The dawn of an NHL season offers unparalleled promise. It's a slate wiped clean for the ultimate fresh start. Everyone's on equal footing again, in an official erasure of whatever happened -- good or bad -- the prior campaign.
That opening puck drop doesn't come without months of preparation, though, and we're not just talking in the gym. Getting game-day ready goes beyond just the weight a player can handle on the squat rack -- to how they manage the load of inevitable expectation on their shoulders.
"I think the hardest part of pro hockey and being in the NHL isn't necessarily the physical part," Anaheim Ducks forward Troy Terry told ESPN at the NHL's player tour in Las Vegas this month. "It's the mental side of things."
And how. Terry is one of several top skaters within their organizations who've recently learned that lesson -- among others -- the hard way. Focusing on the body -- how it's fueled, trained and rested -- is (relatively) easy to control. But there's no guarantee it translates into on-ice results.
When there's a disconnect between the two, doubt naturally creeps in. Pressure ramps up.
Terry felt that in Anaheim last season during what was just his second full NHL campaign. Tom Wilson, coming off his 10th season with the Washington Capitals, went through a frustrating ride of his own in 2022-23. Veterans and newbies alike can't escape a down, disappointing, or demoralizing year. But they can all use it as an opportunity to snap back -- and level up.
That's why, after a too-long summer for too many NHLers, the 2023-24 season can't begin soon enough. When it does, some skaters will be eyeing their own sort of resurgence -- whether coming off injury, a disappointing individual performance or by simply trying to prove (to themselves, and everyone else) why this season will be better than ever.
TERRY COULDN'T UNDERSTAND what happened in mid-December last season.
After scoring 12 goals and 28 points in his first 31 games, he hit a wall.
"I went 16 games at that point last year without scoring a goal, which was tough for me," Terry said. "When I look back at it, I think I played well, I was getting points, but for whatever reason during that time I just could not score. And it put my goal totals off for the rest of this year."
That roadblock was uncharted territory for Terry on the heels of his much-lauded breakout effort. The 26-year-old made waves in 2021-22 -- his first full NHL season -- producing 37 goals and 67 points in 75 games, becoming the youngest Ducks player in franchise history to record a point streak of 15 games or longer, and being voted to his first NHL All-Star Game appearance.
Those stats not only put Terry on the NHL's radar in a major way, they earned him a seven-year, $49 million contract extension in the offseason that committed some of the best days of his playing career to Anaheim.
Terry anticipated not just meeting any newfound expectations associated with the long-term deal, but surpassing them. But on an Anaheim squad deep into rebuilding, it was Terry who found his own foundation shaken despite notching a solid 23 goals and 61 points through 70 games.
"It's funny, I had similar point totals [in 2022-23 as before], but my goal [numbers] being off was hard," he said. "But as a player, I think I took steps, and it's nice when we have a young team, and I was lucky enough to sign a long deal. So, I think my focus is just being a good hockey player and being a good teammate this year. That usually helps translate into points."
Taking a cue from his home base in the eternal summer of Southern California, Terry is determined to maintain a sunny mindset. His newest housemate has been an invaluable source of inspiration in that respect; Terry and his wife, Dani, welcomed Greyson James in April, a life-changing experience that put everything -- including hockey -- into much-needed perspective.
"Having a kid and everything that's changed [because of that] in my life, you start to not live or die by how you're doing on the ice," Terry said. "You realize there's more important things in your world. Not that hockey is not important, but you're more than just a hockey player. And I think that's been my mentality switch, and when you're going through times like that [without scoring], it helps."
Terry said he's "really excited" now for the season ahead even as the Ducks' continued retool is bound to bring about its own challenges. Like it or not, growing pains come with the domain for Terry, on the ice and at home. It's the latter life, though, that truly brings Terry the most joy these days, even if -- like his day job -- there are highs and lows through which to wade.
"Fatherhood is harder than I ever thought it would be," Terry admitted. "But I also love that guy more than I thought I could love something. So, it's been pretty fun."
But what he does say hits hard.
"I want to get to the top," Sergachev said. "I want to be the best: on our team first, and then in the league."
That's exactly the mic drop mentality Tampa Bay needs from its burgeoning star. The 25-year-old blueliner was acquired by the Lightning in 2017 to eventually be where he is now -- cresting their defensive depth chart as one of the team's highest-paid players thanks to an eight-year, $68 million contract kicking in this season.
