As the 2016-17 season dawns upon us and the Pittsburgh Penguins wrap up their Stanley Cup hangover, players are slowly making their way to training camps. Fans can finally rejoice, because, guess what? Hockey is back.
In a summer filled with an exciting draft and a handful of blockbuster moves, the World Cup of Hockey in Toronto also gifts hockey lovers with an early dose of best-on-best games. What an exciting time it is.
The NHL is a league filled with tons of exciting talent, whether it is young stars or the elite players that have become the faces of the game for quite some time. Hockey also is filled with unpredictable circumstances. For example, would anyone guess that Matt Murray would be such a pivotal figure in the Penguins Stanley Cup run? Or would anyone have guess that Artemi Panarin would hit nearly a point-per-game to win the Calder Trophy? In any sport, it’s hard to predict who will finish where or score how many goals. Who knows, maybe Winnipeg Jets’ rookie Patrik Laine will eclipse Alex Ovechkin for goal-scoring this year.
As we await the start of the season, the World Cup of Hockey will display some of the best talent in the game. Many of the players in the tournament are bound to demonstrate why they should be in the NHL top 20 for the 2016-17 season. The puck drops on October 12, but for now here are some predictions for the top players in the upcoming season.
20. “Captain Serious” Is Seriously Good
Jonathan Toews is certainly not known as a high point-scorer. His best total was back in 2010-11 when he scored 76 points in 80 games. After slightly dropping off in production for the past few campaigns, he will definitely try shooting more. His team could benefit tremendously if he got on the score sheet just a few more times. While the 60-70 point range is still a great feat in the modern NHL, he brings much more to the table; he is an elite faceoff man and prides himself on the defensive side of the puck. His Selke Trophy in 2012-13 just goes to show. Toews is also a great leader, without a doubt. Along with the Conn Smythe Trophy in 2009-10, he captained his team to three Stanley Cups, as well as winning two Olympic gold medals, two World Junior Championships, and one World Championship. He might need a bigger cabinet for all that silverware.
19. Drew Doughty Is A Top Defenseman
Some may argue that Los Angeles Kings defenseman Drew Doughty was not the most deserving player for the Norris Trophy in 2015-16, but it’s not that simple. Doughty is an elite player that is consistently good and eats up ice time. He recorded 51 points last season and should be a lock again to record a similar amount of points. While a player of his stature isn’t relied on to produce points, it’s the other aspects of his game that make him great. He’s one of three other defensemen to log more than 27 minutes per game over the last three seasons. Take into account how hard it is to perform so effective every game at such a high tempo and duration. He’s been a key to success for the Kings two recent Stanley Cups as well as Team Canada’s pair of gold medals. He is a premier player, without a doubt.
18. Blake Wheeler Keeps Trending Up
Blake Wheeler, for some reason, doesn’t get the heaps of attention he deserves. Over the summer he was anointed as captain of the Winnipeg Jets, and rightfully so. In 2015-16 he has the best offensive season of his career, putting up 78 points in 82 games. In his career so far he’s produced 440 points in 615 games, which is a great rate. The 30-year-old right-winger should be able to perform at a similar clip in the 2016-17 season, further cementing why he is one of the games top wingers. He may not have received the proper praise over the past handful of years, but there’s no reason why he would decline this year. With the “C” on his shirt this time around he’ll be even more fired up. Look for Wheeler in the NHL’s top 10 in scoring, because he’ll likely be there.
17. Evgeni Malkin Might Need A Change Of Scenery
Evgeni “Geno” Malkin is a beloved player in the Penguins organization. He’s become one of the top players since he was drafted. Geno missed chunks of last season but still recorded over a point-per-game, with 58 points in 57 games. While the Penguins seem stacked, considering they have both Sidney Crosby and Phil Kessel in their forward lineup, the lethal duo of Malkin-Crosby has never seemed to work. In our heads it seems like a no-brainer, but for some reason Geno only seems to play better when Crosby is out. If Malkin can get going, then he’s a force to be reckoned with. His trophy cabinet suggests that he’s capable of so much more: two Art Ross trophies, one Calder, one Hart, and one Conn Smythe Trophy to go along with two Stanley Cups. The Crosby-Malkin experiment may be at the final stage, but regardless, he’s still an exceptional player. Rumors have began to swirl about his future, so if he struggles, the phones may start ringing for him.
