The 20 people who will define the 2019-20 NHL season

New Jersey Devils star Taylor Hall talks about free agency.

At the core of every good (and bad and ugly) hockey story, you’ll find people.

Here are the 20 newsmakers and game-breakers likely to define the 2019-20 NHL season — ranked in order of importance.

20. Bill Guerin
An emergency hire by Wild ownership after late July’s headline-grabbing ouster of former GM Paul Fenton, Guerin — a four-time Cup winner but a rookie in this seat — has been swift to make his mark on a mushy-middle franchise begging for an identity, a rebuild and a visionary. Guerin re-signed Jared Spurgeon to a lucrative deal that should make him a Wild member for life and got young forward Kevin Fiala to commit to a reasonable bridge deal. But where does he take an aging, expensive core from here, knowing full well the Central Division foes surrounding Minnesota are getting younger and faster?

19. Tom Dundon
Super captain Justin Williams has stepped aside for the time being and the Storm Surge went with him, but the Carolina Hurricanes’ moneyball approach and hunger to fill the seats remains. Dundon risked losing GM of the Year finalist Don Waddell by allowing him to interview elsewhere, then gave him a raise. Dundon risked losing his franchise centre, Sebastian Aho, to an offer sheet, then matched it in sync with an hilarious tweet. The feel-good underdog story in Raleigh has a chance to continue with the organization’s willingness to shake up the pieces in order to scoop market bargains like Ryan Dzingel, Erik Haula and Jake Gardiner.

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18. Carey Price
Stop us if you’ve heard this one before. The most handsomely paid goaltender in hockey needs some run support — stat. The 32-year-old Price and 34-year-old Shea Weber form the backbone of the sport’s most storied club. Even if Jonathan Drouin takes a giant step (we’re waiting) and Max Domi builds off his breakout, GM Marc Bergevin will be looked upon to use his twin weapons of excess cap space and excess 2020 draft picks (eight through the first four rounds) to boost his roster’s scoring punch, for Price’s sake.

17. Joe Sakic
Of all the general managers overseeing legitimate teams on the upswing, none is blessed with the cap space of Sakic, who is enjoying a nice run of shrewd decisions that has helped form the budget-conscious Avalanche into one of the more exciting and speedy outfits in the West. Even after Burnaby Joe locked up Mikko Rantanen to a long-term deal and a $9.25 million cap hit, he still has the flexibility to make waves mid-season and elevate Colorado from fun wild-card crew to well-balanced contender.

16. Jordan Binnington
Flash in the pan? Or just the beginning of a stellar career and, finally, some much-needed stability in the St. Louis crease? No one can question Binnington’s nerves, confidence or his results. Only his sample size is up for debate, after submitting the greatest half-season of goaltending a millennial has laid eyes on. Repeating is nearly impossible in the cap era, but with the Blues actually strengthening a strength (welcome, Justin Faulk!), Binnington is set up well to go full Matt Murray. “I like the way I roll,” says Binnington. He’s serious.

15. Eugene Melnyk
The league’s most unpredictable owner finds a way to pop up in headlines every few months, usually for something you never saw coming but, in hindsight, probably should have. While the Ottawa Senators owner can find himself, by turns, at odds with his own fan base, his own players, and the reporters who cover them, his decision to aggressively rebuild has now resulted in one of the more intriguing clusters of young talent in the league. A bright light of hope pierced the Kanata clouds the day Thomas Chabot agreed to eight more years, while a jackhammer hummed at LeBreton Flats.

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14. Phil Kessel
The Coyotes flirted with a wild-card spot without dressing a single 20-goal scorer or 50-point man. Enter Iron Phil. Kessel only has 11 consecutive 20-goal, 50-point seasons on his resume. He hasn’t missed a hockey game since Halloween 2009. That was a decade ago. Avatar wasn’t out. The man is a machine running on hot dogs and check-raises. Plus, he takes the best headshots. Reunited with Rick Tocchet, Kessel gives the Coyotes a scoring punch they severely lack. Is that enough for a cancer-crushing legend to find peace in the desert?

