It’s the most wonderful time of the year (about three months later)!
It took a long time, but we can finally say it: hockey is back. Sure, there are some oddities thrown in due to the pandemic. Divisions have been re-shuffled in order to minimize travel, taxi squads and the AHL are going to play a role in roster decisions, and games are already being pushed back by COVID-19 outbreaks, but we made it. And for players and fans alike, it’s a welcome sight from the absolute craziness the world has been plunged into lately.
So how do we celebrate the return of the NHL? By looking into the crystal ball and gazing months down the road, of course!
Despite the seemingly endless parity of the league (look no further than Dallas’s run to the Stanley Cup Final last season) and a whole range of variables that can drive a team to fortune or ruin, there are some teams that stand out. Teams that have reasonable chances to hold the greatest trophy in sports, and teams that will be searching the Internet for highlights of the top draft prospects. All of them will be dissected in order of 1 to 31, along with a bonus of who I believe will be the player that could prove critical to their success.
Welcome back to hockey season, folks!
1. Colorado Avalanche: Yes, it’s customary of these to put the defending Stanley Cup champions here, but can we overlook the war machine being built in the Rocky Mountains right now? Brandon Saad, Devon Toews, and likely Bowen Byram will only strengthen an already deep roster headlined by hockey’s latest megastar in Nathan MacKinnon. A dynasty will be tough in this league, but if any team can do it, it’s the Avs.
X-Factor: It’s unanimous that if there is a single question about this team, it’s the goaltending. Philipp Grubauer will have possibly until the trade deadline to prove he is the answer in net. Otherwise, expect Joe Sakic to examine all options.
2. Vegas Golden Knights: The two best teams in the same division? Yeah, the Colorado-Vegas matchups could very well decide who is more likely to represent the West by the end of the season. A full season of Robin Lehner in tandem with face of the franchise Marc-Andre Fleury should keep them set in goal, while adding Alex Pietrangelo is a clear sign the team is going Cup or bust. Embracing the gambling spirit of their home city, the Knights just went all in.
X-Factor: It was tempting to put Lehner or Theodore here, but Cody Glass easily has the most to prove. The first-ever draft choice of the franchise, Glass had his rookie year tarnished by untimely injuries. The Knights haven’t given up faith on him, though, and he could easily see top-line duty with Max Pacioretty and Mark Stone at some point this season. If he does, expect his playmaking abilities to be put to the test.
3. Tampa Bay Lightning: I know what you’re thinking: how could the defending champions be at 3, right? Well, losing last year’s team-leading scorer in Nikita Kucherov for the regular season will dampen any expectations. They still have a solid team, but the organizational depth will be tested if anybody like Steven Stamkos or Victor Hedman go through any injury troubles. The road to a repeat got a lot more difficult.
X-Factor: If there is one silver lining to Kucherov’s injury, it gave them the cap space to resign a key player in Anthony Cirelli. A great two-way player and potential Selke Award winner for best defensive forward, Cirelli will see his responsibilities grow as he secures a top-six role. If he can hit the 20-goal and 50-point plateaus for the first time while remaining a defensive stalwart, he could become one of the NHL’s breakout stars.
4. Washington Capitals: The two years after their Cup win in 2018 have ended in massive disappointment, but there’s still reason to think the Capitals can contend. Todd Reirden has been replaced by former Cup-winning coach Peter Laviolette. Alex Ovechkin has shown little signs of slowing down. John Carlson will continue to be a favorite to win the Norris Trophy. They’ve won the toughest division in hockey in the Metropolitan for the last five seasons and will compete in the toughest new division this season. Don’t expect anything out of the ordinary.
X-Factor: Braden Holtby’s departure and Henrik Lundqvist’s heart condition open the door for young Ilya Samsonov to handle the lion’s share of starts. Samsonov put together a strong rookie campaign last season, but is he ready to take the next step up and become a top-10 goaltender? How that question is answered could ultimately decide Washington’s fate.
