NHL Season Preview: Breakout Players and Impact of Offseason Moves

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 13: Commissioner Gary Bettman of the National Hockey League speaks to the media at Crowne Plaza Times Square on September 13, 2012 in New York City. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 13: Commissioner Gary Bettman of the National Hockey League speaks to the media at Crowne Plaza Times Square on September 13, 2012 in New York City. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) /

The NHL season is back and it is time to examine potential breakout candidates and predicting the 2020-21 regular-season standings.

With the season starting today, I assessed every NHL team by examining all significant acquisitions, trades, and free-agent signings that occurred this offseason. I then used Evolving-Hockey’s wins-above replacement (WAR) metric by calculating each team’s wins above replacement change after the offseason transactions.

Evolving-Hockey’s wins above replacement is a metric that takes into account offense, defense, and even penalties. It a single number that takes into account a player’s overall contribution. While it isn’t perfect and you shouldn’t evaluate a player by one stat, it does a good job at measuring a player’s contributions.

This gave me a baseline as to whether a team got better or worse after this offseason. Finally, I looked at potential breakout candidates, regression candidates, injuries, and each team’s opponents plus their strength of schedule. To be clear, these standings predictions are my opinion and is not the result of any model or calculation.

Here are my predictions for the upcoming season.

Disclaimer: All trade deadline acquisitions that left for free-agency are not listed in the key departures due to the limited impact it had on the standings in the regular season due to COVID-19.

East Division

Boston Bruins, 1st Place

Key Additions: Craig Smith, Greg McKegg

Key Departures: Torey Krug, Zdeno Chara, Brett Ritchie, & Joakim Nordstrom

WAR Difference: -0.2

Explanation: While the departure of both Chara and Krug are painful, specifically Krug, the Bruins still have a strong enough defensive core that is led by Charlie McAvoy. The signing of Craig Smith was an excellent move, he’s a strong middle-six forward that will help strengthen their third line.

The Bruins stayed relatively the same despite the departure of Krug. There is no question that they will remain a powerhouse in this tough division. The timelines for David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand look positive with the latter possibly being healthy at the start of the season.

Pittsburgh Penguins, 2nd Place

Key Additions: Kasperi Kapanen, Mike Matheson, Colton Sceviour, Mark Jankowski, & Cody Ceci

Key Departures: Patric Hornqvist, Jack Johnson, Justin Schultz & Dominik Simon

WAR Difference: +2.6

Explanation: The Penguins might be one of the most overlooked teams coming into the 2020-21 campaign. They had numerous injuries last season yet they were still able to finish 3rd in their division. They got better this offseason and that is even considering Kapanen’s down year last season. They added some decent depth pieces that strengthen their forward group too.

Several questions surrounding the Penguins are if Kapanen can flourish and succeed in his elevated role and if these acquisitions can replace the loss of Hornqvist. Mike Matheson is an obvious upgrade from Jack Johnson, how much does this impact the defensive core?

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Philadelphia Flyers, 3rd Place

Key Additions: Erik Gustafsson

Key Departures: Tyler Pitlick, Matt Niskanen

WAR Difference: -3

Explanation: The Flyers weren’t very active this offseason, but they lost a top-four defenseman in Niskanen and a depth piece in Pitlick. The acquisition of Gustafsson could be a solid under-the-radar move. While he was a below-replacement level player last season, he had two strong seasons in Chicago, including the 18-19 season when he supplied 1.8 wins and also notched 60 points, 17 of them being goals.

It could very well have been a down year due to the change of scenery and he could become a strong replacement for Niskanen. The Flyers look good with Nolan Patrick and Oskar Lindblom both playing this season, both are strong candidates for a breakout season. Carter Hart will look to continue his elite play in the net and could be a difference-maker this season.

Washington Capitals, 4th Place

Key Additions: Conor Sheary, Zdeno Chara

Key Departures: Radko Gudas, Braden Holtby, & Travis Boyd

WAR Difference: +0.2

Explanation: The biggest question is whether they made the right decision in letting Holtby leave in free agency. While he struggled last season, it was an interesting decision given his contract he signed with the Canucks wasn’t very expensive given his resume.

