The biggest mysteries of the 2018-19 NHL season

The Washington Capitals' road to the Stanley Cup was one of the more memorable ones in recent memory -- and the celebrations thereafter weren't too shabby either. AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

The NHL is a mysterious place. Look no further than the Stanley Cup Final last season, which featured one team that previously couldn't get past the second round winning the Cup over another team that didn't exist before that season. If you successfully wagered a year ago on the Washington Capitals and the Vegas Golden Knights as the last two teams standing and are currently reading this ... congratulations on having such good Wi-Fi on your private island.

With the 2018-19 season finally here, we decided to investigate 31 mysteries surrounding the NHL's teams, players, coaches and trends. Who thrives? Who fails? Are the Tampa Bay Lightning that good? Are the Ottawa Senators that bad? And so on.

Here are 31 of the biggest mysteries of the 2018-19 season, many of them sufficiently solved (we think).

Can the Washington Capitals repeat?

"You just want to do it over and over again. When you taste it, you don't want to let it go," Alex Ovechkin said this week of winning the Stanley Cup for the first time. If you saw how Ovechkin tasted it after the Capitals won, you'll understand his motivation for winning it again.

The Capitals are an interesting contender in the sense that they return nearly the same team as the one that hoisted the Cup, minus a Jay Beagle here, an Alex Chiasson there and, well, coach Barry Trotz, assistant coach Lane Lambert and goalie whisperer Mitch Korn, which is significant. Can Todd Reirden get them back to last season's heights? Better question: Can the Capitals have another playoff run when Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom, John Carlson and Braden Holtby are all at the height of their powers? If so, a repeat isn't out of the question.

Will Sidney Crosby answer Alex Ovechkin's Stanley Cup with another of his own?

Crosby's season ended May 7, which is a month earlier than in the previous two seasons. It was an unsatisfactory end, as the Capitals thwarted their Pittsburgh tormentors in a contentious series to advance. The trinity of Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel give the Penguins a foundation on which to build a winner, especially if goaltender Matt Murray bounces back.

But there are question marks, too, like the future for ill-fitting Derick Brassard, the effectiveness of summer signing Jack Johnson and, most important, the diminishing returns of Kris Letang. The Penguins are a contender, but it'll take more than the return of "Dad" Matt Cullen to return them to Cup glory.

Will the Buffalo Sabres and Arizona Coyotes make the leap?

The Sabres and Coyotes were Nos. 1 and 2 in our preseason poll of players, coaches and executives whom we asked for their surprise teams this season. Does "surprise" equate to "playoff spot"? In Buffalo's case, it's plausible: The Sabres are an improved team, especially if you believe Carter Hutton is the goods in goal and that the Jack Eichel-Jeff Skinner partnership lifts them both to unforeseen offensive heights. But even if you do, do you believe enough to buy into a 35-point improvement?

As for Arizona, the premium general manager John Chayka has placed on speed -- personified by free-agent coup Michael Grabner -- means the Coyotes are going to skate opponents out of the arena on some nights, while Antti Raanta (healthy, one hopes) tries to live up to the promise of his limited time last season. For both teams, I think this is their "taste of contention" season before knocking the door down for a playoff spot in 2019-20. But if pressed, the Sabres have a better chance to break it down this season, given their division, their conference and some dynamic players who could turn the tide.

Which goalie bounces back biggest from a bad season?

Jake Allen (.906 save percentage), Cam Talbot (.908), Cory Schneider (.907), Carey Price (.900) and, above everyone else, Scott Darling (.888) would like a mulligan for last season. But the goalie who had middling results who will bounce back the best could be Matt Murray of the Pittsburgh Penguins, who was 27-16-3 with a .908 save percentage. He dealt with the pressure of following up Stanley Cup wins, of being the reason Marc-Andre Fleury was jettisoned to Vegas and the emotions after losing his father. The Penguins will be a division-title contender, and Murray is positioned to remind us that he's one of the league's elite young players.

Is the Philadelphia Flyers' goaltending a disqualifier?

Brian Elliott (.909 save percentage in 43 games) and Michal Neuvirth (.915) were a stopgap tandem last season that didn't perform too poorly when healthy. (The team's pedestrian .907 save percentage was the result of 17 awful games in relief from Petr Mrazek.) They were serviceable enough to get the Flyers into the playoffs last season, but the concern about them is understandable.

