Welcome to the latest edition of my power rankings, and this one might just be the hardest to sort out.
Before we begin, I’d like to offer a quick congratulations to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and their fans for their victory in the Super Bowl last night. Well deserved, guys.
As far as the NHL goes, however, this week has been the craziest of the season by far. Five teams saw their schedules interrupted due to COVID-19 outbreaks, and several others saw games pushed back as a result. The NHL likely won’t cancel any games but, as we progress to later in the season and if these outbreaks continue at that point, will a few ill-timed positive tests force the league’s hand? Perhaps, but that’s a bridge that can be crossed when we get to it.
For now, however, it’s time for more discussion about how the league is shaking out with the first month out of the way. This time, however, instead of providing a brief update on how the week went for the teams and certain players, I want to spend each segment talking about a player on each team who has been instrumental in getting teams to where they are, or at least make a team worth watching. Some are the usual stars that have guided teams to success before, while others come as answered prayers for teams struggling to fill positions.
Which player has given your favorite team reason to celebrate this season? Where does your favorite team stack up compared to last week? Will the state of Florida get close to another world championship? Let’s find out.
Disclaimer: These rankings are reflective of games played and statistics recorded on or prior to February 7.
1. Tampa Bay Lightning (Even): Masterton Trophy winner Steven Stamkos has a nice ring to it, don’t you think? After a core injury sidelined him for all but one game in Tampa Bay’s Stanley Cup run last year, Stamkos has notched 10 points to start the season as the Lightning gear up for a repeat.
2. Boston Bruins (+5): Could you tell the Bruins missed David Pastrnak to start the season? The team was already winning games but, with the superstar right winger potting five goals and eight points in just four games, they’ve really started to hit their stride.
3. Vegas Golden Knights (Even): A rough last season for Marc-Andre Fleury prompted the Knights to trade and extend Robin Lehner as a failsafe. The moves might have done more to motivate Fleury, as he’s put together a strong .944 save percentage and 1.25 GAA as he tries to earn more playing time.
4. Toronto Maple Leafs (Even): There might have been some substance behind the Auston Matthews for Rocket Richard Trophy preseason hype. Matthews became the first player to hit 10 goals this season, including a seven-game scoring streak.
5. Montreal Canadiens (-3): There are a lot of names to choose from in the early-season surprise of Montreal, but I decided to go with Josh Anderson. After a poor final season in Columbus and the giant contract Marc Bergevin handed out to him in the offseason, Anderson has lived up to the billing so far with eight goals in 12 games (for context, he scored only once in his final season in Columbus).
6. Washington Capitals (-1): While the likes of Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov were forced on hiatus due to the COVID-19 protocol, Nicklas Backstrom told the NHL at large not to forget about him. A longtime stalwart on Washington’s top line, Backstrom’s put together a quality season with 17 points in 12 games, a mark that ties for 5th in the league in scoring.
7. Colorado Avalanche (-1): Colorado’s current shutdown gives the Avalanche time to recover, and Philipp Grubauer certainly has earned a bit of rest. Playing in all but two games so far this season, Grubauer is putting up career numbers with a .934 save percentage and 1.67 GAA.
8. Winnipeg Jets (+5): It’s hard to believe the Jets are playing at a high level with Patrik Laine gone and Connor Hellebuyck struggling to find his rhythm, but performances from the likes of Nikolaj Ehlers should keep them trending in the right direction. One of the more underrated players in the NHL today, Ehler’s has gone +9 and scored 12 points in 11 games as he is currently on pace for his fifth straight 20-goal season.
9. Carolina Hurricanes (Even): Andrei Svechnikov and Petr Mrazek were both tempting options, but I have to appreciate the resurgence of Vincent Trocheck. His last goal against Columbus was tainted by a missed offsides call, but it currently has Trocheck tied with Svechnikov for the team lead with six goals.
10. St. Louis Blues (-2): Prior to this season, Jordan Kyrou had scored a total of five goals and 12 points in pieces of the last two years. In only twelve games this season, Kyrou has matched both totals as he cements himself as a full-time NHL player.
11. Dallas Stars (-1): Joe Pavelski would have been an easy choice for this spot, but attention should be shifting to rookie netminder Jake Oettinger sooner rather than later. Oettinger has performed incredibly well in four appearances by going 2-0-1 with a .915 save percentage and 2.27 GAA, and more playing time could be on the way if Anton Khudobin sticks in Rick Bowness’s doghouse.
