The wait is over. Training camps throughout the NHL open Thursday and Friday and with that, all 31 teams have their own unique storylines and position battles that will play out over the next three weeks until the start of the 2017-18 regular season.
Let's take a look at the most intriguing training camp topic for each team in the league.
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Not much changed for the Ducks this past off-season with most of the roster returning after a Western Conference Final appearance last spring. The one exception is an intriguing one that bears watching in training camp and on into the regular season.
The Ducks signed veteran Ryan Miller to replace Jonathan Bernier as John Gibson's back up in goal. Though 37-years-old, this is the first time Miller enters a season as the No. 2 goalie since his 2002-03 rookie season. How he handles his new role will be interesting to watch, as will how much he helps Gibson. And how much -- if at all -- head coach Randy Carlyle allows the vet to push the 24-year-old Gibson for starts is also an intriguing subplot.
After trading long-time goalie Mike Smith to the Flames, Coyotes GM John Chayka went out and acquired Antti Raanta from the Rangers and immediately anointed him the club's new No. 1 netminder. The only thing is, the 28-year-old Raanta has never been a lead goalie in the National Hockey League, instead spending his first four years backing up Corey Crawford in Chicago and Henrik Lundqvist in New York.
Raanta did take a major step forward last season, establishing career highs in games played (30), games started (26), wins (16) and shutouts (4) with the Rangers while Lundqvist struggled to find his game. And as a No. 1 back home in Finland, he did backstop a championship before arriving in the NHL. So, there is plenty of reason to believe Raanta can handle this opportunity.
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Yet a strong, confidence-building start to camp and the pre-season would go a long way in establishing Raanta as a reliable No. 1 with his new team, and quiet any fears in the desert that he is just a really good back up goalie.
Now that David Pastrnak signed a new contract at the last minute and reports to training camp with the rest of the veterans, a potential negative story line is erased for the Bruins. It can not be overstated how important it was to get the 21-year-old who scored 34 goals last season under contract before the start of camp.
There are no hard feelings between Pastrnak and his teammates, and should not be any between team and player. The focus now, with the core intact, is for coach Bruce Cassidy to get this team ready for another run at the playoffs in what will be a grind in the Eastern Conference.
Keep an eye on Ryan Spooner, in his last year before free agency, and David Backes in training camp. Both need to be better for the B's this season.
There are many storylines here for a Sabres team trying to fight its way back into the Eastern Conference playoffs this season. However, the most intriguing one is who gets the C now that Brian Gionta is no longer on the team?
It would seem that Jack Eichel is a natural fit to be the next Sabres captain --confident, smart, and a budding superstar in the league -- but his supposed involvement in the ousters of coach Dan Bylsma and GM Tim Murray last spring may make this a more difficult decision. That, and the fact that he and the team are still in the midst of negotiating a long-term contract extension, muddy his coronation.
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Ryan O'Reilly is a respected leader in the Sabres locker room, as is veteran Kyle Okposo, and Jason Pominville returns to Buffalo this season after being acquired from the Wild. All three are solid contenders for the vacant captaincy -- should new coach Phil Housley choose to name a new captain during camp as opposed to assigning several players an A.
Last year, Matthew Tkachuk forced his way onto the opening-night roster as an 18-year-old with a very strong training camp, and proceeded to produce 48 points in a solid rookie season. So, is there another youngster prepared to kick open the door and earn a spot in the Flames lineup over the next three weeks of training camp?
Perhaps the most intriguing possibility to do so is Spencer Foo, a 23-year-old winger who signed with the Flames this summer as a college free agent. Foo scored 26 goals and 62 points at Union College last season and stood out in recent prospect tournament play for Calgary. Keep an eye on him and center Mark Jankowski, the 2012 first-rounder who scored 27 goals in the AHL a year ago.
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Foo may have an easier path making the team being a winger, while Jankowski has Sean Monahan, Mikael Backlund, Sam Bennett and Matt Stajan ahead of him on the depth chart at center; but expect both to get a long look in training camp.
Similar to Antti Raanta and the Coyotes, Scott Darling arrives at training camp following an off-season trade from Chicago and has already been anointed the Hurricanes' No. 1 goalie despite never having held that title before in the NHL.
The 28-year-old Darling, a three-year backup to Corey Crawford with the Blackhawks, does own a Stanley Cup ring and did play some important games for the 'Hawks, but, like Raanta, there's nothing like actually being The Man if you haven't been in that role before.