16. Brent Burns Can Still Score
Brent Burns may be known better for his majestic beard, but he is actually a great defensemen. In 2015-16 he finished third in Norris Trophy votes and finished 11th in league scoring with 75 points – as a defenseman. He certainly has a knack for finding the net, but he also logs heavy minutes, averaging just over 25 minutes per night. His point totals have risen over the last few seasons, similar to his beard length. As a key member of the San Jose Sharks run to the Stanley Cup Final, he was awarded for his performances by being named to Team Canada’s World Cup of Hockey roster. He might be a tad tired from playing a lot of intense hockey over the last few months, so breaking 75 points may be a stretch for him. Regardless, he has a relentless engine and shouldn’t dip below 65 points in 2016-17.
15. Braden Holtby Battles For Goaltending Supremacy
Braden Holtby will be pumped to prove himself as the league’s best. After posting an amazing 48 wins in 66 games for the President Trophy-winning Washington Capitals, he more than earned the honours for the Vezina Trophy. At 26-years-old, he has much more room to hone his elite skills. The lethal Capitals team will help him, but his biggest task will be getting them into the Conference Finals. His solid .922 save percentage and 2.20 goals-against average are a testament to his capabilities, and the 2016-17 season should give him the opportunity to improve on that. With Carey Price as somewhat of a question mark, Holtby will be challenging for a consecutive Vezina Trophy, and there’s no real reason why it would be unattainable for him.
14. Aaron Ekblad Is A Future Norris-Winner
The Florida Panthers struck gold when they were gifted the number one selection in 2014, selecting franchise defenseman Aaron Ekblad. He hasn’t missed a beat since stepping into the NHL, almost immediately proving that he has all of the capabilities to become a stud number one defenseman. He’s been to the All-Star game in both of his seasons and he will likely be to many more. He’s maturing as a leader each and every day; he seems older than 20. In both of his seasons, he put up just under 40 points and should be a lock to likely surpass that mark this season. Ekblad is consistently a top performer, thus meriting a spot on the Team North America World Cup of Hockey roster. The 2016-17 season will not be any different, expect Ekblad to keep on trending up. His future is bright; he’ll be competing for a Norris in no time.
13. Tarasenko Is Worth The Money
St. Louis Blues superstar forward Vladimir Tarasenko has earned status as one of the NHL’s premier snipers. The kid has a blazing shot and is so dangerous around the net. In 80 games last season, he scored 74 points, good for 12th in the league. What’s even better, though, is that he ranked 4th in goals, potting 40 goals. For a 24-year-old, that’s remarkable. He’s been getting better each and every year, climbing from 37 and 21 goals in the previous seasons. Don’t be surprised if he hits the 45 goal mark in 2016-17; he has an abundance of talent. There’s a reason why Tarasenko was put on the cover of EA Sports NHL 17; he’s world class. If he hasn’t already, this season he will assert himself in the upper-echelon of the league.
12. “Johnny Hockey” Shows That Sometimes The Best Things Come In Small Packages
Johnny “Hockey” Gaudreau is a small-sized player – we know that. What we also know is that he is tremendously talented. The 23-year-old, 5’9”, 157-pound winger has not only silenced his critics, he’s shown them up. Ranking 7th in league scoring with 78 points in 2015-16, Johnny Hockey has proven that he’s going to be a superstar. Accompanied by a young, talent-filled Calgary Flames team, Gaudreau should be able to hit 80 points in 2016-17. He was selected to join Team North America at the World Cup of Hockey, thus getting his season started a bit earlier than others. Pair that with the fact that he’s going into a contract year, reportedly asking for north of $7 million, and all signs would point to suggest that he’s going to earn that cheque. Gaudreau very well could be in the top 10 for scoring again.
