Is there a changing of the guard atop the NHL's stardom hierarchy? Connor McDavid has somehow managed to exceed the already insane expectations placed upon him when he was drafted first overall by the Edmonton Oilers in 2015. In two short seasons, he has already won a Calder and Hart Trophy and has returned his Oilers to Stanley Cup contention after years of being mired in the NHL basement. The only thing preventing him from reigning as the face of the league is a recently-turned-30 Sidney Crosby, who just happens to have led his Pittsburgh Penguins to Stanley Cup glory in each of the past two seasons.
Beyond McDavid and Crosby lies a small army of exciting young talent poised to help shake up the NHL power structure, not to mention the standings. Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Winnipeg Jets sniper Patrik Laine and Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Zach Werenski made for an electrifying rookie class last season, while players like Johnny Gaudreau of the Calgary Flames, Shayne Gostisbehere of the Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins goalkeeper Matt Murray are offering each of their teams a window into a bright future. Unsurprisingly, it is the teams that boast these young phenoms who currently find themselves climbing up the league's pecking order.
Nearly every one of the league's now 31 clubs (welcome to the show, Vegas Golden Knights!) has a standout talent - or two - that anchor their franchise. The bigger the star, the more likely the team around him is to boasting a championship. Of course, strewn amidst a sea of emerging stars is a skilled group of veterans who aren't yet ready to give up their place in the spotlight. It all makes for what should be a fascinating NHL season, one that could offer an early signal to how the league will look moving forward. Here is an outlook on how the NHL hierarchy currently stands, with each team represented by their biggest star. Granted, it could look quite differently in a short span of time!
31 Marc-Andre Fleury (VGK)
It was all smiles during the NHL Awards in Las Vegas, an event that doubled as the official announcement of the expansion draft selections of the Vegas Golden Knights. The club's management, including owner Bill Foley and GM George McPhee, approached the stage sporadically through the night to announce the one player they'd selected off of every other team's roster. Saved for last was the selection of three-time Stanley Cup champion goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who happened to be on hand to try on his new jersey. Despite the happy introduction, there is reason to wonder whether the good vibes will last.
You can understand the appeal of the marriage between player and team from both sides. Vegas gets their first franchise star and a decorated starting netminder still in his prime, while Fleury embarks upon a fresh new challenge as the unquestioned No. 1 option between the pipes. Although Vegas may seem like an exciting new horizon right now and as much as the club is teeming with future assets, the present might be a little bleak at the T-Mobile Arena. Fleury just doesn't have much help in front of him, which seems only reasonable for an expansion franchise but might not be an ideal scenario for a 32-year-old accustomed to success.
30 Taylor Hall (NJD)
It must have been a tough first year in New Jersey for Taylor Hall. In the first season following his off-season trade from Edmonton, Hall had little help on a Devils squad bound for the No. 1 over-all pick while watching his former team finally make good on years of promise and rise to the top of the Western Conference. Truth be told, the 2017-18 campaign may not be much better for the 25-year-old from a results standpoint, but at least there are signs that things might be slowly coming together in the Swamp.
The biggest move of the Devils' off-season was unquestionably the selection of skilled Swiss centre Nico Hischier with the first overall pick in the NHL Entry Draft. But Hall will have additional help up front, thanks to the addition of centre Marcus Johansson from the cap-strapped Washington Capitals. Quietly, GM Ray Shero is piecing together a decent young core in Hall, Hischier, Johansson, Adam Henrique and Pavel Zacha, all of whom are 26 and younger. Hall may want to stay patient, however. It still could be a while before these Devils are ready to make noise and challenge for a playoff spot.
29 Henrik Sedin (VAN)
With training camp around the corner, we approach that time of year where optimism abounds and every NHL club is gifted with a clean slate and a fresh dose of hope. In recent weeks, Henrik Sedin has expressed his belief that his Vancouver Canucks can make a playoff push in the West and stated a focus on helping the only NHL team he's ever known improve. And really, what else can he and his twin brother Daniel say? In what is widely understood to be a rebuilding season in Vancouver, the Sedins are 36 years of age and essentially wasting the twilight of their careers.
It's unclear on how this all will end. No one could blame Daniel and/or Henrik for wanting a trade to a contender to pursue an elusive Stanley Cup ring, but the Swedes have remained loyal to the organization throughout their careers and that may not change. They could, in fact, talk themselves into a roster that has been bolstered, at least somewhat, by short-term veteran additions. But let's be real here - not even the most optimistic of Canucks fans will manage to muster much excitement over adding Sam Gagner, Patrick Wiercioch, Michael Del Zotto and Anders Nilsson. Looks like it'll be another lost year for a pair of Canucks legends.
