Canadian NHL teams facing key training camp questions

With NHL training camps in full swing, talk for the next few weeks will shift to each team's top prospects, position battles and how certain established players might fare coming off a disappointing 2016-17 season.

Are the Flames set in goal? Where does Drouin fit in Habs' lineup? Who's on Laine's line?

Better days seemingly lie ahead for the Canadian NHL teams five of which qualified for the 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs. Eyes will be focused on many players this season, including clockwise from top: Flames goalie Mike Smith, the Jets' Patrik Laine, Habs' Jonathan Drouin and Oilers' Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. (Canadian Press/Getty Images/CBC Sports )

In 2016, when all seven Canadian NHL arenas were dark in the playoffs for the first time in 46 years, there was hope in the form of a top-heavy first round of the league's entry draft that June.

Come October, top-six picks Auston Matthews (Toronto), Patrik Laine (Winnipeg) and Matthew Tkachuk (Calgary) debuted in the NHL while another highly touted youngster, Connor McDavid, had moved the hype needle the previous season in Edmonton.

Seven months later, the Maple Leafs, Flames and Oilers were back in the playoff tournament, thanks largely to the performance of the aforementioned players, and joined by Montreal and Ottawa.

While there is a belief these teams can have sustained success, there is plenty of room for growth. With that, here's one burning question for each Canadian club early in training camp.


Have the Flames, finally, found the right goalie tandem?

Gone are the inconsistent Brian Elliott and Chad Johnson. Enter veteran Mike Smith and backup Eddie Lack to make it three straight seasons with a new goaltending duo.

Smith, 36, had a .914 overall save percentage last season in 55 games with Arizona in 2016-17 and .925 rate at even strength but appeared to tire later in the season, posting a .906 save percentage in his last 39 games.

Will Lack, 29, rebound from a .902 save percentage the past two seasons, second-worst in the NHL among goalies with at least 50 appearances?


Will Ryan Nugent-Hopkins regain his offensive mojo?

It would seem a no-brainer if Oilers head coach Todd McLellan had the 2011 first-overall pick skating on the right side with McDavid. But it's believed Nugent-Hopkins, who will make $6 million US this season, will split his time at centre, mainly on the third line and with the second unit when Leon Draisaitl skates with McDavid.

Entering his seventh NHL season, the 24-year-old Nugent-Hopkins failed to register 45 points in each of the last two campaigns and failed to score in 13 playoff games (four assists) last spring.


Will highly touted Jonathan Drouin play centre or the wing?

The former Tampa Bay Lightning prospect opened camp with the Canadiens at centre ahead of Alex Galchenyuk, a position he hasn't played regularly since his junior days with Halifax. A 22-year-old native of Ste-Agathe, Que., Drouin could face enormous pressure playing at home after Montreal dealt its top prospect, defenceman Mikhail Sergachev, for him.

Drouin, coming off a 53-point performance in his second full NHL season, signed a six-year deal with the Habs worth $33 million US the day of the trade.


Where does rookie Thomas Chabot fit on the blue-line?

The Canadian Hockey League defenceman of the year made a strong impression in Monday's pre-season opener, earning an assist and plus-3 rating against Toronto. The 20-year-old Chabot, the first rearguard to be named MVP at the world juniors, could break camp should all-star Erik Karlsson hasn't fully recovered from foot surgery.

The 2015 first-round pick scored 10 goals and 35 points in 34 games last season for Saint John and added 23 points in 18 contests in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League playoffs.


Who will be the team's Nos. 5 & 6 defencemen?

It isn't a sure thing that 2016 playoff regulars Connor Carrick and Martin Marincin will suit up for the Oct. 4 season opener at Winnipeg. In fact, talk of change on the back end of the Toronto defence seems to be getting louder.

Andreas Borgman and Calle Rosen, whom head coach Mike Babcock singled out for his strong play in Monday's pre-season opener, are in the mix for playing time along with Travis Dermott, the team's home-grown blue-line prospect. Borgman and Rosen played in the elite Swedish Hockey League last season, with Borgman grabbing top rookie honours and Rosen collecting 19 points in 41 games.


Who starts in goal?

While Jacob Markstrom's three-year extension begins this season and the Canucks had been grooming him the last two seasons to take over the No. 1 role, new head coach Travis Green has left the job open, with Anders Nilsson also in camp.

Markstrom's play slipped a little last season when he posted a 10-11-3 record with a 2.63 goals-against average and .910 save percentage, nearly identical totals to Nilsson (2.67, .923) in 26 games for Buffalo. Drafted by the New York Islanders in 2009, the six-foot-six Swede is trying to latch on with his fifth NHL team.


Who will play with Patrik Laine?

Does it matter? Isn't he a lock for 50 goals anyway? Perhaps. The Finnish-born Laine opened camp on the left side with No. 1 centre Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler. After the Jets drafted Laine second overall last summer, he used his excellent puck skills to deliver on the high expectations by finishing second in rookie scoring with 64 points on 36 goals and 28 assists.

Laine, 19, might also find himself partnered with second-line centre Bryan Little, a solid playmaker and consistent performer who showed good on-ice chemistry with Laine last season and recently signed a six-year contract extension.