With the new NHL season upon us, it bears scrutinizing NHL rosters for players of skill and substance.
Already, Edmonton’s Connor McDavid has shown us all that his Art Ross/Hart trophy 2016-17 campaign was no aberration.
He put the Oilers on his back in game 1 against rival Calgary, scoring all three goals — one a highlight reel beauty – as Edmonton downed the Flames 3-0.
His continued growth as captain and spiritual leader of this proud franchise will have much ink spilled about it in the coming months.
Of course, there are many other substantial players in the league all giving it 110 percent toward their team success — whatever the current definition is for each franchise.
We have taken a detailed look at NHL line-ups and come up with one significant name for each who will exert the most influence over their team’s fortunes this season
Here they are in team alphabetical order.
31. Anaheim Ducks – G John Gibson
The Ducks were tied for the third best defensive team in 2016-17, due in no small part to starting goalie John Gibson. Anaheim’s fifth-year netminder will figure heavily if the team hopes to make it back to at least the Western Conference final this season. The 2015 Jennings Trophy Winner had his most complete season in 2016-17, albeit one interrupted by a nagging lower body injury that kept him out of the line-up for a long spell. He won 25 of his 49 starts and recorded a 2.22 goals against average along with a .924 save percentage and career high six shutouts. He was the difference in Anaheim’s long playoff run last year too, going 9-5, 2.59/.918. The Ducks will only go as far as a healthy Gibson will take them.
30. Arizona Coyotes – D Oliver Ekman-Larsson
By most prognostications, it’s going to be another tough slog for the Coyotes this season after finishing third last in the Western Conference last year. With an influx of new players to the line-up, leadership from a homegrown veteran not named Shane Doan will be much needed (and since Arizona isn’t naming a captain in the wake of Doan’s retirement). That man will have to be Ekman-Larsson, an under rated workhorse who is embarking on his eighth season with the Desert Dogs. The robust Swede and assistant captain, who averaged over 24 minutes a game last year and quarterbacks the first powerplay unit, will be counted on to mentor youngsters like Clayton Keller and Dylan Strome, while also making newcomers Derek Stepan, Antti Raanta, and fellow defenders Niklas Hjalmarsson and Jason Demers feel welcome.
29. Boston Bruins – LW Brad Marchand
It is going to be a year of upheaval in Boston, some of it good, some maybe not so much. The aging core of the team is already down three players to start, with Torey Krug, Patrice Bergeron and David Backes not due to skate in the team’s opener on Thursday night and possibly a few games into the future. With Zdeno Chara in middle age and a slew of youngsters starting the year in Boston, it is incumbent upon ninth-year vet Marchand to be the catalyst he always is, as well as more of a mature mentor to the peach-fuzz crew. And after a career year in 2016-17 that saw him score 39 goals and 46 assists, Marchand will need to prove it wasn’t a one-and-done with a regression to the 46-point average of his six previous seasons. Much is riding on Marchand being multi-dimensional this year.
28. Buffalo Sabres – C Jack Eichel
With a brand spanking new, and rich, contract extension in hand, there will be heaping helpings of expectations put on budding superstar Jack Eichel in Buffalo. From the first puck drop in the Queen City against Montreal on Thursday night, to the last, his moves on and off the ice will be heavily scrutinized. Still just 20, Eichel is the new face of the franchise and its most important player. While he won’t draw a direct comparison to the man taken in front of him at the 2015 draft — Connor McDavid — Eichel is his own man with his own particular set of skills. Had he not been injured for the first quarter of the 2016-17 NHL season, he was tracking to a career high 80-point season. As it was, he beat his rookie mark of 56 points by one. What lies ahead for Eichel is his role in leading the Sabres back to the playoffs for the first time since 2011, and the sooner the better (like McDavid did last year).