In hindsight, they didn’t know that Lundqvist wouldn’t be able to play this season. Chara provided a ton more value than Gudas last season and Sheary replaces Boyd. In all, the Capitals improved marginally.

New York Rangers, 5th Place

Key Additions: Kevin Rooney, Jack Johnson

Key Departures: Henrik Lundqvist, Jesper Fast, & Marc Staal

WAR Difference: -2.2

Explanation: Jack Johnson was a significant addition, unfortunately in the wrong way. They added one of the worst defensemen in the NHL, at best maybe for a locker room presence? However, they did gain a ton of value with the departure of Marc Staal who was below-replacement level.

They lost a depth piece in Fast but their bottom-six will hold its own without him. It is important to note that I gave the edge to the Rangers due to Kaapo Kakko and Alexis Lafreniere both being potential X-factors.

Likewise, it appears Vitali Kravtsov will be in the lineup. The Rangers look good in the crease with both their young goalies playing well last season. While Jacob Trouba had one of the worst seasons of his career, it is unlikely he repeats that. If he can secure himself as a top-pairing defenseman, that would be huge for the Rangers.

New York Islanders, 6th Place

Key Additions: Austin Czarnik, Dmytro Timashov

Key Departures: Thomas Greiss, Derick Brassard, Devon Toews & Johnny Boychuk

WAR Difference: -0.4

Explanation: The Islanders added two decent depth pieces in Czarnik and Timashov. They made a huge mistake by trading Devon Toews to the Avalanche, for little to nothing. They also lost a depth piece in Brassard too.

It is really important to note they will get a full season of Pageau which will be a difference-maker. While the Islanders are a strong team, I believe they are a level below the other teams. Ilya Sorokin could be an X-factor, more so because of the shortened season.

Buffalo Sabres, 7th Place

Key Additions: Eric Staal, Taylor Hall, Tobias Rieder, & Cody Eakin

Key Departures: Jimmy Vesey, Johan Larsson, Marcus Johansson

WAR Difference: -1.6

Explanation: While the Sabres got one of the best free agents available in Taylor Hall, it doesn’t move the needle to make any ground on the other teams in the division. Eric Staal was a good acquisition, but he makes up for the departures of Vesey, Larsson, and Johansson who all provided decent value.

Cody Eakin and Tobias Rieder were both below-replacement players last season too. It looks as though Dylan Cozens will make the roster which could be a difference-maker as well as Victor Olofsson trying to continue his goal-scoring excellence from the 2019-20 campaign.

New Jersey Devils, 8th Place

Key Additions: Ryan Murray, Andreas Johnsson, & Dmitry Kulikov

Key Departures: Corey Schenider, Kevin Rooney, & John Hayden

WAR Difference: +0.9

Explanation: The Devils offseason took a massive turn in the wrong direction when Corey Crawford announced his retirement from professional hockey. He was their biggest acquisition and he provided them immense stability in the crease. The Devils will have to rely on their youngster Mackenzie Blackwood who put up decent numbers last season.

Ryan Murray is a good acquisition, but on the flip side, Kulikov was a below-replacement level last season. I think the biggest question is Andreas Johnsson. He didn’t offer much value last season, but he had a great 2018-19 campaign, the question is whether he can get back to that level which would be a huge boost for the Devils forward group.

If Jack Hughes can build on his play from last season and settle in, he could be a huge factor.

North Division

Toronto Maple Leafs, 1st Place

Key Additions: T.J. Brodie, Jimmy Vesey, Travis Boyd, Joe Thornton, Joey Anderson, Zach Bogosian, & Wayne Simmonds.

Key Departures: Tyson Barrie, Frederic Gauthier, & Cody Ceci

WAR Difference: +3.5

Explanation: Kyle Dubas once again proves that he is one of the best general managers in the NHL. The Toronto Maple Leafs had one of the best offseasons in the NHL. It is evident with the extensive depth they acquired, all the acquisitions provided positive value last season, aside from Wayne Simmonds who could be a good depth piece still because of his physical presence.

The Maple Leafs’ biggest acquisition was T.J. Brodie, a strong top-four defenseman who provides a ton of value. The Maple Leafs have a lot to prove this season and I believe this season they will finally get over the mountain that has plagued them for a while now.

