In less than a week, the puck will drop on the NHL’s 2018-19 campaign, that moment of rubber-on-ice impact signalling the official end of the league’s silly season.
After a summer of roster chaos the time has come to see hypotheticals give way to highlight reels. We’ve seen the early inklings of chemistry take shape in the pre-season — now the question turns to the long-term impact of these marquee moves.
That said, as we get set for the start of the season, let’s take a look at who stands to benefit most from this NHL off-season’s most significant acquisitions:
John Tavares, Toronto Maple Leafs
There may be no way to truly prognosticate the impact of John Tavares joining this already-ascending Leafs squad until we see how it all play out. This isn’t so much adding a complementary piece to a flourishing core as it is altering the very makeup of this organization’s DNA.
Tavares will impact every corner of the Leafs’ roster. But, if there’s one player who’s set to benefit most, there’s no question it’ll be Mitch Marner. That much has become clear in the pre-season — but to what extent?
The quick-footed, slick-handed winger put up 69 points last season while barely getting a sniff with his club’s No. 1 centreman. In fact, the number of times Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner appeared beside each other on the box score can be counted on one hand — and you’ll have a finger to spare.
Now he’ll get Tavares, who notched 84 points last season and made good (but not great) players such as Josh Bailey and Anders Lee elite scorers. Bailey put up a career-best 71 points on Tavares’ wing (more than any Leaf has totalled in four years), with No. 91 factoring in on more than 50.7 per cent of those points. Lee hit the 40-goal plateau for the first time, with Tavares in on an even higher percentage of that production (53.2 per cent of Lee’s total points).
Here’s betting Toronto’s newest superstar has enough playmaking juice to similarly help Marner maximize the full weight of his offensive potential, and that Marner’s ceiling rises higher than expected.
And, as a bonus, we’ll see how Matthews fares spending less time against top defensive units — with Tavares’ line absorbing some of those matchups — and how Kadri exploits his newfound freedom below that potent top six.
Erik Karlsson, San Jose Sharks
Here’s one number that sums up pretty much all you need to know about how offensively dominant the Sharks’ blue line will be this year: seven.
That’s the number of consecutive years that one or both of Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson have ranked among the top two highest-scoring NHL defencemen. It’s a combination bordering on unprecedented, made all the more absurd by the presence of one of the game’s best defensive-minded talents in Marc-Edouard Vlasic.
While it’s sure to be a fun ride for the club’s top three blueliners, there’s one forward in particular who could see a boost come his way: Joe Pavelski.
The captain has been San Jose’s top-scoring forward for the past two seasons, but there’s one area in which both he, and the Sharks overall, could improve. Only 23 of Pavelski’s 66 points last season came on the man-advantage, and only 22 of his 68 points the year before that. Even so, he’s been San Jose’s highest-scoring forward on the power play both years for a unit that ranked 16th in 2017-18, and 25th the year prior.
Here’s the layout of the man-advantage unit San Jose has experimented with: Burns, Karlsson, Pavelski, Logan Couture, and Joe Thornton. That gives Pavelski the game’s best offensive-minded blue liners anchoring the points, one of history’s best playmakers in Thornton, and an all-around offensive threat in Couture.
That upgrade should be significant enough to lift the captain’s special teams numbers by a considerable margin. Even-strength play should bring a boost as well. Burns factored in on 36.4 per cent of Pavelski’s 66 points last season — this time around, the veteran sniper should have even more time at even-strength with an elite distributor moving play forward from the back end, with Karlsson and Burns looking likely to suit up on separate pairings.
Max Pacioretty/Paul Stastny, Vegas Golden Knights
The Golden Knights get a double-billing on this list as they went out and nabbed two key additions in the summer — because of course they did. Their latest string of miracles brings former Canadiens captain Max Pacioretty to the fold alongside Paul Stastny, the second-best pivot on the market this summer after Tavares, in a formidable attempt to mitigate the team’s free agency losses.
And, because this is the Golden Knights, Pacioretty and Stastny have already struck up a fair bit of potent chemistry together on Vegas’ second line. The two do have some history together as linemates for Team USA in the past — Stastny said recently he and Pacioretty even spoke this summer about potential plans to end up on the same squad. Given that chemistry and head coach Gerard Gallant’s comments about not tinkering with his dominant top line (William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith), it’s a near certainty the team’s new stars stick together this coming season.
