From Zach Hyman to Brady Tkachuk, teeing off Canada’s NHL contenders requires a fresh approach


My home golf course names each hole. Fittingly, Renewed Hope comes on the turn after the ninth hole. No matter what happened in the first half of the course that day, you can take a deep breath and fall back on something new.

It’s a sneaky hole, a lot harder than it looks, and sits between two holes that should be harder. A good tee shot is a must. It’s not overly daunting and seductive knowing that the approach shot is really the meat of the hole and will dictate your score. The green slopes subtly but dangerously from the back to the front.

It’s a bit like a hockey season: refreshing and guaranteed difficult.

The beginning of October is here and with a crisp feeling in the air, a new season is approaching. It is the ultimate time of Renewed Hope. Every team feels it; every player feels it. For everyone but the few who wore a Tampa Bay Lightning jersey and won their second consecutive Stanley Cup, everyone believes that driving needs to get better.

The word normal is back in our vocabulary, unlike the last two seasons. NHL training camps are in full swing, with exhibition games and fans in the stands. A full game plan lies ahead of us. There are many questions about roster decisions and roles to be filled.

Perhaps the most important part of normalcy is getting back to the regular divisions, after a year of restricted travel and the very first Canadian division. So let’s take a tour of the seven teams that made up the North and identify the early factors for each that could lead to success in the coming season.

I start with the tee or key to any team that starts well, followed by a few approach shots as they move. If successfully addressed, they will be fine on the green as the playoffs get closer.

Montreal’s surprising and spirited run to the Cup final took many by surprise, and her tee shot this season will be without the injured captain and front runner Shea Weber. For the other veterans, both on and off the ice, it will be vital to make an early appearance during his absence. The second shot could be about the game of new signing Christian Dvorak, a quick replacement by General Manager Marc Bergevin after the loss of center Jesperi Kotkaniemi to Carolina. If Dvorak and Jonathan Drouin can help build a solid second line, Montreal’s journey could go very smoothly.

Ottawa’s inspiring young group is without its heart-and-soul leader: Power Forward Brady Tkachuk, a restricted free agent who has yet to sign. He’s such an important part of everything the Senators do, and his absence could cause trouble. The sequel could be the game of a trio of young strikers with Tim Stützle, Josh Norris and Drake Batherson. All three will try to build on the first nine successes from last season. They would all benefit greatly if Tkachuk were on board at this tee.

In Toronto, a championship in the North Division was greatly mitigated by a first-round annoyance by arch rivals Montreal. Early focus could be on who’s not in attendance, with first winger Zach Hyman moving to Edmonton. A viable replacement is critical in order for superstars Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner to continue their growth. The equally important approach is the game of incumbent Jack Campbell and newcomer Petr Mrázek. A complementary pair in top form would greatly ease the pressure on the Leafs’ strong offensive.

Winnipeg should be the most comfortable on the way to the first tee as the team with one of the best strikers in the league welcomes seasoned defenders Brenden Dillon and Nate Schmidt. Their approach to the playoffs is all but guaranteed with Connor Hellebuyck one of the top goalkeepers, which gives them the luxury of working in talented youngsters like striker Cole Perfetti and defender Ville Heinola.

Hyman’s presence in Edmonton will be as noteworthy as his absence from Toronto. It’s hard to imagine that one of the best players in the world could get a boost, but Connor McDavid’s down-low game and puck retrieval just got better with Hyman’s arrival. It should ensure an opening drive to the middle, and long. More interesting will be the approach shot with the steadfast Duncan Keith slipping behind Darnell Nurse in defense. It could be a comfortable seat for the three-time Stanley Cup champion and two-time Norris Trophy winner, and Keith’s presence could comfortably calm the dressing room.

The loss of long-time captain Mark Giordano to Seattle in the draft expansion leaves a clear void in Calgary. That sucks head coach Darryl Sutter, who wants to set the tone for a group that just wasn’t able to take the next step. Sutter is supported by striker Blake Coleman, a free agent newcomer and two-time cup winner.

The impending tough start in Vancouver was averted late Friday with reports that young stars Quinn Hughes and Elias Pettersson had agreed on new contracts. They are brought together at this tee box, which makes the approach shots for the newcomers Oliver Ekman-Larsson in defense and Conor Garland at the top smoother.

Everyone recognizes the importance of starting the NHL season. A good start creates a presence and can build a successful year. It’s just like a good tee shot on the 10th hole followed by a strong approach shot to the green. It is renewed hope.

Dave Poulin is a retired NHL player, manager, and TSN hockey analyst based in Toronto. He is a freelance columnist for the star. Follow him on Twitter: @ djpoulin20


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