5. St. Louis Blues: Losing Alex Pietrangelo to Vegas means that on-ice leadership will have to be replaced, but the Blues did a nice job rebounding with Torey Krug. Getting another quality goal-scorer in Mike Hoffman and finding a real replacement for Pat Maroon in Kyle Clifford should help their chances. The defense could stand to get better beyond Krug and Colton Parayko, and Jordan Binnington will have to recapture some of the magic from his phenomenal rookie year in 2019 if the team wants to have a real shot at contention. If things go their way, however, the Blues could give Colorado and Vegas runs for their money.
X-Factor: After years of toiling on the third line, Robert Thomas has earned his place in the top six. Most notably, his new linemates will likely be Hoffman and perennially underrated Jaden Schwartz, meaning Thomas should have multiple chances to showcase his playmaking skills. It’d be a stretch for him to lead the team in points, but it’s not entirely out of the realm of possibility.
6. Carolina Hurricanes: The Hurricanes find themselves in the same place as last season: the dark horse to win the Stanley Cup. Yes, goaltending is still an issue, but their roster is incredibly well-balanced. A good combination of skill, strength, speed, and depth, with little changes outside of Jesper Fast replacing the retired Justin Williams. Getting to play against the two teams who met in the Stanley Cup Final last season should be a great chance to prove just how high the ceiling is for this team.
X-Factor: You may want to get familiar with Andrei Svechnikov, as he could easily find his way to being hockey’s next superstar. Viral lacrosse-style goals aside, Svechnikov was close to reaching point-per-game pace in a shortened season and showed improvement in every aspect of play. The next act for Svechnikov? Stepping up as a leader and pushing this “bunch of jerks” towards being a force to be reckoned with.
7. Philadelphia Flyers: The Flyers are truly a mystery wrapped in an enigma. Their phenomenal finish of last year’s regular season is likely unsustainable, but they did figure a few things out about themselves. Carter Hart is a legitimate starting goaltender, and young players like Travis Konecny can ease the burden on members of the old guard like Claude Giroux. The dangerous thing about a shortened season, however, is that the Flyers tend to be a streaky team. If they fall out of the picture early, it will be more difficult than ever to bounce back.
X-Factor: As great as it will be to see Oskar Lindblom and Nolan Patrick return to the ice, the most important skater in Philadelphia’s lineup might just be Philippe Myers. One of the top young stay-at-home defensemen in the league, Myers can be a perfect complement to either Ivan Provorov or Travis Sanheim, as well as play a key role on the penalty kill. If he can continue to improve his defensive numbers, Myers should become a fixture in the Flyers’ defensive corps.
8. Boston Bruins: The Bruins are one of the so-called “contenders” that absolutely worry me heading into the season. Losing Torey Krug and Zdeno Chara means the team will have to replace the production, leadership, and physicality from within the organization. Even more worrying is the Perfection Line not being one hundred percent, with Brad Marchand likely going to be banged up to start the year and David Pastrnak already being ruled out for the first month or so of the season. They don’t have a top-heavy division to fight off for playoff seeding either, so where they end up will be entirely on their own performance against quality opponents. The ceiling is still high, but the floor might be lower than you think.
X-Factor: It feels like cheating to put two players here, but they have the same reasons for being in this spot. Jack Studnicka and Matt Grzelcyk will be counted on to fill in for Pastrnak and Krug, respectively, and their performance will be crucial throughout the season. Studnicka has become the Bruins’ top prospect after a solid rookie season in the AHL, while Grzelcyk has drawn rave reviews at training camp. If they can hold the line and provide positive contributions, Boston will benefit greatly from that.
9. Dallas Stars: It’s easy to want to place the Stars higher after their spirited run to the Cup Final, but how high is too high? They’re a team that’s made for the postseason, relying on strong defense and goaltending while getting just enough offensive contributions. In a shortened season, however, that might be a tough ask. Ben Bishop will miss half of the season, ensuring more of a workload for playoff hero Anton Khudobin. More concerning, however, is how Tyler Seguin will miss nearly the entire regular season. Seguin was the only Star to hit 50 points last season, so who will step up to fill that production? The conclusion is the same as the Bruins: approach with cautious optimism.
X-Factor: The good news is the Stars have some young skaters who could get the offense going, headlined by Denis Gurianov. Gurianov was the only Star to hit 20 goals last year, and he was one of their best performers throughout the playoffs with 17 points, including the series-clinching goal against Vegas to send the Stars to the Stanley Cup Final. We know Gurianov can score, now he needs to show a more complete game to become a true offensive driver.
