We are less than a month away from another NHL season. I was checking some countdowns today, some said 18 days, some said it was 19 days until opening night. It’s too much math for me and none of the slow ticking countdown websites had a works-cited page so I really don’t know who to trust or exactly how long we have. We’ll just settle with “just short of three weeks” for now. That, right there, is enough to get me excited.
First things first, let’s talk the keys to the Western Conference. It has definitely been revamped far more than the East over the past offseason. With the reigning champion St. Louis Blues coming from the West, the conference shake up speaks for itself when you realize the Blues are only tied for third in the West when it comes to Stanley Cup odds. We will break down what we believe to be the three most important factors to how the Western Conference shakes out.
Colorado Avalanche – Mikko Rantanen
Alright, if you don’t follow the mundane, almost hyperbolic sophistication that comes with offseason contract speak, I will break this down as simple as I can. Mikko Rantanen, a key piece to the Avalanche top line and foreseeable future, is currently a restricted free agent (RFA). Without going into the tough-to-understand jargon, just know that he has to sign by December 1st in order to be eligible for the entire season. That leaves us with a couple options. Another team could very well offer sheet Rantanen, but it’s unlikely that anyone has the money willing to do so (also, offer sheets and the NHL just don’t mingle). Not to mention, we saw that how went with Sebastian Aho and Carolina earlier this summer.
How Many Games for Mikko?
So, that brings us to two more likely situations. The least likely of the two would see Rantanen sitting the entire season out. It doesn’t make sense for the Avalanche to not get a deal done, as it seems like Rantanen is a vital piece to build around. I, personally, would be willing to cut ties with a couple lower level players to make this work, but I’m also not a GM. What do I know… It also doesn’t really make sense for Mikko to not get this deal done. He’s young, he’s coming into his own in this league and in a lot better situation than most young stars find themselves in (see McDavid). That brings us to the third option: he eventually signs with COL.
This whole RFA game is just that, a game. It would best suit both parties to get this done ASAP. We saw William Nylander of the Toronto Maple Leafs hold out the beginning portion of last season, and when his deal was finally done, he was rushed back into the flow and never got his feet under him. He had an overall underwhelming season and the Leafs were gone after one round of the postseason. I will say this, the West goes as Mikko goes in this situation, and that’s why he, alone, is a key to the West. Let’s say he plays a full season; Colorado is an easy top 2 team in the West. If he goes elsewhere in the West, he instantly makes that team better. If he sits out a decent portion of the season, we might see COL chasing another wild card spot.
The Vegas Golden Knights
Vegas has obviously seen a lot of success as far as a two year old program is concerned. This year should be no different; at least it looks that way on paper. An offensive core that includes Mark Stone, Paul Stastny, Max Pacioretty, and Jonathan Marchessault is a unit that any coach would love to have at their disposal. The Knights could still get decent production from William Karlsson and Alex Tuch as well. They certainly aren’t the most talent heavy team in the West, but they do have, arguably, the most well rounded team in the entire league.
One problem that can come with stacking an already successful roster with big names and skill players is losing your identity. This will have to be the biggest intangible that the coaching staff and front office need to keep their eyes on. The very first squad Vegas put on the ice in the National Hockey League carried them to a Stanley Cup Final, with barely any household names outside the crease (not that household names are common in the NHL…). I don’t foresee anyone in the Vegas locker room stirring up trouble or turmoil, but as your Chief to Indian ratio gets closer to 1:1, you must be careful.
Staying On Track in Vegas
There are, of course, two things that will keep Vegas from being their own worst enemy. The first is Marc-Andre Fleury, or “MAF” as I like to refer to him. MAF is the definition of a franchise backbone. He can flash the leather, he can enjoy the game at all times, he plays nice with the media, all while donning the biggest smile west of the Mississippi. The second thing that will keep Vegas from self-destruction is their purpose. They had an electric inaugural season after the entire city got behind them in the wake of a mass shooting. This time, it’s self motivation. It’s the half-screwed, half-breakdown on the penalty kill that will fuel their desire to be better. Either way, the landscape of the West depends on how Vegas attacks year number three.
The Chicago Blackhawks
The Chicago Blackhawks are going to be the definition of a bubble team this year, mark it down. I flip flop on how well I think this team will do almost every hour. Regardless, Chicago will either be the reason a team you thought was going to make the playoffs ends up missing, or they’ll be a disappointment to their oh so loyal fan base. It stands to reason the Blackhawks will be better than last year.
Chicago added Kirby Dach with the third overall pick in this year’s NHL Entry Draft and I believe Dach has a chance to be the most surprising rookie of the season. That’s not to say he will outplay or outperform Jack Hughes (first overall pick) or Kappo Kakko (second overall pick). However, playing along side the phenomenal talent that sits in Chicago will only be beneficial for the young man. He could raise some eyebrows and drop some jaws, keep you eyes on this kid. Chicago also aquired Robin Lehner in the offseason, fresh off a stunning performance last season where he posted a .930 SV% and 2.13 GAA in 43 starts for the New York Islanders. Lehner is sure to make an instant impact in net.
Paper Doesn’t Win Games
The fate of the Blackhawks season, though, lies mostly with the guys you haven’t heard of. Yes, Patrick Kane and Alex DeBrincat are capable of putting up monster individual numbers. But, as last year showed us, that isn’t going to put them in a contender conversation. There has to be a sense of urgency and determination coming from lines two thru four on this offense. They have the talent to make noise in the West, but do they have the poise?