The biggest X-factor for every NHL team: Western 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 Western Conference teams. You can find the Eastern Conference X-factors here.

Anaheim Ducks: Trevor ZegrasThe Ducks are stuck in this seemingly perpetual mediocrity where they can not give up on the idea of contending even though they do not have the talent to actually contend. They are not only a bad team, they are a mostly boring team that needs a new star to emerge.

Arizona Coyotes: Shayne GostisbehereThe Coyotes are jumpstarting this rebuild and accumulating as many future assets as they can and got a bunch of draft picks from the Flyers for the cost of taking on Gostisbehere’s remaining contract. Thing is, Gostisbehere is still a pretty good player. He is just not as good as the Flyers hoped he would be. A big year from him could either make him a part of the Coyotes’ rebuild (he is still at an age where he could be part of the future) or make him an attractive trade chip.

Calgary Flames: Noah Hanifan. Mark Giordano is gone and that means more responsibility for the returning defenders. Hanifan has jumpstarted his career in Calgary and is going to be relied on to be one of their top players this season.

Chicago Blackhawks: Jonathan ToewsMarc-Andre Fleury and Seth Jones are also candidates here, but getting your No. 1 center and captain back after he missed the previous season is also significant.

Colorado Avalanche: Darcy KuemperPhilipp Grubauer was an underrated part of the Avalanche roster this past season, and Kuemper has to fill those shoes. Goaltending will be the biggest question mark for this roster.

Dallas Stars: Tyler SeguinA healthy Seguin (and Alexander Radulov) could have put the Stars in the playoffs a year ago. Now that they are back the postseason expectations should return as well.

Edmonton Oilers: Mike SmithThe defense is not good and they are counting on a 39-year-old goalie that has had one good season in three years. They better hope he can repeat it. If he can’t? Bad times ahead.

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

Los Angeles Kings: Quinton Byfield. The best prospect in the league’s best farm system. Byfield becoming a star is a game-changer for the Kings’ rebuild.

Minnesota Wild: Marco Rossi. The Wild have plans to contend but they lack impact center depth. Rossi could get a big role, but he is coming back from a lost season due to COVID-19 complications. What is he capable of this season?

Nashville Predators: Eeli Tolvanen. Not really sure what the Predators’ short-term (or long-term) direction is, but Tolvanen becoming the star they have hoped he could become would dramatically improve both outlooks. They need a game-changing forward, and he is one young player that has the potential for it.

San Jose Sharks: Erik KarlssonHis career should not be falling off of the cliff just yet. He should still have some very good hockey in front of him.

Seattle Kraken: Jared McCannHis shot gives him a chance to score 30 goals every year. But can he put it all together to get there? Probably the most intriguing player they took in the expansion draft given his talent, age, and upside.

St. Louis Blues. Torey KrugThe Blues’ defense took a big step backwards in 2020-21 and Krug did not make the immediate impact probably hoped for. They need more from him given his role and price tag.

Vancouver Canucks: Oliver Ekman-LarssonThe Canucks need to be hoping like hell that the past two years were an aberration on a struggling, rebuilding team and he can regain his previous form. If he can not that is a big contract to be stuck with.

Vegas Golden Knights: Nolan Patrick. If the Golden Knights have a weak spot, it is center depth. This could be a good marriage for both team and player. Patrick gets a fresh start on a Stanley Cup contender, maybe Vegas catches lightning in a bottle with a talented player.

Winnipeg Jets: Pierre-Luc Dubois. The immediate returns on this trade were lousy for everybody. Winnipeg. Columbus. Laine. Dubois. Dubois still has No. 1 center ability, and if he reaches that it makes an already strong Jets team even better.

Coyotes rebuild is just beginning, but it’s off to a brilliant start

Some NHL and sports teams are afraid to use the word “rebuild.” Sometimes calling it “reloading” or a “retool” is genuinely more accurate, as teams try to thread the needle between competing in the present, and building for the future. In the case of the Arizona Coyotes, their rebuild is so full-fledged, maybe it needs an even heftier term.

Call it a reset, even?

Slice it up whichever way you’d like, but this Coyotes rebuild is one of the most dramatic renovations the NHL’s ever seen.

The bad news is that the Coyotes still have a long, long way to go. That tracks both on and off the ice. People will reasonably call this the “easy part” of the Coyotes rebuild.

But even with some caveats, the Coyotes rebuild warrants praise. Frankly, other teams can learn from just how aggressive the Coyotes rebuild has been.

Let’s dig into what makes GM Bill Armstrong’s work, and briefly consider how far they still need to go.

An inventive Coyotes offseason powers rebuild with draft picks

Ever since the Hurricanes bought out Patrick Marleau to land a first-rounder, I’ve been pleading with rebuilding NHL teams to Xerox that template. As promising as the Red Wings and other rebuilding teams have been at times, we haven’t really seen truly savvy “weaponizing of salary cap space” often enough.

Even the Kraken produced underwhelming returns, despite once-in-a-franchise opportunities to exploit other teams’ cap problems for their long-term gains.

Instead, the Coyotes swooped in, taking short-term bribes that other teams should’ve embraced. That “weaponizing salary cap space” phrasing feels too soft for what the Coyotes have done, much like a rebuild almost feels like an understatement. They’ve truly assembled a war chest of futures.