27. Calgary Flames – G Mike Smith
There are many influential players on the Flames, none, though who will have the same effect on their chances as veteran goalie Smith. With many good young forwards and solid D, the Flames should all be rowing in the same direction this season in order to make the playoffs again. However, the team overhauled the goaltending completely, installing the 35-year-old Smith as starter after Brian Elliott left in free agency. Now in his 12th season, Smith will be counted on to supply the kind of steady goaltending the Flames haven’t had since Miikka Kiprusoff was still kicking around. He was great in his Flames debut Wednesday night, stopping 42 of 44 shots in a 3-0 loss (one an empty netter) and he’ll need to be that consistent going forward. He saw the sixth most shots in the league with the Coyotes last year at a whopping 1,819 in just 55 games (or 33 shots on average) so it was probably no big thing. The Flames will need to lean on him too, despite having a better defence than Arizona.
26. Carolina Hurricanes – D Justin Faulk
Just in time for the first face-off of their new season, the Hurricanes named seventh-year veteran Faulk a co-captain with Jordan Staal. Faulk’s role on an up-and-coming — and very young — Carolina blue line can’t be under-stated enough. Second oldest defenceman at just 25 (newcomer Trevor van Riemsdyk is 26) and the team’s best defender, Faulk will not only have to be a leader, but provide upper level powerplay quarterbacking, along with eating up key minutes (he has averaged over 23 and a half in six seasons) and throwing his weight around a bit. Ultimately, his leadership and offensive prowess won’t mean a lick if the Hurricanes can’t grab a playoff spot, this year or next. We think, though, that Faulk’s growth in all areas will be key to that coming to fruition.
25. Chicago Blackhawks – C Jonathan Toews
More than ever, the Hawks will need Captain Serious to be Mr. Everything to the team. After being ousted in four straight by Nashville in the first round of the playoffs last year, that “dynasty” word was whispered more quietly in the Windy City. Toews leads the Blackhawks into a season of change, as the team bid adieu to second leading scorer Artemi Panarin and starts it without veterans Marian Hossa (out with skin allergy) and Michal Rozsival (post-concussion symptoms). They welcomed back Patrick Sharp and Brandon Saad (trade for Panarin). Toews tasks go beyond his very consistent point production, since he will help mentor newcomers Alex DeBrincat and John Hayden.
24. Colorado Avalanche – C Matt Duchene
Lo and behold, the Avs won their opener 4-2 against the New York Rangers Thursday night and the guy with a cloud hanging over him, Matt Duchene, had a goal and an assist to pace the attack. It seems that every time his named has been mentioned in the last year or two, the word “trade” is embedded in the conversation. Yet, the eight-year veteran just goes out and competes, trying to drown out the noise. The Avs may be keen on dealing him, however, replacing his scoring and leadership would be no easy task. In 573 games, all with the Avalanche the third overall pick from the 2009 draft has 420 points. On the second last year of a five-year deal that pays him $6 million a season, he has given decent value to a club wishing to rid itself of his cap hit. His team needs him, but is the club willing to keep him around?
23. Columbus Blue Jackets – G Sergei Bobrovsky
“Bob” was given his due again last season, winning the Vezina in a season not shortened by a lockout (he won in 2013 after starting in 38 contests of the 48-game season). His superior netminding played a huge role in the Jackets best season since debuting in 2000. He won 41 games (the team won 50) and he posted a league low 2.06 goals against average, as well as NHL best .932 save percentage. The seven shutouts he registered were also a career best, by a wide margin (he had 12 in six previous seasons). The knock on him so far would be his sub-par performance in the playoffs. He is just 3-10 in 14 total post-season starts, with a 3.63 GAA and .887 save percentage. However, come playoffs this year, he might just be chastened enough to come up huge.
22. Dallas Stars – G Ben Bishop
Ben Bishop will be Dallas’ most influential player, if he can stay healthy for a full season. After the disastrous year the Stars had in 2016-17, Bishop and his health will be top of mind for teammates, staff and fans. The giant goalie is a huge upgrade over Kari Lehtonen, who will be his back-up this year. He played in 39 games split between the Tampa Bay Lightning and L.A. Kings last year, a big departure from the average 62 games he saw action in the three previous campaigns. That 60-game work load is probably what the team envisioned after signing Bishop to a six year, $29.5 million deal this off-season. Unlike Sergei Bobrovsky in Columbus, Bishop has been stellar in the post-season. He started 36 playoff games for the Lightning, who made it to the Cup final against Chicago in 2015. That is where his true worth lies.
