Talent is obviously king, but it's ultimately just one piece of the bigger puzzle. Style, system, and the propensity for playing a fast-paced brand of hockey are just as important -- as is the likelihood of being involved in engaging back-and-forth games that are relevant and of consequence. All of the accoutrements -- such as the quality of the broadcast, uniform aesthetics, and atmosphere of the home crowds -- are all baked into the equation as well.
It's also key to remember that sometimes a team's objective ability to win hockey games and their subjective position on these rankings isn't necessarily correlated. You can be a good team that isn't particularly fun to watch, and you can be a mediocre team that puts on a show.
Hopefully the list will help guide you through the following scenario: You're sitting down on a random Tuesday night and there's a full slate of games on at once; all other things being equal and putting rooting allegiances aside, which teams should you prioritize tuning in to watch?
Only if there's nothing else on tonight
There's few things more depressing in professional sports than watching stars playing out the twilight of their careers in completely inconsequential anonymity, resembling shells of their formerly great selves. No team is a better representation of that at the moment than the Kings, who have nearly $54 million of the $81.5 million salary cap for the coming season tied up in the following players:
36 year old Ilya Kovalchuk
35 year old Dustin Brown
35 year old Jeff Carter
34 year old Jonathan Quick
33 year old Trevor Lewis
32 year old Anze Kopitar
32 year old Alec Martinez
30 year old Drew Doughty
The buyout of Dion Phaneuf
The recapture penalty on Mike Richards
That's a bleak list. As a team last season, they were 30th in goals scored and 30th in points, and there's no real reason to expect an improvement as all of their key roster players only get older and less productive. The good news is that they've drafted exceptionally well lately, and once they eventually dig out of this financial mess, there should be an interesting crop of young players to take over. The bad news is that it's going to take a while to get there, and until they do, they'll remain a tough reminder of what once was.
30. Ottawa Senators
Welcome to the first list you'll read all preseason that doesn't have the Ottawa Senators in 31st place! I'll even cop to the admission that I strongly considered moving them a couple spots higher, because in a way I actually found myself watching and not hating their games last season. I ultimately couldn't put them any higher for two reasons:
1. Most of that morbid entertainment was similar to how you can't look away from a train wreck as it's unfolding before your very eyes. It certainly wasn't good hockey by any means, but there was no real regard for defense and there's something to be said for the sheer volume with which goals were being put on the board. The likelihood of a highlight-reel goal being scored at any given moment was high enough that their games were worth watching, even if you didn't exactly feel good about the way you were choosing to spend your time in the moment:
2. It's becoming increasingly difficult to justify supporting or endorsing in any capacity the way this current ownership group is running the franchise. The Senators are essentially the league's version of a shell company at this point, because it's clear that they have no real interest in spending anything beyond the absolute bare minimum it takes to field a hockey team. They're more interested in cutting costs and finding unique ways to get around picking up the tab on players than they are building and fielding a competitive lineup.
Thomas Chabot's mega-extension kicks in next year, but before that happens, Bobby Ryan's albatross $7.25 million salary represents the only active player making over $5 million who they have on the books. Even two of their biggest cap hits -- Nikita Zaitsev and Artem Anisimov -- are actually being paid significantly less in real dollars because their previous employers already paid out their signing bonuses before trading them. As in other aspects of life, you get what you pay for in this league, and until there's a fundamental change in how the franchise is run, the soul-crushing misery will continue in Ottawa.
I typically find that teams that don't have electrifying defensemen capable of kickstarting the transition game and getting the puck up the ice quickly are a tough watch. There are ways around it, but unless you're blessed with generational offensive talents up front that can do it all themselves -- like the Penguins, for example -- you're immediately fighting an uphill battle.
Hockey is in its most entertaining form when it's smooth and free flowing, with players maneuvering through the neutral zone and creating on the fly. It's awfully difficult to establish that kind of rhythm if you're constantly stopping and starting and sloppily changing possession because of failed zone exits.
That's ultimately why the Red Wings get docked on this list, with a strong argument to be made that no team has a less inspiring collection of defenders than they do entering the season. Filip Hronek and Dennis Cholowski have showed promise, but unless they can take a gargantuan leap in Year 2, Detroit will continue to sputter offensively. It's a shame, because the likes of Dylan Larkin and Andreas Athanasiou are incredibly exciting to watch and would thrive in a track meet setting, but they won't be able to fully utilize their speed if they're constantly having to go back and get the puck themselves.
