Month: October 2016

The NHL X-Factors in 2016-17 (II)

(Read the introduction and Part I here)

Montreal Canadiens: Alexander Radulov (RW)

After two previous NHL stints concluded with Radulov bolting home through the backdoor, the Russian is back in North America to tie up some loose ends. Generally regarded for much of his time away as the best talent not plying his trade in the league, the 30-year-old faces the challenge of proving he can be an impact player against the world’s elite while showcasing improved maturity and commitment to the game.

In Montreal, the right winger will find an offense in need of his game-breaking qualities to help spread the offensive wealth, as Therrien seems determined to load up his top line by uniting Max Pacioretty, Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher. Strong, explosive and super skilled, Radulov is a gamble that can pay off handsomely for the Canadiens and vault the team to new heights insofar as Carey Price is back in net.

Nashville Predators: Ryan Johansen (C)

For many pundits, the PK Subban trade elevated the Nashville Predators into full-fledged contenders for the Stanley Cup, and I certainly don’t disagree with that notion, but you need more than a sumptuous defence to carry a team in the playoffs. You can’t go far without, at least, average goaltending – Pekka Rinne is becoming a conundrum – and you can’t move on without a strong No. 1 Centre.

David Poile believes he found his man when he swung for Ryan Johansen last year, but the 24-year-old pivot still has something to prove when the stakes are at the highest level.  Three seasons posting 60+ points and a thirty-goal campaign (2013-14) exposed his dynamic playmaking skills and dangerous shot, yet Johansen still lacks nightly consistency on his effort, production and defensive awareness. The top middleman on a Cup-winning team can’t take shifts off and Johansen has to become a reliable two-way presence if the Predators are to come out of the West.

Nashville Predators' Center Ryan Johansen is going to be under pressure to deliver in 2016-17

Nashville Predators’ Center Ryan Johansen is going to be under pressure to deliver in 2016-17

New Jersey Devils: Damon Severson (D)

To add an offensive game-changer such as Taylor Hall the Devils had to sacrifice their best young defenseman, and even though Ray Shero’s option is unassailable, the loss of Adam Larsson still leaves a major hole on the team’s backend. An underwhelming group got even thinner and the addictions of Ben Lovejoy, Kyle Quincey and the wildcard Yohann Auvitu don’t exactly move the needle significantly.

Therefore, the team is banking on a significant improvement from their most promising blueliner, 22-year-old Damon Severson. Going into his third NHL season, the former 2nd round pick will be tasked with some tough assignments alongside captain Andy Green on the top pair, and the Devils are also looking for improved offensive numbers, believing he can be more than a 20-points defenseman due to his heavy shot and ability to outlet and rush the puck up the ice.

New York Islanders: Ryan Strome (C/W)

New York Islanders' forward Ryan Strome is eyeing a crucial season for his NHL career

New York Islanders’ forward Ryan Strome is eyeing a crucial season for his NHL career

The Islanders lost two of the team’s leading figures over the last few season as Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen said goodbye to the franchise, so they’re looking for players to step up and emerge in support of John Tavares. Several names are in the running, including Josh Bailey, Anders Lee and Brock Nelson, but none of those boasts the pedigree of Ryan Strome, the fifth overall pick in 2011.

Selected to be a scoring threat up the middle, the 23-year-old took a major step back last season, falling from 50 points in 2014-15 to just 28 (8 goals) and being relegated to the minors for a few weeks. In three NHL seasons, Strome has been often used on the right side, but he’s probably getting moved to his natural position this season, where he’ll have to find a way to deliver. Otherwise, his time in NY may come to an end swiftly, as the Islanders have a few forward prospects knocking on the door of the NHL roster.

New York Rangers: Mika Zibanejad (C)

The Rangers’ highest profile acquisition of the offseason is someone the team sees as a building block for the future, but the 23-year-old is already vital towards keeping the Blueshirts afloat on the Metropolitan Division’s playoff scene. The Swedish centre inherits the responsibilities from the man he was traded for – Derrick Brassard – and that includes time on the top line alongside Mats Zuccarello and Chris Kreider, a plump PP spot, and some heavy lifting against the opponents’ best.

Four seasons into his NHL career, the former 6th overall pick has been able to consistently increase his point totals, and with his blend of skill, elite vision and two-way expertise should target over 25 goals and 60 points on his debut campaign in the Big Apple.

Ottawa Senators: Mike Hoffman (LW)

It’s obvious for everyone that the Senators will go as far as Erik Karlsson can take them, and a change behind the bench, with the hiring of Guy Boucher and his rigid defensive schemes, won’t impact that severely yet, up front, it’s still up for debate Boucher’s influence.

