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It’s make-or-break time across the NHL

The 2016-17 season is a big year for many teams, but here are the biggest stories to watch out for.

Montreal Canadiens v Arizona Coyotes Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The start of a new season means a completely clean slate. From the players to the coaches, the sins or victories of the previous year have been washed away. This can be your year — yes, your year — where your team wins it all.

However, the slate isn’t always as clean as you think. Though the records and stats may sit at zero until puck drop on the night of Oct. 12, we all come into the new season with an idea of where things might stand. The Penguins have the best odds to win the Stanley Cup again. Connor McDavid will push hard for the Hart Trophy. The young kids will once again make strides that push the NHL’s older generation closer to the door.

Yet, the most intriguing storyline headed into the new season has nothing to do with the teams or players sitting pretty — it’s those that are anything but.

There are a handful of teams across the NHL about to enter a crucial make-or-break year. Whether it be that a coach is one wrong step from losing their job or that the window to a Stanley Cup win is closing fast, this season will be pivotal to their successes or failures as a hockey club. Some have been more widely publicized than others — looking at you, Montreal — but all are teams to keep a close eye on as the year rolls on.

Montreal Canadiens

The situation

Oh, Montreal. There were such high hopes for you all those years ago. Back in the day when the season didn’t rest on Carey Price avoiding injury and an up-and-coming defensive star was the most exciting thing about the team. Now, the Canadiens still have Price — who is looking solid after his World Cup-winning performance — but are without P.K. Subban for the first time since 2010.

We’ve already talked extensively on how bad the Subban for Shea Weber deal is. Nothing against the former Nashville Predator captain, who is a fine blue liner in his own right, but it’s clear the Canadiens overpaid for a defenseman in decline. It’s possibly the worst trade in Canadiens history and will likely reflect poorly on the legacies of GM Marc Bergevin and head coach Michel Therrien when it’s all said and done.

Bergevin has already thrown his support behind Therrien in the midst of last year’s debacle of a season, and with the coach signed under contract until 2019, it’s unlikely things will start to get better in Montreal anytime soon. In fact, they might get worse, as newly acquired forward Andrew Shaw already found himself in hot water after throwing a dangerous hit during the preseason.

The saving grace for the Canadiens is without a doubt Price, who missed almost all of last season due to injury. The goaltender is their best player and his absence did the team no favors in one of the worst seasons for Montreal in recent memory. However, don’t be fooled. The Canadiens just aren’t a good team under Therrien, no matter what Price does this season.

What to look for

Price’s health will be a key factor on how well the Canadiens will do this year. Not only that, what will a Subban-less defense look like for Montreal and how will Weber fit? The biggest question, however, is will Therrien be ousted sometime during the season? If last year’s miserable season couldn’t get him to the door, what will?

New York Rangers

The situation

Like the Canadiens, the Rangers’ best player is no doubt their goaltender. However, no matter how much we try to deny it, Henrik Lundqvist is five years Price’s senior and trending further past 30 with every passing day. Roberto Luongo might have something to say about playing well into one’s 30s, but it’s well known goaltenders tend to drop off after that mark.

As such, the Rangers’ window is closing, and fast. They’ve gotten close, for sure, but in a division ruled by the Penguins and Capitals with teams like the Islanders and Flyers on the rise, the Rangers’ star seems to be fading. The talent on offense is there with Derek Stepan and Mats Zuccarello — and the newly acquired college standout Jimmy Vesey — but the defense is aging even with captain Ryan McDonagh at the helm.

The Rangers’ depleted prospect system hasn’t helped matters, considering last season they led the league in average age at 29.6. It’s almost certain the Rangers will compete for a playoff spot this year, but it’s hard to imagine they’ll be playing past May.

Lundqvist elevates the Rangers by his elite presence alone, but much like the rest of the team, their time to win is mostly behind them. Which begs the question — will Lundqvist want to move on for that chance to win? Teams like the Stars that are right there but lack the proper netminding to get them through would be a fit. Though the Rangers would lose their best player, they could stock up on young talent to fill the cupboards to compete in the years to come.

What to look for

We mentioned him briefly, but Vesey was a pretty big get for the Rangers in the offseason. The 2016 Hobey Baker Award winner will play on the Rangers’ roster this season, so what jump does he give to the team? Also, what kind of year does Lundqvist have after a down year that was mostly perpetrated by the defense’s ineptitude? More importantly, will he be traded sometime during the season if the talks of closing windows gets to be too much?

Columbus Blue Jackets

The situation

Columbus originally wasn’t going to be on this list, but considering the torching John Tortorella got just a few weeks ago at the World Cup, the Blue Jackets might be an interesting case this year. Their dreadful 2-10 record to start the 2015-16 season was a bit of a shocker, as many pointed to their acquisition of Brandon Saad as a sign of hope for the young franchise.

However, we know how the script went. 2013 Vezina trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky had a major hiccup to start the season and the team wasn’t able to give him aid. The Blue Jackets fired Todd Richards and added hot-headed Tortorella just two weeks into the season. The team never recovered from the disastrous start as they placed fourth-worst in the league.

Now, coming off an embarrassing month as the head coach to winless Team USA, Tortorella will probably be under more scrutiny than ever before. The outlook for the Blue Jackets this season isn’t projected to be any better than the last after making the playoffs just three seasons ago and putting a right scare into the Penguins. Even with a nice group of prospects in the mix, is Tortorella really the right coach to lead the Blue Jackets through this transitional period?

What to look for

Will there be any fallout from the World Cup on Tortorella’s shoulders? His lack of coaching prowess was exposed in the tournament so don’t be surprised. Another big question is which Bobrovsky shows up this season? Last year’s start wasn’t all his fault, but he didn’t make the saves he should have in those handful of games. Bobrovsky’s World Cup performance is promising, though.

Anaheim Ducks

The situation

It’s the Randy Carlyle show once again in Anaheim after another playoff failure for the Ducks resulted in Bruce Boudreau’s firing. The coach that brought the Ducks their one and only Stanley Cup win is back, but has been met with more than a little trepidation.

We argued back in April that Boudreau’s firing was a bad decision for the Ducks. Part of the blame for Anaheim’s struggles in the first round of the playoffs should also have fallen upon the players’ lack of production and GM Bob Murray for his bad contracts. Though the Ducks now have former Maple Leaf Jonathan Bernier under contract in goal along with John Gibson, Anaheim’s identity rests upon Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf, two players at 31 years old that are not getting younger.

Carlyle himself had a particularly bad run in Toronto that most certainly didn’t endear him to fans, and it has definitely taken the shine out of the re-hiring. The Ducks are still playoff contenders, but their make-or-break moment will be in Round 1 of the postseason. If it’s the same old tune the Ducks have been playing these last few years with an early exit, big changes might just be coming to the rest of Anaheim’s organization.

What to look for

Will Carlyle’s mistakes follow him to Anaheim or can he find the magic that once worked for him in 2007? With Frederik Andersen gone to Toronto, what will Bernier and Gibson be able to do in net? Can the core of the Ducks offense step up when needed in the playoffs this year, and can they avoid the disappointing start from last season when they only scored 10 goals in the month of October?