The Biggest X-Factor for Every 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Contender

Allan Mitchell@@Lowetide_Featured ColumnistMarch 24, 2016

The Biggest X-Factor for Every 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Contender

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    NHL teams are about to enter the playoffs and begin the long grind toward the Stanley Cup. Each team will rely heavily on its top players, who usually play an up-the-middle position—goal, defense, center—although the scorers often snipe from the wing.

    Along with each team's impact performers—usually four or five men per club—there are outliers, or X-factors, who could come into play. It could be a backup player, someone with an injury worry, or a player returning from injury or a slump from last season's playoffs—such as Steven Stamkos of the Tampa Bay Lightning. Each of these could play a large role in identifying the eventual Stanley Cup winner.

    Here are the X-factors for every 2016 Stanley Cup contender, as well as some key indicators we can look for this spring.

    Note: Players chosen for this article are deemed to be those who could have the largest possible impact on the playoffs. This could take place either by recovering from previous issues—as was the case with Stamkos last spring—or by taking on an important job and running with the opportunity, which could happen in the Anaheim Ducks crease.

Anaheim Ducks: Young Goalies Need to Lead the Way

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    Chris Carlson/Associated Press

    The X-Factor: The Anaheim Ducks are one of the best teams in the NHL and have a real chance to win the Stanley Cup. One hurdle they will have to overcome? If they win it all, the Ducks will do it in front of a young goalie—either John Gibson or Frederik Andersen. 

    What Can He Bring? Gibson, 22, is a young goalie with a bright future and a 17-11-2 record this season. Andersen is 26 and more experienced, and his numbers are slightly better.

    What Questions Surround Them? Gibson has been uneven from month to month during the year, and a playoff team needs consistency. Andersen has been more reliable since the end of December, and that may give him the edge. The lack of experience from the goalies, especially Gibson, should be a concern, but their performances have been strong. That Anaheim has two quality options is a positive.

Boston Bruins: Brad Marchand, Sniper

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    Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

    The X-Factor: The Boston Bruins said goodbye to a lot of offense last summer, including winger Milan Lucic. Among the players who have picked up the slack, no one has had more impact than Brad Marchand. The gritty forward has more than 30 goals in easily his career-best season. 

    What Can He Bring? Marchand is a famous player, so his list of strengths is well-known. He is a world-class agitator, a rugged two-way winger and—this season—one of the top scorers in the game.

    What Questions Surround Him? There is always some degree of doubt surrounding a mid-career scoring spike, but in Marchand's case, it appears he is shooting more. His shooting percentage this year nearly matches his career number, which suggests this is less about luck and more about deployment and strategy. It is also worth mentioning that Marchand scored 11 goals in the 2011 playoffs, as Boston won the Stanley Cup.

Chicago Blackhawks: The Return of Marian Hossa

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    Gerry Broome/Associated Press

    The X-Factor: The Chicago Blackhawks' Marian Hossa has been an impact player for a decade. This year, he has suffered injuries and is well off his established scoring pace.

    What Can He Bring? When Hossa is at the top of his game, he delivers a power forward's impact at both ends of the ice. He is a strong possession player and money as a scorer—when things are right.

    What Questions Surround Him? A year ago, he scored at almost two points per 60 minutes, but this season he's not close to that number. His monthly splits suggest no upward trend, and all of his scoring numbers are down—even though he still plays more than 17 minutes per night.

    If he is still not right physically, then he could improve in the playoffs, but Hossa is 37 and this might represent the erosion we associate with aging. He is a major X-factor this spring for the Blackhawks.

Dallas Stars: Jason Spezza Needs to Play Well If Tyler Seguin Is Not 100 Percent

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    The X-Factor: The Dallas Stars are an offensive juggernaut with Tyler Seguin on the ice, and his recent Achilles injury—as covered by the Dallas Morning NewsMike Heika—means other members of the team will need to play well in his stead. As the article indicates, Seguin might be back for the playoffs, but we don't know if he will be 100 percent. The top option is Jason Spezza, who ranks No. 3 in team scoring. 

    What Can He Bring? Spezza is a quality playmaker and has flourished in a secondary role with the Stars. He will need to play a more prominent one if Seguin doesn't return to previous levels, and Spezza did serve as the No. 1 center during his time with the Ottawa Senators.

    What Questions Surround Him? One of the things Spezza couldn't overcome in Ottawa was an inability to lead the team to the Stanley Cup. There may be a window of opportunity for him now, and he should get plenty of support. 

Florida Panthers: Jiri Hudler Can Score Goals in Bunches

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    Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

    The X-Factor: The Florida Panthers aren't just squeaking into the playoffs—they have a talented, balanced group of veterans who are ready for a long run. The acquisition of Jiri Hudler at the deadline gave them scoring depth and a substantial weapon. 

    What Can He Bring? Hudler can cash goals and has proved it with four in his first 10 games with the Panthers. He was also a major player in the Calgary Flames' success last year, leading the team offensively during the regular season and being among the leaders in the playoffs.

    What Questions Surround Him? He was not having a great campaign at the time of his late-February trade and was cold offensively in November and December. He has 17 points in his last 22 games and has helped Florida since the trade. If Hudler finds some chemistry on a Panthers line, he could be a substantial contributor during the playoffs. 

