The 19 people who will define the 2018-19 NHL season

The Hockey Night in Canada panel discuss how the clock is ticking on the Toronto Maple Leafs and William Nylander, the Montreal Canadiens looking to add experience and possible coaching moves.

At the centre of every good (and bad and ugly) hockey story, you’ll find people. Here are the 19 newsmakers and game-breakers who are defining the 2018-19 NHL season — ranked in order of importance.

19. James Neal

If Calgary GM Brad Treliving goes out, he’ll go out swinging. Sure, expelled coach Glen Gulutzan (replaced by Bill Peters) was the fall guy for a disastrous ending to 2017-18, but Treliving didn’t stop there. Dougie Hamilton was shipped to Carolina in a blockbuster that saw Peters’ old troops Noah Hanifin and Elias Lindholm come to Alberta. But the spend on UFA Neal (late of Vegas), who’s been to two straight Cup finals, speaks to a Flames identity that needs more heart and dirt and depth scoring. If Neal can be the Neal Treliving believes he can be, Calgary should make the dance. If not, that’s the kind of $28.75-million (mis)investment that costs jobs. Playing in the bottom six, it’s been a less-than-smooth adjustment for Neal and a situation that bears watching.

18. Jim Montgomery

Marking the third Dallas Stars coach in three autumns, the Montgomery hire reinforces the trend of NCAA coaches graduating to the pros and signals impatience in the Lone Star State after back-to-back underwhelming performances by a pricy roster with some marquee names. Portrayed as a players’ coach (he tweets regularly!) with a colourful personality, Montgomery is an excellent communicator who will let his horses run, but he needs to develop the Stars into more than a one-line threat.

17. Rasmus Dahlin

Buffalo is a knowledgeable hockey town with a pretty arena and a devoted fan base that deserves nice things, not a seven-season playoff drought and rebuilds on top of rebuilds. Led by captain Jack Eichel and 2018 play-now No. 1-overall draft pick Dahlin, Jason Boterill’s Sabres offer fresh legs and legitimate hope. But the locals are getting restless, as the Sabres were booed off the ice getting shut out 4-zip by Boston at their 2018-19 home opener. The standings climb has begun in impression fashion. With a Calder candidate at the back, they must hold ground.

16. Nate Schmidt

The rare NHLer suspended 20 games for testing positive for a performance-enhancing substance in his system, to which the player’s own expert claims was the “the equivalent of a pinch of salt in an Olympic-sized swimming pool,” Schmidt has suddenly gone from charismatic Stanley Cup finalist defender to public example — and the typically chatty player has fallen silent since. His vehement appeal of a ban that hurt the Vegas blueline for a quarter season was supported by the Golden Knights but overruled. Don’t be surprised if the Schmidt case leads to a reevaluation of the NHL/NHLPA drug program. Or if his return can spark the bad-luck Knights back into the playoff hunt in a weak Pacific.

15. Donald Fehr

The NHLPA head honcho, the one who didn’t get an Olympic participation agreement in writing, is polling his constituents as he gears up for the next labour battle, and these things never resolve easy. “It’s no secret the players made enormous concessions to the owners in the last two negotiations,” Fehr recently told The Canadian Press. “There’s a general sense that it would be appropriate for the scales to move back in the other direction a bit.” In the meantime, the PA has picked smaller battles with the league office, appealing long suspensions to Tom Wilson (headshot), Nate Schmidt (banned substance), and—ugliest of all—Austin Watson (domestic violence). Fehr also says a call on the potential 2020 World Cup must be made mid-winter.

14. Ilya Kovalchuk

An Olympic gold medal and a KHL championship secured, the 35-year-old Russian sniper returns to North American ice after a five-year sabbatical. By gambling that Kovy’s still got it — and 14 points through his first 20 games suggests he does — the cap-tight L.A. Kings doubled-down that old and good can beat young and good. But slow feet and sore goalies has seen a modern mini dynasty tumble swiftly to the NHL basement, costing coach John Stevens his job.

