Here is the Sept. 22 edition of the mailbag, where we answer your questions asked using #OvertheBoards.
Way too early Stanley Cup Final matchup? — @johnfiorino97
Colorado Avalanche vs. New York Islanders
The Avalanche have been among the favorites the past three seasons, but they’ve taken their lumps and haven’t been able to advance past the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs in that span. However, losing as they did to the San Jose Sharks in 2019, the Dallas Stars in 2020 and the Vegas Golden Knights last season will help them. Losing the way they have, in seven games to the Sharks and Stars and in six to the Golden Knights, should be their best teacher. The biggest question Colorado has is in goal with Darcy Kuemper replacing Philipp Grubauer, who signed with the Seattle Kraken as an unrestricted free agent July 28. Grubauer was a Vezina Trophy finalist last season, but Kuemper shouldn’t be seen as a downgrade. He is second in goals-against average (2.35) and tied for second in save percentage (.922) among goalies who have played in at least 100 games since 2018-19, and he would have received more accolades had his former team, the Arizona Coyotes, been better around him. Arguably no team has more firepower than the Avalanche with forwards Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen, and defensemen Cale Makar, Samuel Girard and Devon Toews leading the way. It’s their time.
The Islanders have no holes and the same level of hunger as the Avalanche having fallen just short of reaching the Stanley Cup Final the past two seasons. They lost in six games to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the 2020 Eastern Conference Final and in seven to the same team in the 2021 Stanley Cup Semifinals. They’re deep down the middle with Mathew Barzal, Brock Nelson, Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Casey Cizikas, who is arguably the best fourth-line center in the NHL. They’ll have their captain Anders Lee back after he underwent ACL surgery in March. Lee (6-foot-3, 235 pounds) is a massive presence in front of the net and scored 12 goals in 27 games last season. Oliver Wahlstrom, who has a quick release and powerful shot, could make the jump and play right wing on the top line with Barzal and Lee. New York also gained even more experience and depth by signing left wing Zach Parise and defenseman Zdeno Chara, and their goaltending is strong with Semyon Varlamov and Ilya Sorokin. No team plays its system better or more consistently than the Islanders, who are second in goals against per game (2.54) the past two seasons.
Top breakout candidates for the upcoming season? — @theashcity
Jack Hughes, New Jersey Devils: The 20-year-old center scored 31 points (11 goals, 20 assists) in 56 games last season. That could be looked at as a breakout year for Hughes, but that will change this season when he scores north of 70 points. An improved power play with the addition of defenseman Dougie Hamilton will help Hughes and the Devils, who were 28th with the man-advantage last season (14.2 percent).
Dylan Cozens, Buffalo Sabres: The 20-year-old center will likely play a bigger role for the Sabres because of the uncertainty surrounding captain Jack Eichel and the departure of center Sam Reinhart, who was traded to the Florida Panthers on July 24. That opportunity will give Cozens, who scored 13 points (four goals, nine assists) in 41 games last season, a chance to showcase why the Sabres selected him with the No. 7 pick in the 2019 NHL Draft.
Alexis Lafreniere, New York Rangers: Lafreniere, the No. 1 pick in the 2020 NHL Draft, is expected to be a regular in the Rangers’ top six forward group after scoring 21 points (12 goals, nine assists) in 56 games as a rookie last season. He might have to switch to right wing, but the opportunity to play regularly with either Mika Zibanejad or Artemi Panarin should take the 19-year-old to the next level.
Kirby Dach, Chicago Blackhawks: The 20-year-old center was limited to 18 games last season because of a wrist injury, scoring 10 points (two goals, eight assists). Dach has scored 33 points (10 goals, 23 assists) in 82 NHL games, and he could get a chance to play regularly with Patrick Kane and/or Alex DeBrincat this season.
What are the expectations for the Kraken’s inaugural campaign after what the Golden Knights were able to accomplish in Year 1? — @dctsports
The Kraken shouldn’t be judged against what the Golden Knights accomplished in their first season, but that’s going to happen regardless of it being unfair. It’s ridiculous to think that Seattle’s first season won’t be a success unless it reaches the Stanley Cup Final as Vegas did in its first season. However, the Kraken should be expected to compete for a playoff spot in the Pacific Division. Vegas is the clear favorite in the division and the Edmonton Oilers should be considered No. 2, but it’s wide open after that. Outside of Vegas, Seattle has arguably the best combination of defense and goaltending in the division with the tandem of Grubauer and Chris Driedger and a top four that could feature Mark Giordano, Adam Larsson, Jamie Oleksiak and Vince Dunn. The Kraken don’t have a No. 1 center and arguably don’t have a top line, which will make scoring an issue for them, but they should be able to overcome some of that with how they defend. If they can get enough offense, they could be a playoff team. At worst, they’re fighting for a playoff spot and falling just short. They’re not going to be last in the division.
After expanding to 32 teams, what’s the next plateau for the NHL to hit? How does it expand the audience further? — @SimpDogMilionar
The NHL has no plans currently to expand beyond 32 teams. It’s the perfect number when you consider the balance the League has now with eight teams in each division and 16 per conference. The NHL has labor peace with the NHL Players’ Association through at least the 2025-26 season and a new United States’ media rights partnership with ESPN and Turner. Those are all good things. The next plateau for the League will be to continue expanding its reach internationally. NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly discussed the League’s commitment to international growth in this Q&A he did with NHL.com columnist Nicholas J. Cotsonika.
The NHL’s expected participation in the 2022 Beijing Olympics will help its international push. A regular international calendar with exhibition and regular season games overseas, a recurring World Cup of Hockey or other tournaments hosted by the NHL and NHLPA involving the best players in the world, will allow for even greater expansion of the NHL’s reach. That’s how it will expand the audience globally.
Having games on ESPN’s and Turner’s platforms should help boost the League’s audience on the home front. The addition of Seattle as an NHL market will increase viewership throughout the Pacific Northwest while creating a natural rival for the Vancouver Canucks.
How good do the Chicago Blackhawks need to be out of the gate in order for coach Jeremy Colliton to keep his job? — @Kevin_Carew
The pressure is on in Chicago. Adding defenseman Seth Jones and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury to the mix is an indication the Blackhawks weren’t content with a slow rebuild. The Blackhawks have missed the playoffs in two of three seasons under Colliton, but that one season was in 2020, when they were 12th in the Western Conference and defeated the Edmonton Oilers in the Stanley Cup Qualifiers. If that season wasn’t interrupted because of the pandemic, the Blackhawks likely would have missed the playoffs. However, the expected return of center Jonathan Toews, who missed last season with what is being called chronic immune response syndrome, the continued dominance of Kane, the emergence of Dach, and the goal scoring of DeBrincat make the Blackhawks a team to watch going into this season. That puts heat on Colliton’s seat because the expectations are higher.