For all the talk about the importance of depth to winning championships, the NHL is still all about stars. The teams with the best players win the most games, and everything else is about trying to move the needle just a little bit.
Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl will lead the Oilers to contention, just like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin have with the Penguins. The Maple Leafs will go as far as Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander can take them. For every team that has a reasonable shot at the 2018 Stanley Cup, there is a group of big name players you can point to as the source for that confidence.
Winning it all requires more than star power, from coaching to goaltending to luck, but it’s almost impossible to get into the party without it.
So with the start of the 2017-18 season just around the corner, here’s a look at who we think will be the most valuable player on each NHL team over the next nine months. Some of these choices were definitely more difficult than others.
For years, the Ducks were driven by their star forwards, but now it’s time for the defense to take over the lead. Lindholm may not be one of the biggest names among blue liners given he’s not a big point producer, but few players make a greater all-around impact when they’re on the ice. He’s a force in front of the net and consistently drives possession at even strength. Ryan Getzlaf and Ryan Kesler are among those who should give Lindholm a run for his money.
An easy choice given Ekman-Larsson has been the Coyotes’ best player for years. They added some good veterans this season in Derek Stepan, Niklas Hjalmarsson, and Antti Raanta, but OEL remains the cornerstone until rookies Clayton Keller and Dylan Strome are ready.
Over the past six seasons, Bergeron has won the Selke Trophy, awarded to the league’s top defensive forward, four times. The other two years, he finished second in voting. Even at age 32, the center remains one of the league’s premier two-way players, a possession-driving force who also creates plays for his talented linemates.
The Sabres’ present and future are all about Eichel. The star center will be a restricted free agent next summer, so this season represents a huge opportunity for him to cement his argument for a monster extension. The good news for both him and the team is that Eichel looks positioned to blow up as one of the league’s next big stars. This was an easy choice.
The Flames are one of those teams with a ton of very good players, but no clear cornerstone. At forward, they got Johnny Gaudreau, Matthew Tkachuk, Mikael Backlund, Michael Frolik, and Sean Monahan. On defense, there’s Hamilton and Mark Girodano. It’s a ton of talent, and choosing one of them wasn’t easy. Hamilton was incredible last season, though, and could emerge as one of the league’s elite blue liners in a bigger role.
Much of the focus on the Hurricanes is directed at their impressive defense, and for good reason. But the main thing Carolina needs to get over the top is an elite forward, which Aho could be with the right luck. He was really good in the NHL at age 19, and could be gearing up for a breakout year. If that happens, Aho will be a game-changer for the Canes.
The 2016 NHL MVP is an obvious choice, as good as Duncan Keith, Corey Crawford, Jonathan Toews, and Brandon Saad are. Kane remains one of the elite scorers in all of hockey, and while he’s not much of a two-way player, his offensive contributions are hard to match.
If the Avalanche have another season like 2016-17, it’ll feel like nobody should be team MVP. But assuming Colorado doesn’t crash and burn again, MacKinnon should be much more productive in his fifth NHL season. The No. 1 pick in the 2013 draft still has huge potential, and even last season he was driving possession and generating shots.
Columbus Blue Jackets
The Blue Jackets’ turnaround was one of the league’s best stories last season. It’s not hard to see what the catalyst was. Bobrovsky went from a .908 save percentage in 37 starts in 2015-16 to a league-leading .931 save percentage in 63 starts in 2016-17. That totally transformed Columbus, and now Bobrovsky will try to keep it up.
The Stars have a couple of standout forwards in Seguin and Jamie Benn, so picking the team MVP was more or less a choice between them. John Klingberg will need to rebound from a down year to get back into that conversation. We’ll go with Seguin, who generates shots like crazy, probably won’t shoot 8.6 percent again, and somehow doesn’t turn 26 until Jan. 31.
Detroit Red Wings
The answer to this question is a good reflection of what’s wrong with the Red Wings. Henrik Zetterberg is coming off another great season, but he’ll be 37 soon. Mike Green’s peak ended years ago. Dylan Larkin needs to bounce back from a rough sophomore season. That leaves you with Tatar, Gustav Nyquist, and Anthony Mantha as your best options. Tatar has averaged 25 goals a season over the past three years, so at least he’s reliable.
Well, he’s the reigning NHL MVP. Probably fair to assume he’s going to be the Oilers’ MVP again, too.
Aaron Ekblad could bounce back from a disappointing second season to become one of the league’s elite defensemen soon, but that’s not a sure thing. Barkov, meanwhile, has established himself as one of the league’s top two-way centers over the past couple years.
Los Angeles Kings
The Kings changed their head coach and GM, but it’s mostly the same roster from last season. Unless top center Anze Kopitar can bounce back from a disappointing season, Doughty should have a pretty clear path to being the team’s best player. No skater in the NHL logged more minutes (2,226) last season.