10. Toronto Maple Leafs: If there was ever a time for the Leafs to prove themselves to be competitive, this is it. After years of playing third fiddle to Tampa Bay and Boston, they have an all-Canadian division that they can clearly win. Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner are one of the league’s elite forward pairings, with Matthews a favorite to win the Rocket Richard trophy for most goals. However, they will need better showings from a good chunk of the lineup. If they can’t get out of the first round now, that may be the sign of a serious problem.
X-Factor: The Leafs will be looking for some bounce-back years, one of which being their top defenseman in Morgan Rielly. Rielly’s strength has always been as an offensive defenseman and power play quarterback. This year, though, he’ll be gifted with a solid two-way player in TJ Brodie to serve as his linemate. If Brodie accepts more responsibility in the defensive end, that could give Rielly the freedom to join the rush more often and rack up the points quickly.
11. Edmonton Oilers: Toronto’s top competition for the North/Canadian Division. Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl are two of arguably the three best hockey players in the world right now, with Draisaitl picking up the Art Ross trophy for most points last season and McDavid a strong contender to win it this time out. So why have they struggled so often recently? Depth and goaltending. They managed to pick up a few solid pieces in free agency, and some prospects are beginning to rise up the ranks. However, they failed to improve on their goaltending, so some Oilers games could turn into firefights quickly.
X-Factor: Kailer Yamamoto’s reclamation was a huge success last season, and now it’s time to do the same with Jesse Puljujarvi. The 4th overall pick back in 2016, it was largely believed that Puljujarvi would never return to Edmonton after frustrations about his standing on the team sent him back to his native Finland. However, he seems to have not only come back, but matured a great deal since coming back. The positive remarks about him from McDavid should help his case, and the new structure in Edmonton since when he was drafted could help him out. Is this the year he begins to scratch the surface of his potential?
12. New York Islanders: No team was more streaky or unpredictable than the Islanders last season. They were fantastic at the beginning of the year and in the playoff bubble, but no one talks about the middle of the year where they languished in mediocrity. They finally have Mathew Barzal back, and there is some buzz about KHL import Ilya Sorokin, but this is still largely the same team from last year. Until we see the true Islanders, I’m not sure I can go much higher than this for an initial ranking.
X-Factor: Sorokin was tempting here, but Ryan Pulock turned some heads at training camp. Brought back on a team-friendly extension, Pulock has become a strong two-way defenseman in Barry Trotz’s incredible defensive structure. Becoming the top defenseman for such a highly-respected coach isn’t easy, but it speaks to how well Pulock has developed. I look forward to seeing how he handles the responsibilty.
13. Pittsburgh Penguins: It’s tempting to push the Penguins higher based off of name recognition, but the fact is that this is a severely flawed team. Yes, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin will still be great, and a healthy Jake Guentzel will help this team’s offensive output rise. That said, the forward group beyond that are either from bad trades and contracts or reclamation projects, replacing Jack Johnson with Mike Matheson somehow worsens the salary cap situation, and there are no impact prospects who can quickly turn this ship around. This is a team at the end of its window, and that window may have slammed shut already.
X-Factor: Like Matt Murray did to franchise legend Marc-Andre Fleury, Tristan Jarry‘s performance last season rendered Murray obsolete. He has been given the keys, but how well will he do during his first time at the wheel? There isn’t a safety net for him to fall on unlike with Fleury or Murray, so how Pittsburgh holds up will be entirely on his shoulders.
14. Vancouver Canucks: The Canucks are a true depiction of Jim Benning’s work as GM. At the top of the lineup is an incredible amount of young talent. Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser emerging as young leaders, Quinn Hughes becoming a top defenseman out of the gate, and a couple of shrewd pieces of business in J.T. Miller and Nate Schmidt. The bottom of the lineup, however? Loaded with free agent misses such as Antoine Roussel, Jay Beagle, Brandon Sutter, and Tyler Myers. Being top-heavy might get you through the regular season, but it severely dampens this team’s aspirations going forward.
