Each Wednesday throughout the regular season, Kevin Weekes will be offering his pluses and minuses for the teams competing in the “Wednesday Night Hockey” games on NBCSN in his Weekes on the Web blog.
Hockey is finally back, and what better way to celebrate than with a five-game schedule to open the season, including a tripleheader on NBCSN?
First, longtime rivals take the ice when the Pittsburgh Penguins meet the Philadelphia Flyers at Wells Fargo Center (5:30 p.m. ET). Then, the Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning will host the Chicago Blackhawks at Amalie Arena (8 p.m. ET). Finally, the St. Louis Blues visit the Colorado Avalanche at Ball Arena (10:30 p.m. ET).
Here’s my breakdown of the games:
Pluses: First, most of their big guys are healthy, including forwards Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jake Guentzel and defenseman Kris Letang. Second, it’s goalie Tristan Jarry‘s team now after Matt Murray was traded to the Ottawa Senators Oct. 7. Third, Pittsburgh brought in some new faces, including forwards Mark Jankowski, Colton Sceviour and Evan Rodrigues and defensemen Cody Ceci and Mike Matheson. I expect each of them to play a significant role this season.
Minuses: Forward Kasperi Kapanen, expected to play on the top line after he was acquired in a trade with the Toronto Maple Leafs on Aug. 25, won’t play because of quarantine issues; it’s unclear how many games he will miss. Also, forward Patric Hornqvist, traded to the Florida Panthers to acquire Matheson and Sceviour on Sept. 24, is a big net-front presence the Penguins will need to replace.
Pluses: At 22, Carter Hart is already one of the best goalies in the NHL, and he’ll have most of the same case in front of him that finished last season one win from reaching the Eastern Conference Final; they lost to the New York Islanders in seven games in the second round. The returns of forwards Oskar Lindblom and Nolan Patrick should be a big boost. Lindblom was out most of last season after undergoing treatment for Ewing’s sarcoma, a form of bone cancer, before returning in the playoffs; Patrick missed all of last season because of a migraine disorder. And having one of the best coaches in Alain Vigneault also is a plus.
Minuses: There aren’t many negatives with the Flyers right now, but one thing they need to improve is power-play percentage. During the postseason, they ranked 23rd among the 24 teams in the NHL Return to Play Plan at 7.7 percent, scoring on four of 52 opportunities.
Pluses: Forward Patrick Kane continues to produce year in and year out, and I expect more of the same this season. Forward Dominik Kubalik, a finalist for the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year last season, scored 30 goals during the regular season and scored five points (two goals, three assists) in his first playoff game. And young forwards Dylan Strome and Alex DeBrincat, each 23, give Chicago nice scoring depth.
Minuses: The Blackhawks will be without forward Jonathan Toews to start the season and forwards Kirby Dach and Alex Nylander each could be out the entire season. Those are big losses to overcome. For a team that wasn’t great defensively last season (3.06 goals against per game), it may be tough having two mostly inexperienced goalies; Malcolm Subban has made 60 NHL starts and Collin Delia has made 16.
Pluses: The Stanley Cup champions are one of the deepest teams in the NHL. Plus, forward Steven Stamkos is healthy this season, which is huge. Added to an offense with forward Brayden Point, a defense with Conn Smythe Trophy winner Victor Hedman and goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, and it’s not hard to see why they’re one of the favorites to win it again.
Minuses: Forward Nikita Kucherov will not play during the regular season because of hip surgery. Arguably Tampa Bay’s top offensive threat, the loss will be definitely will be felt. As will the departure of defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, who signed a three-year contract with the Anaheim Ducks on Oct. 9. The only other issue the Lightning may have is playing in the Discover Central Division, which includes three teams — the Blackhawks, Dallas Stars and Nashville Predators — Tampa Bay is not used to seeing often during the regular season.
Pluses: The addition of forward Mike Hoffman, who signed to a one-year contract on Monday, should help them in the goal-scoring department. Though the Blues lost defenseman Alex Pietrangelo, who signed a seven-year contract with the Vegas Golden Knights on Oct. 12, defenseman Torey Krug is a great addition. He’s a power-play quarterback and can play in all situations. Forward Ryan O’Reilly was a great choice to replace Pietrangelo as captain and should have another solid season.
Minuses: After winning the Stanley Cup in 2019, St. Louis had a great regular season, finishing with the best record in the Western Conference (42-19-10, .662 points percentage) but was eliminated by the Vancouver Canucks in six games in the first round of the playoffs. I expect the Blues, and goalie Jordan Binnington, who also did not play well in the postseason, to recover. They will miss forward Vladimir Tarasenko, who will be re-evaluated in February after having shoulder surgery; he scored at least 33 goals for five straight seasons from 2014-19.
Pluses: We know how good forward Nathan MacKinnon is; the 2019-20 Hart Trophy finalist’s line, with Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen, is the best in the NHL outside of the Boston Bruins’ top line of David Pastrnak, Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand. But the Avalanche are a deep team that can roll four lines, and are one of the most complete teams in the NHL.
Minuses: They will be without defensemen Erik Johnson and Bowen Byram to start the season, so I’m curious to see who steps up. They do have Cale Makar and Ryan Graves, and also acquired Devon Toews in a trade with the New York Islanders on Oct. 12. Goalies Philipp Grubauer and Pavel Francouz each missed games during the playoffs because of injuries; it will be interesting to see how coach Jared Bednar splits their playing time if each is healthy.