This offseason was NHL musical chairs. Big dominoes like Erik Karlsson finally changed teams, and longtime prospects like Rasmus Dahlin will get their first chance to make a mark on the league. So given all that roster turnover, The Ringer’s resident hockey fans selected the five players we’re most excited to watch this season in their new situations.
John Tavares: Toronto Maple Leafs
Katie Baker: Before he signed a seven-year, $77 million deal with the Toronto Maple Leafs this summer, John Tavares had already sported a blue maple leaf, back in his youth. He was such a coveted player at age 14 that the Ontario Hockey League rewrote its rule book to include an “exceptional player” clause so he could be drafted a year early. In his nine seasons with the New York Islanders, Tavares never scored fewer than 24 goals, even during one season halved by lockout and another shortened by injury. He recorded 40 or more assists four times. And this summer, after leaving the New York Islanders for Toronto—skipping over the Montreal Canadiens in the process—Tavares donned that familiar blue-and-white logo once again.
Not everyday you can live a childhood dream pic.twitter.com/YUTKdfMALl— John Tavares (@91Tavares) July 1, 2018
Signing Tavares was an indication that the Leafs recognize the lurking urgency of their situation. Toronto may be young and incomplete, particularly on defense, but it’s also in a win-now position. Two core players, Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews, both of whom are 21 and contributed upward of 60 points last season, are in the final years of their cheapo, entry-level contracts. In the salary-cap era, having those guys is like playing with a cheat code, one that will soon evaporate. (Already, the team is facing a holdout from William Nylander, another 60-plus point scorer fresh off his ELC.)
It’s because of this young squad that Tavares wanted to sign with Toronto, even reportedly turning down spendier offers from other teams. In the preseason, mostly alongside Marner, Tavares scored five goals and added an assist. “John was obviously the premier free agent,” Kyle Dubas, the Maple Leafs’ 32-year-old rising front-office star who was recently promoted to general manager, told The Athletic this week. Having acquired one prized possession, the Leafs are now after another, shinier goal.
Erik Karlsson: San Jose Sharks
Matt James: By any metric, last season was an astounding trainwreck on and off the ice for the Ottawa Senators. After months of rumored bad blood between owner Eugene Melnyk and captain Erik Karlsson, the nine-year Sens vet and defensive superstar was shipped off to San Jose. If anyone in the league is looking forward to a fresh start after last season, it’s the smooth-skating Swede.
Now on the other side of the continent, Karlsson finds himself surrounded by an abundance of talent on a veteran team that is a perennial playoff contender. Will Karlsson turn out to be the final piece of the puzzle and bring Lord Stanley’s Cup to the Bay Area? Probably not. The Sharks always seem to find a way to implode. But they are going to be incredibly fun to watch with Karlsson in the mix this season—and beyond, should Karlsson, who is in the final year of his contract, decide to extend his stay in San Jose.
Karlsson’s addition means that he and Marc-Édouard Vlasic are the Sharks’ second pairing of defensemen, behind Brent Burns and Joakim Ryan. On the power play, Burns and Karlsson—two of last year’s top-scoring defensemen—should cause matchup nightmares. Add in a deep core of forwards like Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski, Joe Thornton, Tomas Hertl, Evander Kane, and Timo Meier, and the Sharks could be an offensive juggernaut.
If coach Peter DeBoer can keep this ludicrously talented but aging roster healthy, the bad breaks and shortcomings of previous Sharks teams could be just like Joe Thornton’s beard (or captaincy): an ugly thing of the past.
