There is nothing quite like the start of any new sports season. Every team is filled with unbridled optimism that this year is going to be a championship year. For the teams that found success last year, you may reflect on all the awesomeness you displayed last year over your opposition. Players are getting older, more experienced and every team can do an equal amount of trash talking before the puck drops. If your team is not so good, you can throw caution to the wind because, hey! It’s a new season, and anything can happen! The worse your team was the year before, the better the underdog story will be when they win it all! I am pretty sure I have seen that kind of turn around in a Disney movie before, so you know it’s totally possible.
With the start of a new season, also comes with it a previous off-season that came with it change. New coaches, draft picks, trades, free agents, all elements that can drastically alter the future of any franchise. Every off-season teams are duped into a signing that they regret. Overpaid players, coaches that don’t fit the system or draft busts can cripple any promising franchises. In this past off-season there are 10 names that are worth keeping an eye on.
Change is coming to some franchises in the NHL, and these men are the people that are going to help instill that change. Whether they are young prospects, new coaches or grizzled veterans, as these teams are about to find out there are many ways to build a championship team.
Toronto Maple Leaf’s coach Mike Babcock brings over a decade of NHL experience behind the bench. Babcock’s long tenure, previously exclusively with the Red Wings, succeeded in winning over 500 games. Babcock’s trophy case also comes with it a Stanley cup and a gold medal. Babcock’s accolades lead to him landing a landmark, $50 million contract from the Leafs. This contract, easily the largest commanded by an NHL head coach, makes it clear from day 1 just who the boss is in Toronto. The Leafs are hoping his experience will help shape an identity for a Leafs team that has been lacking for too long.
The Chicago Blackhawks have won 3 championships in the last 6 years. Unfortunately, the cost of winning championships can often come at the expense of some of your players. Players that play big, in big games, get big money. That is the case when Brandon Saad got traded from Chicago to the Columbus Blue Jackets. Saad, only 22, brings 3 years of NHL experience to the Blue Jackets. Saad excels not only on the offensive side, but hopes to add strong depth on the defensive end with his two-way play. At only 22, Saad’s best years are in front of him and as a result, it is no shock that the CBJ have signed him to a 6-year extension. The extension is set to earn Saad over $36 million.
Mike Babcock is not the only face that will be different in Toronto. Phil Kessel, the team's former leading goalscorer, is now a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Kessel’s talent is undeniable, his effort in Toronto however, was sometimes questioned. It is hard to blame Phil for being unhappy in playing for an unrelenting media market, with a team that was constantly failing to perform. In Pittsburgh, Kessel will be surrounded by superstars including but not limited to Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and a team that has Stanley Cup aspirations. While he may have escaped the media market of Toronto, expectations may never be higher for Kessel.
Eddie Lack is out of the unrelenting Vancouver media market and into Carolina! A media market that is slightly less fanatic about their hockey team. The lack of Lack in Vancouver may not be surprising if you consider the cycle of goalies the team has gone through in the past few years. The move solidifies Ryan Miller as the goaltender in Vancouver, leaving Jakob Markstrom to backup duties. In Carolina, Lack joins a once talented but aging Cam Ward. Carolina was not good last year, but drafted defensemen Noah Hanifin with their first round pick. If Hanifin and Lack pan out, Carolina could be on an upswing.
Last year Connor McDavid was not in the NHL, but he may have the biggest impact of anyone on the list. It is hard not to consider a rookie when he has the hype that Connor McDavid has. Heralded as the best prospect since Gretzky, McDavid joins an Edmonton squad that seems unable to get over the hump. McDavid is Edmonton’s fourth first overall selection in the draft since 2010. Joining such a young squad of talented players, Edmonton constantly seems poised to be dangerous if only they could get it together.
Todd McLellan was the head coach of the San Jose Sharks since 2008. The Sharks consistently found the playoffs, missing only one year during McLellan’s tenure. That was where the success seemed to falter however, as the Sharks failed to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals during that time. Expectations for Todd lower dramatically as he takes over an awful, but potential filled Edmonton team. Led by perhaps the next great superstar in McDavid, Todd has the chance to build something special in Edmonton. The talent is there, but the team has failed to have any leadership in past seasons.
The NHL’s Western Conference has had two superstar teams the past few years. The Chicago Blackhawks and the Los Angeles Kings. With both teams winning multiple Stanley Cups, they are always a hot contender going into any season. The Kings added size, as they went out and acquired Milan Lucic from the Boston Bruins. Lucic brings with him playoff experience, and a gritty demeanor that looks to toughen an already battle hardened team. Lucic will be asked to do less in Los Angeles, and will hopefully add depth to an already punishing group of forwards.
The Vancouver Canucks were a fantastic team back in 2010. They had a great few years, made an exciting cup run and totally didn’t try and burn down their city…oh wait...But it’s 2015 now and the Canucks are trying to get younger. Acquiring Brandon Sutter is an excellent step. Sutter, a strong two-way defender, comes over from Pittsburgh where he would have struggled to consistently find the ice time. The Canucks have faith in the player being a cornerstone for the future, inking him to a 5-year extension worth $21.875 million.
The Edmonton Oilers know that they have the forwards to score. What they need is a strong back-end to help keep the puck out of the net. They bet big that Sekera can be that defender, signing him to a $33 million deal. Sekera comes with 4 years of experience, scattered between Buffalo, Carolina and Los Angeles. The Kings had enough confidence in the player to trade for him at the trade deadline of last year in exchange for a first round pick. While the Kings failed to reach the Stanley Cup, their confidence in the player should hopefully be an encouraging sign to a fan base that needs a turnaround.
I might be biased because I loved Juice. As a longtime Canuck fan, I knew the highs and lows of Bieksa all too well. That being said, I will never forget him getting the overtime goal that sent us to the Stanley Cup finals. Bieksa was one of the images of the Canucks, and his departure will be felt beyond just what he brings to the ice. Bieksa joins an extremely talented Ducks team that seems on the brink of a Stanley Cup appearance. Bieksa adds veteran leadership along with the really cool nickname of Juice. He will be missed.