Edmonton Oilers, 2nd Place

Key Additions: Tyler Ennis (Signed this offseason after he was traded late in the season), Kyle Turris, Tyson Barrie, Dominik Kahun, & Slater Koekoek

Key Departures: Riley Sheahan, Markus Granlund, Matt Benning, & Andreas Athanasiou

WAR Difference: +2.5

Explanation: The Edmonton Oilers acquired some more depth this offseason when they signed Tyler Ennis, Kyle Turris, and specifically, Dominik Kahun. They also added two defensemen to their defensive corps. Slater Koekoek was a strong acquisition, and Tyson Barrie, who the Oilers need to recapture what he had in Colorado. The Oilers strengthened their roster this offseason and that isn’t even taking into account Jesse Puljujarvi returning.

Calgary Flames, 3rd Place

Key Additions: Josh Leivo, Dominik Simon, Joakim Nordstrom, Jacob Markstrom, & Chris Tanev.

Key Departures: Cam Talbot, Travis Hamonic, Michael Stone, Mark Jankowski, T.J. Brodie, & Tobias Rieder

WAR Difference: +0.1

Explanation: The Calgary Flames made a critical mistake in letting T.J. Brodie leave for free agency, to then go and sign Tanev. The Flames let a top-four defenseman walk and replaced him with a third-pairing defenseman in Tanev. They added a good depth piece in Josh Leivo and acquired one of the best goalies that were available in the market.

While the Flames didn’t significantly strengthen their roster, both Monahan and Gaudreau took a huge step back last season. There should be optimism that they bounce back to their elite production which will be the biggest element of the Flames upcoming season. Andrew Mangiapane and Dillion Dube are two faces to watch this upcoming season.

Montreal Canadiens, 4th Place

Minnesota Wild
Minnesota Wild /

Minnesota Wild

Key Additions: Jake Allen, Joel Edmundson, Josh Anderson, Tyler Toffoli, Michael Frolik, & Corey Perry

Key Departures: Max Domi, Christian Folin, Dale Weise, & Charles Hudon

WAR Difference: +0.1

Explanation: The Canadiens added some big pieces this offseason. They added one of the best backups in the league in Jake Allen who will help split time with Carey Price and give him more rest. They added a top-six forward in Tyler Toffoli, which is their biggest move of the offseason.

They got fleeced in the trade that sent Max Domi to the Blue Jackets, unless Josh Anderson can recapture some of his magic from the 18-19 season, which then the Canadiens will be in a very good spot.

The biggest question is their finishing, they are one of the best teams at generating offense but they have a finishing issue. Another question is how much value Alexander Romanov will provide in his rookie season.

Winnipeg Jets, 5th Place

Key Additions: Paul Statsny, Nate Thompson, & Derek Forbort

Key Departures: Gabriel Bourque, Cody Eakin, Dmitry Kulikov, & Nick Shore

WAR Difference: +1.6

Explanation: The Winnipeg Jets only significant addition this offseason was Paul Stastny. At 35, he is still a low-end top-six center who provides value on both ends of the ice. This was actually a really smart acquisition by the Jets because of the defensive value he provides.

He fills a gap down the middle and he helps provide defensive value which is paramount for a team that has a bunch of wingers who are a liability on defense. All four departures were below-replacement value and provided negative value. So, the Jets gained value by those skaters leaving.

The other two additions – Thompson and Forbort – are insignificant besides being depth pieces if push comes to shove.

Vancouver Canucks, 6th Place

Key Additions: Braden Holtby, Nate Schmidt

Key Departure: Jacob Markstrom, Josh Leivo, Chris Tanev, Troy Stecher, Oscar Fantenberg

WAR Difference: -3.3

Explanation: There are a lot of people who see the Canucks taking a big step back this season because of the departure of Markstrom. I would argue their playoff chances are slim not because of the loss of Markstrom but rather the competition in the division.

Much of the 3.3 wins above replacement they lost this offseason comes from Markstrom. It is important to note that Holtby had a down year, but assuming he rebounds, the Canucks should be fine with a tandem of Holtby and Demko.

Nate Schmidt is an upgrade from Chris Tanev which helps a little bit. For a roster with so many defensive deficiencies, it was puzzling to see one of their better defenders in Troy Stecher depart in free agency. Overall, the Canucks had a minimal loss this offseason but likely don’t make a big push for the playoffs in part to the second-toughest division among the temporary division realignment this season.