Ottawa Senators' winger Mike Hoffman can rip the puck like few others in the NHL

Ottawa Senators’ winger Mike Hoffman can rip the puck like few others in the NHL

The Sens’ attack boasts some interesting pieces that can still find another gear and Hoffman is the most intriguing, especially due to his elite sniper potential. The 26-year-old left winger didn’t see eye to eye with Dave Cameron at times, and he is now reunited with his former junior coach, a thrilling outlook for a low-key top-20 goal scorer at even strenght over the last two years. With a wicked, hard shot that he can unleash in no time, Hoffman is an explosive scorer poised to easily shatter the 30-goal mark in 2016-17.

Philadelphia Flyers:  Ivan Provorov (D)

After so many years icing a blueline deficient in terms of mobility and puck-moving ability, the wise rebuilding work of Ron Hextall is finally starting to pay off for the Flyers. Shayne Gostisbehere took the NHL by storm last season, and their promising 2014 first round pick Travis Sanheim isn’t far away from making the big league, yet Provorov is at another level.

A big, physical defender with excellent passing and skating capacities, the Russian is billed as the future top-pairing, hard-to-play-against defenseman  the Flyers miss since Chris Pronger, and a year dominating the WHL after being drafted worked wonders to polish the lasting kinks on his game. He should work his way into a top-four role in 2016-17 for a team that appears on his way back into contention in the East.

Pittsburgh Penguins: Olli Maatta (D)

The Stanley Cup Champions return with a line-up that is almost intact, and consequently they’ll have to find creative ways to improve with a target strapped to their back. A glut of energetic young forwards was decisive for their run last spring, but it’s on defence that Mike Sullivan will need guys to step up or they risk relying too much on Kris Letang.

The Pittsburgh Penguins need Olli Maatta to stay healthy this season

The Pittsburgh Penguins need Olli Maatta to stay healthy this season

The 22-year-old Maatta, an occasional healthy scratch during the playoffs, is a great place to start, since he hasn’t been the same steady, mobile self that endeared him to Penguins fans during his rookie year. He’s endured several ailments and injuries over the last two seasons, which made it hard to regain the positioning, timing, speed and confidence of before, yet he occasionally still flashes the poise and smarts of a top-level rearguard. For Maatta, it’s probably as simple as deflecting the injury bug and logging minutes on the NHL ice.

San Jose Sharks: Tomas Hertl (LW)

Much like their rivals in the Stanley Cup final, the San Jose Sharks avoided significant roster turnover, with only two players being added to the roster, forward Mikkel Boedker and defenseman David Schlemko. That duo isn’t exactly a difference maker, so I’ve settled for 22-year-old Tomas Hertl, best remembered as the baby-faced rookie that dropped four goals on Henrik Lundqvist in the early days of 2013-14.

Three years later, the Czech is coming into the season after missing most of the Stanley Cup final injured, a tough pill to swallow for a player whose size and speed was successfully complementing Joe Pavelski and Joe Thornton. The trio is reunited now, and in such illustrious company all signs point out to a career season for Hertl, who can improve on the 21 goals and 46 points of last season, and further develop his all-around game, making the Sharks’ forward group an even bigger threat.

St Louis Blues: Jake Allen (G)

Sophomores Robby Fabbri and Colton Parayko are going to be relied on immensely by a team that suffered some losses after reaching the Western Conference Finals, but it’s on Jake Allen that rest the biggest expectations on the Blues’ roster. After two seasons platooning with veteran Brian Elliot, St. Louis rewarded Allen with a four-year extension and handed him their crease for good (or bad).

Can Jake Allen elevate the St. Louis Blues over the rest of the Western Conference?

Can Jake Allen elevate the St. Louis Blues over the rest of the Western Conference?

At age 26, with almost 100 NHL games under his belt and solid career numbers, the time seems right to see if Allen is their long-time answer at the position, but there’s an inherent risk in going into a crucial season for the franchise without a proven parachute in the back.

Tampa Bay Lightning: Jonathan Drouin (LW)

Just a few months after a disgruntled Drouin started an ugly quarrel with Tampa Bay’s management, the prodigious winger was lighting up the playoffs with his superlative skill and speed to put to bed any thoughts that he couldn’t translate his wealth of resources to the NHL level.

Now, for the first time, Drouin starts the season firmly entrenched at the top of the Bolts’ depth chart, and there’s every reason to believe he’ll generate fireworks on a regular basis alongside a shot-first superstar like Steven Stamkos. With his playmaking instincts, remarkable creativity and agility, Drouin’s ceiling is rather extraordinary if he keeps getting over 18 min of TOI per game and consistent PP time. On a juggernaut such as the Lightning, he can definitely hit 70 points without major fuss.

