NHL regular season

Five NHL rookies turning heads in the first month of the season

For everyone getting their feet wet in a new work environment, starting on the right foot is extremely important to establish rank and quickly earn the confidence of colleagues and bosses. The NHL is no exception, and for many fans one of the most satisfying parts of the NHL regular season is keeping track of the league newcomers, from those that arrive showered with praise and high expectations, to less heralded players that had to work their tail off to ascend from lower leagues and the college ranks.

Up to October 25th, 99 players (93 skaters + 6 goalies) have featured in, at least, a game in 2017-18 and are considered rookies eligible to receive the Calder Memorial Trophy*. Among those, the likes of Clayton Keller (Arizona Coyotes), Nico Hischier (New Jersey Devils), Charlie McAvoy (Boston Bruins), Brock Boeser (Vancouver Canucks) and Mikhail Sergachev (Tampa Bay Lightning), preseason favourites for the award, stand out at the top of the leader boards, yet it’s not on the high-profile constituents we will cast a shining light here.

Instead, we’re looking for under-the-radar names that have popped out so far, seizing important roles in the respective teams even if few – outside of their home markets – had them pegged for such fast starts. To further limit our pool, we restricted  our evaluation to players that have logged over 18 min per game, in the case of defenseman, or forwards with an TOI/GP above 15 min, thereby claiming what can be roughly defined as top-four D/ top-six FW usage. Let’s meet the five most interesting cases from the lot.

* To be eligible for the award, a player cannot have played more than 25 games in any single preceding season nor in six or more games in each of any two preceding seasons in any major professional league. Beginning in 1990-91, to be eligible for this award a player must not have attained his twenty-sixth birthday by September 15th of the season in which he is eligible.

 

Victor Mete (D, Montreal Canadiens)

The lone beacon of hope on the Canadiens dreadful start, Victor Mete is a 2016 fourth-round pick that wasn’t supposed to make it to the big league on his draft +2 year, much less grasp such an important role for the group (not) shielding Carey Price.

Smallish at 5’9″, 184 pounds, the 19-year-old is surprisingly soaking up almost 20 mins (19:41) of ice time, playing regular shifts with captain Shea Weber on the Habs’ top pairing, drawing the toughest matchups and still coming out in the black on most possession metrics (Adj 51.55 CF%). Moreover, while his -5 rating is ugly, it is much more a product of poor team play, as no Canadiens player is in positive territory, and bad luck (94.8 PDO) than explicit defensive shortcomings.

Montreal Canadiens defenseman Victor Mete protects the puck behind the net (Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports)

In fact, Mete, a flashy puck-moving defenseman with elite skating ability, is already the only Montreal blueliner that can consistently elude forecheckers, hurry the puck up the ice, complete a quick pass out of the zone and join the rush, leading the offense-starved Canadiens in (individual) transition plays and both scoring changes for (78) and high dangerous shot attempts (40) when on the ice.

A left-side blueliner that has filled the void created by the departure of veteran Andrei Markov, Mete has the speed to get back on the play and recover loose pucks, but, naturally, still struggles against stronger players in the wall or in front of the net, reasons that explain why he’s yet to be thrusted into the penalty kill by Claude Julien. He’s made for it on the powerplay, though, handling 2:58 mins per night and picking up two primary assists on the man-advantage, where his shot and quarterbacking ability inspire predictions of gaudy offensive totals further down the road.

Alex Iaffallo (LW, Los Angeles Kings)

One of the last players added to the Kings training camp roster, Alex Iaffalo stunned everyone by not only making the roster, but also snatching the plum assignment on LA’s top forward group, playing left wing to Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown and being an integral part of the team’s excellent beginning of regular season.

LA Kings forward Alex Iafallo joins line rushes during a warmup session (Harry How/Getty Images)

The 23-year-old had excelled in his last college season, amassing 21 goals and 51 pts as a senior at the University of Minnesota – Duluth, and his noticeable speed caught the eye of several NHL organizations, with Iaffalo opting to sign for the Kings, a team in dire need of his attributes. A great skater that can keep possession of the puck despite being light (6’0’’, 185 lb), the undrafted forward also received rave reviews for his release and accurate shot, possessing the ability to slot in either wing or in the middle.

Nine games into his NHL career, Iaffalo is yet to find the twine, having collected just 3 assists, but he’s fired 21 shots on goal – with an additional 13 missing the net – and looks active, engaged and fast complementing the heavy, grinding style of his line mates. The Kings premium attacking trio has clicked so far, with Iaffalo boasting a +7 rating in 16:48 min of TOI/GP and good possession/scoring chances numbers (53.13 adj CF%, 50.0 SCF%,53.23 HD CF%), thus expect him to keep the ball rolling for the next while.

Robert Hagg (D, Philadelphia Flyers)

After making his NHL debut in the last game of 2016-17, Robert Hagg has taken advantage of the youth movement steadily revamping Philadelphia’s defensive outlook to grab a top-four spot, his blend of size, smarts, mobility and two-way acumen assisting partner Shayne Gostisbehere to a prolific season start (11 pts in 9 matches).

Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Robert Hagg in action against the Carolina Hurricanes (Getty Images)

A former 2nd rounder (2013) who took his time getting acclimated to the intricacies of the North American game, the Swedish blueliner fits the mould of a modern shutdown defender: big (6’2’’), strong in the corners and physical – his 26 hits lead the team -, but also a good skater that keeps it simple in possession and can dish a sound breakout pass. Hagg topped at 20 pts in 3 AHL seasons, indicating limited offensive ceiling, however there’s every reason to believe the 22-year-old could be an excellent complement on the Flyers’ blueline to a more dynamic partner, be it Gostisbehere, promising 2014 1st rounder Travis Sanheim, or even the fledging Ivan Provorov on the top pair.

With one assist in 9 appearances, and a +5 rating clearly propped up by a sky-high 110.4 PDO, Hagg’s underlying numbers haven’t been spectacular (45.58 adj CF%, SCF 44.54%), yet it’s obvious coach Dave Hackstol trusts him, deploying the Uppsala-native for 18:14 mins per game, including 1:44 mins on the PK, where size and strength make it certain his usage is only going to increase.

Anders Bjork (RW, Boston Bruins)

As a former U-20 World Championships standout for the USA, and one of the top forward prospects in the Bruins organization, Anders Bjork’s name may not be as unfamiliar as the rest of this list, nevertheless he was consecutively overshadowed by teammate Charlie McAvoy in early season previews and his nice season start warrants the spotlight.

Boston Bruins winger Anders Bjork tries to evade a Chicago Blackhawks defenseman in a preseason game (AP Photo/Winslow Townson)

A fifth round pick by Boston back in 2014, the winger cracked the Bruins roster after three seasons at Notre Dame where his point totals increased steadily (22 to 35 to 52), and he’s done nothing but impress so far due to his notable work rate and willingness to chase pucks, provoke turnovers and disrupt the breakout.

Praised over the years for his hockey sense and 200-foot game, Bjork was once expected to grow into a speedy, aggressive checking-line forward with some scoring touch, but there’s probably more to him, his versatility, slick hands and offensive instincts looking the perfect fit on the right side of Boston’s top line, flanking Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand.

This trio played together in preseason before Bergeron got injured, and the 21-year-old then moved to the David Krejci unit – with fellow rookie Jake DeBrusk – for the first five games, with his possession numbers suffering as a consequence (48.29 Adj CF%, 46.15 SCF%, 37.50 CF%) but not the scoring acumen. In 7 games, Bjork has already picked up 3 goals and 3 assists, and with Bergeron’s return, that pace shouldn’t decrease precipitously from here on. Except if he injures another preeminent teammate in practice, like recently happened with goalie Tuukka Rask.

Jesper Bratt (LW, New Jersey Devils)

It’s been 22 years since a teenager drafted as low as Jesper Bratt, the 162nd pick in 2016, played in the NHL, and if we add that he scored just 14 goals in 94 games on Sweden’s Allsvenskan (2nd tier) the last two years, it’s fair to say the Devils rookie completely came out of the blue.

Swedish winger Jesper Bratt skates in a game against the New York Rangers (NHL.com)

Few on his own organization expected the 19-year-old to make the team, but a mandate to inject speed into New Jersey’s roster worked on his favour and there he was, bursting onto the scene with six points in his first three games to get pundits scrambling. It’s true that Bratt is currently mired on a five-game pointless streak, still he has forged his niche inside John Hynes’ lineup as a special teams expert that can impact the game with his pace and creativity.

Moreover, in 8 games, the Swedish left winger has amassed a +5 rating and a pair of powerplay and shorthanded points, his average ice time of 15:16 mins entailing close to 6 mins of combined action in both situations. Coming in at 5’10’’ and 179 pounds, Bratt is small but explosive, an adept skater with a knack for reacting quickly and reaching loose pucks while outnumbered, as well as a skilled, intelligent offensive player with a puck control and shot that can prove lethal on the man-advantage. The production is not there yet at even-strength, partly explaining why he’s been shuffled down from the second line (Adam Henrique and Marcus Johansson) to play with Pavel Zacha and Brian Gibbons, but it will eventually come with experience.

 

All stats mentioned in this post updated until October 25th and gathered from NHL.com or naturalstattrick.com.