13. George Parros

If a 20-game, $1,260,162.60 suspension (reduced via two layers of appeal) of the reigning champs’ top-line winger for a dangerous body-check in pre-season doesn’t send a message to the rest of the league, surely it will force repeat offender Tom Wilson to think twice before he catches someone not looking. As head of the NHL’s oft-criticized department of player safety, Parros is tasked with doling out punishment in an evolving game that’s never been speedier and never been less tolerant of head injuries. Remember, Parros’s tough early-season rulings were made under the shadow of the concussion lawsuit against the NHL by former players (see: the hotly debated Mike Matheson on Elias Pettersson throwdown).

12. Tom Dundon

Whalers throwbacks, choreographed victory celebrations, a new captain, a new GM, a new coach, a new goal song, 100 per cent less Jeff Skinner, 100 per cent more Dougie Hamilton… Carolina’s Tom Dundon, cut from the Mark Cuban ownership cloth, has wasted no time remoulding the Hurricanes. The club’s still-anemic offence, however, suggests its first playoff berth in a decade might not follow. This is a problem.

11. Sidney Crosby

Doubt the decline of Sidney Crosby at your own peril. True, Connor McDavid has seemingly swiped the mantle of Best Player on the Planet Right Now — as evidenced by back-to-back Art Ross and Ted Lindsay wins — and twentysomething MVP contenders like Auston Matthews, Taylor Hall and Cole Harbour Tim Hortons pal Nathan MacKinnon are leading a dynamic youth movement. But no one wins better than 87, and you’d have to imagine Crosby’s desire to reach the mountaintop once more has only intensified after seeing his NBC rivals commit debauchery with his precious silver mug. “Age is just a number,” the 31-year-old says. He’s not going quietly, despite the injury and the Penguins’ sluggish start.

10. Alex Ovechkin

Everyone’s favourite party invite, Alex Ovechkin, made a promise at the outset of training camp in 2017-18: “We’re not going to be suck.” Winning the Capitals’ first championship and the Conn Smythe and the Rocket Richard in a tour de force performance means the Great 8 made good on his word to not suck (unless you count the Stanley Cup keg stands). This year’s motto? “Not suck back-to-back.” Please, Ovie, don’t hurt ’em.

9. Pekka Rinne

A weird spring for one of the world’s best goalies: Rinne, often a finalist, hoisted his first Vezina mere weeks after blowing a Game 7 to Winnipeg at home. His save percentage fell from .927 in the regular season to .904 in the playoffs and, after a pair of bad goals in a do-or-die game, became history’s quickest victim of a Game 7 pull (10:47). “I feel very much responsible for our season ending,” Rinne owned that sour moment. “The biggest moment of the season, it’s a terrible feeling. You let your teammates down.” Rinne entered this contract year with another contending roster, then re-upped quicker than expected. Nashville must discover if his cheaper, younger backup, Juuse Saros, is the real deal. Participation banners won’t cut it.

8. Gritty

It doesn’t matter that Gritty is the type of guy to ignore “shower before use” signs. We can overlook the fact that Gritty once used his T-shirt cannon to shot-gun a sixer of Faxe Extra Strong and then hugged a man to death at a children’s birthday party. We’ll give the big guy a pass for that time he loaded up rocks into his snowballs before he threw them at Santa, or his insistence on sliding into Miss Piggy’s DMs. Gritty—the nightmarish lovechild of The Muppets’ Animal and Joe Thornton’s discarded beard trimmings; the cousin Phillie Phanatic keeps forgetting to invite to Thanksgiving; the reason we once watched Good Morning America — is the unsettling, unhinged hero Philadelphia (and hockey) needs. Catch him on Saturday Night Live or Time magazine.

7. Eugene Melnyk

The sponge of much vitriol from the same fans he’s trying to convince to carpool to Kanata, the Ottawa Senators owner-turned-hashtag has already made waves this fall by chopping salary through trades (Mike Hoffman, Erik Karlsson), waiving the affable Zack Smith, and simultaneously plotting a rebuild and a Cup win in a bizarre team video with Mark Borowiecki that went viral for all the wrong reasons. There was also Ubergate and tension with the Ottawa Citizen. Short term: What happens with impending UFAs Mark Stone and Matt Duchene? Are Brady Tkachuk and Thomas Chabot enough to keep attendance afloat? Long term: Can Melnyk still move his beloved hockey team downtown? Or will he throw up his hands and sell?