Toronto Maple Leafs: Nikita Zaitsev (D)

With so many sensational young guns vying for NHL notoriety (Auston Matthews, William  Nylander and Mitch Marner obviously stand out) and a brand-new No.1 goalie in Frederik Andersen, the Maple Leafs are necessarily a team not lacking in storylines. However, while you can already roughly frame what those guys will mean this season and in the future, in the shadows lies a less talked-about rookie with a blank slate yet to colour in North America.

Toronto Maple Leafs' defenseman Nikita Zaitsev is making his debut in the NHL

Toronto Maple Leafs’ defenseman Nikita Zaitsev is making his debut in the NHL

A two-time KHL First Team All-Star, the 24-year-old Nikita Zaitsev left powerhouse CSKA Moscow to move abroad and improve under the tutelage of Mike Babcock, who can help bolster a game that relies on solid puck-moving abilities and assertive two-way play. On a one-year deal and part of a defensive group in flux, Zaitsev’s progress, both in production and deployment, is worth monitoring as he may well show the upside necessary to be part of the core group that will lead the franchise going forward.

Vancouver Canucks: Bo Horvat (C)

For a team that has been subpar for a few seasons, the Vancouver Canucks don’t have in their current roster enough young blood to believe on a swift transition once the Sedins hang their skates notwithstanding some nice complementary pieces in Ben Hutton, Jake Virtanen, and the more established Chris Tanev and Brandon Sutter. Added with the pick received for goaltender Cory Schneider, Bo Horvat is someone the Canucks desperately need to develop into a stalwart and, in his third year, his development can’t stall.

With Sutter injured for much of the season, the 21-year-old handled a bigger workload in 2015-16 with mixed results, ponying up 40 points, a solid amount for a sound two-way centre, but also sporting an ugly -30 rating (2nd worst in the NHL) due to a lot of tough matchups and defensive zone starts. Widely hailed as the future team captain, Horvat amassed 30 points on his last 43 games, and the Canucks would like him to build on that while maintaining his gritty edge and exceptional play on his own zone.

Washington Capitals: Dmitry Orlov (D)

Washington’s depth throughout their roster was one of the reasons they won the Presidents’ Trophy last season, but a few weak links were expertly exploited by the Penguins in the playoffs, with the third offensive and defensive groups submarined by the Pens speed. In turn, the acquisition of Lars Eller and the natural improvement of youngster Andre Burakovsky supplement the attack, whereas on defence the team should look internally to shore up the unit after the big three (Niskanen, Alzner, Carlson).

Dmitry Orlov should make significant contributions for the Washington Capitals in 2016-17

Dmitry Orlov should make significant contributions for the Washington Capitals in 2016-17

Despite being sheltered by Barry Trotz, Dmitry Orlov impressed during his first full-season for the Capitals, collecting 8 goals and 29 points, and he should be given more responsibilities at the age of 25. The Russian has already accumulated vast international experience for his country, and proved capable of being a legitimate top four blue liner with an offensive mindset, which is also an asset on the powerplay, where he can feed pucks to his compatriot Alex Ovechkin.

Winnipeg Jets: Connor Hellebuyk (G)

Ever since the Atlanta Thrashers incarnation, the Winnipeg Jets have seen several playoff challenges derailed by below average goaltending. Ondrej Pavelec had a multitude of opportunities to prove his worth and failed successively, so it was more than time management cut bait and offered the reigns to the team’s goalie of the future, Connor Hellebuyk.

After an outstanding college career, two years of AHL seasoning, and a fruitful 26-game NHL stint in 2015-16, the Michigan-native is ready for prime-time action and to cart a team brimming with talent to the thick of the playoff battlefield. Backing a burgeoning star center in Mark Scheifele, a sensational rookie marksman in Patrick Laine, and two elite players at the top of their game in Dustin Byfuglien and Blake Wheeler, Hellebuyk may well be the missing piece in the puzzle.

(Read the introduction and Part I here)

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The NHL X-Factors in 2016-17 (I)

A quick search for the meaning of the expression “X-Factor” gets back, among others, the definition as “a variable in a given situation that could have significant impact on the outcome” or “an important element of unknown consequences”. Thus, in a league dominated by parity such as the NHL, edging your bets on the variables that can alter the expected course of action is directly correlated with the understanding that some players’ performances deserve closer scrutiny for the potential to further cement (or derail) their team’s chances.

Among the 23-man that comprise an NHL roster you’ll find the sure-fire stars at the top of the food chain and the replacement-level individuals that fill specific roles at the bottom, therefore it is in the middle that lays the “X-Factor”, usually in a state of transition up or down the pyramid. In hockey, that cluster is comprised of the players generally thought off as members of the top three forward lines and regular defensive pairings; hence that’s where I tried to pin down the most intriguing contributor for each NHL team. That wildcard is the individual that better epitomizes the factors that can make or break their season, whether the main goal involves winning the Stanley Cup, making the playoffs, continue climbing the steps on the tortuous way back into relevancy, or simply provide some entertainment for the fans.

