Ted Kulfan’s NHL breakdown: Top players, contenders, dark horses and more

Ted Kulfan
The Detroit News

Ted Kulfan of The Detroit News previews the NHL season with a look at the top players, championship contenders and more.

Connor McDavid

Top Hart Trophy candidates

Connor McDavid, Edmonton – This is easy, despite the Oilers’ struggles. McDavid is the Mike Trout of hockey – supreme talent on a mediocre organization.

John Tavares, Toronto – If the Leafs are to take a run at the Stanley Cup, the hometown star is likely to be leading the way.

Mark Stone, Vegas – Finally out of Ottawa, more of the NHL is going to realize how good this rugged forward is.

Top West forwards

Connor McDavid, Edmonton – Incomparable speed and offensive ability.

Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado – Will be in the MVP discussion if Avalanche are Stanley Cup contenders.

Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary – Electrifying offensive player who plays on one of the NHL’s best lines.

Mark Scheifele, Winnipeg – The Jets might be slipping, but Scheifele will keep them more than respectable.

Patrick Kane, Chicago – Kane is getting older, but it’s not affecting his on-ice performance at all.

Nikita Kucherov

Top East forwards

Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay – The reigning NHL MVP has gotten progressively better.

John Tavares, Toronto – The pressure of returning home to Toronto didn’t bother Tavares, at all.

Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh – There hasn’t been much of a decline in Crosby’s game.

Auston Matthews, Toronto – There will be pressure this season, but Matthews appears to be capable of handling the Toronto media circus.

Patrice Bergeron, Boston – The ultimate professional on a very professional, tough-minded Bruins’ team.

Top West defensemen

Mark Giordano, Calgary – The NHL is fully realizing how good Giordano is at both ends of the rink.

Brent Burns, San Jose – Didn’t mesh entirely well with Erik Karlsson last season, but maybe it’ll be different this season.

Drew Doughty, Los Angeles – Is getting older, but still is such a force with the puck on his stick.

Roman Josi, Nashville – Josi hasn’t received major headlines playing in Nashville, but he’s one of the NHL’s best.

Alex Pietrangelo, St. Louis – After a so-so regular season, was outstanding in the Stanley Cup playoff run.

Zach Werenski

Top East defensemen

Victor Hedman, Tampa Bay – Should be in the Norris Trophy discussion for many years running.

Seth Jones, Columbus – The Blue Jackets took personnel hits, but should be OK with this young star.

Zach Werenski, Columbus – Ditto what was said with Jones. The Grosse Pointer is evolving into a special player.

Morgan Rielly, Toronto – Took a big step in his development on and off the ice last season.

Charlie McAvoy – It might be time to include McAvoy into this discussion.

Top West goalies

Marc-Andre Fleury, Vegas – Right about now, Pittsburgh might be regretting leaving Fleury unprotected in the expansion draft.

Pekka Rinne, Nashville – Maybe not as prolific as earlier in his career, but Rinne inspires confidence.

Ben Bishop, Dallas – Has been an elite goaltender for a long time and makes the Stars dangerous.

Martin Jones, San Jose – Rebounded from a subpar regular season to carry the Sharks in the playoffs.

Jordan Binnington, St. Louis – Give the youngster his due, he carried the Blues to a Stanley Cup.

Top East goalies

Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay – Whatever weaknesses Tampa has, Vasilevskiy covers them up.

Carey Price, Montreal – Reclaimed his spot among the NHL’s very best.

Sergei Bobrovsky, Florida – Bobrovsky going to the Panthers makes them instant contenders.

Tuukka Rask, Boston – It was mind-boggling how good Rask was as the playoffs wore on last spring.

Frederik Andersen, Toronto – Playing under a demanding coach and with a playoff-caliber team, Andersen become of the NHL’s best.

Jack Hughes

Top rookies

Jack Hughes, New Jersey – The No. 1 overall pick seems perfectly suited for today’s speed-driven, creative NHL game.

Kaapo Kakko, N.Y. Rangers – Many analysts believe Kakko is capable of scoring over 20 goals already this season.

Cale Makar, Colorado – Makar made an immediate impact in a short playoff showing last spring.

Coaches on the hot seat

Bruce Boudreau, Minnesota – The Wild are declining, and GM Bill Guerin is new and will want to bring in his own guy.

Mike Babcock, Toronto – If the Maple Leafs don’t advance deep into the playoffs, Babcock likely will be in trouble.

Peter Laviolette, Nashville – The Predators don’t have a large window to remain competitive, and last season was a disappointment.

Paul Maurice, Winnipeg – Similar to Nashville, the window is closing and the head coach might be the scapegoat.

Jeff Blashill, Detroit – A new GM (Steve Yzerman), a roster that’s changing over, three consecutive playoff misses. The odds might be against Blashill.

Mike Babcock

Championship contenders

Vegas – Balanced, experienced team, with a goaltender who knows how to win.

Tampa Bay – This talented roster seems bound to win a Stanley Cup eventually.

Toronto – The roster reshuffling over the summer might finally produce a winner.

St. Louis – The Blues look entirely capable of repeating as champions.

Boston – Don’t discount this veteran, tough-minded team.

Dark horse teams

Florida – Can easily see this team get hot at the right time in the playoffs.

Calgary – If the goaltending holds up, this team has enough everywhere else.

Carolina – Petr Mrazek in net is a question mark, but the Hurricanes have the talent everywhere else.


Ottawa – There’s a sliver of hope, but the Senators are a long way from respectability.

Detroit – The future looks promising, but the present remains cloudy.

Los Angeles – The Kings are growing older, and the depth isn’t nearly good enough.

Minnesota – The Wild appear to be sinking in a hurry.

N.Y. Rangers – The Rangers got better, but there are still holes to fill.