X-Factor: The Canucks may have signed Braden Holtby, but the short length of the deal says one thing: Thatcher Demko is the goaltender of the future. He burst on the scene in the second round of the playoffs last year, nearly willing the Canucks to an upset victory over Vegas. It’s a promising sign for Canucks fans, who hope the young goaltender has finally found some confidence in net. He’ll be sharing the net with Holtby, but don’t be surprised if he takes over the net and sends Holtby off to likely their biggest rival next year in Seattle.
15. Nashville Predators: Terrible special teams have plagued the Predators for a while now, but things came crashing down for them last season. Key players struggled through down years, culminating in an embarrassing defeat at the hands of the Arizona Coyotes in the play-in round. While Nashville played it safe with their offseason at the beginning, they eventually made some big moves by bringing back Mikael Granlund, signing Erik Haula, and trading Nick Bonino for Luke Kunin. The window might be closed for the moment, but can the influx of fresh talent prop it back up? And is John Hynes the right coach to do it?
X-Factor: A player who would exemplify a potential resurgence from the Preds would be Viktor Arvidsson. Last year was, by far, his worst season in the league, but he did seem to pick up the pace in the playoffs when he was reunited with Filip Forsberg and Ryan Johansen. Assuming that line stays together, a season like 2018-19 wouldn’t be so bad, when Arvidsson notched 48 points in 58 games. Such a pace isn’t unattainable for the talented Swede.
16. Calgary Flames: I had a feeling the Flames’ divison-running year in 2019 was a fluke, and they ended up proving me correct. Down years from several core players, including another dismal playoff showing, has led to serious questions. Matthew Tkachuk is solid, and there’s a couple of intriguing young players like Rasmus Andersson and Dillon Dube. However, can Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan prove they can adapt against physicality and shake off any “overrated” labels? Was Mark Giordano’s rough season the beginning of his decline? Was it a good idea to bolster the core with ex-Canucks in free agency? If the answer is no and the Flames slide out of the playoffs, a blowup could be imminent.
X-Factor: Jacob Markstrom will easily be the most scrutinized free agent signing in this class. He had a great season and postseason with Vancouver last year, but we’ll get to see how he does with a Flames team going through a good bit of turnover in their defensive corps. How the Flames do will reflect on him and, if he struggles, his contract could be an albatross they can ill afford.
17. Montreal Canadiens: If you’re looking for a team that can surprise and shoot up these rankings quickly, look no further than Les Canadiens. If you’re a fan of advanced analytics and metrics, the Canadiens actually performed better than their record last season would indicate. Tyler Toffoli and Jake Allen were both quality gets for GM Marc Bergevin and, while I’m not crazy about Josh Anderson or Joel Edmundson’s contracts, both provide important physical elements for a team preparing for a youth movement. They also convinced top defensive prospect Alexander Romanov to jump from Russia to the NHL, giving us fans another reason to get excited about this team. They could make some noise, especially in a pretty tight division like the North.
X-Factor: As an admitted Vegas fan, my feelings are mixed on Nick Suzuki. While Max Pacioretty has finally found his footing in Sin City, the centerpiece from the deal that sent him there has performed just as impressive. It will be difficult for Suzuki to hit a point-per-game pace, but the Canadiens will be looking for him to nail down the top-line center role for next season and beyond. The developments of him versus the prospect Vegas elected to keep in Cody Glass is an underrated storyline for the future.
18. Columbus Blue Jackets: Given the Blue Jackets were considered dead in the water after losing Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky last offseason, last season should count as a victory for them. They carry an underrated roster again this season, but it does comes with some problems. Gustav Nyquist’s shoulder injury will hurt, but even more damaging could be the contract standoff with top center Pierre-Luc Dubois. While Dubois signed a bridge deal to stay in Columbus, it’s clear that he wants the big money that GM Jarmo Kekalainen just couldn’t provide. It likely won’t happen this year as teams will want a clearer look at the cap picture for next season and beyond, but a Dubois trade could end up being a significant loss for a team that’s already dealt with a fair share of them.