This has led many Flyers fans to hope for that Jim Ross moment -- "BAWH GAWD that's Carter Hart's music!" -- as the goalie of the future comes up from the AHL and takes the crease.

What do Taylor Hall and Nathan MacKinnon do for an encore?

Hall, the reigning Hart Trophy winner, had 93 points in 76 games last season for the Devils, or 13 more than his previous career high. MacKinnon had 97 points in 74 games for the Avalanche, or 34 (!) more points than his career high, set as a rookie in 2013-14. Both should be among the league's elite offensive players this season, because it's no coincidence why they blew up: Hall was given a franchise center in rookie Nico Hischier (52 points), while MacKinnon thrived on a dominating line with Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog. But if we had to pick who can continue on this trajectory in 2018-19, it would be MacKinnon.

Can Vegas overcome the loss of peculiar circumstances (aka are the Golden Knights for real, Vol. 10,000)?

The Knights had multiple motivations last season, from the "Golden Misfits" thing to bonding with Las Vegas through unspeakable tragedy to catching many opponents off-guard with their speed and, ahem, unique home-ice advantages. (Cue the "Vegas Flu" suspicions.)

But mostly, they were just a darn good hockey team, exponentially more talented than the expansion label would foretell. And since then, they've gotten better: Paul Stastny and Max Pacioretty are a major upgrade on the team's second line, especially defensively. Even if Marc-Andre Fleury regresses, the Knights' depth will get them back to the playoffs. If there's one lesson we should have learned about Vegas, it's that you bet against the Knights at your own peril.

What can we expect from Ilya Kovalchuk?

ESPN asked the Los Angeles Kings winger, signed as a free agent this summer after leaving for the KHL in 2013, how much gas he has left in the tank.

"I'm a young 35," he said with a laugh. "No, I don't think about that. I prepare myself as best as I can during the summer. I show up to camp in the best shape that I can. I did what I had to do. But there's still a lot of work here. I have to adjust to the system. It's all new for me. It's a learning process."

Kovalchuk appears to have lost a step, but he hasn't lost his hands. In Anze Kopitar, he'll have the best center he's ever played with, by his own admission. And he's going to be an absolute terror playing up top on the power play with Drew Doughty. The 37 goals and 82 points of a 28-year-old Kovalchuk are a distant memory, but if everything breaks right, could he still hit 30 goals and 70 points?

Can the John Tavares Maple Leafs end the Stanley Cup drought?

The gamble GM Kyle Dubas is making for the Leafs: that the addition of Tavares to a team that has Auston Matthews and Nazem Kadri anchoring other lines is going to be so good up front that it'll drag an average back end to the Stanley Cup. The Leafs don't have that 26-minute-per-playoff-game stopper that you typically need to win -- someone like Drew Doughty or Duncan Keith, or, on the lower end of that scale, John Carlson of the Capitals.

Their hope is that they can be like the 2016-17 Penguins, winning with the sheer will of their leaders and stellar goaltending to overcome the fact that Brian Dumoulin and Ron Hainsey (a current Leaf) led them in ice time. The reality is that they'll discover the need for such a defenseman when they fall short this postseason.

What hope do the post-Tavares New York Islanders have?

Angst. Anger. A feeling of being overlooked by the hockey world. And perhaps a feeling of betrayal after Tavares endorsed the Maple Leafs as the better franchise through the signing of his free-agent deal. If they could channel those emotions in a Golden Knights-like surge of cathartic success -- led by a coach in Barry Trotz who was also disrespected -- that would make the Islanders one of the best stories in hockey.

But the reality is that they have one blazing young star (Mathew Barzal), a solid winger (Jordan Eberle), two guys they're praying aren't just Tavares by-products (Anders Lee and Josh Bailey), a checking line ... and then not much else beyond Lou Lamoriello panic signings (Leo Komarov? Really?) and specious goaltending.

What can we expect from Henrik Lundqvist and Carey Price, aka big-name goalies on teams with small chances?

Lundqvist is 36, and his save percentage has dropped to .915 or worse in the past two seasons. He's not The King anymore, winning games on his own despite the team in front of him, but he still has above-average stretches. That said, this is the thinnest defensive group he's played in back of in quite some time, on a team in a self-declared rebuild.

