The NHL 2023-24 season guide: Key players, teams, stories

ByGreg Wyshynski ESPN logo
Friday, October 6, 2023

The NHL is in a torch-passing mood as it enters the 2023-24 season.

The Vegas Golden Knights are the reigning Stanley Cup champions, having earned their first title since coming into the league in 2017 as an expansion team. The Seattle Kraken defeated the 2022 champs, the Colorado Avalanche, for their first playoff series win in their second season of existence.

For the first time in nine seasons, the top 10 scorers in the NHL were all under 30 years old, including Dallas Stars winger Jason Robertson and Vancouver Canucks center Elias Pettersson, both just 24 years old.

Then there's the rookie class for this season, a remarkably deep collection of talent led by 2023 first overall pick Connor Bedard, who has lifted the Chicago Blackhawks back to relevance before ever appearing in a regular-season NHL game.

But not everyone is ready to let go of the torch. Veteran teams like the Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins are trying to raise the Cup again after major offseason changes. Meanwhile, the megastars in their prime on the Edmonton Oilers and Toronto Maple Leafs are desperate to finally win their first rings.

If you haven't kept up with the NHL in the past few months, don't fret, we've got you covered. Here's a chance to catch up on everything that has happened -- the hirings, firings, signings and even a blockbuster trade. It's all in our guide to the 2023-24 season for lapsed fans. Read up before the puck drops on opening night this Tuesday!

How to watch the 2023-24 NHL season on ESPN networks -- including 100 exclusive games and the out-of-market package (over 1,050 games).

Can the Boston Bruins recover?

The biggest surprise about the Golden Knights lifting the Stanley Cup might have been that it wasn't the Bruins doing it instead.

The 2022-23 Bruins were the most successful regular-season team in NHL history, setting league records for wins (65) and points (135) in a season. The NHL awards confirmed that they had the league's best goalie (Linus Ullmark), best coach (Jim Montgomery) and best defensive forward (Patrice Bergeron), along with a 61-goal scorer in winger David Pastrnak. They were a juggernaut offensively and defensively. The question wasn't if they would win the Stanley Cup, but how long it would take them.

And then they were upset in the first round by the Florida Panthers -- who would go on to face Vegas for the Stanley Cup -- losing at home in a Game 7 overtime that left Boston fans and players in stunned silence.

It wasn't just a loss on the ice for the Bruins. The offseason saw Bergeron, their much celebrated No. 1 center and captain, retire after 19 seasons. Their second-best center, David Krejci, retired after 16 seasons. The Bruins had made it their mission to send both of them off as champions. Instead, they have to pick themselves up off the canvas without them.

They aren't the only departures from Boston: Wingers Taylor Hall, Nick Foligno, Tyler Bertuzzi and defenseman Dmitry Orlov all switched teams in the offseason, too.

Can new captain Brad Marchandand the Bruins who remain get back to the playoffs with these lineup holes? Is their defense corps, led by Charlie McAvoy and Hampus Lindholm, and goaltending (Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman) dominant enough to contend again? It's going to be fascinating to find out.

The Atlantic Division bubble

If the Bruins falter, or another of last season's Eastern Conference playoff teams struggles, all eyes are on a trio of Atlantic Division teams that have been rebuilding towards getting back to the playoffs.

  • The Buffalo Sabres have garnered the most interest, having not made the playoffs since 2011. They have a newly minted star center in Tage Thompson and two great young defensemen in Rasmus Dahlin and Owen Power.
  • The Ottawa Senators also have a breakout star in forward Tim Stutzle, who joins players like Brad Tkachuk and Claude Giroux in trying to get the Sens their first playoff spot since 2017 under new owner Michael Andlauer.
  • The Detroit Red Wings, who haven't made the playoffs since 2016, hope their mix of established veterans and younger talents finally brings GM Steve Yzerman's plans into sharper focus.

Connor Bedard, franchise savior

Bedard, 18, is the latest generational talent who had teams, ahem, "rearranging their rosters" in order to maximize their draft lottery odds. Chicago had the third-best odds when it won the lottery to secure the services of Bedard, selecting No. 1 overall for the first time since drafting Patrick Kane in 2007.

The hockey world had anticipated Bedard's NHL arrival for years. He was granted exceptional status as a 15-year-old to play in the Western Hockey League, the first time the WHL granted such an exception. He racked up player of the year awards and led the Canadian junior team to two gold medals. Scouts have raved about the quality and accuracy of his shot, which produced 122 goals in 119 games over the past two seasons with the Regina Pats. He's unquestionably the most hyped rookie to arrive in the NHL since another Connor: Oilers star and reigning NHL MVP Connor McDavid, who was drafted in 2015.