Ottawa Senators, 7th Place

Key Additions: Matt Murray, Erik Gudbrandson, Austin Watson, Evgeni Dadonov, Alex Galchenyuk, Derek Stepan, Braydon Coburn, & Cedric Paquette

Key Departures: Bobby Ryan, Craig Anderson, Anthony Duclair, Ron Hainsey, Michael Boedker, Matt Borowiecki, & Scott Sabourin

WAR Difference: -0.3

Explanation: It is plain and simple, the Senators didn’t improve that much this offseason based on last years numbers. However, there are several acquisitions that could flourish with this change of scenery.

Matt Murray could be one of those candidates. Since the two Stanley Cups, he has struggled in his NHL career, which is evident by a metric such as goals saved above expected which takes into account shot quality. He does have age on his side since goalies tend to reach their peaks later.

The two additions that really stand out are Derek Stepan and Evgeni Dadonov, both middle-six forwards with the latter having potentially more upside. Although, I do think the Senators got better than the wins paint it to be since several of the acquisitions could benefit from more ice time and better usage.

With this being said, they didn’t improve to the extent of getting outside the bottom. The Senators also have a lot of new young faces that will try to grab a roster spot.

Central Divison

Carolina Hurricanes, 1st Place

Key Additions: Jesper Fast, Joakim Ryan

Key Departures: Trevor Van Riemsdyk, Justin Williams, Lucas Wallmark & Erik Haula

WAR Difference: -1.4

Explanation: The Hurricanes really didn’t do much this offseason, but they were able to grab Jesper Fast. He’s a decent depth forward which can be very beneficial in a shortened season. Other than the retirement of Justin Williams, there was minimal damage. They are a strong team from top to bottom.

Tampa Bay Lightning, 2nd Place

Key Additions: Anders Nilsson

Key Departures: Zach Bogosian, Carter Verhaeghe, Kevin Shattenkirk, Cedric Paquette, & Brayden Coburn

WAR Difference: -2.9

Explanation: The Tampa Bay Lightning got worse this offseason – which isn’t surprising – because something had to change to be able to fit under the salary cap after the offseason extensions of key players.

The only significant departure was Kevin Shattenkirk who provided top-pairing value last season. There would have been more damage in terms of departures if Nikita Kucherov didn’t get injured. His season-ending injury is a huge loss for the Lightning. While they still remain a threat, his 2.5 wins is a critical loss.

Dallas Stars, 3rd Place

Key Additions: Mark Pysyk

Key Departures: Mattias Janmark, Corey Perry, & Roman Polak

WAR Difference: -1.7

Explanation: The only noteworthy exit was Mattias Janmark who is a middle-six forward. Mark Pysyk is a fine depth piece that will be utilized as an extra defenseman.

The Stars have quality offensive and defensive depth, which is evident by their play in the bubble and eventually led them in the deep playoff run. Roope Hintz, Denis Gurianov, and Joel Kiviranta were huge impact players and could be X-factors for the Stars going into this upcoming season.

Florida Panthers, 4th Place

Key Additions: Patric Hornqvist, Marcus Nutivarra, Carter Verhaeghe, Radko Gudas, Alexander Wennberg, Vinnie Hinostroza, & Anthony Duclair

Key Departures: Mark Pysyk, Mike Hoffman, & Evgeni Dadonov

WAR Difference: +2.1

Explanation: This is one of my bolder takes for this upcoming season. The Panthers improved their roster this offseason. Patric Hornqvist has been a top-six forward but last season his even-strength game took a huge turn for the worst. All of his value came on the man advantage which could be a fine replacement for Hoffman. Assuming he isn’t as bad as he was in even-strength in 19-20, this is a solid acquisition.

The Panthers primarily focused on improving their depth which they most certainly did. Letting Hoffman go was a smart move, albeit the Dadonov departure definitely hurts. The Panthers are a deeper team this season after a stellar offseason. They also have a couple of young faces in Owen Tippett and Ryan Lomberg who are bound to make the opening day lineup.