X-Factor: If the Dubois trade talks get more serious, Max Domi will be relied upon more than Columbus expected when they traded for him. Domi’s game has been inconsistent since arriving on the NHL scene, having strong beginning seasons with Arizona and Montreal before seeing his output dwindle in both spots. If he wants to stick in Columbus, he’s going to need to develop offensive consistency and bring the energy to a top-six group that could use a spark right now. He’ll either become John Tortorella’s best friend or his biggest headache, and I don’t know if there’s any in-between.
19. New York Rangers: The youth movement is on in Madison Square Garden. A season after they lucked out in drafting Kaapo Kakko and landing the big fish in Artemi Panarin, the Rangers struck gold again and landed the rights to draft Alexis Lafreniere first overall. Having two potential Calder Trophy winners in Lafreniere and new top goaltender Igor Shesterkin is absolutely huge, pointing to a bright future. That being said, the team does still need to grow before they can truly contend, and the defense will need some work in their own zone to keep Shesterkin from facing too many shots. There’s reason for optimism, but the expectations should be to use this year as a learning experience.
X-Factor: Lafreniere and Shesterkin deservedly get much of the hype from Rangers fans, but something that gets lost is the start of Adam Fox‘s emergence on the blueline. While Cale Makar and Quinn Hughes received much of the media attention, Fox quietly became the first rookie defenseman to score 40 points for the Rangers since Brian Leetch. He and defensive partner Ryan Lindgren will be tasked with more responsibilities this season and, if successful, they could emerge as a legitimate top pairing for a young team that desperately needs it to take the next step.
20. Winnipeg Jets: I really want to like the Jets more than I do. Their top six forwards look like a group that should be contending for a cup, and defending Vezina Trophy winner Connor Hellebuyck is the type of goaltender than can lead a team to a championship on his own, if necessary. Then, you look at the defense. They miss Dustin Byfuglien bad, regardless of how well guys like Josh Morrissey and Neal Pionk do to fill the gap. The trade rumors surrounding an intriguing young player in Jack Roslovic do not help matters, either. They can finish just about anywhere in the North Division, honestly.
X-Factor: Winnipeg fans need to be extremely worried about the Patrik Laine rumors. Sure, trading such a big-name player will be difficult with the flat cap, but 22-year-old snipers with Laine’s sky-high potential come around the trade block once and only once. Teams like the Hurricanes could be willing to part with a handsome amount of assets if it means bringing Laine aboard, so the Jets will need to ask for the moon if they do decide to send him off. They paired Laine back with Paul Statsny to try and recreate some of the 2017-18 magic they had, but would it be enough for him to stick around Manitoba for the foreseeable future?
21. Buffalo Sabres: The Sabres shocked the hockey world in the offseason when Taylor Hall decided to take a one-year deal to play with Jack Eichel. Eichel, who was the subject of trade rumors when the offseason began, now has a star wingman to join forces with. Eric Staal was another smart acquisition from first-year GM Kevyn Adams, Dylan Cozens appears ready to make his NHL debut, and the team is hoping for a Year 3 leap from former first overall pick Rasmus Dahlin. That being said, the depth at forward thins out after the top six plus Cozens, the defense and goaltending are the exact same from last year, and the division they got stuck in is absolutely nasty. Buffalo better hope there’s enough to keep Eichel long-term.
X-Factor: Hall has captured much of the attention in Buffalo, but the Sabres had another solid wing player in Victor Olofsson. Olofsson might not play on the top line with Eichel right away, but being linemates with Staal and Sam Reinhart isn’t a terrible downgrade. Where his value might shine through is the power play, as he scored 11 power play goals. The continued development of young players like Olofsson will be critical if Buffalo is going to make any sort of noise this year.
22. Florida Panthers: Last year’s optimism of Sergei Bobrovsky and Joel Quenneville is going out after another disappointing year from the Panthers. With a new GM in Bill Zito, the Panthers made a whirlwind of smaller moves to try and improve the roster. It’s alright for a team to have an influx of new blood, but this much in one go might be too much. I might expect chemistry to be a real sticking point for this team, which could prove deadly in a shortened season. And then the Panthers received the news Bobrovsky will miss the start of the season. Anyone else hearing alarms right now?