13. Ralph Krueger
The Sabres have been taken with the unique approach of their latest new head coach, who rejoins the NHL after further diversifying his resume. Leaving his English Premier League gig presumably secure in the knowledge that he wasn’t the problem in Edmonton after all, Krueger faces no small task in Buffalo. The out-of-the-box thinker — and the sixth Sabres coach to run a bench during an eight-year stretch of regular-season futility — must end the league’s longest drought. The roster is buying in. “He’s got that presence about him,” veteran Kyle Okposo told the Associated Press. “I’ve been around a lot of coaches, a lot of people, and I would say he’s an alpha.”

12. Jamie Benn
The Dallas Stars captain had never experienced a year-to-year production drop off like the one he endured last season, falling from 79 points to 56, his lowest full-campaign total since he was a rookie. Stars CEO Jim Lites called Benn (and Tyler Seguin) out publicly, and the players responded by coming one goal away from eliminating St. Louis, the eventual Cup champs, in a thrilling Western Conference semifinal.

GM Jim Nill aggressively improved Benn, Seguin and Alexander Radulov’s supporting cast, bringing in high-profile veterans Joe Pavelski and Corey Perry via free agency. Benn’s ability to bounce back will determine if these new-look Stars—watch for youngsters Roope Hintz and Miro Heiskanen to take another step—can reach the top of the West.

11. Alexis Lafreniere
Already getting billed as “the next superstar in the making”, the projected No. 1 overall draft choice of 2020 put up downright absurd numbers through his first two junior campaigns: 79 goals, 185 points and a plus-87 rating through just 121 games. Lafreniere, who turns 18 next week, is tracking to be the first winger to go to the draft lottery winner in eight years. “He reminds me of Gilbert Perreault,” Wayne Gretzky said of Lafreniere in 2018. “He can skate, handle the puck. He’s just around the puck so much. When you have that much puck sense, that much speed, I can see him being a centreman at the next level.” Hmmm… sounds like the kinda player worth holding on to your Round 1 pick for.

10. Kevin Cheveldayoff
‘Chevy’ prefers to steer his team quiet as a Prius, but the noise in Winnipeg has been deafening leading up to 2019-20. Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor remained unsigned until recently, but before his deal was done there were ripples of discontent from the Finn. Franchise stud Dustin Byfuglien is contemplating a future away from the rink. Even coach Paul Maurice’s wit or Mark Scheifele’s work ethic can’t make up for all the bodies lost on the blue line. Yet despite all the uncertainty, Cheveldayoff has projected calm and Winnipeg has enough studs to make noise. We’re on the edge of our seats awaiting his next move.

9. Hughes Brothers
No, not the ones who directed the mid-’90s cinema classics Menace II Society and Dead Presidents. These Hughes brothers have simultaneously injected realistic playoff hype into a pair of floundering franchises on opposite coasts. Vancouver defenceman Quinn and New Jersey centre Jack will elevate their childhood mini stick battles to, hopefully, competing for the Calder Trophy as they boost their respective clubs’ power plays and provide building blocks for two teams on the rebound.

8. Evgeni Malkin
Geno failed to live up to his own high standards last season, watching his goal output get sliced in half (from 42 to 21) and, reportedly, running out of thrills with Phil Kessel. But Malkin is still a force in this league, and in another summer spiked with trade rumours, the big Russian has vowed to come back stronger. GM Jim Rutherford mined the Western Conference to provide the best 2C in the business with a pair of intriguing wingers in Alex Galchenyuk and Brandon Tanev.

Sid will be Sid. Malkin’s health, happiness and pursuit of greatness should have a dramatic effect on whether this Penguins dynasty has another run left, or if 2019’s Round 1 sweep quietly signalled the end of an era.

7. Donald Fehr
The head of the Players’ Association has already hunkered down for days this fall with Gary Bettman in effort to deliver labour peace in our times. With a primary goal of alleviating escrow, a constant irritation for his constituency and for people who don’t like reading about boring things, Fehr must also work to establish a calendar of international competition that fills an obvious competitive void and pumps revenue so the salary ceiling doesn’t stagnate.

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.