11. Tavares Continues To Be A Star In Long Island
After losing Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen, the New York Islanders will rely on superstar centre John Tavares even more. Don’t worry, though, Tavares will put this team on his back. He’s cool, calm, and infinitely skilled. He is usually a sure bet to hit at least 70 points, and seeing as he gets better as time goes on, he could easily hit 80 points this season. It’s not just his offense that makes him such a good player, it’s his defensive acumen and overall play that grant him as an elite centre in the league. Players of his ilk are always priceless to their teams. At the ripe age of 25, Tavares will be looking to have a career season. 35 goals and 40 assists could be easily attainable for Tavares in 2016-17. In addition, he will be looking to get them past the second round of the playoffs; this Islanders team may surprise others.
10. Pavelski Asserts Himself As The Main “Joe” in San Jose
The past few seasons have really asserted Joe Pavelski as a top NHLer. After coming off his first year as team captain, the other Joe has worked hard to gain the proper recognition as one of the league’s best. He’s ranked top 10 in league scoring twice in the past three seasons, hitting the 70-point plateau in the last three seasons consecutively. Not only can he score, but also his hard work rate and leadership skills rub off on his teammates. Pavelski had an exceptional playoffs run as well, hitting 23 points in 24 games. He was even selected to be the captain of Team USA at the World Cup of Hockey. Expect him to hit the ground running in 2016-17 and once again be amongst the top 10 scorers in the league. 80 points may be very achievable for Pavelski.
9. Stamkos Returns As A Man On A Mission
Last season was filled with much drama and concern regarding the future of Steven Stamkos. Heading into free agency, as well as being sidelined with a blood clot, his health and future with the Tampa Bay Lightning was up in the air. It too, has passed. Stamkos resigning with Tampa proves that he is on a mission to succeed. Statistically speaking, Stamkos is a machine that can score goals. Over the past five seasons, he has the highest shooting percentage (18.1) from at least 500 shots. While his last three seasons have been marred by injuries and subpar production standards, he still managed to average 44 goals every 82 games. The Bolts are poised to make a deep playoff run again, and look for Stamkos to be the catalyst. He can easily hit 45 goals and 80 points in 2016-17. It’s “Stammer Time” in Tampa Bay.
8. Karlsson Is The Best Offensive-Defenseman in the NHL
The Ottawa Senators have an absolute gem in Erik Karlsson. He is amongst the league’s premier, elite players, let alone defensemen. In 2015-16 he scored at a point-per-game rate, ranking 5th with 82 points and first in assists with 66. He has four seasons with more than 65 points. With that skill, two Norris trophies are only the beginning. He came second in voting last season as well. By far, he is the most important Sentors player, and surely will be for a long time. Since 2011-12, Karlsson has the most points by a defensemen in all but one season. The last defensemen to lead the league in assists was none other than Bobby Orr; Karlsson is just that good. If he can gel with the new coach and systems in Ottawa, he can easily hit the 80-point mark again. Don’t count him out.
7. The “Great 8”: Ovechkin Continues to Dominate With His Lethal Shot
The face of the Washington Capitals franchise for over the past decade, Alexander Ovechkin, is widely considered the best goal-scorer in the NHL. His blistering shot and crunching style of play are lethal. He hit the 50-goal mark again in 2015-16 for the seventh time in his career. He scored 525 goals in 839 games, along with 41 more in 84 postseason games. Ovechkin cemented himself as the best Russian-born player, proving that by smashing the milestone for most goals scored by a Russian. He is a goal-scoring machine, no doubt about that. Ovechkin won’t be slowing down anytime soon and seeing him hit 50 goals and 80 points this season won’t be a stretch by any means. They call him the “Great 8” for a reason. Aside from his plethora of individual awards, the next one for him will be the Stanley Cup.
6. Seguin Is Set For A Career Season in Dallas
Tyler Seguin is doing well with the Dallas Stars. If not for an injury that saw him miss some time in 2015-16, Seguin would have challenged for the scoring race. He posted just over a point-per-game, scoring 73 in 72 games played. His partnership with Jamie Benn has benefitted both players tremendously, and the 24-year-old Seguin will be set to have a career season in Dallas. He’s certainly cemented himself as one of the better players in the NHL and he isn’t even in his prime. The Boston Bruins are definitely kicking themselves over letting him go in a lopsided deal. Barring any injuries, Seguin can easily surpass last season’s total and hit the 85-point mark. Top 10 in league scoring is easily attainable for Seguin. He is only going to get better as time goes on.
