16 people who will define the 2023-24 NHL season

16 people who will define the 2023-24 NHL season

Eight players. Three front-office executives. Two head coaches. One recently unveiled team owner. One prospective team owner. And one union head.

The following isn’t a definitive list of the people who’ll define the 2023-24 season, but it identifies 15 who are tremendously powerful, hold the key to an intriguing team’s success, or find themselves in a high-pressure situation – multiple labels apply in some cases – ahead of Tuesday’s opening night.

Connors: McDavid and Bedard

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Sidney Crosby arrived on the NHL scene in 2005. McDavid showed up a decade later. Bedard, the next generational talent, is here two years early.

McDavid is the sport’s face, the player who sets the standard for excellence. While Bedard is only getting started, his rookie season represents an opportunity to take charge of an Original Six franchise that is looking to open a new chapter.

McDavid, 26, recorded a ludicrous 153 points last season. He’s in the sixth season of an eight-year deal, while superstar teammate Leon Draisaitl is in his seventh of eight. The time is firmly now for the duo to finally win a Stanley Cup.

Bedard, 18, will make a truly terrible Blackhawks team watchable. He’ll contend for the Calder Trophy. Ironically, the better Bedard does, the worse Chicago’s 2024 draft lottery odds will be – a storyline in and of itself considering Bedard will need his own Draisaitl-level sidekick down the road.

Craig Conroy

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Conroy, a former Flames forward, has been a member of Calgary’s braintrust for more than a decade. He was hired as an assistant to the general manager in 2010, and rose to assistant GM in 2014 before becoming GM in May.

Previously one to offer advice, he’s now pulling the trigger on decisions. Of note so far: Conroy promoted Ryan Huska to head coach; traded Tyler Toffoli for Yegor Sharangovich and a draft pick; and inked Mikael Backlund to a two-year extension, naming the trusty center captain in the process.

The Flames will need significant contributions from starting goalie Jacob Markstrom and $10.5-million winger Jonathan Huberdeau to get back to the playoffs. Both are coming off down years. Meanwhile, top-six center Elias Lindholm and top-four defenseman Noah Hanifin headline a six-pack of pending unrestricted free agents. So much is in flux in Calgary and Conroy’s in the middle of it all.

Auston Matthews

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Matthews’ relevance in the hockey universe is at an all-time high.

For starters, the Maple Leafs sniper signed a four-year extension this past offseason that will lift him over Nathan MacKinnon for highest average annual value (AAV) in the salary-cap era, starting next season. Perhaps unfairly, Matthews’ reputation is already linked to his future $13.25-million salary.

Another thing: Matthews has made a habit of incorporating a new element to his game every year. What will it be in 2023-24? Along the same lines, how will his foray into killing penalties go? Is the role a short-lived experiment, or will it become a launchpad to Selke Trophy consideration?

A healthy Matthews should hit 50 goals (he scored 40 in 74 games last year with an injured wrist). At the team level, Toronto can win its division, though playoff success remains elusive for Matthews and Co.

Michael Andlauer and Steve Staios

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Andlauer, who formerly had a stake in the Montreal Canadiens, recently became the majority owner of the Ottawa Senators. The transportation and logistics mogul’s first high-level move after making the $950-million purchase was to name Staios, the ex-defenseman, his president of hockey operations.

This setup – a deep-pocketed owner and well-respected president – is a welcome change from late Eugene Melnyk being atop the org chart and GM Pierre Dorion leading hockey ops by himself. About Dorion: He must be sweating ahead of his eighth season as GM. The Sens have missed the playoffs six straight years, and Dorion’s managed the salary cap so poorly that the team can’t afford to sign burgeoning center Shane Pinto to a modest extension. Head coach D.J. Smith’s job isn’t particularly secure, either.

Looking long term, the franchise needs a new downtown arena. Melnyk couldn’t make it happen; perhaps the new guy can.

Tage Thompson and Devon Levi

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It would be inaccurate to say the Sabres’ 12-year playoff drought rests exclusively on Thompson’s and Levi’s shoulders. But they’re both vitally important.

Thompson, aiming for his first 50-goal season after potting 47 in 78 games last year, is the maestro behind Buffalo’s high-octane offense (the club finished third in goals in 2022-23). Levi, the much-hyped goalie who showed well in his first seven NHL games last year, is supposed to be the answer between the pipes (they finished 26th in goals against in 2022-23).

The Sabres are unlikely to disrupt the Atlantic Division pecking order this season, or in the near future, if they can’t stop the bleeding on defense. At the same time, they must continue to push the pace offensively. Balance is key.

Barry Trotz

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The Predators aren’t a glamor franchise and won’t win a ton of games this year, yet Trotz is someone to keep an eye on. This is the 61-year-old’s first season in charge after moving from NHL head coach to NHL GM.

With Nashville’s only GM in history, David Poile, retiring, it’s Trotz’s show now, and he clearly isn’t afraid to make bold decisions. Longtime Preds Ryan Johansen, Matt Duchene, and Mattias Ekholm are gone, while playoff-hardened veterans Ryan O’Reilly, Gustav Nyquist, and Luke Schenn were acquired. The GM said he won’t strip his roster down to the studs, instead labeling his team – which also has a new head coach in Andrew Brunette – “somewhere between a rebuild and a reset.”

What that means in practical terms remains to be seen. Trotz has salary-cap flexibility and a boatload of draft picks. At some point, he may be tempted to trade high-end goalie prospect Yaroslav Askarov; the path to the starter’s job is blocked by Juuse Saros, whom Trotz wants to re-sign. Nashville can go in so many different directions, which is super intriguing.

