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 Western Conference teams. You can find the Eastern Conference X-factors here.
Anaheim Ducks: Trevor Zegras. The Ducks are stuck in this seemingly perpetual mediocrity where they can not give up on the idea of contending even though they do not have the talent to actually contend. They are not only a bad team, they are a mostly boring team that needs a new star to emerge.
Arizona Coyotes: Shayne Gostisbehere. The Coyotes are jumpstarting this rebuild and accumulating as many future assets as they can and got a bunch of draft picks from the Flyers for the cost of taking on Gostisbehere’s remaining contract. Thing is, Gostisbehere is still a pretty good player. He is just not as good as the Flyers hoped he would be. A big year from him could either make him a part of the Coyotes’ rebuild (he is still at an age where he could be part of the future) or make him an attractive trade chip.
Calgary Flames: Noah Hanifan. Mark Giordano is gone and that means more responsibility for the returning defenders. Hanifan has jumpstarted his career in Calgary and is going to be relied on to be one of their top players this season.
Colorado Avalanche: Darcy Kuemper. Philipp Grubauer was an underrated part of the Avalanche roster this past season, and Kuemper has to fill those shoes. Goaltending will be the biggest question mark for this roster.
Edmonton Oilers: Mike Smith. The defense is not good and they are counting on a 39-year-old goalie that has had one good season in three years. They better hope he can repeat it. If he can’t? Bad times ahead.
[Related: Every free agent signing by all 32 NHL teams]
Los Angeles Kings: Quinton Byfield. The best prospect in the league’s best farm system. Byfield becoming a star is a game-changer for the Kings’ rebuild.
Minnesota Wild: Marco Rossi. The Wild have plans to contend but they lack impact center depth. Rossi could get a big role, but he is coming back from a lost season due to COVID-19 complications. What is he capable of this season?
Nashville Predators: Eeli Tolvanen. Not really sure what the Predators’ short-term (or long-term) direction is, but Tolvanen becoming the star they have hoped he could become would dramatically improve both outlooks. They need a game-changing forward, and he is one young player that has the potential for it.
San Jose Sharks: Erik Karlsson. His career should not be falling off of the cliff just yet. He should still have some very good hockey in front of him.
Seattle Kraken: Jared McCann. His shot gives him a chance to score 30 goals every year. But can he put it all together to get there? Probably the most intriguing player they took in the expansion draft given his talent, age, and upside.
St. Louis Blues. Torey Krug. The Blues’ defense took a big step backwards in 2020-21 and Krug did not make the immediate impact probably hoped for. They need more from him given his role and price tag.
Vancouver Canucks: Oliver Ekman-Larsson. The Canucks need to be hoping like hell that the past two years were an aberration on a struggling, rebuilding team and he can regain his previous form. If he can not that is a big contract to be stuck with.
Vegas Golden Knights: Nolan Patrick. If the Golden Knights have a weak spot, it is center depth. This could be a good marriage for both team and player. Patrick gets a fresh start on a Stanley Cup contender, maybe Vegas catches lightning in a bottle with a talented player.
Winnipeg Jets: Pierre-Luc Dubois. The immediate returns on this trade were lousy for everybody. Winnipeg. Columbus. Laine. Dubois. Dubois still has No. 1 center ability, and if he reaches that it makes an already strong Jets team even better.