Advertisements

The 2017-18 NHL season: Predictions

The new NHL season is ahead of us, and it’s time for another venture into the worthless world of preseason prognostications, a guilty pleasure for every self-proclaimed pundit. Not satisfied with all the blanks straying from my iffy gunfire 12 months ago (you can recall them here), I’m back to extricate some sense of redemption and to unload a new shipment of hot fire.

The blueprint for this post was established last year and there’s no reason to change it, so let’s go straight ahead and start mumbling.

Regular season standings

Atlantic Division

  1. Tampa Bay Lightning
  2. Toronto Maple Leafs
  3. Montreal Canadiens
  4. Ottawa Senators

Outside (in order): Buffalo Sabres, Boston Bruins, Florida Panthers, Detroit Red Wings

With Steven Stamkos finally steering clear of his rotten luck, the Tampa Bay Lightning overcome a slow start to clinch a first Division title in 14 years, staving off the challenge of the effervescent Toronto Maple Leafs, a team that will rank in the top ten on both sides of the puck. The Montreal Canadiens, with Alex Galchenyuk and not Jonathan Drouin as the No.1 Center, ride Carey Price to third place, setting up the playoff encounter we all want to see, while the superpowers of Erik Karlsson waft the Senators through a late charge and into a dramatic appropriation of the last wild card on the final day of the season.

The Toronto Maple Leafs should enjoy a smooth ride in the Atlantic Division (Sportsnet.ca)

The team Ottawa leaps right at the finish line are the Sabres, whose thin defence cracks under pressure deep into the regular season slog. Meanwhile, the Bruins hit a mid-season swoon when their dynamic top line (Marchand-Bergeron-Pastrnak) suffers a casualty, and then Tuukka Rask falters as they try to re-enter the race.

Florida’s puzzling offseason moves backfire to cost Dale Tallon’s job on the eve of their elimination from the playoff race (taxi charges included), while the Red Wings engage on a throwback dispute with the Colorado Avalanche for the right to evade the bottom of the table. They triumph twice, on and off the ice as Detroit wins the lottery to secure the first pick in the 2018 Draft.

Metropolitan Division

  1. Washington Capitals
  2. Columbus Blue Jackets
  3. Carolina Hurricanes
  4. Pittsburgh Penguins

Outside: Philadelphia Flyers, New Jersey Devils, New York Rangers, New York Islanders

It’s not the cakewalk of recent times, but the Capitals are still able to capture the Divisional crown when their youngsters step up to the task, fending off the Blue Jackets. The Artemi Panarin trade pays off for Columbus when the attack keeps them afloat through Sergei Bobrovsky’s ups and downs, and, in addition, they get a cushy first round encounter with the Hurricanes. Backed by the stellar goaltending of Scott Darling, Ron Francis finally ants up his assets on defence to acquire Matt Duchene mid-season, and Carolina ends its 9-year playoff drought with a week to spare.

The Carolina Hurricanes are on the cusp of greater things, starting with a return to the playoffs in 2017-18 (James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports)

Stumbling out of the gate and pulled further back by a two-month stretch missing half of their two-headed monster, Pittsburgh nearly misses the playoffs, but gets lucky when Philadelphia chokes down the stretch. Taylor Hall, Nico Hischier and a spectacular bounce-back year from Cory Schneider inspire the Devils to a surprising 90-pt season, yet they still fall short of the cut, while both New York outfits enter tailspins when goaltending isn’t up to the task and central problems bubble up: the lack of centre depth in Manhattan, the continuing John Tavares’ melodrama in Brooklyn.

Central Division

  1. Minnesota Wild
  2. Dallas Stars
  3. Nashville Predators
  4. Winnipeg Jets

Outside: Chicago Blackhawks, St. Louis Blues, Colorado Avalanche

I shall not underestimate Bruce Boudreau’s regular season magic again, therefore Minnesota takes the Division on the strength of their superior depth at forward. As expected, Dallas clicks offensively though their defensive woes won’t subside for good under Ken Hitchcock just yet, especially with that immature defensive corps and Ben Bishop threading merely average numbers. In Nashville, Juuse Saros peacefully overthrows Pekka Rinne midseason, but health – after Ryan Ellis’ return – is the main reason the Predators stride comfortable into third place.

The Minnesota Wild of Nino Niederreiter (#22) are primed for a divisional title this season (Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports)

After years of agony, the Jets fire Paul Maurice in December and Winnipeg goes batshit crazy when they pummel Chicago on the last day of the regular season to secure the last Wild Card. Sure, they do it by relying way too much on the power play and top-heavy offense, but it’s enough since the Blackhawks’ own depth issues finally catch up to them. The steep regression experienced by Jake Allen, coupled with an unrelentingly injury bug, derail St. Louis season to end their six-year playoff streak, however the Blues still finish miles ahead of Colorado, the NHL’s only sub-65 pts team.

Pacific Division

  1. Anaheim Ducks
  2. Edmonton Oilers
  3. Calgary Flames
  4. LA Kings

Outside: Arizona Coyotes, San Jose Sharks, Vegas Golden Knights, Vancouver Canucks

Oilers’ goaltender Cam Talbot goes down in early March, and that opens the door for Anaheim, who collects a sixth consecutive Pacific Division banner due to Rickard Rakell, Jakob Silfverberg and Corey Perry’s 30+ goals campaigns. Still, another 100-pt season from Connor McDavid powers Edmonton past the adversity, and they hold off fierce rivals Calgary for home ice advantage in an explosive first round battle.

Unshackled under the guidance of John Stevens, the Los Angeles Kings rebound to go on a stunning ten-game scoring spree that fortifies their return to the postseason, while Arizona’s rebirth – impelled by a bunch of pubescent kids – emerges as one of the main storylines of the year. It isn’t until the rookies hit the wall that their playoff aspirations evaporate, but 88 pts are enough to finish above the Sharks, a team caught in the middle of a generational change and undone by a freak Brent Burns’ injury.

Arizona’s mix of youngsters such as Clayton Keller (#14) and veterans like Oliver Ekman-Larsson (#23) may catch teams by surprise this season (Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports)

Amassing a respectable 75 points, Vegas’s debut goes according to plan and the Golden Knights even manage to pipe Vancouver, who try – and fail – to offload any veterans before the Sedins ride into the sunset.

Playoffs

Eastern Conference Champions: Tampa Bay Lightning

Western Conference Champions: Minnesota Wild

The Penguins’ three-peat ambitions dissolve at the hands of the Washington Capitals in round one and our beloved Planet Earth disintegrates the following day, for sure.

However, in case that does not happen, Washington proceeds to squander the opportunity, getting Halak’ed by Scott Darling in the Divisional Final and signalling the end of the road for Barry Trotz and Alex Ovechkin. In the Atlantic, Bolts and Leafs clash in a sensational second round played at breakneck speed, with Tampa advancing in Game 7 before sweeping the Carolina Hurricanes to reach a third Stanley Cup Final in their history.

In the West, Oilers and Ducks go the distance for a second consecutive season, and the exhausted winner bows out to the Minnesota Wild, whose ability to bypass the proverbial series with the Chicago Blackhawks proves as important to their success as overcoming Bruce Boudreau’s playoff tribulations in an emotional Game 7 triumph over Winnipeg.

Stanley Cup Champions: Tampa Bay Lightning

Propelled by the likes of Tyler Johnson (#9) and Nikita Kucherov (#86), the Tampa Bay Lightning will lift the Stanley Cup next June (Mike Carlson/Getty Images North America)

Conn Smythe Winner: Nikita Kucherov

Victor Hedman delivers a Lidstrom-esque effort, logging 31 minutes per game throughout the postseason, but Kucherov’s three playoff overtime winners, including Game 5 of the Finals, sway enough votes to crown a second Russian in the history of the award, after Evgeni Malkin in 2009.

Major Individual Honours

Art Ross Trophy (Most points): Connor McDavid (Edmonton Oilers)

Turning Ryan Strome into a 30-goal scorer along the way, Connor McDavid shatters the century mark for the second consecutive season after managing a 10-point gap on everyone else for the last two months. The prodigious 20-year-old finishes with 105+ points in 80 games, keeping at bay Dallas Stars captain Jamie Benn (96) and Calgary’s Johnny Gaudreau (92), whose performances get vaulted to new levels due to some kind of telepathic connection with Jaromír Jágr.

Winnipeg’s Mark Scheifele and Buffalo’ Jack Eichel also amass more than 85 points for the first time on their careers, while perennial contenders Patrick Kane and Sidney Crosby fall short of 80.

Maurice Richard Trophy (Most goals): Patrik Laine (Winnipeg Jets)

Teed up “ad nauseum” by the likes of Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler and Nikolaj Ehlers, Patrik Laine erupts to post a 49-goal  – the 50th hits Chicago’s empty net but gets called back for offside –  sophomore campaign and become just the second Finnish forward to lead the NHL in goals (Teemu Selanne).

Winnipeg’s sniper Patrik Laine is destined to win the Maurice Richard Trophy (Photo by Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images)

Nonetheless, with the overall increase in powerplay opportunities, a rising tide means Laine will have plenty of competition nipping at his heels until the very end. Vladimir Tarasenko and Tyler Seguin tie for second place with 46 markers, while Jack Eichel, Jamie Benn and Connor McDavid also break the 40-goal barrier, something Auston Matthews (34) is unable to do after being knocked out of last three weeks of regular season action.