Price, meanwhile, enters Year 1 of his eight-year, $84 million contract trying to prove that last season's 49-game bust (.900 save percentage, minus-17.49 goals saved above average) was an anomaly, and that he's still an elite goalie at 31. Price is one of the sole reasons to believe the Canadiens will be something other than a basement-dweller. Well, that and the fact that Ottawa still owns its franchise charter.

Will the Ottawa Senators hang on to Matt Duchene and Mark Stone for a full season?

No and yes. Duchene might want to remain with Ottawa, but Ottawa would do well to flip a player with no trade protection at the deadline, especially when that player is a top-six center. This would require GM Pierre Dorion to swallow his pride and receive a lesser return for Duchene than what he anted up for him, but receiving less value than what's been traded is the mission du jour for the franchise lately.

Stone has expressed an interest in staying in Ottawa, is frankly a steadier player than Duchene and hasn't yet expressed a desire not to be part of a rebuild. Keep him, build around him.

Who finishes with the worst record in the NHL?

The Senators are the overwhelming pick to be the NHL's worst team, which is music to the ears of the Colorado Avalanche, who own their first-round pick next June. In other words, there's no incentive to finish last for Ottawa.

So, what if the Senators somehow didn't? Then you look at other worst-in-the-NHL candidates. The Rangers and Canadiens have goalies who might prevent a bottoming-out. The Canucks, when healthy, might be a peskier team than many anticipate. The Blackhawks have this unfortunate thing called "pride" getting in the way.

All of this leaves us with two other options: the John Tavares-less New York Islanders and the Detroit Red Wings, both of whom could use a franchise player and neither of whom has teams that are anywhere close to contention. If we had to guess, we'll take the team without Mathew Barzal.

Which rookie will make the biggest impact?

With due respect to the offensive potential of Elias Pettersson, Andrei Svechnikov, Ryan Donato, Brady Tkachuk and Troy Terry (a personal dark-horse Calder Trophy pick skating for the Ducks), Rasmus Dahlin could be the best defenseman on the Sabres within weeks, and could be playing big minutes by season's end. Yes, the defensive side is always a challenge for a first-year player. No, he's not going to put up monster offensive numbers. He's just going to be steady and competent, which are two things the Sabres sure do need on the back end.

Who will be the biggest free-agent bust?

Jay Beagle of the Vancouver Canucks. At least Antoine Roussel brought a little more offensive potential and much better possession metrics to the table when he signed his four-year deal with Vancouver. Beagle, on the other hand, turns 33 this month and is a defensive grunt earning $4.4 million in base salary this season for fourth-line work. He also has significant trade protection next season as well, when he'll make $3.2 million. Great guy in the room, but this remains an odd signing for a rebuilding team -- unless the Canucks are hoping his Mario Kart expertise weens the youngsters off of Fortnite.

Which player will have a breakout season?

Usually in these previews, the answers are guys who have already broken out so the writer feels safe making the call and smart for having made it. Ondrej Kase of the Anaheim Ducks isn't one of those guys, with 20 goals and 18 assists in 66 games. In fact, he probably only landed on some radar screens when the Ducks inked him to a three-year extension this offseason. Know this: He has tremendous chemistry with center Adam Henrique, an explosive skill set and an outside chance at a 30-goal season.

Which player will be the most disappointing?

William Karlsson had 21 goals in his first 183 games in the NHL. He had 43 in 82 games with the Vegas Golden Knights last season. Look, I believe in the Knights. And I believe Karlsson's line with Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith is the real deal. What I can't believe, however, is that a player who had the highest shooting percentage (23.4) for any player who appeared in 82 games over the past 20 years -- and, for the record, had the third-highest in the past 30 years -- is going to pull that off in a second consecutive season. Good player, love his defense ... but no.

Which coaches could win the Jack Adams?

As you know, there's a formula for these things. The award usually goes to the coach whose team makes the most shocking move into playoff contention from year to year. It can also go to the coach of the best team in the NHL. It just so happens that Gerard Gallant, head coach of the Golden Knights, was basically both of those things last season.

This season? Tampa Bay's Jon Cooper, Toronto's Mike Babcock (who's never won it), San Jose's Peter DeBoer and Winnipeg's Paul Maurice are contenders on the juggernaut side; Florida's Bob Boughner, Carolina's Rod Brind'Amour, Calgary's Bill Peters, Buffalo's Phil Housley and Arizona's Rick Tocchet are possibilities if any of their teams make the playoffs.