28 Derek Stepan (ARI)
Okay, so the best player on the Arizona Coyotes is clearly defensive stud Oliver Ekman-Larsson, not Derek Stepan. But Stepan represents an interesting and curious direction being taken by the 'Yotes, who moved on from widely respected head coach Dave Tippett in favour of the controversial Rick Tocchet, and parted ways with long-time captain Shane Doan while opting to enter win-now mode despite not having much of a tangible, pre-existing core. Finishing 24 points out of a playoff spot didn't deter Coyotes GM John Chayka from acquiring Stepan and goalie Antti Raanta from the New York Rangers for their seventh overall pick.
The Stepan deal was the boldest for-the-present transaction in a summer that also saw them add forward Nick Cousins and defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson for picks and prospects. The four new Coyotes, and their new head coach, represent a new direction for the club, particularly when you factor in the exits of Tippett, Doan and goalie Mike Smith. The hope here is that four fresh, high character guys can instill a winning culture in Arizona, but it'll likely take time. The West remains loaded, 24 points seems like an awful lot of ground to make up in one season and, well, its unclear whether this group, led by Stepan, is good enough as of yet.
27 Nathan MacKinnon (COL)
Poor Nathan MacKinnon is in a weird place right now. Somehow having just turned 22 years old, the 2013 No. 1 overall pick has already accumulated over 200 points in 300 NHL games. In spite of his early success, MacKinnon is often left out of the discussion of exciting young talent that is now permeating the league and wasn't even included in The Hockey News' recent ranking of the top 50 NHL players. It doesn't help the Halifax native's case that his Colorado Avalanche have been a colossal disappointment of late. Despite a young, talent-laden core that also includes Gabriel Landeskog and (for now) Matt Duchene, the Avs have failed to reach the postseason in six of the last seven years.
There is no easy fix in Colorado, not after finishing dead last in both goals for and goals against last season. No. 4 pick Cale Makar and low-risk, high-reward signings Nail Yakupov and Jonathan Bernier help, as does Harvard standout Alex Kerfoot. But change has to come from the top down. If a skilled group that features MacKinnon, Landeskog and Duchene can't get the job done, then change beyond minimal roster tinkering is required. The club was besieged by rumours all summer, mostly considering the future of Duchene, but GM Joe Sakic held firm on his intent to win with the group he has now. It remains to be seen how long that lasts.
26 Henrik Zetterberg (DET)
It's beginning to look like the farewell tour for long-time Detroit Red Wings star Henrik Zetterberg. The 2008 Conn Smythe Trophy winner reportedly intends to skip the final two years of his front-loaded contract and retire at the end of the 2018-19 season. Not only would this cap off a tremendous career that has included - to date - more than 900 points in 1,000 career games, a Stanley Cup ring and two All-Star appearances, but will represent something of an end of an era in Motown. The 36-year-old is the last true star remaining from the 2008 team, the last of their four Cups in a 12-year span.
Unfortunately, now comes the awkward part. Two years of notice makes for an awfully long farewell that could potentially influence the Red Wings' rebuilding plan. Will GM Ken Holland stick with a long-term focus based around young players like Dylan Larkin and Anthony Mantha or will there be pressure to give the Swedish veteran, who has spent his entire 14-year career in Detroit, one more shot at playoff glory before he calls it quits. Further complicating matters is a move into the brand new Little Caesars Arena this season. But Holland has the track record to show that he isn't going to make impulse decisions nor will he build his team with any goal in mind beyond winning. Patience is the right course of action, even if it won't be a popular one with some fans.
25 Aaron Ekblad (FLA)
One of the harder teams to get a true read on heading into the 2017-18 season is Aaron Ekblad's Florida Panthers. It wasn't that long ago that the Panthers were one of the best stories in hockey, emerging from a three-year playoff drought to finish first in the Atlantic on the strength of Jaromir Jagr and a cast of young, blossoming stars. What appeared to be the first of many postseason pushes in South Florida was derailed the very next season amidst a disastrous campaign that saw them drop 12 wins and 22 points from the season before. A disappointing season on the ice was also marred by a rough introduction to the NHL for the new ownership group led by Vinnie Viola, one that included demoting and re-promoting GM Dale Tallon and firing head coach Gerard Gallant just months after winning the Atlantic.
