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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