With the 2016-17 NHL season now in the books, now's a popular time to already start looking towards the 2017-18 season.
The beauty of the NHL offseason is how short it is. Folks aren't even talking about the Pittsburgh Penguins defending their Stanley Cup anymore, but rather what's to come in 2017-18. There are a lot of intriguing storylines to follow -- many of them yet to come since free agency has yet to begin.
As we take a look at 2017-18, you know there are a number of players that are prepared to take their game to that next level. Many of these are young guys waiting to break out, but some are veterans who are finally in a system that'll allow them to maximize their potential.
On the flip side, age and new teams/linemates are going to cause some players to slip and fall. Here are eight players who'll rise/break out in 2017-18, and seven stars who will decline.
*Stats courtesy of HockeyDB.com and Hockey Reference*
15 Rise: Sam Reinhart
The Buffalo Sabres have been a bit of a disaster over the past five years. The firings of head coach Dan Bylsma and general manager Tim Murray don't do a lot to help this team's long-term future. But on the bright side, 2014 second-overall pick Sam Reinhart looks poised to finally take his game to the next level.
Reinhart scored 17 goals and 47 points for the Sabres in 2016-17, and the 21-year-old has shown he's mature and ready enough to build off of that. Should he get more ice time with rising star Jack Eichel, Reinhart should have no problem emerging as a 30-goal and 60-70 point man.
Truth be told, most guys from the 2014 draft haven't developed yet. Reinhart has definitely shown his flashes, but the skilled winger will be a bonafide star by the end of the 2017-18 season.
14 Decline: Brent Burns
The Norris Trophy winner set career highs in both goals (29) and points (76), for the San Jose Sharks this season. Asking a 32-year-old defenceman to top that many points again? Forget about it.
Keep in mind that Brent Burns could very well lose some of excellent supporting cast as well. 38-year-olds Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau are about to enter free agency, leaving only Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture as the Sharks star forwards. That'll put a lot more pressure on Burns, and it's going to be hard for him to build upon the 76-point season.
This isn't to say that Burns is going to be dreadful next season. But he's probably not going to score 25-plus goals and over 70 points again. And asking him to win another Norris Trophy? Don't bet on that, either.
13 Rise: Jonathan Drouin
Jonathan Drouin finally pieced together an excellent and complete season in the NHL, scoring 21 goals and 53 points for the Tampa Bay Lightning. But Steve Yzerman shipped Drouin over to the Montreal Canadiens which sent Mikhail Sergachev and a second-round selection over to Tampa Bay.
Drouin posted remarkable totals in 2016-17 without his top centre, Steven Stamkos. Imagine what he'll do in Montreal with either Alex Galchenyuk or a new Canadien centering his line.
The third-overall pick from 2013 hasn't been able to reach his full potential yet after plenty of clashing with Lightning management. But the scoring-starved Habs are relying on Drouin to be their top-scorer. He'll have every opportunity to exceed with a new team. Don't be surprised if Drouin tops 30 goals and scores 70-80 points.
12 Decline: Anze Kopitar
Last year, the Los Angeles Kings rewarded their franchise player with a shiny eight-year contract extension worth $80 million. And Kopitar's first season into that mega deal? Quite a disaster, to say the least.
The perennial All-Star scored just 12 goals and 52 points -- far and away his worst in an 82-game season. Kopitar , the 2016 Selke Trophy winner, also struggled defensively. He had a woeful minus-10 rating and wasn't able to play the shutdown defence we're used to seeing from him.
Well, Kopitar plays an increasingly physical style that causes players' bodies to break down and tire out more quickly. Given his age (30 in August), and the fact the Kings are ageing as a whole, it's safe to say we've seen the best from Kopitar at this point. Don't expect the future Hall of Famer to rediscover his superstar form in 2017-18, but rather more signs he's on the decline.
11 Rise: Brock Boeser
The Vancouver Canucks prized prospect put the NHL on notice during his brief 2016-17 campaign. Brock Boeser scored four goals and added an assist in just five games of play. The 20-year-old is one of the top prospects in hockey, and he should bring a ton to the table in 2017-18.
