With preseason hockey starting up tonight, the NHL is officially back in action.
After another whirlwind offseason filled with big free-agent signing and blockbuster trades, the teams are now in training camp and preseason in order to do the final bit of leg work before the regular season. Each team is going to come in with at least some level of expectation, and most already know who or what it will take to reach those marks.
But what about the unknown quantities? They are arguably just as important, if not more so, than the superstars in the league in terms of how each team does. It could be the new acquisition expected to make an early impact. It could be the young player getting his first crack at the NHL level. It could be the player expected to step up in the wake of departures and injuries. Whatever the case may be, the success of each team hinges on these players and how they perform.
So who’s going to be the X-factor for each team this season? Let’s find out.
Anaheim: Trevor Zegras made the leap to the NHL last season, and the Ducks are hoping that Mason McTavish can have similar success this time around. McTavish is coming off an amazing run at the World Junior Championships this summer with 17 points, and he’ll be expected to produce offensively as a third-line center and on the power play.
Arizona: Clayton Keller had a career-high in goals with 28 before a broken leg at the end of March shut him down for the season. Even with the goal of the Coyotes being to tank for Connor Bedard, they’ll be hoping that Keller can not only return healthy, but continue to provide some scoring touch to a team that needs everything.
Boston: Second-line center was a massive hole for the Bruins this past season, so they brought back David Krejci from his sabbatical in the Czech Republic for one last run at glory. That will be easier said than done; injuries to key contributors like Brad Marchand and Charlie McAvoy means they will need Krejci to hit the ground running until they return.
Buffalo: While Owen Power will be the rookie that everyone has their eye on, Buffalo fans have reason to believe that Jack Quinn and J.J. Peterka can be equally successful. Buffalo’s first two selections of the 2020 Draft, Quinn (8th overall) and Peterka (34th overall) led their AHL affiliate in scoring (68 points for Peterka, 61 points for Quinn), and it’s possible both will play on the same NHL line and develop together alongside one of the Sabres’ promising young centers.
Calgary: While Jonathan Huberdeau will essentially replace Johnny Gaudreau, Nazem Kadri may have the more difficult task of replacing Matthew Tkachuk. There’s serious risk with Kadri’s deal (over 30 years old, coming off of a career season, power forwards tend to decline faster in the NHL), but replicating the success he had with Colorado last year will be crucial for Calgary to continue posing a threat at the top of the Pacific.
Carolina: Father Time hasn’t completely caught up to Brent Burns yet, and the Hurricanes are hoping the 37-year-old defenseman can play a key role towards fulfilling their Cup aspirations. Between being on the top defensive pair with Jaccob Slavin and replacing Tony DeAngelo on the power play, Burns should expect another season of heavy ice time.
Chicago: If there’s any team that can use support from its prospects, it’s the Blackhawks, and no prospect comes with a higher ceiling right now than Lukas Reichel. Reichel was a point-per-game player for Chicago’s AHL affiliate in Rockford (57 points in 56 games), and being potentially locked onto a line with at least one of Jonathan Toews or Patrick Kane should give a clear indication of whether he’ll be part of their long-term plans.
Colorado: Colorado won the Stanley Cup with Darcy Kuemper, and now Alexandar Georgiev gets his chance to do the same. Now out of the shadows of Henrik Lundqvist and Igor Shesterkin in New York, Georgiev likely doesn’t have to be elite, but he must be better than his career 2.94 GAA and .908 save percentage in order for the Avalanche to retain their title.
Columbus: Columbus will have plenty of options for who will center Johnny Gaudreau and Patrik Laine, but the best option might end up being Jack Roslovic. A Columbus native, Roslovic scored a career-best 22 goals and 45 points, both numbers he could potentially exceed if he impresses enough to win the role of number one center.
Dallas: It’s likely Dallas will replace the departing John Klingberg’s production by committee, giving Thomas Harley the opportunity to stand out in his first full NHL season. With new coach Pete DeBoer being a fan of offensive-minded defensemen like Harley, he should see an increase in ice time and improve on what was a down year (four points in 34 games).
Detroit: While Ben Chiarot wasn’t the biggest acquisition Detroit had this offseason, his impact comes from beyond stuffing the stat sheet. Detroit’s defense and penalty kill were horrible (31st and 32nd last season, respectively), so Chiarot’s responsibility as Moritz Seider’s new defensive partner will be to set the tone and help create a new defensive identity for the young Red Wings.
Edmonton: Very few free agent signings will be under the microscope as quickly or as often as Jack Campbell will be. Signed from Toronto, the Oilers are hoping Campbell (31-9-6, 2.64 GAA, .914 save percentage) can be the upgrade in net they need to take the next step up in the Connor McDavid-Leon Draisaitl era.
Florida: It took a lot to get him, but the Panthers and GM Bill Zito are hoping that Matthew Tkachuk is the final piece they need to bring a talented roster over the hump. While Tkachuk’s impact will be felt in the regular season (104 points last year), his real impact will come from his physical style of play, especially when it comes to the rigors of the postseason.
Los Angeles: It was a surprise for Quinton Byfield to struggle as he did (ten points, -7 in 40 games), but that could be a sign that the Kings will improve drastically if he plays to his potential. Byfield has put in the work this offseason, hopefully improving on his faceoffs and skating to prove himself as a legitimate NHL center.