Sergachev doesn't take the team's commitment to him lightly. He produced the best season of his career across the board in 2022-23, tallying 10 goals and 64 points in 79 games, averaging a team-high 23 minutes, 49 seconds of ice time per game, and earning a significant role on the Lightning power play.
It was disappointing, then, for Sergachev -- and the Lightning at large -- to see how they came up short in a first-round playoff loss to Toronto. Tampa Bay's run of back-to-back Stanley Cup victories, followed by another Cup Final appearance, set a high standard that Sergachev is determined not to let slip. Especially given the profound impact the team's investment in his future has already had.
"I appreciate it a lot," Sergachev said. "When they gave me an eight-year deal, like I don't want to say I didn't expect it, but I just felt that they trusted me and they believed in me, and it changed my perspective on a lot of things. It made me believe in myself more."
What that translates to over the next few years is on Sergachev to create. It's likely no coincidence the new pact coincided with Sergachev's excellent season. The goal now is to recreate that success individually, and hope it also rubs off on the rest of his team.
"I understand things better now," Sergachev said. "I signed a long-term deal. The team trusted me on the first power play [last season]. So, it's a lot of responsibility going into this season. Every year, every summer, every training camp that I take, I have to focus on that [responsibility] and give it everything I have."
And it's echoing like a mantra: consistency.
"I don't want to just be catching fire and then not really doing a whole lot later in the season," Robertson said. "It's just staying that same player I can be and having that high expectation to try to play the best I can offensively, but do it consistently and try to maintain the other aspects of the game as well at the same time."
If Roberson's goal-setting ability is anything like his goal-scoring one, then the Stars are in for a treat. Because their top-line winger is ready to fly even higher.
The 24-year-old was a behemoth on the ice in 2022-23, producing 46 goals and 109 points in 82 games to rank him seventh and sixth, respectively, overall in the NHL. For context, the only skaters who notched more points than Robertson were Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, David Pastrnak, Nikita Kucherov and Nathan MacKinnon.
But the postseason was a different story, as he scored just two goals and 10 assists in the opening two rounds (including no goals in seven games against the Kraken), before coming alive against Vegas in the conference finals.
Robertson talks about his game as a work in progress, and he's dialed in on maintaining good habits.
"If I'm consistent in what I do and what I play, the numbers will take care of themselves," he said. "That's just what happens. You work hard, you don't get complacent, then you know you're going to get opportunities. You're going to get chances. You play on too good of a team not to; too good of a roster not to get those opportunities. So, it's up to me to just try to stick to that [mindset], keep working hard and don't get complacent."
The same could be said for the Stars overall. Dallas put together an 108-point season under first year head coach Pete DeBoer and advanced to the Western Conference finals. The Stars came up short there in a six-game loss to the eventual Cup champion Golden Knights, but the result has done nothing to curb Robertson's enthusiasm for what Dallas can accomplish in the coming season.
"It's winning it all," he said. "That's what you want to do. We have those expectations. We have the players, the coach that it takes the win. Everyone has a recipe to win. We've got a big forward group, great defensemen, an elite goalie. You have all those criteria that were checked off.
"So, we have high expectations this year, and we're fortunate enough to where our GM [Jim Nill] has built this group well. And the young guys are going to step up and take control, like me and the younger guys. So, we're excited."
Here's where Robertson will digress, though. Yes, as a fourth-year pro, there is a natural progression toward shouldering more locker room duties and being a good example. Just don't anticipate Robertson breaking away from who he's been all along. On and off the ice, Robertson's moves have served him and the Stars well.
The right formula now is just generating more of what works -- even more often.
"All I've got to do is keep working hard, keeping playing the right way and just lead by example," he said. "I like to say I'm a leader. I have a big responsibility in myself to not put myself ahead of the team in any situation, so I think I've been doing a good job in that. I'm ready to get back at it."
THERE'S WISDOM IN growing older as a person and a hockey player.
Capitals winger Tom Wilson can attest that's the truth.
"You kind of learn to live in the moment," Wilson said of getting deeper into his career. "You take it game by game. Right now, we have a really good group of guys in our room. Age obviously doesn't really matter if everyone's playing well and doing their thing and winning games. People like to look to the future and plan, but our job as players is to win each game, win every night, and if you do that, the rest will take care of itself."
