With due respect to the eight teams that played last night, and boy did the San Jose Sharks make a statement at Los Angeles, the real NHL season begins tonight! The youth movement begins for the Edmonton Oilers and Buffalo Sabres, led by the two franchise players that were the prize at the end of last season. Connor McDavid, the savior of the north, the one who was promised, makes his debut for the Oil at St. Louis this evening; the luck of the lottery balls back in April led to a complete overhaul of the Edmonton franchise. A new general manager, a new coach, the presumed end of the “old boy’s club,” all pointing toward a bright future in the northern prairies of Alberta. There are still question marks a-plenty surrounding the squad containing four first overall picks from their last decade of mediocrity — defense looks okay, but not great, and goaltending of course is always a concern in Edmonton. I’ll make predictions below, but I don’t see the Oil pulling into the playoffs just yet.
On the homefront, Jack Eichel and the Buffalo Sabres are poised for a massive turnaround, I hope. The draft in June saw several major deals for Buffalo, acquiring a new franchise goalie in Robin Lehner, trading for a new number-one center in Ryan O’Reilly, and selecting Eichel with the #2 pick. Bring in a few depth free agents, including the highly sought-after Cody Franson. Not to mention the debut of Evander Kane, acquired injured at the deadline. The top six looks to put up big numbers, now that there’s actual talent to feed last year’s brightest spots, Tyler Ennis and Zemgus Girgensons. Again, defense could be a concern, especially with several injuries in the preseason already making an impact, but man, it feels good to be a Sabres fan again. At least right now, hope springs eternal.
How’s the rest of the league? Honestly, it’s been such a long offseason I have no idea who plays where anymore, which teams look good, and which ones look not so good. What follows here is a total crapshoot informed by blogs, podcasts, news, r/hockey, and general intuition. I’ll be sure to see how things went here as April rolls around:
In the West:
Pacific: Anaheim, San Jose, Calgary
Central: Chicago, St. Louis, Nashville
Wild Cards: Dallas, Vancouver
In the East:
Atlantic: Tampa Bay, Montréal, Detroit
Metropolitan: Pittsburgh, New York Islanders, Washington
Wild Cards: New York Rangers, Florida (!)
Notables off the board: Minnesota, Los Angeles, Ottawa
Draft lottery top five, no tanks allowed: New Jersey, Arizona, Colorado, Carolina, Toronto
This honestly doesn’t look much different than last year’s list… then again, I don’t really know any better! Teams that looked good last year are set to make a leap this year (Washington, Islanders, Calgary, Dallas), but others will continue to slip (Los Angeles, Boston). Arizona will likely be the bottom feeder, going 0-fer in the preseason and looking like a shell of an AHL team. Those new jerseys look slick on the ice though, and if they can harness the magic of the lottery balls (which determine the top 3 picks this year), they’ll land home-grown phenom Auston Matthews. Toronto will continue to suck, and I will be laughing by proxy from across Lake Ontario.
I am so happy hockey is back again, as is tradition. This year, though, I’m ready for some wins. I want to go deaf from the First Niagara Center goal horn and raucous fans cheering their own team’s goals. And the return of the ever present Rick Jeanneret, who, like the rest of Buffalo and Western New York, will have a reason to cry out with joy at every great play, every hit, every goal, every win. It’s a great day to be a Sabres fan; let’s hope it’s a great day again tomorrow.