If hockey is a sport that just doesn’t grab your attention, I can understand that. It’s extremely fast, often messy, and often doesn’t look like much strategy is involved. I can wholeheartedly agree with those first two, but the third is anything but true. If you need a good explanation of the strategy involved on both the defensive and offensive ends, look no further than Greg Wyshinksi’s Take Your Eye Off the Puck. It’s a detailed yet concise, humorous read about the ins and outs of hockey strategy.
However, I’m not sitting here on my laptop preparing to write 1000 words about why hockey is a great sport and why it is actually one of the more complex sports from a strategy standpoint that exist. My hope is, that if you’re reading this, you at least have some appreciation for the ice-based sport. I hope you’re reading this because you’re looking for a reason, or reasons, to really get excited about the 2016-2017 NHL season, even if you don’t actively root for one team or another.
Like any of the major sports, the NHL always has interesting and entertaining storylines that help make up a season from beginning to end. I’ve put together my 5 teams to watch this regular season and the storylines that will keep them interesting from October-April.
1. Toronto Maple Leafs and their Speedy Offense
If offense and goal scoring are what you need to keep you entertained night and in night out, look no further than the Maple Leafs of Toronto. Suiting up one of the youngest teams on the ice – 6 rookies are on their Opening Week active roster – the Leafs have a blazing fast offense with some great stickhandlers, including number 1 overall pick Auston Matthews (a 4 goal NHL debut, if you hadn’t heard).
What you’ll get with this team is similar to what you would have seen had you watched Team North America in the World Cup back in September: a lot of flashy offense, a nuisance of a forecheck, but not much penchant for defense in their own zone. This team will score, pleasing Toronto fans, but they’ll also give up a lot of goals, pleasing everyone else. If you need an example, look no further than their first 3 games: 2 of their first 3 games ended 5-4 in overtime for the opponents. The lack of defense was especially evident in their game against the Jets, where the Leafs started 4-0 and lost 5-4. This team may not win a lot of games, but they will play A LOT of offense.
Players to Watch: Auston Matthews, Mitchell Marner, William Nylander
2. Detroit Red Wings, Mr. Hockey, and Joe Louis Arena
During the Wings final home opener at historic Joe Louis Arena, the team paid tribute to Mr. Hockey himself, Gordie Howe. It was a lovely tribute to a man that played 25 seasons for Detroit and sadly passed away in June of this year. Hockey, and Detroit, lost one of the more historic names in the game.
Speaking of losing pieces of history, upon completion of this NHL season, Joe Louis arena will be torn down for good and the Wings will move to their new home at Little Caesars Arena. I know. Trading in a boxing and cultural icon for a mediocre pizza chain just doesn’t seem right.
The Wings will obviously look to have a great all-around season, but will especially try to play well at home to honor Gordie Howe and the famous arena they’ve skated in for nearly 40 years. While the offense hasn’t really been there through their first 4 games this season, the likes of Dylan Larkin, captain Hendrik Zetterberg, and Thomas Vanek will look to get things going and hold their own in the increasingly tough Atlantic Division.
For history’s sake, watch some Red Wings home games if you can this year.
Players to Watch: (stated above) Larkin, Zetterberg, Vanek
3. Calgary Flames and Johnny Hockey
Outside of the rookies like Matthews and Laine, there are few guys under 24 that have more hype surrounding them this year than Johnny “Johnny Hockey” Gaudreau. With two all-star appearances in his first two seasons, an exciting stint with Team North America at the World Cup, and a brand new six-year contract extension, the Flames will expect a great deal from the young forward.
The Flames’ 2016-2017 outcome may be one of the more difficult to predict, as two years ago they clinched a playoff birth for the first time in 6 years, but then last year they went right back to their losing ways and fired coach Bob Hartley. One thing is certain though, Johnny Hockey will look to score and score a lot to help this team win games.
Players to Watch: Johnny Hockey, Matthew Tkachuk, Sean Monahan
4. Minnesota Wild and Bruce Boudreau
Everyone who knows me has heard my “Marvin Lewis needs to be let go” speech, citing the fact that he’s never won a playoff game despite reaching the postseason six of the last seven years. Well, I often felt the same about the Anaheim Ducks’ head coach, Bruce Boudreau, who led his team to four straight playoff births but lost four straight game 7s on home ice. Boudreau was a bit different from Lewis because Boudreau at least got his team past a first round in two of those years.
However, there has never been any doubt that Boudreau was a good coach. He just needed a change of scenery and a change of personnel. He’ll be getting all of that, as he trades in sunny Anaheim for snowy St. Paul.
For the past few seasons, the Wild have been a team that has looked poised to take the next step and make a real run at Lord Stanley’s Cup. However, they always seem to get tripped up in the postseason, losing to the Chicago Blackhawks three straight years and then to the Dallas Stars in the second round last year.
A coaching change from Mike Yeo (to interim John Torchetti) to Boudreau was made in hopes that he can get more consistency night in and night out from a team that is extremely solid on paper. A shaky second half almost kept them out of the playoffs last year, and Boudreau will look to implement faster-paced play in order to get the Wild back to their consistent winning ways. Rarely does a coaching change really add to my excitement about a hockey team, but this is definitely a squad to watch.
Players to Watch: Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu, Charlie Coyle
5. Florida Panthers and Their New Look
With the exception of Stanley Cup winners looking to free cap space, you rarely see a defending division champion make as many changes on and off the ice as the South Florida Kitties have. Fantastic uniform changes aside, the Panthers made a GM change, appointing Tom Rowe to the role, and added nine new players to the already solid roster.
The hopes for a deep playoff run last year were dashed in game 7 of the opening round, leading to some major officiating criticisms (and some amazing “Trocheck was tripped” memes). All of Florida’s changes in the offseason were made in order for that disappointment to not be repeated this year.
Unfortunately, the disappointment started before the season even began, as the team lost star Winger Jonathan Huberdeau for at least four months with an Achilles tendon injury resulting from a skate laceration in preseason bout. Couple that with Nick Bjugstad being out for a month with a broken hand and you have the exact opposite of the start the Panthers were hoping for.
But so far things are still looking good for the team out of South Florida, as they’ve started 2-0-1 with an offense that doesn’t seem to be missing a beat despite the notable injuries. If you’re looking for an all-around good team to watch this year, look no further than the new look Florida Panthers.
Players to Watch: Alexsander Barkov, Aaron Ekblad, Vincent Trocheck