Any and all hopes of returning to 2015-16 form begin with Ekblad. The 21-year-old defensive stud struggled after signing an eight-year, $60 million extension before last season. He will likely take on a bigger leadership role with the likes of veterans Jagr and Shawn Thornton no longer with the team. Also leaving town are young forwards Jon Marchessault and Reilly Smith, both of whom are Vegas-bound. That still leaves an impressive collection of talent in front of Ekblad that is approaching their prime, including Alexander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Vincent Trotchek and newcomer Evgeny Dadonov. It will be interesting to see which of the past two Jekyll and Hyde seasons were a fluke for the Panthers.
24 Jack Eichel (BUF)
The future is now in Buffalo, where 20-year-old Jack Eichel - or the guy taken after Connor McDavid - has assumed the role of the Sabres' best player. If Eichel, who managed 57 points in just 61 games last season, is on the rise, then Evander Kane is going the other way. That's not to say that the 26-year-old is on the decline, but the pending unrestricted free agent's future in Buffalo is clouded by a number of factors. Even though he potted a team-high 28 goals last season, Kane finds his value dipping as character questions and off-ice issues are compounded by the fact that he's six years removed from his best career season.
At this point, it looks like the Kane situation is leading to a split of some kind between player and team, and for Buffalo, that time probably can't come soon enough. Kane's antics, such as posing shirtless in Vegas alongside stacks of money in an Instagram post, distract from a promising Eichel-led group in Buffalo. Last year's top four Sabres scorers boast an average age of 22, suggesting that there remains a chance for the group to grow and develop together. It wouldn't be much of a surprise to see the new GM / head coach tandem of Jason Botterill and Phil Housley decide that the presence of Kane isn't needed on a young team that would be better off following the lead of other Sabres vets like Kyle Okposo and captain Brian Gionta.
23 John Tavares (NYI)
NHL fans, get ready for the John Tavares saga in the Big Apple this season. The New York Islanders captain will be an unrestricted free agent next summer and has already indicated that he isn't entirely sold on the club's long-term future. Coming off of a season in which they fell short of the playoffs, the Isles simply didn't do enough this summer to assure Tavares of the team's direction. Acquiring Jordan Eberle for Ryan Strome helped matters, but GM Garth Snow didn't bring in any immediate help in trading former No. 1 defenseman Travis Hamonic and failed to make a splash in free agency.
In the end, much of the short and long-term outlook for the Isles rests on Tavares' decision. It will, ultimately, be up to Snow and company to convince their best player that 2016-17 was an aberration and that three playoff rounds over the prior two seasons is more indicative of what to expect out of the Isles in Brooklyn. Either way, until Tavares signs on the dotted line, his future will continue to be a prevalent, predominant topic in New York - and throughout the NHL, where about 30 other teams harbour dreams of landing a front line superstar in their prime.
22 Drew Doughty (LAK)
After the John Tavares sweepstakes eventually come to a close, might Drew Doughty be the next NHL superstar to find his future under intense speculation? Doughty is the best player on a veteran-laden Los Angeles Kings team that finds itself at a strange crossroads. On one hand, they still boast many of the same pieces to a roster that seemed on the cusp of a dynasty not long ago, having won two Stanley Cups and 10 playoff series in three short years. Since then, however, the wheels have come off completely. The Kings just missed the playoffs entirely for the second time in the three seasons since, having just won playoff win to show for it after hoisting the Cup in 2014.
What does this mean for Doughty and the Kings? It means that things could get awkward if the team continues to underwhelm. This summer, the club underwent changes off the ice, with GM Dean Lombardi and head coach Darryl Sutter being shown the door in favour of new club president Luc Robitaille, GM Rob Blake and coach John Stevens. Now, the focus shifts squarely to a veteran core that includes Doughty, Anze Kopitar, Marian Gaborik, Dustin Brown, Jeff Carter and Jonathan Quick, all of whom are making at least $4.875 million this year. With the shortest term remaining and the highest potential to reap a nice windfall in the event of a rebuild, Doughty would appear poised as the biggest trade chip.
21 Wayne Simmonds (PHI)
After a season in which everything that could go wrong seemingly did for the Philadelphia Flyers, there are already indications emerging that last season is firmly in the club's rear view mirror. With postseason aspirations coming into the year, the Flyers instead finished seven points shy of a playoff spot as none of their front line talent outside Wayne Simmonds played up to expectations. But even his team-best 31 goals weren't enough to offset disappointing performances from the likes of Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek and Shayne Gostisbehere.
