Several Exciting Storylines to Follow This NHL Season

As the calendar turns to January, there have been several entertaining, emotional, and shocking storylines to what has so far been a highly action-packed, adrenaline-pumping NHL season.

A surprising storyline out west involves the Edmonton Oilers, who, despite coming into the New Year riding a five-game winning streak, find themselves as of January 2nd three points out of a wild card spot. Last September, when training camps around the league opened up, many media outlets and fans were predicting the Oilers to make it to the Stanley Cup Finals this spring. Some even had them winning.

At training camp, many players, including captain Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, mentioned that this year it’s Stanley Cup or bust. Meaning if they don’t win the cup, then it’s not considered a successful season.

The Oilers, who two years ago made it to the Western Conference finals before losing to the eventual Stanley Cup champions Colorado Avalanche, made it last spring to the Western Conference semi-finals where, in a gruelling series, they lost in 6 games to the Vegas Golden Knights, who would also go on to win the Cup.

It’s hard to bet against a highly motivated McDavid, who was coming off a solid year which saw him score a league-best 64 goals and 153 points. Besides McDavid and the clutch scoring of Draisaitl, the Oilers also have depth scoring in the likes of Zach Hyman, who is coming off a career-best 83 points, Evander Kane, who has so far scored 24 points in 33 games, Warren Foegele, who earlier this year had a five-point game, Sam Gagner who provides veteran leadership and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins who last year exploded for a career-best 37 goals and 104 points.

On defence, the Oilers have an emerging 24-year-old, Evan Bouchard, who last year had 40 points and a plus/minus of +6. This year, he has taken it to the next level as Bouchard has, after 33 games, scored nine goals and 36 points. The blueline also provides lots of physicality in former 2013 first-round pick Darnell Nurse, along with Vincent Desharnais, who is a great shot blocker, and Mattias Ekholm, who, on February 28, 2023, solidified the defence when he was traded from the Nashville Predators to the Oilers.

Goalie Jack Campbell struggled during his first season with the Oilers. Campbell, who on July 13, 2022, signed a five-year $25 million-dollar contract with Edmonton, had a solid training camp this year and was showing signs of returning to form. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen, and in early November, Campbell was placed on waivers before reporting to the Oilers AHL affiliate Bakersfield Condors. Approximately a week later, with the Oilers still slumping, they fired head coach Jay Woodcroft and Assistant Dave Manson in favour of Kris Knoblauch, who took over for Woodcroft and Hall of Famer Paul Coffey, who was taking over for Manson. At the time, Edmonton was sitting 31st overall with a 3-9-1 record. They have drastically improved since the change but still sit behind the Arizona Coyotes for that last wildcard spot.

Another surprising storyline to the season’s opening months has involved two young, talented teams, the Ottawa Senators and Buffalo Sabres. Many believed these two teams were ready to take that next giant step in their rebuilding program and be playoff contenders.

Buffalo, who have young talent all through their lineup, finished strong last season and missed the playoffs by only one point. So far, Buffalo fans have shown their frustration by booing the Sabres on numerous occasions at KeyBank Center as they have gotten off to a sub-par 10-14-2 record after 26 games and, as of early January, sit with a 15-19-4 record, which has them seven points behind the Tampa Bay Lightning for the second wild card spot.

The Sabres, who haven’t made post-season since the 2010-11 campaign, are filled with young talents such as team leading scorer Casey Mittelstadt, who, as of early January, has scored 31 points, Tage Thompson, who missed some games to injury, Dylan Cozens who last year had a breakthrough 31 goal season and defenceman Rasmus Dahlin who at 23 years of age keeps on getting better. Unfortunately for Sabres fans, the goaltending has been inconsistent.

In the Nations Capital, there was plenty of optimism involving the Ottawa Senators. This team, with the likes of such talents as captain Brady Tkachuk, Tim Stutzle, Josh Norris, Drake Batherson, and veterans such as Claude Giroux and Vladimir Tarasenko, was looked upon as a team ready to compete. The Senator’s defence core is extremely talented with players such as Thomas Chabot, the emerging Josh Sanderson, Jakob Chychrun and Artem Zub. 

Approximately a week before Christmas, the Senators, who were 11-15 on the season, pulled the trigger on firing coach D. J. Smith, who was replaced by a former Sens coach in 71-year-old Jacques Martin. Also given his walking papers was Sens assistant coach Davis Payne, who was replaced by Hockey Hall of Famer and former Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson. Ottawa entered the first few days of January last in the Eastern Conference with a 14-18-0 record, 14 points behind the Washington Capitals for that second and final wild card spot.

The first few months of the season have also been filled with many inspirational and emotional feel-good storylines which hockey fans from coast to coast have closely followed. A major feel-good storyline has been playing itself out in British Columbia, where the Vancouver Canucks, who haven’t played a playoff game since 2020, have gotten off to a solid start which on January 2 see them sitting fourth overall with a 23-10-3 record. Quite a change from last year when they finished 22nd overall with a 38-37-7 record.