Minnesota: Minnesota’s cap situation requires entry-level players to step up, and Marco Rossi is in that position this season. Tied for the scoring lead in Minnesota’s AHL affiliate in Iowa (53 points in 63 games), Rossi will have a chance to crack into what is an underrated group of centers in the State of Hockey.
Montreal: While special consideration goes to new captain Nick Suzuki learning French fast enough to appease the Quebec media, Jake Allen gets the nod here. With Carey Price likely not playing this season, Allen will be in position to get most of the starts in Montreal again, with the hope that he improves on a career-worst 3.30 GAA.
Nashville: The Predators need depth scoring to make it anywhere past the First Round, so players like Philip Tomasino will be looked at considerably. Despite playing only eleven and a half minutes per game, Tomasino stuck around the NHL roster and put together an impressive rookie campaign, finishing with 14 points in his last 28 games.
New Jersey: The Devils need their prospect core to push their young roster over the top, and top prospect Alexander Holtz will be one of the first candidates to get a crack at it. Scoring 51 points in 52 games in Utica (New Jersey’s AHL affiliate), Holtz has a chance to prove he belongs on a line with either Nico Hischier or Jack Hughes, which would make him a dark horse to win the Calder Trophy.
New York Islanders: The Islanders have been let down by poor offensive numbers for a little while, so players like Oliver Wahlstrom need to do their job. Despite a low shooting percentage, Wahlstrom still potted 13 goals last season, and playing on a line with Mathew Barzal should help give him some opportunities.
New York Rangers: While Alexis Lafreniere will be playing right wing for the first time in his career, it will open more opportunities for the former top overall pick. One of the Rangers’ impact players in the postseason (nine points in 20 games), Lafreniere will now be rewarded with playing on New York’s top line with Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad, which should open more opportunities for him.
Ottawa: Using six goaltenders in the last two seasons is not something Ottawa wants to keep doing, and they’re hoping that Cam Talbot stops the carousel in net. While getting a little older at 35 years old, Talbot should provide the stability that Ottawa needs while they develop a future option like Mads Sogaard.
Philadelphia: Philadelphia’s power play was the worst in the league last year at 12.6 percent, so bringing a proven power play quarterback in Tony DeAngelo made at least some sense. With 20 points on the man advantage last year, Philadelphia will hope they can get that production on the ice while avoiding any clashes with new coach John Tortorella off of it.
Pittsburgh: Injuries robbed Tristan Jarry of getting his postseason revenge, but he more than locked down the top goaltender spot in the regular season. Among goaltenders that played at least 30 games, Jarry finished sixth last season in both GAA (2.42) and save percentage (.919).
San Jose: The Sharks offense has been tepid for the last three seasons (30th in the league with 2.58 goals per game), so younger players like William Eklund will be given looks to boost those numbers. With four assists in the Sharks’ first nine games last season, new coach David Quinn will hope to see some progress in the preseason in order to give Eklund some confidence.
Seattle: There’s a fantastic reason why Matty Beniers is one of the favorites to win the Calder Trophy this season. With nine points in his first ten games and earning a spot on Seattle’s top line, Beniers could easily lead the Kraken in points in his rookie year.
St. Louis: With Ville Husso off to Detroit, Jordan Binnington is back as the clear-cut starter for the Blues. The question for St. Louis is what version of Binnington they’ll get: the one who lost his starting job in the regular season (3.13 GAA, .901 save percentage), or the one who regained it in the playoffs (1.72 GAA, .949 save percentage)?
Tampa Bay: Ondrej Palat was a cap casualty in Tampa Bay this season, so they now need players to step up in his absence. With the potential to be on a line with Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov, Brandon Hagel may get a fair opportunity to prove why the Lightning traded for him at the deadline last season.
Toronto: In order for Toronto to break their postseason losing streak, they must rely on the goaltending tandem of Matt Murray and Ilya Samsonov. Neither goaltender had a GAA below 3 or a save percentage above .900 last season, so at least one of them will have to improve dramatically in order to keep Toronto from having to score their way out of trouble.
Vancouver: The first half struggles of Elias Pettersson last year likely came from his training camp holdout, but it was enough to keep Vancouver out of the playoff race. With potentially two new linemates in Ilya Mikheyev and KHL import Andrei Kuzmenko, Pettersson will need to get his chemistry right away to keep Vancouver in the hunt.
Vegas: With Robin Lehner on the shelf for the season, Logan Thompson will effectively be chucked to the wolves in his rookie season. Thompson put together strong numbers in a limited sample size (2.68 GAA and .914 save percentage in 19 games), and that will have to translate to a full season if Vegas wants to return to the postseason.
Washington: Washington will have to replace the production of Nicklas Backstrom and Tom Wilson to start the season, so the signing of Dylan Strome made perfect sense. Scoring a career-high 22 goals last season with Chicago, Strome will be tasked with keeping the Capitals afloat while Backstrom heals up.
Winnipeg: This is looking like a transition season for the Jets, and young players like Cole Perfetti will be instrumental in helping Winnipeg decide which direction to take. Scoring seven points in 18 games before injuries ended his season, the Jets will be looking at Perfetti to step up and claim a role in the top-six forward group.