12. Philadelphia Flyers (-1): There was once a time when James van Riemsdyk was a healthy scratch for Alain Vigneault and a potential choice to head to Seattle in the summer. Not the case anymore, as JVR stands with 18 points (4th in the league) and has gelled quickly with fellow first-rounders Scott Laughton and Joel Farabee.
13. Columbus Blue Jackets (+6): It may feel like cheating to select both Patrik Laine and Jack Roslovic here, but it feels right to include both of them. Coming over in the Pierre-Luc Dubois trade, the former Jets have gotten off to good starts with their new team, with Laine scoring three goals in as many games and Roslovic scoring six points in as many games.
14. Florida Panthers (+1): It should be a lot harder for Chris Driedger to find playing time behind $10 million man Sergei Bobrovsky, but he’s earned it. An AHL veteran of 139 games, Driedger is looking to have his second strong NHL campaign with a .937 save percentage and 1.97 GAA.
15. Minnesota Wild (-1): Kirill Kaprizov has gotten all the early-season hype on the Wild, but don’t diminish the value of someone like Joel Eriksson Ek. Prior to Minnesota’s shutdown, Eriksson Ek was seizing the top center role with five goals, nine points, and a +8 in eleven games.
16. Pittsburgh Penguins (Even): With the rash of injuries on Pittsburgh’s blueline to start the season, the emergence of rookie defenseman Pierre-Olivier Joseph feels like a godsend. The centerpiece of the trade that sent Phil Kessel to Arizona, Joseph has shined in his seven-game tryout with five points and a team-leading +5.
17. Calgary Flames (-5): The Flames have been up and down throughout the season, but there are no regrets about the decision to move Elias Lindholm to center. With twelve points in eleven games so far, it’s fair to question if Lindholm has supplanted Sean Monahan as the top center in Calgary going forward.
18. Edmonton Oilers (+3): Picking Connor McDavid or Leon Draisaitl here is cheating, so let’s look down the lineup and go for an unsung hero in Darnell Nurse. Stepping up for the Oilers defense in the absence of Oscar Klefbom, the hard-working Nurse has been rewarded with 4 goals, ten points, and a +5.
19. Arizona Coyotes (+5): When talking about the most underrated players in the NHL, it may be time to add Conor Garland into that discussion. Riding a four-game point streak, Garland has scored four goals and 12 points as the Coyotes try to stay competitive in the West.
20. New York Islanders (Even): Recent struggles from Semyon Varlamov have knocked him out of the spotlight temporarily, allowing Mathew Barzal to take center stage in Long Island once again. One of the more notable RFA holdouts this offseason, Barzal has justified wanting a bigger payday with 11 points in 10 games.
21. Nashville Predators (-4): He won’t score five points every night, but the Predators will need more similar offensive efforts from Filip Forsberg to get back into contention. Including Thursday’s strong outing, Forsberg has doubled the second-highest goal scorer on the Preds with six goals.
22. New Jersey Devils (Even): The shutdown for the Devils could disrupt the momentum the Devils’ younger stars have gained, including former top prospect Ty Smith. Before the shutdown, Smith had scored eight points to tie Jack Hughes and Miles Wood for team league while making a case as a sneaky Calder Trophy pick for best rookie.
23. New York Rangers (+4): It’s relieving when a big-ticket free agent plays as advertised for a new team, and that’s exactly what the Rangers got with Artemi Panarin. With nine points in his last four games, Panarin has pushed his point totals to 15 in only 10 games.
24. Chicago Blackhawks (+4): Who saw Kevin Lankinen coming to start the year? Seizing the starting goaltender role in Chicago from Malcolm Subban and Collin Delia, Lankinen has become a strong Calder Trophy candidate with a .928 save percentage and 2.32 GAA.
25. Los Angeles Kings (-2): Former captain Dustin Brown may be in the twilight of his career at 36, but he’s still managed to produce early in the season. Tied for the team lead with four goals and earning a team-leading +3 so far, Brown is doing what he can to keep the young Kings from bottoming out.
26. Vancouver Canucks (-8): No team has endured the roller coaster the Canucks have been stuck on for the first month of the season, but Brock Boeser is ensuring they at least have one reliable offensive option. Tied for second in the league with nine goals, Boeser’s been one of the few consistent bright spots the Canucks have had this season.
27. San Jose Sharks (-2): It’s hard not to feel bad for Logan Couture, who became captain of the Sharks in a period of transition for the team that has seen a lot of struggle. With four points in the last four games and eight total this season, Couture is continuing to settle in as a consistent veteran presence.