Philadelphia hasn't missed the playoffs in consecutive years since the early nineties and they don't appear poised to now, either. An impressive forward corps is back largely intact, with the notable exception of Brayden Schenn, who was traded for Jori Lehtera and draft picks. The trio of Giroux, Voracek and Simmonds will be further helped by emerging prospect Travis Konecny and No. 2 overall pick Nolan Patrick. On the back end, an unproven blue line will lean heavily on youngsters Shayne Gostisbehere and Ivan Provorov. Simmonds can actually help in both areas, offering scoring touch up front and a physical edge wherever necessary. The one area he can't help is in net, where Brian Elliott will look to end the club's spotty track record when it comes to goaltending.
20 Brad Marchand (BOS)
Perhaps one of the unlikeliest names in the top tier of the NHL scoring leaders, LW Brad Marchand finished last season tied for fifth league-wide with 85 points and fourth with a career-best 39 goals. Traditionally more of an agitator than a front line skill guy, Marchand has been reinvented as the best player on the Boston Bruins. You might assume that such an emergence would coincide with a surge from his club, but the Bruins haven't actually won a playoff series in three years as they continue to be mired in what seems to be constant retooling ever since trading Tyler Seguin.
Marchand actually stands as one of the few stalwarts on a Bruins roster that has remained in flux as management has attempted to get younger and maintain some cap flexibility. He is one of just seven holdovers, along with Patrice Bergeron, Zdeno Chara, David Krejci, Adam McQuaid, Tuukka Rask and Anton Khudobin, from Boston's Stanley Cup victory in 2011. Around them are a deep collection of youth that will still probably need some time to develop before the B's can get back to contention. First off, they will need to settle some messy contract negotiations currently on-going with 21-year-old breakout star David Pastrnak, who might just be poised to overtake Marchand as the club's best player.
19 Zach Parise (MIN)
Recently asked his thoughts on his own performance in 2016-17, Minnesota Wild star Zach Parise didn't mince words. On his own team's official website, Parise acknowledged, "For me, last year stunk." His 19 goals and 42 points were the lowest totals he's had since his first season in Minnesota, when he only played 48 games on account of concussion issues. The injury-marred campaign dropped Parise all the way down to eighth in scoring on what is a pretty deep Wild roster that finished just a shade below the Chicago Blackhawks in the Central division standings.
Despite their depth, the Wild experienced a power outage come playoff time and scored just eight goals in a five-game first round series loss to the St. Louis Blues. The club has now made the postseason five years running, but hasn't pushed through the second round since the 2002-03 season. Though armed with a veteran-laden roster ready to contend now and break out of the playoff doldrums, Wild GM Chuck Fletcher didn't exactly go all-in this off-season, with his only significant move coming in swapping expensive scorer Jason Pominville and promising defenseman Marco Scandella out for winger Tyler Ennis and scrappy forward Marcus Foligno. Heading into the 2017-18 season, both the Wild and Parise have plenty to prove.
18 Auston Matthews (TOR)
It seems fitting that the Toronto Maple Leafs are represented by the only second-year player on this list. No offence to the likes of Tyler Bozak, Nazem Kadri and James van Riemsdyk, but the Leafs will live and die on the backs of their young talent. That paradigm worked pretty well for them last season, as the arrivals of Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner sparked a stunningly immediate renaissance, catapulting the rebuilding club back to the postseason for the first time in four years. After a dream rookie campaign highlighted by 40 goals and the Calder award, Matthews is already the anchor.
While the long-term outlook for both player and club is undeniably sunny, there is reason to be wary of an improvement over last season's results this year. Matthews may be undone simply by the high bar he set as a rookie as opposing defences figure out ways to contain him. The Leafs, meanwhile, just inched into the playoffs last spring and will face an improved Eastern Conference while wearing a bigger target on their back. The signing of Patrick Marleau will add some veteran know-how but there probably isn't much that even Matthews can do about a thin blue line.
17 Tyler Seguin (DAL)
What is there to be made of the Dallas Stars? A wealth of firepower has prompted optimism about Stanley Cup potential in Big D, particularly since Tyler Seguin has come aboard, but the results simply haven't been there to date. A 50-win, Central division-winning 2015-16 campaign offered a taste of that potential, but that season - which ended at the hands of the St. Louis Blues in a hard-fought seven-game second round series - has been sandwiched by two years on the outside of the playoff picture looking in.
