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1. Keith Yandle serving as the Flyers’ top power-play unit quarterback.
These early training camp assignments need to be taken with a grain of salt, but this arrangement in particular is certainly interesting. Yandle’s biggest strength at this point is the power play and the Flyers have a potentially strong unit between him, Claude Giroux, Sean Couturier, James van Riemsdyk and Travis Konecny. If Yandle does end up earning that role, he would be a decent very late round selection or waiver wire pickup. Presently, he’s only been drafted in 53% of Yahoo leagues and when he is taken his average pick is 162.5, so keep him in the back of your mind.
2. James Neal gets a hat trick in Blues’ exhibition debut.
Most people probably know not to take preseason statistics too seriously, but given how good Neal once was, there’s probably at least some who see an amazing performance out of him and think maybe this will be his bounce back season. Keep in mind though that this will be his third team in four seasons, so it’s not as if he’s been hurting for a change of scenery. He’s also 34-years-old at this point, so his best days are likely behind him. That said, he did have COVID at the start of last year and by his own admission, it took him a while to get back to normal. Of course last season wasn’t his first disappointing campaign, so even if you were to write off 2020-21, it’d be best to stay cautious with him, but it couldn’t hurt to see where things go in St. Louis. If nothing else, his strong debut performance helps his case to earn a roster spot with the Blues.
3. Mackenzie Blackwood is part of the short list of NHL players who haven’t received the COVID vaccine.
Blackwood confirmed that he’s not vaccinated on Tuesday. He added that he’s not ruling out taking the vaccine, so perhaps he will later in the season. As things currently stand, unvaccinated players will not be crossing the border to play road games, so unless the border rules change or Blackwood gets vaccinated, he currently stands to miss nine Devils games set to be played in Canada. The first of those contests would be in Winnipeg on Dec. 3.
The Devils are set to enter the season with a goaltending tandem of Blackwood and Jonathan Bernier. It’s also worth noting that Blackwood had surgery on his ankle during the offseason, but it doesn’t sound like that will be a factor during the regular season. He played two periods of Tuesday’s scrimmage.
4. Tuukka Rask has been at the Bruins’ training camp site.
While Boston will enter the season with Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman as their goaltending duo, Rask is the big X-Factor for the Bruins entering the season. He’s not even under contract with them, but he’s made it clear that he wants to play in Boston once he’s healthy enough to do so.
In the meantime, Rask is recovering from hip surgery. He’s been at Warrior Ice and it sounds like it’s been for rehab purposes. Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy did specify though that Rask hasn’t been skating with the team and he isn’t sure when Rask would be ready to skate.
What the Bruins will do when Rask is healthy isn’t clear, but Ullmark and Swayman’s performance to that point will be a big factor. If both of them are doing well, then it’s possible the Bruins won’t bring Rask back, but if at least one of them are struggling or gets injured, then Rask could provide the team with a significant midseason boost.
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5. Three big RFAs remain unsigned.
Ottawa’s Brady Tkachuk and Vancouver’s Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes still haven’t been signed by their respective clubs and consequently haven’t attended training camp yet. While they wait, the three players have been training together in Michigan.
That’s nothing new, but of course as we dip deeper and deeper into the preseason, this becomes a bigger and bigger issue. Keep in mind that these three don’t actually have to miss NHL games for these contract talks dragging to have a fantasy impact. Missing a significant chunk of training camp could also result in them starting the season behind their peers and lead to them struggling out of the gate.
It’s also worth highlighting Chris Johnston’s recent discussion where each player’s contract talks stand right now. In Ottawa, it seems that both sides have an interest in an eight-year deal, but Tkachuk and the Senators agree on what his cap hit should be. Tkachuk is reportedly looking for more than $8 million annually and ultimately the solution might be a three-year bridge deal.
Vancouver’s problem is a bit more complicated given that they currently have less than $14 million in projected cap space before signing Pettersson and Hughes. To get them both under contract without going over the ceiling, the Canucks might need to sign one of them to a cheaper, short-term deal. Johnston raised the possibility of Pettersson being inked to a four-year contract, which would be less than ideal for Vancouver because it would consume all his remaining RFA years without buying out any of his UFA time. Still, that might be where this situation ends up. It will be interesting to see what Vancouver does and if the Canucks do some cap juggling, perhaps involving a trade, to give them more room to work with.
6. Lightning GM Julien BriseBois gets an extension.
The 2021-22 campaign was the final season of BriseBois’ old contract, but Lightning owner Jeff Vinik is keeping his general manager around. That’s not surprising given that since BriseBois took over as the general manager in 2018, the Lightning won the President’s Trophy in 2018-19 and followed that up with back-to-back championships in 2020 and 2021.
BriseBois’ predecessor, Steve Yzerman, deserves some of the credit for building the Lightning’s foundation, but BriseBois didn’t merely profit from an inherited good hand. For one thing, BriseBois was hired as the assistant general manager back in 2010, so he also played a role in building this team. BriseBois has also had to navigate some difficult cap waters since taking over and he made key some trades to bolster the team ahead of their Cup runs, such as the acquisitions of Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow, who played important supporting roles in both of the Lightning’s championships.
7. Kaapo Kakko auditioning for a top line role.
Kakko was taken with the second overall pick in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft, but he was limited to 23 points in 66 games as a rookie and didn’t produce at a much better pace during his sophomore campaign, scoring nine goals and 17 points in 48 contests. He’s just 20-years-old though and given his potential, it’s way too early to write him off.
He added some muscle over the summer and is getting a prime opportunity during training camp, skating alongside Artemi Panarin and Ryan Strome. As with any early training camp line, it’s not set in stone, but it makes a lot of sense for the Rangers to be experimenting with that trio. Pavel Buchnevich’s departure created an opening and Kakko would be an ideal fit if he’s ready to take that step up. Kakko has been drafted in just 4% of Yahoo leagues so far and if he ends up starting the season on the top line, then he’ll be worth picking up.
8. Keep an eye on the rate of crosschecking penalties.
As TSN recently reported, it seems the NHL plans to crack down on crosschecking this season. Referees didn’t call many crosschecking penalties last season, in fact there was an average of just 0.3 crosschecking calls per game last season, compared to the most common calls, which were tripping (1.19 calls per game), hooking (0.93), slashing (0.67), holding (0.65), and interference (0.55). If the league does enforce crosschecking by a stricter standard going forward, that could change, which could naturally lead to an increase in power plays and thus scoring.
It might also help scoring by giving forwards more room to maneuver if they don’t have to worry about crosschecks to the same degree.