power play. Scoring is down more than 10 percent from that peak, and there’s far less power-play time for the stars to divvy up, so Crosby’s total is almost certainly out of reach.


1.

Alexander Ovechkin had 106 that same year, and Evgeni Malkin had 85 in 2006-07, but both were 20 by the time the season began.

Since Crosby and Kane, no teenage rookie has had more than 63 points. McDavid isn’t your average rookie, but it’s not hard to see him topping out around that mark. And if he does, lots of fans will call it a disappointment. We shouldn’t. McDavid will be challenging Crosby for the Art Ross within three or four years; there’s no need to crank up the comparisons in Year 1.

Did this happen? One of the teams in tomorrow’s Dallas-Pittsburgh game ends up losing.

Then that can only mean … : The fancy-pants winger you traded for might score a lot of goals, but you can’t win in this league with a bunch of All-Star forwards if they’re supported by an average blue line and questionable goaltending!

Or maybe not: Before we go any further, let’s offer up some thanks to the league for providing this fantastic matchup on opening night. The Stars and Penguins may well be the two most entertaining teams in the league,2 and both spent the offseason loading up on even more offense. Seeing them pair off is a gift from the NHL, and I’m so grateful that I’m going to go an entire paragraph without criticizing the league for anything.


2.

In last week’s season preview series, they were the only teams to earn a perfect 10 in the Watchability Index.

Yep. Sure will.

With that out of the way, I’m pretty sure one of these teams will indeed lose, since the league hasn’t quite reached its ultimate goal of giving everyone two points for every game played and hoping we won’t notice.3 That will give a head start to all the naysayers who’ll be lining up to criticize a team for daring to build around offense. And that will be especially true if we get blessed with the sort of 6-5 barn burner we’re all hoping for.


3.

That’s next year.

Look on the bright side, Stars or Penguins fans: You’re going to hear this stuff all season long. Might as well get used to it early.

Did this happen? The Maple Leafs look respectable during their opener against the Canadiens.

Then that can only mean … : Mike Babcock fixed the Maple Leafs! Which means he’s ruining everything!

Or maybe not: The Maple Leafs are going to be bad this season. Their opening-night roster is a sad mix of leftovers from last season’s disaster and castaways from other teams, with most of the organization’s best young prospects being kept far away from what figures to be a long, painful season. When you’re debating between Brad Boyes and P.A. Parenteau for a spot on the first line, you know you’re not exactly swimming in talent.

But there’s one superstar acquisition to show off, and he’s behind the bench. Mike Babcock shocked everyone by signing in Toronto, obliterating the coaching salary scale in the process. That was back in May, when it was assumed the Leafs were set to detonate their lackluster roster. Instead, they ended up keeping most of the core, with the assumption being that Babcock wants a shot at seeing whether any of these underachievers are salvageable.

That’s not a terrible idea — it’s not like other GMs were banging down the door for the Tyler Bozaks of the world — but it’s led to some consternation in Leafs Nation. A generation of fans had finally prepared themselves for the pain of a long rebuild, the kind that involves bottoming out for a few years to collect high draft picks. Now Babcock is going to come along with his crazy mumbo jumbo about “pride” and “discipline” and “playing a defensive system instead of just having everyone chase the puck like five kittens following a laser pointer down a flight of stairs” and ruin everything.

And that’s all right. Babcock is a good coach, but he’s no miracle worker. Your team is still going to be bad. And with the new draft lottery rules making it less enticing to tank for a top pick, finishing last shouldn’t be the season’s goal anyway. Having Babcock coach up a few veterans to the point where they can actually be traded at the deadline would ultimately be worth more to the Leafs’ long-term hopes than a few extra percentage points in a lottery we all know they’d never win anyway.

So settle down, Leafs Nation. You want bad? You’re going to get bad. For this season, at least, Babcock is there to make sure “bad” doesn’t morph back into “embarrassing.” If he can pull it off, consider it a good thing.

Did this happen? During tonight’s marquee matchup between the Blackhawks and Rangers, one or both teams occasionally look sluggish or out of sorts.

Then that can only mean … : The curse of fatigue has struck again!

Or maybe not: We already covered this ground in our Hawks preview; Chicago has played 65 postseason games over the past three seasons, one more than the Kings managed from 2012 to 2014 before missing the playoffs entirely last season. When your season drags into late May or even June most years, the thinking goes that it has to catch up to you eventually.

But while the Blackhawks are sitting on top of the league’s Fatigue Watch, the Rangers aren’t far behind. They’ve played 56 playoff games over the past three seasons, and a whopping 76 over the past four. That’s a lot of wear and tear on a team that relies heavily on some veterans on the wrong side of 30. Maybe it’s the Rangers, not the Blackhawks, who we should all be expecting to see collapse into an exhausted pile of quivering goo by the All-Star break.