The Wild are built more on depth than sheer star power now that Ryan Suter and Zach Parise are no longer in their prime. Dubnyk is, however, with a .923 save percentage over the past three seasons. That puts him among the league’s best goaltenders, and if he repeats it, Minnesota will be tough to keep out of the playoffs despite a crowded conference.
Max Pacioretty is very good. Shea Weber is very good. Jonathan Drouin and Alex Galchenyuk could be very good. But Carey Price is Carey Price. He’s carried the Canadiens before, and he’ll do it again.
You could go five different ways here and it’d make sense. Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen, and Viktor Arvidsson are stellar forwards. Subban and Roman Josi are elite defensemen. Heck, Ryan Ellis would be in the mix if he was healthy to start the season. The choice is Subban, who does it all from the blue line, but this was a tough choice reflective of a team that just made the Stanley Cup Final.
New Jersey Devils
The Devils are a team largely devoid of good players. Hall is the main exception, and it stinks that he’s going to keep being underrated as a result of being on terrible teams. Hopefully Nico Hischier can blossom quickly and give him the linemate he deserves.
New York Islanders
Tavares has been the easy answer as the Islanders’ team MVP the past few years. That could end after this season with his looming free agency, although a good 2017-18 campaign would go a long way toward getting him locked up. Tavares put up 66 points last season, and now he’s got Jordan Eberle on his wing in a contract year. Bigger numbers could be on the way.
New York Rangers
For a long time, McDonagh had to carry around Dan Girardi as his partner. Now Girardi is in Tampa Bay, and McDonagh will have the chance to show what he can do with better support. Maybe he’ll disappoint, but partnering with Kevin Shattenkirk could lead to some major improvement in his numbers.
The only thing that would stop Karlsson from being the Senators’ team MVP is health. If that proves to be a real issue, it’d be a close call between Mark Stone and Mike Hoffman.
Giroux has fallen off from the conversation around the game’s best forwards, and Philadelphia is experimenting with moving him to the wing this season. A point production trend of 86, 73, 67, and 58 over the past four years is worrisome, so it makes sense to try to figure out what’s gone wrong. Still, Giroux remains the engine behind the Flyers for now.
It’s either Crosby or Evgeni Malkin, and, well, it’s Crosby. Malkin has missed at least 15 games in six of the past eight seasons, and he’s coming off a relative down year driving possession. Crosby remains a beast, and he’s missed just 16 games over the past four seasons combined.
San Jose Sharks
The defending Norris Trophy winner has the inside path here. Patrick Marleau is gone, Joe Thornton is coming off a torn ACL, and as good as Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture are, Burns still outproduced them from the blue line last season.
St. Louis Blues
Tarasenko would be a bigger deal if he played in a bigger market. The winger has scored 116 goals over the past three seasons, which is second in the NHL behind Alex Ovechkin. He’s done it without an elite playmaking center, too, and now will get to see whether he can make a push to 50 goals with Brayden Schenn in the middle.
Tampa Bay Lightning
It’s incredible to think that Tampa Bay has Steven Stamkos, yet this felt like a call between Hedman and Nikita Kucherov. That’s how good those two have become, although we’ll go with Hedman given the Lightning’s lack of defensive depth. They could conceivably handle losing Kucherov for some time if Stamkos is healthy. Losing Hedman would throw the defense into total disarray.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Matthews scored 40 goals last season as a 19-year-old rookie. What’s next for the Leafs’ franchise player? Presumably another 40-goal season, and if things come together, a big playoff run. Considering he finished 11th in Hart Trophy voting last season, you know he’ll get a lot of love if Toronto keeps rising up the standings.
It’s slim pickings for the Canucks, who have a mix of aging stars like the Sedin brothers and non-elite young players like Bo Horvat. Brock Boeser is the wild card for the season, and could end up emerging as a key contributor from Day 1. Daniel Sedin remains a solid player, though, and he didn’t get much puck luck last season. We’ll go with one last hurrah from Sedin, although the wheels could come off at age 37.
Vegas Golden Knights
The Golden Knights’ first big addition, Shipachyov comes over from the KHL, where he was one of the league’s top players. The 30-year-old recorded 26 goals and 76 points in 50 games with SKA St. Petersburg last season, and looks to be Vegas’ top-line center to open the season.
Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom still make the Capitals go, but it’s Holtby who has become the foundation under which this team’s success is built. He’s one of the most reliable, durable goalies in the league with a .923 save percentage in 201 starts over the past three seasons. That kind of performance gives Washington a high baseline, and makes Holtby its most important player.
Patrik Laine will be the Jets player everyone talks about for the next decade, but Scheifele should not be underestimated in the meantime. His steady progression into a superstar over the past few seasons is remarkable, and there’s little to reason it’s simply the result of Laine’s presence. They’ll drive each other to greatness, and rack up a stupid amount of goals in the process.