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With Crawford hurt part of last year, Darling did appear in a career-high 32 games, making a career-high 27 starts, and played exceedingly well; and he did step in as a rookie during the 2015 run to the Cup and win three of four starts while Crawford was sidelined. So, there's nothing here to make one believe he will fall flat with this opportunity.
At 35-years-old, what does Patrick Sharp have left in the tank in his return to Chicago following hip surgery? We'll begin to find out during training camp and the pre-season, after the Blackhawks brought the veteran back on a modest $800,000 deal following an eight-goal injury-plagued season with the Stars.
Sharp previously won three Stanley Cups with the Blackhawks, and he did score 20 goals two seasons ago with the Stars, so the plan is for him to start in a top-six role up front. A slow start or weak camp could drop him into a bottom-six spot, though with important power play responsibilities, especially with high-scoring top prospect Alex Debrincat looking to force his way on to the roster.
The Matt Duchene saga hung over the Avs at the end of last season, throughout the summer and is now set to dominate everyone's attention in training camp. Not exactly the positive vibe the team with the worst record in the NHL last season wants to begin a new year with.
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GM Joe Sakic has weighed many offers for the disgruntled Duchene, but not pulled the trigger on a single one. It now seems more than likely that the Avalanche will hold on to Duchene, who slipped to 41 points a year ago, and hope that his value rises with improved numbers and possibly deal him at the trade deadline. Or maybe Sakic never trades Duchene and instead holds on to the 26-year-old, though that seems unlikely with how disconnected Duchene now seems from the organization.
Simply put, this is a mess that will cloud training camp and the regular season until resolved.
As is usual with a John Tortorella-coached team, all eyes are on the head coach as training camp starts for the Blue Jackets. Coming off a 108-point breakout season, and after adding high-scoring Artemi Panarin to the mix this summer, the Blue Jackets are a popular pick to win the Metropolitan Division and take a serious run at the Stanley Cup this season.
How Torts reacts to all of that will be the most interesting, and quite possibly entertaining, aspect of training camp in Columbus.
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Will he angrily dismiss last year as exactly that, a thing of the past with little to no bearing on what happens this season? Will Torts publicly challenge his team after their first-round playoff flop, or choose to protect his younger core and emphasize all the positives instead? With Torts you never quite know what direction he will take publicly, but you know it will be worth finding out -- with the tone set in training camp.
Talk about a makeover. Following a dismal 79-point season -- which was a 30-point drop-off from 2015-16 -- the Stars open camp with a revamped squad and renewed belief they will be a major player again this year in the NHL.
There's a new -- well, old, as in returning after several years away -- head coach in Ken Hitchcock. There's a new No. 1 goalie in Ben Bishop and top-pair defenseman Marc Methot. Alex Radulov and Martin Hanzal were brought in this summer to help Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin and Jason Spezza up front.
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The pieces are in place, now Hitchcock begins putting it all together during training camp, the start to a highly-anticipated season in Dallas, making this one of the most intriguing teams to watch in camp this fall.
While everyone in the Motor City is excited about the Red Wings new digs, Little Caesars Arena, not many feel the same about the team's prospects in 2017-18, making this training camp one of the least anticipated in more than a quarter century. The Red Wings missed the playoffs for the first time since 1989-90 a year ago and with zero notable changes to the roster, there is a somewhat dismal vibe surrounding the club as camp begins.
It doesn't help that the popular 18-goal scorer Andreas Athanasiou is unsigned and threatening to play in the KHL this season nor that the prospect cupboard is barren, even despite Detroit's AHL affiliate winning the Calder Cup last spring.
Seeing how head coach Mike Blashill handles this training camp is very interesting.
In the Oilers' breakout season a year ago -- a 33-point jump to 103 and a second-round playoff appearance -- the club received a relatively quiet 20 goals and 51 points from veteran Jordan Eberle. This summer, looking to create cap space, the Oilers traded Eberle to the Islanders in exchange for disappointing former first-rounder Ryan Strome.
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The 24-year-old Strome totaled just 13 goals and 30 points last season following an eight-goal, 28-point campaign in 2015-16. However, there is belief in Edmonton that a fresh start and the chance to play with higher end talent, will help Strome back to the level he played at in 2014-15 when he scored 17 goals and 50 points.
Strome's return to form is important to the Oilers; and his journey back is a very intriguing part of training camp in Edmonton this fall.