The reality, of course, is that this is the last time of year fatigue should be playing a factor. But this is going to be an ongoing subplot for both of these teams all season, so we might as well get a few warm-up swings in now.

Did this happen? During Thursday’s Jets-Bruins game, Dustin Byfuglien makes eye contact with any Bruins player, coach, or employee.

Then that can only mean … : He wants to play there! Byfuglien is a future Bruin!

Or maybe not: Trade rumors, especially those involving star players with big contracts, always come with a sense of futility these days. We’re living through the era of the Scaredy-Cat GM, that overly timid character who can’t even bring himself to mutter the word “trade” unless it’s to remind us how a salary cap that’s been in place for a decade has made it just too hard for him to do his job.

But while we’ll grant that midseason blockbusters are becoming exceedingly rare, the Byfuglien-to-Boston rumors do make at least a little bit of sense. The Bruins’ blue line looks like a glaring weakness, and Byfuglien is the biggest name the rumor mill has churned out. He’s big, physical, and has an explosive shot from the point, which sounds an awful lot like another defenseman the Bruins once built their blue line around. Zdeno Chara is still there, of course, but at 38 and coming off a rough year, it’s time to start thinking about a successor.

Byfuglien could be that guy. And more importantly, it’s not completely inconceivable that he’d become available. With his contract expiring next summer, you’d figure the Jets will want to either get the pending UFA signed to an extension or move him for assets by the deadline. That doesn’t mean they’d do it now — the Jets are a good, young team and probably want to get a sense of what they have this season before making any long-term decisions. But if the 30-year-old Byfuglien wants a seven- or eight-year deal, that could be too rich for a Jets front office that tends to stay conservative.

The price would be imposing, and all reports indicate that nothing is imminent. But this will be one to watch all season long, and it was nice of the schedule-maker to whet our appetite with this early matchup.

Did this happen? The Kings beat the Sharks in tonight’s opener.

Then that can only mean … : The Kings are back!

Or maybe not: Eh, this one is probably true. Despite missing the playoffs last season, the Kings have been penciled in for a playoff spot by just about everyone, and the idea of them unseating the Ducks at the top of the Pacific doesn’t seem that tough to swallow.

But the Sharks present an intriguing opening matchup, not least because they’ll be starting Martin Jones, who spent the past few seasons in L.A. as Jonathan Quick’s backup. The Sharks got Jones secondhand, working with the Bruins after he was included in a deal that sent Milan Lucic to the Kings. That adds a nice pinch of spice to a three-way state rivalry that’s already among the league’s best.

As for those Ducks, we won’t get to see them face the Kings until January. But they’ll open their schedule on Saturday against these same Sharks, meaning that by Sunday morning, we’ll have a pretty good early idea where San Jose fits into this season’s Battle of California.

Did this happen? A team has a home opener that’s not sold out, or there seem to be a few empty seats, or the fans are occasionally kind of quiet.

Then that can only mean … : They’re moving to Quebec!!!

Or maybe not: We may be getting ahead of ourselves here. But expect to hear plenty about relocation over the next little while, now that it seems like the NHL’s expansion process has hit a snag.

We’ve all spent the past year assuming the NHL was on the verge of expansion, and when only Las Vegas and Quebec City submitted applications, that settled that. The Vegas Black Aces and the Quebec Nordiques were joining the league in 2017. You could feel free to get started on your mock expansion drafts.

But then came last week’s comments from Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs, who’s basically the Emperor to Gary Bettman’s Darth Vader. He seemed to throw cold water on the expansion idea, suggesting that the league wasn’t all that enthusiastic about moving to 32 teams. With a rumored expansion fee in the neighborhood of $500 million per team, it’s a little hard to believe that the same owners who’ve already given us three lengthy lockouts are suddenly putting the good of the game ahead of the almighty dollar. But if not that, then what?

Reading between the lines, it’s possible the league would still like to put a team in Seattle and was surprised not to receive an application from a bidder in the city. The NHL has 16 teams in the Eastern Conference and just 14 in the West; connect the dots, and maybe the plan all along was for Vegas and Seattle to get teams.

That leaves Quebec City as the third wheel, with a struggling Canadian dollar throwing up red flags. But if it’s not going to be an expansion destination, what will it do with that rabid fan base and fancy new arena? That’s where a franchise relocation comes in. If a struggling team, especially one in the East, were to move to Quebec, the NHL could improve its bottom line while still leaving the door open for a Vegas/Seattle tag team in 2017. And wouldn’t that be convenient for Bettman, Jacobs, and friends?

Is that getting into conspiracy theory territory? Sure it is. And it’s always possible the owners are telling the truth here — they’re just underwhelmed with the expansion possibilities and really are taking this cautiously for the good of the league. But that’s no fun, so let the speculation begin. If you root for an Eastern team that doesn’t always pack its arena — hi, Panthers fans — and you’re sick of everyone trying to take your team away, good luck this season. Or, should we say, bonne chance.