NHL Network Radio’s Mick Kern previews the 2022-2023 NHL Season

NHL Network Radio
TAMPA, FLORIDA - JUNE 26: Gabriel Landeskog #92 of the Colorado Avalanche skates against the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game Six of the 2022 NHL Stanley Cup Final at Amalie Arena on June 26, 2022 in Tampa, Florida.

Will it go ’round in circles?
Will it fly high like a bird up in the sky?
Will it go ’round in circles?
Will it fly high like a bird up in the sky?

When the late, great Billy Preston wasn’t pounding the keys for the likes of the Beatles and the Stones, he was releasing some pretty tasty slabs of music, including this single from early 1973. The lyrics leap to mind when perusing the upcoming 2022-23 regular season schedule for the National Hockey League.

After all we’ve been through, it’s high time to get things going again, and the potential for hockey to hit brand new heights is unlimited.

Knock wood (or even better, a Sherwood), but it looks like smooth sailing ahead for the good ship NHL, the first time we can confidently declare that since the COVID pandemic hit us 36 months ago like a Hilliard Graves hip check, and sent the entire world reeling.

The 2022-23 NHL regular season is set to get underway Friday, October 7th, when the Nashville Predators face the San Jose Sharks at the O2 Arena in Prague, Czech Republic. They will also play a Saturday afternoon game in Prague. Both games are slated to begin just after 2 pm Eastern, 11 am Pacific.

Back home in North America, the NHL regular sked gets going on Tuesday, October 11th, as the Tampa Bay Lightning take their high-flying act to Madison Square Garden to square off against the New York Rangers (7 pm Eastern), followed by the Vegas Golden Knights who face the Kings in Los Angeles (10 pm Eastern/7 Pacific).

So many stories.  So many plotlines.

Let’s start with the Golden Knights. They played more like the Golden Seals last year after enjoying unprecedented success out of the gate as an expansion team. Injuries caught up to them big time and were a major factor in the team missing the Pacific Division playoff cut by 5 points (and the Western wildcard by 3 points).

Can Vegas rebound and make the post-season this time around, especially since they won’t be anchored by top-notch goaltending, at least out of the gate?

The team they face on opening night, the Kings, was the club that finished 5 points ahead of Vegas. Can the young monarchs continue their climb upwards? Will the likes of Quinton Byfield begin to make their mark on the league?

The NHL is blessed with a plethora of exciting, young talent, and many are expected to make more of an imprint on the league in the next eight months.

Try these names on for size – Jamie Drysdale, Tim Stutzle, Trevor Zegras, Mo Seider, Alexis Lafreniere, Cole Caufield, Dawson Mercer, Cale Makar.

Okay, stop. Let’s just look at Makar for a second. 

It’s not fair to include the soon-to-be 24-year-old (October 30th) on this list if you view the list as one of players about to make a sizeable impact on the NHL, as the young D-man has already won a Norris Trophy as top defenceman, Conn Smythe Trophy as top playoff performer, and was a big part of the Avalanche’s third Stanley Cup this past spring. With more trophies to follow, one would imagine.

The point is, it’s a young man’s game. And that won’t change. Adam Fox took home the Norris Trophy in 2021. The Rangers’ rearguard is only 24.

Auston Matthews has become the goal-scoring machine we expected him to be.  The winner of the last two Rocket Richard Trophies just turned 25.

Connor McDavid? Yeah, he’s been around for a while now, but the perennial All-Star is still 25.

Sure, the “old” guys can still bring it.  Alex Ovechkin keeps lighting the lamp, Sidney Crosby keeps doing a whole lot of everything, and Patrick Kane keeps racking up the points.

There’s another storyline; where will the lifelong Blackhawk be when this season concludes? Chicago ended up a sizeable 29 points back of the final Western wildcard slot, and with some major personal changes in the off-season, they appear to be looking more towards 2028 than 2023.

Speaking of young, exciting players, what about Jack Hughes in New Jersey? The young forward put up an impressive 56 points in 49 games and is all set to become one of the next scoring stars in the league.  Will that be enough to push the nascent New Jersey Devils back into the postseason for the first time since 2018? The Devils’ franchise has only made the playoffs on that one occasion since their run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2012.

They’ll be tough in the Eastern Conference. While most expect New Jersey to improve over last season’s 63 points, improvements are also anticipated from the Buffalo Sabres, Detroit Red Wings, Columbus Blue Jackets, and Ottawa Senators. Not to mention the New York Islanders, who took a step backwards last season (thanks to waiting for their new arena to be finished and COVID).

There are only so many points to go around, and only 8 teams in each of the two Conferences qualify for the post-season. Translation: somebody is going to be very, very disappointed. Again.

Most observers have pencilled in Florida, Tampa Bay, and Toronto to make the playoffs in the Atlantic Division. Carolina and the NY Rangers are expected to make the cut in the Metropolitan. It becomes a toss-up at that point.

What do the Pittsburgh Penguins have left in the tank? One more run at a Stanley Cup? Same question for the Washington Capitals (and how close does Alexander Ovechkin get to Wayne Gretzky’s overall goal-scoring mark of 894? Ovie begins the campaign with 780. The mark of 801 is next. That’s Gordie Howe territory).

