NHL Power Rankings: Optimism abounds, but Avalanche rightly start on top

Colorado Avalanche right wing Valeri Nichushkin (13) celebrates a goal against the Tampa Bay Lightning with Devon Toews (7), Cale Makar (8) and Gabriel Landeskog (92) during the second period in Game 5 of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup Final. (Jack Dempsey/AP)

It’s incredible how the conversation around a certain player can influence your perception of basic facts.

Erik Karlsson has had a huge profile for over a decade now. He popped for a Canadian team, was part of a massive trade a few years ago, and holds a higher cap hit than anybody at his position in the league. He’s also battled serious injuries and, unfortunately, much of the talk around the Swede the past couple years is about a declining impact. Without really thinking about it, it feels like he’s in the back half of his 30s.

Meanwhile, calling what Roman Josi just had a “career year” would be like terming Reservoir Dogs a nice directorial debut for Quentin Tarantino. Josi put up 96 points last season, 31 more than he’s ever previously posted and the most we’ve seen by any blue-liner in 29 years.

The fact Josi is just now hitting new career peaks, in my mind, sort of ages him down a bit into what those prime years typically are for a player. All this is to say it stopped me in my tracks to realize the Sharks D-man and Nashville’s captain are almost exactly the same age — as in, when their teams meet to begin a new NHL season in Czechia on Friday, Karlsson will be 32 years, 129 days old, while Josi will be 32 years, 128 days old.

Last year was an incredible season for defencemen, evidenced by the fact Josi’s 23 goals and 96 points didn’t even get him the Norris Trophy nod, an honour that went to Colorado whiz kid Cale Makar. The years put together by Josi, Makar (86 points) and Victor Hedman (85 points) represent the three highest single-season point totals by D-men in the past decade.

Of course, when you start going backwards, Karlsson’s name pops up a lot. Between him and Josi, they have three of the best six single-season outputs dating back to the 2011-12 campaign. Karlsson won the Norris that year as a third-year player in the league. By 24, he had two of the trophies and finished first or second in Norris voting four times by age 26. By contrast, Josi was firmly established as a fantastic player by his mid-20s, but didn’t earn a Norris nomination until he won the thing at age 29.

A healthy Karlsson joining a scoring revolution on defence that he actually helped start is the kind of thing you get to hope for at this time of year: That’s the beauty of a new season.

Now how do you say “Let’s go!” in Czech?

1. Colorado Avalanche The defending champs really are in a tier by themselves, especially in the Western Conference. Maybe they lose some starving-dog hunger having won the Cup, but they’re also finally out from the black cloud that hovered over them the past few years and can play fast and free.

2. Tampa Bay Lighting Shoulder surgery means we won’t see Anthony Cirelli for a while, but the Bolts are used to overcoming regular-season absences. This remains an elite squad and they can still beat you on the rare nights they don’t really have it thanks to Andrei Vasilevskiy.

3. Carolina Hurricanes Max Pacioretty (Achillies) is going to be the in-house deadline-season acquisition to boost scoring, while another former Hab — Jesperi Kotkianemi — will be trying to prove he can handle second-line centre duties.

4. Calgary Flames Honestly, the only real question here is chemistry given some major parts have been swapped out. But there’s every chance this roster shakes out better than the one that finished third in the conference last season.

5. Toronto Maple Leafs The team might not be the best version of itself out of the gate thanks to some players being dinged up. I really wish we could jump ahead eight weeks to see how this crease duo of Matt Murray and Ilya Samsonov is going to play out.

6. Florida Panthers Acquiring Matthew Tkachuk for MacKenzie Weegar and Jonathan Huberdeau feels like some version of a one-step-back-two-forward move. That slight step back, though, comes now for last year’s Presidents’ Trophy winners.

7. Edmonton Oilers Calgary stole the off-season Alberta headlines, but it was quietly a nice summer for the Oilers, too. Can they build off a final four appearance?

8. Minnesota Wild Quick: How many teams finished above Minnesota in the standings last year? You can count them on one hand without your thumb. Their dead-money cap crunch made keeping Kevin Fiala an impossibility, but this team has built a sparkling talent pipeline.

9. New York Rangers You know the crease is in good hands with Igor Shesterkin, but how much would it move the needle if both Alexis Lafrenière and Kaapo Kakko took leaps this year?

10. St. Louis Blues The top nine has a really nice mix up front. With Ville Husso gone, it’s on Jordan Binnington to find as close to his 2019 form as he can.

11. Pittsburgh Penguins We’re now five years removed from the Pens being on top of the hockey world, but even as they hit their mid-30s, it’s tough to fully discount Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin — especially if both stay healthy all year.