Calder Memorial Trophy (Rookie of the season): Nico Hischier (New Jersey Devils)

The dynamic Swiss center is, definitely, no Connor McDavid or Auston Matthews, yet he’ll be the fourth No.1 pick in five years to take home the Calder on his rookie season (for shame, Connor).

Partnering with Taylor Hall on the Devils’ top line, Hischier will pot 20+ goals to graze the 60-pt threshold, and that will prove sufficient to ward off the challenges of fellow forwards Clayton Keller (Arizona Coyotes) and Brock Boeser (Vancouver Canucks), respectively, the leading point-getter and goal-scorer amongst freshman. A pair of standout defenseman, Mikhail Sergachev (Tampa Bay Lightning) and Charlie McAvoy (Boston Bruins), round out the top five.

James Norris Memorial Trophy (Best defenseman): Victor Hedman (Tampa Bay Lightning)

Already embarking on his ninth NHL season, you can say this is a recognition that has been a long time coming for the hulking Swedish defenseman. With Tampa Bay romping through the regular season, Hedman’s dominance in every facet of the game will ensure he won’t even need to pile up as many points (72) as in 2016-17 to grab the Norris.

Tampa Bay Lightning’s All-Star defenseman Victor Hedman looks poised to take a first Norris Trophy (DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times)

Fellow Swede Erik Karlsson makes a proverbial late push, but the generational Ottawa blueliner will be shut down for a third consecutive year whilst Nashville’s Roman Josi gets rewarded for a career-best 65-point season with a maiden nomination.

Vezina Trophy (Best goalie):  Braden Holtby (Washington Capitals)

Washington’s defence suffered plenty of casualties, leading many pundits to write off the possibility of another imperious regular season, yet Braden Holtby is eager to atone for last spring’s performance, and he’ll start the healing process by snatching a second Vezina trophy with an NHL-best save percentage.

His closest competition will come from Pittsburgh, with Matt Murray making up for the Penguins’ uneven play and ghastly contributions of backup Antti Niemi to score a nomination for his first 40-win campaign. Completing the field to write history as the first Danish player selected for a major NHL award, Toronto’s workhorse goalie Frederik Andersen will be recognized for topping the NHL in starts, winning in excess of 38 games and compiling above average numbers both in GAA and Sv%.

Jack Adams Award (Best Coach): NOT John Tortorella

Hart Memorial Trophy (Most valuable player): Jamie Benn (Dallas Stars)

Jamie Benn, your 2017-18 Hart Trophy winner (Jerome Miron / USA TODAY Sports)

An inordinate amount of shorthanded points, gaudy offensive totals, and a leading role on an electrifying bounce-back season for the Stars coalesce to power Dallas’ skipper over incumbent Connor McDavid in a major upset decided by a razor-thin margin.

Patrik Laine comes next, a distant third finalist emerging from the pack due to his vital contributions for the Jets’ late playoff push. Goaltender Braden Holtby hauls the Washington Capitals past some unexpected offensive struggles, and almost cracks the top-three, while Jack Eichel’s candidacy is ultimately ruined by Buffalo’s belated collapse.

Seven NHL Players who made “the leap” in 2016-17

Except for supernatural talents, every youngster that dips his feet on the NHL goes through a similar process of assimilation to a new reality. They crawl out of the gates, trying to adapt to an intense, unbeknown environment and hoping to minimize mistakes on the whirlwind of action around, and then ease into the rhythm, striving to find their niche on the ice and showcase the qualities that brought them there. Eventually, if they’re able to gain the thrust of the coaching staff, they excel, climbing the ladder to fulfil the expectations placed on their shoulders and the role best suited for their abilities.

The entire journey, depending on a myriad of factors, may take just a few months, a complete season or a few years, but once settled in, the wholesome package that separates the real deal from the bust eventually flourishes before the eyes of the hockey sphere. Discounting the natural ebbs and flows, slumps and hot streaks that take a hold of every player regardless of position or stature, when a player takes a decisive step towards complete assertion at the top-level, we can usually notice it. Whether it is the swagger displayed by a defenseman with the puck on his stick, the coolness of a goalie in net or a forward’s confidence to slow the game down and try a different move.

However, those are attributes difficult to pick up on if you don’t watch a player on a daily basis, hence our need to rely on statistics to point the way. The 2016-17 NHL regular season is ending this week, so we have a large sample of data to dive on in a quest to identify some of the players who have made the leap on their performance over the last year.

Taking into account that rookies are naturally excluded from this analysis, and so are players whose natural progression made their statistical explosion a certainty (looking at you, Connor McDavid), I selected seven names to highlight in this article, ranging from former top picks who finally panned out to blue-chip prospects who broke through or under-the-radar players who made the best of golden opportunities.

Be aware that the following analysis is punctuated by references to hockey and “advanced” statistics terminology. Therefore, I’ll leave below a small recap of the nomenclature and abbreviations used. For an explanation of the most complex terminology, you can use Corsica’s glossary.

Basics

SOG: shots on goal; TOI/GP: time on ice per game played; PP: powerplay; PPP: powerplay points; PK: penalty kill; SH: shorthanded (time on ice); SHG: shorthanded goals; RFA: restricted free agent; GAA: goals against average; Sv%: save %; SO: shutouts; Sh%: shooting %

Advanced

(adj)(rel)CF%: (adjusted)(relative) Corsi For %

PDO: not an acronym, just a proxy for luck; stands for the sum of shooting percentage and save percentage (Sh% + Sv%)

GF%: Goals For %

SCF%: Scoring Chances For %

DZS%: Defensive zone starts %

OZS%: Offensive zone starts %

Points/60: points for 60 minutes

 

David Pastrňák (Boston Bruins, RW)

Drafted in the tail end of the 2014 first round (25th overall), Pastrňák took advantage of a Bruins roster short on offensive game-changers to guarantee a surprising 49-game stint (26 points) on his age-18 season, which, in retrospect, accelerated his learning curve. As a sophomore, his production flatlined (27 points), but he still tallied 15 goals in 51 matches, setting the stage for the outburst of 2016-17.

Boston Bruins David Pastrňák celebrating one of his 32 goals this season

The Czech winger came out of the gates on fire, netting 13 times in the first 17 games, and steadied the inevitable regression to maintain a scoring clip befitting with a near point-per-game pace. With 68 points in 72 games, his 0.94 ppg regime is the 12th highest in the league (over 50 games played), trailing only Brad Marchand on his own team, while a robust bump in shot generation – he’s firing  1.3 extra SOG/GP – has resulted in a 32-goal barrage on a sustainable 12.7 Sh%, in line with his career average.

The 20-year-old has enjoyed riding shotgun on Boston’s top line with Patrice Bergeron and Marchand for most of the season, forming the league’s most dominant group possession-wise, with a sterling adj. CF% of 62.6 and a 56.7 GF% despite awful luck (98.2 PDO), but even when he was shifted down to try to juice up the second unit, Pastrňák has made good use of the 4 min uptick in TOI/GP from last season.

With his ELC expiring at the end of the season, Pastrňák’s success puts Boston in a bind, since  they’ll need to ante up significantly to retain the services of their young star long-term while managing a forward group that already comprises four players raking in over 6M per year until 2021 (Bergeron, Marchand, Krejci and Backes).

Justin Schultz (Pittsburgh Penguins, D)

After signing in Edmonton as a highly-sought after college FA, Justin Schultz was successively scapegoated for the Oilers’ mediocrity and failure to ice competitive rosters. At the 2016 trade deadline, the Penguins took a flyer on Schultz and they’ve reaped tremendous dividends from it this season, since what once seemed like a perennial double-digit minus player is now an in-vogue offensive force. However, more than new career highs in goals (12) and points (48), which place Schultz inside the top ten amongst defensemen, what truly opened some eyes was the 26-year-old’s ability to step up when his team needed him to.

Schultz started the year besides Ian Cole on Pittsburgh’s third pairing, driving play, piling the positive ratings (+25) and heaping goals (63.6 GF%) and chances (60.5 SCF%) on the opposition while taking advantage of favourable deployments (just 27.4 DZS%), yet the duo quickly ascended through the lineup, first conquering top four status and later assuming top-pairing duties to help supress Kris Letang’s absence.

Defenseman Justin Schultz has been an integral part of the Penguins’ success in 2016-17

In special, Schultz usual 20min TOI/GP escalated by more than 3 minutes during Letang’s multiple injuries, and he was also asked to shore up the top powerplay (22 PPP), which improved from erratic first half form towards top-five status in large part due to his composure in 3.40 min of PP TOI/GP. Most of Schultz’s offensive contributions date back to December and January, when he accumulated 29 pts in just 26 games, but even when the puck stopped going in Mike Sullivan’s confidence didn’t waver.

The former 2nd round pick is scheduled to be a RFA with arbitration rights in July 1st, and is due a healthy raise from his current 1.4M cap hit, however there are more than just salary cap considerations swirling around as the Penguins mull over an extension offer. Schultz’s steady play may force an unexpected change on their expansion draft plans, with ramifications felt elsewhere on the roster.