21. Detroit Red Wings – C Henrik Zetterberg
It must have felt like an episode of the “Twilight Zone” in the Motor City last year. That is, the Red Wings going golfing for the first time in a quarter century instead of playing in the post-season. It could not have sat well with the one of the few holdovers from the last Stanley Cup team in 2008 and a guy who had skated in every playoffs since 2003. Zetterberg, who will be 37 on Monday, is still an important part of the offence, scoring his most points in a season (68) since the 2011-12 season when he had 69. He’s been healthy enough the last two years to play in every game and passed the 1,000 mark in the final game of the 2016-17 campaign. The Wings will be in tough to make the playoffs in a tight Eastern Conference. The Wings can count on their own “Smilin’ Hank” to play a huge role in getting them there.
20. Edmonton Oilers – C Connor McDavid
It’s McDavid, duh. Any conversation about just who the most influential player in the league is, never mind the Edmonton Oilers, begins and ends with McD. He is the most special player in the NHL, at the tender age of 20. He cemented his status as the league’s best by winning his first Art Ross, Hart and Ted Lindsay awards last year, as well as helping get the Oilers to the second round of the playoffs for the first time in forever, scoring nine points in 13 games along the way. He is a game changer and put an exclamation mark on the start to his third season, firing a hat trick as Edmonton beat rival Calgary 3-0 on opening night Wednesday. The Oilers didn’t hesitate at all signing the game’s greatest to an eight-year, $100 million contract extension. Until it kicks in next season, they get him for the low, low price of $925,000 this year. Wow.
19. Florida Panthers – G Roberto Luongo
Hockey life may not be complete for Bobby Lu until he wins a championship. With Jaromir Jagr gone, Luongo is now the oldest player (38) on a Panthers team we think may surprise a few people this year. In his second go around with Florida, the veteran puckstopper hasn’t lost much on his reflexes and the Cats have the luxury of utilizing James Reimer (who could start for a few other teams) to fill the gaps. The two more or less platooned in 2016-17 (and will do so again this season), however, we think Luongo is “the man” should they make the playoffs next spring. Reimer has appeared in just eight total playoff games his whole career, and unless Bobby Lu totally tanks this year, he has to be the starter in the post-season. Luongo has been to a final with the Canucks and appeared in 10 times more post-season contests.
18. Los Angeles Kings – D Drew Doughty
The ink is still far from the paper on superstar defenceman Drew Doughty’s next contract, but already he’s talking about wanting to win more Stanley Cups. And it may not necessarily be with the Kings. According to him, all bets are off if the Kings aren’t a contender when his current deal expires in the spring of 2019. Therefore, it’s incumbent upon new GM Rob Blake to put the pieces in place to get the team back to the form they showed in the seasons between 2011-12 and 2013-14, when they won two titles and went deep in the season in between. Since 2014, L.A., and former Norris Trophy winner Doughty, have played in only five playoff games, missing the 2017 playoffs all together. The Kings blue line looks a whole lot different these days, with only Doughty, Jake Muzzin and the injured Alec Martinez left over from the 2014 championship team. He, along with the rest of them, needs a bit of a bounce back year.
17. Minnesota Wild – G Devan Dubnyk
The core of a Minnesota Wild team that improved under coach Bruce Boudreau last year remains relatively unchanged. Which means that key guys like Dubnyk have to elevate their game even further if the Wild want to advance past the first round of the playoffs for the first time since 2015. After toiling in relative anonymity for five seasons in Edmonton and then Nashville (two games), Dubnyk busted out in 2014-15. He started a career high 55 games (16 with Arizona and 39 with Minny), fashioning a 2.07 goals against average and .929 save percentage. He was an second-team all-star that year, finished third in Vezina voting and captured the Masterton. The last two seasons, he’s been very consistent, starting over 60 games both campaigns and posting near identical save percentages, goals against averages and shutouts (five in each). He did his level best in the Wild’s five-game playoff drive last spring, with a 1.86 goals against average and .925 save percentage, but it wasn’t quite enough.