Thirty names were drawn and you’ll notice that it’s far from a homogeneous group as each player was selected for a particular reason that I did my best to explain in a concise way. I kept in mind the clubs’ context and needs albeit some justifications lean more towards the individual side than others. Moreover, you’ll also realize that this isn’t a list of breakout players, alluring newcomers or talents that will necessarily take a huge step forward, even if the great majority would undoubtedly fell into one of those categories.

The final collection is an interesting mixture of rookies, up-and-coming talents, in-their prime actors and recognised faces on the cusp of stardom, but I also threw in there a couple of more experienced players that might take you by surprise. Meanwhile, if the set is broken down by position, the proportion doesn’t differ greatly from a regular (training camp) roster: 18 forwards, 10 defensemen and 2 goalies, something I also tried to accomplish.

Despite being published at this time, my picks were made before the regular season’s start and I resisted the yearning to tinker with it, even if these two weeks are already shining some light on the possible hits and hits.

Due to his relative extension, this article is divided in two parts, with the 30 clubs split in half and presented in alphabetic order.

Anaheim Ducks: Jakub Silfverberg (RW)

With 15 points over his last 16 games of the regular season, the Swedish winger ended the season on a tear and there’s no reason he can’t keep the ball rolling this time. New coach Randy Carlyle likes to send his top guys over the boards continually and whether he plays alongside Ryan Getzlaf or Ryan Kesler on the top six, the 25-year-old Silfverberg figures to welcome ample opportunities to shatter his career-high of 20 goals and 39 points.

The Anaheim Ducks expect Jakub Silfverberg to keep the torrid scoring pace of the end of last season

The Anaheim Ducks expect Jakub Silfverberg to keep the torrid scoring pace of the end of last season

The Ducks ended last season with three 50-point scorers, and they could use more scoring depth, thus look for Silfverberg to join the group and pot 25-30 goals, something also on the horizon for his compatriot Rickard Rackell as soon as he returns to the team.

Arizona Coyotes: Anthony Duclair (RW)

Arizona’s youth movement ramps up in 2016-17 with another batch of rookies (Dylan Strome, Lawson Crouse, Christian Dvorak, Jakob Chychrun) ready to take the stage as the core of a playoff team slowly takes shape, yet the unceasing progression of the more seasoned talents can be considered as important.

Last year, Max Domi took the major headlines with a slew of electric performances but Duclair was similarly impressive, cracking the 20-goal barrier with the help of an unsustainable Sh% of 19% (105 shots). The speedy winger is surely capable of generating more for himself incorporated on an improved offensive group and the return of Radim Vrbata shouldn’t limit his upside, as Duclair remains on the top PP unit and ought to see his usage increased by a couple of minutes from the 14.22 per game of 2015-16.

Boston Bruins: Ryan Spooner (C/W)

Local boy Frank Vatrano, who terrorized defences (36 goals, 55 points in 36 games) on the AHL last year, would have been the ideal choice here, but he’s out for the first three months of the season. Consequently, we’ll move on to another player that can offer timely assistance to Boston’s attack and help make up for that suspect defensive unit.

A 2nd round pick in 2010, Spooner took his time arriving at the scene, with 2015-16 being his first full season for the Bruins, and now he’s hungry for more. As a playmaking centre, the 24-year-old won’t unseat David Krejci or Patrice Bergeron on the top two lines, but his finesse game might prove vital to carry the third line or slot effectively on the left side of Krejci, where his own struggles on faceoffs and the defensive side of the puck can be masked. Either way, he has the skill set to put points on the board at an even higher rate than the solid 49 collected last season and function as the creative fulcrum of the second PP group.

Buffalo Sabres: Sam Reinhart (C/RW)

A tall task is in order for the Sabres' Sam Reinhart on his second NHL season

A tall task is in order for the Sabres’ Sam Reinhart on his second NHL season

Reinhart’s rookie season was naturally overshadowed by fellow 2nd overall pick Jack Eichel, but the cerebral centre was a nice surprise, posting 23 goals while playing out of his natural position. Significantly stronger and quicker than in his 9-game cameo of 2014-15, Reinhart’s confidence grew as the season wore on and, even on the wing, he was able to tap on his superior hockey IQ and vision to produce offense.

The central lane shouldn’t be cleared in the foreseeable future, yet Reinhart is equipped to pile up the points flanking Eichel on the top line. The duo displayed impressive chemistry last season and 60+ points isn’t out of reach for Reinhart as the Sabres battle to contend for a playoff position.

