N.H.L. Preview: Five Story Lines to Watch This Season

The N.H.L. season begins Wednesday, when the last two champions — the St. Louis Blues and the Washington Capitals — square off in St. Louis. The most exciting developments of a season are seldom predictable. An expansion team from Las Vegas reached the finals two years ago. St. Louis went from last-place malaise to Stanley Cup glory, winning its first championship after 50-plus years in the league. The Tampa Bay Lightning were a playoff bust after a peerless regular season.

Here are some things to consider heading into a new season:

The off-season saw something of an arms race among the teams in the Metropolitan Division. It began with strokes of fate for the Devils and the Rangers, who finished at the bottom of standings and were awarded the first and second selections in the draft. The Devils chose the American forward Jack Hughes, and the Rangers picked the Finnish forward Kaapo Kakko.

The Rangers then edged out the Islanders and other suitors for the top player in free agency, wing Artemi Panarin, who has amassed 320 points in 322 games. The Rangers also acquired one of the best defensemen on the market, Jacob Trouba, in a trade with Winnipeg.

The Devils added a marquee defenseman of their own, P.K. Subban.They also acquired forwards Wayne Simmonds and Nikita Gusev, a high-scoring Russian from the Kontinental Hockey League.

Elsewhere in the division, the Islanders, coming off a 103-point season, made a change in goal, adding Semyon Varlamov after Robin Lehner, a 2019 Vezina Trophy finalist, left for Chicago. Philadelphia hired the former Rangers coach Alain Vigneault to lead its bench and then paid handsomely for the former Rangers forward Kevin Hayes.

Much of the Columbus roster fled: The Blue Jackets lost Panarin, goalie Sergei Bobrovsky and all four of their trade-deadline acquisitions on last season’s playoff team. Team president John Davidson bolted, too — for the Rangers.

Both Florida franchises figure prominently in the Atlantic Division. The Tampa Bay Lightning left the league in the dust during the regular season, only to be swept out of the first round by Columbus. But the core of the Lightning roster returns, including the league’s reigning most valuable player, right wing Nikita Kucherov; center Steven Stamkos; defenseman Victor Hedman; and Andrei Vasilevskiy, last year’s Vezina Trophy winner as the top goalie.

The Florida Panthers were perhaps the most active team in the off-season. First they hired Joel Quenneville, who guided the Blackhawks to three Stanley Cups and has more wins in N.H.L. history than any coach but Scotty Bowman. Then, on the heels of goalie Roberto Luongo’s retirement, they solidified their situation in net for years to come by signing Bobrovsky and drafting this year’s top prospect at the position, Spencer Knight. The Panthers are coming off a season in which they had three 30-goal scorers for the first time in franchise history, including Aleksander Barkov, who set a team record for points with 96.

Seven of the 31 clubs have new coaches at the helm. In addition to Quenneville in Florida, the most intriguing hires are Dave Tippett in Edmonton and Ralph Krueger in Buffalo.

Tippett, a veteran coach who has led the Stars and the Coyotes, takes over an Edmonton franchise that has struggled to build around its superstar, Connor McDavid. The Oilers also hired Ken Holland, who won three Stanley Cups as the Red Wings’ general manager.

The Sabres put their roster in the hands of Krueger, who has spent much of his career in Europe. He coached the Swiss national hockey team, was the chairman of the soccer club Southampton F.C. and participated in the World Economic Forum.

The N.H.L. made several rule changes in response to controversies in the playoffs.

The coaches’ challenge was expanded to include reviewing pucks played with a high stick, pucks that may have gone out of play, and whether an illegal hand pass led to a goal. In the Western Conference finals, San Jose scored a game-winning goal in overtime after a hand pass that the officials did not see but could not legally review. Earlier in the playoffs, Columbus scored a goal after the puck hit the netting, which is out of play.

Unsuccessful challenges will now result in a penalty — not a lost timeout.

All major penalties, except those for fighting, will be reviewed to see if they should be reduced to a minor penalty. Double-minor penalties can also be reviewed at the officials’ discretion. In Game 7 of the first-round series between Vegas and San Jose, the Golden Knights took issue with a major penalty that led to four San Jose goals and a Sharks victory.

Among the other rules changes this season are:

  • Offensive teams can choose the spot of a face-off after icing infractions and penalties resulting in a power play.

  • Goalies who dislodge the net intentionally during a breakaway will no longer be assessed a minor penalty; instead a goal will be awarded to the opposing team.

  • A skater who loses his helmet during the course of play will be required to go to the bench for either a new helmet or a player substitution.

Two players from the same family could make a run at the Calder Trophy, which goes to the league’s top rookie. Jack Hughes, 18, is leaping from the United States national team development program to the Devils and bringing the same level of coordination and skill seen in American predecessors like Johnny Gaudreau and Patrick Kane. Hughes’s older brother, Quinn, a 19-year-old defenseman, was drafted at No. 7 in 2018 by the Vancouver Canucks. After two seasons at the University of Michigan, he made his professional debut last season with three points in five games.

Two other rookies could overshadow the Hughes brothers. Colorado defenseman Cale Makar, taken at No. 4 in 2017, won the Hobey Baker Award as the top player in men’s college hockey. After his time with the University of Massachusetts ended last spring, he joined the Avalanche’s playoff run. Makar, 20, who also won a world junior championship with Canada in 2018, has been described as a potential franchise player with fluid, effortless skating and the ability to make the right play whether it be rudimentary or complex.

Kakko, 18, of the Rangers may be the most prepared prospect out of the 2019 draftees, arriving with a well-developed frame, preternatural hockey sense, refined technique and the strength to battle in corners as well in front of the net. He has the seasoning of a superb season in Finland’s top pro league as well as gold medals from the under-18 world championships, under-20 world championships and the men’s world championships.