[PHT’s 2021 NHL Offseason Trade Tracker]

If we went over every offseason move, we’d be here all day. Instead, a summary:

  • Again, they took on problem contracts of one or two years, knowing they’re in tank mode anyway. That converted Shayne Gostisbehere, Anton Stralman, Loui Eriksson, Antoine Roussel, and others into a bucket of picks. Theoretically, some of those players could be traded again for even more picks. If not … already a great use of cap space.
  • Considering John Chayka’s many blunders, it’s already impressive that the Coyotes used the landmark Oliver Ekman-Larsson/Conor Garland trade to get into the 2021 NHL Draft’s first round. That also softened the blow of the Coyotes’  would-be 11th pick being “forfeited,” yet listed. Strange “hotel not having a 13th floor” vibes there.
Coyotes rebuild is just beginning, but it's off to a brilliant start round one cap
(Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
  • Most dramatically, all of that wheeling and dealing leaves the Coyotes with a ton of 2022 NHL Draft picks. If that draft lives up to the hype, the Coyotes would be in a great place. That’s true even if the Coyotes’ obvious tanking doesn’t net them Shane Wright.
  • The Coyotes haven’t just accelerated their rebuild by loading up on the 2022 NHL Draft, either.

They already lined up three second-round picks for the 2024 NHL Draft, while other teams likely don’t feel comfortable looking that far ahead. The sheer volume of those picks could mean more dart throws, or assets to send for more immediate help.

Not every team is as willing to make painful choices like the Coyotes have during their rebuild

Considering Oliver Ekman-Larsson’s plummeting value, the Coyotes pretty much had to get out of his contract. Yes, the Canucks are holding out hope that they can rebuild OEL like a hockey Robocop. But the Coyotes packaging OEL in a way that actually landed them a first-rounder, rather than costing them one to shake that odious contract loose? Wonderful. (Unless you’re a Canucks fan?)

Zooming out, your mileage will vary on other trade sacrifices from this Coyotes rebuild. Conor Garland’s a gem, Darcy Kuemper conjured most of their recent flashes of brilliance, and Christian Dvorak will clearly be missed.

In the big picture, it’s brilliant stuff.

At 31, and entering a contract year, the Coyotes risked Darcy Kuemper’s stock falling — or him leaving for nothing as a free agent. Instead, they exploited the Avalanche’s situation without Philipp Grubauer, getting an outstanding return.

Amid Montreal’s offer sheet misery, the Coyotes landed serious draft capital by trading Christian Dvorak. The cost-controlled 25-year-old could very well be worth the price for the Canadiens. But, for the Coyotes? It’s difficult to  imagine a solid but unspectacular center moving the needle for a team blowing almost everything up.

[Could the Coyotes rebuild go even further with Kessel, Keller trades?]

Time and time again, the Coyotes exploited other teams’ angst. The Canucks were desperate both to improve (thus willing to gamble on OEL’s scary contract) and also to wiggle out of cap worries. With that in mind, the Coyotes got out of that OEL deal, landed nice picks, and only had to absorb a year of Eriksson/Beagle/etc. pain. Just splendid.

That would all seem like obvious stuff, but other teams don’t always strike when the iron’s hot. Among other things, other rebuilding teams could learn from the Coyotes in being so decisive. A wishy-washy team might have waited too long to take advantage of the Avalanche’s Grubauer situation, among other opportunities.

Most important steps still to come — and go beyond work on the ice

Truly, it’s rare to see a rebuild as dramatic as the Coyotes,’ at least if you focus on a single offseason. You might need to go to other sports, possibly delving into “The Process.”

Yet, despite a series of impressive leaps, this franchise is really just placing the first bricks of a foundation. That’s just how decimated things were after a series of dizzying errors by former GM John Chayka.

Collecting a ton of draft picks gives the Coyotes crucial extra “dart throws.” They still need to hit those targets, and develop players properly if they even select the right ones.

Wade through the Coyotes’ draft history, even just looking at high first-rounders, and you’re essentially doom-scrolling. From Barrett Hayton (fifth overall in 2018) to Kyle Turris and Brandon Gormley, there’s ample evidence that high picks won’t just automatically make the Coyotes rebuild an actual success.

If you only look at year-to-year disappointments, the likes of Scott Wheeler ranking the Coyotes’ farm system just 14th seems less than ideal. With all of the picks they lost because of Chayka’s scouting violations and expensive deadline rentals, though? It could be worse. But there’s still a ton of work to do.

[Looking back at the mess GM Bill Armstrong inherited]

Of course, the Coyotes face bigger hurdles than making the right draft picks, and getting the most out of them.

The Coyotes’ arena problems seem like they’ll never end. If they do, it could take a while. Either way, there’s no denying that money troubles made a Coyotes rebuild a no-brainer. To truly generate optimism, the Coyotes will eventually need to appear viable to potential free agents.

Back in February, the Athletic’s Katie Strang dropped a bombshell report (sub required) about the Coyotes. Beyond illuminating money troubles, it pointed to a toxic atmosphere. Ownership absorbed the harshest criticisms in Strang’s piece, but it didn’t always shine a flattering light on Armstrong, either.

Now, it’s true that successful NHL franchises aren’t immune to ugly scandals. Still, the general feeling is that the Coyotes have a lot of work to do both on and off the ice for this rebuild to actually come together.

Like the Sabres and others have shown, things can unravel in ways both expected and unexpected. The mission has by no means been accomplished just yet.

But give credit where it’s due. Looking at this offseason, the Coyotes have nailed their rebuild. Other NHL teams should take note.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.