But one coach we have our eye on: Jim Montgomery of the Dallas Stars, who made the leap from the college ranks after a successful run at the University of Denver. Here's a coach who could not only take a lottery team and make it a playoff team again, but could do so by bolstering its offense. The Stars were 18th in the NHL last season in goals. A dramatic uptick there would net him the Jack, whose voters love quantifiable improvements.

Has Brad Marchand changed his ways?

After a postseason in which he [checks notes] licked the faces of multiple opponents, the Bruins star winger vowed to change his behavior so he could ascend to the levels of respect attained by teammates like Zdeno Chara and Patrice Bergeron.

But the Bruins, frankly, don't want Marchand to come off the edge. Team president Cam Neely told the Boston Globe that it's more a matter of impulse control than any sweeping behavioral change: "Playing a different way isn't going to get him more ice time," he said.

There's a word for that: enabling.

Will anyone care about the outdoor games this season?

Pop quiz, hot shot: Name the dates, locations and participants of the NHL's outdoor games this season. The first one's easy: The Chicago Blackhawks, making their record sixth appearance in an outdoor game, vs. the Boston Bruins at Notre Dame in the Jan. 1 Winter Classic, because the Blackhawks have camp there, so the NHL can sell a bunch of stuff with shamrocks on it to Bostonians.

The other one features the fifth appearance of the Penguins in an outdoor game, this time against the Flyers at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia on Feb. 25, 2019, after the teams met at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh last season.

Will anyone care? Last season's Winter Classic between the Rangers and Bruins at Citi Field was the lowest-rated in the series on NBC, and actually rated lower than two Stadium Series games. But Boston vs. Chicago isn't Buffalo vs. New York, and Notre Dame certainly isn't Citi Field, so expect an uptick in interest there. But is anyone amped to see the Penguins and Flyers again, unless it includes a between-periods fight to the death between mascots Iceburgh and Gritty, like they're gladiators in the Coliseum?

Which team is most likely to surprise?

The Florida Panthers have hit 100 points once in franchise history and have made the playoffs just five times since 1993. They came close to accomplishing both last season, and should break through to accomplish it this season.

However, a 96-point team making the playoffs in the following season might not be what you'd consider a surprise, so how about this: The Edmonton Oilers are going to muster enough goaltending and scoring balance to allow Connor McDavid to drag them over the finish line and back into the playoffs, with a 20-point improvement. And while this will be celebrated by lovers of generational talents shining on the most important stage, it also means GM Peter Chiarelli stays in a job. Sorry and congrats, Edmonton.

Which team is most likely to disappoint?

This is all contingent on one's expectations. Would the Avalanche missing the playoffs be a disappointment, considering they were on the bubble last season and could then end up with two high lottery picks (thanks, Ottawa!) in the process? Or what about the Devils and Kings, firmly on the bubble last season?

No, it needs to be a team with lofty expectations and frustratingly low returns, which focuses us on two teams: the Columbus Blue Jackets, who are a talented group with some dark clouds about the future of Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky looming on the horizon, and the Anaheim Ducks, dealing with the deteriorating bodies of their veterans in front of John Gibson. So, in summary: Pray the goalie bails you out of the prison of your problems.

Can Erik Karlsson deliver a Stanley Cup to the San Jose Sharks?

It's entirely possible. It's said that fortune favors the bold, and few have been bolder than GM Doug Wilson over the past few years, from the Martin Jones move to the Evander Kane deal to the blockbuster that netted him Karlsson. There are still questions to be answered about the team's bottom six -- and since the Sharks are capped out, those answers have to come from within -- but having a defenseman the caliber of Karlsson, Brent Burns or Marc-Edouard Vlasic on the ice for almost the entire game is an advantage few teams outside of Nashville can boast. And give me Logan Couture on a prolonged playoff run, please. That guy's a gamer.

Are the Chicago Blackhawks now an also-ran?

Sadly, yes. Unless there's something remarkable hidden in the unremarkable roster that surrounds Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith and whatever Corey Crawford ends up contributing this season, the Blackhawks seemed destined for the lottery and, potentially, the basement again. There's been more talent leaving -- Panarin, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Teuvo Teravainen -- than coming back to Chicago of late. So celebrate, those who are suffering from Blackhawks fatigue during this recent dynasty. We can hear the faint sounds of Anna Kendrick's "Cups" playing, because you're going to miss them when they're gone.

