The Pittsburgh Penguins seem like they’ll always be about trying to overwhelm opponents with their high-powered offensive attack. The Philadelphia Flyers have long been a benchmark for intimidation and physical play, especially in their own rink.
And the New Jersey Devils are still blamed for ‘ruining hockey’ with their introduction of the neutral zone trap, even if it’s not a fair accusation.
But, unlike a tiger, professional sports teams can change their stripes. Here are three NHL squads that have the potential to look different this season from what we expect from them.
1. Dallas Stars
The team I expect to look the most different from last season is the Stars. And I’m not happy about it.
That’s because Dallas has arguably played the most exciting style of hockey for the past several seasons. Two years ago, coach Lindy Ruff’s all-offense approach helped the Stars lead the NHL in goals scored and rack up the most points in the Western Conference.
Even though the Dallas attack regressed last year, ranking 17th in the league in goals, the Stars were still known for playing an expansive game.
Unfortunately for the Stars, and for hockey fans their fire wagon brand of hockey ended up costing Ruff his job. Dallas bottomed out badly last year, suffering a 25-point drop-off from the previous year. The obvious reason was the 2.9 goals the Stars allowed per game, the second-highest total in the league.
And Ruff paid the price, even though Dallas’ goals-against issues had more to do with the inferior set of goaltenders management gave him than awful defensive play (the Stars ranked 12th in shots against per game.)
Dallas couldn’t have picked a more different coach to succeed Ruff than Ken Hitchcock. Hitchcock, who also coached the Stars from 1995-2002 (and brought Dallas its only Stanley Cup title in 1999), is known for taking all the fun out of hockey with a boring, defense-first mentality.
With free agent acquisition, Ben Bishop is expected to finally resolve Dallas’ long-standing goaltending issues, look for the Stars to focus on taking care of their own end this season – and for Dallas games to be nowhere near as exciting.
2. Arizona Coyotes
The Arizona Coyotes get mocked a lot for their recent history, including being owned at one time by the NHL and fighting the city of Glendale to have a new arena built. But to be fair to hockey followers in the desert, it’s not exactly like they’ve been treated to a thrilling product.
For the better part of a decade, the Coyotes have been one of the more difficult teams to watch in the NHL. They haven’t made the playoffs since 2012 and tasted postseason play just four times this century.
Fans might stomach that better if the Coyotes played an exciting brand of hockey, but Arizona has ranked in the bottom third of the NHL in goals for five straight years (including fourth-worst last season and second-worst in 2014-15).
All of this has the potential to change this season. A playoff appearance might still be a bit of a longshot, considering the Yotes finished 24 points out of a wild card spot last year, but at least Arizona should be fun to watch.
Former high-scoring forward Rick Tocchet takes over behind the bench from long-time coach Dave Tippett and his conservative game plan.
And the Coyotes have the horses (dogs?) necessary to play Tocchet’s up-tempo style, adding forward Derek Stepan and defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson to a young core of promising forwards such as Max Domi, Anthony Duclair and Dylan Strome.
3. New Jersey Devils
Even in their glory days of winning three Stanley Cups between 1995-2003, the Devils could make your eyes bleed. Anchored by a trio of future Hockey Hall of Famers in goaltender Martin Brodeur and defensemen Scott Stevens and Scott Niedermayer, New Jersey slowed games to a crawl with its trapping style.
The Devils haven’t been nearly as successful since (their Stanley Cup Final appearance in 2012 is their lone trip to the playoffs since 2010), but they continue to play that awful, tight-checking style. In each of the past five seasons, NJ has been among the bottom four of the league in goals scored.
New Jersey has a long history of defensive-minded head coaches, guys like Pat Burns, Claude Julien, Larry Robinson, Jacques Lemaire and Peter DeBoer. But current Devils’ bench boss John Hynes isn’t one of them.
He’s just had to play that way over the past two seasons because he hasn’t had enough talented forwards to play a more open style.
Hynes may finally use the fast, attacking style he prefers this year, following the signing of 24-goal man Marcus Johansson and the selection of highly skilled first overall draft pick Nico Hischier.
That’ll give the Devils’ top returning player, Taylor Hall, more room to operate, and should finally translate into a more exciting breed of hockey in the Meadowlands.
What’s your take on how these three teams will do this season? Let us know in the comments section below.
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