With free agency having settled, hockey news has slowed down over recent weeks. So, I decided this week would be the perfect time to start my season previews. Each week, I’ll choose a few teams to feature and assess what we can expect from them this year. This week features the Sabres, Penguins, and Kings. I also take a look at one of the more-surprising extensions signed last week.
1. Season Preview: Buffalo Sabres
About a quarter of the way through last season, it looked like the future of the Sabres was trending up. New acquisition Jeff Skinner was torching the league and linemate Jack Eichel was on the path to becoming a future superstar. Rasmus Dahlin, the first-overall pick in the 2018 Draft, was playing well and his development looked promising. A little less than a year later, the future isn’t any brighter than it was last year. It’s clear the Sabres will only improve as much as their young core does. If Eichel and Dahlin live up to expectations, the Sabres will be on the fast-track to contention. If those two don’t pan out, well, Buffalo will have to go back to the drawing board.
They are still thin at every position. Outside of Skinner and Eichel, only one returning forward on their roster, Sam Reinhart, reached the 40-point plateau last year. Reinhart is a good player but there are few guys on the second and third lines that add any depth; unless Kyle Okposo can resurrect his career.
On defense, Rasmus Ristolainen looks to be a very promising piece for the Sabres. He’s put together four straight 40-point seasons and he’s only 24 years old. If he continues to develop defensively, the Sabres could have one of the best defensive pairs in the NHL for a very long time. After Ristolainen and Dahlin, the rest of the Sabres’ backend is very blah. Zach Bogosian, Colin Miller, and Marco Scandella are decent veterans, but the Sabres probably aren’t making the playoffs with those guys playing big minutes.
In net returns Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark, who were both average last season. I’m rather surprised Buffalo didn’t make a play at Robin Lehner considering how cheap he ended up being.
Overall, I think the Sabres will finish dead-center among the non-playoff teams in the Eastern Conference. Their season would be considered a success if their young stars show signs of improvement and they can put some pressure on the teams above them in the standings trying to make the playoffs.
2. McDavid Shows Off His Acting Chops
If you have been checking Twitter over the last 48 hours, you have probably seen Connor McDavid’s new commercial for CCM. CCM is one of McDavid’s biggest endorsement partners and he can be seen rocking their sticks all season long. In the commercial, McDavid gets to show a bit of his personality while he proves he can indeed, shoot from anywhere.
To be honest, I don’t think this commercial is that great. I had to watch it a few times to completely understand the message. The spot did get people on Twitter talking, which is the best way to get people to buy CCM’s new sticks. I also think McDavid’s acting was spot-on. He didn’t have to do too much, but he didn’t seem awkward or lame. He showed just the right amount of personality that he keeps locked away too often. This is more of what the NHL needs. They need their stars showing off their personality on TV where fans can connect with them. The league should take notes from guys like P.K. Subban and Brent Burns. Those guys are not afraid to step in front of the camera and let their personality show. McDavid showed all the league’s big stars that it’s not too hard to show some of their personality.
3. Season Preview: Pittsburgh Penguins
Speaking of big stars, the Pittsburgh Penguins still have two of the league’s best, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. The Penguins 2018-19 season ended in disappointment after getting swept by the New York Islanders in the first round. The year before they took the eventual Stanley Cup Champions, the Washington Capitals, to seven games in the Conference Semifinals. I’m sure everyone remembers that they won back-to-back Stanley Cups before that. I will not sit here and say the Penguins run of contention has ended, because it hasn’t. But, the Pens’ offseason moves made it obvious they won’t be competing for a cup this season.
Regarding their roster, it still boasts the likes of Crosby, Malkin, and Kris Letang. though, Phil Kessel won’t be around this season, as he was traded to Phoenix for Alex Galchenyuk. The Penguins do have a lot of forward depth with Galchenyuk, Jake Guentzel, and Patric Hörnqvist. Their backend has similar depth with Justin Schultz, Brian Dumoulin, and Jack Johnson. There is no doubt Pittsburgh does not have as much talent as last season, but they are still very solid from top to bottom.