Boeser joins a Canucks team that will finally rely more on its young players (Bo Horvat, Troy Stecher, Ben Hutton, among others). In fact, he and Horvat -- who led the Canucks in scoring -- should provide Vancouver with a dynamic scoring duo next season.
Boeser is more than ready for the NHL, and he showed it by scoring in his debut earlier in the year. Vancouver is relying on Minnesota kid to carry their offence next season. Look for Boeser to score 20-25 goals in 2017-18 as his promising NHL career finally gets going.
10 Decline: Devan Dubnyk
Well, Devan Dubnyk's hot start to the 2016-17 season turned out too good to be true. He set a career high in wins (40) while posting a remarkable 2.25 goals against average and .923 save percentage. So what isn't there to like? Well, it's unorthodox for 31-year-olds to go from career backup to a Vezina Trophy-caliber goalie.
The thing is, Dubnyk wasn't even nominated for the Vezina. Now why is that? Because, he and the Minnesota Wild strongly regressed over the final two months after a sensational start to the season. Dubnyk lost 10 of his final 15 games in 2016-17, allowing three or more goals eight times. The Wild's porous puck possession numbers also meant their late-season meltdown was no fluke. If there was a fluke, it was their hot start to the season.
Minnesota is bound to regress a bit. So is Dubnyk, who surely won't win 40 games again.
9 Rise: Aleksander Barkov
Not a whole lot went right for the Florida Panthers in 2017, as they missed the playoffs a year after winning the Atlantic Division title. But if there was a bright side, it was the continued dominance of 2013 second-overall pick, Aleksander Barkov.
The 6-foot-3 Finnish centre scored 21 goals and 52 points in 2016-17. It was Barkov's second consecutive season where he scored at least 20 goals and 50 points -- suggesting he's more than ready to be an elite scorer from here on out.
Should he get more ice time with Jonathan Huberdeau, Barkov should be able to take his game to another level. He has the potential to score 30-plus goals and post 60-70 point seasons. He turns 22 in September (that means he's young, by the way), so expect Barkov to take his game to a star-like level in 2017-18.
8 Decline: Corey Perry
Dating back to 2007-08, Corey Perry had scored no fewer than 27 goals in an 82-game regular season. One of the top snipers of his era, Perry used to be a sure bet to score 30-plus goals in a season. But those days appear to be gone, if his 2016-17 season is an indication of anything.
Perry played all 82 games and managed to score just 19 goals -- his lowest in a full season in 10 years. Given his age (32), and all those long and grueling playoff runs, it's hard to see Perry getting any better at this point of his career.
Oh, and he has just four goals over his last two postseasons (24 games), suggesting Perry isn't the clutch performer he once was. Throw in the fact his linemate in Ryan Getzlaf is also 32 years of age and has nowhere to go but downhill from here on out. 30 goals is no longer in the question for Perry. 20 should be considered good as this ageing veteran starts to slow down.
7 Rise: William Nylander
William Nylander's rookie NHL season went better than what many could have expected.
He scored 22 goals and 61 points -- which isn't bad when you consider the slick Swede has to fight for ice time over the likes of Auston Mathews and Mitch Marner at centre. But back to my point -- Nylander was very good in 2016-17. He's going to be great in 2017-18.
The Toronto Maple Leafs qualified for the playoffs as most of their core players (under the age of 21, by the way), had tremendous seasons. But William is ready to take his game to the next level, as the son of former superstar Michael Nylander continues to build up the family legacy.
William should be able to score at least 30 goals in 2017-18. Perhaps his point totals won't go up, but his goal-scoring will soon enough. Look for Nylander and Matthews to become the next Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin next season.
6 Decline: Eric Staal
Eric Staal was once the face of the Carolina Hurricanes franchise, but he hasn't scored 70 points since the 2011-12 season. Furthermore, he posted just 13 goals and 39 points in 2015-16, suggesting that the 2006 Stanley Cup champion was well past his prime.
Well, Staal joined the Minnesota Wild last offseason and had a career year. He scored 28 goals and 65 points -- his best season in five years. But asking Staal (33 in October), to build off of that? It's just not going to happen. He found success under new Wild head coach Bruce Boudreau, but Staal and the Wild tailed off late in the season. As I said on the Devan Dubnyk slide, Minnesota was just a lucky team early on in 2016-17.
