The biggest question facing every Canadian NHL team
It’s about that time again as National Hockey League training camps begin this week, with puck drop for the regular season less than a month away.
Here is a look at one storyline for every Canadian team from reporters in each of those markets.
Toronto Maple Leafs
One of the biggest tasks awaiting new Maple Leafs general manager Brad Treliving over the summer was getting Auston Matthews and William Nylander signed to new deals. Matthews and the Leafs reached a four-year extension last month, but things haven’t gone quite as fast with Nylander.
The 27-year-old winger is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent next summer and is coming off a career-year with 40 goals and 87 points. Treliving said earlier this month that getting Nylander signed is “next on the list” and TSN’s Mark Masters reports the Leafs want to get it done fast.
“The team wants to extend him sooner rather than later. The player though isn’t in a rush. It will be intriguing to hear how Nylander and the team frame things on Wednesday,” Masters said.
The Oilers are coming off back-to-back 100-point seasons for the first time since their dynasty era in the 1980s. But Edmonton hasn’t made it over the hump, losing in the Western Conference Final in 2022 and bowing out in the second round last season.
With Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl in the prime of their careers, the sky-high expectations won’t subside this year. As TSN’s Ryan Rishaug notes, the battle in the crease is one of the biggest things to watch heading into 2023-24.
“The No.1 storyline coming into Oiler camp? Who is going to win the starting job in net on opening night? Now, most might just assume it’s going to be Stuart Skinner, but Jack Campbell was signed for a reason. He struggled last season, but if he comes into camp confident and playing well, I think the Oilers would love nothing more than a jump ball scenario between Skinner and Campbell to take the bulk of the work this season. I believe that even includes opening night,” Rishaug said.
The Canucks missed the playoffs for the third year in a row last season and head into their first training camp under head coach Rick Tocchet.
The Canucks ranked in the bottom third in goals allowed per game last season and TSN’s Farhan Lalji believes how they deploy their defensive units could be one of the biggest things to watch this coming season.
“Let’s start on defence and what their pairings will look like. It has been suggested the club will try to load up with Quinn Hughes and Filip Hronek playing on the top pair together, but it might make more sense to split those two up and really have each of them solidify the top four. Ian Cole and Carson Soucy were acquired by this club in free agency and there are some that believe Cole could give Hughes that stay-at-home presence that allows him to play a little more freely.
“Hronek may be looking for the same thing and a player like Soucy, who typically was a third-pair defenceman, but did have some favourable underlying metrics when he did play top-four minutes from time to time. If the Canucks are able to do that, will they be able to transition Tyler Myers into a third-pair role and really complete their overall six-man blueline,” Lalji said.
Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield combined for over 100 points last season and appear to be solid building blocks for the Canadiens as they move forward on the path back to contention.
As TSN’s Kenzie Lalonde reports, who might play alongside the duo this season is one of the most important storylines heading into training camp.
“It was this time last year we had the same conversation. Who will play on the wing with Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield? And we saw many variations. That Included Juraj Slafkovsky, even Rafael Harvey-Pinard, but Kirby Dach really brought the most production to that top line. Now, with Christian Dvorak continuing to rehab his knee, I could see Dach moving to a centering role. So, maybe that opens the door for Alex Newhook, who brings in elite level passing ability and skating. Martin St. Louis did make mention that he’s been tentative to watch game tape on Newhook because he wants to see this elite star within his own system,” Lalonde said.
There’s renewed optimism and energy around the Flames this year with new general manager Craig Conroy and first-time NHL head coach Ryan Huska.
But as Salim Valji notes, the team’s success may depend on the future of forward Elias Lindholm, who is heading into the final year of his deal. While he’s said he’s open to remaining in Calgary, he also said he isn’t afraid to test the free-agent waters if things don’t progress how he wants. And considering how recent off-seasons have gone with star players, that might not be what fans in Calgary want to hear.
Sorting out Lindholm’s situation is at the top of the Flames’ list, according to Valji.
“Right now, Elias Lindholm is not signed to a contract extension and the Flames have made it clear they want to avoid another Johnny Gaudreau-type situation and may look to deal their No. 1 centre if they determine that Lindholm won’t re-sign in Calgary,” Valji said.
The Senators have been in a lengthy rebuild since coming within one win of the Stanley Cup Final in 2017. But after a big step forward last season, fans in Ottawa are starved to see their team take the next step.
According to Claire Hanna, there remains one big item of unfinished business ahead of training camp: getting restricted free-agent forward Shane Pinto signed.
“Pinto will almost certainly play in the middle of the third line and provide much needed depth, especially with questions surrounding the health of centre Josh Norris, who had shoulder surgery in the middle of last year’s season. Pinto had 20 goals last year, good for sixth among Senators, but the problem with re-signing him is the Senators currently have less than $900,000 worth of cap space. So, if they want to re-sign him, they need to free up some space first,” Hanna said.
Connor Hellebuyck and Mark Scheifele have each been Jets for the better part of the past decade. In Scheifele’s case, he’s played with the franchise every season since they moved to Winnipeg from Atlanta in 2011.
Both players are scheduled to become free agents after the 2023-24 season and questions have lingered around their futures with the franchise.
As TSN’s John Lu notes, general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff did his best to shut down the immediate questions surrounding their two stars.
“Two weeks in advance of training camp, Kevin Cheveldayoff clarified what would have been the focal point of the Jets preseason preparation – the futures of Mark Scheifele and Connor Hellebuyck. Both remain Jets for the foreseeable future after the Winnipeg GM said he’s not looking to trade either player right now. Thereby sending a message that is loud and clear, that the team is prioritizing winning with both their No. 1 centre and franchise goalie still in the fold, which is much to the relief of their teammates who heard speculation all summer about what might happen to the two cornerstone pieces both heading into the final year of their respective contracts,” Lu said.