28. Buffalo Sabres (-2): Since hitting rock bottom with a league-worst -41 two years ago, Rasmus Ristolainen has had to fight off trade rumors and the dreaded ‘overrated’ label. He’s done his part to keep the Sabres competitive this season with six points and tying for the team lead with a +2.
29. Anaheim Ducks (Even): The Ducks desperately need an offensive driver to go with their elite goaltender in John Gibson, and Maxime Comtois looks like he has the most potential to do just that. Leading the team with five goals, the Ducks would be smart to elevate Comtois into the top-six to maximize his scoring potential.
30. Detroit Red Wings (Even): It was a little difficult finding somebody to put here for Detroit, but Sunday’s victory over Florida provided an answer in Givani Smith. Scoring four points despite only appearing in around half of Detroit’s games, Smith is making a good case to stick around and be a key contributor as the Wings continue their rebuild.
31. Ottawa Senators (Even): It appears that Tim Stutzle is taking the necessary adjustments towards NHL success. After scoring only once in his first five games, the third overall pick has bounced back with three goals and five points in his last four.
We are (almost) officially done with the first month of the NHL season.
At this stage, we can figure out who’s for real and who pulled the wool over our eyes in December. Which teams have legitimate Stanley Cup aspiration, and who should focus on the top prospects for this year’s draft. While contenders will fluctuate throughout the season, the picture on who they might be becomes a lot clearer now, especially in a shortened season like this one.
With this in mind, how do the teams stack up at this moment? Did anyone emerge from last week, or has your favorite team evened out? Let’s find out.
Disclaimer: These rankings are reflective of games played and statistics recorded on or prior to January 31.
1. Tampa Bay Lightning (+1): It took a little while, but the Lightning have earned the top spot of these rankings for the first time this season. The usual suspects of Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point, Victor Hedman, and Andrei Vasilevskiy have been instrumental so far in the team’s success.
2. Montreal Canadiens (+3): The Canadiens have easily been the most fun team to watch this season. The young talent has come along quickly, the metrics support their rise to being a top team, and there’s reason to believe the best is yet to come.
3. Vegas Golden Knights (-2): A tough-luck shootout loss to St. Louis and a COVID-19 outbreak push Vegas out of the top spot, but a post-quarantine hot streak like Dallas or Carolina’s should push them back up there. One word of advice: Marc-Andre Fleury (.951 save percentage and 1 GAA) has earned more playing time.
4. Toronto Maple Leafs (Even): 5-2-1 in one-goal games, a 43.33% power play success rate (second in the league behind Washington), and their top stars playing as advertised have been key to Toronto’s hot start. The only sticking point I have with the Leafs is what happens if one or more of their stars goes on a slump?
5. Washington Capitals (+3): A 6-3 comeback win against the Islanders on Thursday followed by a gutsy overtime decision over Boston is enough to push the Capitals into a top-five spot. In the absence of Ilya Samsonov, Vitek Vanecek (5-0-2 record and .918 save percentage) has turned a lot of heads with increased playing time.
6. Colorado Avalanche (-3): My preseason selection to win the Stanley Cup, the Avalanche have still struggled with consistency early on in the year. Potentially losing the likes of Nathan MacKinnon or Devon Toews for a while due to injury does not help matters.
7. Boston Bruins (Even): Being top-five on both the power play (5th at 34.62%) and the penalty kill (third at 90%) will lead to any team being successful. With David Pastrnak restoring the Perfection Line, the Bruins should be able to effectively end any scoring issues that plagued them at the start of the season.
8. St. Louis Blues (+1): The rise of Jordan Kyrou has been something to behold. After being a resident of Craig Berube’s doghouse last season, Kyrou has broken out to start the season, tying Brayden Schenn with 10 points in nine games.
9. Carolina Hurricanes (+4): The Hurricanes came back from quarantine in a big way, firing off three straight victories against both of last year’s Stanley Cup Final participants. Vincent Trocheck, who scored two goals and the shootout winner in the series against Dallas, reminded everybody about just who the Hurricanes traded for last year.
10. Dallas Stars (-4): The offensive production will have to tail off at some point, but 3.83 goals per game (second in the league behind Montreal) is definitely not a mark to scoff at. Joe Pavelski (five goals and 10 points) and Denis Gurianov (three goals and seven points) will be counted on to keep the goals coming.
11. Philadelphia Flyers (Even): Just when the Flyers were starting to scare me, they fire off four straight victories against the Devils and the Islanders. Consistency is still something they have to find, but James van Riemsdyk (five goals and 13 points) has been a big part of the positive results.
