We’re counting down the days until the start of the NHL season, so it's time to examine who will make the biggest impact on the upcoming year.
In a similar manner to the Hockey Hall of Fame’s criteria, we’ve included players, coaches, executives and journalists that will have a profound role in creating some of the biggest moments of the new campaign.
This isn’t necessarily a list of the best players in the league, rather these players may shape it for off-the-ice reasons, contractual reasons, or a certain narrative attached to them that will influence how the 2022-23 season is remembered for years to come.
David Pastrnak, Boston Bruins
Pastrnak is undeniably one of the NHL’s premier goal scorers and he’s going to get the bag soon. The 26-year-old Bruins star is slated to become the most sought-after free agent next summer and he’s the type of player you pay top-of-the-market dollars for if the Bruins cannot reach a new deal this year. He’s the bridge between the Bruins’ storied past and their current ambitions to win their first Stanley Cup since 2011.
Speaking of getting the bag, Nathan MacKinnon is the NHL’s new standard to beat. MacKinnon signed an eight-year, $100-million contract on Sept. 20 and the $12.6 million average annual value is the highest in league history. It’s a well-deserved distinction for MacKinnon, who helped the Avalanche win the Stanley Cup last season and appear poised to repeat this year. Now that MacKinnon has secured generational wealth, will he be freed to reach another echelon during the title defense?
This league is no country for old men. Evgeni Malkin felt insulted by the Penguins, believing the only NHL team he’s ever played for had forgotten about him entirely. Message received. Malkin signed a four-year, $24-million contract with the Penguins to almost certainly ensure he’ll remain with the franchise for the duration of his career. Averaging better than a point per game last season, Malkin still has plenty in the tank and will be internally motivated by the team’s initial slight towards him. Will a pissed off Malkin turn back the clock and help the Penguins win their fourth title of his career?
It’s sometimes hard to believe Jakob Chychrun is only 24, considering he broke into the league as a teenager and has appeared destined for the NHL since towering over opponents as a minor hockey phenom. Maybe it’s because of Arizona’s paltry market size but Chychrun is still wildly underrated and there’s no wonder why he’s conjuring up trade interest from the Maple Leafs, Oilers and Senators among others. Top-flight defensemen like Chychrun rarely become available, and teams ought to be salivating over the prospect of landing him, perhaps at a relative discount.
Patrick Kane was disappointed when the Blackhawks sent Alex DeBrincat to the Senators this summer, and we can definitely see why. DeBrincat is durable, reliable and is coming off the second 41-goal campaign of his career. The 24-year-old is now tasked with steering the Senators back to respectability after the team underwent an aggressive offseason to bolster its offensive corps. Ottawa may not be good just yet, but it will be arguably the most fun team to watch in the NHL and DeBrincat is looking to prove he can provide more than just an offensive fireworks show.
Matt Dumba, Minnesota Wild
Dumba is in the final season of his existing contract and though he wants to remain with the Wild, the franchise is cap-strapped and the 28-year-old could be on the move in order for the team to extract some return on value. Minnesota is a sneaky contender in the West and it will be reluctant to move Dumba if it can seriously compete for a Cup, otherwise the right-handed defenseman vaults to the top of the most intriguing trade candidates list. Dumba is also a vocal member of the Hockey Diversity Alliance and is doing outstanding work to combat racism and intolerance within the sport.
Owen Power, Buffalo Sabres
No one man should have all that power, as the 19-year-old is tasked with making the Sabres relevant again. All eyes are on the Bills, but Buffalo is itching for the Sabres to be competitive again and Power is the leading candidate to win the Calder Trophy. During the first iteration of the 2022 World Juniors, Power was going to run away with tournament MVP honours prior to its postponement. Power was afforded high-volume NHL minutes toward the end of last season and did more than merely hold his own. This season, Power could be the first teenage defenseman to galvanize the Sabres immediately since Phil Housley in the early 1980s.