Bedard arrives during a transitional time for Chicago.

The Blackhawks' reputation is still on the mend after the 2021 investigation that made public the sexual assault allegations by former player Kyle Beach against the team's video coach Brad Aldrich during the 2010 season. Stan Bowman, the team's GM and president of hockey operations, and senior vice president of hockey operations Al MacIsaac both resigned in the aftermath, with current general manager Kyle Davidson taking over.

Kane and captain Jonathan Toews, the last on-ice links to the Blackhawks' three Stanley Cup championships (2010, 2013, 2015), both parted ways with the franchise last season. In July, Blackhawks owner Rocky Wirtz died at 70 years old following an illness.

Bedard's arrival has certainly helped change the vibes for the Blackhawks.

The team sold $5.2 million worth of tickets after winning the draft lottery. The Blackhawks tell ESPN that they expect an increase of over 17% in tickets sold and overall 26% higher revenue growth than our initial 2023-24 season projections. They've nearly doubled their full season-ticket packages sold year over year.

Chicago hasn't made the playoffs in three seasons and probably won't again in Bedard's first season -- although the Blackhawks bolstered their rebuilding lineup with familiar names like Taylor Hall, Nick Foligno and Corey Perry. But they theoretically have their next franchise player and, more importantly, a point of demarcation with the past.

The rookie class of 2023-24

Bedard is far from the only notable first-year player in the NHL this season. In a league that's all about speed, scoring and low salary cap hits, more young players than ever are breaking into the NHL early. Some other rookies to watch this season:

  • Logan Cooley had announced he was returning to the University of Minnesota, but instead the No. 3 overall pick in 2022 signed with the Arizona Coyotes ... where he will still play in an NCAA arena this season, but we digress.
  • Center Adam Fantilli, 18, was selected third overall in the 2023 draft by the Columbus Blue Jackets after being projected as the second-best prospect behind Bedard all season. (No. 2 overall was Leo Carlsson of the Anaheim Ducks.) The University of Michigan product won the Hobey Baker as the best men's player in the NCAA last season.
  • Another Michigan alum is defenseman Luke Hughes, who brought some chaotic energy to the New Jersey Devils' playoff run. He's expected to be an offensive force this season on a team that features his brother, star center Jack Hughes.
  • Goalie Devon Levi could be entrusted by the Sabres to lead them to their first playoff berth since 2011. He dazzled in a brief stint with them last season.
  • The Maple Leafs made winger Matthew Knies untouchable at the trade deadline last season, and for good reason: The Hobey Baker finalist from Minnesota brings offensive skill and physicality in his game.

Dubas, Karlsson come to Pittsburgh

Kyle Dubas bet on himself as general manager of the Maple Leafs, entering last season without a contract beyond 2022-23. He seemingly won the wager, as the Leafs advanced past the opening round for the first time since 2004 by eliminating the Tampa Bay Lightningbefore losing to the Panthers.

But as Dubas' agent and team president Brendan Shanahan worked on a new contract, there was drama brewing. The ask from Dubas went up, and reportedly so did the amount of power he wanted in personnel decisions. Dubas held a news conference that didn't sit well with Shanahan, saying his future in Toronto required "a full family discussion." Ultimately, Shanahan decided to let Dubas walk, hiring former Calgary GM Brad Treliving as his replacement.

Dubas also made it seem like it was Toronto or bust in that news conference, saying, "I definitely don't have it in me to go anywhere else." Then the Penguins came calling after they fired team president Brian Burke and general manager Ron Hextall and ... well, maybe Pittsburgh isn't like anywhere else.

Dubas was named president of hockey operations and oversaw a search for the team's next general manager before finding the perfect candidate: Kyle Dubas, who will serve in that role for the foreseeable future. The Fenway Sports Group, which owns the Penguins, tasked him with two missions: Start thinking about what the next phase of this team looks like while doing everything he can to help the team's veteran core -- Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang -- become Stanley Cup champions for a fourth time since 2009.

His first move was a bit of managerial magic: a three-team trade that saw him move out some of the team's cap-problematic contracts while acquiring 33-year-old San Jose defenseman Erik Karlsson, who won the Norris Trophy as the NHL's top defenseman last season. Karlsson scored 101 points in 82 games. Another season like that, and the Penguins might have one more championship push left in them.