28. Anaheim Ducks
I would describe my interest level in the Ducks this season as "cautiously curious." Unlike their Southern California counterpart, they're at least able to immediately sell a hopeful glimpse into their future, given how fully they've embraced the youth movement. There's only a few trace remains left of the aging core that made them a perennial contender for a large chunk of the mid-2010s. The roster has been turned over, and the lineup is littered with promising young forwards who should be empowered to play through their anticipated early career growing pains.
Between Troy Terry, Sam Steel, Max Comtois and Max Jones, there's a good nucleus in place of players who thrived together in the AHL under Dallas Eakins' tutelage and are looking to take the next step together this season with him behind the NHL bench. Even what's considered the "old guard" by default just based on tenure, such asJakob Silfverberg (28), Josh Manson (28), Cam Fowler (28), Rickard Rakell (26), Hampus Lindholm (25) and Ondrej Kase (24), is a fun group to watch that's firmly in its prime and can get up and down the ice in a hurry.
The X factor here is Eakins. In past years, the on-ice product in Anaheim has suffered largely from self-inflicted wounds caused by its coaching staff. It was so bad that they ostensibly didn't even have a real coach behind the bench for a healthy portion of last season (GM Bob Murray served as a placeholder), and you could still argue that it represented an upgrade over the previous regime. Eakins, who never really got a fair shake during his season and a half in Edmonton, fits perfectly with the vision of the future of this franchise. At the very least, he was presumably hired with the intention of seeing this thing through properly. They'll still likely be bad this season, and John Gibson faces yet another uphill battle of high shot volume, but at least you could argue it's finally a necessary step as part of a larger process.
Let's check in and see what they're doing
27. Arizona Coyotes
The Coyotes were undoubtedly one of the league's most surprising stories last season, overcoming a rash of injuries all over the depth chart to make a spirited push towards the playoffs that ultimately fell just short. It was actually a somewhat miraculous run, all things considered, especially since they didn't have a single player reach either 20 goals or 50 points. To put that feat into some perspective, the Leafs had seven players top 20 goals, and the Sharks had eight players eclipse 50 points.
They're clearly hoping that Phil Kessel is going to come in and address a lot of those concerns by providing them with a shot in the arm offensively. Considering how low the bar to clear is, he almost certainly will; the only question is just how much. Over the past three seasons, over 44% of his total scoring came with the man advantage, with only Nikita Kucherov doing a higher percentage of damage there than him in that period of time. While he'll have a hard time replicating that kind of success without the likes of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang around, his ability as a shooter and passer should still dramatically help Arizona's 26th-ranked power play get up off the ground.
26. Minnesota Wild
Getting Matt Dumba back after he missed a significant portion of last season with an injury is huge for the Wild and their watchability, because his offensive instincts from the blue line and willingness to get involved in the play provide the team with an entirely different dynamic. He won't keep converting 13% of his shots into goals, but his goal-scoring upside is right up there with anyone at the position given the level at which he was playing before he got hurt.
While the majority of former GM Paul Fenton's brief tenure running the team can only be described as a comedy of errors, the deadline acquisitions of Kevin Fiala and Ryan Donato provide a beacon of hope for elevating the team's offensive ceiling. The former in particular is an incredibly intriguing talent, because his unique combination of speed and skill is hard to come by. Even though all he's ever really done thus far is tease us with his potential, he's still only 23 years old and could be special if he can harness those gifts.
That's the good news. The bad news is that this roster hasn't really been put together with much care or thought about the future, which makes it difficult to get fully invested in them until that changes. It's an eclectic mix of players that doesn't make a ton of sense together. As a result, they appear to be stuck right in the middle between not being bad enough to warrant bottoming out and playing for the future, but also not being good enough to seriously compete and make any real noise in the present.
Columbus saw a ton of talent leave town this summer via free agency, but the situation with which it has been left isn't nearly as bleak as it's been made out to be. The team already has most of the heavy lifting done, with two cornerstone defensemen in Seth Jones and Zach Werenski, and a top-line center in Pierre-Luc Dubois, and all three are under the age of 25 and under team control.
The loss of Artemi Panarin's ability to soak up the attention of opposing defenses and make plays for both himself and others at a high level will be sorely felt, and the Blue Jackets understandably don't have a natural replacement of his caliber ready to step in and fill his shoes. What they do have is impressive scoring depth and balance throughout the lineup, plus some interesting young players with plenty of room to grow into bigger roles.