Jack Eichel, Vegas Golden Knights
We just spoke about Buffalo, so I suppose it’s worth mentioning the one player who is persona non grata in Western New York. To recap: Eichel and the Sabres’ doctors didn’t see eye-to-eye over a spinal disc procedure, he was stripped of the captaincy and after a protracted holdout, was traded to the Golden Knights. The 25-year-old is finally healthy and is now expected to propel Vegas back to Western Conference contention after the club missed the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. Eichel is one of the fastest players in the NHL, with a one-of-one gait and explosive release. There are no more excuses; it’s showtime.
Jack Hughes, New Jersey Devils
Hughes has been billed as a potential NHL superstar since he was 13 years old and he was living up to those projections during his third season in the league, going on absolute scoring tear with 42 points in 34 games since the 2022 calendar year started. The 21-year-old suffered an MCL sprain after colliding with Islanders forward Oliver Wahlstrom, which ruled him out for the final 13 games of the season. Will Hughes prove to be one of the NHL’s most prolific scorers or will his breakout have to wait another year while working his way back from the ill effects of the knee injury? It will dictate the entire direction of the franchise.
Alexander Ovechkin, Washington Capitals
Ovechkin is on a quest to break Wayne Gretzky’s career goals mark and it won’t happen this season. Washington’s sharpshooter is currently sitting at 780 goals and barring injury or unforeseen decline, he will pass Gordie Howe for second on the all-time list this season. He’s always going to be one of the NHL’s most influential players, but every goal comes with a sense of appreciation for his longevity in pursuit of a record that was previously thought to be unbreakable.
Jonathan Huberdeau, Calgary Flames
Huberdeau is now the face of the Flames’ retooling efforts and he’ll be afforded no time to get acclimated to his new settings. Calgary’s new superstar led the league with 85 assists and finished second in league scoring with 115 points during his final year with the Florida Panthers. It’s evident Flames management thought they needed a shake-up of their top-six in order to topple the Avalanche in the West and for better or for worse, Huberdeau bears the most responsibility with this daunting new challenge.
Matt Murray, Toronto Maple Leafs
Toronto has the roster of a title contender, at least on paper. Stop laughing, I know they have to win a round first! The glaring flaw lies in net, where the tandem of Murray and Ilya Samsonov will begin the year as the goalkeeping duo for the Maple Leafs, who are searching for answers amid their quest to finally go on a deep playoff run. Murray has won two Stanley Cups before, but he was barely an NHL-caliber goalie last year, while Samsonov struggled badly with the Capitals. If the Leafs fail again this year, chances are it’ll be because of the goaltending and Murray unfortunately will be subject to the round-the-clock punditry the Hockey Capital of the World tends to produce.
Igor Shesterkin, New York Rangers
Shesterkin was the best goaltender in the NHL last season and was the primary reason why the young Rangers went on a run to the Eastern Conference Final. He’s quickly emerged as a fan favourite, drawing blistering IGOR chants during the playoffs. Featuring for a New York team that had underwhelming possession and shot-creation metrics, the Rangers’ bid to win their first Stanley Cup since 1994 largely relies upon whether Shesterkin is the real deal, or a one-year wonder.
Trevor Zegras, Anaheim Ducks
Zegras is an electrifying talent and is perhaps a microcosm of where the game is going. Anaheim’s emerging star forward pulls off The Michigan with relative ease and it’s clear he puts an emphasis on playing a thrilling game. Zegras registered 61 points in 75 games last season and is due to explode, provided he’s not injured badly from a preseason hit that forced him to undergo further testing. Anaheim is still years away from contention, but Zegras is the driving force behind a bright future in sunny California.
Coaches and executives
Kyle Dubas, general manager, Toronto Maple Leafs
The clock is ticking and if the Maple Leafs once again flop out of the first round of the playoffs, Dubas will almost certainly be out of a job. Billed as an analytics-driven wunderkind who could steer the Maple Leafs into a new era of prosperity, the rest of the league has caught up to Dubas’s strengths, while a large faction of the fan base questions his ability to negotiate market-value contracts. This iteration of the Maple Leafs is entirely built in Dubas’s visage, and if the team can’t get out of the first round, it will be a direct reflection of his vision. If the Maple Leafs prosper, however, Dubas will finally live up to The Chosen One hype. No pressure.