Teams making big moves

Besides the Karlsson trade, there were other significant trades in the offseason:

Free agent frenzy

Some interesting names ended up in even more interesting locations via free agency:

  • The NHL had a buyout window that was more active than usual. The players changing teams after having the remaining years on their contracts bought out included Jets captain Blake Wheeler, now with the Rangers; Predators center Matt Duchene, who signed with the Stars; winger Josh Bailey, who was traded to Chicago by the New York Islanders after 15 seasons, bought out by the Blackhawks, and then signed a professional tryout contract with the Senators; defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson, who was bought out by Vancouver and signed with the Panthers; and defenseman Tony DeAngelo, who now has the honor of being bought out by two different teams, with the Flyers ending his time in Philadelphia so he could rejoin the Carolina Hurricanes.
  • The Bruins saw their two big trade deadline acquisitions move on. Defenseman Dmitry Orlov signed a two-year deal with the Hurricanes, who were already stacked on defense, and Tyler Bertuzzi signed a one-year deal to play on Auston Matthews' wing with the Maple Leafs. Michael Bunting, who played with Matthews last season, signed with the Hurricanes. The Leafs also signed free agent defenseman John Klingberg to a one-year deal.
  • Star center Ryan O'Reilly, who was picked up at the trade deadline by Toronto, surprised many by signing a four-year deal with the Predators.
  • Goalie Joonas Korpisalo, one of the only big-name goalies available as free agency opened, inked a five-year contract with the Senators.
  • Winger Alex Killorn, an essential role player on Tampa Bay's Stanley Cup teams, signed a four-year deal with the Ducks after 11 seasons with the Lightning.
  • Defenseman Matt Dumba was cap-squeezed out of Minnesota and signed a one-year deal with the Coyotes.
  • Winger James van Riemsdyk, defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk and winger Milan Lucic all signed with the Bruins. It's a homecoming for Lucic, who was a fan favorite during eight years in Boston (2007-15).
  • Winger Vladimir Tarasenko didn't find the deal he wanted in free agency, changed agents and then inked a one-year contract with the Senators.

Among the players who avoided free agency by re-signing with their teams are two Golden Knights playoff heroes in forward Ivan Barbashev (five years) and goalie Adin Hill (two years); goalie Tristan Jarry, who signed a five-year deal to stay with the Penguins; defenseman Scott Mayfield (seven years), who remained with the Islanders; goalies Frederik Andersen (two years) and Antti Raanta (one year), who stayed with the Hurricanes; and defenseman Vladislav Gavrikov, who remained with the Kings on a two-year deal.

One name still available as the season begins: Patrick Kane, who split last season with the Blackhawks and Rangers before undergoing hip resurfacing surgery in the summer. He plans to play in 2023-24 and is waiting to see what the standings look like as the season progresses.

Auston Matthews hits the jackpot

Maple Leafs star Auston Matthews ended any speculation about his pending 2024 free agency by signing a four-year contract extension in August that gave him the highest annual average salary since the NHL instituted the cap: $13.25 million, topping the record Avalanche star Nathan MacKinnon set in 2022 ($12.6 million).

Other significant contract extensions included Devils forwards Jesper Bratt (eight years, $7.875 million AAV) and Timo Meier (eight years, $8.8 million AAV); Ducks forwards Troy Terry (seven years, $7 million AAV) and Trevor Zegras (three years, $5.75 million AAV); Senators defenseman Jake Sanderson (eight years, $8.05 million AAV); Washington Capitals winger Tom Wilson (seven years, $6.5 million AAV); Red Wings winger Alex DeBrincat (four years, $7.875 million AAV); Hurricanes center Sebastian Aho (eight years, $9.75 million AAV); and Islanders goalie Ilya Sorokin (eight years, $8.25 million AAV).

The bizarre Mike Babcock saga, and other coaching changes

The situation between Mike Babcock and the Columbus Blue Jackets presented an existential question for hockey fans: Is it really a coaching change if a new coach never actually makes it to training camp?

Babcock was officially hired by the Blue Jackets in July on a two-year deal worth $4 million per season, to much fanfare from the team.

He had won a Stanley Cup with Detroit, two Olympic golds with Team Canada, and is 12th all-time with 700 wins. But after he was fired by the Maple Leafs in 2019, stories emerged about Babcock's mental abuse of players with the Red Wings and the Maple Leafs. His tactics would be under scrutiny as he returned to the NHL.