Despite missing the playoffs by 15 points last season, GM Jim Nill saw enough from his Stars roster that he felt confident in making an aggressive push this past summer. Alongside the two-headed superstar tandem of Seguin and Jamie Benn and long-time veteran centre Jason Spezza will now be two-way standout Martin Hanzal, veteran blue liner Marc Methot, who the Ottawa Senators hated to lose, top line scorer Alex Radulov and new goaltender Ben Bishop. It remains to be seen how new head coach Ken Hitchcock will incorporate these pieces into the pre-existing roster, but it has to be playoffs or bust in Dallas now given the summer's talent injection.
16 Jaccob Slavin (CAR)
You might see the name Jaccob Slavin here and be asking yourself, "who???". Slavin is the perfect representative for a young, promising Carolina Hurricanes roster that hasn't exactly reached household name status yet. The 23-year-old American, who earned a seven-year contract extension this summer, is part of a formidable blue line that also features Noah Hanifin, Justin Faulk and Brett Pesce, all of whom are 25 and younger. For now, Slavin is the best of the bunch, showcasing a balanced, all-around game as a puck-moving rearguard who is also responsible in his own end.
Like Slavin, the Hurricanes might be coming along a little bit sooner than anyone could have expected. Carolina made a bit of a playoff charge towards the end of last season before finishing eight points out of a wild card spot in the East. Sebastian Aho enjoyed an impressive rookie campaign that got overshadowed by the first-year efforts of Auston Matthews and countryman Patrik Laine, while Jeff Skinner and Victor Rask are talented forwards who would probably be more celebrated in bigger markets. A summer that saw the club add goaltender Scott Darling and veteran forwards Justin Williams and Marcus Kruger might be enough to put them over the top - and earn some much-deserved recognition.
15 Mark Scheifele (WPG)
Slow down, Patrik Laine - your 36-goal rookie campaign was impressive, but that still doesn't make you the best player on the Winnipeg Jets, at least not yet. For now, that distinction remains with Mark Scheifele, a play-making centre who finished the year with 18 more points than his rookie phenom teammate. Rather than nitpicking over which of the two young stars is superior to the other, Jets fans should just appreciate having two complimentary talents that are the caliber of Laine and Scheifele. After all, if Laine is to take the next step towards becoming an elite NHL scorer, it will likely be Scheifele who is the pivot that gets him there.
The future is an exciting topic of conversation in Winnipeg, beginning with the looming thought that it might not be too far down the road. The team still hasn't won a playoff game since arriving in the 'Peg, with their only postseason appearance coming in a 4-0 first round sweep at the hands of the Anaheim Ducks. That could change as early as this year. The key now is building the rest of the club around its two anchors. Although its unclear where 32-year-old Dustin Byfuglien fits in the team's long-term plans, 20-year-old Nikolaj Ehlers, 23-year-old defenceman Jacob Trouba and 24-year-old goalie Connor Helleybuck may all be around to be part of the peak years of the Laine / Scheifele era.
14 Jonathan Toews (CHI)
It's admittedly a little strange seeing Jonathan Toews and the Chicago Blackhawks this far down the league's pecking order, but that's what an embarrassing first round sweep at the hands of the Nashville Predators can do. Actually, more than a mere four games, this spot reflects the complicated reality that Toews has helped construct in Chicago, where the price of success has been steep. In the bid to improve the roster and return to a form that saw them ring up three Cups in six seasons, the Blackhawks continue to be handcuffed to the matching eight-year, $84 million contracts doled out to Toews and Patrick Kane.
Now, Toews and Kane have been the lifeblood of the Hawks since joining the team for the 2007-08 season, a stretch that has seen nine straight postseason appearances. None of the three Cups happen without the superstar tandem, period. But in the years since the hefty extensions were inked, club management has had to do some financial gymnastics in order to stay within the salary cap. That has meant parting with so many key contributors that CapFriendly.com actually pieced together a pretty impressive roster made up entirely of Chicago's cap casualties, one that was done before young sniper Artemi Panarin became yet another addition to the growing list. The Cup window hasn't closed in Chicago, but it'll be tough sledding as they continue to come up against Western foes who can afford to ice deeper rosters.
13 Carey Price (MTL)
That Carey Price stands as the integral component to any future success that the Montreal Canadiens hope to have isn't lost on the club. They recognized the importance of the 2015 Hart and Vezina Trophy winner this summer by inking him to an eight-year, $84 million extension that will kick in next season. With Price's future in Montreal settled, the focus now shifts to whether GM Marc Bergevin has fielded a good enough team in front of the netminder. Bergevin had a busy off-season of retooling, but the jury is still out on whether he actually managed to improve a club that lost a six-game first round series to the New York Rangers last spring.