16. Montreal Canadiens – G Carey Price
Like Connor McDavid in Edmonton, Carey Price is the pump that keeps the Habs’ tires full. While it seems we do have quite a few goalies on this list, consider that the Canadiens need Price probably more than he needs them. Consider this for a minute, in terms of Price’s influence on Montreal’s success. After he led the team to a 10-2 start during the 2015-16 season (including two shutouts), Montreal pretty much imploded when he was hurt in game 12 and done for the season. They went 28-36-6 the rest of the way and missed the playoffs. Few players in the NHL mean as much to their team as 2015 MVP and Vezina winner does. He is definitely one of the top five goalies in the NHL and arguably the loop’s best. They will need him more than ever this season.
15. Nashville Predators – D P.K. Subban
There is one final hurdle for the Nashville Predators — and by extension P.K. Subban — to cross. And that is to bring a championship to the Music City. For years he was alternately a hockey God and a whipping boy in Montreal. Good enough to win a Norris Trophy in 2013, yet still raise the ire of the game’s most devoted and knowledgeable fans with at times indifferent defensive play or ill-timed rushes that led to turnovers and goals. There is no disputing, though, that Subban is one of the most electrifying rearguards in the league. One capable of end to end rushes and using his booming shot to score big goals. Since the big trade that saw him come over from Montreal for Shea Weber (a deal that some called lopsided in the Habs favor, initially), Subban has made strides in his game. Playing a little less on average than he did in Montreal (about two minutes per game), he seemed more in control last year and played better when the chips were down.
14. New Jersey Devils – C Nico Hischier
It’s a lot to heap pressure on someone so young. However, the direction the Devils go in this season and those to come will be in no small part dictated by the team’s first ever no. 1 overall pick. The Devils have missed the playoffs the last five seasons after going all the way to the Stanley Cup finals in 2012, which isn’t that long ago. Very few starters remain from that club and with Hischier’s selection the team that used to trap like no one’s business is now focusing on skill and speed. How Hischier does this year, then, will go a long way to determining just who the Devils are going forward. He is slotted on the second line with skilled veterans Marcus Johansson and Drew Stafford, which we think is an astute move on the part of coach John Hynes and staff. He’ll be shielded from too much criticism and be allowed to develop at a pace more suitable to an 18-year-old who has played just one season of junior in North America.
13. New York Islanders – C John Tavares
If Tavares’ contractual situation becomes a distraction, we will all see just how much sway Johnny T holds over the New York Islanders. The face of the franchise since being picked first overall in 2009, Tavares is in contract extension limbo for the time being, which will only become more of an issue with each passing day. In the meantime, the elite pivot will have to lace ’em up and do what he has always done, score goals and set them up, too. This season, Tavares gets a new right winger in Edmonton’s Jordan Eberle, which could result in a 30-40 goal season. If the Isles choose to keep him in a state of fiscal flux, he could play angry and go lights out. And, there will be a slew of team’s willing to pay him considerably more than the $5.5 million he’s making this season on the final year of his contract. He’s as important to the Islanders fortunes as ever, so they need to sit down with him and talk money, sooner than later.
12. New York Rangers – G Henrik Lundqvist
Few goaltenders in the history of the NHL have enjoyed the long and relatively injury-free run that King Henrik has enjoyed in Manhattan. Since breaking in with the Rangers in 2005 after being drafted 205th overall in 2000, Lundqvist has played in as many as 73 games in a season and now fewer than 43, and that was in the lockout shortened 2012-13 season when there were just 48 games. He’s posted double digit shutouts twice and won a Vezina in 2012. His career marks include 405 wins, a .920 save percentage, 2.32 goals against average and 61 shutouts. But, some chinks in Hank’s armor began to show in 2016-17, when his GAA ballooned to a career worst 2.74 and his save percentage to another personal low of .910. For Lundqvist, who’s 35, and the Rangers, the time to win is now so they will need him to be the Hank of old this year.
