Each week throughout the regular season, NHL Network and ESPN analyst Kevin Weekes will be offering his pluses and minuses for teams playing in key games.
The NHL season is back and begins with a great doubleheader. First, the Pittsburgh Penguins visit the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday (7:30 p.m. ET; ESPN), and then the expansion Seattle Kraken play their first regular-season game, at the Vegas Golden Knights (10 p.m. ET; ESPN).
Here’s my breakdown of the games.
Pluses: The Penguins got a big boost this weekend when captain Sidney Crosby skated for the first time since offseason wrist surgery. The center is expected to miss the first week of the regular season but could be back soon after. We know how different a team the Penguins are when he is in the lineup and when he isn’t.
Although goalie Tristian Jarry struggled in the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season (3.18 goals-against average, .888 save percentage), I expect him to play like he did in the regular season (25-9-3, 2.75 GAA, .909 save percentage). He along with Casey DeSmith should again form one of the better goaltending teams in the NHL, with either capable of grabbing hold of the job and running with it.
Minuses: In addition to Crosby, Evgeni Malkin (knee surgery) will be out for at least two months. That likely means Jeff Carter will be the first-line center to start the season and someone will need to step up in that role on the second line. We know Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust always contribute offensively, but others will need to as well.
The Penguins will need to stay out of the penalty box as much as possible. They ranked 27th in the NHL on the penalty kill last season (77.4 percent) but had Crosby and Malkin to bail them out offensively. Pittsburgh has made the playoffs for 15 straight seasons but has not advanced past the second round since winning their second straight Stanley Cup in 2017, so you can bet the players want to prove they still can contend for the Cup.
Tampa Bay Lightning
Pluses: The biggest positive for the Lightning is that they are healthy. Victor Hedman had offseason knee surgery, Steven Stamkos missed part of last season with a lower-body injury, and Nikita Kucherov didn’t play the entire regular season after hip surgery. All played every game in the playoffs and helped Tampa win the Cup for the second straight season.
In addition to those three, having Brayden Point, who has led the NHL in goals each of the past two postseasons (14 in 23 games each year), and Andrei Vasilevskiy, who is the best goalie in the world, helps too. The Lightning also made some key additions this offseason, signing forwards Corey Perry and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, and goalie Brian Elliott.
Minuses: There aren’t that many negatives, but they did lose their entire third line this offseason. Blake Coleman signed with the Calgary Flames, Barclay Goodrow was traded to the New York Rangers, and Yanni Gourde was selected by the Kraken in the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft. Those are three hard players to replace.
The Lightning have played more games than any other team over the past two seasons. That includes 48 playoff games, seven more than the next-closest team, the New York Islanders. We’ve yet to see it, but with this season expected to be a full 82-game schedule for the first time since 2018-19, the fatigue could show after the two grueling Cup runs.
Pluses: The Kraken went out and made a splash in free agency, and it was capped with signing Philipp Grubauer to a six-year contract. He was a finalist last season for the Vezina Trophy, awarded to the best goalie in the NHL, and had a great preseason. Grubauer allowed five goals in four preseason games (1.76 GAA, .932 save percentage), including a 38-save shutout in his last appearance, a 4-0 win against the Vancouver Canucks on Oct. 6. He and backup Chris Driedger will give the Kraken a chance to win every game.
The Kraken also signed forwards Jaden Schwartz, Alex Wennberg and Marcus Johansson to go along with veteran leaders Mark Giordano, Jordan Eberle and Adam Larsson, who were selected in the expansion draft. And then there’s Gourde, a two-time Stanley Cup winner with Tampa Bay.
Minuses: As an expansion team, they only had training camp and a handful of preseason games to get acquainted on and off the ice, and it could take a while before lines and defense pairs settle in. And they open the season with five road games in eight days before their home opener against the Vancouver Canucks at Climate Pledge Arena on Oct. 23.
Vegas Golden Knights
Pluses: Since their inaugural season in 2017-18, they’ve made the playoffs each season and advanced to at least the third round three times. That success has made anything short of a championship unacceptable. With Marc-Andre Fleury traded to the Chicago Blackhawks, Robin Lehner will finally get his chance to be a true No. 1 goalie. He has earned it and he should excel in the role.
Forwards Max Pacioretty and Mark Stone bring it every shift, and you always know what you’re going to get from them. Defensemen Alex Pietrangelo is healthy, and Alec Martinez was re-signed to a three-year contract.
Minuses: In addition to Fleury, Ryan Reaves is no longer with Vegas, traded to the New York Rangers on July 29. That’s two faces of the franchise no longer there. Reaves will be replaced by Keegan Kolesar on the fourth line, but it will be hard to replicate everything he brought to the lineup.
The Golden Knights acquired forwards Nolan Patrick and Brett Howden in trades, but it is still without a true No. 1 center. Chandler Stephenson will play there to start the season, but that is one spot they could stand to upgrade. Plus, with all their talent, it’s hard to understand why they ranked 22nd in the NHL on the power play last season (17.8 percent).