A promising young netminder on the verge of a career breakthrough. A Swiss defender who is ready to emerge from the shadow of his more famous partner. And the player who will be remembered as the finest of his generation. With the 2015-16 campaign set to kick off on Wednesday, we’ve picked these players to be honored among the best of the best as members of our second annual SI.com Preseason All-NHL Teams.
While there are arguments to made on behalf of dozens of players, we ultimately selected the athletes we see as having the best chance of making this season something special. Disagree with our picks? Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comment section below.
Goalie: Braden Holtby, Washington Capitals
No knock on reigning MVP Carey Price, but it’s been 11 years since a goalie has repeated as an NHL First Team All-Star. And based on what he showed last year, the Holtbeast is about to make it 12. Washington’s magnificent young stopper is coming off a season in which he tied a franchise record with 73 appearances and finished with 41 wins, a 2.22 goals-against average and .923 save percentage, all of which were career highs. That was good enough to place him fourth in the Vezina Trophy voting—exactly the spot Price was in the year before his big breakthrough. Holtby then upped his game in the playoffs, posting a 1.71 GAA and .944 save percentage that hinted at the excellence that’s just ahead. Keep an eye on him in the early going. A traditional slow starter, he could set the tone for his season with a solid October-November.
Defenseman: Erik Karlsson, Ottawa Senators
At this point, Karlsson has become the next generation Nick Lidstrom: If he’s healthy, go ahead and pencil him in for a spot on the NHL All-Star team. He wasn’t at his best last season—in fact, his play dipped below average too often during the opening months—but he finished playing well enough to earn his second career Norris Trophy. The weight of wearing the C for the first time might have been part of the problem. This year, he’s promised to deliver a more consistent effort so that he can demand it of his teammates. He’s also bigger than he’s ever been after a summer of hitting the weights and now weighs close to 200 pounds. That extra strength should make him a more effective defender one-on-one and more of challenge to opposing blueliners when he takes off on an offensive rush. And having just turned 25, he’s only now approaching his best hockey.
Defenseman: Roman Josi, Nashville Predators
Consider it the changing of the guard. Shea Weber may be Nashville’s captain and the face of the franchise but Josi is ready to emerge from his partner’s shadow and establish himself as one of the very best in the league. He’s coming off a season in which he set new personals bests for goals (15), assists (40), points (55) and shots (201) and time on ice (26:28). He started more shifts in his own zone than any player and was +24 at even strength, best among defenseman. He can do whatever is asked of him and he does it against the best players in the league. At 25 Josi is just now entering his prime years, setting the stage for further maturation in play. And in a salary cap-controlled league obsessed with value, his $4 million hit makes him one of the best values around. He’s due for a big, big year.
Forward: John Tavares, New York Islanders
After having the Art Ross Trophy yanked from his hands at the last moment by Jamie Benn last season, and finishing as a runner-up for the Hart Trophy for the second time in his career, Tavares is primed to become The Man. The key to taking that next step? Maturation, both his own—he just turned 25 in September—and of his very promising supporting cast in Brooklyn. After their breakthrough 101 point season in 2014-15, the future is now for these Islanders. It will be the understated excellence of Tavares that guides them into Stanley Cup contention.
Forward: Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins
Already 28—where has the time gone?—Crosby is nearing the end of his prime years. That said, no one should take him or his all-around dominance for granted. Although he’s coming off a down year—Crosby scored 28 goals in 2014-15, his lowest total in something approaching a full season—he still averaged 1.09 points per game, the most of any regular player in the league. He should improve on those numbers with Phil Kessel now riding shotgun.
Forward: Tyler Seguin, Dallas Stars
If not for the Dmitry Kulikov cheap shot that mangled his knee and cost him 11 games it might have been Seguin, and not his running buddy Benn, who claimed the Art Ross Trophy last season. The engine that powers the best offense in the Western Conference, Seguin is perfectly built for today’s game, all speed and sizzle. There aren’t many players who can match his first step, and fewer who can keep pace with him at full stride. Add in a blinding fast release and Seguin is virtually in a class by himself. Skating alongside Benn and newcomer Patrick Sharp, 100 points isn’t out of the question for a 23-year-old who is still scratching the surface of his potential.
Goalie: Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens
Price limited his opposition to two goals or fewer in 44 of his appearances last season. Astounding. If the Canadiens find a way to improve their lousy possession numbers—and stop relying on him to bail them out quite so often—he could top that this time around.
Defenseman: Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Arizona Coyotes
Virtually a one-man team in the desert, OEL will play harder defensive minutes at a consistently higher level than any blueliner, all while leading the Yotes offensively.
Defenseman: Victor Hedman, Tampa Bay Lightning
Hedman is set to trade on the elevated profile he earned during an outstanding playoff run to challenge for the Norris Trophy.
Forward: Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals
Coming off his second consecutive 50-goal season, and fifth Rocket Richard Trophy, Ovechkin is firmly established as the game’s premier sniper. And after a season under coach Barry Trotz, he’s making steps toward being a more complete player. Another Hart Trophy isn’t out of the question.
Forward: Vladimir Tarasenko, St. Louis Blues
Few forwards dominate possession the way Tarasenko can. After scoring 37 goals in just his third NHL season, he’s primed to challenge Ovechkin for the Richard Trophy and 50 goals is within his reach.
Forward: Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning
Will the looming expiration of his contract distract or inspire this 25-year-old marksman? Bet on the latter.
Goalie: Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins
The popgun B’s dropped 15 games in which Rask allowed two goals or fewer last season and he still managed 34 wins, the second-most in his career. With a league-best .926 save percentage over the past three seasons, he’s poised for another big year even if Boston’s back line took a hit with the departure of Dougie Hamilton to Calgary.
Defenseman: Mark Giordano, Calgary Flames
If not for the biceps injury that ended his remarkable season after just 61 games, Giordano would have won the Norris last season. This year, he could challenge for the Hart. Playing with Dougie Hamilton will enhance his value at both ends of the ice.
Defenseman: P.K. Subban, Montreal Canadiens
There isn’t another defender in the league who can hurt an opponent in as many ways as the multi-talented Subban. If he can get more pucks to the net (he took just 170 shots last season), he could finish as the NHL’s top-scoring blueliner.
Forward: Jakub Voracek, Philadelphia Flyers
Last season’s breakthrough, including career bests in assists (59) and points (81) was no fluke. Physical maturation and an intense off-season will push him toward 90 points.
Forward: Jamie Benn, Dallas Stars
Recovery from offseason hip surgery should slow him at the start, but Benn will take a run at a second Art Ross with the help of Seguin and newcomer Patrick Sharp.
Forward: Ryan Johansen, Columbus Blue Jackets
The arrival of another ex-Blackhawk, Brandon Saad, will elevate his play and push the leader of the Blue Jackets into the top 10 scorers.