One of the major reasons for this surprising fast start has been the emotional story involving Canucks forward Brock Boeser, who, after a couple of challenging years, is off to a solid start with 24 goals and 38 points in 36 games played. Boeser, who was originally selected by Vancouver 23rd overall in the 2015 Draft, admitted to losing his passion for hockey over the past couple of seasons because it was keeping him away from his family, in particular his Father, Duke, who was sick and wound up passing away on May 27, 2022.

During the 2021/22 Canucks season-ending press conference, things came to a head when Boeser became extremely emotional when a reporter asked how his father, Duke, was doing. Understandably, his dad’s health was constantly on his mind, and as a result, Boeser became extremely inconsistent. He did deal with nagging injuries, and his name was mentioned in various trade rumours.

This season, Boeser has rediscovered that love for hockey and, though obviously missing his father, is at peace of mind, which has been showing in his early season play. He is one of the good guys in hockey, and no doubt the entire NHL community and fans alike are cheering him on.

Vancouver started the regular season with back-to-back wins against their rivals, the Oilers. After 25 games, the Canucks had a 16-8-1 record which had them sitting fourth overall. The Canucks have been getting solid seasons from the likes of forward and team leading scorer J.T. Miller who has 50 points (16 G. 34 assists), along with their two other big scorers in, Elias Petterson (13 G. 30 assists) and Boeser, who, as mentioned earlier has 24 goals.

All four Canuck lines are a scoring threat as they have depth scoring in the likes of Ilya Mikheyev (10 G. 10 assists), Andrei Kuzmenko ( 8 G. 19 pts.) and Dakota Joshua (9 G. 16 pts.). On defence, the Canucks are led by Norris Trophy frontrunner Quinn Hughes who has ten goals along with 46 points and a plus/minus of +26. Other Canuck blueliners having solid years include Filip Hronek, who has two goals, 29 points and is +21.

Meanwhile, the Canucks have size and toughness in 6’8″ 229-pound defenceman Tyler Myers who has 16 points and is +13, along with his blueline partner, 6’6″ 248-pounder Nikita Zadorov.

Canucks goaltender Thatcher Demko has been unstoppable as he is ranked as of January 3. tied for second overall with 18 wins. Demko also sits 10th overall with an impressive 2.48 GAA. Overall, he is 18-7-1 with a .917 save percentage.

Despite the Canucks having talent up and down the lineup, they were picked by many media outlets to either miss the playoffs or barely squeak in. I would say being fourth overall coming out of the Christmas break and the emergence of Boeser is a major feel-good story to the NHL’s first half.

Another team that has been a surprise is the Los Angeles Kings. They started the season by making some history as they shut out the Montreal Canadiens 4-0 on December 23 to become the first team to begin a season with 11 consecutive road wins.

Currently, the Kings are 10th overall and sixth in the Western Conference with a 20-9-5 record. A big reason the Kings set that record was not only the production of their big horses, such as forwards Anze Kopitar and Adrian Kempe and defenceman Drew Doughty, but also some lesser-known players who have really stepped up.

Forward Trevor Moore, who came over a few years ago in a trade with the Toronto Maple Leafs, is off to a strong start, which has seen him already score 17 goals and 26 points in 34 games played. The 17 goals match a career-high, and he is well on his way to surpassing his previous best in points, which was 48 set in the 2021/22 season. Not bad for a player who was never drafted and continues to get better and better.

Forward Quinton Byfield, who the Kings selected second overall in the 2020 NHL Draft, has also been an inspiring story. This 22-year-old 6’5″ and 225 pounds has taken that next step in his development, which has been seen by his numbers, including a career-high ten goals, 26 points and a +15 in 34 games played.

Previously, Byfield’s previous high in production came last year when he registered 19 assists and 22 points along with a +13 in 53 games played. Byfield is improving and is a major reason for the Kings achieving that road record.

Prior to training camp, the million-dollar question being debated among fans and various media outlets was how last summer’s first overall pick, 18-year-old forward Connor Bedard, would do with the Chicago Blackhawks.

Bedard, who has been called a ‘Generational Talent,’ simply dominated with not only the WHL’s Regina Pats, but also on the international stage for Team Canada. Despite the Blackhawks struggling and, as of January 3, sitting second last overall with only 24 points, Bedard, proving to be the real deal, has produced 15 goals and 33 points in 37 games.

A popular debate among hockey fans centred on when future Hockey Hall of Famer Alex Ovechkin would officially surpass Wayne Gretzky as the NHL’s all-time leading scorer. Gretzky ended his illustrious career with 894 goals, and Ovechkin, who, of course, is captain of the Washington Capitals, entered the season 84 behind at 810 goals.