Viktor Arvidsson (Nashville Predators, RW)

An overaged selection on the 4th round in 2014, Arvidsson was seen by the Predators staff as a diamond-in-a-rough that escaped the scouting net, and those expectations were certainly vindicated when he put up 55 points on his debut AHL season in 2014-15. He followed that up with 16 in 56 games at the NHL level last year, playing as an energetic, fearless bottom six forward before stepping it up another notch in 2016-17, carving a leading role on a team with championship ambitions.

Peter Laviolette tested Arvidsson alongside star forwards Filip Forsberg and Ryan Johansen and the undersized Swede run with the opportunity, smashing his career highs by amassing 29 goals, just two off Forsberg’s team-best, and 57 points, four less than Johansen’s 61.

5’9” forward Viktor Arvidsson has found a way to come up big for the Nashville Predators

The 23-year-old’s 2.36 Points/60 top the team as do the 240 SOG and 5 SHG, a figure unequalled around the NHL this season. Moreover, Arvidsson’s prowess on the PK, hoarded in just over 1 min of work per game, contributes greatly to his +15 rating, best among Nashville’s forwards, while he is just the tenth-ranked Predator in terms of PP TOI/GP, meriting less than 2 min on the man advantage.

With a cap hit of just 631k, Arvidsson leads the league in cost (cap hit including potential bonuses) per point obtained in 2016-17, but Nashville’s bargain is about to be rewarded, as the Swedish winger is an RFA this summer. After his break out season, a multi-year-deal commensurate of a top-six forward is certainly on the table.

Cam Talbot (Edmonton Oilers, G)

An undrafted free agent signed by the NY Rangers in 2013, Talbot’s NHL numbers have been consistently excellent at this level, as attested by his career 0.923 Sv%, yet he gets a nod for a fantastic showing in the role of a first-time workhorse goaltender.

Functioning as the backbone of a fledging team where all key players are yet to reach 25, Talbot’s performance falls under the large cast of Connor McDavid’s MVP-calibre brilliance, hence it’s probably bound to go down as exceptionally unappreciated. The 29-year-old is third in the NHL in wins, with his 40 triumphs just one short of Bobrovsky and Dubnyk’s total, first in games started with 70, seven more than the next man, first in saves made and tied for second in SO (7).

Edmonton Oilers’ goalie Cam Talbot is usually in control of the situation when the puck is around

Furthermore, on a team with a problematic history in the crease over the last fifteen years, Talbot’s 2016-17 performance isn’t just the best in terms of GAA (2.36) and Sv% (0.921) since 2001-2002 (min. 40 apps), but also compares quite favourably against his league peers, ranking 7th in 5 on 5 Sv% (0.929), 8th in overall Sv%, and first in medium-danger Sv% (0.954), despite a workload well above anything he’s experienced before. For instance, Talbot has faced 469 high-danger shots this season, while no other goalie has even surpassed 400.

The 29-year-old is signed for two more seasons at a 4.16M cap hit, and that deal looks like a steal by GM Peter Chiarelli, who dished out three picks in 2015 to gamble on a guy that might shepherd Connor McDavid’s era and seemingly hit the jackpot.

Alexander Wennberg (Columbus Blue Jackets, C)

Jarmo Kekalainen’s desire to build the Columbus Blue Jackets from the backend out led to Seth Jones’s acquisition last season, but also left a major void at the top of the team’s forward depth chart. Top-line centres don’t grow in threes, and the best way to find them is through the top of the draft – as Columbus learned with Ryan Johansen – consequently they should be thrilled that the solution was in-house all along.

Center Alexander Wennberg has step up for John Tortorella’s Blue Jackets this season

Wennberg, the 14th overall pick in 2013, saw less than 16 min of TOI/GP during his first two NHL seasons, but was still able to double his point production as a sophomore (20 to 40) and another 20-point jump is in reach in 2016-17. Feasting on a scorching PP top unit, the Stockholm-native notched 33 pts in 35 games to start the season before cooling off down the stretch, yet he’s still seeing 18.21min of TOI/GP, just eight seconds less than captain Nick Foligno, who leads among Jackets’ forwards.

Gaining the thrust of John Tortorella as a 22-year-old center is a tough task, but Wennberg is justifying the gamble by putting points on the board, to the tune of 57 in 77 games, four behind Cam Atkinson’s tally. With 13 goals on the season in just 100 shots, the young pivot would greatly benefit from a more resolute approach to the net, yet his line with Foligno and Brandon Saad is still generating offense aplenty, with a 59.1 GF% propped up by a bit of luck (101.4 PDO).

A RFA coming off his ELC at the end of the season, Wennberg probably won’t net a protracted extension with first-line money attached just yet, however the Jackets would be wise to treat him better than they did to his predecessor.

Jaccob Slavin (Carolina Hurricanes, D)

The Carolina Hurricanes feature the NHL’s youngest defensive core and headlining the group is not Olympian Justin Faulk, as many believe, but Jaccob Slavin, the 22-year-old Denver-native completing his second NHL season.

After an unassuming rookie year where he compiled 20 pts in 63 games, Slavin and fellow sophomore Brett Pesce have taken the reigns of Carolina’s blueline and blended into one of the NHL’s best shutdown pairs, amassing more defensive zone starts than any other Canes unit (32.3 DZS%) and still delivering possession and chance-generation metrics (54.39 CF%, 57.3 GF% and 58.4 SCF%) ranked on the top 10 amongst pairs with over 700min played. Their success together is further expressed on Slavin’s (+23) and Pesce’s (+20) +/- rating, or their combined +5.5 relCF%, while, at the same time, the rest of the roster is barely above, or below, water.

22-year-old rearguard Jaccob Slavin has shined brightly in Carolina

The 120th pick in 2012 fends off from his regular partner due to a more refined all-around acumen, substantiated in 23.27min of TOI/GP, tops on the Canes roster, and high usage on the PK (3:04min SH TOI/GP), while soaking up just 57 seconds of PP TOI/GP, which is typically reserved for the likes of Faulk or 20-year-old Noah Hanifin. Still, in 2016-17, Slavin started to tap more into his offensive skill, amassing 5 goals and 33 points despite wiring just 96 pucks on goal, a good omen for increased production in the future.

With another season left on his rookie deal, Slavin is bound to upgrade his payday significantly in 2018, possibly fetching a deal more lucrative than Faulk’s 6 year, 29M contract signed in 2014.

Mikael Granlund (Minnesota Wild, RW)

We all saw the flashes of high end skill over the years, but it took Bruce Boudreau’s arrival in Minnesota to unlock the genius of Mikael Granlund. The former 9th overall pick never meshed with Mike Yeo, with whom he wandered between center and wing, and his counting stats ultimately stalled on the 40-point range, but, at age 25, the Finnish playmaker finally approached the wildest expectations bestowed upon him on the State of Hockey.

With 25 goals, more than on his last two seasons combined, and 68 points in 79 games, Granlund shattered previous career-highs as the offensive dynamo on Minnesota’s go-to two-way line. Sharing the ice with captain Mikko Koivu and Jason Zucker, the trio was especially effective between December and February, when the younger Finn tallied well over a point per game (45 points in 39 games), but they’ve been important throughout the campaign, controlling the scoring chance battle (63.0 SCF%) while shouldering many defensive assignments (just 23 OZS%) and drawing loads of penalties (+21 in Penalty differential).

Meanwhile, Finland’s duo is also leaving a mark on special teams, where Granlund picked up 20 PP points and 3 SHG in 1:30min of SH TOI/GP, a number that only lags behind Koivu’s among Wild forwards, and mirrors the distribution in every situation (18.54 min TOI/GP).

Mikael Granlund is finally carrying the Minnesota Wild’s offense

Granlund’s 0.86 ppg pace – inflated by a 14.4 Sh%, almost 5 points over his career average – is the highest by a Wild player since the 2010-11 season and comes at a perfect time. His current 2-year, 6M deal is about to expire, thus it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him double that cap hit going forward.

Honourable Mentions:

Cam Atkinson (Columbus Blue Jackets, RW): Ascended to All-Star status with 34 goals and 61 points after offering a glimpse of his ceiling with a 53-point campaign in 2015-16.

Conor Sheary (Pittsburgh Penguins, RW): Amassed 22 goals and 52 points in just 58 games riding alongside Sidney Crosby, a match of skill, speed, hockey sense and tenacity the Penguins had been looking for most of the last decade.

Jake Gardiner (Toronto Maple Leafs, D): From so-called defensive liability to a 40-point season coupled with a stellar +26 rating and major responsibilities on the NHL’s second best powerplay unit (24.3% conversion rate).

Nazem Kadri (Toronto Maple Leafs, C): Shrouded by the Leafs’ rookie bonanza, Kadri stunningly evolved into Mike Babcock’s jack-off-all-trades middleman while compiling 60 pts and a maiden 30-goal season.

Leon Draisatl (Edmonton Oilers, C/RW): 74 points in 78 games as Connor McDavid’s running mate to follow up a 51-point season centering Taylor Hall. Impossible to leave off the list had he posted similar numbers anchoring the second line, where the German ought to settle long-term (see Crosby/Malkin dynamic).

All stats referenced in this article courtesy of http://www.Corsica.hockey or nhl.com and updated until 3/4/2017. Unless stated otherwise, possession and scoring chances data refer to 5 on 5 play and are adjusted for score, zone and venue.

