The NHL schedule for the 2016-2017 season has been out for about a month now, since its release in late June. In my mind, the decision on the NHL's part to choose that time frame to release the next season's schedule is somewhat of a curious one. By releasing it just before the draft and free agency take place, they're kind of ensuring that it kind of gets drowned out by the news that comes out pretty much immediately after. Now that all of those other things have calmed down, I'd like to take a look at some of the games that I find to be the most intriguing on the schedule.
After its release, Brian did a good job of delving into it and breaking down the particular peculiarities of Carolina's slate of 82 games, including what certain tough road trips look like, who the 'Canes travel to play last in the Eastern conference, and other noteworthy tidbits. This piece will serve more to focus on compelling individual games
So without further ado, here are the five games that I'm making sure to circle on my calendar and my explanations for why you should be too.
1. Opening Night: Hurricanes @ Jets, October 13th
I know, I know. This one is a given. I mean, it's opening night, right? This is the one we're all already waiting for, and we will be for the next three or so months. The Jets aren't a playoff team either, but i really think there's more than meets the eye with this one.
If all goes well with health, this game will mark the NHL debuts of Carolina's Sebastian Aho and Winnipeg's Patrik Laine. The two Finnish phenoms were linemates, along with Edmonton's Jesse Puljujarvi, for the gold medal winning squad that Finland assembled for the previous U20 World Junior Championships.
I don't need to rehash Aho's credentials to you. We all know how great of a prospect he is, and we're rightly very excited for him to get his NHL career underway.
Laine is an incredible prospect in his own right. Had it not been for Auston Matthews's presence in this year's draft class, Laine wouldn't have looked one bit out of place being a first overall pick. We should consider ourselves lucky to have a chance to see what will most likely be the first game he ever plays in the NHL. Granted, there are things that could cause this to go awry. For instance, he could score his first NHL goal, but it's not like the Hurricanes have a penchant for allowing players to earn that milestone against them, right?
2. Devils @ Hurricanes, November 6th
At the moment, there's a clear divide in the Metropolitan division between rebuilding teams and teams that are trying to contend. The former group obviously includes the Hurricanes, but the Flyers (yes they are a rebuilding team even though they sneaked into the playoffs last year), Blue Jackets, and these Devils also fall into that category. Backstopped by elite goaltender Cory Schneider, they've assembled an impressive young core that includes players like Adam Henrique, Damon Severson, Jon Merrill, Pavel Zacha, Joseph Blandisi, and now former first overall pick Taylor Hall.
It's widely regarded in the hockey world that the 'Canes and the Flyers are doing the best job of rebuilding among these four teams, but for my money, the acquisition of Hall from the Oilers for Adam Larsson puts the Devils right there in that conversation.
With some of the teams that fall more into the "contending" category like the New York Rangers and New York Islanders looking weaker than they have in the past, I think this is the year that we start to see the division between the four "rebuilding" teams and the four "contending" teams start to fade a little bit.
If we assume that Pittsburgh and Washington are untouchable in the top two spots in the division standings, and that the Atlantic division is as weak as it looks right now, we can guess that the teams that finish third, fourth, and fifth in the Metropolitan division will more likely than not be playoff teams. This first match-up of the season between the two old rivals could go a long way toward setting the tone for which one of them will have the upper hand in claiming one of those playoff spots.
3. Oilers @ Hurricanes, February 3rd
The hockey world spent last season in total awe of Connor McDavid's incredible set of skills. The first overall pick put up 48 points in 45 games played, and the fact that he was good for more than a point per game is a very impressive feat in today's NHL.
The thing about that stat, though, is that he only played 45 games. You'll remember the unfortunate shoulder injury that he suffered early in the season in an incident that took place against the Philadelphia Flyers. That injury cost him almost half of his rookie season, and it was due to that injury that he was not in the lineup for the Oilers when they made their lone visit to Raleigh in November.
With the Hurricanes possessing the last change for this game, could McDavid be seeing a lot of ice time against his fellow 2015 draftee, Noah Hanifin, on this night? One certainly has to wonder about the possibility.
Further, these are two teams on the rise, and while many may see this match-up as two teams who have combined for one playoff appearance since they met in the 2006 Stanley Cup Final, it's not hard to imagine a scenario in which they are both surprise playoff contenders vying for two important points in the middle of the February grind.
4. Hurricanes @ Islanders, March 13th
This tilt in Brooklyn will be the one and only chance that the Hurricanes will have to show the hockey world what they've got in front of a national television audience. That's right, the 'Canes have once again not gotten much of a nod from the executives at NHL on NBC. While that's certainly an understandable decision on their part, it certainly would have been nice to see the team get another chance or two with lots of eyes watching.
With the Islanders likely getting worse this offseason, it's feasible that the improvements that the Hurricanes have made will be enough to help them keep pace with an Islanders squad that has made the playoffs in three of the past four seasons, including two straight. If that happens, these teams could easily be jockeying for the lower playoff positions in the Eastern conference at this point in the season.
A game against a division rival with a superstar forward, on the road in New York City, with potential playoff implications, on national television? Count me in.
5. Predators @ Hurricanes, March 18th
After swapping out a declining Shea Weber for P.K. Subban, it's now unquestionable that the Nashville Predators have the best group of defensemen in hockey. Subban is joined by Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, and Mattias Ekholm to form a top four in which every guy could be relied upon to play 25 minutes on a nightly basis.
With the route the Hurricanes have chosen to go about their rebuild, this game will be a very interesting measuring stick for the 'Canes and their young defense. Could watching Nashville's defense play be like looking at what the Hurricanes could boast maybe two or three years down the road? It's a definite possibility.
The Predators have done well for themselves with their philosophy of building around a strong defensive unit and adding forward pieces around it. They've been a pretty consistent playoff customer over the last eight years or so, though they have failed to make it to the Stanley Cup Final. They made the tough decision to move out an extremely promising Seth Jones to bring in a surefire number one center in Ryan Johansen. That type of decision is something the Hurricanes could easily be faced with in the coming years.
The parallels between these two franchises run deep, and I highly recommend all of you who are able to be there for this game go see it unfold. The fireworks from the respective blue lines are sure to be worth the price of admission.