Calgary Flames: Sam Bennett (C)

With Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau managing the top trio, and defensive aces Michael Backlund and Michael Frolik anchoring a stout, competent third line, the Flames’ chances of challenging for a playoff spot may well rest on the ability to ice a potent second forward unit.

The key to that is undoubtedly the fiery Sam Bennett, the former 4th overall pick who dazzled in spaces last season, including a four-goal outing against the Panthers. In around 15min of ice time per game, only seventh amongst Calgary’s forwards, Bennett was a penalty-drawing machine due to his combination of explosive offensive instincts and physical edge, yet went long stretches without hitting the scoresheet, concluding with 36 points in 77 games. With improved usage, more PP time (1.57 min/GP last season) and a sprinkle of consistency, the 20-year-old is a great bet to explode and make the Flames much more dangerous.

Sam Bennett, the Calgary Flames' Center with a burning desire to win

Sam Bennett, the Calgary Flames’ Center with a burning desire to win

Carolina Hurricanes: Teuvo Teravainen (C/W)

After being diligently pried away from the Chicago Blackhawks by GM Ron Francis, the talented Finn has a golden opportunity to establish his credentials at the NHL level for a team craving offensive vision and creativity to turn possession-prowess into points in the standings.

Surrounded by a core of players on the same age-bracket (Elias Lindholm, Viktor Rask, Jeff Skinner and fellow Finn Sebastian Aho), the 22-year-old should thrive given ample PP time – a situation where he excels using his distribution skills – and top-six minutes behind the resolute Jordan Staal forward group. A 15-point jump from the 35 amassed in 2015-2016 is a conservative estimate for Teravainen if he finds chemistry with his line mates, and it would go a long way towards Carolina’s ambition of climbing the ladder in the East.

Chicago Blackhawks: Brian Campbell (D)

What? Okay, this isn’t exactly a conventional choice, but Brian Campbell’s role on a potential deep run by the Blackhawks in 2016-17 can’t be understated. The loss of Johnny Oduya in the summer of 2015 severely damaged the team’s defence and the Hawks struggled to fill the massive void, overextending their top 3 D and being exposed when names like Trevor van Riemsdyk proved unable to assume a critical role.

The return of “Soupy”, five years after leaving the Windy City, restores the balance and allows Joel Quenneville to properly groom fellow newcomers Michal Kempny and Gustav Forsling.  At age 37, the smooth-skating defenseman is coming off a season where he logged 22+min/GP and amassed a league-best +31 rating, and naturally his qualities remain intact, a comfortable sight for a team that keeps finding solutions year after year despite living permanently in salary cap hell.

Brian Campbell is back in Chicago and he has an important role to fill

Brian Campbell is back in Chicago and he has an important role to fill

Colorado Avalanche: Nathan MacKinnon (C)

Bestowed with a rich seven year deal in the offseason, fresh off an excellent performance at the World Cup of Hockey and liberated from Patrick Roy’s idiosyncratic reign behind the bench, the time for Nathan MacKinnon’s outburst is now.

Whether new coach Jared Bednar opts to slot the 1st overall pick on the middle of the top line or the flank, with both Matt Duchene and Gabriel Landeskog, one of them or none, it’s almost inevitable that the 21-year-old will trump his career-highs (24 goals, 63 points) set as a rookie and become a bonafide superstar in the NHL this season. The Avalanche, still missing essential depth up front, can only dream on the stacked Central Division with a revival of the irresistible MacKinnon, whose combination of blazing speed and pure goal scoring acumen calls for 30+ goals every season.

Columbus Blue Jackets: Zach Werenski (D)

The 2016-17 season promises to be a long slog for the John Tortorella-led squad, but there’s one American man fans in Columbus should put their faith on. Zach Werenski picked apart the opposition last season, meriting All-Star honours at the World Junior Championships and NCAA level before notching 14 points on the Lake Erie Monsters’ Calder Cup run, and he’s ready to fortify a blueline that already counts on two other young standouts in Seth Jones and Ryan Murray.

Zach Werenski represents the future on the Columbus Blue Jackets' defense

Zach Werenski represents the future on the Columbus Blue Jackets’ defense

The eight pick in the 2015 Draft possesses every tool necessary to grow into a high-end, complete defenseman, and he’s already part of Columbus’ top pair and manning the point on the first power play, a tall ask for a 19-year-old on his first full professional season.

Dallas Stars: Stephen Johns (D)

I considered going with the Stars’ goalie tandem here yet decided to focus on the unit in front of Niemi and Lehtonen, which saw two key performers, Alex Goligoski and Jason Demers, leave in the offseason. The veteran Dan Hamhuis should cover for John Klingberg’s endeavours, but Johnny Oduya is looking for a new partner.