That list doesn't include youngsters Emil Bemstrom and Alex Texier. The former led the Swedish Hockey League in goal scoring as a teenager, while the latter had 41 points in 55 games as a 19-year-old in the Finnish pro league before a cameo in the playoffs last spring. And it also doesn't include a goalie named Elvis Merzlikins, who by all accounts is a character who dances after wins. The Blue Jackets will take a step back this season, but there's still plenty on the team about which to be excited.
Hockey remains the ultimate team game, but there's still something to be said for having that one jaw-dropping talent in your back pocket that can create something out of nothing with the puck on their stick when nothing else seems to be working. I'm lumping all of these teams together even though they're all built differently, purely because of that one electrifying talent they each have.
Whether it's Mathew Barzal, Jack Eichel, Elias Pettersson or Connor McDavid, each player can single-handedly make their teams worth watching every time they step onto the ice because that could be the shift where they casually do something we didn't even know was possible prior to seeing it.
The Barry Trotz Effect is real and it's spectacular: The 2017-18 Isles were fifth in the NHL in pace, and first in total goals. In 2018-19, they were 27th and 30th, respectively.
Sometimes it's difficult to truly quantify the effect an individual coach can have on a team because of all the moving parts and behind-the-scenes stuff that goes into it. But in this particular case, we can directly point to the impact Barry Trotz and Mitch Korn had in their first season on the island.
They inherited the leakiest defensive team in the NHL, and completely transformed it into one of the league's stingiest without any real personnel changes to point to (besides the downgrade of losing John Tavares). The fact that he was able to implement his system and structure and have that kind of transformative effect immediately is surreal, but Trotz has been spinning this web long enough now that we shouldn't be that surprised. It wasn't nearly as fun to watch as the circus act that came before it under Doug Weight's watch, but considering all of the success they enjoyed, it's impossible to quibble with the results.
23. Buffalo Sabres
The Sabres still have a long way to go and lots of holes to fill in their lineup, but their activity this summer represented an admirable step in the right direction. After drafting Rasmus Dahlin last summer, they traded for Brandon Montour at last season's deadline, and then went out and acquired Colin Miller and Henri Jokiharju in the offseason. Given how starved for talent their forward group still is, having a defense corps that can do some of the lifting by effectively moving the puck and jumping up into the play will go a long way towards making up for it. All of those players can do exactly that, and it's encouraging to see that the Sabres are targeting the right type of blueliner.
That's especially true because it means that they'll now be better suited to get the puck to Jack Eichel and Jeff Skinner in better attacking positions, which is paramount considering how heavily these team relies on the two of them to shoulder the offensive burden.
Finally the Canucks have a Swedish superstar forward that's able to see and think the game at an almost superhuman level; it had been a long time since they'd had one of those. Elias Pettersson is an absolute joy to watch, and the combination of Pettersson and Quinn Hughes is nearly promising enough to absolve the Jim Benning regime of all their sins constructing this roster along the way.
What makes Pettersson special is that he seems to operate at an entirely different speed than everyone else on the ice, with everything around him slowing down as he slices and dices his way through traffic. He processes sequences that no one else does in real time, and he possesses the physical puck skills to act on it and take advantage by making plays. It's somewhat distressing that the near $15 million in future annual cap commitments they added this summer with their acquisitions don't really move the needle. But now that we know definitively that Vancouver has a franchise cornerstone in Pettersson, they're in a significantly better position than they were this time last year.
21. Edmonton Oilers
There's no other way to put it: the collection of talent the Oilers have assembled around Connor McDavid is an embarrassment. He's not only the best, but also the most exciting player in the world and I'd probably watch him skate laps in an empty rink. But there's something so disheartening about watching what he has to deal with on a nightly basis on the odd occasions he needs to take a breather and someone else hops over the boards. He either scored or directly set up 97 of the team's 229 total goals last season despite missing four games, which accounted for a mind blowing 42.4% of the team's offense.
There's only so much Ken Holland could've realistically done after inheriting Peter Chiarelli's stink bomb this summer, but the additions of James Neal, Alex Chiasson, Joakim Nygard, Markus Granlund and Josh Archibald don't exactly inspire confidence that things will be any different this in Edmonton this season. As great as McDavid is, he still only plays about one third or so of any given game, and the rest of the product is just so bleak to endure.
Great teams, but...