Nashville Predators, 5th Place

Key Additions: Luke Kunin, Nick Cousins, Brad Richardson, Erik Haula, Matt Benning, & Mark Borowiecki

Key Departures: Craig Smith, Nick Bonino, Kyle Turris, & Dan Hamhuis

WAR Difference: -2.9

Explanation: On paper, there is no doubt most people would argue that the Predators got better this offseason. However, in terms of value, they got a lot worse. Aside from the solid acquisition of Nick Cousins and Matt Benning, the rest of the additions were below-replacement level players last season.

Craig Smith and Nick Bonino were the cornerstones of the Predators third line, evident by their combined 4.4 wins last season. While forwards like Erik Haula could definitely rebound, I don’t believe the Predators improved enough to finish in the top four and earn a playoff spot. A big question is Eeli Tolavenen and whether he can be impactful.

Columbus Blue Jackets, 6th Place

Key Additions: Max Domi, Mikko Koivu

Key Departures: Josh Anderson, Alexander Wennberg, & Devin Shore

WAR Difference: +2.2

Explanation: The addition of Max Domi was very significant and he is a solid top-six forward. They definitely fleeced the Canadiens in the trade that sent Josh Anderson to Montreal. The issue about the Blue Jackets is that they lack the high-end talent that is necessary, albeit they always figure out how to contend for a playoff spot. I believe they don’t have enough firepower to have any real shot at a playoff spot. Can Mikhail Grigorenko be an impactful forward?

Detroit Red Wings, 7th Place

Key Additions: Marc Staal, Bobby Ryan, Jon Merill, Thomas Greiss, Troy Stecher, & Vladislav Namestnikov

Key Departures: Justin Abdelkader, Jonathan Ericsson, Trevor Daley, Brendan Perlini, Madison Bowey, & Jimmy Howard

WAR Difference: +8

Explanation: It wouldn’t be an NHL season preview without a bold take. The Detroit Red Wings had the best offseason in the NHL in terms of WAR. They gained 8 wins this offseason, in part to adding positive value players and several departures being below-replacement level.

The acquisition of Marc Staal was by far the weakest part of their offseason. Adding Thomas Greiss was a good transaction along with adding two strong depth defensemen in Jon Merill and Troy Stecher, the latter with top-four potential.

If Vladislav Namestnikov can recapture the success he had in Tampa, he could be an X-factor. Filip Zadina secured himself as a strong player last season, if he can build upon that success, it could help the Red Wings past the Hawks.

Chicago Blackhawks, 8th Place

Key Additions: Brandon Pirri, Nikita Zadorov, Mattias Janmark, Lucas Wallmark, & Carl Soderberg

Key Departures: Brandon Saad, Drake Caggiula, Corey Crawford, & Slater Koekoek

WAR Difference: -3.4

Explanation: I probably wouldn’t have the Blackhawks here if it wasn’t for the injuries to Kirby Dach and Jonathan Toews. The Blackhawks got a lot worse this offseason, and have a goalie tandem composed of two AHL goalies and have several injuries to key players.

The Brandon Saad trade was beyond puzzling, especially since Nikita Zadorov had a terrible 19-20 campaign. The three additions of Janmark, Wallmark, and Soderberg were definitely the highlight of the Blackhawks offseason.

West Division

Colorado Avalanche, 1st Place

Key Additions: Brandon Saad, Devon Toews

Key Departures: Colin Wilson, Kevin Connauton, Matt Nieto, Vladislav Namestnikov, Nikita Zadorov, & Mark Barberio

WAR Difference: +1

Explanation: The Colorado Avalanche are the best team in the West division and probably the best team in the league too. They strengthened their roster this offseason by acquiring both Brandon Saad and Devon Toews.

While they lost a little depth in terms of the bottom-six, they acquired a top-six forward and second-pairing defenseman. The Avalanche are going to be a huge threat this season and won’t have much of a problem making the postseason, given the weak division.

Vegas Golden Knights, 2nd Place

Key Additions: Alex Pietrangelo

Key Departures: Nick Cousins, Jon Merill, & Deryk Engelland

WAR Difference: +0.2

Explanation: The Vegas Golden Knights got one of the biggest free agents this offseason in Alex Pietrangelo. He supplied the Blues with 3.2 wins last season and will definitely be a huge presence on the blueline in Vegas.