Through plenty of wheeling and dealing, the Habs added a potential cornerstone moving forwards in Jonathan Drouin and brought in some depth up front (Ales Hemsky) and on the blue line (Karl Alzner and David Schlemko). They will need all the depth they can get, however, as they also lost out on Andrei Markov, Alex Radulov, Nathan Beaulieu and Alexei Emelin, with just the third round pick acquired for Beaulieu to show for it. But don't count Montreal out yet. Price will still manage to steal some games between the pipes, and the core of Max Pacioretty, Alex Galchenyuk and Shea Weber remains a pretty formidable one.
12 Vladimir Tarasenko (STL)
Any NHL bettor may want to look Midwest in search of an under-the-radar, dark horse Stanley Cup contender. You won't hear many people tout the Stanley Cup chances of the St. Louis Blues, but they could be poised to surprise some folks after following up a second round loss to the eventual Stanley Cup finalist Nashville Predators with a solid off-season. In what will be head coach Mike Yeo's first full season behind the bench, GM Doug Armstrong has gotten his coach a little added help in the form of gritty scorer Brayden Schenn while also extending star blue liner Colton Parayko to a team-friendly five-year extension.
Even with Schenn in tow and Parayko continuing to emerge, Vladimir Tarasenko is the star of the Blues. Like the team, Tarasenko tends to get overlooked around the NHL. He has, however, scored 116 goals over the past three seasons and remains just 25 years of age. The explosive Russian is perfectly aligned within the young core being built in St. Louis, with him, Schenn, Parayko, goaltender Jake Allen and No. 1 defenceman Alex Pietrangelo all aged between 24 and 27. Something sure seems to be brewing - both short- and long-term - under the radar in St. Loo.
11 Mats Zuccarello (NYR)
Could a little-known, diminutive Norwegian hockey player really be the biggest star in the world's most famous arena as a member of the New York Rangers? The explosive 5'7" dynamo has actually been quietly leading the Rangers in scoring in each of the two seasons at a time when aging stalwarts like Rick Nash and star goalie Henrik Lundqvist are beginning to fade a bit. Zuccarello certainly isn't getting paid like the best player on a potential Cup contender, with two years left on a team-friendly deal that will pay $4.5 million in each of the next two seasons.
It was that type of contract for a significant offensive asset that enabled the Rangers to splurge on free agent defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk this off-season. Already a top 10 scoring team, the club can now place a renewed focus on the defensive end, where captain Ryan McDonagh and Marc Staal remain, but Dan Girardi has moved on for a fresh start in Tampa Bay. With Nash still on board and capable forwards like Chris Kreider and Michael Grabner in tow, the Rangers can afford to take some risks, like having a 60-point top scorer and trading two-way centre Derek Stepan for a promising top 10 draft choice.
10 Sergei Bobrovsky (CLB)
You had to feel for the Columbus Blue Jackets last season. Perpetually mired in irrelevance, the Jackets strung together a dream regular season without a recognizable star to speak of, winning 50 games and finishing with 108 points. Those 108 points would have been enough to win the Atlantic or Pacific division and fall one point shy of the Chicago Blackhawks in the Central. However, as residents of the stacked Metropolitan, they were only good enough for a third-place finish and a first round playoff date on the road against the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins, where they lost in five games.
Postseason setback aside, there's a lot of reason for optimism in Columbus, with most of last year's standout roster returning. That includes goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, who earned Vezina Trophy honors after going 41-17-5 with a .931 save percentage and a 2.06 goals against average. He still has a stalwart defence in front of him as well, with rookie sensation Zach Werenski heading into his sophomore year and vets like Seth Jones and Jack Johnson back for another go-around. Up front, an offence that ranked sixth in goals per game (they were second in goals allowed) will have three of its top four scorers back, with the only departure being Brandon Saad, who was traded for 25-year-old sniper Artemi Panarin.
9 Brent Burns (SJS)
The star-crossed San Jose Sharks have been fortunate to enjoy a veritable array of front line talent to serve as their franchise star over the course of their almost 15-year run of postseason presence. At various times, the Sharks have been led by Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture. All but Marleau remain in San Jose, but the team now belongs to the bearded one, Brent Burns. The popular defenseman has earned a considerable following mostly for his wild facial hair, but also as a quirky personality and elite blue liner.