12. Calgary Flames (+2): Handing Montreal its first regulation loss is a good sign for a Flames team that needed to show something against a top team. Jacob Markstrom (.929 save percentage and 2.18 GAA) is looking like the long-awaited Miikka Kiprusoff replacement Calgary fans have been looking for.
13. Winnipeg Jets (+2): Perennially-underrated Nikolaj Ehlers (five goals, 11 points, +8) has stepped up with the permanent absence of Patrik Laine. The only questions are when will Pierre-Luc Dubois be expected to play, and can the defense and penalty killers help Connor Hellebuyck out.
14. Minnesota Wild (-4): The series against Colorado showed that while the Wild still have a ways to go towards legitimacy, they aren’t as far off as I thought they were to start the year. Kirill Kaprizov has continued his strong start, but the emergences of Jordan Greenway (10 points and +8) and Joel Eriksson Ek (five goals and nine points) definitely help matters.
15. Florida Panthers (+6): The Panthers have yet to face the class of their division yet, but good teams find ways to win the games they’re supposed to. If anyone told you Patric Hornqvist and Carter Verhaeghe would be leading the team with five goals apiece at the start of the year, your next question should be if they managed to build a time machine.
16. Pittsburgh Penguins (Even): It’s a testament to Sidney Crosby and Co. that the Penguins haven’t bottomed out yet, what with all the defensive injuries and goaltenders struggling to make saves when they have to. They’re strictly in the middle for now, but that can change in an instant.
17. Nashville Predators (Even): Put the Predators in the same boat as the Penguins, as a fringe team at risk of freefall down the rankings. They’ve managed to stay afloat for now, but 2.38 goals per game (fifth-worst in the league), a league-worst 63.64% penalty kill, and paying $16 million for Matt Duchene and Ryan Johansen to not score a single goal yet could do them in sooner rather than later.
18. Vancouver Canucks (+8): Yes, it was against the Senators and Jets, but a four-game winning streak was just what the Canucks needed to get back into the hunt. If they can get this week’s performances from Brock Boeser (four goals in the last two games) and Thatcher Demko (1 GAA and .971 save percentage in his three starts) throughout the season, the Canucks could shoot up the rankings quickly.
19. Columbus Blue Jackets (Even): The offense has been anemic to this point and drama has unfolded in the wake of the Pierre-Luc Dubois trade, and yet the Blue Jackets still managed to pick up points in seven straight games. It’s difficult to find a more hard-working team in hockey.
20. New York Islanders (-8): The big dropper in the rankings this week, the Islanders have seen things unravel the past few games. An absolute implosion against Washington highlighted (or lowlighted) an 0-3-2 skid and a 2.11 goals per game mark, good for the 3rd-lowest mark in the league.
21. Edmonton Oilers (-1): Let me get this straight: the Oilers have the league’s two top point-getters in Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl (22 and 21 points, respectively), and they still can’t manage to get over .500 in point percentage? If one or both seek trades out of Alberta, you heard it here first.
22. New Jersey Devils (-4): Tough break for the young Devils this week, losing three of their last four games. The good news is that the Devils may have found a strong new line in Miles Wood, Michael McLeod, and Nathan Bastian after they dominated Buffalo in Sunday’s victory.
23. Los Angeles Kings (+2): Anze Kopitar’s twelve points are a promising sign, and they’ve put together some impressive performances against top divisional rivals. It might not be enough to get into the playoffs, but they could surprise people once the divisions return to normal.
24. Arizona Coyotes (-2): The Coyotes have allowed two goals or less in four straight games, and the two games they lost out of those were by 1-0 scores. A fine depiction of goaltending no longer being enough to bail out bad offenses.
25. San Jose Sharks (-1): Allowing 3.88 goals per game (good for second-worst in the league behind Ottawa) is a sign that the Sharks might just be as bad as last year’s trainwreck season indicated. Erik Karlsson (three points and -8 in eight games) might already have the worst contract in the NHL.
26. Buffalo Sabres (+1): Stars like Jack Eichel (11 points), Victor Olofsson (4 goals and 10 points), and Taylor Hall (nine points) have been doing their part to keep the Sabres competitive. That said, the consistency just hasn’t been there for Buffalo to make any noise.