2017 NHL Trade deadline recap: Winners and losers

The busiest period of off-ice action in the NHL regular season came and went and, all in all, it proved a major dud (dud-line?). Trade deadline day featured the fewest trades since 2000 and the number of NHL players that changed hands was also the minimum in this century, and not even the fair number of transactions that took place in the previous 72 hours could stir many emotions despite erasing popular names off the board.

The amount of teams still on the playoff bubble and/or bouncing against the cap ceiling once again curtailed the proceedings but, this time, with the expansion draft looming, general managers had another ready-made excuse to stand pat and avoid pulling the trigger on moves that could backfire and put their jobs in jeopardy. Therefore the usual parade of fringe, replacement-level players hit the headlines while teams tweaked at the margins and sell off expiring deals in return for minor assets, which probably won’t move the needle on the future direction of their franchises.

Nevertheless, at one of the major periods where executives justify their income, some did better than others setting their rosters for what lies ahead, and it’s worth analysing the performance of the major actors in the final moments of the 2017 trade season.  We’ll do winners and losers of the NHL trade deadline period, focusing on teams instead of specific players or executives, and later sweep through the rest of the league.

Winners

Washington Capitals

Calmly motoring to a second consecutive Presidents´ Trophy, the Washington Capitals had every reason to sit on the dugout while their summer moves keep paying off, with the team cruising in the top-three both in goals scored (3rd) and goals conceded (1st) and placing inside the top six in both special teams (5th on the PP and 6th on the PK). However, with a few important contributors bound for free agency in a few months (Karl Alzner, TJ Oshie and Justin Williams are the major names), GM Brian MacLellan knows he won ‘t be able to keep the band together for another year, and Alex Ovechkin may not enjoy as good an opportunity to lift a Cup on his career.

The Caps had to swing for the fences, and that’s how they landed the biggest fish in the pound, bundling a few drafts picks to secure St. Louis Blues rearguard Kevin Shattenkirk without having to surrender a roster player.

Smooth-skating defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk traded the blue(s) of St. Louis for the red of the Washington Capitals

Smooth-skating defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk traded the blue(s) of St. Louis for the red of the Washington Capitals

The best rental defenseman in the market will give the Capitals an unenviable trio of right-handed, offensive minded defenseman alongside John Carlson and Matt Niskanen, which means they will ice an elite puck moving blueliner at every occasion and can matchup if their rivals stretch the offensive weapons over multiple lines. The Caps struggled to contain the depth and speed of the Penguins during last year’s playoffs but that shouldn’t be a problem this time, whether they face the defending Champions, the NY Rangers or the Columbus Blue Jackets, who also roll out three (or four) talented forward lines. Moreover, the addition of Shattenkirk also provides a boost to one of the NHL’s most lethal power play units over the last decade, unseating Carlson to fill in perfectly for the departed Mike Green.

The 28-year-old’s time as a Capital should be short lived and he’s probably just the cherry on top for the NHL’s strongest roster, but you can’t back off when the Stanley Cup is within striking distance and no one stands closer to the target than Washington.

Vancouver Canucks

Jim Benning’s time in Vancouver has been stocked full of baffling trades (Brandon Sutter and Erik Gudbransson come to mind) and a remarkable inability to identify the direction to follow (tip: it’s down, to the bottom of the ocean, if need be), but a beam of light finally reached the coast of British Columbia this year to clear the head of management, which smartly decided to not pursue the team’s outside changes of reaching the playoffs and instead took the first decisive steps towards a full-fledged rebuild.

Hence, Alexander Burrows’ spell in Blue and Green came to an end as the soon-to-be 36-year-old UFA was shipped to Ottawa and Benning was able to pry away talented Swedish winger Jonathan Dahlen. The 19-year-old has racked up points in Sweden’s second tier at a rate similar to current Nashville Predators stud Filip Forsberg and, despite knocks on his skating ability, possesses a skill set that ranks him amongst Vancouver’s top-five prospects, undoubtedly a good return for a pesky winger on the twilight of his NHL career.

Alex Burrows' 11-year stint in Vancouver came to an end on trade deadline day.

Alex Burrows’ 11-year stint in Vancouver came to an end on trade deadline day.

Later, another highly-touted young forward was added to the Canucks bare cupboard when they decided to part with Jannik Hansen, traded to the San Jose Sharks. The Danish winger had a year remaining on his deal, but his ability to shuffle up and down the lineup was bound to appeal to several playoff contenders and the Canucks took advantage, snagging a conditional fourth rounder (that converts into a first if the Sharks win the Cup) and Russian Nikolay Goldobin, who immediately becomes the team’s top forward prospect and should be contributing in the NHL before long.

Had the Canucks managed to offload Ryan Miller or another veteran, their deadline performance would have been even better, but they still received a surprisingly great bounty, especially in light of recent history.

Minnesota Wild

Not a lot of pundits expected the Minnesota Wild to reach March comfortably atop the standings in the West but Bruce Boudreau has worked his (regular-season) magic, and, in a wide-open Conference, GM Chuck Fletcher quickly noticed his team has as good a chance as any other. In the State of Hockey, opportunities like these are few and far between, so the Wild beefed up for a playoff run by acquiring the most impactful rental forward in the market, Martin Hanzal, and, almost as important, impeded any of their rivals of doing so.

Martin Hanzal's imposing frame will now be at the service of Bruce Boudreau and the Minnesota Wild

Martin Hanzal’s imposing frame will now be at the service of Bruce Boudreau and the Minnesota Wild

A first-round and two second-round picks are a heavy tally for a player with a career-high of 41 points, but Martin Hanzal brings a specific set of characteristics that can make the difference in high-stakes matches, and the Wild were able to close the deal without surrendering any of their blue-chip prospects.

A massive, burly centerman used to shutdown responsibilities that can also run a scoring line, the Czech pivot fortifies the Wild’s depth down the middle to levels unmatched by any of their opponents. Minnesota now boasts four Centers over 6 ft 2 (Hanzal, Mikko Koivu, Eric Staal and Tyler Graovac) and Boudreau can slide Charlie Coyle back to the wing without missing a beat, completing an imposing top nine that is backboned by a solid, battle-tested defensive unit and the NHL’s best goaltender in 2016-17.

Tampa Bay Lightning

Valtteri Filppula was a salary cap casuality for the Tampa Bay Lightning, representing now the Philadephia Flyers

Valtteri Filppula was a salary cap casuality for the Tampa Bay Lightning, suiting up now for the Philadephia Flyers

On several occasions, Steve Yzerman has validated his status as one of the NHL’s shrewdest GMs and after being blindsided by an awful season and cornered by the circumstances, he once again pulled through. In a goalie market saturated, he was able to flip UFA Ben Bishop to the LA Kings, recouping a second-round pick, a consistent backup to attack the final stretch and a B-level defensive prospect while the Penguins and the Canucks had to sit out.

Meanwhile, with three key players (Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Jonathan Drouin) in need of substantial raises in the summer, he dumped Valtteri Filppula’s 5M cap hit and NMC on the Philadelphia Flyers for what amounted to a swap of 4th rounders plus a 7th round pick, clearing much needed breathing room and opening a crucial protection spot ahead of the expansion draft.

You can make the case that Yzerman made his bed when he offered lofty extensions to the likes of Ryan Callahan, Alex Killorn, Jason Garrison or Braydon Coburn, but it takes competence to get out of a jam and Yzerman certainly did that, at least for now. With his team still hunting for a playoff spot, he also pawned third-line center Brian Boyle to the Leafs for a conditional 2nd round-pick, which the market would vindicate as another win for the Lightning.

Losers

Montreal Canadiens

Mark Bergevin was the busiest man in the NHL in the trade deadline period, swinging deals left and right, but he was far from successful in his quest to improve his team’s chances of making some noise in the playoffs. The Canadiens finished February without a single regulation win because of a stuttering attack and everyone believed they were looking to jolt their middle-of-the-pack offense, relieving pressure off Max Pacioretty, Alexander Radulov and Alex Galchenyuk, but instead they set out to add size, toughness and grit to their fourth line and try to win by annoying opponents.

The Habs were reportedly in hot pursuit of Arizona’s Martin Hanzal but ultimately weren’t willing to surrender a similar package to Minnesota’s, yet they could have added some skill in other ways, anting up for Radim Vrbata, Thomas Vanek or even P.A. Parenteau, the last two former Canadiens. Instead, they landed Dwight King, Andreas Martinsen and the washed out Steve Ott  for a couple of picks in a sequence of trades that seemed much more in line with the beliefs of former head coach Michel Therrien than recently-appointed Claude Julien.

No Radim Vrbata, Martin Hanzal or Thomas Vanek. But, at least, Marc Bergevin got two-time Stanley Cup winner Dwight King to spur the Canadiens’ offense!

Bergevin did a much better job tinkering his defence, guaranteeing the services of Dallas’ Jordie Benn for a fourth round pick, and securing the undervalued Brandon Davidson from the Edmonton Oilers in exchange for undersized pivot David Desharnais, whose carrer in Montreal was sealed after Therrien’s exit, but his team’s ultimate net value didn’t increase. Carey Price may be able to carry this squad to the Conference Final but more than that is highly unlikely.