In what turned out to be a Norris Trophy-winning campaign last year, Burns was the rare rearguard to lead his team in both goals and points. He also happens to fit in as something of a greybeard on an aging roster, where last year's top six scorers had an average age over 32. Still, in spite of their age and an admittedly checkered playoff history (they've gotten to the Stanley Cup Finals just once in 17 playoff appearances dating back to 1998), there's reason to believe in a talented, deep and experienced Sharks team being able to run it back for at least one more shot at postseason glory.
8 Erik Karlsson (OTT)
After an unlikely run to the Eastern Conference Finals, the Ottawa Senators can be examined through either the glass half-full or glass half-empty lens. The pessimistic view would surely point to the Sens enjoying something of a fluke run last spring that isn't likely to be repeated, particularly with possible ill will that was generated from Dion Phaneuf's refusal to waive his no-trade clause, resulting in the club being forced to expose Marc Methot in the Expansion Draft. The optimistic view would likely centre around Erik Karlsson, the type of game-changer that not every NHL club has.
Karlsson, who played down the stretch with two hairline fractures in his left heel, was the best player in each of his team's first two playoff series against the Boston Bruins and New York Rangers, and he might have been against Sidney Crosby's Pittsburgh Penguins too. The smooth-skating Swede was simply all over the ice, excelling in shut down roles while also joining the attack as a dangerous play-making threat. Had he led his Sens to an unlikely triumph over the Pens, he would have surely merited Conn Smythe consideration whether Ottawa won or lost the Stanley Cup Finals. Getting back won't be easy, particularly without Methot around, but Karlsson is up for the challenge.
7 Ryan Getzlaf (ANA)
Few teams have remained as consistently strong in the post-lockout era as the Anaheim Ducks. Since the 2005-06 season, the first year back after the new CBA was signed, they have reached the playoffs in 10 of 12 campaigns, winning one Stanley Cup and reaching two Conference Finals in that time. The two constants across all of those Ducks teams have been Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, both of whom were rookies in '05-06. Perry, for all of his tremendous contributions in Anaheim, has fallen off some into his thirties, but Getzlaf continues to stand atop a deep, talented roster.
Getzlaf is unquestionably the veteran leader of a Ducks squad that has, under the watch of GM Bob Murray, enjoyed a remarkable track record of drafting and developing young talent. The 32-year-old centre remains the team's leading scorer, but now offers an experienced, playoff-proven locker room presence for young forwards like Rickard Rakell, Jakob Silfverberg and Nick Ritchie to lean on. While he doesn't often get mentioned in the company of Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin and the Blackhawks star tandem of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, he has also posted Hall of Fame numbers while remaining with one team for his whole career.
6 Alex Ovechkin (WAS)
The Washington Capitals ran away with the President's Trophy last season, blitzing the field during a regular season that produced 118 points and 55 wins, seven points and five wins clear of any other NHL club. In what has become a familiar story in Washington, however, a great regular season did not carry over into the postseason and the Caps were ousted in the second round at the hands of their Metropolitan division rivals and eventual Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins. Since losing that seven-game heartbreaker last May, their biggest foe hasn't been Sidney Crosby, but salary cap constraints.
For a club with as many key members facing free agency, Washington actually did well to bring back the likes of Evgeny Kuznetsov and T.J. Oshie, albeit while absorbing the losses of Marcus Johansson, Justin Williams and trade deadline acquisition Kevin Shattenkirk. Most importantly, though, they kept the Alex Ovechkin era going. While number eight showed some signs of decline en route to his lowest point total and first campaign under 50 goals in four years, he remains the central figure for the Capitals and the driving force behind what they do. With their sights still set on the Cup, it wasn't time to turn the page yet.
5 Steven Stamkos (TBL)
No one wants to lose their best player to injury, and being without Steven Stamkos for the 2016 postseason and all but 17 games of the 2016-17 season certainly stung for the Tampa Bay Lightning. But the absences - first for an arm issue that required surgery and then a torn meniscus - carried the silver lining of letting the Lightning showcase their impressive depth behind their superstar sniper. Nikita Kucherov took the helm as leading scorer, helping Tampa make it all the way to the Conference Finals in 2016 and coming within a single point of a playoff spot last season.
Now, with a healthy Stamkos ready to go again, Lightning fans can salivate over the prospect of how good this team might be. Beyond Stamkos, who scored 79 goals over his past two healthy seasons, Tampa now boasts an elite first line with Kucherov, Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson, a perennial Norris Trophy candidate in Victor Hedman and a high-ceiling netminder in Andrei Vasilevskiy. They also enjoyed a quietly productive summer, signing Chris Kunitz away from the Penguins, adding blue liner Dan Girardi on a reasonable contract and trading from a position of strength by swapping out Jonathan Drouin for blue chip defensive prospect Mikhail Sergachev. If injuries don't rear their ugly head, an Eastern Conference Finals showdown with the Penguins could be in the offing.