27. New York Rangers (-4): It’s time to just admit an inconvenient truth: the Rangers’ defense is horrible. Adam Fox and K’Andre Miller (9 points and +8 between them) point to a brighter future, but the recently-waived Tony DeAngelo and uninspiring play from the likes of Jacob Trouba, Brendan Smith, and Jack Johnson have and will ensure the Blueshirts miss the playoffs again.
28. Chicago Blackhawks (+2): Patrick Kane (10 points) has been his usual dominant self, and Kevin Lankinen (.937 save percentage and 1.97 GAA) is shaping up to be one of the big surprises of 2021. In a lost year for the injury-ravaged Blackhawks, that’s all they could have hoped for.
29. Anaheim Ducks (Even): Why do the Ducks choose to torture John Gibson like they do? Even if Gibson channels prime Brodeur, the Ducks’ league-worst offense would still keep him on the loser column.
30. Detroit Red Wings (+1): Well, at least the Red Wings had no expectations to begin with. Despite being the better goaltender, Thomas Greiss is still looking for his first win in a Red Wings jersey.
31. Ottawa Senators (-3): They haven’t picked up a single point in two weeks. Allowing one more goal per game than San Jose and having the league’s worst goal differential at -22, the Senators’ season will likely be done early.
Another week of the NHL season is officially finished, and there is a lot of information to unpack this time around.
Two teams have seen their seasons already turned upside-down due to COVID-19 protocols, some stars are beginning to establish themselves, and two of the biggest trade chips this season have been knocked off the board in one fell swoop.
These power rankings are no different to change themselves, with a new top team, shifts in the top 10, and some big risers and fallers based off of the beginning of the season. So how does each team stack up, and where have they gone since last week?
Let’s find out.
Disclaimer: These rankings are reflective of games played and statistics recorded on or prior to January 24.
1. Vegas Golden Knights (+1): Three victories in four games against Arizona is enough to push the Knights to the top of the mountain for now. Mark Stone (eight points in six games), Shea Theodore (three goals this week), and Marc-Andre Fleury (.951 save percentage and 1 GAA) have all been instrumental in Vegas’s flying start to the season.
2. Tampa Bay Lightning (+1): No Nikita Kucherov, no problem for the defending Stanley Cup champions. Steven Stamkos, with six points in four games so far, has led the charge and reminded everybody just what he and this team are capable of.
3. Colorado Avalanche (-2): The big guns have been producing so far, and Bowen Byram has looked strong in his first three games. That being said, the team needs to start figuring out how to sweep their series, and a -3 goal differential at even strength is a cause for mild concern.
4. Toronto Maple Leafs (+3): Losing the likes of Auston Matthews, Joe Thornton, and Nick Robertson could hurt the Leafs in terms of depth in the long run. For now, however, Mitch Marner (10 points in seven games) and John Tavares (four goals) have been on the warpath to start the season.
5. Montreal Canadiens (+7): The analytics community is taking a bow over their darling Canadiens’ hot start to the year. The new acquisitions of Tyler Toffoli (tied for the league lead in five goals), Josh Anderson (three goals in six games), Joel Edmundson (+8 in +/-), and Jake Allen (.907 save percentage and 2.01 GAA) have been worth their weight in gold so far for the Habs.
6. Dallas Stars (+5): After a late start to the season due to a COVID-19 outbreak, the Stars picked up right where they left off and swept the Predators aside. Their eight power-play goals in two games, as well as Joe Pavelski’s seven points in two games, are absolutely insane numbers to start the year.
7. Boston Bruins (+3): After struggling to get anything going on offense to begin the season, Boston exploded for 11 goals (including their first six even-strength goals of the season) in their sweep of Philadelphia. David Pastrnak will still be welcomed back with open arms, but at least his linemates of Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand have been getting along just fine.
8. Washington Capitals (-3): The Capitals are one of only four teams to not lose in regulation so far this season, so why the low ranking? Blame that on their off-ice behavior, with Ilya Samsonov testing positive for COVID-19 and fellow Russians Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Dmitry Orlov all being in quarantine.
9. St. Louis Blues (-3): The Blues have been wildly inconsistent to start the year, but Jordan Kyrou (six points in as many games) and Brayden Schenn (four goals) have both made positive strides. This week’s series against Vegas will be crucial in determining where the Blues stand in the West Division.
10. Minnesota Wild (+7): Are the Wild finally beginning to emerge from the middle of the pack? Kirill Kaprizov (six points in as many games) and Joel Eriksson Ek (three goals) have shown the potential to be offensive drivers, while the duo of Cam Talbot and Kaapo Kahkonen in net is currently sixth in combined save percentage.