Los Angeles Kings: Don't Forget About Marian Gaborik

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    Winslow Townson/Associated Press

    The X-Factor: The Los Angeles Kings are rolling toward the playoffs and pushing toward winning the Pacific Division. They are doing all of this without one of their highest-paid players, winger Marian Gaborik. He is injured and working toward getting back into action, as this update via L.A. Kings Insider explains. 

    What Can He Bring? Gaborik played a major scoring role during the Kings' Stanley Cup run in 2014, posting 14 goals in 26 games. He is a proven scorer and can make a difference when he returns.

    What Questions Surround Him? There are two issues in play with regard to Gaborik. First is his recovery—he is not yet skating, so we are probably week to week as opposed to day to day in estimating his return. The second item is age—Gaborik is 34—and he was not having a strong offensive season when he got hurt. That said, he is an excellent marksman and could be a key player for the Kings this spring.

New York Rangers: Can Rick Nash Find the Range?

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    The X-Factor: The New York Rangers are ready for another Stanley Cup run and are in good position for a strong playoff seeding. Their biggest issues are Rick Nash's recovery from a bone bruise and scoring drought, as detailed by Dave Caldwell of the New York Times. 

    What Can He Bring? At 31, Nash should be in the prime of his career, and he is a dangerous offensive threat when he is right. He netted 42 goals a year ago and can score in bunches. When he gets his timing back, Nash should fill the net again.

    What Questions Surround Him? Nash scored seven goals in November but has not been able to find the range for most of the year. The bone bruise Caldwell mentioned offers us some clues, but Nash was having issues before the injury. A strong playoff performance would save his season, and this is a player who may have productive years ahead of him.

Pittsburgh Penguins: Phil Kessel Looking for a Center

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    Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

    The X-Factor: The Pittsburgh Penguins acquired Phil Kessel in July 2015 with the idea of matching him up with one of their elite centers. He found chemistry with Evgeni Malkin before the Russian's upper-body injury, and Kessel will need to find another partner. 

    What Can He Bring? Kessel is a unique player, as he is able to score off the rush on the strength of his powerful shot and quick release. It is rare for a player to score consistently from outside the slot or near the goal mouth, but Kessel is such a talent.

    What Questions Surround Him? His goal total this season—21 so far—is not outstanding. It has taken some time to find a good fit, and with Malkin likely out for the first round, Kessel needs to find a center he can work with in the next few weeks. If he can, Pittsburgh will benefit greatly from the sublime scorer.

San Jose Sharks: James Reimer

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    The X-Factor: The San Jose Sharks are looking like a strong contender again this year after missing the playoffs in 2015. One of their trade-deadline acquisitions—goalie James Reimer—could emerge as a major factor this spring. 

    What Can He Bring? Reimer has more than 200 games of NHL experience, including long periods as the starter while a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Although his playoff experience is limited—seven games—he posted a .923 save percentage and was a big story in those contests.

    What Questions Surround Him? Will he have an opportunity to shine? Despite being a solid addition, Reimer went to San Jose as insurance in case starter Martin Jones struggled or became injured. Reimer's first five games with the Sharks have been strong, so the option is there if required. 

Tampa Bay Lightning: Can Steven Stamkos Post a Monster Playoff Run?

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    Jay LaPrete/Associated Press

    The X-Factor: The Tampa Bay Lightning went all the way to the Stanley Cup Final last season, even while their best player had an average postseason. Steven Stamkos' seven playoff goals trailed four other Lightning players, though he is unlikely to repeat the lack of production. 

    What Can He Bring? Stamkos is one of the exceptional scorers in the game and an impact offensive player of the first order. His 34 goals this season rank No. 1 on the team, and he is among the top goal scorers in the league.

    What Questions Surround Him? He is an unrestricted free agent this summer, and this could be his final year as a member of the Lightning. He is also entering the playoffs as a player with something to prove based on last year's disappointing playoff performance. A player of Stamkos' calibre might use these things as motivation, and if he gets hot, Tampa Bay could ride those goals to the Stanley Cup.

St. Louis Blues: Brian Elliott Is the Key

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    The X-Factor: The St. Louis Blues badly need a strong playoff performance from their goalies. Brian Elliott returned from a lower body injury recently and shut out the Vancouver Canucks.

    What Can He Bring? Elliott leads the NHL in save percentage among goalies who have played in 25 or more games. If he can deliver that kind of number (.933) in the playoffs, St. Louis will go a long way in the postseason.

    What Questions Surround Him? He has played in only 19 playoff games, so his track record does not offer a strong sample size. St. Louis has endured so much disappointment in previous playoffs this decade that perhaps Elliott can turn its fortunes around this spring.

Washington Capitals: Can Braden Holtby Spark a Stanley Cup Run?

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    Alex Brandon/Associated Press

    The X-Factor: The Washington Capitals are ripping up the NHL this season, arriving at 52 wins and 109 points—far ahead of the pack. Braden Holtby has been in the net for 44 of those wins, and that workload may be a concern. 

    What Can He Bring? When on his game, Holtby is one of the best goalies in the NHL. Through the end of December, he was 24-4-1 and had a save percentage over .934. That is the kind of performance that gets a goalie into the Hart Trophy conversation.

    What Questions Surround Him? The period beginning in January has been less impressive, although the wins continue to come. In those months, Holtby has not delivered a save percentage beyond .911, although the club's record when he plays—29-20-5—has been good. If the playoffs arrive and we see the first-half Holtby, the Washington Capitals are a strong candidate to win the Stanley Cup.

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