The middle of August offers a few sports certainties.
It’s too hot outside to play sports. (Or anything, really.) The only sports that are on TV are baseball and the Olympics, which means you spend so many parts of your day letting your mind wander to other exciting sports things during mound visits and archery events.
there’s football on the way the only sport coming up soon is hockey. The embers of the chaotic free agency period might’ve cooled, but enough big moves happened (or didn’t happen) a month ago that pressure should already be setting in on some important NHL names.
It’s not a make-or-break season, but these franchises, players and coaches have more to prove this year than most. And it’s kind of their fault.
All of the Panthers
Nobody spent more money this offseason than the Panthers. And, on paper, it’s hard to argue that they didn’t spend it well.
Name a big free agent or trade target, and chances are the Panthers were in on him. They traded and locked up Keith Yandle and then signed another valuable defenseman in Jason Demers. They shored up their goaltending with James Reimer, arguably the best goalie on the free agent market. The Colton Sceviour and Jonathan Marchessault signings looked like savvy depth moves.
Oh, and they signed Aaron Ekblad and Vincent Trocheck to big extensions.
All of that should make the Panthers the runaway favorites to win the Atlantic again this season. And I’m not sure it’s close.
But if there’s one thing that sports fans don’t enjoy, it’s watching a summer of freewheel spending turn into a mediocre season. The Panthers rode success last season as a merry band of underdogs coming into their own. Anything but a massive step forward now will be a disappointment.
Stars’ defense (and sure, goaltending)
Watching Antti Niemi and Kari Lehtonen trade awful games in the playoffs was excruciating to most Stars fans and anyone who thought the Western Conference regular season champs were capable of a Stanley Cup run.
Dallas general manager Jim Nill’s solution was to let Alex Goligoski and Jason Demers walk away and sign Dan Hamhuis instead. Which is great! He should stabilize the blueline.
But that oft-talked about trade for Ben Bishop never materialized, and Nill seems set on heading into 2016-17 with the same net tandem and eight defensemen. Yes, eight. This does not seem like a good idea.
Expecting either Niemi or Lehtonen to suddenly run away with the job at this point after numerous chances is foolhardy. So the Stars are relying on hope on the blueline this year. Hopefully Patrik Nemeth and/or Jamie Oleksiak finally step up and live up to their considerable promise. Hopefully Esa Lindell is as ready for the big show as most scouts (and Team Sweden) think he is. Hopefully Stephen Johns builds on a terrific rookie season.
That’s a lot of hoping for a team eyeing the Stanley Cup.
Drouin wanted more playing time, and he got it when Steven Stamkos missed the rest of the season. With Tampa Bay’s best power play forward on the shelf, Drouin was afforded the chance to let his playmaking talents blossom in the playoffs.
And he did! Drouin was arguably Tampa’s best forward on most nights, finishing the Eastern Conference Final run with five goals and 14 points in 17 games. He’s in Tampa Bay for good now and will likely get the playing time he’s now earned.
So expectations will be high. If he doesn’t meet them, I doubt coach Jon Cooper will hesitate to escort him back to his doghouse.
This one is pretty simple: Go win the Penguins’ starting goalie job for good from Marc-Andre Fleury. If any other rookie goalie on any other team went on a playoff run like Murray did this spring, they’d build a throne for him in the net and ship the other guy out that afternoon.
But the “other guy” in Pittsburgh is Fleury, a loyal veteran with strong ties to the team and a whopping contract worth $5.75 million per year. No wonder GM Jim Rutherford wants his goalies to compete for the job. Fleury will be difficult to move and Murray needs to prove he isn’t a flash in the pan. It’s his job to lose and the disappointment in Pittsburgh will be palpable if he does.
Everyone involved with the P.K. Subban trade
There are so many layers of expectations here that all stem from the rhetoric out of Montreal after the trade. GM Marc Bergevin thinks Shea Weber is a better winner than Subban. His owner has backed him up. And where his bosses danced around what they felt, coach Michel Therrien jumped straight to the point this week:
"We all know what P.K. brought to the team and the city, but we felt that with the experience that Shea Weber has, we're a better team now," said Therrien.
And with that, the expectations are clearly set. The only way everyone comes out of this saga looking good is if Subban succeeds with the Predators, Weber succeeds with the Canadiens and both teams make decent playoff runs.
The onus is on Subban to prove that Habs management not embracing him was a massive mistake. That he makes teams better. Weber can’t struggle either; I doubt Habs fans will forgive his mistakes for very long before they begin to fondly remember Subban’s exploits.
And if the Canadiens aren’t much better this season than they were last year? Well. Therrien and Bergevin’s comments and expectation setting will look less like assurances than indictments of their judgment.