11. Philadelphia Flyers (-7): They’ll likely be back in the top 10 sooner or later, but their performance against Boston didn’t warrant a spot there this week. Carter Hart has suddenly shown serious inconsistency, getting pulled against Buffalo on Monday before a mediocre and poor performance each against the Bruins.
12. New York Islanders (+2): The Islanders’ success starts and ends with Semyon Varlamov. Letting go of only one goal in three games, he has to be considered the early-season favorite for the Vezina Trophy.
13. Carolina Hurricanes (-5): It’ll be a while until we see the Hurricanes again, as they have become the second team to see games postponed due to a COVID-19 outbreak. It’s a shame, as Andrei Svechnikov (five points in three games) was really beginning to click.
14. Calgary Flames (-1): It hasn’t been perfect for the Flames so far this season, but there have been some positive takeaways from their first four games. Elias Lindholm (five points) has taken his transition to center like a duck to water, the power play is clicking at a 35% success rate (sixth in the NHL), and Jacob Markstrom (.928 save percentage and 2.26 GAA) has made good on his massive contract early.
15. Winnipeg Jets (+5): The Jets fired off three consecutive wins without Patrik Laine before flipping the Finnish sniper for disgruntled Columbus center Pierre-Luc Dubois. Depending on which version of PLD they get (the point-per-game player in the bubble or…well, this one), the Jets could either have the best center depth in the league or see massive repercussions from the fanbase.
16. Pittsburgh Penguins (Even): Good news for the Penguins: they overcame getting swept by Philadelphia to win four straight. Bad news: all but one of those wins needed extra time, Evgeni Malkin (two points and -4 in six games) is going through a slump, and the goaltending has been abysmal to start the year with a .853 combined save percentage (last in the NHL by nearly two percentage points).
17. Nashville Predators (-8): Well, the momentum of last week didn’t last long. The Predators took three straight losses, including a 7-0 thrashing to Dallas on Friday, as their special teams numbers have, once again, begun to sink towards the bottom of the league (their penalty kill stands at 55% success rate, second-last in the NHL behind Florida).
18. New Jersey Devils (+7): The Devils have been one of the big underdog stories in the early season, highlighted by a .944 combined save percentage (2nd in the NHL behind Dallas). In other news, Jack Hughes (seven points in five games) might have stolen the top center spot from Nico Hischier, while Ty Smith (six points and +5 in five games) could be emerging as a dark horse for the Calder Trophy.
19. Columbus Blue Jackets (+4): The Blue Jackets were inconsistent this week, but they received some good news by ending the Dubois trade rumors and landing both Patrik Laine and Jack Roslovic from the Jets. Both players have the potential to make immediate impacts for the team, but I do have two questions: how will Laine do under a coach that demands effort on both ends of the ice, and could the Jackets’ center depth be in a bit of a mess without Dubois?
20. Edmonton Oilers (-5): Not much has changed for the Oilers since last week, with Connor McDavid (tied for the league lead with ten points) and Leon Draisaitl (nine points and +5 in seven games) carrying far too much of the load. If this keeps up, I wouldn’t hold it past the Oilers to make some lineup changes, possibly including calling up top defensive prospect Evan Bouchard.
21. Florida Panthers (Even): You have to feel for the Panthers just a little bit, having two of their opening three series postponed due to their opponents suffering COVID-19 outbreaks. The end of the season may be absolutely nightmarish for them, and it won’t even be their fault.
22. Arizona Coyotes (Even): A couple of hard-luck losses to the Golden Knights in their four-game series kept the Coyotes from getting much in terms of momentum. At least Conor Garland (six points in as many games) looks to be building off his strong sophomore season.
23. New York Rangers (-4): Artemi Panarin (six points in five games) is still as dazzling an offensive talent as ever, while Adam Fox (five points and +1 in five games) is continuing his emergence as a top defenseman. Unfortunately for the Rangers, neither Alexis Lafreniere (no points) or Igor Shesterkin (no wins in three starts) have gotten off the ground yet, and they’d probably like a mulligan on healthy scratch Jack Johnson.
24. San Jose Sharks (+3): The Sharks are at least staying competitive for now, which at least helps explain their rise this week. That said, the defense and goaltending (Martin Jones and Devan Dubnyk both have sub-.900 save percentages and GAAs above 3) to get better if they want to continue pushing for a playoff spot.