One of the big storylines of this year is Matt Murray. After usurping franchise staple Marc Andre-Fleury as the starter during the 2016 Cup run, Murray has cooled since. The Pens would not have won the 2017 Cup without Fleury stepping in during parts of the playoffs. Murray has been good, just not as sensational as he was down the stretch in 2016. His play this season could change the direction of the Penguins for years to come. He has one year left on his contract before he becomes an RFA again. If he plays like an All-Star, he could command big money in the offseason. That will force the Penguins to make a decision. Will they spend the money they saved from dealing Kessel on a player they already have? Or will they trade Murray and reinvest in another goalie. If he plays poorly, that could mark the beginning of the end for his career in Pittsburgh, too.
I believe the 2019-20 Penguins will suffer the same fate as last year’s team. They will make the playoffs but flameout in the first round. They finished in third place in the Metropolitan Division last year and I’ll bet they do again this year. The Rangers are the only team in the Metro that significantly improved over the summer and they still won’t challenge the Pens for a playoff spot. I do think this is the year the Hurricanes make the leap and finish in second place in the Metro, behind Washington. This isn’t the end of the Crosby and Malkin Penguins; they just won’t be making a deep playoff run this year.
4. Sissons Gets Extended
Last week we saw one of the more puzzling moves of the summer. The Nashville Predators extended 25-year-old center, Colton Sissons, to a seven-year $20 million contract for a $2.857 million AAV. Sissons is a tough, gritty, checking forward that plays on the third line. That’s where he excels. Still, those guys don’t get seven-year deals. Usually, because they are easy to find and are cheap, making a deal of this length completely unnecessary.
I’m sure the Predators could pluck one of their prospects out of Milwaukee and find a player that could match Sissons production for a cheaper price. And if they couldn’t, I’m sure they could sign a similar player as a free agent to a one-year deal in the $1-$2 million range. That’s what most teams do, they find that grinder that they like and they re-sign them for nothing every year. The Red Wings signed forward Drew Miller to four contracts without offering more than three years on any deal.
Will this deal burn the Predators? Probably not. But if Sissons’ production slips even a bit, it’s money down the tubes. I’m just more surprised Preds GM David Poile made this deal as he is usually penny-wise. He must be sure Sissons is going to develop offensively; otherwise, this deal was just unnecessary.
5. Season Preview Los Angeles Kings
Last season was one that all Kings fans would like to forget. After bringing Ilya Kovalchuk back to the States, the Kings were expecting to make the playoffs last season. They finished the year last in the Pacific Division. The game changed right under the Kings’ nose last year as speed became king (no pun intended). The Kings’ roster aged overnight and their record showed.
Talent-wise, the L.A. still have some great players like future Hall of Famers Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty. Both are coming off their worst season in recent memory. Same goes for Kovalchuk, Jeff Carter, and Tyler Toffoli. They have guys that can score goals but they don’t have very many guys who can create them. That will be the struggle again this year as they didn’t add anyone who can stretch the defense.
I think they will have a bit of a bounce-back year this year. When I say bounce back, I mean they won’t finish last in their division. That’s because Anaheim will, as they are deep into the Nightmare Zone, just like the Kings. Unlike the Ducks, the Kings still have two superstars in their prime. I would be shocked if both Kopitar and Doughty are unable to turn it around after just one bad season. The Kings still have enough talent to carry their depleted roster out of the Pacific Division basement.
The Kings do have one lifeline. Brown, Carter, and Kovalchuk will all be off the payroll by 2022. If the Kings can flip those guys or ride out their contracts, there is a shot they can win again before Kopitar and Doughty’s windows are up. That won’t happen for at least another two years. In the meantime, the Kings need to start developing their young talent so they can pass the torch down to them when the time comes. ■
Blake Isaacs is a die-hard Red Wings fan that doesn’t go to as many games as he should. He is also a big fan of 7-Eleven Slurpeees, Chipotle, and all things Michigan State. Follow him on Twitter @bisaacs1995.