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There were some teams and players that took massive leaps forward a year ago, from the Los Angeles Kings on a team level to Andrew Mangiapane and J.T. Miller on an individual level. Here we take a look at some teams and players that should be ready to do the same for the 2022-23 NHL season.
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The Detroit Red Wings have missed the playoffs six years in a row and are now entering the fourth year of the Steve Yzerman era as the team’s general manager. It is time for real progress. They have an outstanding young core led by defenseman Moritz Seider and forwards Lucas Raymond, Tyler Bertuzzi, Dylan Larkin, and Jakub Vrana, and they complemented them this offseason with some significant free-agent additions. Andrew Copp, Dominik Kubalik, and David Perron should really help round out what is now a very formidable and deep forward group, but the play of new goalie Ville Husso might make-or-break their progress. The playoffs might be a reach for this season, but they need to get closer and show that real progress is being made.
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The Rangers got by last season thanks to their goaltending and power play. While signing Vincent Trocheck in free agency was a solid addition, they also lost some pretty essential players over the offseason that are going to put a dent in their depth. The best way to make up for that? Their young players taking a big step forward and becoming impact players. That starts with Alexis Lafreniere, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 NHL draft. It is time for him and Kaapo Kakko (the No. 2 overall pick the year before) to play like franchise cornerstones. If they do, the Rangers should be very good. If they do not show progress? It could be a disappointing step backward for the Rangers.
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This is a very similar team to Detroit right now. A rebuilding team that has been down for a few years, has an excellent young core of talent in place (led by Brady Tkachuk, Drake Batherson, and Josh Norris) and had a very busy offseason adding some potential impact players. Alex DeBrincat and Claude Giroux were the significant additions, but a lot will ride on Cam Talbot in goal. They would have to make a huge jump to make the playoffs, and the defense is still a little shaky, but like the Red Wings they at least need to get close and show their fans that they are going in the right direction.
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The Kings are building something extraordinary right now. Their offseason additions a year ago (Phillip Danault and Viktor Arvidsson) produced a playoff spot, they have one of the best young collections of talent in the NHL, and then added to it this offseason with the blockbuster trade for Kevin Fiala from the Minnesota Wild. The big X-factor for the Kings will be Byfield’s development. He is the top prospect in the system and has superstar potential. He is entering year two in the NHL and if he can take a step forward the Kings’ center depth with him, Danault, and Anze Kopitar would be one of the best groups in the entire NHL.
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Caufield dazzled in his first cup of coffee in the NHL during the 2020-21 season, but got off to a miserable start to his sophomore campaign. But like the rest of the Canadiens’ young players, his season started to turn dramatically around after hiring new coach Martin St. Louis. Caufield has a chance to be a top goal scorer in the league and an entire season under St. Louis should be a great fit for him. A lot of the Canadiens’ success (both short-term and long-term) rests with him, Nick Suzuki, and No. 1 overall pick in 2022, Juraj Slafkovsky.
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Even though he and the Dallas Stars only played one series in the playoffs a year ago, Oettinger was one of the unquestioned stars of the postseason. He almost single-handedly dragged the Stars out of the First Round against the Calgary Flames, standing on his head for seven games and giving what was a rather punchless offense a chance to compete against a clearly superior team. He has not played much hockey in the NHL at this point, but when he has played, he has been sensational. He looks like the type of goalie that can make a massive swing in a team’s success. This will be his first full season as the Stars’ starter and it is going to be a big test for him.
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This could be the year we finally see Jack Hughes completely unleashed on the NHL. He has shown steady improvement each of his first three years in the league, but we have yet to actually see him play an entire season (two shortened NHL seasons, injuries have prevented that). He took a huge step forward in 2021-22 and if he continues on that upward trajectory, he could find himself as a top-scorer in the entire league during the 2022-23 season. Like maybe even a top-10 scorer. The Devils are still mired in mediocrity as a team, but Hughes becoming a superstar would be a huge help in their development.