Detroit Red Wings

Bound to end a 25-year playoff run in 2017, Ken Holland’s job in Detroit at this time of the year was one he’s not used to and you can’t say he excelled.

Forced to sell his spare parts, the long-time executive failed to collect high-level assets even if he bagged plenty of mid-level picks to restock the farm. Former up-and-coming blueliner Brendan Smith, a pending UFA, couldn’t agree to an extension but still went on to net two valuable picks (2nd round +3rd round pick), while the Chicago Blackhawks were kind enough to take a punt on Tomas Jurco, shelling out a third round pick, and the Montreal Canadiens thought Steve Ott was worth pinning a sixth rounder for.

The Detroit Red Wings were able to parlay Thomas Vanek strong season into a third round choice on the 2017 NHL Draft

The Detroit Red Wings were able to parlay Thomas Vanek strong season into a third round choice on the 2017 NHL Draft

Those were all decent transactions for the Red Wings, but the same cannot be said of the underwhelming return for Thomas Vanek, whose rebound season appeared to drum up interest around the league before Holland settled for a third round pick and a throw-away prospect (Dyaln McIlrath) from the Florida Panthers.

The Austrian was arguably the best forward still available on deadline day, but Holland botched the pitch to playoff contenders, and also missed the chance to facilitate the journey to the bottom by auctioning some of the underperforming forwards on his roster. A list that may include Gustav Nyquist, the goalless Riley Sheahan and soon-to-be RFA Tomas Tatar, but also 30-year-old’s Darren Helm and Justin Abdelkader, who have contracts that run for too long, pay too much and, somehow, include No trade clauses. The Red Wings next era is an inexorable work in progress but it is still up in air whether Holland is the man to lead the transition onwards.

Ottawa Senators

Rookie GM Pierre Dorion endured first NHL trade deadline as the main decision-maker in Ottawa and it wasn’t exactly pretty. With the Atlantic Division seemingly up for grabs, the mandate from above was to add to lock up the revenues of a few playoff games, but the Senators lacked guile to swoop in true reinforcements.

Dorion was fleeced by Jim Benning – of all people – on the Alex Burrows deal, giving up a valuable prospect (Jonathan Dahlen) for a decadent 35-year-old agitator that drags more than assists, and proceeded to buy his age-37 and age-38 seasons for a premium (5M over two years) in one of the most puzzling moves of the last week.

Burrows certainly won’t be a difference-maker for a team that is clinging to a playoff spot despite a negative goal differential, and you can make the case that Viktor Stålberg, acquired for a third round pick, is more useful in an energy-type, penalty-killer role. Furthermore, Dorion finally allowed former 1st round pick Curtis Lazar to move on, wringing depth defenseman Jyrki Jokipakka and a second-round pick from the Flames, a reasonable return for a 22-year-old that hasn’t been able to score at the NHL level but short of the reported asking price of a 1st round pick.

Curtis Lazar was put out of his misery by the Senators when he got traded to the Calgary Flames

Curtis Lazar was put out of his misery by the Senators when he got traded to the Calgary Flames

Dorion balked at Colorado’s demands for Matt Duchene and Gabriel Landeskog, opting to keep his most prized prospects (D Tomas Chabot and C Colin White and Logan Brown), but Ottawa needed to do more to signal its captain that they’re serious about winning. The Senators have three more playoff opportunities until Erik Karlsson’s contract expires in 2019, and they won’t cut it with this kind of push.

Colorado Avalanche

Joe Sakic’s team has been historically bad this season, collecting just 17 wins in 61 games, and a complete fire sale was expected at the trade deadline, with every half-decent player available to the highest bidder.

Thus, the Avalanche were supposed to hoard draft picks as happened to fellow bottom feeders Arizona Coyotes, but they could only peddle veteran Jarome Iginla to the LA Kings for a conditional 4th round pick that disappears if he doesn’t re-sign or LA misses the playoffs. Their decision to hang on to Duchene and Landeskog is understandable, since the price was not met and more suitors could potentially be available at the end of the season, but what about the rest of the teams UFA’s?

Jarome Iginla left Denver to join the Los Angeles Kings on trade deadline day

Jarome Iginla left Denver to join the Los Angeles Kings on trade deadline day

The Avalanche braintrust couldn’t convince a team in need of a veteran presence on the backend to rent Fedor Tyutin or bolster their depth with Patrick Wiercioch? Former 12th overall pick Mikhail Grigorenko is a bust but, at age 22, can’t they find a taker willing to bet on his potential? 32-year-old John Mitchell fits the mould of the reliable centerman teams crave on deadline day, but he stayed put too.

Sakic flipped Andreas Martinsen for Sven Andrighetto, taking advantage of Montreal’s misguided search for toughness to acquire a young bottom six forward, but that’s it in terms of positive transactions, which is astonishing for a team in Colorado’s position.

After detailing the major winners and losers of the trade deadline period, let’s end this piece with a quick rundown, division by division, of the work done by the remaining NHL teams.

Metropolitan Division

The Washington Capitals’ acquisition of Kevin Shattenkirk blocked the path to two of their main rivals, who also wanted to improve the blueline and were consequently left to pick up the remains.

Bereft of half of their defence due to injuries, the Pittsburgh Penguins dished out a second-round pick to obtain veteran Ron Hainsey last week, and then saw Jim Rutherford miraculously wring two more pieces on deadline day despite being capped out. Frank Corrado arrived from Toronto as the team dumped Eric Fehr’s salary in order to open room for 39-year-old Mark Streit, whose puck moving abilities and versatility should strengthen the unit even when the medical row vacates.

Mark Streit changed sides on the Battle of Pennsylvania after a Lightning-quick detour

Mark Streit changed sides on the Battle of Pennsylvania after a Lightning-quick detour

Shatternkirk will probably join the NY Rangers in the summer, but for now they will have to do with Brendan Smith, their only addition before another playoff run backstopped by a 35-year-old Henrik Lundqvist. Meanwhile, the Columbus Blue Jackets, in the unusual role of buyers, brought in help at minimal costs, with Kyle Quincey strengthening the blueline and Lauri Korpikoski added up front.

Lower on the standings, the NY Islanders kept idle despite sniffing around the Colorado guys, while the Philadelphia Flyers were happy to take on C Valtteri Filppula, who immediately becomes their leading 5-on-5 Points/60 player, but less thrilled to find themselves paying a (small) percentage of Mark Streit’s salary to play for their heart rivals.

Strictly on the sellers’ business, the Carolina Hurricanes dealt Ron Hainsey and Viktor Stalberg, two players not on their future plans, for a couple of picks, and the New Jersey Devils swapped Quincey for fellow rearguard Dalton Prout before squeezing a disappointing sixth-round pick from the Nashville Predators for PA Parenteau.

Atlantic Division

Drudging on the trail of the Canadiens and Senators and embattled for a wild card position, the Bruins, Maple Leafs and Panthers opted for small tweaks to their rosters.

Boston waved a conditional sixth-round pick in front of the Winnipeg Jets and came away with Drew Stafford, a top-nine reinforcement, while the Florida Panthers snatched Thomas Vanek for a mid-round pick, hoping to pop their offense after the top two units and aid a 25th-ranked powerplay.

The young Maple Leafs received a minor present in the form of seasoned centre Brian Boyle, who can provide valuable playoff insight should they arrive there, whereas Buffalo determined that the time to relinquish assets to grasp a playoff appearance is yet to come as Tim Murray couldn’t find takers for UFA’s Dmitry Kulikov, Cody Franson and Brian Gionta.

Central Division

Beyond the Wild, only the Chicago Blackhawks have a postseason spot nailed down in the Central, yet Stan Bowman had to exert caution in this trade deadline after being so active in previous seasons. He didn’t have much wiggle room cap-wise and therefore only agreed to bring back Johnny Oduya, who will increase the options on the backend.

Defenseman Johnny Oduya is back wearing the Indian-head crest

Defenseman Johnny Oduya is back wearing the Indian-head crest

The surging Nashville Predators avoided a major splash that could upset their chemistry, with David Poile dishing out a late round pick to supplement a touch of offensive skill in PA Parenteau, while the inconsistent St. Louis Blues will have to make a playoff push without their best offensive defenseman, since they couldn’t afford to lose Kevin Shatternkirk for nothing like happened with David Backes and Troy Brouwer last year.

The Winnipeg Jets, with a playoff berth more unlikely by the day, merely let Drew Stafford go, which is a far cry from the Dallas Stars’ behaviour. With Patrick Sharp battered and off the table, Jim Nill did a good job shipping out Johnny Oduya and Lauri Korpikoski, leveraged the wide interest in Patrick Eaves into an excellent second-round pick that can turn into a first, but also traded away Jordie Benn for a fourth rounder, a head-scratching decision (expansion draft?) that, nevertheless, won’t exactly set back the franchise.

Pacific Division

With visions of returning to the Stanley Cup final, the San Jose Sharks went aggressively after Canucks winger Jannik Hansen and his speedy game should fit perfectly over the next two playoff runs. Doug Wilson payed a steep price in the talented Nikolay Goldobin and a potential first-round pick, but this is a team that has to go for it, no questions asked.

