Tuesday, September 28, 2021

22 of my most intriguing NHL names to watch this season

Training camp is here, everyone is in the best shape of their lives, reporters are tweeting practice lines and you’re already sick of exhibition games. Real NHL hockey is almost back. Let’s build out our annual all-intrigue team.

We tried this last year, back when we were headed into a season unlike any other. This year should be closer to normal, with a full 82 games, the usual divisions, and mostly full buildings. In theory, that return to normalcy means we can shift the focus back onto the ice, and draw our intrigue from the league’s players and personalities rather than the circumstances they’re performing under.

We’ll see if it works out that way. But for today, I’m going to lay out my roster of the most intriguing names I’m looking forward to watching as the season unfolds. There’s no firm criteria beyond that, and this isn’t meant to be a list of the biggest stars or the best players. It’s just 22 guys plus some honorable mentions, with a limit of one name per team, that I’m especially interested to keep an eye on this year, for various reasons.

Some of these picks will be obvious, while others might be surprises. As always, we’ll build from the net out. Goalies are easy to predict, right?


Carter Hart, Flyers

Now what?

That’s the question with Hart, who went into last season looking like a guy who’d rack up an armful of Vezinas before he was done, and now isn’t a sure thing to even be an above-average starter. That’s what one bad year can do when you’re still only 23, an age where most goalies haven’t even established themselves as NHLers yet. The Flyers are still banking on Hart, and that’s surely the right call. But while one bad year can be a fluke, two can be a pattern, and everyone will be watching to see if the kid can get back to looking like the real deal for a team that expects to make the playoffs. (And with Martin Jones as the backup, there isn’t really a Plan B.)

Robin Lehner, Golden Knights

It’s hard not to like Lehner, if only because he’s one of the few NHL stars who’ll say what’s on his mind. He’s wanted to be an undisputed starter for years, and now he is. His track record says he’ll be more than good enough for the Knights to contend. But if he struggles, after the way the front office stuck a sword in Marc-Andre Fleury’s back, it’s going to raise all kinds of questions.

Honorable mentions: There’s a lot of optimism for the future in Ottawa, but for this year the difference between staying in the playoff race and flirting with dead last might come down to whether Matt Murray is really as bad as he looked for most of the last two years (and what that would mean for a franchise that doesn’t like to carry bad contracts). Meanwhile, Murray’s former team in Pittsburgh needs Tristan Jarry to bounce back after betting one of the few remaining seasons of the Crosby/Malkin era on standing pat in goal.


Seth Jones, Blackhawks

Here’s the thing about the massive extension Jones signed in the summer: It hasn’t even kicked in yet. That won’t happen until next season, which means two things. First, Jones is still carrying a reasonably cap-friendly $5.4 million hit this year. And second, if he struggles in Chicago like he did last year in Columbus, Hawks fans will be fully justified in freaking out over that looming contract. That scenario feels possible. So does a return to Norris form. The Hawks have a huge chunk of their future hopes riding on the answer.

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