Obtained from the Chicago Blackhawks as part of the Patrick Sharp deal in 2015, Stephen Johns looks to be the man for the job after impressing in 27 games last season due to his bruising style, which adds a new dimension to a defence that, at times, is too tender for the opponents, especially in front of the net. However, the 6’4’’, 24-year-old is way more than just a stay-at-home blueliner and has some offensive upside, being capable of delivering hard passes to the high-flying forwards that populate the roster, a crucial attribute for a player bound to be an imposing figure on the Stars’ backend for years to come.

Detroit Red Wings: Dylan Larkin (C/W)

With Pavel Datsyuk fleeing for Russia and Henrik Zetterberg riding into the sunset on the near future, Detroit’s search for a new franchise player that will carry the team moving forward is in full steam and this man is the one tapped for the succession.

The callow Dylan Larkin is gonna have to learn quickly to correspond to the expectations of the Detroit Red Wings.

The callow Dylan Larkin is gonna have to learn quickly to correspond to the expectations of the Detroit Red Wings.

Dylan Larkin posted 45 points during his debut season before fading badly on the second half, totalling just 12 in the last 32 games, and Detroit will need more consistency from their prized young forward to have a chance of keeping the playoff streak alive. The 20-year-old will be moved to centre fulltime, learning the ropes from the captain lining up to his side, and he’ll be given every chance to succeed, since Jeff Blashill can isolate him from the toughest matchups by dropping Frans Nielsen’s group into the fire instead.

Edmonton Oilers: Adam Larsson (D)

The Edmonton Oilers are all about watching Connor McDavid run roughshod on the entire league, but the point of contention over the last few seasons has never been the lack of offensive prowess. Everyone called for a significant upgrade on defence and Peter Chiarelli responded by picking up Adam Larsson on a one-sided, bold swap for Taylor Hall. The Swedish blueliner isn’t at fault for being placed on this situation, yet the Oilers need him to deliver as the all-situations rock he’s been advertised to be.

After being rushed to the NHL as an 18-year-old, the 2011 4th overall pick found his groove in New Jersey over the last two seasons and became a steady, shut-down contributor that excels using his big frame and decent skating, but he’s yet to flourish offensively, posting 24 points in 2014-15 for the goal-starved Devils. The Oilers have better options to assist their forwards in Andrej Sekera and Oscar Klefbom, but Larsson will be under the microscope and needs to answer some doubts about his ability to move the puck and support the play outside of the ultra-conservative system employed in New Jersey.

Florida Panthers: Michael Matheson (D)

Ther 22-year-old Michael Matheson is someone to keep an eye on the Florida Panthers' backend

The 22-year-old Michael Matheson is someone to keep an eye on the Florida Panthers’ backend

The Panthers’ defence suffered a tremendous facelift in the offseason, with regulars Brian Campbell, Erik Gudbransson and Dmitry Kulikov going out the door, and Keith Yandle and Jason Demers joining the team after receiving valuable free agency offers, yet the most interesting supplement to the group is a home-grown talent.

The 22-year-old Michael Matheson enjoyed a cup of coffee with the team late last season, playing 5 games in the playoffs, but his true breakout party was celebrated abroad, as he was a fixture of Canada’s World Championships roster and elected to the tournament’s All-Star Team as the top-defenseman in the competition. The 2012 first round pick is a fast rearguard that can lug the puck up the ice and fire at the net, qualities that the Panthers see worthy of a top-four role already this season.

Los Angeles Kings: Tyler Toffoli (RW)

Since winning the Cup in 2014, the LA Kings have a single playoff triumph as Dean Lombardi has struggled to navigate the perils of permanently bumping against the salary cap ceiling. The team’s depth has been purged slowly and the injury to Marian Gaborik further complicates the situation, with LA in need of someone that can take pressure off Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, Drew Doughty and Jonathan Quick.

Enter Tyler Toffoli, who’s seen his goal tally increase every season in the league (from 12 to 23 to 31), and may be on the verge of becoming a true superstar just before his deal expires next summer. Boasting a quick release and an underappreciated defensive acumen that pops up on the PK, the 24-year-old winger is the key to extend the Kings’ window of opportunity for a third Stanley Cup this decade.

Tyler Toffoli's natural goal-scoring instincts set him apart on the LA Kings' roster

Tyler Toffoli’s natural goal-scoring instincts set him apart on the LA Kings’ roster

Minnesota Wild: Mikael Granlund (C/W)

Since being taken with the ninth overall pick in the 2010 draft, the Finnish forward has had to cope with the high expectations placed upon him in the State of Hockey, and he’s fell way short, with four full NHL seasons delivering an overwhelming career-best of 13 goals and 44 points.

