Its been just over a week since the 2016-17 NHL season began, and even though it’s way too early to make any sort of concrete predictions or guesses on how the season is going to turn out the rest of the way, it’s still fun to take a snapshot of how things played out after the opening week and see if any of those trends continue to last. Every Friday during the season, our “Around the NHL” article will take a glimpse at some of the biggest stories in the league throughout the previous week that have kept hockey fans talking. The season may only be a week old, but there’s been plenty to talk about from the NHL’s opening games that could have some lasting impact on this season.
IT’S A YOUNG MAN’S LEAGUE
Since the advent of the salary cap in 2005-06, the NHL has dramatically shifted to being a league driven by youth. That has become even more evident over the last five years, as teams realize that drafting and developing young talent while they’re still cheap and under RFA control, followed by locking them up to long-term deals while in their prime years, is the way to go. Nowadays, a typical NHL forward that makes the jump to the NHL while a teenager or in their early 20’s will typically peak in their mid-to-late 20’s. The reason I bring all this up is because this year’s rookie crop, in addition to other youngsters drafted in the last couple of years, are primed to be the next wave of stars to carry the banner for the league as guys like Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin enter their 30’s. That next wave hit like a tsunami on opening night, as 2016’s first-overall pick, Toronto’s Auston Matthews, became the first player in NHL history to score four goals in his NHL debut. The 19-year-old has five goals and an assist through four games, and has already caused NBC Sports Network to alter its broadcast schedule and carry the Maple Leafs’ home opener last weekend. This summer’s second-overall pick, Winnipeg’s Patrik Laine, notched his first career hat trick in a 5-4 OT victory over Matthews’s Leafs, a game in which the Jets trailed 4-0. Edmonton’s Jesse Pulujarvi, the third overall pick, also tallied his first NHL goal, as did sixth overall choice Matthew Tkachuk for the Flames. And we haven’t even gotten to 2015’s first-overall pick, Connor McDavid, who is second in the NHL in points after the opening week, as he has four goals and four assists. McDavid is showing that he’s capable of carrying the Edmonton Oilers, and as long as he stays healthy, there’s no reason why he can’t be in the running for the Art Ross Trophy. It’s indeed a young man’s league, and NHL fans have a lot to look forward to in terms of star power over the next decade.
THE MAPLE LEAFS ARE RELEVANT AGAIN
Whether you love them or loathe them (and many hockey fans fall into the latter category), there’s no denying that when Toronto is relevant, it makes everything more interesting in the NHL. As with any team going through a youth movement, there’s going to be some growing pains, as evidenced by their OT loss in Ottawa on opening night despite the historic effort of Matthews, the aforementioned loss in Winnipeg after blowing a 4-0 lead, and a 3-2 setback in Minnesota when they gave up a 2-1 lead in the third period. But when you watch this Leafs team play, you can’t help but think there’s finally hope for this organization. And it all rests in the hands of the kids, as Matthews already looks like a franchise-saving center, William Nylander has a goal and four assists, and Mitch Marner has tallied a pair of points and several quality chances. The big question is whether or not Frederik Andersen will hold up as the team’s number-one goalie. Unlike my colleague, Trevor Grout, I’m not predicting Toronto to reach the playoffs this year. There will be nights when this team gives their fan base hope for the future, and there will be nights when they drive their fans crazy, but there’s no doubt that the Leafs are relevant again for the first time in several years. Enjoy it now, Leafs haters, because in due time, they’ll be a force to be reckoned with in the Eastern Conference.
PLENTY OF INJURIES TO KEY PLAYERS
Every year, there’s always one or two teams that find themselves as the unwanted recipient of the injury bug, but before and during the opening week, there were several big names across the league that either haven’t suited up yet, are just now getting back into their team’s lineup, or suffered serious setbacks that will keep them off the ice for extended periods of time. Sidney Crosby has yet to see the ice for the Pittsburgh Penguins due to a concussion, a troubling development for him given his history with head injuries. Montreal’s Carey Price was expected to be ready for the Canadiens’ opener, but a flu bug kept him sidelined until the team’s fourth game, a 5-2 win over Arizona. It was Price’s first game since last November. Buffalo’s Jack Eichel, who led the team with 24 goals as a rookie and is expected to be the team’s franchise center, suffered a high ankle sprain during practice the day before the Sabres’ season opener and is out for 6-8 weeks. To make matters worse for Buffalo during their season-opening loss to Montreal, Evander Kane crashed into the boards after colliding with the Canadiens’ Alexei Emelin, knocking him out for several weeks with cracked ribs. Lastly, Kings goalie Jonathan Quick left L.A.’s season opener after the opening period due to a groin injury that will keep him off the ice for three months. Quick opted not to have surgery. The Kings have gotten off to a slow start, and they’ll have to rebound and turn their season around with the combination of Jeff Zatkoff and Peter Budaj between the pipes.
UNEXPECTED DEVELOPMENTS IN THE PACIFIC DIVISION
Over the past few years, you could confidently look at the Pacific Division and predict that two of the three California teams, if not all three of them, would make it into the playoffs. But if you haven’t paid much attention during the first week and are looking at the league’s standings for the first time, you’d be in for quite the shock when you look at the Pacific. In fact, you might think you walked into some sort of weird alternate universe. The Vancouver Canucks in first place at 4-0-0? The Edmonton Oilers in second at 4-1-0? The Anaheim Ducks at 1-3-1? The Kings in last place at 1-3-0? Yep, that’s where the Pacific Division is at after the opening week. Obviously it’s still very early and a lot can happen between now and the end of the season. Last year, the Ducks rallied from a horrendous start to win the division. Opening the season with a five-game road trip, Anaheim finally earned their first win of the season by a 3-2 count in Philadelphia. The Canucks are undefeated despite not holding a lead until their fourth game, as they needed two overtimes and a shootout in their first three games. Many had the Canucks pegged as one of the worst teams in the NHL this season (I was one of them). Los Angeles and Arizona are both dealing with injuries to their starting goaltenders, while Calgary hasn’t gotten the goaltending upgrade they thought they were getting when they acquired Brian Elliott. The only team that has performed as expected so far has been San Jose, who sits at third in the division. Remember, it’s still very early, so take this all with a grain of salt right now. But it’s still intriguing to see things not go the way we thought they would out west, at least for the opening week of action.
JAROMIR JAGR JOINS RARE COMPANY
In the Florida Panthers’ 4-2 loss to the Washington Capitals last night, Jaromir Jagr became just third player in NHL history to score 750 regular season goals. The other two to surpass that lofty mark? Wayne Gretzky and Gordie Howe, better known as two of the top five greatest players in the history of the sport. The 44-year-old Jagr shows no signs of slowing down, but you can’t help but wonder how many goals he’d have if he didn’t go to the KHL for three years, or if there hadn’t been any work stoppages. Not saying that he’d be breaking Gretzky’s record of 894, but there’s no reason to think he couldn’t have topped Howe for second place. Looking at what Jagr has accomplished, I can’t help but think this might be the last time we see a player top 750 goals. The only active player that might have a chance at getting close is Alex Ovechkin, who sits at 527 at the age of 31. The only other active player in the league that’s close to Ovechkin is 37-year-old Marian Hossa, who just recently scored his 500th goal. With the way the game is played, and with the 50-goal season becoming more of a rarity, we might have just witnessed the last player to score 750 career regular season goals. We can only hope that I’m wrong.