4 Johnny Gaudreau (CGY)
The Battle of Alberta is alive and well! This is, of course, partly thanks to the Connor McDavid effect, but the rapidly rising Calgary Flames and their cache of young stars certainly plays a role as well. The deep roster of budding talent in Calgary, one that includes Sean Monahan, Sam Bennett, Matthew Tkachuk, Dougie Hamilton and T.J. Brodie and is anchored by emerging superstar Johnny Gaudreau, has those within the organization thinking that Stanley Cup contention could come sooner rather than later.
Despite coming up on the wrong end of a four-game sweep to the Anaheim Ducks last spring, Flames management was emboldened by the club's progress and went all in this summer. They completely overhauled their iffy goaltending corps, adding veteran netminder Mike Smith to start and Eddie Lack as Smith's back-up. They also made a bold push to improve their blue line, surrendering a considerable draft pick haul to land Travis Hamonic to join a group anchored by Brodie, Hamilton and Mark Giordano. But this team will go as far as their fresh-faced talents will take them, with Flames fans ready to go along for the ride.
3 Roman Josi (NSH)
Sorry PK Subban, but contrary to level of media attention received, you are actually not the best player on the defending Western Conference champion Nashville Predators. Heck, the flashy and mouthy former Hab isn't even the best defenceman on his own team, owing to the tremendous depth of the Preds' blue line. The distinction for best defenceman and best player belongs to Roman Josi, a low key presence who is responsible with the puck and lets his play do the talking for him. In other words, he's everything that Subban is not.
With Josi and Subban occupying a stacked blue line that also features Mattias Ekholm and Ryan Ellis, "Smashville" should be well equipped for another big season. Last year, they wowed the NHL with raucous crowds throughout the playoffs and swarms of Preds fans partying all along Broadway before, during and after games. With the notable exception of now-retired captain Mike Fisher, the club returns mostly the same roster that just fell short against the Pittsburgh Penguins last June. Will this be the year that Smashville brings home the Cup?
2 Connor McDavid (EDM)
Year one brought a Calder Trophy and renewed hope in the city of Edmonton. Year two brought a Hart Trophy and the return of the Oilers to postseason hockey. What can we expect from Connor McDavid in year three? Of course, elevated expectations are nothing new for the Newmarket, Ontario native who is still just 20 years of age. Fans and media members have taken to calling him 'McJesus', he has constantly faced comparisons to Wayne Gretzky and he was recently ranked No. 1 - ahead of Sidney Crosby - on The Hockey News' top 50 players list.
Having already achieved so much in such a short span of time as an NHL player, can a Stanley Cup be that far behind? Staffers in the NHL offices - even those with a preference for big markets like New York and Los Angeles - must be salivating over the prospect of a Stanley Cup Finals pitting McDavid's Oilers against Crosby's Penguins. For that to happen, the Oilers will still need more than just McDavid brilliance. The newly extended Leon Draisaitl will have to play Evgeni Malkin to McDavid's Crosby and Cam Talbot will need to continue to be a steady presence between the pipes. With McDavid in tow, anything's possible.
1 Sidney Crosby (PIT)
Let's see here - two Hart trophies, two Conn Smythe awards, two Olympic gold medals and three Stanley Cups. Yeah, Sidney Crosby was pretty productive during his twenties. Now, Sid the Kid is no longer, celebrating his 30th birthday this summer and prompting a wide range of retrospectives looking at what he has accomplished thus far. But let's not write Crosby off as retired yet. The reigning back-to-back Stanley Cup champion surely sees this new wave of young talent emerging, but he isn't simply going to hand over the mantle.
Much like their star player, the Pittsburgh Penguins stand atop the mountain and will remain the team to beat until they are beaten. Still, change is an inevitable part of life and that looks to be true of both team and player. The Pens were hit hard in free agency, losing Nick Bonino, Chris Kunitz, Trevor Daley, Matt Cullen and Ron Hainsey, while also bidding farewell to expansion draftee Marc-Andre Fleury. In their place, Ryan Reaves, Matt Hunwick and Antti Niemi have joined the fold. Likewise, albeit more in a long-term sense, Crosby will need to learn to rely more on his vision and hockey IQ as his skills slowly start to erode with age. But, come on - the dude's only 30!