If you’re an avid NBA fan on social media, you probably live and die on a single hashtag every night, #LeaguePassAlert. It’s the ultimate Bat Signal for those of us who will spend the next six months looking for a reason to stay up long past our bedtimes to watch games from coast-to-coast. The thing is that our NHL brethren (and sisteren, if that’s a word) possibly have a similar call for Center Ice and their NHL.tv online platform.
And so to eschew traditional previews and predictions, Dillon Friday and Jason Clinkscales are giving you ten #CenterIceAlert (or #CentreIceAlert for our Canadian friends) worthy teams in the NHL’s centennial season. There’s a tendency for these kinds of articles to feature teams brimming with youth, and this is no different. No matter how exciting veteran superstars have been over their own careers, every sports league is starving for new stars, and the NHL has quite a few creepin’ on the come up.
Do yourself a favor and bookmark this link right now while enjoying the Center Ice free preview from your cable operator. Besides, according to media reports, it’s not like you’re watching as much football these days.
One must take advantage of any chance there is to see Jaromir Jagr on the ice for as long as we still have him. At the age of 44, he was a guiding force for a team that surprised the league by winning the Atlantic Division over the previous season’s Eastern Conference champion Tampa Bay Lightning. You figured that he would have given the clichéd veteran presence in the locker room and on the team bus, but with 66 points to lead the Panthers, he continued to prove that he is still an incomparable playmaker over twenty years of changes in the game.
And when an opponent can pay proper tribute to someone like this at an All-Star Game, it’s proof that the old man still got it.
Yet, consider who he was able to line up with. Florida had five 20-goal scorers (including Jagr’s 27) and three others with at least 15. Aleksander Barkov (team-leading 28 goals), Vincent Trocheck (25), Reilly Smith (25) and Jonathan Huberdeau (22) are all 24 years old or younger, but now experienced with a season of being the hunted under their belts. All eyes are on the ’15 Calder Trophy (Rookie of the Year) winner and former No. 1 overall pick Aaron Ekbald, who is expected to truly emerge in a bigger role after two good seasons under his belt. – Jason
Arizona has two tantalizing talents in the desert, Max Domi and Anthony Duclair. In his first season in the NHL, Domi notched 52 points (18 goals and 34 assists) and like his dad – the pugnacious enforcer, Tie – he has shown that he’s not afraid of any form of physicality. Meanwhile, there’s Duclair, who blossomed in his first full season in the league. Traded from the New York Rangers for Keith Yandle, Duclair represented an infusion of youth for the grey-bearded Coyotes as the well-reported chemistry he had with Domi in international play was vital for the franchise’s new direction. Duclair added 20 goals of his own along with 24 assists (as a sometimes fan of the Rangers, few things over the years frustrated me more than the Duclair trade as the team could still use any young scorer it can get).
Domi and Duclair are rightfully viewed as the league’s next dynamic duo, yet that overshadows the strong contributions from defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson, a 20-goal scorer in back-to-back seasons who should see another year-to-year points improvement with more offensive talent taking the scoring burden off of him. Arizona will make the mistakes of any young team on the rise, but they have three guys aged 25 and under who will be lighting the lamp for years to come. – Jason
The Oilers handed the “C” to 2015 No. 1 overall pick Connor McDavid last week, making him, at 19, the youngest captain in NHL history. It will be interesting to watch how soon the league as a whole follows suit. After a sterling performance in a brief World Cup of Hockey appearance, McDavid is a consensus top-10 talent in the game. The question is, how high on the list does he rank? Top-5? Top-3? Is he the best?
Perhaps it was for the better that McDavid only appeared in 45 games a season ago. Despite his 48 points, there was still a feeling so we only saw a glimpse of the wunderkind. We could taper expectations. Of course, he did produce a number of highlights in his limited action.
McDavid possesses a rare quality among hockey players. Given the nuances of the game and the low scoring, a lot of the times it takes a trained eye to recognize the best players. Not so with McDavid. He’s just…faster than everyone else—a faster skater, thinker, stickhandler, shooter. He makes Edmonton, a team that has gone 10 years without a playoff berth, a must-watch team.
But it’s not just McDavid. Leon Draisaitl, 20, was one of the breakout stars of the World Cup. He plays a game reminiscent of Team Europe teammate Anze Kopitar. Darnell Nurse is an up-and-coming defensemen. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, just 23, seems like he’s been around forever. The Oilers have always been young. Now they might be good, too. -Dillon
Toronto Maple Leafs
The Leafs went all in on a long-needed rebuild of the organization from top to just about bottom last year with the introduction of a new team president (Brendan Shanahan), general manager (Lou Lamoriello) and head coach (Mike Babcock). Yet, they needed last year to be the absolute bottom in the hopes of finding the centerpiece great clubs are built around, one that didn’t need the coaxing of a big free agent contract. And so not too dissimilar to the Philadelphia 76ers in recent seasons, Toronto was hoping that it could restock themselves through the draft, and the ‘trust in the process’ (combined with an incredible stroke of luck) netted last June’s top overall pick, Auston Matthews.
This complete reformatting of the franchise will make the Leafs the NHL’s youngest team, one that will have to deal with all of the hackneyed narratives of tarnished teams in big media markets for the next few years. Yet, this is also a chance to get in on the ground floor of a franchise finally righting itself. William Nylander showed promise after being called up late last season, but there’s also some excitement around Zach Hyman, Mitch Marner and Connor Brown. Yet, our attention will be affixed towards Matthews. Does he sprint out of the gates like top picks in recent years like the aforementioned McDavid and Nathan MacKinnon, or does he find his own rhythm as expected to be the case for the other youngsters on the team? – Jason
You could be somewhat forgiven if you forgot that the Stars were the best team in the Western Conference last season as they couldn’t get past St. Louis in the second round in the playoffs. Yet, they shot out a rocket a year ago because the top line duo of Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn are as close to unstoppable as you can get in the NHL. Along with Jason Spezza, the trio accounted for 107 of the Stars’ league leading 267 goals and 118 assists. Benn, in particular, was outstanding on power plays, tied for second with Chicago’s Patrick Kane with 17 goals on the advantage (Washington’s Alexander Ovechkin led with 19) and 13 assists.