What to make of the Boston Bruins this season? If the likes of the Blue Jackets, especially with point producer Johnny Gaudreau now on board, are going to advance in the standings, somebody has to lose points. And you can’t play the Canadiens and Flyers all the time.

In the West, the reigning Stanley Cup Champion Colorado Avalanche go in search of a repeat and look to do it after switching up their starting goaltender. If anything, that storyline is one of the intriguing subplots of the entire season. It truly was an off-season of goaltender merry-go-round through the league.

Is Alexander Georgiev ready for prime time in the crease of the Avs? If not, it’ll make for a bumpy ride in a wild Western Conference.

Can the Edmonton Oilers finally get back to the Stanley Cup Final? If they do, then recently signed stopper Jack Campbell is going to have to show consistency his track record is yet to exhibit.

Can the Calgary Flames actually be better after all the forced roster changes, and can goaltender Jacob Markstrom get his game back when it counts the most, the playoffs?

Do the St. Louis Blues have enough left to make another serious run at the Stanley Cup? Will the Minnesota Wild ever do anything of significance in the post-season? Are the Nashville Predators, again, flying under the radar.  Are the Dallas Stars ready for their closeup? And what the heck is going on with the Winnipeg Jets?

So many questions.

With head coach Bruce Boudreau ready to begin his first full campaign behind the Vancouver bench, can the Canucks storm up the standings and qualify for the playoffs after making a spirited run last spring that just fell short?

Who are the Ducks? Who are the Sharks? And you can get good odds at your favourite wagering hole on the Seattle Kraken winning the Stanley Cup before the Vegas Golden Knights do. Not this season, no, but they’ll gladly take your money if you’re willing to lay down some green.

Call it what you want, but gambling is here big time, and the NHL has been wise to embrace it. Can’t fight the sea. On that note, you’ll notice that many teams now sport a corporate sponsor patch on the front of their jerseys/sweaters. Unthinkable not all that long ago, but lost revenue resulting from the COVID hip check had a lot to do with the decision to green-light the move and let’s be honest, it provided a timely excuse to do so. Even if it isn’t your cup of tea, get used to it. May we not eventually resemble European hockey teams or NASCAR.

Every season, with very few exceptions, a head coach (or two, or three, or four, or five) walks the plank.  Who gets to claim that ignoble honour this time around? And who’s on the hot seat?

Wait. Every coach is on the hot seat, and some general managers, too. Unless you’re in Nashville, it seems. That is a glaring exception to the golden rule of running a sports team. The one truism that is true. You are hired to be fired. What have you done for me lately?

Lately, the Tampa Bay Lightning have been the gold standard in the NHL. Two Stanley Cup championships and another Final appearance in the past two years. Not too shabby. But where from here?

The Bolts still boast an impressive lineup, backed by 28-year-old Andrei Vasilevskiy, one of the best goaltenders on the planet. Pick your planet. Any planet. 

Salary cap issues will eventually crush every NHL empire, and the Lightning have found, ahem, creative ways to deal with this inevitability. Tampa are still a legitimate Cup contender, but that window slams shut at some point on everybody, so if they feel they can make another run at the big mug this spring, will they make the moves necessary to shore up an already impressive battle fleet?

The salary cap will have a lot of say about what any team does. Look no further than the Sunshine State.  The Florida Panthers look poised to pounce on their first-ever Stanley Cup, especially after landing 24-year-old forward Matthew Tkachuk from the Calgary Flames. He of the 104 points last season.

Sidenote: All of the players in the NHL top ten in point production last season were under 30. The old men were Gaudreau, Tkachuk, and JT Miller. All performing well at the advanced age of 29.

Back to the Cats. They are expected to easily qualify for the playoffs in the Atlantic Division, but do they finish first, second, or third? Even then, like their division mates, the Toronto Maple Leafs, it’ll all be about the post-season. Last spring, the Panthers looked wobbly in their first round 6-game victory over the Capitals and positively spit the bit at the hands of the sweeping Lightning in round two.

After being the underdogs for the past few seasons, the pressure is now squarely on Florida to deliver a deep playoff run. What constitutes a deep playoff run? At least two series wins, meaning you’re in the Conference Final. One step away from playing for the Stanley Cup.

Speaking of which, the same can be said, year after year after year, for the Maple Leafs. This time it’s gonna be different, the players say. Well, it better be, or one would think a major change in direction will be demanded by this time next year. Which is a difficult maneuver to pull off when the team is top-heavy in stars. One deep playoff run can change all that.

It’s always good to remember the obvious; only one team will win the Stanley Cup this season. So, what constitutes success if you can’t win it all? Depends on expectations that should be based on a realistic reading of a team’s immediate strengths and weaknesses. As previously mentioned, a number of good clubs will miss the playoff cut in both Conferences. No need to extend the playoffs, as the 82-game regular season is more than enough of a qualifying test. It’s a grind, one of the toughest regular seasons in pro sports.

And then the fun of the 2023 Stanley Cup playoffs. All in good time.

And for our 18th time, SiriusXM NHL Network Radio will be with you every step (skate stride) of the way.  Covering all 32 teams, whether they succeed, exceed expectations, or fall miserably short. We’ll bring you the insiders that know the team, the observers that know the game, and the players and management that play the game.

Enjoy the season.