Rasmus Dahlin: Buffalo Sabres
Megan Schuster: I first became privy to the Legend of Rasmus ahead of the 2018 Winter Olympics. With NHL players barred from competing in the international contest, I was searching for a reason to get invested in what is usually my favorite part of the competition. Colleagues pointed me in the direction of the Swedish team, specifically toward the 17-year-old defenseman who was expected to become the NHL’s no. 1 pick just a few months later. So, naturally, I opened up YouTube, searched “Rasmus Dahlin,” and became hooked immediately. Look at your new pimple-faced god:
Dahlin didn’t play much in the Olympics, but the Buffalo Sabres drafted him no. 1 overall in June, and so far the returns sound incredible. He scored his first official goal for the team in their last preseason contest (though he notched more in the 2018 Prospects Challenge). He’s expected to make an immediate splash among the Sabres’ top-four defensemen. In September practices, he was playing on a power-play unit that consisted of Dahlin, Jack Eichel, Kyle Okposo, Jeff Skinner, and Jason Pominville. Given all those reports, I am the most in I could possibly be, and I fully expect Rasmus SZN to take Buffalo and its fans by storm.
James Neal, Calgary Flames
Donnie Kwak: You might have read the name above and thought to yourself: “Why the hell is he on this list?” Which, fair. Neal’s move from the Vegas Golden Knights to Calgary qualifies as a solid hockey signing, not a sexy one. Neal has played 10 seasons for four different teams in the NHL and scored at least 20 goals in each one; his last two squads, the Knights and the Nashville Predators, were Stanley Cup runners-up. So it makes logical sense that the Flames, who finished fifth from the bottom in scoring last season and failed to qualify for the postseason, would want to ink the 31-year-old winger. (Whether five years for $28.75 million is a smart deal for the team remains to be seen.) But what elevates Calgary’s acquisition of Neal from ennui to excitement is the fact that he’s an unrepentant asshole. Here, in fact, are six minutes of asshole behavior from his career thus far:
A couple of seasons ago I wrote a blurb about the Flames and their then-rookie asshole Matthew Tkachuk, with the general thesis being that hockey needs its fair share of assholes. Now, Calgary has both Neal and Tkachuk, two standouts from the most hateable breed of player for opposing fans: shithousers who can score. They’ll start the season on separate lines, but one can only hope that by the time the playoffs start—if Calgary makes it that far—we’ll see these assholes playing together.
Casey Mittelstadt: Buffalo Sabres
Michael Baumann: The Buffalo Sabres have remade their roster over the offseason, and after years of fruitless futility, they might actually be … kind of fun in 2018? But of all the additions to the club, my favorite isn’t Dahlin or real-life Kenny Wu Jeff Skinner, but 2017 first-rounder Casey Mittelstadt.
This is cheating, because Mittelstadt did manage to get into six games with the Sabres last year, but this will be the 19-year-old’s first full season in the NHL. Mittelstadt is, not to put too fine a point on it, an absolute wizard on the puck. He leaves a lot to be desired physically—he’s only 6-foot-1, 202 pounds, and isn’t a burner—but he has eyes in the back of his head and can stickhandle through just about any traffic he’ll encounter, just loping through defenders, keeping the puck just close enough so he doesn’t lose it, but no closer. Anyone who’s heard me talk about Oilers center Leon Draisaitl knows how much I love that kind of player. Here are some of Mittelstadt’s highlights from this year’s World Junior Championships, where he was the tournament MVP and leading scorer.
Mittelstadt’s international performance is important, because while the Sabres are becoming increasingly fun, they’re also becoming increasingly American. In addition to Mittelstadt, they boast defenseman Jake McCabe, who captained Team USA to gold at the 2013 World Juniors and tallied three points in their semifinal win over Canada. The head coach of Team USA that year was current Sabres coach Phil Housley. Team USA next won gold in 2017, thanks in part to current Sabre Tage Thompson, a gigantic center acquired over the summer from St. Louis for Ryan O’Reilly, a grouchy and overrated Canadian. The Sabres’ best player is 21-year-old Jack Eichel, who serves as one of the team’s three alternate captains along with fellow Americans Kyle Okposo and Zach Bogosian. Will the Sabres be good? Maybe not. But they’ll be American, and that’s what really matters.