Joe Sakic, president of hockey operations, Colorado Avalanche
Some people truly have it all. Sakic engineered Colorado’s Stanley Cup victory and was promptly promoted to president of hockey operations this summer. A shrewd talent evaluator with an uncanny ability to acquire players who have fallen out of favour with their previous clubs, the Avalanche are the NHL’s best team and are poised to sit atop the league for the foreseeable future. Is this just the start of the dynasty? Time will tell, but Sakic is the NHL’s King Midas and if he comes calling with a potential trade offer, it should give rival teams some pause.
Kent Hughes, general manager, Montreal Canadiens
Hughes received his dream job and now he’s the man tasked with helping the Canadiens orchestrate a proper rebuild, cleaning up the debris left behind from the franchise’s fallout from Cup finalist to laughingstock. The former agent selected Juraj Slafkovsky with the first overall pick — a move that went against the near-consensus opinion — traded for Kirby Dach and named Nick Suzuki as the franchise’s next captain. Hughes has a lot of cache to exercise, overseeing a team with a young core that is itching to get back to the heights they reached in 2020. It may require some patience and calculation.
Cammi Granato, assistant general manager, Vancouver Canucks
Granato was named Canucks AGM in February and along with Emilie Castonguay, will oversee how the team moves forward with prospect evaluation. Vancouver will likely be among the worst teams in the league, which means Granato’s draft evaluations and ability to make the roster more flexible for the future will certainly be pivotal. It will be long work ahead, but the Canucks have at least committed to the future of their front office.
Alexandra Mandrycky, assistant general manager, Seattle Kraken
Lauded for her work in analytics and data science, Mandrycky was promoted to AGM on Sept. 14. She will oversee Seattle’s amateur scouting group, a coveted position considering the Kraken are in their infancy and can be molded several different ways. One of the game’s most progressive thinkers, the Kraken will take shape in their sophomore year with Mandrycky’s insight attached to every move.
John Tortorella, head coach, Philadelphia Flyers
Pairing one of the league’s most bombastic coaches with arguably the NHL’s worst roster is a recipe for entertainment, at least. Philadelphia will be terrible and everyone appears to know it except for Tortorella. We can put some respect on his name — Torts has won a Stanley Cup after all — but his hard-lined approach to player discipline, along with his questionable sociopolitical takes, amplifies how he’s a relic of the past. Expect the press conferences to be lively as always. We imagine the vocal Flyers fan base and Torts will get into it at some point.
Akim Aliu, chair, Hockey Diversity Alliance
Aliu is the driving force of the Hockey Diversity Alliance as its chairperson and is doing the work to eradicate racism and intolerance from hockey. Aliu was a pivotal voice in the film Black Ice, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, and his Time to Dream Foundation provides NHL-calibre instruction to kids who otherwise wouldn’t be afforded these opportunities. Aliu disavows performative action and is doing it without the NHL’s help as the league failed to co-opt a series of demands levied by the HDA. As one of the leading anti-racism activists in Canada, Aliu is doing the herculean work of helping fix a rotten culture in hockey.
Kim Davis, executive vice president, social impact, growth initiatives and legislative affairs, NHL
Davis is tasked with leading the NHL’s anti-racism and homophobia strategies. Although she was initially lauded for her leadership qualities, Davis and her department are drawing mounting criticism as the league is often unaware of its own diversity policies and has done nothing to eradicate policing from hockey. Although her department should work as a force of good, the NHL is constantly subject to criticism for its mishandling of issues that are important to BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities. We’ll be monitoring Davis and her department this year as the NHL often finds itself behind the times from a sociopolitical standpoint.
Rick Westhead, TSN and Katie Strang, The Athletic
Westhead and Strang are the best investigate journalists in hockey, providing in-depth reporting on the Hockey Canada sexual assault scandal, the Chicago Blackhawks sexual assault scandal, and various other stories regarding the intersection of race and sports. Westhead and Strang’s integrity goes beyond what is expected of most sports journalists, and their work is valuable beyond a mere recognition in this space.
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