25. Los Angeles Kings (+3): Splitting series with West Division powerhouses in Colorado and St. Louis should give the young Kings confidence moving forward. Anze Kopitar (tied for the league lead with 10 points) is off to a strong start, but he’ll need some assistance from the younger players on the team.
26. Vancouver Canucks (-8): It must irk the Canucks to see Tyler Toffoli and Jacob Markstrom do well on their new teams while they struggle to start the year. The 33 goals the Canucks have given up are, by far, the worst mark in the league, and Elias Pettersson’s two points in seven games isn’t going to help the Canucks shake things off.
27. Buffalo Sabres (-1): Jack Eichel (seven points in six games) and Taylor Hall (six points in as many games) have been living up to expectations, but it hasn’t been enough for the Sabres to rack up many wins. Splitting against Philadelphia and Washington was nice, but the East Division might be too tall of an order for this team to take on.
28. Ottawa Senators (-4): Ever since taking a victory over the Maple Leafs in the opener, the Senators have collected just one point out of a possible eight. Tim Stutzle’s possible return to the lineup this weekend will be a welcome sight for Senators fans.
29. Anaheim Ducks (Even): John Gibson (.938 save percentage and 2.01 GAA) has returned to elite form this season. Unfortunately, the team in front of him has continued to struggle providing any run support.
30. Chicago Blackhawks (+1): Sweeping the Red Wings this week has pushed the Blackhawks out of the bottom of the rankings. Patrick Kane (seven points in six games) is his usual elite self, but the real question is whether or not Kevin Lankinen (.909 save percentage and 2.63 GAA in his two starts) can emerge and take control of the net for Chicago.
31. Detroit Red Wings (-1): It’s back to the bottom for the Wings, who are back in the driver’s seat to land home-state product Owen Power. At least fans have Dylan Larkin (six points in as many games) and Bobby Ryan (four goals and +3 in five games) to watch this year.
The first five days of the NHL season are in the books.
The condensed season this time around will make every point important this early on. While it’s too early to label some teams as legitimate contenders or point out any lost seasons, that doesn’t mean there aren’t things for each team to take away from their first games. Without a preseason to get back to game speed and a shorter training camp than usual, surprises shouldn’t come as unexpected.
With the first few games for most teams cleared, let’s take a look at how they all stack up, as well as where they are compared to last week.
Disclaimer: These rankings are reflective of games played and statistics recorded on or prior to January 17
1. Colorado Avalanche (Even): An 8-0 blasting of the Blues on Saturday should make the other teams in the West nervous. If the Avs can put up that type of offensive effort most nights, they’ll be difficult to beat.
2. Vegas Golden Knights (Even): Mark Stone’s captaincy got off to a good start with the Knights sweeping Anaheim and an opportunity to take advantage of a Coyotes team that will be without its captain for the first two of their four games this week. Winning streaks are always a tough ask in the NHL, but the Knights will take every point they can get for security.
3. Tampa Bay Lightning (Even): Convincing victories against the Blackhawks were a great way to get the Cup defense rolling. Steven Stamkos’s five points in the first two games are promising results for a Nikitia Kucherov-less Lightning squad.
4. Philadelphia Flyers (+3): Two strong performances against in-state rival Pittsburgh kept last season’s momentum alive, at least for the moment. Sean Couturier’s injury will sting a little, but they have the depth, firepower, and Carter Hart to make it through.
5. Washington Capitals (-1): There are definitely some things to clean up here, but five points out of six is far from a bad way to start the season. The drop is less about the Capitals’ performance more than it is the Flyers looking more impressive.
6. St. Louis Blues (-1): The 8-0 loss being fresh in people’s memories might take away from how strong they looked in the season opener. Series against the Sharks and Kings this week should provide prime bounce-back opportunities.
7. Toronto Maple Leafs (+3): Far from a perfect start, with the defense still having some holes and Frederik Andersen posting poor numbers to start the season. That said, there’s more than enough talent to keep them at the top of the North Division, and I’m all for a Joe Thornton resurgence.
8. Carolina Hurricanes (-2): The Hurricanes’ split of the opening series against Detroit is indicative of their status. Andrei Svechnikov’s rise to superstardom should help take the Hurricanes far, but inconsistent goaltending will dampen any Cup expectations.
9. Nashville Predators (+6): The Predators showed the special teams and goaltending in their opening series that they sorely lacked last season. If they can get those results consistently, the Predators will justify this early rise.
10. Boston Bruins (-2): 3 points out of 4 is nothing to complain about, but the series against the Devils showed signs of concern regarding the offense. David Pastrnak can’t come back soon enough.