With Eric Staal joining a lineup that already includes Mikko Koivu and Charlie Coyle, the 24-year-old is bound to become a full-time winger and under a new system and coach (Bruce Boudreau), Minnesota fans expect to finally get tangible production from the nifty playmaker. Granlund has the hands and creativity to thrive consistently on a top six role, but he needs to move the puck quicker and shoot with assertiveness. In Central Division’s dogfight, the Wild could use a much-awaited breakout season from one of their most skilled forwards.

(Continue for Part II)

The 2016-17 NHL season: My predictions

Predictions are fun. And silly. But mostly fun. Therefore, naturally, I took the start of the new NHL season as a chance to embarrass myself by spitting out a few ideas about what might happen over the next eight months.

Thus, I forecasted the final standings for each division (including the playoff teams), the Stanley Cup finalists (way too early, I know) and the players that will take home the major NHL awards. A swift reasoning is provided after every titbit, just so I can dig an even bigger hole for myself.

So…bookmark this for the future, feel free to laugh loudly at me and, if you dare, leave your own predictions in the comments section. Here we go.

Regular season standings

Atlantic Division

  1. Tampa Bay Lightning
  2. Florida Panthers
  3. Montreal Canadiens
  4. Boston Bruins

Outside (in order): Ottawa Senators, Detroit Red Wings, Buffalo Sabres, Toronto Maple Leafs

The loaded Tampa Bay Lightning cruise through the regular season, contesting the President’s Trophy with the Washington Capitals until the last week despite a whirlwind of news about Ben Bishop’s future (he gets shipped to Dallas). The Panthers edge past the Canadiens in the second half to comfortably clinch the second seed, while the Bruins squeak into the playoffs, snatching a WC spot from the NY Rangers. The Senators and Sabres falter in late March, while the Red Wings’ playoff streak is halted despite a few desperate moves by Ken Holland at the TD. The Leafs’ rookies hit the wall late, yet the team improves by 15 points from last season, finishing around 85.

The Steven Stamkos - Jonathan Drouin combo will be a lethal weapon for the Tampa Bay Lightning

The Steven Stamkos – Jonathan Drouin combo will be a lethal weapon for the Tampa Bay Lightning

Metropolitan Division

  1. Washington Capitals
  2. Pittsburgh Penguins
  3. Philadelphia Flyers
  4. NY Islanders

Outside: NY Rangers, Carolina Hurricanes, New Jersey Devils, Columbus Blue Jackets

The Capitals are rewarded for staying on course with another highly successful regular season campaign, dominating the Division at will with the Penguins marching a dozen of points behind. The Flyers, driven by their rejuvenated defence, set up a first round matchup with their in-state enemies, while the Islanders fend off the Rangers for a final playoff spot. The Hurricanes and Devils once again fall short despite emanating positive vibes, while the Jackets fire John Tortorella by February and end up duelling the Vancouver Canucks for last place in the NHL.

Central Division

  1. Nashville Predators
  2. St. Louis Blues
  3. Dallas Stars
  4. Chicago Blackhawks
  5. Winnipeg Jets

Outside: Minnesota Wild, Colorado Avalanche

Despite being in the toughest division in hockey, the Nashville Predators win the West following a sensational season by their dynamic blueline, with four of the teams’ players breaking the 65-point barrier (Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen, Roman Josi, PK Subban). The Blues and Stars go hand-in-hand for most of the season with St. Louis avoiding their usual late season swoon to secure home ice advantage. With Patrick Kane called back to earth, the Blackhawks suffer from the lack of forward depth and are beaten handily by the Sharks in the first round, while the Jets follow the inspiring net play of Connor Hellebuyk to stamp a return to the playoffs. Despite having every ounce of offense squeezed by Bruce Boudreau, the Wild get eliminated while amassing more points than their coach’s former home. The Avalanche also finish close to the cut line, but are bounced in the middle of the Division’s onslaught.

They may not take down the Chicago Blackhawks, but the Winnipeg Jets will make the playoffs in 2016-17

They may not take down the Chicago Blackhawks, but the Winnipeg Jets will make the playoffs in 2016-17

Pacific Division

  1. San Jose Sharks
  2. LA Kings
  3. Anaheim Ducks

Outside: Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers, Phoenix Coyotes, Vancouver Canucks

The Sharks and Kings fuel an interesting clash for the entire regular season, with Los Angeles failing to close out the division title in the last week once again. The Ducks, despite premature turmoil as a result of Randy Carlyle’s options, right the ship just in time to get slaughtered by the Preds in the spring, while the Flames and Oilers finally rekindle their rivalry in meaningful games, but are ultimately kept on the outside looking in. The Coyotes, similarly to the Leafs, craft a substantial point improvement with special times looming on the horizon, while the Canucks realize – too late – that it’s time for a full-blown rebuilt. They get the first overall pick to help jumpstart the process.