This group of teams conveniently goes together because they're all deep, they're all going to win a lot of hockey games, and they all either play a brand of hockey -- or at a particular pace -- that doesn't exactly lend itself to the most thrilling viewing experience. The other thing that unites them is that despite all of the big-name players they have at the top of the marquee, I'm far more interested in seeing how some of the side plots involving each of them play out.
20. St. Louis Blues
I want to see how the likes of Robert Thomas and Vince Dunn continue to develop, and whether they can continue to garner larger roles on a team that is historically balanced and not one to usually let young players run wild. I want to see how Jordan Binnington does with a full regular season workload as the starter, and whether he can keep up his level of play. I also want to see Colton Parayko play hockey, because he's remarkably good at it.
19. Dallas Stars
I want to see how the secondary scoring holds up with the switch from Mats Zuccarello to Joe Pavelski. I imagine it'll be just fine, because Roope Hintz looks like the real deal, and is understandably generating a bunch of hype for his postseason performance. The Stars were an entirely different team once they got Tyler Seguin's line some scoring depth behind it, so you could argue their fortunes this season rest on that as much as anything this side of Ben Bishop's lower extremities.
I want to see how Matt Duchene and new assistant coach Dan Lambert affect their power play. Considering that it was historically bad last regular season and only got worse in the playoffs -- reaching its nadir in the Stars series with an oh-fer showing where they failed to create a goal in 30:46 of time with the man advantage -- it can only go up from here. But considering how dramatic the switch from P.K. Subban to Duchene was this summer for a roster that's still pretty good, they've got a lot riding on this being the solution to what plagued them last season.
17. Boston Bruins
OK, fine. I lied about the Bruins. It's still all about Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak. Watching them do their thing and surgically pick apart the opposition will never get old. He doesn't often get brought up in the discussion of most lethal shot makers with players like Alex Ovechkin, Steven Stamkos and Patrik Laine, but Pastrnak is right there at this point. His one-timer from the left circle on the power play is astounding, both in terms of the size of the window in which he can receive a pass, and how quickly he turns it around on net. I'm curious to see whether he can continue to get incrementally more productive every season, and what his true ceiling is; right now it appears to be as high as any we've seen.
It's not about the destination, but the journey
I'm lumping these teams together because I'm both unsure of how good they'll actually be, but also quite confident that it won't matter when it comes to how fun they are to watch. They also all spent significant money -- or in the Canadiens' case, tried to -- during the offseason, and present a level of intrigue because of the new faces that are sliding into the mix.
16. Florida Panthers
No team threw more money around than the Panthers did this summer, which isn't to say that they'll be any better for it. New No. 1 goalie Sergei Bobrovsky is certainly a big addition on paper, but he's also coming off a down season and plays a position that is notoriously unpredictable. The other complicating factor is that Florida was an absolute mess defensively last season, and if they don't patch that up, it won't really matter who's playing in net behind them.
Beyond star Aleksander Barkov, the best thing they have going for them is their power play, which finished behind just the Lightning in efficiency last season. With Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Evgenii Dadonov, Mike Hoffman and Keith Yandle, they're able to get five shooters out on the ice at the same time, and watching them fling the puck around the ice is a joy to watch.
The Flyers are grandfathered in to the top half of this list just because of how predictably unpredictable they always are. There's seemingly always something bizarre going on with Philadelphia, and they're the one franchise that's proved capable of both winning and losing 10 consecutive games in a single season.
The money they gave Kevin Hayes was far too rich, but in the present, there's no denying that he felt like an obvious need for them. As a proven second scoring option down the middle, he takes some pressure off Nolan Patrick and Scott Laughton, and gives the Flyers a formidably balanced attack. It doesn't hurt that Sean Couturier and Jakub Voracek are personal favorites because of how well rounded they are as players, regardless of where the action is on the ice.
The Canadiens were stunningly fun to watch last season. They're super undersized as a group up front, but they more than make up for it by skating fast, playing hard, and being incredibly annoying to play against. You could win a lot of bar bets by knowing that they were the fifth-most prolific offensive team at 5-on-5 last year.
The only thing that held them back from really unloading on teams was their horrendous power play, which finished 30th last season, ahead of just the Predators. They're far too reliant on Shea Weber shots from the point, and if they really are hellbent on making his cannon a featured part of the plan, I'd like to at least see them put him in Ovechkin's office on the left circle to get him in a more dangerous shooting position.