11. Dallas Stars (-2): Can’t judge a team that hasn’t played a game yet due to their training camp COVID-19 outbreak. Ask about these guys next week.
12. Montreal Canadiens (+5): Victories like Saturday’s against Edmonton exemplify why some experts are high on the Canadiens. A continuation of strong play could push the Habs from analytics darling to dark horse to come out of the North in the postseason.
13. Calgary Flames (+3): They blew a two-goal lead in the season opener before Jacob Markstrom got revenge against his former team by blanking the Canucks on Saturday. Will the real Flames please stand up?
14. New York Islanders (-2): A shutout in their first game before getting shut out the next. Too early to panic about Ilya Sorokin.
15. Edmonton Oilers (-4): Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl might have to fill the scoreboard often to cover up for Edmonton’s shaky defense and goaltending. Too early to call it a disappointing season, but how many of those types of years can the two superstars be expected to endure?
16. Pittsburgh Penguins (-3): The ultimate wild card at this point of the season. Sidney Crosby can still be trusted to lead the team, but can the Penguins fix the issues that have popped up this early on?
17. Minnesota Wild (+6): Another early riser after two gutsy victories to sweep Los Angeles. If Kirill Karpizov continues to be as advertised, the Wild may be on to more than I initially thought.
18. Vancouver Canucks (-4): Elias Pettersson has gotten off to a slow start this season, and the bottom part of the lineup simply can’t be trusted to pick up the slack. J.T. Miller coming back from COVID-19 protocol could be somewhat of a remedy.
19. New York Rangers (Even): Alexis Lafreniere is still looking for his first point, and Igor Shesterkin had a rough showing to start the season. Both will have to regroup and improve if the Rangers want to have any chance at being competitive this season.
20. Winnipeg Jets (Even): Patrik Laine’s injury came at a bad time early in the season, especially after his three-point night in Winnipeg’s only game so far. If the union between the Jets and Laine is destined to end, the team will need him to be healthy in order to get the right value for him.
21. Florida Panthers (+1): The Panthers didn’t look like a team that started its season late against the Blackhawks. Just don’t get caught playing a dangerous game too often with Keith Yandle, ok?
22. Arizona Coyotes (+4): Maybe it was the fact Arizona is one of three teams to allow fans to start the season or San Jose’s porous back end, but the Coyotes will need more offensive showcases like the ones they got in their first two games to have a chance. Vegas week without Oliver Ekman-Larsson will be a true test of how real this team is.
23. Columbus Blue Jackets (-5): Columbus should be better than this, but getting outscored 8-3 by Nashville at the start of the season isn’t a recipe for success. The Pierre-Luc Dubois trade rumors might be a noisier distraction than I expected.
24. Ottawa Senators (+5): Tim Stutzle has been off to a solid start to his NHL career, while the Senators have shown more than expected in their opening series against Toronto. On a side note, it’s time to seriously consider Thomas Chabot as the next captain of the Senators.
25. New Jersey Devils (Even): A Mackenzie Blackwood breakout is just what the Devils needed to bolster their roster, as are early contributions from Jack Hughes and rookie defenseman Ty Smith. I’d be alright with the Devils being better than anticipated.
26. Buffalo Sabres (-5): Going winless in the opening series will be tough to bounce back from, especially in the cutthroat East Division. Jeff Skinner is a confusing choice for a fourth-line grinder, and the goaltending duo of Ullmark and Hutton doesn’t strike anybody as the answer in net.
27. San Jose Sharks (-3): The Sharks will need Tomas Hertl to keep up the goal-scoring if the defense is going to continue giving up premium chances regularly. How many sweeteners would San Jose have to provide just to rid themselves of Martin Jones?
28. Los Angeles Kings (-1): Two straight collapses at home are indicative of the growing pains the Kings will be facing throughout the year. The future is bright, but this season should be a forgettable one overall.
29. Anaheim Ducks (+1): Good news: Max Comtois has three goals to start the season. Bad news: those are the only goals the Ducks managed to score in their series against Vegas.
30. Detroit Red Wings (+1): Credit the Red Wings for splitting their opening series with Carolina on the back of new captain Dylan Larkin. That said, being outshot 2 to 1 isn’t something teams can get away with for long.
31. Chicago Blackhawks (-3): Collin Delia and Malcolm Subban are the only goaltending duo in the league where both are sub-.850 in save percentage and over 5 in goals against average. The already-shorthanded Blackhawks might enter their names in the Owen Power sweepstakes early.
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.