The Panthers took a major step back last season, missing the playoffs after winning the Atlantic Division the year before, but many believe the young club will regain its footing in 2017-18, making them a team to watch, for sure, this season.
What makes their training camp so interesting, though, is how the team comes together following the devastating Hurricane Irma last week. Players, coaches and staff were driven from their homes -- in fact the Panthers flew to Massachusetts last week to avoid the storm and continue workouts -- and most are working in the community to help themselves and others since returning to South Florida. It is an unfortunate situation, yet quite the bonding one, as well, making this an extremely unique training camp for the Panthers.
Los Angeles Kings
John Stevens is in as new head coach and Rob Blake is the new general manager. Unfortunately those are the only key changes the Kings made this past off-season, meaning training camp will not have the same level of optimism as recent years when the Kings were consistently contending for -- and winning-- the Stanley Cup.
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Steven's first camp as bench boss features the same slow, aging players that filled the roster a year ago when L.A. missed the playoffs with 86 points. Strapped by big contracts and up against the salary cap, the Kings lone summer addition of note was Mike Cammalleri, the veteran winger who was a major disappointment with the Devils a year ago.
How Stevens generates optimism might be his biggest challenge in this training camp.
Nino Niederreiter scored 25 goals and totaled 57 points for the Wild last year, his third straight 20-goal campaign. He was rewarded this summer with a brand-new long-term contract. So, what happens next for Niederreiter, whose had his share of slings and arrows aimed his way for the perception he is not always fully engaged as a player of his talent should be?
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The Wild need Niederreiter to be one of their best players, and would like for him to become more of a leader, as well. El Nino can begin answering those questions with a strong, determined training camp or he can elicit fears in Wild management with a less-then-inspired effort.
Last year showed the 25-year-old is on the cusp of hitting his stride as an NHL player. Now, with new contract signed, will he take that next step?
general manager Marc Bergevin said the other day that Jonathan Drouin was acquired this summer to play center. The fact that he last regularly played the position in major junior at Halifax is besides the point, according to the GM and his coach, Claude Julien.
The Canadiens desperately need a top-line pivot, and believe Alex Galchenyuk is better served playing on the wing than down the middle. With Phillip Danault the only other top-six forward able to play center, Drouin is thrust into the role. It's either a huge win for the Habs and Drouin -- French Canadian saves the Canadiens! -- or could be a disaster if the gifted Drouin either wilts under the blinding spotlight of his hometown, or hefty contract extension, or both.
Drouin seems confident and relaxed as camp opens, but all eyes will be on him throughout the pre-season to see if he is up to the challenge.
Stanley Cup Final hangover or driven by falling two victories short of raising Lord Stanley's chalice? That is what everyone wants to know as the Western Conference-champion Predators open training camp.
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This was a team that underachieved much of 2016-17 until catching fire and playing such inspired post-season hockey. They need a better start and regular season this year and will have targets on their back. They also will be without injured defenseman Ryan Ellis for several months; and both team captain Mike Fisher (who retired) and top-six forward James Neal (expansion draft) are no longer on the roster.
How the Preds tackle these challenges will begin to be apparent during training camp, so they are a must-watch this fall.
New Jersey Devils
The Devils landed Nico Hischier with the first overall pick in the draft last June and then signed Hobey Baker Award winner Will Butcher as a college free agent in August. Now will either or both make the opening-night roster?
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On one hand, it makes sense that the moribund Devils, who finished last in the East a year ago, want both youngsters in their lineup to develop at the NHL level and provide hope and excitement for their fans at the same time. However, there have been rumblings that neither Hischier nor Butcher is ready just yet for the best league in the world and are best served plying their trade in junior (Hischier) and the AHL (Butcher).
Training camp will afford Devils brass a three-week opportunity to see how the talented kids keep up with the grown men and if they are indeed NHL-ready.
New York Islanders
John Tavares' contract situation is the one story that dominates all others as the Islanders open training camp. In his final year before reaching UFA status, the loyal Tavares has yet to sign an extension with the club, and as each day passes, it becomes more of a question if his time in New York is coming to a close.
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On one side of the negotiating table is Tavares, the superstar captain of the Isles who has stated repeatedly his desire to remain with the club, though while holding reservations about the team's arena issues and future. On the other side is GM Garth Snow, who must decide if the Islanders can battle through this major distraction, sign Tavares at some point before July 1, or cut bait and get the best deal possible before the trade deadline.
You can bet every day, players, coaches, and staff will be asked for the latest on JT's contract situation. It's going to get old really fast.