Which Central Division titan has the better shot at the Cup: Nashville or Winnipeg?

The answer would have been Winnipeg had the Jets convinced Paul Stastny to stay as a free agent, or sufficiently replaced him. As it stands, the centers are star Mark Scheifele followed by functional but not exemplary pivots like Bryan Little, Jack Roslovic and Adam Lowry. Tell me that GM Kevin Cheveldayoff has an in-season trade for, like, Matt Duchene up his sleeve, and this is a different story. But for now, I'd give Nashville the nod, thanks to that incredible blue line and that incredible top line ... even if the playoff struggles of Pekka Rinne and Kyle Turris last season spook us a bit.

Do the Tampa Bay Lightning deserve odds-on favorite status?

Yes. This is the moment that GM-turned-senior-advisor Steve Yzerman was building toward, with a deep collection of impact forwards led by Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov; a stout defense led by Norris Trophy winner Victor Hedman and Ryan McDonagh; Andrei Vasilevskiy, who was outstanding in his first season as a starter; and a coach in Jon Cooper who is among the NHL's best. Every piece they need is here. It's just a matter of making them fit.

Will the Carolina Hurricanes (without Bill Peters) or the Calgary Flames (now with Bill Peters) have a better season?

Peters was the darling of the fancy-stats crowd for having Carolina teams that dominated in possession but fell short of the playoffs due to a lack of offensive standouts, and primarily due to substandard goaltending. Under new coach Rod Brind'Amour, the Canes have some potential game-changers in rookies Andrei Svechnikov and Martin Necas, but suspect goaltending behind a great defense corps.

Meanwhile in Calgary, Peters has offensive standouts ... and suspect goaltending behind a great defense corps. But given the conference disparity, we'll say Carolina outpoints Calgary, although neither Peters' current nor his former team will make the playoffs, which is somewhat appropriate.

Does a noisy summer equate to St. Louis being a legitimate dark-horse Cup threat?

GM Doug Armstrong had the NHL offseason equivalent of "Supermarket Sweep" this summer, acquiring Ryan O'Reilly, Tyler Bozak, Patrick Maroon and David Perron. It's a lineup that already boasts Vladimir Tarasenko, Jaden Schwartz, Brayden Schenn, Alex Pietrangelo and Colton Parayko. He managed to hang on to prospects Robert Thomas and Jordan Kyrou despite the upgrades.

So the Blues are stacked, which brings us back to the matter at hand: None of this equals Cup contention unless Jake Allen, 28, is a franchise goalie instead of the .906 save percentage and .482 quality starts netminder he was last season. If Allen is the guy, the Blues are legit contenders. If he's not ... well, time for Armstrong to grab the cart and head to the goalie aisle.

Who will be the first coach fired?

After a quiet season for in-season firings -- as in we saw none -- there are a few coaches on the hot seat entering 2018-19.

Todd McLellan of the Oilers, Guy Boucher of the Senators and Bruce Boudreau of the Wild (who has a new general manager in Paul Fenton, let's remember) might find their seats toasty.

But Randy Carlyle of the Ducks is a prime suspect here. He has one year left on his contract, with Anaheim holding an option after this season. Dallas Eakins, who coached Edmonton for two seasons, is ready down with the AHL team in San Diego and coached several of the team's young players (breakout candidate Ondrej Kase among them). John Gibson's goaltending might be the only thing that keeps Carlyle in this gig, preventing a banged-up team from falling too far.

Will the Blue Jackets hang on to Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky for a full season?

Yes, and potentially to their detriment. GM Jarmo Kekalainen has vowed to retain both players, even as one has expressed a desire to sign his next contract in what we'll call "Not Columbus," and the other has been weirdly squirrely about his talks with the Jackets. But more than anything, the Jackets know they'll be more their best selves this season with Panarin and Bob than without. And the goal for Kekalainen is the now, rather than the later, with a franchise that still has yet to venture out of the first round of the playoffs.

Finally, at what point will we, as a society, reach Maximum Gritty?

When the NHL declares him eligible to be voted into the 2019 All-Star Game as a player.