Elias Pettersson

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Jack Eichel, Matthew Tkachuk, and Pierre-Luc Dubois all recently took matters into their own hands, forcing their clubs to trade them while they were still young. Will these moves trigger an era of player empowerment?

If he wants, Pettersson can wield similar power by notifying Canucks management he doesn’t see a long-term fit in Vancouver. Although he’s a pending restricted free agent and not a UFA, the Swedish center is talented enough to determine his own fate and has CAA Sports’ Pat Brisson in his corner. (Brisson represents Eichel and Dubois, among many other stars.)

That said, Pettersson – arguably a top-10 player in the NHL and only 24 – could easily sign an extension with limited drama, which would be a massive victory for Vancouver. The Canucks can help themselves by taking a step forward on the ice and offering the cornerstone piece a fair contract.

Martin St. Louis

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A year and a half into his Montreal tenure, St. Louis’ honeymoon period as head coach is essentially over.

Canadiens fans are looking to St. Louis and executives Jeff Gorton and Kent Hughes for progress. The team has attacked its rebuild by not only compiling draft picks but also by trading for young NHLers with hopes that a change of scenery and time with St. Louis and his staff will pay dividends. Former Blackhawks forward Kirby Dach counts as a success story here.

Next in line is speedy Alex Newhook, who Hughes snagged in a draft-weekend trade with the Avalanche. There are also the cases of 2022 first overall pick Juraj Slafkovsky and 2021 No. 31 pick Logan Mailloux, both far from finished products. St. Louis, who believes a pro hockey player can improve at any age, has an abundance of promise to work with.

Marty Walsh

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Walsh is entering his first full season as executive director of the NHL Players’ Association after being hired in February. From recent discussions with players across the league, it’s clear the 56-year-old’s been a breath of fresh air – a bolder, more charismatic presence than predecessor Donald Fehr.

Walsh is an ardent union leader who left the Joe Biden administration to work for the PA. While the former Boston mayor won’t be negotiating a collective bargaining agreement anytime soon (the current CBA doesn’t expire until September 2026), he’ll be involved in shaping the league for the foreseeable future as chief counterpart to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.

In September, Walsh led the PA through the Mike Babcock scandal in Columbus. Other items on the agenda include: developing an action plan for growing hockey-related revenue; hammering out an international hockey calendar; supporting the Professional Women’s Hockey League’s launch; and making sure standards don’t slip in Arizona as the Coyotes continue to play in an NCAA arena.

Connor Hellebuyck and Mark Scheifele

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Hellebuyck and Scheifele signed identical extensions Monday, keeping them under contract in Winnipeg until 2030-31 for a combined $17 million annually.

While you can quibble with the decision to re-sign them, especially at that term, there’s no denying what Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff has done here. He’s been decisive in locking up members of his long-term core, and at least for the first few years of their deals, he’ll have an elite goalie and No. 1 center.

As for the here and now, Winnipeg is one of the most fascinating teams in the league. On paper, they should challenge for a playoff spot. But what’s the ceiling of this group? One playoff series win? Maybe, maybe two?

Hellebuyck and Scheifele are atop of the list of players who must have monster years. With only Colorado and Dallas in the Cup-contending tier, the Central Division is top-heavy. Winnipeg has an opportunity to pounce.

Peter Laviolette

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The New York Rangers’ roster didn’t exactly undergo a facelift over the summer. Sure, Blake Wheeler, Nick Bonino, Erik Gustafsson, and Jonathan Quick are in for Patrick Kane, Vladimir Tarasenko, Niko Mikkola, and Jaroslav Halak. But overall, the talent lost and gained shakes out to similar value.

The lone dramatic change came behind the bench, with Laviolette, associate coach Phil Housley, and assistants Mike Peca and Dan Muse replacing Gerard Gallant and his crew. It feels like an ultra-important season for the franchise, and coaching will have a significant impact on end results.

Laviolette, who’s developed a reputation for being hard on his players, called for a more tenacious, more physical brand of hockey in training camp. He’s tasked with figuring out how to best use and deploy key young wingers Alexis Lafreniere and Kaapo Kakko, finding the right pairings on the back end, and not wasting another season of goalie Igor Shesterkin’s prime.

Ryan Smith

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Most hockey fans have likely never heard of Smith. But he’s lurking behind the scenes.

With the league losing patience with the Coyotes, it’s entirely possible relocation rumors begin swirling in 2023-24. Smith, the majority owner of the NBA’s Utah Jazz and co-owner of MLS’ Real Salt Lake, already expressed his interest in bringing the NHL to Salt Lake to Bettman (who hasn’t exactly shot down the idea of expansion in his recent comments to reporters).

The 45-year-old Smith – whose estimated net worth is well over a billion dollars – has said he’s been inspired by the overwhelmingly positive reaction to the NHL in Las Vegas and Seattle. Utah isn’t the only desirable relocation or expansion market, though, with Atlanta and Houston appearing to be top-tier options as well.

Market size is working against Smith. Only 3.3 million people live in Utah, and just 200,000 in Salt Lake City – though Smith’s been quick to point out the state’s rich history with winter sports and the Olympics. Working in his favor: Smith owns an arena. The Jazz’s Delta Center isn’t exactly fresh (it opened in 1991), but it’s decent, and landing an NHL team could spur action toward a new building.

John Matisz is theScore’s senior NHL writer. Follow John on Twitter (@MatiszJohn) or contact him via email (john.matisz@thescore.com).

Copyright © 2023 Score Media Ventures Inc. All rights reserved. Certain content reproduced under license.

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