New York Rangers
With Derek Stepan traded away to the Coyotes this summer, the Rangers created a major hole that has yet to be filled at the center position. Playing in all game situations, Stepan averaged 18:36 worth of ice-time last year and is a consistent 50-60 point threat. Mike Zibanejad moves up to take over top-center duties and Kevin Hayes slides up from third line to second -- with questions surrounding both as they take on more responsibilities -- but who is the No. 3 center now?
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J.T. Miller is coming off a 22-goal, 56-point season, and was drafted originally as a center; but his best work in the NHL has come on the wing and head coach Alain Vigneault does not trust him down the middle. Veterans David Desharnais and Andrew Desjardins (on a PTO) are more suited to fourth-line duty as this stage of their careers. Second-year pros Boo Nieves and Steven Fogarty seem to be AHL players at this point not NHLers. An intriguing option is Lias Andersson, the 18-year-old Swede selected seventh overall this past June.
The battle to fill this hole down the middle is a vital one for a Rangers team that considers itself a serious contender in the East.
The Atlantic Division is going to be a bear this season, and the Senators know it. So, playing without their best player -- heart and soul captain Erik Karlsson who is recovering from off-season foot/ankle surgery -- for the first month or so of the regular season is a significant obstacle.
That means the team must come together quickly during training camp and not only fill Karlsson's huge on-ice role and minutes played at the defense position, but the players must take on more responsibility at all positions to pick up the overall void and lost leadership. Head coach Guy Boucher is a solid motivator and he'll have to be at his best, right from his first message to the team when camp commences, in order to lay the ground work for success without Karlsson.
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It would behoove new No. 1 goaltender Brian Elliott to have a better start this season than he did a year ago with the Flames or else the Philly diehards will be all over him, immediately lumping him in with other poor goalie choices made by the Flyers over the past three decades.
Elliott rebounded to win 26 games last season, but his .910 save percentage was not impressive. This Flyers team will be in a tooth and nail battle just to remain in the playoff picture this season, so Elliott needs to be real good and really consistent. And it wouldn't hurt if he instilled confidence in the skeptics by having a solid training camp.
People around the league are talking Three-Peat for the Penguins, though the two-time defending Cup champions are well aware that no team has won more than two consecutive Stanley Cups since the Islanders Four-Cup dynasty from 1980-1983. How much Sidney Crosby and Co. are motivated by winning three straight championships will show over the course of the season; but how mentally and physically weary they are after two long runs in a row could show as early as training camp.
There's no question the Penguins have the roster to win it all again, but there are so many other intangibles to winning a Stanley Cup, much less three in succession. Mike Sullivan did a masterful job guiding Pittsburgh through it all a year ago in order to repeat, so let's see what he's got up his sleeve this season.
Two things to watch for in camp: is Kris Letang once again healthy and on top of his game, and how will Matt Murray be affected by not having the security blanket Marc-Andre Fleury's presence provided?
St. Louis Blues
The spotlight is on head coach Mike Yeo, who replaced Ken Hitchcock last February and led the Blues to a 22-8-2 finish and a couple of rounds in the playoffs. Did he provide a breath of fresh air, connect with the players on a different plane, and is Yeo the long-term answer for a Blues team trying to straddle being a serious Cup contender and a fringe playoff team? Or did Yeo, in his second-tour of duty as an NHL coach, catch lightning in a bottle late last season?
There is no questioning this is Yeo's team as he enters his first training camp as bench boss. GM Doug Armstrong handpicked Yeo before the 2016-17 season to be Hitchcock's successor, even before pulling the plug on the veteran coach. So, that should reinforce his confidence and stature with the players, as should the strong finish last season. But what does he have in store this year and how far can he push a Blues team that has not reached the Stanley Cup Final since the 1969-70 season?
San Jose Sharks
Patrick Marleau may be 38 years old, but right up through last season the Sharks could always pencil him in to play all 82 games and score 25-35 goals each season. Now, for the first time in 20 years, the Sharks will not have the incredibly consistent Marleau to lean on any more, with the veteran having signed a free agent deal with the Maple Leafs.
Training camp will be Peter DeBoer's first chance to figure out who replaces Marleau in his top-sox role up front -- paging Melker Karlsson, Tomas Hertl, Joonas Donskoi, Jannik Hansen among others to step up please. Is Swede Marcus Sorensen (17 goals in 43 AHL games last year) ready for an NHL role?