X-Factor: Being his own agent didn’t work in his favor, but Anthony Duclair might have found himself a nice stage to prove his skills. He has a good chance to replace Evgenii Dadonov on a top line, which would pair him with one of the league’s top playmakers in Aleksander Barkov. The 20-goal mark shouldn’t be too difficult for him to reach, and strong offensive performances could push his market value up (a name to watch for Seattle, perhaps?)
23. Minnesota Wild: Minnesota strikes me as a team that’s so close, but so far at the same time. Their top four defensemen are as strong a quartet as you’ll find in the league, and I truly do believe Kevin Fiala is ready to take the next step up. That being said, they don’t have much to speak of in terms of center depth, the younger players are beginning to show their ceilings, and I just can’t be convinced that Cam Talbot is a long-term answer in net. In a top-heavy division like the West is, the Wild are clearly competing for the final playoff spot.
X-Factor: Kirill Kaprizov alone makes the Wild worth watching. Long considered the top prospect in the organization, he will immediately make the jump from Russia to a top line in the NHL. A Calder Trophy favorite along with the Rangers’ duo and possibly Tim Stuetzle, Kaprizov may need to get acclimated to the North American game quickly. He’s done well at practices and scrimmages, but how will he hold up to real NHL action with the hectic pace of a shortened season?
24. San Jose Sharks: It may be time to become seriously concerned about the Sharks. There’s young talent to be found here, and Logan Couture and Tomas Hertl are a good 1-2 punch at center if they’re both healthy. However, they don’t have the supporting cast to compete with the big guns in the West Division, players like Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic have shown serious signs of aging, their cap situation is looking like one of the worst in the league, and Martin Jones and Devan Dubnyk could easily be the worst goaltending tandem in the league. This is before you get to the fact the Sharks might be stuck playing in Arizona this season and Evander Kane’s bankruptcy filing possibly taking him out for the season. They’ll be competitive for the fourth seed in the West, but is that really a good thing for a team that might want to consider a rebuild?
X-Factor: The Sharks desperately need someone to get points up for them, and Timo Meier stands as their best bet in that category. Despite an up-and-down season, Meier still finished as the team’s leader in points. If the Sharks want to get back into at least being competitive, Meier will have to become a leader on the ice and a driver on offense. Having a healthy Couture dish the puck to him would be nice.
25. New Jersey Devils: The Devils were always going to be a tough sell in a tough division, and there’s no reason to believe otherwise. The forwards are good but not great, the defense needs a couple bounce-back years, and their younger players will need to develop quickly. The news about Corey Crawford’s retirement had to hurt. While understandable, Crawford’s decision puts the Devils in a rough spot with goaltending, having to rely on a still-growing Mackenzie Blackwood to make more saves than he probably can right now. At least Jesper Bratt got signed?
X-Factor: Nico Hischier’s injury to start the season pushes last year’s first overall pick Jack Hughes into first-line duty. After a rough rookie season, it appears Hughes has shown serious commitment towards a sophomore leap. Being on a line with arguably the Devils’ two best forwards in Kyle Palmieri and Nikita Gusev will help him out, but the team ultimately needs him to be the elite center he was expected to be. How he does could create an interesting question about who keeps the top spot when Hischier is ready to come back.
26. Los Angeles Kings: The Kings aren’t coming into this season looking for results, but progress. Second overall pick Quinton Byfield has become the new crown jewel of the Kings pipeline, and there’s still plenty of NHL-caliber talent beyond him that will make their debuts this season. That being said, Anze Kopitar’s year-to-year inconsistency have him coming up empty this time, Jeff Carter and Dustin Brown are in stages of decline, and Drew Doughty’s contract is an absolute eyesore. I’d say something about Jonathan Quick, but any good season from him would only be ammunition for the Kings to ship him off to Seattle at a discount.
X-Factor: While Quick may be on his way out, the Kings will do everything they can to make the starter transition easy for Cal Petersen. I’m not convinced that Petersen is strictly a backup, as he did well in tandem with Quick. If Quick struggles out of the gate like he did last season, expect Petersen’s role to grow with the potential of him stealing the net for good.
