Top storylines for the 2019-20 NHL season: Can the St. Louis Blues repeat?

Sporting News

The 2019-20 NHL season is finally here — but what should fans expect to see from the league's 31 teams over the upcoming 82-game schedule?

The pressure is on the St. Louis Blues to repeat as Stanley Cup champions and the Toronto Maple Leafs to capture the trophy that has eluded the city since 1967. Around the league, there are teams that will surprise us with playoff-worthy seasons and successful squads that may falter under expectation's weight. In New Jersey and New York, Devils and Rangers fans root for the revitalization of their teams through big-name offseason acquisitions and two high-profile rookies' emergence.

MORE: NHL predictions 2019-20: Final standings, playoff projections, Stanley Cup picks

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Let's take a look at the top storylines for fans to follow around the league:

Who are the league's 'dark horse' teams?

In the Eastern Conference, the Florida Panthers and New York Rangers stand out as teams that could make sneaky playoff runs. Neither organization appeared in the postseason in either of the last two years and both teams cashed in this summer with big-name free agent signings.

The Panthers acquired a highly-regarded coach in Joel Quenneville and one of the league's top goalies in Sergei Bobrovsky. That's an implicit message to the team's talented core that it's time to prove to the league that Florida can have two successful franchises. In New York, general manager Jeff Gorton hopes to bring veteran Henrik Lundqvist back to playoff contention after signing free agents Artemi Panarin and Jacob Trouba to long-term contracts. New York also drafted a promising young goal-scorer in Kaapo Kakko in June's draft

In the West, the Arizona Coyotes and Vancouver Canucks could play disrupters among teams who missed last season's playoffs.

Arizona addressed a major goal-scoring problem by acquiring Phil Kessel via trade. Kessel's new team missed out on the postseason by just four points last spring; his infusion should help team stars Clayton Keller and Oliver Ekman-Larsson facilitate more offense this year. The team will lean on goaltender Darcy Kuemper, who signed a two-year extension Wednesday, for another rock-solid season in net; if he can produce, the 'Yotes just may sneak into the playoffs.

In Vancouver, the Canucks' rebuild has been quickened by the emergence of dynamic young scorers Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser. Expect those two to chip in 25+ goals alongside Bo Horvat again this season. The team also made notable depth scoring additions in Micheal Ferland and JT Miller, who both would have been within the top six scorers on Vancouver's roster last season.

Can the Blackhawks jump back into contention?

Recent NHL history featured Chicago Blackhawks success — three Stanley Cup victories and nine consecutive playoff appearances between 2009 and 2017, to be exact. The last two seasons have not proved as easy for the franchise, so much so that head coach Joel Quenneville was fired in Nov. 2018 in favor of Jeremy Colliton's promotion from the minor leagues.

Chicago does not lack talent at forward — eight players scored 10 goals or more in 2018-19. Defensively, the situation remains wobbly as large contracts to aging defensemen in Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook limit general manager Scotty Bowman's ability to make moves. But the team did attempt to address blue line depth by adding Calvin de Haan and Olli Maatta — not to mention goalie Robin Lehner, fresh off winning the Masterson Trophy, and sharing the Jennings Trophy with Thomas Greiss, after a remarkable comeback season with the Islanders.

MORE: When does the NHL season start for 2019-20? Schedule of opening games for all 31 teams

The Blackhawks finished just six points out of a playoff spot last season. Another playoff run for Jonathan Toews and the gang to kick off a new decade of Chicago hockey isn't out of the question.

Will Alex Ovechkin score 50 goals again?

Washington Capitals winger Ovechkin has been one of the league's biggest stars since he first took the ice in 2005. He has scored 30+ goals in all 14 seasons played and led the league in goal-scoring eight times. "Ovi" approaches multiple milestones this season — 89 points grants him entry to the 1300-point club, and he needs 42 goals to reach 700. Hitting that number exactly would give him eighth place on the league's all-time goals scored list.

Another 50-goal season would tie Ovechkin with Mike Bossy and Wayne Gretzky for the most seasons with 50 goals or more in league history (each had nine). Neither were as old as Ovechkin when they scored 50+ goals for the final time. Ovechkin, who turned 34 last month, still produces at an elite level nearly a decade and a half into his career.

Just how good can the New Jersey Devils be?

New faces in red and black this fall include: 18-year-old rookie Jack Hughes, P.K. Subban looking to bounce back as the Devils' top blueliner, Nikita Gusev who has long been considered one of the top players outside the NHL and Wayne Simmonds who is a dominating physical net-front presence.

The team also gets back 2017-18 league MVP Taylor Hall after he missed 47 games due to injury last season. The Devils are a young, fast and skilled team eager to win now. Hall said it himself when training camp opened — it's playoffs or bust in Newark.

Will McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers miss out on the playoffs again?

Connor McDavid is the league's best player. The Oilers finished last season as the Western Conference's second-worst team. Despite Edmonton's addition of a new general manager (Ken Holland) and new head coach (Dave Tippett), the team made largely lateral on-ice personnel moves this summer. It's going to take a while for Holland to sort out the team's salary cap problems — meaning McDavid and Leon Draisaitl set up for another spectacular season while a floundering supporting cast keeps them from reaching the postseason.

Of course, a near-future in which some newcomers help the team make a playoff push is possible. Veterans James Neal is only one year removed from ten consecutive 25+ goal seasons and Mike Smith could bounce back from last year's poor run in net with the Flames. If the pieces all come together, the Oilers could make a wild card run. The key word though is, If.

Calder Trophy race: Hughes, Kakko . . . Quinn Hughes?

Rookie forwards Hughes and Kakko were two of the more heralded first-and-second overall pick combinations at the draft in recent years. With Hughes playing in New Jersey and Kakko just over the river with the Rangers, the division rivalry is on — and so is the battle for rookie of the year. Hughes is the crafty playmaker with insane amateur statistics; Kakko, the goal-scorer who thrived in Finland's top professional league last year.

The Calder Memorial Trophy may not shape out as a two-skater battle, though. Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar had an impressive showing in the playoffs last spring and projects as a top blueliner. The race could become a family affair if Quinn Hughes — Jack's older brother — quickly finds himself at home on the Canucks' power play.

How will the ultra-competitive Atlantic Division shape out?

Three Atlantic teams have finished within the top eight in the league in each of the last two seasons. The Lightning, Maple Leafs and Bruins remain heavy favorites for the division's playoff spots, but it has grown crowded on the East Coast. The Canadiens finished just two points out of a wild card spot and return eager for more this season.

The Panthers have Joel Quenneville behind the bench and Sergei Bobrovsky in net now — an implicit message for the team's talented core that it's time to cash in on Aleksander Barkov's prime.

Even the Sabres, though they finished among the league's worst teams last season, can hope for better results as they continue to develop a core built around Jack Eichel and Rasmus Dahlin.

The NHL's playoff format has forced the Maple Leafs and Bruins together in the first round in each of the last two years while the Lightning landed a top seed. It's fair to bet the standings shake out that way again — but expect a closer race to the finish.

Can the St. Louis Blues repeat as Stanley Cup champions?

Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins were the last to repeat as champions (2016-17). Before that? The Red Wings (1997-98). It does not happen often.

The Blues' remarkable run last season did not start until January. The onus will be on head coach Craig Berube to inspire his locker room to play the same hard-nosed, defensively stifling hockey that won St. Louis its first Cup last June — for an 82-game slate. All eyes will be on the team's goalies once more — Jordan Binnington has not yet played a full year as a starter. If the Blues' defense proves as stingily as it played last season, the team should be well-primed for another deep playoff run.

A few more goals wouldn't hurt, either.

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