The biggest X-factor for every NHL team: Eastern Conference edition

Every team has a handful of players that could significantly alter the course of their season.

They are the X-factors.

Not necessarily the best player, or even a new player, but somebody that could make-or-break how things go based largely on their own individual performance. Maybe they are taking on a new role, or an increased role, or trying to fill a spot vacated by a departing player. Or maybe it is just somebody that is ready to take a significant leap forward in their development or career.

Let’s talk about the biggest such player for each team, including a couple of potential breakout stars, some goalies (always an X-factor), and some returning players that missed significant portions of the 2020-21 season.

We start here with the Eastern Conference teams. You can find the Western Conference X-factors here.

Boston Bruins: Charlie CoyleWith David Krejci now playing in the Czech Republic the Bruins have a major hole on their second line between Taylor Hall and Craig Smith. Coyle will probably get the first crack at that role. If he can handle it, that would give the Bruins the complete second line they need (and seemingly had with Krejci, Hall, and Smith).

Buffalo Sabres: Rasmus DahlinWith Jack Eichel‘s future in doubt and Owen Power still at least a year away Dahlin is now the face of the Sabres franchise. And they still do not fully know what they have in him because he has had three different coaches who have tried to use him three different ways.

Carolina Hurricanes: Frederik Andersen. The Hurricanes completely overhauled their goaltending position with two veterans who have been injured in recent years. Big gamble for a Stanley Cup contender. Could be a good one, though. If it works.

Columbus Blue Jackets: Patrik Laine. Are they going to get the potential 40-goal scorer that puts the fear of God into opposing goalies, or the player that struggled and was benched at times after the trade? They need the former. Desperately.

Detroit Red Wings: Moritz Seider. If he is as good as the Red Wings think he can be that would be quite the immediate boost to their rebuild. The perception of this pick has rapidly changed in two years.

[Related: Every free agent signing by all 32 NHL teams]

Florida Panthers: Spencer Knight. The best goalie prospect in hockey and the future of the position in Florida. How much do they really trust Sergei Bobrovsky at this point? The sooner Knight takes over that spot, the better.

Montreal Canadiens: Christian Dvorak. The Jesperi Kotkaniemi offer sheet forced the Canadiens’ hand into making a trade. The funny thing is that Dvorak is probably the better player right now. So it might be an upgrade.

New Jersey Devils: Jack Hughes. Hughes took a massive step forward in his second season, and if he can take a similar step this season the Devils will have a superstar on their hands.

New York Islanders: Oliver WahlstromThe Islanders are rock solid from top to bottom, but they could really use another impact forward to make it so all of that pressure does not fall on Mathew Barzal. Wahlstrom is one player that has the potential to be that. He showed flashes of it last year.

New York Rangers: Alexis Lafrenière. Expectations are high in New York and the pressure is on for this entire group. They need Lafreniere to take a Hughes-like step in his second season.

Ottawa Senators: Matt Murray. He counts $6.25 million against the cap for another three seasons. He plays the most important position on the ice. If they want to improve they need more. Way more.

Philadelphia Flyers: Carter HartThere might not be a single player in the NHL that will play a bigger role in determining the success or failure of a team.

Pittsburgh Penguins: Tristan JarryGoaltending is the single biggest reason the Penguins 2020-21 postseason ended in the first round. They are bringing back the same goalies with a thinner roster in front of them. Let’s see how that works out.

Tampa Bay Lightning: Alex Barre-BouletThe Lightning have a non-stop supply of talented players coming through their system that just have a way of fitting in and producing. With the entire line of Blake Coleman, Yanni Gourde, and Barclay Goodrow moving on they are going to need that internal talent pipeline to keep flowing.

Toronto Maple Leafs: Jack Campbell. He was great last year when he took over the starting job. Was it a fluke? Or something that he can come close to repeating? There is immense pressure on this team this season to do something, and Campbell is going to have to play a big role in that.

Washington Capitals: Anthony Mantha. They paid a steep price for him, but his style fits the Capitals perfectly and he really is an outstanding player. He played better than his box score numbers would indicate after the trade.

Rasmus Dahlin, Sabres agree to to 3-year, $18 million extension

Rasmus Dahlin and the Sabres have worked out a three-year, $18 million extension, the team announced on Wednesday.

The 21-year-old Dahlin will remain a restricted free agent when the deal expires following the 2023-24 NHL season. This three-year pact will buy the Sabres two years that the defenseman is arbitration-eligible. He will retain arbitration rights at the end of this contract.

According to Cap Friendly, Dahlin will get $3 million in salary this season with a $2 million signing bonus. The base salary will then jump in the final two years from $5.8 million in 2022-23 to $7.2 million in 2023-24.

Dahlin, the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NHL Draft, finished with five goals and 23 points in 56 games last season. He struggled at the start of the 2020-21 season, but his game began to turn around once Don Granato replaced Ralph Krueger in March.

“His way to play was how I learned to play hockey,” Dahlin said after the season of Granato’s influence. “But the thing I felt was that he trusted me as a player. He really saw what my potential was and I felt comfortable playing out there.”