Ideally, Wilson would like to contribute more to the winning part this season than he was able to recently. The 29-year-old missed the first half of 2022-23 recovering from offseason ACL surgery. He made it back into the lineup by January and lasted a mere eight games before a blocked shot against Colorado caused a "small, small fracture" in an ankle that was big enough to sideline Wilson through mid-February.
Still, the winger was a productive player for Washington, producing 13 goals and 22 points in 33 games. And GM Brian MacLellan recognized Wilson's value with a massive seven-year, $45.5 million contract extension that starts next season to carry Wilson through (presumably) the majority of his remaining NHL seasons.
But those extended absences last season were some of many that ultimately doomed the injury-plagued Capitals to a down season. Washington recorded the fourth-most man games lost amid ailments to Wilson, Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie and John Carlson; it was no surprise by the March trade deadline to see MacLellan trading players away, torpedoing any lingering hope Washington had of making the playoffs.
Wilson says now he's "feeling good; a lot better" than the previous offseason and used an extended summer to get his body back in the game, so to speak.
Next is trying to bring Washington back from the brink. The Capitals have a new head coach in Spencer Carbery, a milestone machine on a mission in Alex Ovechkin and, with a healthy Carlson, Backstrom and Wilson, some legitimate optimism for the year ahead.
That's what Wilson will cling too, anyway. Even if the 2022-23 season ended with a thud, there's reason to believe the coming campaign can open with a bang.
"I think [my goals] all revolve around team success," Wilson said. "We want to get back to where we want to be. We want to have that winning culture and mentality that we've built for the last 10-15 years in Washington. And if I'm doing my job, if I'm playing well, I think it'll help the team win games, and that's the most important thing."
And if Wilson has to take over a bigger role -- whether on the ice or in the dressing room -- he's prepared to learn on the fly there, too.
"I'm pretty fortunate to have had so many leaders to look to, and now I'm in the middle of my career and in the second wave [to start standing up]," he said. "But those guys [like Ovechkin and Backstrom] are the best and I love having them around and just try and soak it all in when you can."
FORGET THE CLICHED "roller-coaster ride" analogy.
Let's recap: It was only in 2021-22 when Forsberg emerged with a breakout season, collecting 42 goals and 84 points in 69 games for a Predators team that defied expectations earning a postseason berth. Forsberg parlayed his success into a mammoth new deal with Nashville, avoiding free agency in the summer of 2022 by agreeing to an eight-year, $68 million extension.
The Predators -- and Forsberg along with them -- seemed well positioned to rise even further in 2022-23. Until the wheels fell off.
Instead of thriving out of the gate, Nashville immediately fell into a fight just to keep pace in the playoff race. The Predators were four points out of a wild-card spot in February when Forsberg -- then the team's second-leading scorer with 19 goals and 42 points in 50 games -- suffered a concussion against Philadelphia.
Forsberg never returned for the Predators. The team's alarming number of injuries -- to him, Roman Josi, Ryan Johansen, and others -- led to Nashville spiraling out of postseason contention from there.
The fallout came fast and furious. Head coach Jon Hynes was fired (and eventually replaced by Andrew Brunette). GM David Poile finalized his retirement, with Barry Trotz taking over. And Trotz wasted no time giving Nashville a face-lift, buying out Matt Duchene's contract, trading Johansen to Colorado and adding veterans such as Ryan O'Reilly, Gustav Nyquist and Luke Schenn in free agency.
It's been 24 months of whiplash, basically. What Forsberg needs now is some rejuvenation -- with a side of stability.
"You kind of have to see it that way," he said about rebounding this season. "You miss 32 games [in 2022-23], you feel like you had a tough year. It might not have been as bad as it felt, but at the same time, you don't play for half the season, it's obvious you're going to have to bounce back and try to find something to build off. I'm excited just to get a chance to be out there competing with my teammates again."
The Predators' locker room looks different than before, too. Forsberg is one of a few remaining veterans from Nashville's lineup in 2021-22, a clear indication of how the organization has pivoted toward its up-and-comers (including Philip Tomasino, Cody Glass and Thomas Novak).
If Forsberg is wearied by all that change, he doesn't show it. If anything, he's attempting to flourish from it, and holds faith that he and the Predators can make the most of what awaits this season.
"I feel great. I'm excited about [what's next]," he said. "I think our [retooling] has been done correctly, so to speak. Obviously, you don't want to see any of your friends and teammates leave, but at least we've done a good job trying to replace them with other players, and I'm excited to get to know Coach Brunette as well."