By Lori Bennett
Pre-season games are finally underway and fans are getting a look at how their teams are shaping up for the 2022-2023 NHL hockey season.
The Montreal Canadiens may have finished in last place last season, but the future looks very bright. The first overall pick of the 2022 Amateur Draft has been quiet so far in pre-season action. On the Ray and Dregs Hockey Podcast on Thursday GM Kent Hughes described Juraj Slafkovsky’s pre-season to that point as “a little underwhelming”, but the tools of greatness are evident, and fans will need to be patient while he grows into those tools.
Two other picks from that draft, forwards Filip Mesar and Owen Beck, are also in camp and taking advantage of the opportunity to impress. Both look to have a promising future in Montreal. A flock of young defenders are competing for too many openings on the Habs blue line.
Speaking of blue lines, on Thursday the Toronto Maple Leafs came to terms with restricted free agent defenceman Rasmus Sandin, who had been absent from camp after refusing to accept his summer contract offer. The Leafs were missing the young blueliner with a growing list of injuries to defencemen and Jordie Benn joining the list on Wednesday night. Sandin looked to have increased negotiating power, but according to reports it was Sandin who reached out to end the stalemate, ultimately accepting the offer that has been on the table all summer. That’s a big break for the Leafs.
The defence group is not the only place where the injury bug has struck. Centreman
John Tavares is out of action for a minimum of three weeks with an upper body injury, and Toronto is hoping Alexander Kerfoot can step up in the captain’s absence. That should be manageable in the short term, but if the injury lingers, Kerfoot may be swimming beyond his depth.
There are a couple of storylines I’m watching, including this season’s battle for GM of the year. In Ottawa, Pierre Dorion made a giant step from rebuilding to rebuilt when he traded for goal-scorer Alex DeBrincat and goaltender Cam Talbot, and then added veteran Claude Giroux in free agency. Were these deals perfectly timed with the development of the young players who form the core of the Senators roster? If so, and if the Sens can make the playoffs, Dorion will be in the top GM conversation.
In Calgary, Brad Treliving may have something to say about that. The Flames GM has somehow started the season with an improved team despite losing both Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk this summer. If the team can find chemistry early and perform, Treliving jumps to the top of the pile for this season’s best GM.
The other storyline to watch is early candidates to be moved at the NHL trade deadline. We can guess the teams that will be out of playoff contention by American Thanksgiving and peruse their roster for pending free agents who can be moved as rentals.
I’m watching the Chicago Blackhawks, who went into full tank mode this summer when they traded DeBrincat and Kirby Dach. As confirmed sellers, it is a matter of time before Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane find new homes. When they do, we may be able to spot genuine cup contenders this season.
Blue Jays Babble
The Toronto Blue Jays spent last weekend in Tampa Bay for a four-game series against the Rays, a division competitor. After getting clobbered in the first two games of the series, the boys in blue were able to recover and win games three and four to split the series.
The New York Yankees were next on the schedule, in Toronto for three games. On Monday, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. hit a walk-off single in the bottom of the tenth inning for the 3-2 win. On Tuesday, Jose Berrios was roughed up in a 5-2 loss. With the win, New York claimed the American League East title. In the rubber match on Wednesday, the Jays threw out the pitching panel they use in lieu of a legitimate fifth starter, and the approach was as effective as it sounds in an 8-3 loss.
The biggest storyline from last Wednesday’s game was not about the Jays though.
Aaron Judge of the Yankees hit his 61st home run of the season, tying the American League record set by Roger Maris back in 1961. Maris also played for the New York Yankees. His son, Roger Maris Jr., was in attendance in Toronto to witness the record-tying homer.
The Jays had a break on Thursday and then were due to greet the Boston Red Sox this past weekend for a three-game series before heading out to Baltimore for their final series of the regular season, against the Orioles. Nonetheless, Toronto clinched a playoff berth in the playoffs on Thursday when the Orioles lost to the Boston Red Sox.
There will be playoff action for the Jays, but there is still more on the line.
Heading into the weekend, Toronto held the top wild card spot in the American League East. The goal for the Blue Birds was to hold on to that top wild card spot and bring post-season games to Toronto for the first time since 2016. If they finish in the second or third wild card spot, the Jays will play a best-of-three series on the road.
Toronto fans are hoping for a home series, and perhaps even a trip to the second round.