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The Blue Jackets overachieved during the 2021-22 season and added a superstar (Johnny Gaudreau) in free agency. Combined with the re-signing of Patrik Laine to a long-term deal, they have some potentially elite scorers at the top of the lineup and a pretty good collection of young talent led by Cole Sillinger, Zach Werenski, and Adam Boqvist. With better goaltending, this could be an under-the-radar playoff team. If nothing else, Gaudreau and Laine should bring some excitement the team has been lacking in recent years. Give credit where it is due: In a league where general managers are afraid to be bold and make big splashes at the trade deadline and free agency, Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen is never shy about going for it.
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Kotkaniemi is fascinating because the Hurricanes made two pretty significant investments in him. The first was when they utilized the rarely used restricted free agent offer sheet and signed him away from the Carolina Hurricanes, costing them a first-and third-round draft pick. Then they re-signed him to an eight-year, $38.56 million contract extension. It is the type of deal that might look like an overpay and risk right now but might turn out to be a steal in the future. Kotkaniemi has great underlying numbers and is a strong two-way center but has not yet developed into a top-line center offensively. At least not yet. He absolutely has that potential and could be a breakout candidate for the 2022-23 season.
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The Wild’s salary cap situation will be bleak for the next few years because of the buyouts to Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. It already cost them Kevin Fiala and Cam Talbot this offseason and prevented them from going out and making significant additions from outside the organization. That is going to put a premium on developing talent from within. They have some excellent young prospects coming through the pipeline, and Boldy is one of the most exciting right now. He had an outstanding debut this past season (15 goals, 24 points, 39 points in 47 games) as a 20-year-old rookie. Players that are that good, that quickly, and at that age tend to go on to have very successful careers. The Wild need that from him right away.
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The Islanders’ offseason is still a big question because Lou Lamoriello never feels the need to tell anybody who he signed or acquired. The roster itself right now looks mostly unchanged, meaning any improvement is going to have to come from within. The defense is actually looking really good with Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock at the top. But Dobson is the player to really watch here as a potential game-changer. He had a breakout season for the Islanders in 2021-22 and looks like he is well on his way to becoming a bonafide top-pairing NHL defender.
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Even though the playoffs were a disappointing showing for the Florida Panthers, the 2021-22 regular season was a huge step forward for the team. They finished with the league’s best record to win the franchise’s first Presidents Trophy, while they also became the first team in over 25 years to average more than four goals per game over an entire season. The offense is legit and should continue to be this season with the offseason addition (and re-signing) of Matthew Tkachuk. Lundell was also a fascinating development for the Panthers as the rookie showed top-line offense and an advanced defensive game for his age. The 2020 first-round pick (No. 12 overall) has big-time potential and should be a core building block for the team for years.
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
The 2021-22 season saw a couple of Ducks forwards take significant steps forward as Troy Terry had a breakout year and Trevor Zegras became a superstar and one of the league’s must-see talents. This year they need the same to happen for Drysdale on the blue line. He showed a ton of promise this past season and if the Ducks are going to progress in their rebuild (that is not really a rebuild), they are going to need a young defenseman to step forward and lead the blue line. Drysdale is the player with that potential and ability. If he does, the Ducks’ core suddenly looks much, much stronger.
Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports
This is going to have to be a necessity for the Golden Knights to rebound from a bitterly disappointing 2021-22 season that saw them miss the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in franchise history. With Marc-Andre Fleury now playing for the Minnesota Wild and Robin Lehner out for the season, the goalie spot now rests with the second-year Thompson. There is always a chance the Golden Knights could add somebody from outside the organization, but the options are very limited as is the team’s salary cap space. As of now, Thompson is going to have to be the guy. He showed promise a year ago in his limited action, but this is now a team with many question marks and goalie is at the top of the list.
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The Sabres remain in a tough spot as an organization. Their playoff drought is approaching 12 years, they keep needing rebuilds from their previous failed rebuilds, and they did nothing this offseason to improve the actual NHL roster. They need Tage Thompson, Kyle Okposo, and Jeff Skinner to repeat their big performances from a year ago, and they really need their young defenders to take a huge step forward. That includes their No. 1 overall picks, Dahlin and Owen Power. Dahlin is entering his fifth season in the NHL, and while he has shown flashes of the potential and ability that made him a top pick and prized prospect in the draft, he has not performed at a consistently high level yet. The time has come for him to perform at that level if the Sabres are ever going to have a chance of showing real improvement as a team.