During the first few months, it looks like, sadly, Father Time may have caught up to this 38-year-old veteran who has scored only eight goals and 16 points in 36 games, which, as all hockey fans know, is miles behind his usual torrid pace. This leads to the debate of whether Father Time has, in fact, caught up to Ovechkin or whether or not this is nothing more than just a slow start to the season. This storyline will go a long way in playing itself out.

In New England, quite the inspirational feel-good storylines are being written this year involving the defending Presidents Trophy winners, the Boston Bruins.

The Bruins, who were coming off a truly historical regular season which saw them win a franchise-best 65 games on their way to a league’s best 135-point season, had a rough off-season which saw their heart and soul captain Patrice Bergeron and veteran forward David Krejci retire. At the same time, forward Taylor Hall was traded to the Chicago Blackhawks. Those three veterans combined last year for 59 goals and 150 points, along with being valuable leaders. Quite a big loss to the Bruins’ offence.

Many season forecasters believed losing these three would mean a big step backwards from last year.

Another big question with the Bruins was whether defending Vezina Trophy winner Linus Ullmark would take a step backward from last year’s career season, which saw him have a personal best of 40 wins and a 1.89 GAA. The big question among various media outlets was whether or not he could repeat his dominating performance. Ullmark proved this year and again to have strong chemistry in the Bruins net with backup Jeremy Swayman, who had a career-best 24 wins and a tidy 2.27 GAA last season.

So far this season, the Bruins goaltending is a great story for their success as Ullmark, in 18 starts, has a 12-5 record with a 2.72 GAA and a .918 save percentage as he continues to prove his skeptics wrong. 

Boston has definitely surprised as they sit after 36 games first in the Atlantic Division and first overall with a 23-7-6 record. Bruins fans are hoping that this time around, this feel-good story results in the storybook ending of a Stanley Cup victory.

Swayman has also been rock solid in stringing together an 11-2-4 record with a 2.22 GAA and .918 save percentage.

As mentioned, many believed Boston would take a giant step backwards, but in the early going, they have definitely made a statement that they are still bonified Stanley Cup contenders.

An Unrestricted Free Agent signing that didn’t get much attention last summer involved veteran goaltender Jonathan Quick, who earlier in his career, was instrumental in helping the Los Angeles Kings win the 2012 and 2014 Stanley Cup. On March 1, 2023, Quick was traded to the Vegas Golden Knights, where in the playoffs, he served as backup to Adin Hill, who back-stopped Vegas to their first Stanley Cup.

Prior to being traded, Quick had a subpar 11-13-4 record with the Kings, with a 3.50 GAA and a .876 save percentage. Following the trade to Vegas, he went 5-2-2 with a 3.23 GAA and a .901 save percentage. In the summer, Quick, who is 36 years old, signed a one-year contract worth only $925,000 as the New York Rangers backup.

Predicted by many to be done, this former 2012 Conn Smythe Trophy winner has successfully turned back the clock by starting the season with an 8-0-1 record, which included two shutouts and, a 2.20 GAA and a sparkling 0.922 save percentage in his first ten starts. After 13 starts, Quick is 9-2-1 with a 2.41 GAA and .916 save percentage.

A popular off-season debate that stretched into the season was where the future Hall of Famer and three-time Stanley Cup winner Patrick Kane would end up.

Kane, affectionately known as ‘Showtime’, was originally drafted 1st overall in 2007 by the Chicago Blackhawks. During his 16 years as a Blackhawk, Kane’s popularity grew in the Windy City, where he scored over 400 goals and accumulated over 1,000 points, along with winning those three Stanley Cups.

The Blackhawks, currently in a full rebuild mode, decided on February 28, 2023, to trade this aging star in a blockbuster trade with the New York Rangers. Following the trade, Kane played 19 games as a Ranger where he scored five goals and 12 points.

This past off-season, Kane had hip resurfacing surgery, which was followed by months of grueling rehab. Throughout this process of rehabbing, Kane, who was an Unrestricted Free Agent made it known that he was coming back but wanted to take his time before deciding who to sign with.

As the hockey season began, there were all sorts of speculation of Kane going to such teams as the Buffalo Sabres, Florida Panthers, Edmonton Oilers or the Detroit Red Wings.

That speculation ended when on November 28, 2023 Kane wrote another chapter to this storyline when he agreed to a one-year $2.75 million contract with the Red Wings.

So far, in six games as a Red Wing, showtime has, in his first 14 games, scored six goals and 13 points. Once Kane has had some games under his belt and gets used to his linemates, expect him to make the difference in Detroit making it to the playoffs.

Hockey fans have been highly entertained by the furious adrenaline-pumping action of the first few months of an exciting NHL season. These were just a few of the many suspenseful and emotional storylines playing out in what has been an exhilarating ride for hockey fans, watching and rooting for their teams while enjoying the coolest game on ice. 

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