27. Arizona Coyotes: Yes, Darcy Kuemper is a good goaltender, but that’s all the Coyotes have to offer. Taylor Hall’s departure and Phil Kessel’s failure to move the needle offensively means goals could be difficult to come by. They can hope for young players like Barrett Hayton and Conor Garland to keep stepping up, but this is a burden far too heavy for those two alone. I just can’t see the Coyotes being remotely competitive this year, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if they end up bottoming out in the standings. So who says this is karma for the Mitch Miller fiasco?
X-Factor: It has to be approaching a make-or-break year for Clayton Keller. Two straight down seasons and one giant contract later, Keller’s 65-point rookie season is still the best one he’s had. With help unlikely to arrive anytime soon, Keller will have to produce at or near those levels again, or he’ll end up being one of the larger headaches on a team already plunged into cap hell.
28. Ottawa Senators: Give the Senators credit for doing what they can to help themselves out during this rebuild. Evgenii Dadonov and Alex Galchenyuk are both interesting free-agent signings, and Matt Murray will give them a legitimate starter in the net. The real prize here, though, are the prospects. The likes of Erik Brannstrom and Drake Batherson are ready to take on larger roles, while others like Josh Norris are looking to make their debuts at some point this season. It’s still a young team that doesn’t have what it takes to compete in the North Division, but it could be a lot worse.
X-Factor: No prospect, however, will have the impact Tim Stuetzle could make for the Senators this year. The third overall pick in the draft, Stuetzle arrived at the Senators’ training camp days after an impressive showing at the World Juniors. Likely featuring on a line with two veterans in Derek Stepan and Evgenii Dadonov, Steutzle should be able to get plenty of experience in all situations. If Ottawa somehow ends up making some noise, he’s a dark horse pick for the Calder Trophy.
29. Chicago Blackhawks: Jonathan Toews, Kirby Dach, Alexander Nylander. All three of those forwards are gone before the season even begins, with Toews the only one with the possibility of coming back this season. The roster looks thread-bare without them, and Collin Delia and Malcolm Subban are not starting goalies in the NHL. Patrick Kane might keep them out of the bottom of the standings, but it’s a fall from grace for one of the great modern NHL dynasties. Expect Stan Bowman to not see the end of his rebuilding project.
X-Factor: If the Blackhawks want to make the best out of a terrible situation, they need a bounce-back year from Alex DeBrincat. Injuries will likely see DeBrincat spend most, if not all, of the season on a line with Kane. This can only be a good thing for DeBrincat, as Kane’s offensive savvy should rub off on him and help push his point totals up. If he can get back to his old form, it will be a silver lining to what should be a dark cloud.
30. Anaheim Ducks: I really wish I knew what the Ducks were doing. On one hand, there’s the veterans in the lineup. Ryan Getzlaf is the heart and soul of the franchise, while there are plenty of talented options in Rickard Rakell, Jakob Silfverberg, and Adam Henrique to get the offense going. On the other hand, there are plenty of prospects who could stand to benefit from more playing time, but are blocked out by said veterans. This season could be a reality that pushes the Ducks towards one end or the other. Whether Bob Murray makes that decision is another matter in itself.
X-Factor: If the Ducks want to avoid the bottom of the West Division standings, they need a strong second year from Sam Steel. A 22-point showing in his first full season with the Ducks is mildly concerning, but Steel still has time to develop and show his skills. Sticking in a third-line role for now, Steel’s development and offensive improvement will be key in figuring out what his role is on the team. Could he be floated around to Columbus in a Pierre-Luc Dubois trade?
31. Detroit Red Wings: It can’t possibly get worse than last year. The mismanagement that led to the Wings’ abysmal last season is beginning to get cleared out, and stepping in are players who at least deserve NHL spots. Vladislav Namestnikov, Troy Stecher, Thomas Greiss, and even Bobby Ryan could all get a role on this squad, but this is ultimately a team still trying to find itself. Not a good spot to be in for the short-term future.
X-Factor: Lost in the hype of Detroit’s young forwards and Moritz Seider is how Filip Hronek has become a defenseman to watch. While his defensive numbers are rough due to how bad the Wings were, he was still their best defenseman last year and handled numerous responsibilities. Expect a similar role this time out, with veteran presences like Marc Staal, Jon Merril, and Stecher available to him in order to get the game down.
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