The Sabres’ blue line will look a little different this season. Rasmus Ristolainen and Jake McCabe are gone and Mark Pysyk, Robert Hagg, and Will Butcher were acquired over the summer. More changes will be coming once the organization works out a Jack Eichel trade.

With Dahlin, Robert Thomas and Kirill Kaprizov signed, that leaves notable RFAs Elias Pettersson, Quinn Hughes, Brady Tkachuk still without contracts as training camps begin.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Buffalo Sabres 2021-22 NHL Season Preview

The 2021-22 NHL season is coming and it’s time to take a look at all 32 teams. Over the next month we’ll be examining best- and worst-case scenarios, looking at the biggest questions, breakout candidates, and more for each franchise. Today, we preview the Buffalo Sabres.

2020-21 Season Review

• Record: 15-34-7 (37 points); eighth place in East Division
• Postseason: Did not qualify for playoffs; drafted Owen Power No. 1 overall
• Offensive leader: Sam Reinhart (54 games, 25 goals, 15 assists, 40 points)

• Free Agent Additions: Will Butcher (trade from Devils), Robert Hagg (trade from Flyers), Vinnie Hinostroza, Aaron Dell, Craig Anderson
• Free Agent Subtractions: Sam Reinhart (trade to Panthers), Rasmus Ristolainen (trade to Flyers), Linus Ullmark (Bruins), Riley Sheahan (Seattle)

Biggest Question Facing the Sabres

• What is going to happen with Jack Eichel?

This really is the only question at this point. And really it is more of a question of “when” will it happen.

With or without Eichel the team is going to struggle. They already traded Sam Reinhart and Rasmus Ristolainen, the roster is thin and lacking in impact players, goaltending is non-existent, and while the defense has some intriguing young pieces it is still not a great group.

But an Eichel trade seems to simply be a matter of when and not if.

The situation has turned ugly as the two sides can not agree on the best course of action regarding his desire for surgery, he is clearly frustrated with the lack of success on the ice, while the team simply looks like it is ready for another rebuild.

What’s the salary cap situation?

As of this publication the Sabres remain below the NHL’s salary floor with restricted free agent defenseman Rasmus Dahlin still unsigned. They will easily clear the floor when he signs. But if Eichel gets traded that will be another $10 million coming off the books.

Jeff Skinner‘s contract ($9 million per year through the end of the 2026-27 season) is the only other significant contract on the books. And while that has quickly turned into an albatross of a deal, they have so few commitments elsewhere that they have plenty of salary cap flexibility to work with and will have even more after the inevitable Eichel trade.

Breakout Candidate

Henri Jokiharju

The one area of the Sabres that has some intriguing young players is clearly on the defense. Rasmus Dahlin had an inconsistent season a year ago, but he still has star potential. Owen Power was the top pick in the draft, but it not making the jump to the NHL just yet. Those two are going to be the building blocks.

Jokiharju is worth paying attention to as well.

Entering his fourth year in the league, and third with the Sabres, he is at a point now where he probably needs to take a big step forward if he is going to reach his potential. He has shown flashes of it during that time, and the Sabres thought highly enough of him to give him a three-year deal this offseason.

Best-Case Scenario

With this roster and playing in a division with Tampa Bay, Boston, Toronto, Florida, and even Montreal it makes the playoffs seem like nothing more than a dream. So what do the Sabres have to look forward to here? Hopefully that Dahlin finds consistency, and players like Casey Mittelstadt and Jokiharju take big steps forward. It would also be beneficial if Jeff Skinner was able to return to form a little and maybe salvage some of that contract.

Worst-Case Scenario

The worst case situation here is that they screw up an Eichel trade and do not get any real progression from players like Dahlin, Mittelstadt, or Jokiharju. This is going to be a long season either way, and the coming seasons are going to be just as ugly as another major rebuild starts. But they have to see some sort of progress somewhere.

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Examining NHL’s top remaining RFA situations: Contracts, offer sheets, and cap space

NHL training camps are just a couple of weeks away and there are still a number of significant restricted free agents who are unsigned.

Vancouver’s duo of Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes tops the list, while Kirill Kaprizov (Wild), Brady Tkachuk (Senators), and Rasmus Dahlin (Sabres) are also seeking new deals.

What sort of contracts are they looking for? What kind of contracts should they get? Could see another offer sheet like Carolina’s successful signing of Jesperi Kotkaniemi this past week?

We take a look at all of those questions here.

Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes, Vancouver Canucks

Team salary cap situation: $10.6 million in remaining salary cap space, (per Cap Friendly) plus $3.5 million in long-term injured reserve relief when Micheal Ferland ends up there.