20 goals and 50 points should be more realistic expectations for Staal in 2017-18. He's well past his prime and simply isn't going to build off of what was a superstar-like year for a player who hasn't been a true superstar in a few years.
5 Rise: Matthew Tkachuk
The Calgary Flames drafted power forward Matthew Tkachuk with the sixth-overall selection in 2016. The 6-foot-1, 195-pound left winger had a solid rookie season as he scored 13 goals and 48 points. That's pretty solid for a player that had to compete for top-six minutes on a loaded Flames group of forwards.
Tkachuk figures to slot in on a second line with two-way centre Mikael Backlund and gritty forward Michael Frolik. Together, these three should form a tough-as-nails line that will throw their weight around the opposition.
Tkachuk showed some flashes in his rookie season. We can't wait to see what's in order for the sun of American hockey legend, Keith Tkachuk. Matthew will make a name for himself as the NHL's premier power forward in the future. That begins in 2017-18.
4 Decline: Alexander Ovechkin
Because the Washington Capitals took home a second consecutive Presidents' Trophy, many folks overlooked a significantly down season for the league's elite goal-scorer in Alexander Ovechkin.
The six-time 'Rocket' Richard Trophy winner had just 33 goals in 2016-17. Considering he had scored 50-plus in the previous three seasons, that is a significant down year for The Great Eight. Ovechkin also had a mere five goals in 13 playoff games, as the Capitals once again fell short in winning 'Ovie' his Stanley Cup.
Ovechkin will be 32 years of age in 2017-18. His body is bound to slow down a bit -- since scoring 50-plus goals so consistently is next to impossible in this day and age. Head coach Barry Trotz has also asked Ovechkin to play more two-way hockey instead of scoring in bunches. As such, Ovechkin may no longer be a 50-goal man. 30-40 should be more realistic for fans at this point of his career.
3 Rise: Scott Darling
Corey Crawford stole far too much thunder from Scott Darling as the two formed a strong tandem with the Chicago Blackhawks. But the Carolina Hurricanes traded for Darling and signed him to a four-year deal -- meaning he finally gets his chance to start after three seasons as an elite backup.
Darling went 27-18-5 in 2016-17, along with a .924 save percentage and 2.38 goals against average. He joins a stingy Hurricanes team that is among the best defensively. Noah Hanifin, Jaccob Slavin and Justin Faulk round out one of the NHL's best defensive cores -- meaning Darling will get plenty of support in front of him.
Carolina is on the rise. So is Darling's career. He's about to become a consistent 30-game/season winner. It all starts in 2017-18.
2 Decline: Artemi Panarin
The Chicago Blackhawks made a very questionable move in the offseason,. GM Stan Bowman made a blockbuster trade that sent Artemi Panarin to the Columbus Blue Jackets which brought back old friend Brandon Saad to the Windy City.
Panarin had tremendous chemistry with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. In his first two NHL seasons, Panarin scored 61 goals and 151 points -- cementing himself as one of the league's elite scorers. But going to Columbus? Panarin will score, but he won't be a top-10 points leader.
Columbus doesn't have a Toews or Kane in their lineup. Furthermore, Panarin's going to have to play more defensive under head coach, John Tortorella. We've seen many wingers have star-like seasons with Toews and Kane.
Panarin should be a 20-goal and 50-point man. But the 30 goals and 70 points in Columbus are a stretch. Expect him to take a steep decline in scoring while donning the Blue Jackets uniform.
1 Rise: Patrik Laine
Patrik Laine was compared by many scouts to be the next Alexander Ovechkin, and he totally lived up to it in his rookie season. The Finnish phenom scored 36 goals and 64 points for the Winnipeg Jets -- and he could have reached 40 tallies if he didn't miss nine games in 2016-17.
If you were impressed by Laine's rookie year (don't worry, we all were), then just wait and see what he will do this season. Laine is going to score 40-plus goals (and perhaps 50 or more), in his second year. The second-overall pick from 2016 just might challenge Connor McDavid and Sidney Crosby for the scoring title, too.
Laine was a great rookie. He's now going to put himself in the class of being among the best in the best. He should be one of the popular picks to win the 'Rocket Richard' Trophy, because all the guy does is score.