Are the Blues for real? Can the Flames, Lightning forget? Key questions for new NHL season

The puck drops Wednesday night and from there the story of another NHL season will be written by the players themselves. Here are some burning questions new CBC hockey writer Vicki Hall has leading up to the opening faceoff.

Which coaches are on the hotseat? How will Phil Kessel do in the desert?

The St. Louis Blues captured the franchise's first Stanley Cup in June. (Associated Press)

The 2019-20 NHL season is upon us and all 31 teams have a clean sheet before them.

The puck drops Wednesday night and from there the story of another season will be written by the players themselves.

Here are some burning questions we have leading up to the opening faceoff:

Can the St. Louis Blues pull off the repeat?

With Gloria as their anthem, the Blues authored a fairytale comeback in the last spring's Stanley Cup playoffs. Sitting in last place in January, with career minor-leaguer Jordan Binnington between the pipes, the Blues clinched a playoff berth on March 29 and went on to hoist Lord Stanley's chalice for the first time in franchise history.

Going back-to-back has become a rarity given the modern-day salary cap and free agency — the 2016-17 Pittsburgh Penguins are the only team to defend their title in the last 21 years. But the Blues believe they can do it with a roster that is mostly intact and includes the addition of puck-moving defenceman Justin Faulk in a trade with the Carolina Hurricanes.

What will become of the first-round flameouts?

It's still difficult to fathom how both the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Calgary Flames failed to advance beyond the first round. After all, Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos and the President's Trophy winners filled the net with 325 goals last season, the highest total of any team in two decades. The Flames, meanwhile, topped the Western Conference and looked poised to go far, led by the steadfast Mark Giordano on defence and Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan up front.

But all that regular-season success meant nothing as Columbus swept Tampa in four, and Colorado dispatched Calgary in five, leaving both teams to wonder what the heck went wrong.

Johnny Gaudreau, centre, and the Calgary Flames will have to forget last spring's first-round playoff loss to Colorado. (THE CANADIAN PRESS)

With the post-mortems complete, restricted free agent Brayden Point is back in Tampa. Master agitator Matthew Tkachuk re-signed after a prolonged negotiation in Calgary. And both teams have the pieces in place to make another run, although they'll ultimately be judged on their performance in April and beyond.

What needs to happen for the Edmonton Oilers to make the playoffs?

If anyone can single-handedly drag his team into the post-season, it's Connor McDavid. But even the top offensive talent in the game needs help along the way, and it's difficult to see the supporting cast providing enough of a push in the NHL's northernmost outpost. Top priority is improving the dismal penalty kill (29th in the league last season at 74.8 per cent) followed by increased production from the bottom six forwards. Then there's goaltending, with 37-year-old Mike Smith pushing the inconsistent Mikko Koskinen. If all the stars align, the playoffs are a possibility in Edmonton, but it's a stretch.

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Who will claim the Calder Trophy?

This crop of rookies is bountiful, and the top-flight youngsters are expected to make an immediate impact this season. The early favourite is swift-skating defenceman Cale Makar, who has an edge after appearing in 10 playoff games for the Colorado Avalanche, collecting six points. In New Jersey, centre Jack Hughes further ignited expectations by scoring twice in the pre-season opener and already appears to have chemistry with Taylor Hall. Not to be overlooked is Jack's older brother Quinn Hughes, who registered three assists last season in a five-game cameo with the Vancouver Canucks. The University of Michigan defenceman appears destined to quarterback the Vancouver power play this season. And then there's winger Kaapo Kakko, who is turning heads with the New York Rangers and could end up playing with free-agent acquisition Artemi Panarin, who had 87 points in 79 games last season to rank 17th overall in scoring.

Cale Makar helped his Colorado Avalanche dispatch his hometown Flames. He enters this season as one of the rookies to watch. (The Associated Press)

Which coach is the first to hit the unemployment line?

In 2017-18, not one coach received a pink slip, the first time since the 1966-67 season that all survived the season. Alas, this was simply a statistical anomaly as last season saw seven coaches fired.

This year, Jeff Blashill could be an early casualty in Detroit, at the helm a rebuilding team under new general manager Steve Yzerman. Paul Maurice is under pressure to push the Winnipeg Jets over whatever obstacle is preventing them from realizing their playoff potential — and he must do it with a decimated blue line, minus the departed Jacob Trouba (to the Rangers) and Tyler Myers (to Vancouver), and the possible retirement of Dustin Byfuglien. In Toronto, Mike Babcock acknowledges the heat is on after three consecutive first-round exits for the talent-laden Maple Leafs.

Also worth considering ...

  • Who will have the dubious honour of finishing in the NHL basement? Early favourites are Ottawa, Anaheim and Detroit.
  • Can Micheal Ferland and J.T. Miller provide the secondary scoring the Vancouver Canucks need to qualify for the playoffs for the first time in four years? The Canucks are certainly on the cusp with a young nucleus featuring Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser, Bo Horvat and the aforementioned Quinn Hughes.
  • Will the Carolina Hurricanes, or as Don Cherry calls them, those "Bunch of Jerks," build on the magic of last season when they reached the Eastern Conference Final for the first time since 2009? It's a definite maybe, given they've added the likes of Jake Gardiner, Ryan Dzingel and Erik Haula.
  • And finally, will Phil Kessel's move west to the desert be enough for the Coyotes to snap a seven-year playoff drought? The Coyotes already had impressive depth,but Clayton Keller led the team in scoring last year with just 47 points (good for 129th in the overall scoring race.) Kessel is coming off the most productive two-year span of his career (92 points followed by 82 points.) Now he's reunited with coach Rick Tocchet, there's every reason to believe the durable Kessel provides the offensive touch the Coyotes need to take the next step.


Vicki Hall

Freelance writer

Vicki has written about sports in Canada for more than 15 years for CBC Sports, Postmedia, the Calgary Herald and the Edmonton Journal. She has covered five Olympic Games, 10 Grey Cup championships and one Stanley Cup Final. In 2015, Vicki won a National Newspaper Award for sports writing and is a member of the Canadian Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee.


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