The Edmonton Oilers were quiet as they prepare a return to the postseason one decade later, but Peter Chiarelli still found a solution (not necessarily a good solution..) for the middle of his third line, where David Desharnais should slot to allow Leon Draisatl to move full-time to Connor McDavid’s wing. The cost was Brandon Davidson, a player they liked but wouldn’t be able to protect on the expansion draft.

Patrick Eaves swapped Texas for California, joining the Anaheim Ducks for a conditional second round pick

Patrick Eaves swapped Texas for California, joining the Anaheim Ducks for a conditional second-round pick

Also in Alberta, the Calgary Flames won the Curtis Lazar sweepstakes (okay, not really) giving up a second-round pick, a similar gamble to the two selections (3rd + conditional 5th) they tossed out for defenseman Michael Stone a few days earlier.

Back in California, the Anaheim Ducks beat the competition for Patrick Eaves, paying a premium for a player they believe can fill a key role on their lineup, but didn’t solve their expansion riddle on defence, while the LA Kings, the sixth-worst offense in the NHL, found the idea of shoring up their net with a second No.1 goalie, Ben Bishop, much more enticing than obtaining real help up front. Because (essentially) exchanging Dwight King for a 39-year-old Jarome Iginla isn’t going to work miracles, no matter how much time he spends flanking Anze Kopitar.

Lastly, John Chayka and the Arizona Coyotes did what they had to: accumulate draft picks for Martin Hanzal and Michael Stone, including a couple guaranteed to fall in the first two rounds. Radim Vrbata stayed against all prognoses, but outside of Arizona he was only good for a single season, in Vancouver, so he might as well just renew his contract. As for Shane Doan, the list of six teams he was willing to waive his NMC for was just too short to make it work.

Seven indelible sports moments in 2016

Another year has just ended and, as happened in 2015, I decided to look back on the most memorable sports moments we were able to witness in the last twelve months, an exercise of paramount importance in order to cherish and vindicate the hundreds of hours that were left behind on the road to placate this passion.

As you certainly noticed, 2016 was an Olympic year and the action in Rio de Janeiro was front and centre on the summer news, yet in this article I’ll only reflect on the other memories that stuck out, encompassing monumental upsets and comebacks, titanic clashes, extraordinary team and individual achievements and brilliant performances. Therefore, seven moments were selected and recollected as I tried to provide some background on what was at stake, recap the events as they happened, and point out their importance in the context of the respective sport.

As usual, keep in mind the inherent subjectivity of this list, tremendously affected by my own predilections, knowledge and desire to supplement as much diversity as possible, from the amount of sports referenced to the type of realization celebrated, but without venturing into areas I don’t comprehend (I’m sorry, Chicago Cubs fans).

Before diving in, let me stress out again that no Olympic moment was considered in this article as I’ll reminisce on them and the Rio Games as a whole in a few days. Come back later for that.

Leicester City wins the English Premier League

By now you’ve seen the number: 5000-to-1, the odds assigned by an English bookmaker to a potential Premier League triumph by Leicester City in 2015-16, the quantitative assertion of one of the greatest upsets in sports’ history and a beacon for every team hoping to break the established hierarchies.

Jamie Vardy (#9) and Riyad Mahrez (#26) celebrate another crucial goal for Leicester City's Premier League title campaign.

Jamie Vardy (#9) and Riyad Mahrez (#26) celebrate another crucial goal for Leicester City’s Premier League title campaign.

The Foxes barely staved off relegation in 2014-15 and the appointment of Italian journeyman coach Claudio Ranieri, whose career was stacked with near misses, was far from inspiring, yet a strong start of the season, capped by four consecutive wins from fixtures 10 to 13th, surprisingly propelled Leicester to the top of the League at the end of November.  It was still early and around the corner loomed a demanding segment of the calendar, consequently many expected things to fall into place, however that didn’t happen.

Starting with a home draw against Manchester United in the game that allowed Jamie Vardy to beat the record for scoring in consecutive matches, passing through a crucial 1-0 victory at White Hart Laine over Tottenham, and ending with a superb triumph at Manchester City in early February, Leicester turned from surprise bunch to full-fledged title contender by standing ground against every Premier League heavyweight (except Arsenal), leaving unscathed and, more importantly, in the lead.

Later, when Leicester racked up four straight 1-0 wins in March, it started to sink on everyone that they would really complete the miracle, with the celebrations exploding on May 2nd as pursuers Tottenham Hotspurs blew a two goal-lead at Chelsea in matchday 36.

Dilly Ding, Dilly Dong. Ranieri’s boys and their fairy-tale adventure had just reached its epic conclusion and time had come to revel in their party and laud its main characters. Kasper Schmeichel, the Danish goalie whose saves kept the Foxes together in so many occasions. The Captain Wes Morgan and partner Robert Huth, the unflinching central duo patrolling the defence. Danny Drinkwater and the indefatigable N’Golo Kanté, always pacing the midfield. Riyad Mahrez, the creative fulcrum with a magical left foot. Jamie Vardy, the late-blooming spearhead whose 24 goals validated Leicester’s blistering counter-attacking style. We owe them all a story to remember for years to come.

LeBron James wills the Cleveland Cavaliers into the Promised Land

When LeBron James decided to take his talents to South Beach back in 2010, few would have predicted how his story would unfold to culminate on the night of June 19, 2016. The local prodigy turned hero turned villain turned saviour returned home in 2014 tugging two rings on his fingers and a promise to finally bring a Championship to Northern Ohio, yet you would be hard pressed to find a better script converting a dream into reality.

For the second consecutive year, the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers faced off in the NBA Final and once again the frontrunners were the Californians, coming off an historic 73-win regular season. Steph Curry and his band crafted a 3-1 lead just like had happened in 2015, but the turning point came late in Game 4, when Draymond Green, the Warriors do-it-all centre, punched James in the nuts. The NBA couldn’t turn a blind eye and Green was suspended for game 5, a potential clincher where LeBron and Cavaliers’ point guard Kyrie Irving banked 41 points each to extend the series. Despite the return of Green, the Warriors were flustered in Game 6 back in Cleveland and the stage was set for an epic Game 7 at the Oracle Arena, probably the loudest atmosphere in the League.

Cleveland's Kyrie Irving rises above Steph Curry to hit the go-ahead 3-pointer in Game 7

Cleveland’s Kyrie Irving rises above Steph Curry to hit the go-ahead 3-pointer in Game 7

As lead changes abounded throughout the match, the sides remained tied at 89 in the closing minutes before a series of devastating events unfurled, moments that will be forever etched in Cavaliers’ history as “The block”, “The Shot” and “The Stop”. First, a thunderous chase down block by James on Andre Iguodala avoided a layup that would give a 91-89 advantage to the Warriors. Then, Irving danced in front of Curry before launching an incredible go-ahead three-pointer for the visitors. A few seconds later, the oft-criticized Kevin Love locked down Curry, the unanimous regular season MVP, on the perimeter to preserve the vital lead. A free-throw by James with 10.6 seconds to go would set the final score at 93-89 and complete the first comeback from 3-1 down in the history of the NBA Finals.

Fifty-two years had passed since the last major professional sports title for the city of Cleveland and LeBron James’ emotional words in the end summed up the dramatic feat: “Cleveland, this is for you”.

With that, the prodigal son, the Kid from Akron, was finally a legend to his people and the city that had adopted him was no longer the laughingstock of American sports.

Novak Djokovic finally conquers Roland Garros to complete the Career Grand Slam

On my list of top sports moments of 2015, Novak Djokovic’s performance at Roland Garros made an appearance as the Serbian wasted a golden opportunity to knock off the major missing piece on his résumé and I wondered whether he would have as good a chance again. It turned out the answer was positive, since the 29-year-old redeemed himself in 2016 to become the eight man to complete the career Grand Slam and, in the process, established a milestone for modern tennis.

This year’s edition of the French Major – already missing Roger Federer – lost its all-time winningest player early, since Rafael Nadal withdrew before the third round, and that occurrence flung open the door for Djokovic, who waltzed to a fourth Roland Garros Final appearance by dropping a single set in six matches. Meanwhile, on the other side of the draw, Andy Murray had to overcome two five-setters in the first week before grinding past home-favourite Richard Gasquet (QF) and defending champion Stan Wawrinka (SF), clocking five more hours on court than his rival.

A blissful Novak Djokovic's finally lifts the winners' trophy at Roland Garros

A blissful Novak Djokovic finally lifts the winners’ trophy at Roland Garros

Nonetheless, the dream contest between World No.1 and World No.2 was arranged and it was Murray who came out guns blazing, snatching the first 6-3 due to an imposing serve and consistent strokes off both wings. The Scot had never beaten Djokovic after losing the inaugural set, and he came close to taking a grip on the match in the first game of the second, yet the Serbian held serve and managed to turn the tide by breaking Murray right after, forging a momentum he would not relinquish. With his forehand dominating the rallies and exhibiting an air-tight defence, Djokovic cruised through the second and third sets, winning 6-1, 6-2, and later broke Murray twice in the fourth to close on the trophy.

With the crowd on his side, hoping to glimpse history, and serving at 5-2, the 11-time Grand Slam Champion was engulfed by the nerves, eventually conceding a break, but he managed to pull through the intolerable tension of the moment, clinching the match after Murray plopped a ball to the net on the third Championship point.