Of all the names being watched with hawk eyes for a hint of regression, Karlsson’s is likely atop the pile. We all know the story: the sky-rocketing 43-goal, 78-point stat line, the wild between-the-legs tallies and the Stanley Cup Final foray. All this after being a bubble player in Columbus. The pressure is on the 25-year-old to do it all again and prove it wasn’t a fluke — even more so given he bet on himself with a one-year, $5.25-million deal rather than cashing in on a longer term.
Vegas had a solid, productive second line last year, with Haula, David Perron and James Neal doing some consistent damage. But the line’s 26 goals together rang in as nearly half the total (46) posted by Karlsson’s line, according to Corsica. This time around, it could be a different story.
With Pacioretty looking for his sixth 30-goal effort, the Golden Knights should be a far less top-heavy team, which would ease the pressure on Karlsson to perform and pull a bit of the defensive attention away. Whether that’s enough to bring another 40-goal season is up in the air, but there’s no question the sophomore squad should be able to do it more by committee.
Ilya Kovalchuk, Los Angeles Kings
Kings captain Anze Kopitar finds himself in a similar situation as Toronto’s Marner — except with a much, much higher ceiling and an already-established body of work suggesting he’s among the sport’s top tier. The Slovenian dynamo is coming off a dominant, career-best campaign for L.A., posting 35 goals, 92 points and bagging the Selke Trophy.
And, unless you’re a Kings fan, Kopitar achieved this with linemates you may not expect.
On the right side was the unexpectedly resurgent Dustin Brown, who nearly doubled his previous year’s total with a 28-goal, 61-point season. On Kopitar’s left was rookie Alex Iafallo, who earned a top-line assignment through his coach-pleasing attention to detail and reliable defensive play.
It was a winning trio, but not necessarily one you’d bank on coming up with another year of success.
Luckily, the Kings won’t need to count on that repeat performance, as former Rocket Richard Trophy winner Ilya Kovalchuk is back in the NHL, with eyes on giving Kopitar the type of supporting talent he deserves.
Kovalchuk is a lock to line up on No. 11’s left side, and there’s a very real chance the recent KHL champion and Olympic gold medallist could be the most talented pure scorer to ever slot in beside Kopitar. The veteran has had some effective linemates throughout his time in the big leagues — Marian Gaborik, Justin Williams, and Brown have all found success in that spot — but Kovalchuk is a different breed, a bona fide, all-world talent. He’s been near or above the 40-goal plateau eight times in his career — all but three of his 11 NHL seasons — with two 50-goal efforts on his resumé.
And there’s ample evidence to suggest the talented Russian has, in fact, been playing his best hockey in the half-decade he’s been away from the NHL. If the numbers weren’t convincing enough, though, Kovalchuk dispensed with the waiting game and quickly showed the NHL he can still dominate on this side of the globe, too. Safe to say that bodes well for Kopitar’s chances of remaining in the 90-point club in 2019.
James Neal, Calgary Flames
Aside from the obviously league-altering additions of Tavares and Karlsson, the Flames’ acquisition of James Neal might just go down as one of this summer’s most impactful signings when all is said and done.
It’s not just that Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan haven’t had a genuinely dangerous linemate since Jiri Hudler was in the mix, or that Neal brings the type of goal-scoring pedigree the Flames don’t usually add in the summer. It’s simply how his arrival shifts around the different pieces on an impressively deep forward unit.
As it currently stands, Neal seems likely to go over the boards on the top unit with Gaudreau and Monahan, one of the West’s most consistently effective duos. The alternative is to slot in Elias Lindholm — acquired in Calgary’s blockbuster trade that sent Dougie Hamilton to Carolina — in the top-line spot, and move Neal down to the second unit with Mikael Backlund.
That flexibility is, of course, a luxury only brought on by adding a player of Neal’s calibre, which allows head coach Bill Peters to spread the wealth. Either way, it seems the key beneficiary will be the club’s No. 1 middle-man, Monahan.
Neal — a proven scorer who’s a lock for 25-30 goals with 40-goal potential — completely changes the complexion of Calgary’s attack. Should Neal indeed line up on that top trio, Monahan would, for the first time in his career, have two elite options to work with. Key to consider: up until this point, defending that top unit has been fairly clear-cut — the play moves through Gaudreau, with Monahan always ready as a finisher, and their rotating cast of linemates doing what they could to support that strategy.
Neal changes the equation. He’s more than capable of both finishing and distributing, meaning some more room to work for both Monahan and Gaudreau. Considering Monahan amassed 31 goals in 74 games last year with, essentially, one working wrist, a year of full health and that little bit of extra space should amount to some timely offensive progress for Calgary’s star pivot.