6. Brian MacLellan
With Alex Ovechkin’s public pondering of retirement come 2021, the urgency to win the Capitals’ second-ever championship has just spiked. With zero cap space to rent help in a wide-open Metropolitan race, MacLellan must plan for the future while hoping his moves for the present (less Matt Niskanen, more Radko Gudas) pay immediate dividends. MacLellan will be in the spotlight on UFA chatter, with arguably the best UFA centre, Nicklas Backstrom, and best UFA goaltender, Braden Holtby, entering platform seasons. Sergei Bobrovsky’s $70-million tax-free pay day makes a nightmarish comparable for BMGM.

5. Artemi Panarin
The crown jewel of the Summer of Jeff Gorton was not drafting no-brainer Kaapo Kakko at No. 2 overall. It wasn’t scooping a young, top-four, right-shot defenceman, Jacob Trouba, from cap-hampered Winnipeg. It wasn’t hijacking NCAA stud Adam Fox. No, it was luring top UFA Artemi Panarin to the Big Apple. Panarin proved in Columbus that he doesn’t need Patrick Kane to make him sing. Now, as the highest-paid star in the largest U.S. market, Panarin must bring Madison Square Garden to its feet — and the Blueshirts back to relevance. Even more interesting, the Bread Man’s “absolutely unprecedented” criticism of Vladimir Putin paints a portrait of a fearless star who will speak his mind and, sorry, not just stick to hockey. Although he’s pretty sick at that too.

4. Mike Babcock
The general consensus is that anything less than guiding hockey’s most offensively dynamic roster to a playoff series victory will result in Babcock’s first firing as an NHL head coach, three more years on his ticket be damned. GM Kyle Dubas has armed Babcock with a nice righty-lefty balance in a more dynamic top four defence and drafted the real thing in Rasmus Sandin.

He squeezed four forwards with all-star potential under the cap and tackled Auston Matthews’ off-ice surprise head-on. Now it’s on Babcock to manage the ice time and mini crises, the expectations and egos — but, above all, he’s gotta win. It’s possible the cap will prevent the Maple Leafs from looking this loaded again.

3. Gary Bettman
Be it rule changes (so long, overlooked hand pass!), a push to promote player personalities, or (fingers crossed) the first CBA extension in his tenure that gets signed off sans work stoppage, the commissioner will be front and centre in league issues, be they on ice or off. How the NHL navigates the poor decisions of its electric superstars — Evgeny Kuznetsov and Auston Matthews already made news before training camp ended — will be scrutinized. So, too, will Bettman’s reluctance to participate in China’s 2022 Winter Games, a chance to grow the game and finally give fans the international best-on-best hockey we crave.

2. Connor McDavid
Yeah, the most exciting hockey player on the planet should probably be on the list. That McDavid, 22, has found a way to elevate his production and his wow factor over each of his four big-league campaigns is as impressive as his single playoff appearance is infuriating – for the city, the league, the network, but most of all, the player. Damaging his PCL on a purposeful net drive during another meaningless Game 82, McDavid’s bummer of a summer was consumed by rehab. Here’s betting he comes back stronger, faster and more determined than ever. It’ll be on new coach Dave Tippett and new GM Ken Holland to surround the man with an environment for team success.

1. Taylor Hall
The most critical impending UFA of the summer of 2020 and (arguably) the most underwhelming franchise of 2018-19 have amicably agreed to play this thing out. New Jersey GM Ray Shero put in work on his Devils this summer, swiping stud defenceman P.K. Subban out of cap-hampered Nashville for peanuts, inking a motivated Wayne Simmonds to a one-year deal, and getting lottery lucky with wunderkind Jack Hughes.

While both Hall and Shero are saying all the nice things and will keep communication open, Hall — who’s fighting against a history of injury — has also laid out a playoffs-or-bust mandate. “You want to play on the best team possible, and I’ve played nine seasons in the NHL and only won one playoff game,” Hall said. “I only have so many more years left in this league, and so many more chances to win a Stanley Cup. It hasn’t even come close yet.” The 2018 league MVP can help the Devils re-establish greatness, or — if things turn sour — bring the club a boatload of futures as a game-breaking deadline rental.

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