11. Ottawa Senators – D Erik Karlsson
One might argue that Karlsson is the best defenceman — offensively, at the very least — in the NHL. He’s one two Norris Trophies in the last six seasons and finished second twice. He also led his team in scoring each of the last four seasons, achieving a high of 82 points in 82 games during the 2015-16 season. And the slight Swede is a tough hombre too, having played with a broken foot on the Senators run to the Eastern Conference finals in the spring (for which he had surgery to correct and missed their opener Thursday night). Even with that injury, Karlsson topped the Sens in playoff scoring with 18 points in 19 games. Any time he is out, is not a good time for Ottawa.
10. Philadelphia Flyers – LW Claude Giroux
The Flyers captain has been the one constant on an ever-changing Flyers’ roster since he first skated full-time with the team in 2008. In fact, no one from his rookie campaign in 2008-09 is still with the club. Since then, the Hearst, ON native has played in 658 career regular season games, amassing 181 goals and 395 assists. He’s been money in the playoffs too, with 62 points (23 goals) in 63 post-season games. He illustrated to everyone during the 2011 NHL playoffs that he would soon be Philly’s most influential player, firing 10 goals and adding 11 assists in 23 games as the Flyers made it to the finals against Chicago (losing 4-2). It was a trying season last year for Giroux and the Flyers in 2016-17, as he had 58 points and a career worst -15. A rebound campaign from him and several others is required and we think he is up to the task.
9. Pittsburgh Penguins – C Sidney Crosby
Now an “old man” at 30, Sid can no longer be reasonably called “the Kid.” But that doesn’t mean he isn’t one of the most dominant players to ever play the game. He’s followed in the footsteps of his mentor, Mario Lemieux, leading the Penguins to three Stanley Cup titles in his 12 seasons, including the last two. Anyone disputing his importance to the team need only look at how they have fared without him in the line-up, which has happened a few times due to post-concussion symptoms and various other ailments. In a tighter checking NHL, his scoring prowess puts him in the same breath as the legends, with 1,030 points in 784 career games and another 164 in 148 post-season contests. Special doesn’t even begin to describe his still-growing legacy.
8. San Jose Sharks – D Brent Burns
For years, Joe Thornton rode herd over the San Jose Sharks. But, there’s a new sheriff in town and he comes in the guise of bearded wonder Brent Burns. Thornton, a grizzled veteran who still has a lot of game in him, is still a strong presence in the Sharks locker room and on the ice, but it’s Burns’ brilliance overall that keeps the Sharks engine running now. The reigning Norris Trophy winner successfully transformed himself from a right winger good enough to be picked 20th overall in the first round of the 2003 draft to one of the NHL’s finest blueliners. He slowly progressed through the Wild system and has fluorished going into his seventh season with the Sharks. In the last three campaigns he has played all 246 games, scoring 73 goals and adding 138 assists. He was dynamite during San Jose’s long playoff ride in 2016, recording 24 points in 24 games.
7. St. Louis Blues – RW Vladimir Tarasenko
The Cup starved Blues will go as far as their scoring will take them this season. The Blues could score in 2016-17, bending the twine 235 times, but were a little porous on the back-end, surrendering 218. That trend continued through two rounds of the playoffs, when the scored 22 times and gave up 23 in 12 games. The catalyst for many of the Blues strikes was five-year veteran Vladimir Tarasenko. Dubbed the “Tarasenk-Show” for his many highlight reel markers, he easily led his team in goals with 39, finishing tied for fourth in league scoring. The native of Yarolsavl, Russia has already accumulated 145 regular season tallies in 342 games and is quite capable of exceeding 50.
6. Tampa Bay Lightning – C Steven Stamkos
Rejoice, Lightning fans, Steven Stamkos is back. It was a dark, dark campaign for the Bolts in 2016-17 when their captain succumbed to injury just 17 games in. Without him, the offence wasn’t as potent, particularly on the powerplay. Knee surgery did the trick and the hard-shooting veteran has returned to a Lightning team looking to erase some bad memories. The two-time Rocket Richard Trophy winner has 321 career goals in 586 games, including 111 on the powerplay. There is no reason not to believe, playing on a line with Nikita Kucherov and Vlad Namestnikov that the 27-year-old sniper can’t get back to the numbers he posted in 2010-11, when he had 45 goals and 46 assists. It’s going to be fun watching Tampa again.