6. Jack Hughes

The skillsy slam-dunk No. 1 overall pick in 2019 is on track to break Auston Matthews’ U.S. National Team Development Program scoring records and should incentivize any team not destined for the playoffs to tank hard and increase their lottery percentages (Ottawa Senators notwithstanding). “He’s so good that he’s probably just waiting to get to the draft,” says Connor McDavid, one franchise centre evaluating another. “Such a good skater. He’s very agile. He just looks smooth with the puck. He’s obviously going to be a very good player.”

5. Gary Bettman

As he approaches 26 years running the league with another potential CBA tussle on the horizon, the Hall of Fame-inducted commissioner’s big win in Vegas has seemingly everyone on board with the Oak View Group’s efforts to add a 32nd franchise in Seattle, a move that would satisfy owners’ accountants and give us another expansion draft to speculate about. Issues of concussion prevention, fighting, and growing the game globally will remain hot topics, as will the exhausting mission to make the Arizona Coyotes financially viable. Houston is lurking in the weeds.

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

4. Jarmo Kekalainen

The Columbus Blue Jackets shot-caller was recently awarded a contract extension — something that doesn’t appear to be in the cards for either of the franchise’s prized UFAs-in-waiting. Sergei Bobrovsky is a world-class goaltender who, for long stretches, plays like the world’s best. Artemi Panarin is the guy who stole Connor McDavid’s Rookie of the Year trophy. He drips skill. So, Mr. Kekalainen, do you push all-in and keep your stars for another shot to make playoff noise? Or do you sell to the highest bidder, load up on futures, and risk another William Karlsson scenario, where you watch as a one of your former players competes deep into June?

3. Connor McDavid

Your favourite player’s favourite player somehow got faster and more dangerous over the summer. McDavid is growing out his flow and, after picking Steven Stamkos’s brain, is aiming to shoot more. Apparently 41 goals and 108 points aren’t enough to win you the Hart or drag a frustrating Oilers squad into the playoffs. But the Oilers’ soft start has already necessitated a coaching change, and more jobs are in danger. “There’s just got to be a point in time where you get sick of losing, and you just don’t anymore,” McDavid declared. Goalies, you won’t like him when he’s angry.

Senior Writer Ryan Dixon and NHL Editor Rory Boylen always give it 110%, but never rely on clichés when it comes to podcasting. Instead, they use a mix of facts, fun and a varied group of hockey voices to cover Canada’s most beloved game.

2. Erik Karlsson

Karlsson’s move to California, where he’s combined forces with another Norris winner in Brent Burns, does not bring an end to a saga that has seen yet another star player leave Ottawa under dubious circumstances. Positioned to rake Drew Doughty dollars ($11 million per annum) if/when he hits the open market next summer as the league’s most coveted unrestricted free agent, Karlsson must prove that 2017-18’s bad-ankle-hindered step back was an aberration. And the Sharks — able to sign the right-shot defenceman for as many as eight years once the ’19 trade deadline passes — must convince the player that he looks good in teal. The sailing (so far) has been less than smooth, but there’s time to find a groove.

1. Kyle Dubas

In truth, we also considered putting Mike Babcock, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander (still unsigned), Jake Gardiner, and John Tavares on this list. But because a Top 19 ranking comprised of 37 per cent Maple Leafs might not sit so well with the non-Torontonian readership, we only list their boss. All Dubas, the 32-year-old rookie GM of hockey’s most scrutinized franchise, must do is fit four elite forwards into a salary cap, work with a strong-minded coach under his own pressure to win a playoff series (or four) already, and make the right call on whether to trade, sign or let a 50-point defenceman walk. This ain’t the Marlies. Welcome to the process.

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