No team found itself in the middle of fun, high-scoring games last season more frequently than the Blackhawks did. The 8-7 game against the Senators and the 7-6 game against the Leafs were two of the most memorable regular-season games. They finished with the eighth-most goals scored, which would've been great if they hadn't also finished with the second-most goals allowed. Part of that had to do with their less-than-ideal goaltending situation, which included sending Cam Ward out there 30 times.
But the bigger issue was the defending structure, which could only be described as "nonexistent." There can be a lack of defensive talent, and then there's running around the defensive zone aimlessly without a coherent plan. Their defense was reminiscent of two great circus acts from the recent past: the Avalanche with Patrick Roy behind the bench and the Islanders with Doug Weight as coach. The glass-half-full view is that coach Jeremy Colliton will benefit from a full offseason to implement his system, and that the additions of Olli Maatta and Calvin de Haan will do wonders for their ability to break plays up in their own zone.
But even if that's the case, the roster is still flawed and the defense leaves plenty to be desired. Even with better coaching, goaltending, and improved personnel, this is still likely a team that's going to have to score its way out of trouble more often than not -- which makes for entertaining viewing.
12. New Jersey Devils, 11.New York Rangers
These might be the two most interesting teams heading into the season because of how many new shiny toys they have. Having them here is a bit of a hedge against them being more offseason buzz than anything of real substance, but it's also a testament to how good a shape the league is with its talent pool right now. The teams ahead of them are either wildly entertaining, or have been stone cold locks for entertainment value for years, and the fact that the Devils and Rangers are in that conversation speaks to how decidedly each of them crushed their summer moves.
Let's start with the Devils. They're adding a defenseman in P.K. Subban, who was a Norris Trophy finalist two years ago and doubles as the most charismatic personality in the game, a forward in Nikita Gusev,who tore through the KHL and looked every bit the part of the best player outside the NHL in international competition, the first overall pick in Jack Hughes, who profiles as the next great generational talent, and an all-time tough net-front guy in Wayne Simmonds, who needs to prove he can stay healthy and still produce if he wants another meaningful contract.
They're also getting back Taylor Hall, who won the MVP two years ago and enters a highly pivotal contract year of his own. The insertion of Hughes down the middle not only takes pressure off of Nico Hischier not to have to do everything himself, but bumps Travis Zajac and Pavel Zacha down into roles for which they're better suited. Even their supporting players like Jesper Bratt, Miles Wood and Blake Coleman can all skate, which should make this team one to watch. We don't typically think of the New Jersey Devils as a high-octane, fast-paced group, but they want to be one under John Hynes, and they finally have the horses to pull it off.
As for the Rangers, they used every possible avenue for improving the team by signing Artemi Panarin, drafting Kaapo Kakko, trading for Jacob Trouba and Adam Fox, and bringing Vitali Kravtsov over from Russia. Their defense and depth down the middle beyond Mika Zibanejad is still highly suspect, so it's fair to wonder just how much of those trendy moves will translate to immediate results, but there's no question that they'll be incredibly exciting to watch. The league is better when Madison Square Garden is buzzing, which it will be for this new group of players.
The RedZone channel
I've been petitioning for this for years now, but it's high time the NHL got itself an equivalent to the NFL's highly popular RedZone channel. Even though hockey doesn't necessarily lend itself as well to flipping between games in the anticipation of scoring plays as well as football does, there's still a lot of creative stuff to be done to shine a light on the best parts of the product and enhance the viewing experience.
Especially considering how condensed the schedule is with jammed slates on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, it would be handy to filter through the filler and provide fans with a look at the sequences that really move the needle -- like power plays, empty-net situations at the end of a game, three-on-three overtime, and when a superstar is at the top of their game and putting on a show.
If something like this were to exist, the Capitals would be make quite a compelling case to be featured situationally. Their power play is something that I don't ever want to miss, and I'd like to be notified every time they're about to begin one. The geometry of the pieces involved and how they fit together is hockey nirvana. If Ovechkin already has a couple of goals under his belt and is hunting for more by firing missiles every time he streaks down the left wing and enters the offensive zone, I want to be able to immediately put down everything else I'm doing and join that chase in progress. Especially given the historical importance of the goals he's scoring in his age-34 season as he vaults up the all-time leader board and passes names like Luc Robitaille, Teemu Selanne, Mario Lemieux, Steve Yzerman and Mark Messier this season.