On the "Spittin' Chiclets" podcast in September, former NHL player and current TV analyst Paul Bissonnette claimed that Babcock asked Columbus captain Boone Jenner to show him his cellphone camera roll before displaying those photos via AirPlay on the coach's office wall.

Former NHL defenseman Mike Commodore, who played for Babcock and has been a long-standing critic of the coach, said he heard this behavior also occurred during Babcock's time coaching the Maple Leafs.

"It happened with a few other players in Columbus, too," Commodore said in a video posted to X. "I don't want to use any names, but in particular [it involved] a young, very highly touted prospect."

These claims were enough to spark an NHLPA investigation of the situation, as new executive director Marty Walsh interviewed Blue Jackets players in Columbus. The NHLPA then presented its findings to the NHL, and the two entities informed the Blue Jackets. On Sept. 17, Babcock resigned as head coach of the Blue Jackets days before the start of training camp, with associate coach Pascal Vincent taking over as head coach.

"Upon reflection, it has become clear that continuing as head coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets was going to be too much of a distraction," Babcock said in a statement released by the team.

Blue Jackets management took the blame for the debacle. "We went through a process earlier this summer prior to hiring Mike Babcock as our head coach, but we got it wrong and that's on us," team president John Davidson said.

In other less contentious NHL coaching moves, the Capitals parted ways with Peter Laviolette, who quickly found a new gig coaching the Rangers after they fired Gerard Gallant. The Capitals hired 44-year-old Leafs assistant Spencer Carbery. The Predators hired Devils associate coach Andrew Brunette, who was a Jack Adams finalist in 2022 with Florida. Ryan Huska replaced Darryl Sutter in Calgary, while Greg Cronin took over for Dallas Eakins in Anaheim.

Big events outdoors, indoors

The NHL has three outdoor games scheduled for the 2023-24 season:

  • The Oilers and Flames play at Commonwealth Stadium, home of the CFL Edmonton Elks, in the Heritage Classic on Oct. 29.
  • The Kraken host the Golden Knights in the 2024 Winter Classic at T-Mobile Stadium, home the Seattle Mariners, on Jan. 1.
  • MetLife Stadium -- which saw both a Taylor Swift concert and Taylor Swift, Chiefs fan, this year -- hosts another historic event in February 2024. The Devils will host the Flyers on Saturday, Feb. 17, in an outdoor night game. The Islanders will host the Rangers on Sunday, Feb. 18. The event will mark the first time four NHL teams have played outdoor games at the same venue in front of fans.

The 2024 NHL All-Star Weekend will be held on Feb. 2 and 3 at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto.

Connor McDavid's encore

The 26-year-old Edmonton star set new career highs with 64 goals and 153 points in 82 games last season, winning the Hart Trophy as league MVP for the third time and the Pearson Award for NHLPA player of the year for a fourth time. His point total jumped by 30 and his goals by 20 year over year. No one's really sure what his ceiling is statistically.

Unfortunately for McDavid and his superstar teammate Leon Draisaitl, the Oilers have had a ceiling in the playoffs. After losing in the conference finals last season, Edmonton fell to the Golden Knights in the second round this season. McDavid and Draisaitl have yet to play for a Stanley Cup since McDavid entered the league in 2015. Is this the year?

Stanley Cup droughts

While teams like the Avalanche, Golden Knights, Lightning, Penguins and Kings seek another championship after recently winning the Cup, other teams considered among the top contenders are seeking to end significant droughts.

The Hurricanes (2006), Devils (2003), Stars (1999), Rangers (1994) and Oilers (1990) all have gone well over a decade without hoisting hockey's grail, while teams like the Minnesota Wild and Panthers have never won the Cup.

And then there are the Maple Leafs, seeking their first Stanley Cup win since 1967 -- a 55-season drought that's the longest in the NHL.

Alex Ovechkin Watch

Finally, Capitals star Alex Ovechkin continues his journey to break one of the most seemingly unbreakable records in sports: Wayne Gretzky's 894 career NHL goals.

After tallying 42 goals in 2022-23, Ovechkin has 822 career goals at the start the season. That's 72 goals to tie and 73 goals to pass Gretzky. So while the record-breaking moment probably has to wait until at least next season, it'll be fun to see how close Ovechkin can position himself to it during 2023-24.

Unless he decides to score 73 goals and be done with it. We're never one to underestimate Mr. Ovechkin as a goal scorer.

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