12. Los Angeles Kings One of last season’s pleasant surprises, there’s reason to believe the Kings can build on their unanticipated success. Fiala was a big off-season fish to land, while the likes of Quinton Byfield, Arthur Kaliyev and Sean Durzi could be ready for big roles.

13. New York Islanders Last year was such an odd season for the Isles, starting with playing their first 13 games on the road while the finishing touches were put on their splashy new arena. Matt Barzal signing a big extension creates some good vibes, Ilya Sorokin provides a great foundation in goal, and this is still a team that’s going to make you earn everything you get.

14. Dallas Stars Jason Robertson is back in the fold. Next question: Is Playoff Jake Oettinger the version we get moving forward? If so, that would really bump Dallas up a notch.

15. Nashville Predators It’s easy to forget the Preds were a solid squad last year because they got eviscerated by Colorado in the playoffs after Juuse Saros went out with an injury. Ryan McDonagh comes in to help the top four, while Nino Niederreiter adds a 20-goal guy to the top six.

16. Washington Capitals We really don’t know when Nick Backstrom will be able to return from serious hip surgery and Tom Wilson is out long-term with a knee injury, too. Still, if Darcy Kuemper can play like the fringe Vezina candidate he was a couple years ago in Arizona, it will be a huge upgrade on what the Caps got in goal last season.

17. Boston Bruins The B’s always find a way, but it will be all about keeping their head above water for the first few months until Brad Marchand (hip) and Charlie McAvoy (shoulder) return from long-term injuries, to say nothing of the fact Taylor Hall is expected to miss regular season games with an upper-body injury.

18. Winnipeg Jets For all the ways it feels like the Jets are imploding, it’s worth noting the top-six forward crew remains very strong, the defence corps is passable and Connor Hellebuyck could very well be a top-5 goalie in the league this year. There’s a very decent hockey team buried under all that noise in Manitoba.

19. Vegas Golden Knights That Robin Lehner is gone for the year cannot be overlooked, but it does obscure the fact there are reasons to like this team. Jack Eichel is getting his first full rip in the desert and captain Mark Stone is back after an injury-marred season.

20. Vancouver Canucks The Canucks had a .649 points percentage in 57 games after Bruce Boudreau took over as coach last season, a better mark than four of the teams that actually made the playoffs in the West had in 82 contests. Getting into the post-season will be no small task for Vancouver, but the road map is clearly there.

21. New Jersey Devils Few teams have the leap-forward potential the Devils possess. Both MacKenzie Blackwood and Vitek Vanecek have been good in the pre-season. If the goalies play well when the games count, New Jersey will push for a playoff berth.

22. Columbus Blue Jackets Columbus has its shiny new toy in Johnny Gaudreau, but it will be interesting to see how big a leap youngsters like Cole Sillinger and Yegor Chinakhov (four pre-season goals) can make.

23. Buffalo Sabres I spent a couple days in Buffalo earlier this week and it is not hard to get the sense this is a team of young guys who like each other and want to grow together in Western New York. How far they can go this year remains to be seen, but there is undeniable reason for optimism in Buffalo.

24. Ottawa Senators The fact Cam Talbot is out more than a month is a tough blow for this a squad, which has known all summer that the challenge will be keeping pucks out of its own net.

25. Detroit Red Wings Their off-season tack left no doubt the Wings are trying to push this rebuild forward. The thing is, they could improve from 74 to 84 points and still be sixth in the Atlantic Division.

26. Anaheim Ducks Trevor Zegras was rookie-of-the-year runner-up last year; Mason McTavish stands a fantastic chance of being nominated this year. Things are coming together in Orange County as we start the post-Ryan Getzlaf era.

27. San Jose Sharks There’s a pretty clear turning of the page in northern California. Mike Grier is the new GM following 20 years on the job for Doug Wilson; Brent Burns — a defining player and character on the Sharks since 2011 — was traded to Carolina. It’s going to take some time for a new identify to form and wins will likely be hard to come by for a bit.

28. Philadelphia Flyers Say what you want about John Tortorella, he does have some don’t-bet-against-him energy. But even if the new coach can squeeze the most out of this roster, how much is really there?

29. Seattle Kraken Year 2 is obviously still about development — and possibly watching Matty Beniers win the Calder Trophy.

30. Montreal Canadiens First-overall pick Juraj Slafkovsky may well spend the majority of the year in the AHL, which is just fine for the rebuilding Habs. On the other hand, rookie defenceman Kaiden Guhle might look like a 10-year NHL veteran by November.

31. Arizona Coyotes It feels like the Coyotes had the 2023 draft circled in red ever since Bill Armstrong took over as GM two years ago. Will the tank job pay off in the form of Connor Bedard?

32. Chicago Blackhawks For my money, the Patrick Kane sweepstakes are the most intriguing subplot entering the new season.

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