Every team has a handful of players that could significantly alter the course of their season.
They are the X-factors.
Not necessarily the best player, or even a new player, but somebody that could make-or-break how things go based largely on their own individual performance. Maybe they are taking on a new role, or an increased role, or trying to fill a spot vacated by a departing player. Or maybe it is just somebody that is ready to take a significant leap forward in their development or career.
Let’s talk about the biggest such player for each team, including a couple of potential breakout stars, some goalies (always an X-factor), and some returning players that missed significant portions of the 2020-21 season.
We start here with the Eastern Conference teams. You can find the Western Conference X-factors here.
Boston Bruins: Charlie Coyle. With David Krejci now playing in the Czech Republic the Bruins have a major hole on their second line between Taylor Hall and Craig Smith. Coyle will probably get the first crack at that role. If he can handle it, that would give the Bruins the complete second line they need (and seemingly had with Krejci, Hall, and Smith).
Buffalo Sabres: Rasmus Dahlin. With Jack Eichel‘s future in doubt and Owen Power still at least a year away Dahlin is now the face of the Sabres franchise. And they still do not fully know what they have in him because he has had three different coaches who have tried to use him three different ways.
Carolina Hurricanes: Frederik Andersen. The Hurricanes completely overhauled their goaltending position with two veterans who have been injured in recent years. Big gamble for a Stanley Cup contender. Could be a good one, though. If it works.
Columbus Blue Jackets: Patrik Laine. Are they going to get the potential 40-goal scorer that puts the fear of God into opposing goalies, or the player that struggled and was benched at times after the trade? They need the former. Desperately.
Detroit Red Wings: Moritz Seider. If he is as good as the Red Wings think he can be that would be quite the immediate boost to their rebuild. The perception of this pick has rapidly changed in two years.
[Related: Every free agent signing by all 32 NHL teams]
Florida Panthers: Spencer Knight. The best goalie prospect in hockey and the future of the position in Florida. How much do they really trust Sergei Bobrovsky at this point? The sooner Knight takes over that spot, the better.
Montreal Canadiens: Christian Dvorak. The Jesperi Kotkaniemi offer sheet forced the Canadiens’ hand into making a trade. The funny thing is that Dvorak is probably the better player right now. So it might be an upgrade.
New Jersey Devils: Jack Hughes. Hughes took a massive step forward in his second season, and if he can take a similar step this season the Devils will have a superstar on their hands.
New York Islanders: Oliver Wahlstrom. The Islanders are rock solid from top to bottom, but they could really use another impact forward to make it so all of that pressure does not fall on Mathew Barzal. Wahlstrom is one player that has the potential to be that. He showed flashes of it last year.
New York Rangers: Alexis Lafrenière. Expectations are high in New York and the pressure is on for this entire group. They need Lafreniere to take a Hughes-like step in his second season.
Ottawa Senators: Matt Murray. He counts $6.25 million against the cap for another three seasons. He plays the most important position on the ice. If they want to improve they need more. Way more.
Philadelphia Flyers: Carter Hart. There might not be a single player in the NHL that will play a bigger role in determining the success or failure of a team.
Pittsburgh Penguins: Tristan Jarry. Goaltending is the single biggest reason the Penguins 2020-21 postseason ended in the first round. They are bringing back the same goalies with a thinner roster in front of them. Let’s see how that works out.
Tampa Bay Lightning: Alex Barre-Boulet. The Lightning have a non-stop supply of talented players coming through their system that just have a way of fitting in and producing. With the entire line of Blake Coleman, Yanni Gourde, and Barclay Goodrow moving on they are going to need that internal talent pipeline to keep flowing.
Toronto Maple Leafs: Jack Campbell. He was great last year when he took over the starting job. Was it a fluke? Or something that he can come close to repeating? There is immense pressure on this team this season to do something, and Campbell is going to have to play a big role in that.
Washington Capitals: Anthony Mantha. They paid a steep price for him, but his style fits the Capitals perfectly and he really is an outstanding player. He played better than his box score numbers would indicate after the trade.