5. If The Price Is Right, Montreal Wins
Carey Price was set to have an outstanding season in 2015-16 until injuries hit and sidelined him for good. Due to his absence, the Montreal Canadiens struggled tremendously. He was their MVP by absence; Price is so important to this team. His 2.06 goals-against average and .934 save percentage through 12 games last season helped his team look like a contender, until he got injured and they fell apart. At age 29, two years removed from his Vezina and Hart Trophy-winning seasons, Price is still a prime candidate for being an elite netminder. Don’t be surprised if he’s amongst the top goaltenders this season; he’s one of the best for a reason. If healthy, he should have no problem leading the Habs to the playoffs. By the time the World Cup of Hockey is over, Price will have his wheels in motion and should be in fine form for the regular season. It can be argued that no player is as important to his team as Price is to the Canadiens.
4. Jamie Benn Picks Up Where He Left Off
The Dallas Stars probably didn’t imagine Jamie Benn being such an elite player when they drafted him in the fifth round in 2007. In the last three seasons, he’s burst out with 79, 87, and 89 points successively, claiming the Art Ross Trophy in 2014-15. He plays a rugged style of game but can still put up points – he’s a prototypical player that can crash, bang, and score. Dallas definitely drafted a jewel in him. Not only is he an exceptional player, but he’s been surrounded by offensively-gifted players such as Seguin, Patrick Sharp, and even Jason Spezza to name a few. The duo of Seguin and him are primed to break out and should be a lock to be one of the league’s better offensive duos. There’s no reason why 90 points should be unattainable for Benn, especially if his supporting cast can stay healthy.
3. Patrick Kane Can’t Stop Scoring
It’s hard to top a 106-point, Art Ross and Hart Trophy caliber season. For Patrick Kane, he will continue to do what he has always been the best at: scoring. With five seasons of 70-plus points, Kane, at a ripe age of 27, doesn’t seem to be slowing down. Of course surpassing the 100 mark is always hard, but he’s a sure thing to be in the top five in scoring. On a Chicago Blackhawks squad that is always dominant, the dynamic winger keeps getting better and better as well. Being on Team USA for the World Cup of Hockey will benefit Kane as well because when the season starts he will be in good form. The 2016-17 season may see Kane challenged for the scoring title, though the reigning Art Ross-winner will put up a fight. Another 85-point campaign is a realistic expectation for Kane.
2. A Full Season Of McDavid Displays A New Face Of The NHL
The young phenom had his debut season cut short through injury, only playing in 45 games. In the games he did play in, Connor McDavid showed just why he’s been touted as a generational talent. His 48 points in 45 games was good enough for a 1.07 point-per-game rate, just enough to beat out Sidney Crosby for third-best in the NHL. His blazing speed and shifty skating took the league by storm. Fans can only imagine what a full season of McDavid would bring. He’s expected to be given captaincy of the Edmonton Oilers, quite frankly because he’s expected to be the face of the game and the face of the team for the next decade. In an 82 game season, McDavid will be more than able to perform at the same rate as his rookie year. 90 points is a realistic expectation in his sophomore year. Of course he will have some learning curves, but McDavid will cement himself as an incredibly important player to the game. By the end of year two, calling him the best player in the game won’t be a stretch.
1. Crosby Can’t Be Knocked Off The Puck Or His Perch
For over a decade now, Sidney Crosby has been regarded as the face of the NHL. Along with the rest of his team, Crosby had a horrible start to the 2015-16 season; he couldn’t find the scoresheet and the Penguins couldn’t find a win. After the coaching change, it was different. Crosby turned on the jets. As he states in an interview with SI.com, “I knew the game hadn’t passed me by. Deep down, athletes know what they are capable of,” he wrote. He showed just why he is regarded as the best player in the world. He climbed up the scoring ladder, finishing third with 85 points and coming alive in the playoffs to lead his team to a second Stanley Cup. He will be rejuvenated and ready to go come puck drop. He could very well hit a similar clip this season. Players like him only find ways to get better and work even harder. He is resilient, talented, and driven to succeed. He isn’t slowing down any time soon. Crosby is the best for a reason.
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