Skip to main content

Goaltender Carey Price of the Montreal Canadiens looses his stick as he tries to make a save near Jean-Sabastien Dea of the Pittsburgh Penguins during the NHL pre-season game at the Videotron Centre on September 28, 2015 in Quebec City.Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

Ten years ago, the NHL emerged from one of its darkest periods ever, a lockout that killed an entire season, with two fresh new faces on the horizon and a mandate to put some flash and dash back into the game.

Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin lived up to their advance billing – and the league quickly found its way back into the good graces of a disenchanted fan base.

So here we are now, a decade later, with two new generational players entering the league, Connor McDavid in Edmonton and Jack Eichel in Buffalo, creating the same sort of hope and excitement that Crosby and Ovechkin once did.

The NHL doesn't require a redemptive narrative the way it did in 2005-06, but it doesn't hurt to have two young gifted offensive stars enter the league in an era when goals – across the board – are hard to come by.

McDavid and Eichel are joining two of the most improved teams in the league, the Oilers and the Sabres, which will only further enhance the parity that has accompanied the NHL's new world order, one governed by a cap on salaries.

The modern-day NHL usually features one or two hopeless rebuilds at the bottom of the standings and one or two rising squads at the top. In between there is a vast middle, about 25 teams virtually indistinguishable from each other on paper.

Who will win in 2015-16? Who knows? When the league is as tight as it is, so many random factors – injuries, trading-deadline acquisitions – govern the final outcome. Last year's champs, the Chicago Blackhawks, were on the ropes in March when they lost their leading scorer, Patrick Kane, to a broken collarbone. With Kane injured, the Blackhawks used his salary-cap exemption to add a couple of trade-deadline pieces. In the end, Kane was back for the playoffs and it all came together again, as Chicago won its third Stanley Cup in six years.

That's the one development no one predicted – that as close as the regular-season standings are in the salary-cap era, Chicago and the Los Angeles Kings have combined to win five of the past six championships.

Nowadays, getting into the playoffs – as an eighth or sixth seed, which the Kings did in their championship years – is no real impediment to winning it all. If it's your day, your week, your month, it could be your year.

Among the teams with a chance to disrupt the Chicago/Los Angeles axis are last year's finalists, the Tampa Bay Lightning, the perennial challengers in Anaheim and perhaps the Washington Capitals, who have improved the supporting cast by adding useful pieces in T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams.

Williams's former team, the Kings, represent an intriguing dark horse too, a team that played 11 playoff series over three years and looked absolutely gassed when last season ended. In theory, an extended summer provided both rest and motivation to a team that hasn't changed its core at all. Goaltender Jonathan Quick, defenceman Drew Doughty and centres Anze Kopitar and Jeff Carter give them the sort of playoff pedigree that makes a difference in the spring.

Crosby's team, the Pittsburgh Penguins, reinforced by Phil Kessel's goal scoring and a return to health of its No. 1 defensive pair, Kris Letang and Olli Maatta, look poised to make a run in the East.

Individually, Crosby finished three points behind the Dallas Stars' Jamie Benn for the scoring title last season, while playing five fewer games. This year's champ should be decided among Crosby, the New York Islanders' John Tavares and the Stars' Tyler Seguin, who finished 10 points behind his linemate Benn, but missed 11 games because of injury.

Ovechkin is a five-time winner of the Rocket Richard Trophy as the NHL's goal-scoring champ; there's no reason to think that's going to change.

Back in his splashy debut season, Ovechkin finished third in overall scoring, with 106 points, while Crosby was sixth with 102. But that was also an era in which the leader, Joe Thornton, scored 125 points, or 37 more than Benn produced a year ago.

If McDavid and Eichel approach 75 in their rookie seasons, that will be seen as smashingly successful. They are part of an excellent rookie class that also includes the Calgary Flames' Sam Bennett, the fourth overall pick in the draft two years ago, but barring injury, one or the other, McDavid or Eichel, should take home the Calder.

Carey Price had a lock on all the key hardware last year because of his exceptional play on behalf of the Montreal Canadiens. He's 28, just approaching his prime, so there's no reason to think that will change. The next great goaltending talent on the horizon could be the Detroit Red Wings' Petr Mrazek, but Mrazek will start the season in a time share with Jimmy Howard.

It is a year that will feature three-on-three overtime, coaching challenges, seven new faces behind NHL benches and an all-star cast of front-office characters in Toronto, all of which will add to the intrigue of another wild chase for the postseason, where anything can happen and usually does.