What adds to the #CenterIceAlert status is their not-very-good defense. At even strength, Dallas nearly gave back all of their offense, scoring 100 goals on 5-on-5, but allowing 98. It’s a mix of adventurous goaltending and, to borrow from New York Knicks legendary player and analyst Walt “Clyde” Frazier, ‘matador D’ from the skaters. It’s the kind of stuff that makes up for scoring binges from both teams in a given game, although Dallas tends to have a little more offensive skill than most, especially on power plays. If you like games where there’s a chance for some third-period or overtime chaos as the clip above shows, mark the Stars as one of your Center Ice favorites. -Jason
It is an utter crime that NBC will broadcast just two Preds games nationally in 2016-17. The first comes this Friday against the Blackhawks (NBC can’t do anything without Chicago, you know), the second on April 6 against the Stars. That means fans who don’t shell out the money for NHL.TV or Center Ice nor risk the computer viruses that come with the low-low options will go out six months without seeing Nashville on their screens. That’s entirely too long.
With Ryan Ellis and Roman Josi joining the rush from the blue line and a coach in Peter Laviolette who encouraged an up-tempo style of play, the Predators became the most exciting team of the 2016 playoffs. Then they added PK Subban in the offseason, a superstar that should drive hockey’s popularity in the South.
Not that the sport needs much help in Tennessee. Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena has one of the best atmospheres in hockey. It’s no wonder those hotel rates are so high. –Dillon
It’s a surprise that the overly sensitive, please-like-my-sport hockey fans haven’t flooded the internet with Johnny Hockey vs Johnny Football memes (maybe they have; I don’t want to look). But there is something to be said about the comparison. Johnny Hockey née Gaudreau has become everything that Johnny Manziel was supposed to in terms of production. Both were undersized college superstars—Gaudreau won the Hobey Baker award, essentially hockey’s Heisman Trophy—whose outrageous numbers suggested they would succeed at the next level. Only Gaudreau lived up to the hype with 143 points in his first 160 games, including 78 in 2015-16.
Armed with a new $40.5-million contract, the diminutive winger will usher in a new era of Flames hockey alongside fellow youngsters Sean Monahan (63 points last season) and Sam Bennett (18 goals as a rookie). Consider the Battle of Alberta reignited. –Dillon
St. Louis Blues
With apologies to Matt Whitener, one of these days the long-suffering Blues will win the Stanley Cup. It may even happen this year. For now, St. Louis is a burgeoning hockey market thirsty for a championship; five St. Louisans were drafted in the first round of this year’s NHL Draft, a sign of the sport’s impact in the city. Now that the Rams vacated Missouri, the Blues only battle the Cardinals for relevancy.
Expect their footprint to increase given that the team has something for every hockey fan. Physicality? You might like 6-6 defensemen Colton Parayko. Speed? There’s 20-year-old burner Robby Fabbri. Cerebral play? New captain Alex Pietrangelo is a perennial Norris Trophy candidate on the blue line. Highlight-reel goals? No one, not even his countryman Alex Ovechkin, has scored more the last few seasons than Vladimir Tarasenko.
St. Louis may make Tony X’s out of all of us. –Dillon
The Blackhawks don’t just play the most entertaining hockey in the NHL, they invite their opponents to join them. That’s why the Central Division, with five playoff teams a season ago (four made this list), is the toughest, fastest in the sport. Anyone who watched Chicago-St. Louis last spring should concur.
So even if NBC and the league itself overdoes it with the Blackhawks (can’t have an outdoor game without the Hawks!), Jonathan Toews and company do show out for the fans. In Toews and Marian Hossa, Chicago has two of the best two-way forwards of the last 30 years. The Hawks balance that 200-foot game with Patrick Kane and Artemi Panarin, who form the top offensive duo in the game. Then there’s Duncan Kieth, who remains the standard on the blue line.
You can catch Chicago 21 times on national television, which constitutes more than a quarter of its season. That shouldn’t stop you from finding the Hawks on the non-NBC nights. As the model franchise, each game they play matters. –Dillon
Well, for starters, why not add the defending Stanley Cup champions to this list? Being the champs should be well enough to make worth viewing any night, despite their typically strong presence on national broadcast windows. They’ll be on NBC and NBC Sports Network 15 times this year, despite Chicago having more appearances as Dillon mentioned.
They won’t have Sidney Crosby for the foreseeable future thanks to a concussion sustained in practice last week – western Pennsylvania understandably shudders – but this is still an insanely talented team. Pittsburgh was third in goals scored, but sixth in goals allowed, which was a testament to not only roster depth, but the ability of Mike Sullivan, whom replaced coach Mike Johnston mid-season, to find the right tune with a team that stumbled off the blocks to start the year.
Yet, the Penguins are always worth the #CenterIceAlert because people love to rain on a goalie’s parade. There had always been “is Joe Flacco elite?”-like aura around Marc-Andre Fleury, but he was stellar a season ago until an injury propelled Matt Murray into the starting role. Murray himself was terrific in steed of Fleury, but will be mending a broken hand to start the Pens’ Cup defense. Few things that get eyeballs in hockey like a goalie controversy on a good team, so if Fleury doesn’t hold things down this time around, plenty of people will want to see Pittsburgh either implode or perhaps rise above it. -Jason
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