If Mikael Boedker has a good camp, it could lend hope that he is ready for a major bounce-back after dipping to just ten goals and 26 points last season, thus filling some of the void left by Marleau's departure.
There are a slew of story lines in Tampa this fall, but none more important that the health of star center Steven Stamkos who missed most of last season following knee surgery. Stamkos has been skating all summer and will participate fully at the start of camp, the best news possible for a Lightning team missed the playoffs without him last season.
Though there are issues for this team on defense, Stamkos' healthy return is the single most important piece in Tampa Bay's return to power. Remember, they reached the Stanley Cup Final in 2015 and the Eastern Conference Final the following spring. With 321 goals and 582 points in 586 career games, Stamkos, simply put, is in the select company of Crosby, McDavid, Malkin and Kane as elite proven offensive forces in the NHL.
Every day he is healthy and on the ice is a very good one at Lightning training camp this fall.
Well, continuing with the Patrick Marleau theme, where exactly will he play this season? Does he slot in next to Auston Matthews and William Nylander? Or maybe rides shotgun with Nazem Kadri in the middle, or perhaps with Tyler Bozak?
The Maple Leafs are deep up front, skill abounding on the three top lines, so it bears watching to see how Mike Babcock fits all the pieces together. Of course, the tinkering begins in training camp and in the pre-season games, to find the right combinations. And where Marleau fits in is Babcock's most intriguing question to answer.
Of course, this is an extremely nice problem to have.
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Henrik and Daniel Sedin are both in the final year of their respective contracts. The twins turn 37-year-old later this month and it reasons that one of head coach Travis Green's most difficult tasks during his first training camp is how to shift the on-ice focus away from the great Sedins to a younger core headed by Bo Horvat and Markus Granlund.
It won't be easy, considering the Sedins are legends in Vancouver, future Hall of Famers, and extremely classy representatives of the organization both on and off the ice. Green must manage this delicate situation while doing what is right for the franchise, placing more responsibilities on the shoulders of the next generation of Canucks. It is not an enviable spot for a rookie coach; but Green knew this would be a big part of his task when he took the job.
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Vegas Golden Knights
George McPhee loaded up on defenseman this summer and now he and his head coach, Gerard Gallant, have to figure out in training camp how to manage 11 d-men with one-way contracts. Since most teams are done dealing at this point, Vegas may have to keep eight defensemen and hope the others slip through waivers. Unfortunately for Vegas, the only one exempt from waivers is 22-year-old Shea Thedore, exactly the type player the Golden Knights should want on their roster this season.
Heading into camp it appears Jason Garrison, Clayton Stoner, Nate Schmidt and Brayden McNabb should be locks on the opening-night roster. Vegas native Deryk Engelland and Theodore should also be on the roster, all things being equal. That leaves veteran Lucas Sbisa battling Griffin Reinhart, Jon Merrill, Brad Hunt, and Colin Miller for the final spot or two on the opening-night roster.
The two-time defending President's Trophy winners lost five regulars from its lineup this off-season, meaning the Capitals will have a vastly different looking lineup this year. With the departures of defensemen Karl Alzner, Kevin Shattenkirk and Nate Schmidt, along with forwards Marcus Johansson and Justin Williams, competition for roster spots and playing time abounds in this year's training camp.
The Caps hope that 2014 first rounder Jakub Vrana, a slick offensive player, finally is ready for a full-time role up front on the big club. Forwards Travis Boyd and Chandler Stephenson, both of whom played well at AHL Hershey last year, also will get long looks in camp as will veteran free agent pick up Devante Smith-Pelly.
On the back end, 22-year-old Madison Bowey looks ready to grab a full-time role as does Taylor Chorney, who was a depth defensemen in Washington last season. Keep an eye on flashy Swede Christian Djoos during training camp, too. He recorded 58 points in 66 games from the back end at Hershey last season.
Paul Maurice's most important decision in training camp is to find out if Steve Mason or Connor Hellbuyck is the Jets' No. 1 goalie this year. After miserable goalie play undermined the previous season for the high-flying Jets, Maurice and Co. can not let that happen again.
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Mason was signed to a two-year free agent deal after up and down years in Columbus and Philadelphia. He seems to be the favorite heading into training camp, though Hellebuyck is the long-term hope in goal for the franchise. Hellebuyck had a strong rookie season with a 2.34 GAA two years ago, but dipped considerably as the main goaltender last season, finishing with a 2.89 GAA and .907 save percentage in 56 appearances (53 starts).
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