The Jets have had the summer from hell. I've admittedly taken the optimistic route here in projecting Winnipeg to have Patrik Laine, Kyle Connor and Dustin Byfuglien in their lineup sooner rather than later. Obviously if those situations don't get resolved cleanly, and they're forced to trek on without them, it would be a big blow not only to their chances of remaining competitive but also how entertaining they could be.
The developments on the blue line have been particularly alarming. In one fell swoop, they've subtracted Dustin Byfuglien (for the time being), Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot from their defense corps, and they haven't really done anything substantial to fill those minutes. Sami Niku needs to quickly develop and show he's capable of eating up a chunk of them, but in the meantime, expect Josh Morrissey to be relied upon to do everything for them until further notice.
With the dynamic duo of Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele leading the way, there's still plenty of talent on this roster despite all of those lingering question marks, but it's fair to be disappointed with how quickly things have spiraled out of control in Winnipeg. For a franchise that looked like a safe pick as the league's next powerhouse, the window on those hopes appears to be closing faster than any of us could've imagined.
The Penguins are pretty self-explanatory here. Sidney Crosby had a vintage throwback campaign in 2018-19 and was more than deserving of being a Hart Trophy finalist because of the impact he had on the Penguins splits with and without him. It's a relief knowing that even as he ages and eventually loses a bit of his fastball physically, he'll still be able to control a game because of his unparalleled ability to shield the puck from defenders and survey the playing field like a quarterback.
Meanwhile, Evgeni Malkin is coming off of a disappointing season by his lofty standards, but is still a prime candidate for the utility of our theoretical RedZone channel. When he has it cooking on a given night, he's as dominant a player as I've seen in my lifetime, and I'd put his A+ game right up against anyone else's.
Considering how meekly they bowed out of the postseason -- which was followed up by a summer where they misdiagnosed their shortcomings and aimed to get tougher by trading for Milan Lucic -- it's fair to be down on the Flames. But assuming they're able to work things out with restricted free agent Matthew Tkachuk in a timely manner, they're going to bring back all of the core pieces of a group that made up the best team in the Western Conference and tied the Sharks for the second-most goals scored.
The Sharks lost some players this summer, which should only be an issue should they experience injuries like they did during the postseason. The depth isn't what it once was, but the top end of the roster is still otherworldly. Having Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns on the same team is almost a cheat code, and their ability to turn it up when they need to by shrinking the ice and having at least one of them out there at nearly all times is a fun wrinkle. We were deprived of that experience in its entirety last season because of how clearly limited Karlsson was physically, so hopefully he's able to play to his full capability coming into 2019-20.
Pavelski is a big loss from an intangibles and leadership perspective, but the combination of more minutes for Kevin Labanc, and Timo Meier taking another step towards becoming a full-blown superstar should be able to cover up for it on the ice.
From a watchability perspective, they have the added benefit of highly suspect goaltending, which leads to them indulging in more high-scoring shootouts than a team this good should be in -- and surely more than Peter DeBoer would like.
The hipster teams
The Hurricanes are the embodiment of everything that's great about the NHL. They play exceedingly fast at all times, and they have fun doing it. They only further built upon what already made them special this summer by adding Jake Gardiner to the league's best top-to-bottom blue line, and inserting speedsters like Erik Haula and Ryan Dzingel up front to help produce more offense. Sebastian Aho was worth every penny of his new contract and then some because at the age of 22, he's already proven that he's firmly in that rare tier of star player who will make any single player he shares the ice with better.
There are two players who can really take this team to the next level immediately if they develop as expected. The first is Martin Necas, who had 52 points in 64 AHL games last season as a teenager. If he can stick and give them a second scoring option down the middle, it allows Rod Brind'amour to use Jordan Staal in his preferred defensive role, and everything else to fall into its natural place. The other one is Andrei Svechnikov, who should be a total beast in his sophomore season. He scored 20 goals and generated a healthy dose of shots as a rookie, and he looked every bit the part of the heralded prospect who went second overall in the draft. Once he grows into his body and learns how to consistently use that freakish combination of size and skill, he's going to be a problem for the rest of the league.
The Avalanche won our hearts last postseason, when they used their speed and youth to skate laps around the top-seeded Flames before pushing the Sharks to the very brink. Nathan MacKinnon is already worth the price of admission all by himself, which means it's scary to think that he could realistically take his game to an even higher level as his hockey brain continues to develop into his mid-20s. The shot and raw power in his skating stride have always been there, but it's no surprise that he's gotten more effective as he's learned to channel those physical tools by turning them on and off as necessary. It sounds counterintuitive, but similar to how James Harden uses the art of deceleration to keep defenders off balance, MacKinnon's ability to change speeds and stop on a dime in transition has opened so many more passing lanes for him, compared to when he used to simply bull rush the net every single time.