2020-21 stats: Pettersson (26 games, 10 goals, 11 assists); Hughes (56 games, 3 goals, 38 assists)

Offer sheet risk: Moderate. The Canucks’ salary cap situation, combined with the fact they have two top-line RFAs still sitting here unsigned, should make them an offer sheet risk for at least one of them. In theory. But any team that wants to sign either Pettersson or Hughes is going to have to a rich enough offer to convince them to sign, and be enough to prohibit Vancouver from matching. That sort of offer is getting until the multiple first-round pick tier. Pettersson is probably worth that, so it might be worth it. The jury is still out on Hughes.

What sort of contract are we looking at? Pettersson is already a top-line center and should be viewed as the Canucks’ cornerstone player. He is sensational. But he also recently said in a Swedish interview that while he wants to stay in Vancouver, he also wants to play in a situation where he has a chance of winning, something that has not happened lately in Vancouver. Could he take a short-term bridge deal, see how the Canucks progress, bet on himself (one he would almost certainly win), then cash in down the line?

Hughes’ deal might be a little tricker. He has been outstanding offensively so far in his career, but his defensive game took a small step back this past season. He is definitely part of the young, up-and-coming group of defenders ready to take over the position. Are the Canucks confident enough to give him a deal comparable to Cale Makar and Miro Heiskanen?

[Related: Every free agent signing by all 32 NHL teams]

Rasmus Dahlin, Buffalo Sabres

Team salary cap situation: $23 million in cap space and still needs to spend more than $2 million to reach the salary floor.

2020-21 stats: 56 games, 5 goals, 18 assists

Offer sheet risk: Extremely low. The Sabres could literally match any offer any team could throw at Dahlin, and it is doubtful that anyone is confident enough in Dahlin to throw an offer so lucrative at him that it would make Buffalo consider not matching it.

What sort of contract are we looking at? This is a tough one. Dahlin’s potential is still enormous, and he has shown flashes of being a superstar level player. But his 2020-21 season was a bit of a mixed bag. He seemed to take a step back early in the year, and then looked like a completely different (and better) player in the second half after the coaching change. And that has been a constant problem. In three years he has already played for three different coaches who all had different ideas for the type of player he should be, and as a result we do not even know what type of player he is. This situation screams bridge contract.

Brady Tkachuk, Ottawa Senators

Team salary cap situation: $24 million in salary cap space and still need to spend $3 million to reach the salary cap floor.

2020-21 stats: 56 games, 17 goals, 19 assists

Offer sheet risk: Extremely low. Just like the situation in Buffalo, Ottawa could match literally anything and almost certainly would. There are always going to be (very legitimate) questions about the Senators willingness to pay top dollar under Eugene Melnyk’s ownership, but Tkachuk is the centerpiece of this rebuild. They are not letting him get away.

What sort of contract are we looking at? This should be a long-term deal. No need for a bridge. And it would probably actually save the Senators money in the long-run to get him signed now. If Tkachuk gets a bridge deal he could really cash in on his next deal if he continues to develop the way he has. He is their best player, potentially a future captain, and there is no reason to think he should not be able to get — and be worth — a contract similar to the one Ottawa signed Thomas Chabot to a couple of years ago (eight years, $64 million).

Kirill Kaprizov, Minnesota Wild

Team salary cap situation: $12 million in salary cap space, but it disappears quickly next season due to buyouts.

2020-21 stats: 55 games, 27 goals, 24 assists

Offer sheet risk: Literally none. He can not sign an offer sheet because he signed a two-year entry-level deal in 2019-20 and did not play a game. That means he is not eligible to sign an offer sheet. So no risk. The bigger concern has been him going back to the KHL and playing in Russia.

What sort of contract are we looking at? The Wild have reportedly made long-term offers of seven and eight years to Kaprizov that would make him the highest paid player in the history of the franchise. Kaprizov is reportedly looking for a shorter team deal.

The problem with that for the Wild is that because Kaprizov is already 24 years old he would be eligible for unrestricted free agency at the end of almost any short-term deal. That is not at all what they want. That is part of what is making it a difficult negotiation because both sides have very strong reasons for wanting the type of contract that they want.

Minnesota wants to keep its superstar for as long as possible, and the superstar almost certainly wants to keep his options open for another big pay day and the possibility of unrestricted free agency at an age where teams will still pay top dollar. Somebody is going to have to blink here.

Kailer Yamamoto, Edmonton Oilers

Team salary cap situation: Currently more than $2 million over the salary cap

2020-21 stats: 52 games, 8 goals, 13 assists

Offer sheet risk: It should be high. If there is another offer sheet possibility sitting out there, this should be the situation for it. Yamamoto is a very good young player and currently on a team whose salary cap situation would make matching an even modest offer difficult. If Jesperi Kotkaniemi is worth $6.1 million and a first- and third-round pick, Yamamoto is certainly worth something in the $4.1 million range. The compensation for that is a second-round pick. Well worth it if you can get him to sign it.

What sort of contract are we looking at? Almost certainly a shorter term deal. Yamamoto is a good player and shown flashes of being a quality top-six option but the track record at this point is so small that it would be difficult to commit anything longer term. It also would not make much sense for Yamamoto to commit to that when there is a good chance he could bet on himself, prove his value even more, and turn that into a more significant pay day in the future.