5. Toronto Maple Leafs – C Auston Matthews
Are happy days here again in Toronto? Judging by the growing legend of 2016 first overall pick Auston Matthews and the improved play of the team, a resounding yes. While the Leafs may be a couple of seasons removed from a serious run at the Stanley Cup, the Arizona native is playing the kind of outstanding hockey the Big Smoke hasn’t seen in some time. The big American announced himself to the NHL and the Leafs faithful in a big way during his first ever NHL game. He scored four times, en route to a 40-goal, 69 point season and a Calder Trophy as the top rookie. He followed it up with four goals and an assist in six playoff games as well. This season, he’s already off to a hot start, scoring a goal and adding two assists — including a lovely feed to new linemate Patrick Marleau for a goal — as Toronto whipped Winnipeg 7-2 on Wednesday night.
4. Vancouver Canucks – C Henrik Sedin And LW Daniel Sedin
The Sedins are a package deal, hence why we have them as co-influential. They have been a collective since being drafted second (Daniel) and third (Henrik) overall by the Canucks in 1999. Since then, they have been at or near the top of Vancouver scoring, with Daniel contributing 986 points in 1,225 games and identical twin Henrik amassing 1,021 points in 1,248 games. Between them, they have an Art Ross, a Hart and a King Clancy (Henrik) along with a Art Ross and a Ted Lindsay (Daniel). Through thick and thin, the talented Swedes have always played hard and shown leadership. Only a Stanley Cup would make things right for the long-serving — and deserving — NHLers. Not sure the Canucks will do it during their tenure, though.
3. Vegas Golden Knights – G Marc-Andre Fleury
They haven’t played a game yet, but that doesn’t mean the Vegas Golden Knights don’t already have a dominant player. He would be three time Stanley Cup champion goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who will surely be tested heavily as the Golden Knights find out just who they are from game to game. A collection of expansion and entry draft picks and free agents does not a team make, so Fleury’s steadying influence in between the pipes will be welcome. A first overall pick by Pittsburgh in 2003, Fleury has appeared in 692 NHL games, but since the start of the 2016 playoffs lost his grip on the starting job with the Pens in favor of Matt Murray. It left little doubt, then, that at the end of the successful 2016-17 season, Pittsburgh would leave him open to the plucking by Vegas. Starting Friday night in Dallas, he has a new lease on life. Stay tuned.
2. Washington Capitals – LW Alex Ovechkin
Players have come and players have gone, and still the Great 8 remains Washington’s most authoritative presence. One of the game’s greatest shooters has piled up an impressive list of personal awards — three Harts for MVP, an Art Ross as scoring champ and six Rocket Richard trophies — but has yet to sip from the holiest of hockey grails, the Stanley Cup. Through his first 12 seasons in the league he has played on some good to great regular season teams, only to see it all frittered away in the playoffs. However, the game still looks fun to OV, who often flashes the gap-toothed grin that makes him a fan favorite in D.C. and around the league. If Washington is to win a title in the near future, Ovechkin will surely play a huge role.
1. Winnipeg Jets – D Dustin Byfuglien
There are better skaters and better scorers on the Winnipeg Jets 2.0, but there aren’t any as complete a player as we think Dustin Byfuglien is. Patrik Laine may make this list one day, ditto Mark Scheifele, but for the time being Big Buff is the man in Winterpeg. The Roseau, MN born defenceman can and has done it all at the NHL level, even winning a Stanley Cup with Chicago in 2010, when he scored 11 goals in 22 games. He can score (165 career goals in 759 games), make plays (285 assists), scrap it up a bit and go in the dirty areas (915 penalty minutes) and play big minutes without getting burned too badly (+19 in the last three years). Add to that the fact he was a dark horse even to play one game in the NHL after being drafted 245th overall in 2003.