The special thing about Colorado's current situation is how well it has managed its assets over the past couple of years, enabling the team to keep adding talent and surrounding MacKinnon with the right kind of complementary talent. The Avs went out and added Nazem Kadri, Andre Burakovsky, Joonas Donskoi and Valeri Nichushkin to the mix this summer, which should do wonders for their secondary scoring and help take some of the pressure off the top line of MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen (pending a new deal) and Gabriel Landeskog.
It's wild to think that Cale Makar doesn't have a single regular-season game to his name yet given how good he looked in the postseason after his NCAA campaign finished in the spring. I can't wait to watch him and Sam Girard continue to probe around in the offensive zone and help redefine how teams use their defensemen in set formations when they have possession of the puck.
It feels like forever ago now after a historically terrible call and collapse that followed, but it's worth remembering that the Golden Knights were one of the league's very best teams from the moment they acquired Mark Stone at the deadline. They were especially dominant at even strength, where they were tops by nearly every metric:
It's a shame that they couldn't find a way to jam Nikita Gusev into the lineup, but even without him, they have two absolutely lethal top lines and a lineup full of players that can keep up with their preferred frenetic style of play. Throw in the rambunctious home crowd and all the theatrics that still somehow haven't grown old, and it's going to be really fun to watch this team play for a full Stone-enhanced season.
The cream of the crop
We spend so much time arguing about all of the other things when it comes to the Leafs, whether it's Mike Babcock's deployment of players or Mitch Marner's dad or whether their defensemen are good enough, that it's almost easy to forget how much raw talent they boast up front. With the emergence of Andreas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen last season, they have two top scoring units, either of which any team would be so lucky to call its top line.
The combination of Marner passing to John Tavares quickly and unsurprisingly turned into the league's most effective one-two scoring punch last season, but it's conceivable that they may not even be the team's most dangerous duo this season if everything falls into place. Despite all the consternation about William Nylander's play after his holdout ended, he was perfectly fine and should feast offensively once the percentages inevitably regress back into his favor. Auston Matthews has been the league's best goal scorer on a per-minute basis since entering the league, and if he can stay healthy and be used to his full potential, he could realistically be the best candidate to wrestle the goal-scoring crown away from Alex Ovechkin one day.
It'll be interesting to see how the defensive minutes shake out and whether the Leafs could hit an ever higher gear offensively if their transition game improves. For as deadly as they've been, they've been prone to low-percentage, long-bomb passes when breaking out of their zone, without the right personnel to execute that game plan. With the additions of Jake Muzzin and Tyson Barrie, and the potential development of young defenders like Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren, they should be much better at getting the puck effectively to their best forwards. Look out, if that's the case. Even if it's not, as a viewer I'd gladly settle for the fireworks we saw last season.
The case here speaks for itself. Last season the Lightning led the league in scoring at both 5-on-5 and on the power play. The offensive arsenal they can throw at opponents is relentless and devastating. Their best player just put up 128 points -- a remarkable feat in this era -- and they had two other players exceed 40 goals. Even their defensemen have trademark offensive moves that are out of this world. Victor Hedman is second to none when it comes to joining the rush in transition as a late trailer, and Mikhail Sergachev has a crossover move that can break ankles.
They have explosive young players like Anthony Cirelli and Mathieu Joseph that would be big names on nearly any other team but are buried on this depth chart. Even their goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy is remarkably entertaining to watch, seemingly going out of his way to make outlandish highlight-reel saves on occasion simply because he's bored and he can.
The only potential concern heading into the regular season would be that they'll make a concerted effort to dial it back in an attempt to save themselves for the playoffs, thanks to getting swept out of the first round this past spring. But actually dialing it back too far seems unlikely, given how competitive the Atlantic Division is and how important it is to avoid playing either the Bruins or the Leafs in the first round. But even if they don't fully press the pedal to the metal, they've afforded themselves enough wiggle room to come back down to earth and still be deserving of the top spot on this list.
Kakko, Makar highlight potential breakout stars
Emily Kaplan picks Rangers rookie Kaapo Kakko as a breakout star this season, while Greg Wyshynski likes Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar.