NHL: Each Team's X-Factor Heading into Next Season
In the 95 years the NHL has been in existence, many teams that looked great on paper have floundered, while teams that appeared to be weak have flourished due to the failure or success of the respective team’s X-factor.
An X-factor can be defined as the aspect of a team that can either put a team over the top or lead the team into the depths of misery. Each team in the league possesses an X-factor that can mean the difference between winning the Stanley Cup or not even qualifying for the playoffs.
Hiller was viewed by many to be a solid netminder; however, that perception has begun to change. Ever since Hiller experienced vertigo-like symptoms in 2011, he hasn’t seemed comfortable in the net and the numbers show. After not having a losing season in his career, Hiller went 29-30-12 with a 2.57 goals against average and 0.910 save percentage, even though the team that played in front of him seemed pretty talented.
After exiting the playoffs in the first round, compliments of the seventh-seed Washington Capitals, the Bruins must be eager to start the season and reestablish themselves as an elite team in the NHL.
Similar to the Ducks, the Bruins chances of winning the Cup rest in the hands of a goaltender. With Tim Thomas’s decision to take a little vacation away from hockey comes Tuukka Rask’s chance to prove himself as an elite goaltender in this league. Rask has seen limited action as Tim Thomas’s backup over the past few seasons; however, he has demonstrated that he is a capable starting goaltender.
Rask holds a career record of 47 and 35 with a 2.20 goals-against average and a 0.926 save percentage. Backed by solid defense led by Zdeno Chara and a balanced offensive attack, Rask will have the supporting cast needed to win.
If Rask gets hot this season, expect the Bruins to be a favorite to win it all.
With new ownership looking to bring a championship back to Buffalo, the future is looking bright for the Sabres.
After signing Ville Leino during the 2011 offseason to a six-year, 27 million dollar contract, many expected him to be a force to be reckoned with. After all, Leino had 57 points in 94 games and 26 points in 30 playoff games as a member of the Flyers.
As a member of the Sabres, Leino has posted a mere 25 points in 71 games. With Ryan Miller in goal and a respectable offense and defense in place, the Sabres only need a player to step up and become a star. Leino has demonstrated that he is capable of playing like a top-20 winger; however, he must now rise up and prove himself on a nightly basis.
The Flames are in the midst of a very interesting time. They appear as if they should rebuild, yet they do not seem as if they are ready to do so.
The Flames have long relied on Iginla to shoulder the load offensively and on Kiprusoff to hold down the fort in the defensive zone. Free agent acquisition Jay Bouwmeester never panned out; furthermore, poor drafting has caused this team to rely on Iginla and Kiprussoff to put on a show nearly almost every night.
The newest member of the Calgary Flames, Jiri Hudler, will help carry some of the offensive load. In 409 games, Hudler has notched 214 points. He may pay large dividends for the Flames and might make them look smart for not rebuilding immediately.
The Hurricanes made a splash this offseason when they traded for one of the league’s best two-way forwards in Jordan Staal. They then picked up arguably the best forward on the market in Alexander Semin.
The Canes should be fine on offense with the Staals probably playing together on the top line with Semin and Jeff Skinner leading the second line; furthermore, Cam Ward has proven that he can still hold his own.
Joni Pitkanen is the Hurricanes X-factor heading into next season. Pitkanen has quietly had a few great seasons as he has played well in both zones; however, he saw limited action last year after suffering a knee injury.
Last season, the Hurricanes placed 25th in terms of goals allowed. Pitkanen will need to perform well next season and inspire his fellow defensemen into elevating their games to give the Hurricanes a chance at doing some damage in the postseason.
He may have also played a big role in the playoffs had Raffi Torres not delivered a nasty cheap shot in game three of the opening round. Hopefully Hossa recovers completely from the hit and continues to succeed in the NHL.
If he does recover and return to full form, look for the Blackhawks to make a Cup run in 2013.
In his first two NHL seasons, he posted 55 and 67 points, respectively; however, he only notched 28 points in his third season as a pro. Mind you, injuries limited him to only playing 58 games, but he also had his worse points-per-game stat this past season at 0.483 along with the worst +/- rating of his young career at a -11.
If Matt Duchene can get back on track and continue to progress as a forward, the Colorado Avalanche will achieve greater things next season.
Columbus Blue Jackets
After coming over from LA in a trade that sent Jeff Carter to the Kings, Johnson has become a fan favorite due to his excellent two-way play from the defensive position. In 82 games last year, Johnson put up 38 points, yet was still incredibly responsible in his own zone.
With Nash gone, Johnson has become the undisputed best player on the roster, and his play will largely determine how great or poor the Jackets will be.
Their main weakness appears to be at the forward position. The Stars are very weak down the middle, even after trading for Derek Roy. The signings of Ray Whitney and Jaromir Jagr basically forced Brenden Morrow into the Stars' mediocre bottom-six forward grouping.
Morrow must step up next season and give the Stars some scoring from the 3rd line to allow the Stars to prosper this season.
Detroit Red Wings
This offseason has been a mostly disappointing one for the Detroit Red Wings.
Niklas Lidstrom retired, Brad Stuart was sent to San Jose, and their top free agent target in Ryan Suter signed with the Minnesota Wild. Now with a major void in the defensive department and a lack of quality defensemen on the market, the Red Wings will call up upon Niklas Kronwall to lead the defense.
Kronwall can play tenacious defense and has shown throughout the past few years that he possesses some offensive talent; however, he will need to elevate his game next year to give the Wings a shot at winning it all.
If Kronwall plays well, the Wings will play well. If Kronwall does not play well, the Wings will not play well. Simple as that.
The Oilers have been stockpiling talent over the past few years and are building a future championship team. This year’s team is young, but highly talented.
At the forward position they boast Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov, while on defense they have Ryan Whitney and the newly acquired Justin Schultz.
The player who will have the most sway as to whether or not this team improves upon the near last place finish of last year will be Devan Dubnyk.
The Oilers would be wise to give the Regina native most of the games next year as he has shown that he can succeed as a solid goalie in the NHL. He currently holds a 0.910 career save percentage and 2.85 goals-against average, even with the weak defense the Oilers have sent out over the past few seasons.
Dubnyk’s play will largely determine whether or not the Oilers get yet another No. 1 overall pick in the 2013 draft.
The Panthers qualified for the playoffs for the first time in over a decade this past season; however, they were ousted by the Devils in Game 7 of the opening round. All season, the Panthers struggled to find offense, reflected by their 27th rank in goals for per game.
If the Panthers wish to return to the postseason and succeed, they will need someone to step up and provide some consistent scoring.
There’s no better man of the Panthers roster than Stephen Weiss to accomplish that feat.
Weiss has been a Panther for the duration of his 10-year career and has been a solid contributor over the past six seasons; however, he has failed to take his game to the next level. If he can do so, the Panthers might be able to make some noise in the postseason next year.
Los Angeles Kings
The Kings would love to become the first team to repeat as Stanley Cup Champions since the Red Wings accomplished the feat after winning the Cup in 1998. One player who could play a large role in making that happen is Jarret Stoll.
Stoll is one of the best bottom-six forwards in the league. He’s quick, defensively responsible and has a scoring touch as he averages a decent 35.2 points per season. His point total plummeted last year from the 43 points he notched during the 2010-2011 season to the 21 points he posted this past season, the year the Kings won the Cup.
If Stoll plays next season with the same offensive prowess he has played with for the majority of his career, the Kings will have a great shot at repeating.
Suter was a great pickup, but his production will most likely drop since he does not have the luxury of being paired with Shea Weber anymore. The next best defenseman on the Wild’s roster is Tom Gilbert.
Gilbert has displayed flashes of awesomeness in his young career; however, he must play with more care in the defensive zone if the Wild hope to succeed, not only in the defensive end but overall as a team.
This past season the Canadiens failed to make the playoffs for the first time since the 2006-2007 season. With a new coach and a few new faces, the Canadiens hope to return to the playoffs and end their Cup drought.
One player who may pay huge dividends for the Canadiens is Andrei Markov. He was one of the best defensemen in the league before a recent series of injuries prevented him from displaying his dominance. He came back late into this season but never really found his form. After an offseason of conditioning, Markov should be able to play at a level similar to the level he was playing at a few years ago.
If Markov comes back strong, the Canadiens may have one of the best defensemen in the game. If he doesn’t perform well, they may be in the market for another top-four defenseman.
The loss of Ryan Suter obviously makes the Preds less talented defensively; however, his offensive talent must not be overlooked. Suter ranked fifth on the team in points with 46. His great offensive sense and crisp passes led to many Predator goals.
While he may not be replaceable by any current Predators, Kevin Klein has the potential to come close. His play in the regular season was not anything special, but he played great in the postseason. Klein was a major factor in shutting down the Wings, and he played decently against the Coyotes.
This guy has the potential to patch up the hole left by Suter, and for that reason, he will be the Predator's X-factor next season.
New Jersey Devils
Coming off of a devastating loss in the Stanley Cup Finals, the Devils are entering this season with a chip on their shoulder.
If they hope to replicate the success of last season, Adam Henrique will have to further improve upon his performance last season and attempt to fill the shoes of Zach Parise.
Last season, Henrique put up 16 goals and 35 assists in 74 regular season games. However, he proved to be most valuable to the Devils in the postseason, during which he scored five big goals and dished out eight assists in 24 playoff games.
Henrique’s performance will have huge implications on the Devils season next year.
New York Islanders
The Islanders have been rebuilding for what seems like forever. This once-proud franchise will be looking to end the rebuilding phase this season and become a part of the playoff picture.
If they want to take the next big step, Michael Grabner will need to step it up. After notching 52 points in his sophomore year, he only scored 32 points the following season.
The Islanders may not make the playoffs even if the speedy Grabner gets back in his groove, but they will get that much closer to becoming contenders again.
New York Rangers
After acquiring Rick Nash from the miserable Blue Jackets, the Rangers now have one of the most intimidating lineups in the entire league. However, Nash forced the Rangers to give up two talented secondary scorers in Brandon Dubinsky and Artem Anisimov.
This past season, the Kings proved secondary scoring is key to a Cup run. Therefore, someone on the Rangers bottom six will need to step up.
Carl Hagelin will be the Rangers X-factor heading into next season. The young forward is arguably the most talented bottom-six forward on the Rangers roster and will need to inspire the other role players into elevating their games. His performance could mean the difference between losing in the Conference Finals or advancing to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time since 1994.
Next season, the Senators will look to enjoy more postseason success. If they hope to make some noise in the playoffs, Kyle Turris will need to take his game to the next level.
Turris was projected by many to be a great player in this league someday, and the Senators would love if those predictions came true. If Turris can break out, the Senators will enjoy much success next year.
The Flyers thought they had it all figured out heading into next season: a high-powered offense, shutdown defense and stellar goaltending.
Ilya Bryzgalov was thought to be the solution to the Flyers goaltending woes as of late; however, he demonstrated last year that he might not be the star net minder the Flyers thought they signed.
In the regular season, he had a 2.48 goals against average and a 0.909 save percentage. But he floundered in the postseason, during which he earned a 3.46 goals against average and a 0.887 save percentage.
If the Flyers want to win the Cup this upcoming season, Ilya Bryzgalov will need to step it up and give his teammates a shot at winning it all.
The Coyotes had an ugly conclusion to last season and will be looking to improve upon the success they achieved last year.
That may not be so easy to do.
Doan is the Coyotes X-factor heading into next season. If he returns to the desert, the Coyotes will still be a playoff contender. I am not confident that this team will be able to reach the playoffs without him.
The Pens were believed by many to be the favorites heading into the playoffs last season; however, they underachieved yet again.
They have one of the best forward groupings in the league, a solid defense with a healthy Kris Letang and a Stanley Cup winning goaltender.
If Marc-Andre Fleury can get his act together and play like he did during the 2008-2009 season, the Penguins will be hands down Cup favorites next season.
San Jose Sharks
This team is due for a Stanley Cup.
Seemingly every year, they have the makeup of a contender, perform well in the regular season but fall apart come playoff time.
To finally take that next step and become Stanley Cup champions, Antti Niemi will need to perform similar to how he did during the 2009-2010 season as a member of the Blackhawks. He has failed to eclipse the 2.25 goals-against average and 0.912 save percentage he had with Chicago.
It seems like Niemi may have maxed out and will never turn into the elite goaltender the Sharks thought they stole away from Chicago. If he can step his game up, the Sharks will be contenders for the Cup next season.
St. Louis Blues
The Blues were one of the feel-good stories of last season and proved themselves to be a legitimate Cup threat.
Their X-factor heading into next season is T.J. Oshie.
The Blues lack a star forward, and T.J. Oshie has the skill set to be one. The brawny forward has got a wicked shot and has given us glimpses of his nasty dangling skills. Also, he just signed a five-year extension and must be careful not to relax and take a step back.
If he can break out, the Blues will in much better shape come next season.
Tampa Bay Lightning
After reaching the Conference Finals during the 2010-2011 season, the Lightning took a huge step back last season.
They finished in 10th place in the Eastern Conference with 84 points. This was largely the result of the pitiful goaltending tandem they employed last season consisting of Dwayne Roloson and Matthieu Garon.
After acquiring Anders Lindbäck from the Nashville Predators, the Lightning are hoping that their goaltending dilemma is resolved.
If Lindbäck performs well, the Lightning could find themselves making noise in the postseason next year. If he falters, the Lightning may miss the playoffs for the second year in a row.
Toronto Maple Leafs
The Leafs have not qualified for the postseason since the 2003-2004 season and are looking to end that streak come this season.
The Leaf’s X-factor entering this season is James Reimer.
With Jonas Gustavsson signing with the Red Wings, Reimer is currently the only legitimate NHL goalie on the Leafs roster. He appeared to be a solid goaltender after going 20-10-5 and posting a 2.60 goals-against average and 0.921 save percentage during the 2010-2011 season. But he took a step back this past season, going 14-14-4 with a 3.10 goals-against average and 0.900 save percentage.
If Reimer can elevate his game, the Leafs might finally make the playoffs.
Schneider has demonstrated that he can be a great netminder in the NHL as he has a career 2.24 goals-against average and 0.928 save percentage. However, he will now face much added pressure that comes with the new gig.
Schneider must persevere through all the scrutiny and hardships he will face as a starting goaltender if the Canucks hope to achieve their long-time goal of winning another Stanley Cup.
Alexander Ovechkin has failed to be Alexander Ovechkin for the past two years.
Since the Caps embraced a more defensive style, Ovie’s point totals have taken a toll. After putting up more than 90 points in each of his first five seasons, he has not been able to achieve the mark since. Although he is arguably more of a team player than he used to be, I do not feel as if sacrificing much of his offensive talent is worth it.
With Adam Oates as the new head coach, Ovechkin may finally learn how to dominate on both ends of the ice from someone who exemplified just that.
The honeymoon in Winnipeg is over. Being home won’t be enough to make the fans happy this season. They need to show improvement.
The Jets will surely improve upon their record of last year if Bryan Little can go big.
In five NHL seasons, he has only broken the 50 point mark once. Once a highly touted prospect, Little has long been expected to emerge as a great player in this league.
This could be his breakout year, and the Jets will be a much better team if this is indeed the year.