Playoffs

Eastern Conference Champions: Washington Capitals

Western Conference Champions: St. Louis Blues

The Caps get out of the Metro after receiving a helpful hand from the Philadelphia Flyers, who eliminate the defending Champions, and then dramatically defeat the Tampa Bay Lightning – backstopped by Russian Andrei Vasilevski – to offer Alex Ovechkin his maiden Conference banner.

The Blues, riding timely contributions from Vladimir Tarasenko and Robby Fabbri, slam the door on the Predators and then expose the LA Kings’ lack of speed to reach their first Stanley Cup Final.

Capitals' Center Evgeni Kuznetsov will guide Washinton to the promised land

Capitals’ Center Evgeni Kuznetsov will guide Washinton to the promised land

Stanley Cup Champions: Washington Capitals

Conn Smythe Winner: Evgeny Kuznetsov

The wait is over as a diabolic Russian forward guides the Caps to that elusive Championship. That man is not the Great 8 but linemate Kuznetsov, who buries his nightmarish memories from last years’ playoffs with a splendorous performance.

Major Individual Honours

Art Ross Trophy (Most points): Jamie Benn (Dallas Stars)

With Sidney Crosby sidelined for a quarter of the season, an entertaining race pits no less than five players who collect over 90 points but can’t break into triple digits. A monstrous final stretch elevates the Dallas Stars’ captain over Connor McDavid, Vladimir Tarasenko, Johnny Gaudreau and Evgeni Malkin, whereas Patrick Kane, the incumbent, tumbles to the 85-point range.

Rocket Richard Trophy (Most goals): Alex Ovechkin (Washington Capitals)

The Russian sniper will gather his seventh Rocket Richard but expect a plethora of candidates hot on his trail until the very end. For the first time (in a full season), Ovechkin will earn the trophy without reaching 50 goals (he stops at 48) but he still tops Jamie Benn (46) and Vladimir Tarasenko (45) on the final week. Steven Stamkos and Brad Marchand will also hit the 40-goal mark.

Dallas Stars' Jamie Benn will earn MVP honours in 2016-17

Dallas Stars’ Jamie Benn will earn MVP honours in 2016-17

Hart Memorial Trophy (MVP): Jamie Benn (Dallas Stars)

Benn won the Art Ross in 2014 only to see Carey Price steal MVP honours, but this time the roles will reverse. Montreal’s star goalie puts the offensively-challenged Canadiens on his back to return to the postseason, but the hulking winger piles up the votes by shouldering the load after Tyler Seguin misses a large chunk of the season injured.  McDavid and Tarasenko split the field for the final nomination.

Calder Trophy (Rookie of the season): Auston Matthews (Toronto Maple Leafs)

Was I watching Matthews burn the Senators on his debut while writing this? Damn right. Did it matter? Not really.

The Leafs saviour will parlay the one season of professional hockey already under his belt into a 70-point NHL debut, winning the award by a landslide. Moreover, Matthews will carry William Nylander throughout, culminating on a podium position for the 20-year-old Swede who played 22 games last season. The outstanding Ivan Provorov will emulate Shayne Gostisbehere and guarantee a second consecutive nomination for a Flyers’ rookie defenseman by edging Blue Jackets’ blueliner Zach Werenski. Patrick Laine will take his time adapting to the NHL-ice, but he still clears 25-goals and 50 points, rounding out the top five.

Norris Trophy (Best defenseman): PK Subban (Nashville Predators)

Hordes of fans will freak out in Montreal as PK Subban turns the Nashville Predators into a powerhouse, tallying 20 goals and over 70 points in the process. Much of the same arguments that have been used to discredit Erik Karlsson’s brilliance will be dusted off to undermine his candidacy but, ultimately, Subban will lift a second Norris Trophy. Erik Karlsson’s numbers will be slightly toned down by Guy Boucher’s system, but he’s still a finalist for the award, with Kris Letang and Victor Hedman being recognized for their work on Eastern heavyweights. Drew Doughty will finish well outside of the top five.

A healthy Carey Price will take the Montreal Canadiens back to the playoff picture

A healthy Carey Price will take the Montreal Canadiens back to the playoff picture

Vezina Trophy (Best goalie):  Carey Price (Montreal Canadiens)

Leading the NHL in save percentage and finishing on the top-three in GAA, Carey Price collects his second Vezina by a wealthy margin, with New Jersey’s Cory Schneider coming behind to finally attain universal appreciation as one of the game’s finest goaltenders. San Jose Sharks’ Martin Jones upstages Braden Holtby for the third place.