The departure of Nick Cousins was questionable given he is one of the best bottom-six forwards in the NHL. It also was surprising to see Jon Merill leave for Detroit. With the issue down the middle in Vegas, youngster Cody Glass will be needed.

Minnesota Wild, 3rd Place

Key Additions: Nick Bjugstad, Marcus Johansson, Nick Bonino, & Cam Talbot

Key Departures: Eric Staal, Luke Kunin, Mikko Koivu, Devan Dubnyk, & Ryan Donato

WAR Difference: +4.5

Explanation: The Minnesota Wild had one of the worst goalie tandems in the NHL last season and with Alex Stalock out indefinitely, the Wild will have two new faces sharing the crease. Cam Talbot is an average starter which is a huge jump from what the Wild had last season.

The Wild won the trade that sent Luke Kunin to Nashville with Nick Bonino coming back which will come in handy given the Wild’s center depth. However, the Wild need Johansson to recapture his magic from his days in Washington after acquiring him for Eric Staal. The most important factor to note is that Kirill Kaprizov will make his NHL debut.

St. Louis Blues, 4th Place

Key Additions: Torey Krug, Kyle Clifford, & Mike Hoffman

Key Departures: Alex Pietrangelo

WAR Difference: -1.6

Explanation: The St. Louis Blues did a good job by signing Torey Krug in free agency after Alex Pietrangelo departed. However, the Blues lost a ton of value even with signing Krug. Pietrangelo is one of the best defensemen in the NHL and was worth 3.2 wins last season.

In comparison, Krug was worth 1.6 wins. The signing of Mike Hoffman does very little, he’s a negative presence 5-on-5 but provides immense value on the powerplay due to his tantalizing shot.

The Blues don’t need a finisher because they are already one of the best finishing teams in the league which makes this addition very puzzling. With Tarasenko out for a period of time, he will at least be able to replace Tarasenko’s finishing ability.

Arizona Coyotes, 5th Place

Key Additions: Tyler Pitlick, John Hayden, Drake Caggiula, Johan Larsson, & Derek Brassard

Key Departures: Taylor Hall, Michael Grabner, Vinne Hinostroza, Carl Soderberg, & Brad Richardson

WAR Difference: +1.9

Explanation: Taylor Hall only played 35 games for the Coyotes and was impactful despite not playing at the standard that was expected of him. One of the biggest themes of the offseason was replacing some bottom-six forwards. They definitely improved with their additions, specifically Tyler Pitlick and Johan Larsson.

Anaheim Ducks, 6th Place

Key Additions: Kevin Shattenkirk

Key Departures: Michael Del Zotto

WAR Difference: +2.3

Explanation: The Anaheim Ducks made minimal changes this offseason, but they improved their defensive core by signing Kevin Shattenkirk who offered 2.1 wins last season. This is an obvious upgrade from Del Zotto. They also have Trevor Zegras who will boost their forward group.

San Jose Sharks, 7th Place

Key Additions: Devan Dubnyk, Ryan Donato, & Matt Nieto

Key Departures: Joe Thornton, Lukas Radil, Tim Heed, & Melker Karlsson

WAR Difference: -0.1

Explanation: The San Jose Sharks made a brutal mistake by adding Devan Dubnyk, the Jones and Dubnyk tandem is not very good. Ryan Donato and Matt Nieto were both solid acquisitions and can help stabilize the middle-six forward group. The Sharks actually gained value by losing three depth players in Radil, Heed, & Melker Karlsson.

Los Angeles Kings, 8th Place

Key Additions: Olli Maatta, Andreas Athanasiou

Key Departures: Joakim Ryan, Trevor Lewis, & Ben Hutton

WAR Difference: -0.7

Explanation: It was a good move for the Kings to acquire Olli Maatta. If Andreas Athanasiou can get back to the level he played in Detroit, then this could be an excellent addition to the Kings forward group. It is also important to note that Gabe Vilardi and Lias Andersson (traded from the Rangers to the Kings) will be in the lineup.

What do you think of my predictions? What do you agree/disagree with? Who do you think makes the biggest jump forward and who takes the biggest steps backward? Leave a comment down below or tweet at us @FSGonePuckWild.

(All Data and Information via Evolving-Hockey & Hockey-Reference)