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 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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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)