Nole had finally secured Roland Garros to complete his Grand Slam set and, more importantly, guarantee a place on a list none of his contemporaries has been able to crack. Already the reigning Champion at Wimbledon (2015), the US Open (2015) and the Australian Open (2016), Djokovic joined Don Budge (1937-38) and Rod Laver (1962/1969) as the only three men to hold the four tennis Grand Slams at the same time, further implanting his name in the history books.

Back in June, Djokovic still dreamed of completing the calendar Grand Slam, but it wasn’t meant to be. Maybe he will find his way back here in 2017 after unlocking yet another of tennis’ ultimate accomplishments.

Kielce snatches Handball’s Champions League title after astonishing comeback

Pitting two sides gunning for a maiden EHF Champions League title, the 2015-16 Final of handball’s premier club competition provided a thrilling, dramatic finish that won’t be forgotten by the 20,000 fans who watched inside Cologne’s LANXESS Arena.

The finalists, Poland’s Vive Tauron Kielce and Hungary’s Veszprém KC, had upset French Champions PSG and three-time Champions League Winners THW Kiel, respectively, in the semi-finals to set up an unanticipated showdown, and both sides made good on the opportunity.

The Magyars began better, jumping quickly to a 3-0 lead which they governed through the first 30 minutes to reach the half in command (17-13). A smothering defence, Aron Palmarsson’s prowess from afar and the vibrant support of their fans then powered Veszprém to a nine-goal advantage (28-19) with just 14 minutes to play, prompting the first winning chants to break as the game seemed decided.

Based on the presence in this list, evidently it was not and what followed was a sensational comeback by the Polish Champions, who were led by goaltender Slawomir Szmal, star right winger Tobias Reichmann and the masterful play of Uroš Zorman. In just 10 minutes, the gap was erased as Vesprém crumbled piece by piece with Kielce’s resurgent, and the bleeding could only be stopped at 28-28, when veteran Momir Ilić netted the 29th goal for the Hungarians before Michał Jurecki desperation shot beat the buzzer to force overtime.

In extra-time, the two opponents traded leads until the roles reversed on the dying seconds, with Vesprém’s Cristian Ugalde tying the game at 35 apiece and setting up the first penalty shootout in an EHF Champions League Final.

Kielce’s Ivan Cupic was the first to miss from the 7m mark, but the Polish goalkeeping duo of Slawomir Szmal and Marin Sego saved one each to allow Julen Aguinagalde a chance to end the stalemate. The Spanish pivot hammered home and the yellow portion of the stands erupted as Kielce became the first Polish side to be crowned European Champions just minutes after appearing on the ropes.

As for Veszprém, also previously defeated on the final in 2002 and 2015, a lesson was learned in the most traumatic way possible. Their pursuit of continental glory will have to continue in spite of this nightmare-inducing collapse.

Vive Tauron Kielce, the 2016 EHF Champions League winners

Mathew Hayman edges past Tom Boonen to wrestle the Paris-Roubaix

The “Hell of the North” and its tough, perilous journey of 250+ kilometres through deteriorated, slippery cobble roads has always been a race prone to surprises due to his unpredictable nature, yet few victories were as unexpected as Mathew Hayman’s.

The 37-year-old had already endured the arduous expedition from start to finish for 14 times on his career, closing on the top-ten in 2010, however his preparation for the 2016 edition was less than ideal. After breaking his left arm at the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad six weeks earlier, Hayman was forced to build his form on a stationary bike in his garage, but he eventually felt fine come the day and convinced Orica Bike-Exchange’s management to confirm his name on the final roster.

An exhasperated Tom Boonen looks down as Matt Hayman rises after crossing the finish line

An exhasperated Tom Boonen looks down as Mat Hayman rises after crossing the finish line

Hayman immediately rewarded his director’s fate by jumping into the early breakaway, and the Australian would cling to the front for the rest of the evening while the usual havoc decimated the field of candidates further back, hampering pre-race favourites Peter Sagan and Fabian Cancellara, both caught in the maelstrom of crashes and mechanical problems.

Ultimately, in the end at the Roubaix velodrome, five men were in contention and the odds seemed to be stacked towards Tom Boonen, the four-time Champion and a renowned finisher. However, sensing the opportunity of a lifetime, Hayman bravely surged forward to lead out the sprint with 200m to go and stunningly managed to hold off Boonen, looking in disbelief as he crossed the line to seize the biggest triumph of his career.

The dependable domestique lifted the iconic cobblestone trophy on the podium and on his right side stood, applauding, a legend of Roubaix, the man he had just pipped to deny a record-breaking fifth triumph. It doesn’t get much sweeter than that.

Auston Matthews’rewrites the NHL’s history books on his debut

Unlike every other moment evoked on this list, Auston Matthews’ magical night didn’t come with a trophy, a title or a championship on the line. Nevertheless, it is undoubtedly one of the best debuts in the history of any professional competition and the kind of performance people will talk for years to come, thus it’s not out of place.

After honing his talents in Europe during the 2014-15 season, Auston Matthews was selected last June by the Toronto Maple Leafs with the first pick on the 2016 NHL draft, immediately receiving the brunt of attention at the hockey-mad Canadian city. Toronto’s new season kicked off in Ottawa on October 12th and naturally Matthews was in the lineup, yet not even the most optimistic fan could predict such a remarkable performance.

With eight minutes played in the first period, Matthews took advantage of deficient coverage in front of the net to score his first NHL goal on his first shot, and moments later he turned the ice into his own backdoor pond, eluding five Ottawa Senators – including all-star defenseman Erik Karlsson – in succession before firing the puck short side for a magnificent goal.

Auston Matthews shoves the puck past Craig Anderson for the fourth goal of his incredible NHL debut

Auston Matthews shoves the puck past Craig Anderson for the fourth goal of his incredible NHL debut

Twenty minutes in, it was already a night to remember but the American wunderkind wasn’t yet satisfied, adding a third goal on a quick shot from the slot early on the second period. By this time, his parents were already freaking out in the stands, since the young American was just the fourth rookie to notch a hat-trick on his first NHL game, but the cherry on top was still to be served.

With just a few seconds to go before the final intermission, a 2-on-1 rush for the Leafs developed quickly and culminated on a tap-in for the inevitable Matthews and his fourth tally of the night, something no player in the centenary history of the NHL had ever achieved on his debut. Moreover, to put that in perspective, the third leading goal-scorer in NHL history, Jaromír Jágr, has compiled 756 goals in 1668 games, yet boasts the same number of four-goal outings as Matthews…

Toronto would still lose the game in overtime, however that’s just a footnote on a surreal, extraordinary night that put the entire ice hockey world on notice for a 19-year-old phenomenon improbably raised on the sun-kissed state of Arizona, USA.

Portugal slays the ghosts of the past to win the Euro 2016

Did you really think this one wouldn’t make an appearance? I can’t risk having my lone citizenship removed, so let’s go back to the night of July 10th 2016.

The place is the Stade de France, located in the outskirts of Paris, and duelling for the Henry Delaunay trophy are two countries which have had their fair share of battles in the late stages of international competitions. The Euro 1984, also contested in France. The Euro 2000. The 2006 World Cup. In all those occasions, the French came out on top to advance to the final while the Portuguese were left to lick their wounds despite deserving better luck.

Furthermore, comparing the respective runs until the decisive match, it was fair to assume a similar outcome was in the cards, as the hosts were over the moon after bouncing out reigning World Champions Germany, whereas Portugal counted its blessings for making it this far in spite of an all-around tentative campaign.

However, as they say, anything can happen in a single match and the main trump card – some fella named Cristiano Ronaldo – resided on Portugal’s bundle. Until it didn’t, as the three-time Ballon D’Or winner was knocked out by a Dimitri Payet tackle, and later forced to abandon the field just past the midway mark of the first half.

The ball shot by Éder (center, in red) is already on his way to the back of the net

The ball shot by Éder (center, in red) is already on its way to the back of the net

With their captain out, the Portuguese receded further into their underdog role and the minutes went by according to a relatively simple script: France’s attacks were systematically repelled by Portugal’s staunch defence and in the few instances they managed to break through goalkeeper Rui Patrício dealt with it. Meanwhile, when the pressure subsided, the Portuguese moved the ball around, tried to buy a mistake and hoped for a lucky bounce.

They would get one just before regulation ended when André-Pierre Gignac hit the post from close range, and eventually the visitors decided to open things up in extra-time to take advantage of fatigue and an opponent growing frustrated. Hence, substitute Éder almost scored on a header and left back Raphaël Guerreiro shook the post on a free kick before the deadlock was broken in the 109th minute.

Portugal’s Éder picked up a pass, entered the final third, fended off center back Laurent Koscielny and pounced on the ball like his life depended on it to drill a low shot past the outstretched Hugo Lloris, instantaneously sending an entire nation into raptures and revamping the clumsy striker into a god-like figure.

Fifteen minutes later (or fifteen hours, depending to whom you ask), the final whistle was blown and Portugal were confirmed as the Champions of Europe, securing their first major title twelve years after letting the honour escape, at home, on the Final of the Euro 2004. It was certainly fitting they could atone for it in similar yet reversed circumstances.

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)

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.